Summers on Sylverra

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Beyond Wespirtech, November 2023

“She’d grown up on a normal planet with actual cities full of people, not some weird backwater world where literally every sentient creature had been created by one mad scientist, drunk with his own abilities, high on his own power.”

The ship shifting into orbit woke Tara up, but she kept her eyes closed, listening to her parents talk.

“It always scares me coming here,” Tara’s mother said.  “Your dad makes such beautiful illusions for Tara.  I’m afraid some day that she’ll choose not to come home.”

Tara was curled up on the ratty old couch on the back of their starhopper’s bridge.  It was a loveseat and not meant to be slept on; she barely fit on it anymore.  Her parents were sitting in the pilot and co-pilot seats, right in front of the viewscreen that must have shown the emerald and azure sphere of Grandpa Brent’s planet, Sylverra.

“She’s always come home with us before,” Tara’s father said.

In the silence that followed, Tara was perfectly certain that both her parents were thinking about the year that Tara was ten.  Even though that was already five years ago.  So unfair.  She didn’t think they’d ever stop holding it against her.

That summer, Tara had made friends with one of the little girls in Grandpa Brent’s gengineered elven villages.  The elf girl had hair so pale, it was nearly silver, and everything about her face was narrow and pointed:  eyebrows, ears, and chin.  She and Tara had played all summer, thick as thieves and the best of friends.

When Tara’d had it explained to her that, since the gengineered elves aged much faster than normal humans, her friend would be a grown woman by the time they returned next year, she threw the most horrible tantrum.  She nearly insisted that she would stay and live with Grandpa Brent, at least through the rest of her elven friend’s childhood.  In the end, it was her friend who convinced her to go — already, she’d been more mature than Tara and rapidly losing interest in their childish friendship.

Since then, Tara had been much more circumspect about befriending the gengineered elves.  They were fun-loving, easy-going people — they’d been designed that way by Grandpa Brent, kind of like a humanoid version of dogs — but Tara had reservations about getting too close to anyone with a lifespan shorter than a healthy housecat’s.

“Look,” Tara’s father said, “there’s only a year until Tara applies to Wespirtech.  She’s so excited about going there with her friend Jenn that I don’t think she’d give that up.”  Brandon lowered his voice, conspiratorially, and said, “Though I’ll be shocked if Jenn gets in.  But Tara doesn’t need to know that.

Tara opened her mouth to object and defend her friend, but then she remembered she was pretending to still be asleep.  If she defended Jenn, her parents would know she was listening.

“Besides,” her father continued, “if Tara did decide to stay, well, she couldn’t get a better education in gengineering — even at Wespirtech.  And I trust my dad to take good care of her.  We’ve talked about this.  He raised me.  And for all his eccentricities, he was a good parent.”

“I know,” her mother said.  “It wouldn’t be so bad.  She’ll be going away to college soon anyway.  In just two years.  I guess, I’m just so used to being afraid of Brent’s illusions.  It would have broken my heart if she’d really insisted on staying here when she was younger — choosing to spend her childhood with her grandpa, forcing me to either let her go, move here too–”  Tara’s mother shuddered at the mere thought.  She enjoyed visiting, but she wouldn’t want to live on Brent’s world.  “–or be the evil mother who puts her foot down and breaks her daughter’s heart.”

Suddenly, Tara felt bad listening in.  Every summer, throughout her childhood, she’d known — sort of — that Grandpa Brent and Mom were fighting over her.  She loved the creatures that Grandpa Brent gengineered for her, but when Mom said it was time to go home, it was time to go home.  Sure, she’d drag her feet and try to bargain for a few extra days of summer with Grandpa Brent — what kid wouldn’t? — but she hadn’t meant to make her mom worry that she’d rather be raised by her grandpa.

The silence stretched on, and Tara fell asleep again.  When she awoke, the starhopper was already parked on the planet, next to the summer house that Grandpa Brent had built for her family before Tara was even born.

“Come on, honey,” Tara’s mother said to her.  “You’ll sleep better if you come inside.”

But Tara was done sleeping.  It was a strange twilight hour on this part of the world — Tara wasn’t sure if it was dusk or just before dawn, since she hadn’t paid attention to where the sun was as they landed.  Either way, after days cooped up on the two-room starhopper, Tara was ready to get out and explore.  After helping her parents bring in their bags from the starhopper and fending off repeated parental offerings of food — breakfast, since apparently it was dawn — Tara took off towards the closest elven village.

