Charlee had once dreamed of running an exobiology lab at a top university. In her late teens, she’d imagined herself synthesizing a new, galaxy-sized definition of Life, broad enough to encompass an ever-expanding array of extra-terrestrial phenomena.
But these days, doing dog work at a space station greenhouse was as close as she ever got to biological research. And now that the salad-green harvest was in, the energy she once devoted to daydreaming was eaten up by relining hydroponic seed beds. No use expecting the higher-ups to appreciate her expertise, either.
“It’s great that you’re thinking, Char,” said Sanjit, the head of hydroponics for the Interstellar Consortium Station Wanderer. “Now we need the broccoli beds seeded, no?”
Worse than this condescension, was the sure knowledge that she herself was the source of her misery. It had been a mistake to call her department chair at MarsOne University a “xenophobic anthro-centrist,” no matter how good it had felt at the time.
“Why go over that again?” she whispered into her net pots.
By the year 3856, most people assumed Charlee’s line of work would be thoroughly roboticized. But that’s only because they were thinking like Planetaries. Off-world, things were different, and the farther from Earth you went, the more your priorities shifted.
For starters, robots needed spare parts. Try getting a quantum gate, anywhere out past the Cat’s Eye Nebula, and you’d have to deal with a less-than-savory sort of merchandizer. Besides, there was something just wrong about asking a Zeta-class android to tend romaine lettuce. And who in the ridges of Hesperia Planum could afford a full suite of specialized workstations, even if the sales rep insisted they were “fully customizable”?
An organic like Charlee, however, was grateful for the work, needed minimal maintenance — at least for the first few decades — and could fuel up on b-grade produce at practically no overhead cost. Take attitude from an android about the efficiency of your operation, or have an organic ask you about your weekend? The psycho-social equations practically wrote themselves.
Yet this particular organic did have the annoying habit of speaking to her employer like an equal.
“We really need better monitoring of the root zone solution in the kale beds,” she piped up to Sanjit one Thursday afternoon. For that, she earned three double-shifts in a row and a tick on her HR file for insubordination.
Charlee soon learned to keep her insights private. Fortunately, even a third-tier station like Wanderer had a robust Stellnex link. She had, at least, a passive connection to biological research and the latest academic debates. Hours into the night shift, when she should have been plugged into her REM-enhancing pillow, Charlee marveled at the news streaming in from every quadrant.
One night, she learned, researchers exploring a planet deep in the Tadpole galaxy had discovered a telepathic species of orange, vine-like flora. The article described the harsh punishment a thoughtless botanist received, after clipping off a vine segment for his sample bag. Even after he apologized, the poor soul was tormented by horrific nightmares, and it took a full psych-reset to put him straight again. Trouble was, the nightmares had a nagging basis in fact, which severely hampered his prognosis for recovery.
“Love to see that vine,” Charlee’s tired mind told her, as she drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, she found Sanjit waiting for her. That was never a good sign. Had she forgotten to hang up the scrubber hose and flush out the nozzle? Charlee felt her narrow shoulders tense.
“Admin sent us a sample of an alien vine last week,” said Sanjit. “Nobody knows what to do with it. It’s supposed to have great ‘business potential’ they said, but every worker I assign to it, comes out … different.”
Charlee’s freckled left hand brushed her orange-red hair off her pale forehead.
“Different how?” she asked.
Sanjit sighed, and cast his dark eyes at his royal blue cross-trainers.
“Hard to explain,” he said. “But one’s in the psych ward and the other three are on extended shore leave.”
Charlee’s heart raced as she realized how Sanjit’s tone had changed.
“You think the plant affected them?” she asked.
“The first time, I figured the sample must be squirting out neurotoxins,” said Sanjit, “but I put each of the following guys in a heavier encounter suit — the last one a HZ57 — and they still came out loopy.”
“Too bad,” said Charlee. “But why tell me about it? Can’t you just comlink Admin and say it’s a no-go?”
Yet as Sanjit explained, saying “no” to Admin was tantamount to flushing his station license out of the airlock. Despite a series of spectacular failures at the Earth’s top space stations, Admin was still determined to get a handle on the vine, and harness its unique qualities. But so far, Sanjit told Charlee, no one would say what those qualities were. All he’d received from the saccharine DARPA agent who’d contacted him was a pat on the head.
“We don’t want to prejudice your team,” the agent had purred. “Makes for bad science. We need to know your results are without a hint of experimental bias. You can understand that, can’t you, Dear?”
Charlee couldn’t deny the sweet taste of vindication that crossed her lips at the sight of Sanjit’s sad eyes. Had someone talked down to him? Delicious.
