|Series:||The Way Series: Book 3|
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Space Exploration|
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The Way is a tunnel through space and time. The entrance is through the hollow asteroid Thistledown and the space station Axis City that sits at the asteroid's center. From there the Flawships ride the center of the Way, traveling to other worlds and times.
Now the rulers of Axis City have discovered that a huge group of colonists has secretly entered one of the interdicted worlds along the Way. In some ways Lamarkia is very Earth-like--but its biology is extraordinary. A single genetic entity can take many forms, and span a continent. There are only a few of these "ecos" on Lamarkia, and the effect of human interaction on them is unknown.
Olmy Ap Sennon has been sent to secretly assess the extent of the damage. But he will find far more than an intriguing alien biology--for on their new world the secret colonists have returned to the old ways of human history: war, famine, and ecological disaster. On this mission, Olmy will learn about the basics: love, responsibility, and even failure...
The sun hung two hand-spans above the horizon. Late morning, early evening: I could not judge. I stood on the crest of a low hill, between thick black trunks smooth as glass. Behind me, a dense enclosure of more black trunks. And ahead... detail rushed upon me; I sucked it in with frantic need.
Red and purple forest pushed over low boxy hills, fading to pink and lavender as the hills receded toward the horizon. Mist curled languidly between. Immense trees like the skeletons of cathedral towers punctuated the forest every few hundred meters, pink crowns perched atop four slender vaulting legs, rising high over the rest of the forest. Above the hills, sky beckoned crystal blue with mottled patches of more red and purple, as if reflecting the forest. In fact, the forest inhabited the sky: tethered gas-filled balloons ascended from the distant stands of black-trunked trees into thin shredded-ribbon clouds.
Everything glowed with serene yellow light and brilliant blood-hued life. Everything, related. For as far as the eye could see—what Darrow Jan Fima had called Elizabeth’s Zone, one creature, one thing.
From where I stood, at the top of a rise overlooking the broad, dark olive Terra Nova River, Lamarckia hardly seemed violated. Not a human in sight, not a curl of smoke or rise of structure. Somewhere below, hidden in the tangle of smooth black trunks, huge round leaves, and purple fans, the ferry landing was supposed to be... And inland a few hundred meters along a dirt and gravel path, both hidden in the dense pack, the village of Moonrise.
I touched my clothes self-consciously. How out-of-place would I look?
I realized I had been holding my breath. I inhaled deeply. It was a sweet and startling breath. The air smelled of fresh water, grapes, tea leaves, and a variety of odors I can only describe as skunky-sweet. Rich aromas wafted from nearby extrusions resembling broad purple flowers, with fleshy centers. They smelled like bananas, spicy as cinnamon. The extrusions opened and closed, twitching at the end of each cycle. Then they withdrew altogether with thin, high chirps.
I reached out my hand to stroke the smooth black curve of a trunk. At my touch, the bark parted to form a kind of stoma, red and pink pulp within. A drop of translucent white fluid oozed from the gash, which quickly closed when I lifted my hand.
"Not a tree," I murmured. The Dalgesh report—by the original surveyors—had called them "arborid scions." And this was not a forest, but a silva.
There were no plants or animals as such on Lamarckia. The first surveyors, in the single day they had spent on the planet, had determined that within certain zones, all apparently individual organisms, called scions, in fact belonged to a larger organism, which they had called an ecos. No scion could breed by itself; they did not act alone. An ecos was a single genetic organism, creating within itself all the diverse parts of an ecosystem, spread over large areas—in some cases, dominating entire continents.
Each ecos was ruled, the surveyors had theorized, by what they called a seed mistress, or queen. Neither the surveyors—nor the immigrants, according to Jan Fima—had ever seen such a queen, however; understanding of Lamarckian biology and planetary science in general had still been primitive among the immigrants when the informer left.
Above, the black trunks spread great round parasol-leaves, broad as outstretched arms, powdery gray at their perimeters, rose and bloodred in their centers. The parasols rubbed edges in a canopy-clinging current of air, making a gentle shushing noise, like a mother calming an infant. Black granular dust fell in thin drifts on my head; not pollen, certainly not ash. I rubbed some between my fingers, smelled it, but did not taste.
The last light of the orange sun warmed my face. So this was not morning but evening; the day was ending. I savored the glow. It felt wonderfully, thrillingly familiar; but it was the first sunlight I had ever directly experienced. Until now, I had spent my whole life within Thistledown and the Way.
My terror passed into numb ecstasy. The sense of alien newness, of unfamiliar beauty, hit me like a drug; I was actually walking on a planet, a world like Earth, not within a hollowed-out rock.