Tara strolled easily through the grassy meadows, where the waist-high blades of grass parted for her, bowing away from the tread of her feet and changing color slightly, turning a richer shade of emerald as she passed.  Tara had always wondered whether Grandpa Brent had bred the grasses to do that so her father, Brandon, was easier to keep track of back when he was a little kid.  It’s hard to run away when the grass itself keeps a record in darker green of where you’ve walked.  Of course, the darker paths faded after an hour or so.  Still, that was plenty of time to catch a wayward child.  There had been times, when Tara was younger, when she’d spelled out words in the meadows with her paths or made squiggly patterns or simply run back and forth, back and forth, trying to darken all the grass.  It had been like a giant etch-a-sketch she played with her feet and could only see properly if she climbed up one of the trees and looked down.

Fortunately, Grandpa Brent had bred some excellent climbing trees with knobbly branches that were easy to grab onto and get good footholds on; on the climbing trees, the branches started nearly at the ground and spiraled around their trunks like spiral staircases.

Sylverra was a magical place, designed especially to delight Tara.  Well, actually, Grandpa Brent had designed it to delight himself, but Tara was a child — a teenager now — and it still seemed to her that a world which had existed long before she was born — or her parents had even met — must have been designed specifically for her, especially because it had been made by her grandfather.  Adults’ lives revolve around children, even before those children exist, don’t they?

The elven village looked much the same as it had every summer before, at first glance.  The cute thatched-roof huts and the communal cooking fires were all the same.  It was a deceptively low-tech village, considering that everything on this corner of the planet had been designer-made.  But then, it’s easy to live a low-tech, low-impact life when everything around you has been designed specifically to accommodate you.  The plants that grew wild these days had once been specifically cultivated, bred to grow here and to grow edible fruits, roots, stems, and leaves.  A complete, healthy, and delicious diet could be grazed from nuts and berries that simply waited for human-like hands to pluck them.

As the elves themselves began waking for the day and coming out of their huts to join Tara beside one of the fires, she started to see some of the differences from the previous summer.  The youngest elves — babies and toddlers who’d been born since last summer — had darker skin and hair than Tara had seen among the elves before.  Looking more closely, she saw that the darkness was a greenish cast, and when she asked, one of the older elves informed her that — on their request — Brent had helped the elves add photosynthetic genes to their DNA.  This new generation could simply lay in the sunlight and absorb energy as it streamed down from the sky.  Half plant, half person.

“I could alter your DNA the same way,” Grandpa Brent’s voice said from behind Tara.  “If you’d like.”

Tara’s face broke into a beaming smile.  “Grandpa!” she cried, standing and whirling about to face him and then fall into his arms for a big bear hug.

“Come,” Grandpa Brent said, after the hug was over.  “I’ll show you what else I’ve changed during the last year.”

Tara followed her grandfather around like a duckling following its mother as he showed her ladybugs that glittered like rubies living among the emerald grasses — but not metaphorically, they really looked like little living rubies — cats with feathered wings folded against their sides, and a dragonfly large enough for her to ride.  Though Grandpa Brent wouldn’t let her ride it.  “I’ve hard-wired docility into the giant dragonflies’ behavior, so they wouldn’t purposely hurt you… but they don’t really understand having riders yet.  So, you’d need to be geared up properly for a lot of falls before it’d be safe to ride one.”

“I’m willing to wear safety gear,” Tara answered eagerly.

Grandpa Brent just shrugged and said, “Maybe later.  I did a flight test with one recently, and I’d like to spend a few weeks working the kinks out before doing another.”

Tara accepted her grandfather’s determination without objection.  That had always been how things worked on Sylverra.  Grandpa Brent was god here, and if you wanted to enjoy his garden of wonders, you did what he said.  That’s how Tara’s father, Brandon, had been raised.  Her mother, Caitlyn, had more trouble accepting it.  She’d grown up on a normal planet with actual cities full of people, not some weird backwater world where literally every sentient creature had been created by one mad scientist, drunk with his own abilities, high on his own power.  That’s how Caitlyn described her father-in-law.  She wasn’t wrong.

