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Leave-Taking

AUDIO VERSION

1

Hey Silv, Leni here—

I ever tell you about the time I made first contact after one of our breakups?

I didn’t, I’m sure I didn’t, because, stars, is it ever embarrassing, and you know how I get when I’m embarrassed. That was, like, Reason #3 for most of our breakups, and we both know I never got around to working on it, because, well, path of least resistance, right? Why bother changing when it’s slim pickings out here—Drasti Prime, the whole damned Partnership frontier—so I can just wait until you’ve cooled off instead?

Yeah, so I could go on about how much of a winner I’ve been, but you remember that time you airlocked me for Reason #2? I knew I’d screwed up. Like, existential, is-this-just-who-I-am screwed up. So after I saw your shuttle off, I took a skiff out just to be alone for a while. Not the brightest idea, maybe, leaving the protective barrier while our allotment’s still so unevenly explored, and mining ops aren’t even up and running yet, and we’ve got a casualty rate that’s been, stars, like something back on Doro, eh, Silv? Except without all the cold.

Anyway, I just needed a breather, Silv. Not as much as you did, clearly, flying off to study ancient tech around the sun, but still. One afternoon out couldn’t hurt, right?

Except that at some point I must’ve gone down the wrong stream on this plateau of ours. I knew enough not to veer hard right from our front gate, or I’d reach that oblong canyon beside our allotment, and come tumbling down a waterfall into the Spinners’ feeding grounds. I know, I know, they don’t think of us as food, but we’re still not much larger than what they do eat down there, and you know how crazy they get at feeding time. No point taking the risk.

I wasn’t paying much attention otherwise, though, because suddenly the water stopped being water, and all the chittering and whirring of insect life around me fell away, and then there was this . . . this terrible groaning and rubbery shifting of what turned out to be a field of fast-growing fungal fronds. Scared the hell out of me, the idea that I’d landed in a new kind of Drastian trap, until I saw some of the spores twine together, trying to emulate my form.

Okay, no, fine, I admit it: that scared me, too.

But then this spore-form started babbling at me in clipped phrases, not Partnership Standard but not entirely unfamiliar. A bit like Saludon, actually, which made me think that maybe this thing had met our other neighbors first. And so we talked for, like, six minutes, me and this giant fungus with the liquid-dexterity of a slime, just confirming that we were both sentient through the usual: you know, mathematical proofs, local astronomical knowledge, and a couple melodies that just came to mind for the hell of it.

So far so good, eh?

But then it asked me if I was alone. Okay, no—“asked” is the wrong way of putting it. Suddenly it grew a dozen more spore-forms like me, all packed together, all happily chattering, and then it exploded the rest to leave the first Leni-look-alike slack-jawed and small, exhaling something like the Saludon word for empty?—and . . . I dunno, Silv, I guess I got a bit dramatic.

All right, Silv, I cried.

And not like those big cries I used to do to make you feel sorry for me and take me back—I mean, how in the stars would that help me here? Nah, I cried more like it had just hit me that you had left Drasti Prime, that you were off to do more analysis on those massive mechanized mysteries from millennia past, and that I wouldn’t just be able to come up to your door and talk to you until you felt so tired of listening to me outside you’d give up and let me in. This time, Silv, I’d actually have to wait to hear you again. Or to see that sliver of a smile you sometimes can’t help but have, even when you’re clean worn out by my nonsense.

Stars, I’d give anything just to see that sliver right now again, too.

But, I mean, bad timing for the grief to hit me, right? That’s what I realized, at least, when the remaining spore-form reached out to touch me, then mimicked my shuddering shoulders and my head buried in my hands.

Oof, and the sounds it made, Silv, trying to emulate my voice . . .

So I had to stop crying right away. I had to. Plus, then I had to explain why I’d been crying, because I couldn’t just let it go on thinking that this was what humans did all the time. Imagine, though, trying to explain a romantic tiff to a lifeform that’s just one big network of fungal blooms with maybe a thousand different interacting sexes, when you’ve only just met it.