“You studied at MarsOne, didn’t you?” Sanjit asked her. “I thought maybe, you might be able … from a theoretical perspective….”
Charlee gulped. Here was the chance her hot temper had thrown away 10 cycles ago. But what if this were the same vine as … no, it couldn’t be….
Two hours later, after a frustrating session with the station’s quartermaster, Charlee finally donned a bright yellow encounter suit that actually fit her borderline anorexic frame. Before entering the sealed lab where the sample sat in a nutrient bath, she reviewed her instructions one more time.
“Stay no longer than you feel comfortable,” Sanjit had told her. “I need science, not sacrifice.”
Fat chance she’d end up a hero, Charlee’s world-weary thoughts told her. But as soon as the READY light flashed above the door to the sealed lab, she knew it was time to focus. Science aside, her one shot might depend on paying attention to the slightest detail — exactly the kind of thing her production-minded colleagues might have missed.
Once inside, she waited for the door to reseal before tiptoeing toward a stainless steel hydroponics table, brimming with exactly the odd, orange vine, she’d read about the night before. The only other occupant of the lab was a tan, neo-wood stool in the far corner. Charlee breathed deep, closed her eyes and summarized what she’d learned from last night’s article. The telepathic vine from a planet three galaxies away had reacted badly to violence. Maybe a gentler approach … maybe if she touched it with her mind….
“Hello there,” her thoughts rang out.
The vine sample, connected hyperspatially to its planet-wide consciousness, trembled slightly then flooded Charlee’s mind with a series of vivid images. To describe what she experienced next as a conversation would be grossly inaccurate, even by analogy. And yet, she understood. The vine before her was a member of the Tchaldrali, a sentient species that demanded respect. But what, she wondered, did Admin hope to achieve by bringing it here, where plants were grown for food?
As if in answer, the neo-wood stool in the corner of the lab seemed to shuffle a bit against the polyslate floor tiles, before rising into the air and arcing gracefully to Charlee’s feet. She’d no sooner sat down than a voice entered her consciousness.
“Let me explain.”
It now seemed as if the vine’s first encounter with Charlee had taught it a thing or two about communicating with humans. This time, it told its story in a much more linear way. Apparently, despite astonishing psychokinetic abilities, the Tchaldrali were still limited by their planet’s unpredictable weather cycles. As a result, their long-awaited space program had lain dormant for decades, due to chronic drought. Without sufficient numbers of thriving shoots, the vines lacked the computing power to complete their calculations -– let alone to build space-worthy ships. So, while they had hoped for years to migrate to a more hospitable world, they were forced to sit by helpless as, year after year, their strength dwindled.
As Charlee learned, what they desperately needed was a climate control system to end the drought and regain their former numbers. In return, the Tchaldrali promised Earth it could harness their hive-mind telekinesis for any peaceful purpose.
Charlee had many questions, including why the Tchaldrali had neglected to tell their story so clearly before.
“Ever since our first encounter with your species,” said the vine, “after the … the cutting incident … we’ve been jumpy. You humans have a lot of violent thoughts. More, we assume, than you realize. It’s also unnerving to keep seeing the word ‘salad’ in your minds. Besides, is every human a — what’s the expression you use?”
Charlee shifted her weight on the tan stool.
“Control freak?” she asked. “Let me explain a few things about us. First, try to understand: the scientist … from the incident … had no idea you were sentient. We aren’t telepathic like you. Plus, we’re all individuals, and kind of emotional and that’s made our history, well … complicated.”
Hours later, Sanjit was leaning way back in his office chair, trying to wrap his mind around the holocall he’d received from Admin only minutes after Charlee emerged from the sealed lab.
“I don’t know how else to say it,” said Sanjit, his eyebrows raised high. “The Tchaldrali want you to be their ambassador.”
In trying not to laugh, Charlee nearly bit off her tongue.
“I’m … I’m flattered,” she said.
The astonishing news that Sanjit was forced to absorb was that Admin had reached a trade agreement with this alien, sentient vine. In exchange for building the Tchaldrali a planetary climate control system, the aliens would supply humanity with enough telekinetic seedlings to speed construction projects across the settled galaxies. The only stumbling block had been the humans’ inability to communicate with the vines — without frightening or insulting them.
“A station like this could be built in weeks,” said Sanjit. “The savings on electrical generation alone will be incalculable. But tell me. How did you succeed when everyone else failed?”
Charlee shrugged her bony shoulders.
“I listened,” she said.
Mark Laporta is the author of the acclaimed Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series. His new novel, Probability Shadow, will be published in October by Chickadee Prince Books. Pre-order now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.