None of the creatures on Sylverra had asked for Brent Schweitzer to blend up their DNA like a fancy cocktail and call them into existence.  But then, children never ask to be born, not exactly, even when they’re unexpected.  Parents simply decide to have them.  And Brent had decided to make a magical world, filled with creatures and plants that reflected his own artistic, aesthetic mind.  He did his best to brew their personalities from strands of DNA that led to creatures grateful for their lives, rather than ones furious with the lots they’d drawn.  Even the elves — fully humanoid, sentient beings — had been designed carefully to be naturally happy, cheerful people who didn’t struggle with the shortness of their own lives.  Kind of like many dogs, who can be terribly smart while still basically loving life and not being overly worried by life’s problems — a reflection of how their brains are built.  Though, even so, Caitlyn had concerns about the ethics of her father-in-law’s world and generally stayed mostly away from the elves, finding their sunny dispositions unnatural and creepy.  Not everyone likes dogs.  And Caitlyn was more of a cat person, inherently wary and a natural skeptic.  The elves’ contentment made no sense to her.

Tara understood contentment when she was on Sylverra.  She felt like she understood why her grandfather had run away from the Human Expansion and secretly created his menagerie on this world.  He’d had a vision.  A beautiful vision.  And during the summers, when she was here, she could lose herself inside it.

Days passed into weeks, and the summer wore on.  Tara spent less time aimlessly exploring the fields and forests than she had when she was younger, less time among the elves — who were busy with their own lives — and instead spent more time following around after her grandfather.

Tara was intrigued by what she’d overheard her father say:  that she could get as good of an education from Grandpa Brent as she could at Wespirtech, the premier institute of science and technological innovation in the entire galaxy.  If that were really true… it was worth thinking seriously about.  So, instead of simply playing and enjoying her vacation in paradise, Tara pressed her grandfather to explain everything he could to her.  She learned about genetics; she learned about the tools he used to edit genes, and the way altered viral bodies could be used to propagate edited genes throughout an already developed body.

But also, in between the times Tara spent trailing after Grandpa Brent, she hung close to her mother, trying to absorb every bit of information she could about her mother’s discomfort with Sylverra.  It was tricky, because Caitlyn clearly had no intention of speaking poorly about Tara’s grandfather in front of her.  She’d spent years holding her tongue.  She was good at it.  She wasn’t going to slip up easily now.  And Tara couldn’t easily repeat the circumstances of their arrival at Sylverra for this summer, when her mother had thought she was sleeping.

So, eventually, as summer turned from a bud to a fully bloomed flower, Tara realized she’d have to confront her mother directly.

“Why don’t you like Sylverra?” Tara asked her mother, without any preamble, in the direct way of a person young enough to have not had her edges blunted and worn away by society yet.

Tara’s mother looked surprised.  She’d been working on a complicated puzzle that involved a lot of different colors blending into each other on subtle gradients; as she made progress on it, the whole thing was turning into a beautiful sculpture.  Tara’s family had several sculptures — originally puzzles — that had been designed by the same artist that they’d done during previous summers and had become decorations in their summer house here once finished.  This one was by far the most difficult and ambitious.  And for a moment, it looked like Caitlyn was going to avoid her daughter’s question by simply pretending to be too absorbed in the puzzle to think about it.  But then she said, “I don’t dislike Sylverra.”

Tara cocked an eyebrow in a particularly teenaged expression of skepticism.  Caitlyn glanced up from the puzzle long enough to see it, sighed, and said, “Okay, I don’t love it, but so what?  Why do you want to know about how I feel about Sylverra?”

Tara had an in.  Once she got her mom talking, she knew how to keep her mom talking.  So, she sat down on the far side of the puzzle, fiddled with a few of the more strangely shaped pieces that hadn’t been attached yet to any of the gracefully curving abstract shape that was coming together, and muttered something indiscernible about elves and feelings and getting older and loving her grandpa, ending with, “And I’m a lot like Grandpa, so I guess I’m just worried that if you don’t like what he’s chosen to do with his life, you’re not gonna like me.”

Caitlyn sighed really deeply in the way that only the parent of a teenager can.  She tried to center herself and steady herself and not fall for her daughter’s bait.  “Your grandfather has created something really beautiful here,” Caitlyn said, trying to keep herself on steady ground.  If she started by stating a fact, her daughter couldn’t argue with her.  Not easily.  And she wanted to keep this from turning into an argument.  Conversations turned into arguments with her daughter so easily these days.  “But…”  Caitlyn knew the ground she was walking on, conversationally, was about to get shakier.  But she was going to do her best to direct Tara’s argumentative side away from her.  “…have you ever wondered by your grandfather makes all his fantastical genetic… uh… inventions here?  Instead of, you know, back among the planets of the Human Expansion?  Back among civilization?”