I mean, you’d think it would have the lock on being weird, right? But the way its fronds kept growing and reacting to my ridiculous statements, the way it kept touching me like it was trying to process my emotions by taste or through something deeper, you could tell it was utterly baffled about human love. Like, there’s a sentient being you just know went back to its point of origin after our conversation and flung out spores on its home soil to communicate to the rest of itself just how messed up the new neighbors are.

Come to think of it, I’m guessing the Feru didn’t order an immediate counterstrike on our colony only out of . . . pity? Because oh, for sure, that species has the power to wipe us out, Silv, with or without clearance from the Spinners. And I sure as hell made for an annoying first example of the crap it might be in for if it didn’t do a little pest control nice and early.

I bet you’re even thinking right now, “Ah, so that’s why the Feru always act like we’re one big joke. And here I thought they were just a naturally arrogant species.”

Nah, Silv, I’m sure they were a pretty humble bunch until I came along. Then they used me as a baseline for all of humanity—and by extension, the Partnership, because what kind of intergalactic compact lets the likes of me wear a uniform, right?—and the rest is history.

I bet you’re wondering now, too, what I told it about you. Yeah, that’s fair. You know how breakups go. We either go around twisting the facts to make ourselves seem more like the perfect victims, or go overboard insisting that we totally understand why someone else couldn’t stand to be with us anymore, until that makes us look pathetic and pitiable—which, if you squint hard enough, is . . . kinda like being a victim, too?

Oh, and sure, there’s always Keegler as a counterpoint, I know, but I’m still putting chits on him being a sociopath. No one can be that cheerful about every break-up, always going on about how blessed he was to get even a little time in the cosmos with someone he loves.

Sociopath, Silv. Either that, or he’s tripping on some special breed of Chigger.

No, seriously—that’s the only other possibility I can figure. Maybe one of those invasive nanobots here carries the blueprints for, like, a psychedelic beetle, and Keegler slips out from the construction site to get bitten by it, then comes back to the main compound for regeneration only after his DNA’s been rewritten enough that he can lick, say, an exoskeletal forearm, and get a decent high. Maybe that’s where he gets his bizarrely euphoric calm.

Stars, we’ve both seen way weirder since we set up camp here, Silv, and you know it.

But yeah, either way . . . I guess I told the Feru that I thought you expected too much of me, and that I just couldn’t change as fast you wanted me to. Like, if there was a Chigger for that kind of miracle, let me have at it, right? Then, after that stellar start to things with the Feru, I went into this long, rambling story of why I figured I was the way I was, and how much of a disappointment I was always going to be, and how maybe the whole colony would be better off if I just dropped dead right then and there and became food for the Feru’s fronds instead.

Oh—but don’t worry, Silv. You should’ve seen how its fronds recoiled at that last.

Apparently, even a giant sentient fungus that’s sprawled every which way to inhabit all the land and waterways in its territory can still have a decent sense of taste.

And apparently my own body—yeah, real shocker there—just wasn’t up to snuff.

2

Hey Silv—

Sorry, that last audfile cut off kinda abruptly. Yeah, see, I wasn’t even sure I should be sending you these recordings, not when you’re still in that damned bio-chamber, recovering. I kept going back and forth, like: Should I wait until you wake up to tell you all this in person? Or would that be even more exhausting? Maybe it’d just send you back into a coma?

And then I realized that I was just scared, maybe too scared to finish what I’d started, so I told myself, go on, Leni, send out at least the first audfile. Then you’ll have to record the rest. Reason #1, am I right? Everything I do, even the good stuff, I do out of fear most of all.

But enough with the self-pity—I was telling you about my public breakdown, when the Feru had only just met me, and humanity, and the whole Partnership, too. Stars, I think I heard once of an officer making first contact while they were disposing of ship’s waste, just chucking biohazardous material right onto the new species’ heads by accident—but I bet even that officer had the presence of mind not to start dumping out all his emotional garbage, too!

