Edit: This entry won an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s of the Future Contest for the fourth quarter of 2015. Now, to write one that wins it all…
The next installment, as promised. I think the writing is better, although the storyline may not be quite as strong. Or maybe the story is fine. What’s your opinion? Leave a comment and let me know what you think. And, if you like this story, feel free to share it.
Do I have to beg?
I yanked the data chip from my slate and chucked it across the Cephus Colonial Corporation Greenhouse Pod #2, narrowly missing my Wise Husband’s gray-frosted head.
“Three more months!” I yelled.
He calmly continued clipping samples from the row of spinach seedlings waiting to be analyzed for nutritional content.
“Didn’t you hear me?” I hauled my heavily gravid bulk from the chair in the corner and waddled between planting benches toward Rus, one hand on my belly and one on my back to rub out the persistent ache in my lower lumbar region. “The stupid corporation is insisting we give them modified radishes. That’ll take three months, even with growth accelerators. For radishes!”
I spotted the data chip on the floor beside a bag of native Cephan soil and headed over to it. “Here. I’ll read it to you.” I began to bend over, discovered I couldn’t, and tried to squat in an awkward attempt to grab the tiny plastic disk.
Rus finally looked up from his work. “I’ll get that, honey. You sit down and stay calm.”
I straightened and watched with envious eyes as Rus nimbly scooped up the disk. “I can’t stay calm! The stupid corporation…”
“Sweetie pie, what’s wrong?” My Young Husband stuck his head in from the lab pod attached to the greenhouse. “You know you’re supposed to take it easy.”
“Allo, we have to stay here another three months!” I wailed, and collapsed into my chair again.
Rus fitted the disk into his slate and began to read. “’The Cephus Colonial Corporation appreciates the good work you’ve done to this point. The Corporation feels our contract cannot be considered fulfilled until we have been provided with a planiformed version of raphanus sativus. We estimate the time required to be three months from this date, and will compensate you accordingly…’”
“Raphanus sativus?” Allo asked, stepping all the way into the pod.
“Radishes,” I said. “Who cares about radishes? I don’t want to have our baby here. I want to have him at home. I want my Wise Wife!” My howl brought Allo scurrying to my side, where he patted my back and handed me tissues to mop up the tears I couldn’t help letting loose.
Pregnancy played hell with my emotions.
“Honey, it’s only three months,” Rus soothed. He took my hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “They’re paying us a pretty big bonus for the extra time, and I’m sure there’s a perfectly good midwife here in the colony.”
I blew my nose and wiped away a few last tears. “I’m sure there is…if I were a cow, instead of just looking like one.”
The thing was, besides currently being the same approximate size and shape as a cow, I was as strong as an ox and healthy as a horse, to round out the barnyard references. I’d probably do perfectly fine with the midwife the colony had on staff, even if she delivered more animal babies than human ones.
But I had expected to be back home in New Devon and have our Wise Wife deliver our baby. Well, she was my and Rus’s Wise Wife; she was Allo’s Grandwife. She was also one of the leading obstetricians on New Devon. I trusted her, and that counts for a lot when you’re in labor.
“You don’t look like a cow,” Allo said. “I think you’re beautiful.”
Oh, he was so sweet! Had I been that sweet when I’d first become Rus’s Young Wife?
I gave both my husbands a rather watery smile.
Rus kissed my cheek and sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t check the fine print on the contract more closely before I signed it. I should have insisted on a detailed list of the crops they wanted, and not settled for ‘a complete complement.’”
I shook my head. “Not your fault. You were still on pain meds for your Niven’s Syndrome, and I’m hopeless with all that legal jargon. Allo’s not much better at it than I am, and we’d certainly needed the money at the time. Buying passage on that refugee ship off Fomalhaut Prime cost a bundle.”
“It’s nobody’s fault but the CCC’s,” Allo said. His eyes narrowed. “They’ll never let us go with a full payment for a completed contract; you know that. When we give them radishes that’ll thrive here, they’ll want kohlrabi. Before you know it, we’ll be trying to adapt bananas to grow at the poles!”
He was right. The way the contract was worded, the corporation could request one more crop, then another, and another, and never have to pay the large premium they’d promised us when we came straight here after Rus’s treatment and started the job right away instead of stopping at our home planet first.