Caitlyn could see her daughter’s brow squinch at the question, trying to figure out if she should bristle or lash out.  Instead, Tara simply frowned, pondering the question.  Then she asked, in an even, non-argumentative tone, “Is that a problem?”

Caitlyn shrugged.  She had asked herself that exact question many times.  If there was nothing wrong with what Brent was doing, why was it out here?  Why was it a secret?   Why was he a fugitive who she was never supposed to mention?  Sure, when she’d started taking her relationship with Brandon seriously, and he’d mentioned that he was — super-secretly — the cloned son of the famous Brent Schweitzer who’d stolen a ton of equipment from Wespirtech and then disappeared for thirty years before the authorities had found him dead (supposedly) on a faraway planet, she’d read everything she could about Brent, including several biographies.

All of those books had asked the question:  why?  Why did he take off with all that technology?  And of course, once Caitlyn had really become a part of the family, marrying Brandon, she’d found out half of the why.  The answer was Sylverra.

Brent Schweitzer had stolen a top-of-the-line spaceship loaded with as much high tech equipment as he could cram into it so that he could fly here.  To Sylverra.  Clone himself and raise the baby under the name Brandon.  Gengineer the elves, the color-changing trees, the butterflies with poems inscribed on their wings, unicorns, gryphons, and every other fantastical biological life form he could think of.

Caitlyn knew the practical answer to why Brent Schweitzer had stolen a spaceship.  She knew what he had done with his ill-gotten technologies.  She knew the answer to a mystery that people had tried to solve for decades.

But she still didn’t know why he couldn’t have just stayed at Wespirtech.

As a child, Caitlyn had had a pet cat with fur that changed color with its mood.  She’d named it Rainbow.  And even back then, as a small child, she’d known that her pretty pet was thanks to some nearly-mythological, larger-than-life, disappeared scientist named Brent Schweitzer.  Yes, he was still that famous.  And yes, the work he’d done at Wespirtech still filled the worlds of the civilization he’d left behind.  Nearly every arboretum had a whole section devoted to the flowers he’d gengineered.  Most schools employed one of the Keats, a specialized type of extra-intelligent parrot, as a language tutor.

Wespirtech had taught Brent, sponsored him, and subsidized his work.  And then, instead of staying there, where he could have done work that would do people some good, he’d simply disappeared.  Instead of curing diseases, he created designer butterflies that no one but himself and his elves would see.  Instead of creating gene therapies that would change the lives of people throughout the western spiral arm of the galaxy, he helped the elves he’d gengineered with their whim to become photosynthetic.

He could do so much good.

And instead, he played games and pleased himself.

Caitlyn didn’t want to say any of that to her teenaged daughter.  But she kind of wished Tara would be able to see it for herself.

Finally, Caitlyn settled for saying, “Your grandfather is a brilliant man, but sometimes, when we’re here… I look around, and all I can see is him.  He’s made himself a world, and everything in it reflects him.  He’s set himself up a private planet where he can play god.  And I don’t believe in gods.”

Tara narrowed her eyes in thought, and Caitlyn felt the sharpness of her expression like a dagger of judgment.  She was being judged by her daughter for her own judgment of her father-in-law.  She hoped, in Tara’s eyes, she measured up.  She hoped her discomfort with Brent wouldn’t turn into a wedge between them.

Tara carried her mother’s words like a pendant hung around her neck, always with her, always reminding her of her mother’s opinion, as she walked through Brent’s world for the next few days.  She looked at the color-changing grasses and the trees whose leaves vibrated and sang like the sound of a stringed orchestra tuning.  She spent time in the elven village, even talking with the woman who used to be her childhood friend.  Summers ago.  A whole season of an elf’s life ago.  She had her own daughter now, a green-haired girl who ran wild, causing delight everywhere she stumbled.

Tara didn’t see her Grandpa Brent reflected in any of the world around her.  Sure, he had grown the original elves in clone vats — lifetimes ago, more than her own life ago, back when her father, Brandon, had been but a boy — but the elven village had taken on its own life since then.  Tara saw how Grandpa Brent was treated by the elves — a funny, quirky elder who had specific knowledge he could use to help them with arcane projects.  They didn’t treat him like a god.