Reluctantly, I turned from the sun’s warmth and walked in shadow down an overgrown trail. If I had come out in the right place, this trail would lead to the Terra Nova River and the landing that served the village of Moonrise. Here, I had been told, I might catch a riverboat and travel to Calcutta, the largest town on the continent of Elizabeth’s Land.
I wondered what sort of people I would meet. I imagined feral wretches, barely social, clustered in dark little towns, immersed in their own superstitions. Then I regretted the thought. Perhaps I had spent too much time among the Geshels, having so little respect for my own kind. But of course Lenk’s people had gone beyond my own kind. Yanosh had characterized them as fanatic.
The moist air of the river valley sighed around me, like an invisible chilly flood. Picking my footsteps carefully, avoiding lines of finger-sized orange worms topped by feathery blue crests, I listened for any sounds, heard only the rubbed-silk hiss of air and the liquid mumble of the river.
The trail at least had once been traveled by humans. Dropped between the trunks, in a tangle of stone-hard "roots," I spotted a small scrap of crumpled plastic and knelt to pick it up. Spread open by my fingers, it was a blank page from an erasable notebook.
At least, I realized with considerably relief, I had not arrived before the human intruders. That would have meant I was truly trapped here, with no chance of returning until they arrived... Or someone came from the Hexamon to get me.
I pocketed the scrap. I still could not be sure how much time had passed since the arrival of Lenk and his followers.
Four thousand one hundred and fourteen illegal immigrants; as much as three decades between my arrival and theirs. What could they have done to Lamarckia in that time?
I pushed through a tangle of purple helixed blades. My feet sank into a grainy, boggy humus littered with pink shells and pebbles. No landing visible; no lights, no sign of river traffic. For a moment, I knelt and dug my fingers into the soil. It felt gritty and resilient at once—grains of sand and spongy corklike cubes half a centimeter on a side, suspended in inky fluid that globbed immiscibly amid drops of clear water. It looked for all the world like gardener’s potting soil mixed with viscous ink.
I picked up a pink shell. Spiral, flat, like an ancient Earth ammonite, four or five centimeters across. I sniffed it; clean and sweet, with a watery, dusty smell backed by a ghost of roses and bananas. I poked it with a finger; it crushed easily.
More black powder fell in thin curtains nearby. I glanced up and saw what looked like an immense reddish-brown snake, banded with deep midnight blue, dozens of meters long and as thick across as my own body, twisted around and draped across the trunks and leaves above. It wriggled slowly, peristaltically. I could see neither its head nor its tail. With a clamping sensation in my throat and chest, I trotted down the trail, trying to get out from under the serpent.
The trail became thicker, overgrown by smaller red and purple plantlike forms, phytids, filling in between the arborids. I lost my way and had to listen for the sound of the river to orient myself.
Several minutes passed before I realized I was smelling something out of place, rich and gassy. During my walk, I had not once smelled mold or methane, not once felt the squelch of dead vegetation. Plants, trees—convenient words only—grew from soil that might have been prepared by diligent and cleanly gardeners. Only the pink shells, mired in the mud, gave a hint that anything here lived, then died, and in dying, left remains—
And this fresh scent of decay.
I thrashed down to the bank again and stared over the deep brownish water to the black silhouette of the opposite shore. Faint, broad patches of blue glow sprang up between the trees across the river. They sputtered and went out again. I could not be sure I had seen them. Then, high above, the undersides of the broad parasols flashed blue. Somewhere, high-pitched tuneless whistling. A flutter beneath the parasols: dark winged things carrying fibrous scraps. Something small and red darted past my face with an audible sniff.
The wind died. The night air sank. Fog danced and twisted in the middle of the river. With the silence came another whiff of decay. Animal flesh, rotting. I was sure of that much.
I followed the scent Back up the bank, stepping gingerly over writhing purple creepers, guided by faint blue flashes through the undergrowth, I found the remains of the trail.
Something made a sound between a squeak and a sigh and scuttled on three legs out of the undergrowth: a pasty white creature the size of a small dog, triangular in shape. It stood by a black trunk and regarded me through patient, empty eye-spots mounted along a red central line. It pulsed and made tiny whistling sounds. Its skin crawled in what I took to be disgust at my presence. But apparently disgust was only disapproval—or something else entirely—for it did not retreat. Instead, it slowly clasped and crawled its way up a trunk, opened a stoma with a tap of its pointed tail-foot, and began to suck milky fluid. I watched in fascination as its white body swelled. Then, half again as large as before, the creature dropped from the trunk, landed in the dirt with a rubbery plop, and crabbed away with a half circling gait on the down-bent points of its triangle.
Twilight was quickly obscuring everything. A double oxbow of stars pricked through the thin clouds. Ahead, a flickering orange light drew my attention: a torch or flame....
Copyright © 1995 by Greg Bear
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