Well, I wasn’t going to stand for it. There must be a way to convince the stupid corporation they didn’t need us any longer…
“Uh oh,” Allo said. “I know that look. You’re planning again, aren’t you?”
“Someone’s got to get us out of this mess.”
“Honey,” Rus warned. “Last time you made a plan, you brought down an entire planetary government.”
I hadn’t, really. I’d just sort of encouraged the rebellion.
I waved away his objection. “It was an evil government. And that was an accident, anyway.” I leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. “I’ll be careful, like always.”
Rus’s frown didn’t lighten one bit.
My back ached from the hours of hover travel and all the stooping while I dug up samples of the native vegetation. The dull pain echoed the sharp pinch of the oxygen tube fitted to my nostrils to compensate for the low levels of the precious gas present in the atmosphere of Cephus Three. Sweat dribbled down my temples and dried in an itchy crust around the base of my earphone, despite my light clothing. At least I didn’t have to worry too much about sunburn. Although the blue-tinged sun gave off more UV than the yellow sun of New Devon, the higher ozone levels effectively blocked most of the harmful rays. I didn’t even need to wear sunscreen.
I stopped the hover next to a struggling field of the colorful, waist-high plants common to most of the planet, basking in the heat given off by the red rock cliff rising above them. The droning of their bellows organs blended into a low background hum.
I clambered stiffly out. Placing both hands at the small of my back, I stretched forward, moaning in relief as the pain eased a bit.
Allo jumped out of the passenger side and scurried around to me. “We should probably head back pretty soon, sweetie pie. Are you doing all right?”
I nodded, weary and uncomfortable, but determined. “I’m fine,” I said, rubbing my distended belly with the tips of my fingers. “All I need is one interesting plant.”
“You keep saying that,” Allo grumped.
“What better way to get off this planet than to shut down the terraforming to save a possibly valuable indigenous species? The CCC will have to spend years in court to prove their colony won’t disturb the ecology, at least until the species is thoroughly studied. They won’t keep us hanging around while all that’s going on.”
Allo began massaging my back, and I couldn’t help but smile. “The CCC already did a thorough study of all the native life forms,” he said.
I snorted. “As if the CCC didn’t have a vested interest in not finding anything interesting.” I waddled to the back of the hover and unloaded my collection kit. “All it takes is one.”
Allo helped haul the kit to the dense mat of vegetation and retreated to the hover to fix us a snack. I squatted, dropping to my knees when I got as low as I could go. I bent and started digging up and labeling samples of the outer grass-like plants, working my way in towards the center, taller bushes. The ache in my back intensified. “All it takes is one,” I muttered. “All it takes is one.”
“Aaahll id dakess sizz wunn…” sighed a breeze that ruffled through the foliage.
I froze, trowel dangling in my suddenly nerveless hand. “Allo? Was that you?”
“Did you say something, sweetie?”
“Allo! Are you teasing me?” It was just like him to mimic my current mantra to try to get a rise out of me, if only to lighten my mood.
“Sweetie, you’re eight months pregnant and we’re two hours by hover from the closest medical help. I wouldn’t dare do anything to rile you.”
“Then who…?” I stopped and scanned the surrounding fat, fleshy, purple-splotched stalks.
“Hooo…” whispered a low voice next to my ear.
I had no idea I could still move that fast. I was halfway to the hover before my brain registered that no one was, in fact, chasing me.
I stumbled to a halt. “Allo? Did you hear that?”
Allo said “No” at the same time another breathy sigh came from the field.
“Aaallo-o-o,” it said.
“Okay,” Allo said, running to stand behind me. He studied the plants over my shoulder. “I heard it that time.” He slipped his hand into mine and hung on.
“Do you suppose the wind is making those noises?” I asked—a stupid question, because there wasn’t a breath of wind today.
“I’ll check our oxygen levels,” Allo said, and hurried back to the hover to get the med kit.
I eyed the field suspiciously. Beyond the fringe of low-growing plants, the ground was covered in the bulbous, lily-shaped flowers that grew everywhere, although they were beginning to die back due to the reduced temperatures and increased oxygen from the terraforming.