He might design the butterflies who had poems inscribed in their colorful wings, but once they hatched from their eggs, he set them free.  They flew among the trees, untouched by anyone they didn’t choose to let touch them.  They became a part of the world.  Not part of him.  He’d made a place, and he lived in it, maybe occasionally adding to it… but he wasn’t a god, and he didn’t pretend to be.

Even so, even if Tara disagreed with half of what her mother had said, she decided to carry her mother’s question to Grandpa Brent.  On an afternoon when he was noodling around with the genetic sequences for a butterfly-winged pegasus in his laboratory — a weird, small building that seemed to be one giant piece of lab equipment with shining screens and tempting buttons covering its inside from end to end — Tara asked with the same abruptness she’d used to such great effect on her mother, “Why don’t you come back to civilization?”

“What?” Brent asked, seemingly only half-listening to his granddaughter and still mostly focused on the strings of letters streaming across the glowing screen in front of him.

“Why do you have this weird, isolated little lab out here?” Tara elaborated.  “Why don’t you go back to Wespirtech?”

“Hmm?”  Brent still wasn’t looking at Tara, but he added, almost like it was an afterthought to speak aloud when answering someone else’s question, “I’m a fugitive, remember?  That’s why you can’t tell anyone I’m out here.”

Tara frowned.  She’d heard this story before, but it didn’t really hold up.  She’d taken too many civics classes — and listened to her parents rant about what was being left out of those civics classes — to fall for the idea that Brent Schweitzer wouldn’t be able to buy himself back into the good graces of society if he’d felt like doing it.  There were far too many valuable innovations on his world, in this laboratory, and inside his head for him to truly be unable to rejoin the broader society if he’d wanted to.

So he must not want to.

And Tara could understand that.  He’d made himself a wonderland here.  But it didn’t entirely feel real.

Sylverra was the place she went for summer vacations.  The people who lived here were living life on a different scale, and because of that, the pacing and fabric of their lives was different from hers.  The children got to be adults faster, and the adults enjoyed the time they had, but few of them seemed interested in building their society any further than the complacent utopia that already existed.

Tara wasn’t sure yet how she fit into society at large.  Like the pieces in the puzzle her mother had brought with them, she was a piece that didn’t have a clear place yet.  But she thought, probably, she did want to be a part of the broader puzzle, not left off to the side, creating an entirely new world of her own.  Or trying to fit into her grandfather’s.

And yet, as her father had said, so many weeks ago, when they’d just been arriving, there was a lot she could learn from someone like her Grandpa Brent.  If she could convince him to teach her.

“Hey, Grandpa,” Tara said, “can you show me what you’re doing?”

He was still fiddling with a computer screen filled with readouts of a strand of DNA.  “What?  This?” he asked.  “I’m making sure the back muscles on these unicorns will be strong enough to control the butterfly wings I’m designing for them.”

“Will they be able to fly?” Tara asked.

“No,” Brent answered easily.  “The wings will look beautiful and will help them cool themselves, but they’ll never be strong enough for actual flight.”

Aesthetic.  Impractical.  Just like everything else about Sylverra.  Everything else Grandpa Brent made.  Tara could see why her mother found him frustrating.  But he was still her grandfather.  And even if she only visited Sylverra, Tara was glad it was here, being beautiful and arcane, defying the strictures of the rest of the universe.

“Don’t you want to run off and play?” Grandpa Brent asked, finally seeming distracted by his granddaughter’s presence.  “I think some of the unicorns have foals you could find.”

“I’d rather learn about how you designed them,” Tara said, pulling a stool up beside her grandfather.  “If you’re willing to teach me.”

Grandpa Brent shrugged.  “Whatever floats your boat,” he said, before launching into a lecture so dense with biology and gengineering terminology and concepts that it made Tara’s head spin.  He clearly wasn’t going to take it easy on her, just because she was a kid.  And, whatever her mother thought, he didn’t seem interested in winning her over.  He made the delights that lived in his garden of wonders for himself — for the universe, simply so they would exist — not because he was trying to steal his granddaughter away to keep her here.  He was too lost in his own world to play games like that.  Besides, if he’d wanted another child to raise, he could have cloned himself again.

Brent had never been a threat to Caitlyn.  Tara didn’t think her mother would believe that, but it wouldn’t matter what she believed.  When the summer ended, Tara would go home with her parents, but maybe, she’d take along a little extra knowledge with her.

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