Silence fell, broken only by Allo rummaging in the back of the hover and the plants’ nasal drone. The bellows organ acted like a primitive lung, allowing the plant access to more oxygen, since the original atmosphere contained so little. All plants need oxygen in their atmosphere to survive overnight, but the flora of Cephus Three needed less than most, since they had absorbed a form of cyanobacteria sometime during their evolution as well as an organism that acted like mitochondria. But, while they could process some food anaerobically, they still needed oxygen in order to thrive. They made up the difference by pumping large amounts of air through hollow tubes in their thick stem.
Whatever the cause, the upshot was that standing next to a clump of these plants sounded like standing next to a bagpipe band as it warmed up.
I let Allo scan our blood oxygen levels, which were normal. Neither of us heard another sighing comment from anywhere.
“There must be something hiding in the plants,” I said. I edged forward, Allo right behind me. Nothing moved but an occasional bumbling proto-insect, busy about its own business, and the pumping of the plants’ bellows.
I reached the place where I’d first heard the strange sounds.
Still nothing moved.
So I knelt and parted the stems in front of me, looking for a clue; because seriously, I didn’t have one.
Purples and blues flashed across the fleshy, chartreuse lilies, and the droning shifted, becoming even more atonal and annoying.
I braced for the opening notes of “Scotland the Brave.”
“Hello?” I called. “Is anyone there?”
“Hhhelllo-o-o,” came the reply, not quite like a tune, but not that far off, either.
I could have sworn the voice came from the plant in my left hand.
Allo’s grip tightened on my shoulders, and I slowly, carefully withdrew my hands, folding them in what was left of my lap. “It talked,” I said.
“Yup,” said Allo.
“Do you think it knows what it’s saying?” I said.
I could feel Allo’s shrug from the way his hands moved. “How can it know anything? It’s a plant. Maybe it just repeats what it hears.”
“But it doesn’t have ears!” I leaned forward–oh, so carefully!–and studied the trumpet of the lily-like plant. The inner surface was covered in fine filaments, much like hair or fur. I felt the tickle of the plant’s “breath” against my face. “It’s got fur!”
I watched the hairs quiver as I spoke. “Izz gaw furrr,” the plant echoed.
“I think you found your one interesting plant, sweetie pie,” Allo said, leaning forward to see the hairs pulsate in time to his words.
“Aww, how cute. It knows you!” Allo moved to kneel beside me. “Say ‘Allo’ again.”
I shook my head. “It’s just echoing what it hears.” Holding up one finger, I said “One.”
I held up two fingers. “Two.”
Three fingers. “Three.”
Next I held up two fingers, but I didn’t say anything.
Yes, indeed. I had definitely found my interesting plant.
Allo and I dug up as many of the plants as we could fit in the back of the hover, filling the bed with mounds of the Cephan soil. It helped that the plants seemed mobile in a limited way, helpfully curling up their roots into compact balls as we grubbed around them. I wondered if they thought we were kidnapping them, but the droning settled into a nearly harmonious dirge, especially after we turned up the heat control in the rear compartment to pre-terraforming normal.
After a while, other plants besides our original friend began practicing speech. We drove home to a symphony of “Aaallo-o-o”s and “Ssweeedeee”s. I tried to teach them my real name, but it didn’t stick. To them, I was Sweetie, and Sweetie I’d stay.
Not a very dignified name for the leader of a band of aspiring freedom fighters.
Their names were combinations of color splotches and hummed tones. At least I think that was what they were trying to convey when we pointed at them.
Rus rolled his eyes and sighed when we reached our temporary home and explained what had happened, but he cleared a space for our guests in Greenhouse Pod #1, which was set up to study the indigenous Cephan flora.
In my defense, I tried to settle this through official channels, but the CCC official here on Cephus Three refused to acknowledge the existence of plant-based intelligence, and blocked my attempts to introduce the plants to the other colonists. Personally, I began to question the existence of corporate-based intelligence.
I contacted various off-planet sources, but was brushed off, laughed at, or ignored. After all, I was only an obscure exobiologist, not a noted xenographer. Who would trust my judgment enough to spend the hefty amount of money necessary to rush a crew out to this planet to investigate?
So I came up with a plan.
We had less than three weeks if we wanted to get back in time to have our baby at home. We worked around the clock, Rus and I utilizing the growth accelerators and all our skill at coaxing repressed DNA to suddenly express itself, and Allo teaching the plants–or sentiveggies, as we called them–our language and customs while learning theirs at the same time.
The day we’d chosen for the demonstration dawned bright and clear. I spent yet another frustrating afternoon on the phone, trying one last time to get someone–the Extraterrestrial Species Protection Agency, the Interplanetary Fish and Wildlife Service, or the United Planets–to listen to our plea for help. The closest I got was a recording telling me they would send out an agent in eight months, by which time a large chunk of the Cephan sentiveggies would be dead and my baby would already be crawling.
Having no alternative, Allo, Rus and I rounded up our little crop of freedom fighters and herded them out the door of Greenhouse Pod #1. The sentiveggies were now a foot taller and completely mobile, although slow and a little clumsy. They were also better adapted to the lower temperatures and higher oxygen levels.
During one human cultural lesson, Allo had shown them a vid of the ancient classic “Braveheart.” He’d thought it was appropriate. Consequently, all the Cephans had turned as much of their foliage blue as possible, and insisted that Allo teach them a battle song.
Just the colonists gathered for the communal nightly meal, I bid a tearful farewell to my fledgling army, each sentiveggie waving its blossom-laden fronds and swaying forward to the martial drone of their bellows. This time I really did hear the opening measures of “Scotland the Brave.”
As the tune filtered into the window of the cafeteria pod, the colonists poured outside to see what the heck was up. About the only thing that disturbed their daily routine was a horse with a tetchy stomach. The march of the sentiveggies was as much excitement as they’d seen in months.
Murmurs grew until a few voices rose above the general babble.
“They’re getting closer! Should we run?” This in a high, feminine tone.
“No; what are they going to do? Tickle us?” Also female, but sounding much more confident.
The sentiveggies marched toward the mass of colonists, who wavered back a foot or two.
“What if they’re poisonous?” said a man in the front ranks of the crowd.
“So don’t eat them,” said the confidant woman, and she stepped forward to meet the waving field of sentiveggies.
With the lavender rays of the setting sun frosting the luminous blue of their trumpets, the Cephans possessed a heart-stopping beauty that drew out many of the colonists’ slates to record the moment.
The lead sentiveggie, who was apparently named Hiss-Two Purple Spots-Moan, tottered to a stop in front of the confidant woman, its glowing cerulean foliage a stark contrast to the woman’s muddy complexion in the bluish light. It waved a branch, and the sentiveggies went as silent as they could get. In the low humming, the click of the cameras’ shutters sounded as loud as lasershots.
“Wwhelllcummm,” it said.
The colonists gasped. More slates came out.
Hiss-Two Purple Spots-Moan bent before the woman and dropped a single blossom from its outstretched branch. The woman stooped, picked up the delicate lily and smiled, her eyes twinkling with delight.
H-TPS-M retreated, and the rest of my freedom fighters advanced, dropping their flowers at the feet of other colonists. The smiles spread.
So did the holos.
The images hit the comm channels within minutes, drawing the eyes of the galaxy to the plight of the little Cephans and their struggle to retain ownership of their planet.
In less than an hour, my phone began to beep.
I was ensconced in my bunk on the Cephus Colonial Corporation ship “Ambition” on our way back home to New Devon, practicing relaxation breathing techniques with Rus and Allo. We were keeping a low profile because of all the media attention the Cephan sentiveggies had attracted.
While charming the colonists and the swarms of journalists with their language skills, the sentiveggies had let slip our names.
Fortunately, they only knew us as Allo, Rus, and Sweetie. But our faces had made it into a few photos, and the reporters were on the prowl.
It was all worth it, though. The CCC had paid up in full, and thrown in the ride home for free, just to get us off planet and out of the public eye as soon as possible. The Cephus colony was being shut down pending an investigation into the corporation’s planetary survey techniques, and the CCC officials didn’t want us answering too many of the reporters’ or investigators’ questions. Fancy that.
And we still had a week to get home so I could have our Wise Wife deliver our baby in a nice, clean, modern hospital.
I sighed in perfect contentment.
A warm, wet puddle grew beneath me. I stiffened and sat upright.
“Uh, Allo? Rus? I think my water just broke.”