Luckily, though, the Feru at least had the presence of spore-colony mind to call for local assistance when it realized how weirdly bent out of shape I was. So then a Spinner showed up, freakily tic-tic-tic-tic-ing its massive spidey legs as it conversed with the Feru before taking me home, and that’s when it first really clicked for me: Stars above, those crazy sentient fronds weren’t just another part of this planet’s natural ecosystem. They were aliens, too! They had their own Spinners, for stars’ sake, wandering about in another version of those creepy Uranian-blue masks over those giant mounds of gleaming red eyes.

(I mean—as if any of those masks could ever really cover the horror of arachnoid biocomputers, eh, Silv? And the breath on those big buggers, too!)

So when I got back, I asked one of our own Spinners for more intel about these other colonists, and that’s when I learned that our freaky-big bio-servants, on behalf of their absent planetary masters, had given permission for four colonies, total, all around the massive canyon at the limits of our territory. And yeah, sure, that’s common knowledge now, but can you believe that just half a standard ago, the Partnership only knew about the Saludons? I mean, it’s not like we’d ever asked if there were any others, but then again, why would we? We’d just assumed we knew what a colonizing force looked like, because the Saludons more or less travel the galaxy like we do—so if nothing else was showing up on Drasti Prime that acted like the Partnership or Saludons, probably nothing else was colonizing the same joint, right?

Stars, it’s crazy how some things just become the new norm—almost overnight it feels like—and how quickly we forget what life was like before them.

But also, to be fair, the Saludons did take up a lot of our time and attention. How could they not, when they descended in those massive military vessels to start mining their desert allotment for the same microbial engine straight away? You just can’t be too careful when a potential enemy pops up in the neighborhood belting “UNITY OF STRENGTH” on all channels and shared languages. Even with those unallotted honeycomb caves between us and those obnoxious squadrons of conquered soldiers from other intergalactic compacts, you know as well as me that the Saludons are always just a bit too close for comfort.

The Feru, though . . . Well, they were something new, weren’t they? Something it had never occurred to us to think of as meaningfully sentient when we set down here last year. So that was kinda cool, I guess: getting to file a report that would change the way the Partnership thought about, oh, all the possibilities for intergalactic travel, and different frameworks for sentience, and other sorts of cross-species networking across the known universe.

Not too shabby for an afternoon’s walkabout, eh?

(And also, I guess . . . thank you, Silv? I mean, if you hadn’t been so furious with me for my stupid life choices and packed up early to start work on your solar-mech research, someone else might’ve taken that skiff the wrong way ’round outside the compound, and run into the Feru first. Ugh. Okay, and now I’m just imagining Keegler being the one to do it, and all the “blessings” he’d have crammed into his report after, about being the first to meet our fungal friends on Drasti Prime. Thanks on behalf of all of us, then, Silv, for a Partnership record that won’t make future historians want to pluck their eyes from their eyestems!)

Also, listen . . . You were already off-planet by then, so don’t be surprised that this is the first you’re hearing about my involvement. It’s really been forgotten everywhere, because I downplayed the hell out of my interaction on that initial report, once I had sense enough to realize how much I’d mucked our first contact up. And yeah, okay, maybe that’s bending the whole Partnership-playbook a bit, but at the time I figured, hey, better for HQ just to know that the Feru existed, and to send someone else to make what they’d all assume was the first real conversation between humanity and a sentient fungus. Maybe no one would be the wiser. Maybe it’d all work out in the end without any need for further embarrassment.

And . . . it did work out, more or less. Upper-orbit sent a crack team of diplomats, the Partnership formally met with the Feru, and later that month the Partnership encountered other weirdo colony, the nebulous Esh—all while continuing to keep a super healthy distance from the Saludons. Then you came back, a couple months after the whole revelation, and we made up . . . and broke up . . . and made up again, just before you headed out for another crack at ancient mysteries around the sun. Happily ever after, more or less, here on Drasti Prime.

Except for one little detail, Silv.

An accident, let’s call it.

Because, remember: The Feru didn’t know any better either. For it this was first contact with something bipedal and meaty, like most of the Saludons, but otherwise ridiculously different than anything it had seen before. Was I Saludon, too? Not really. Not enough self-discipline. A malfunctioning Saludon, maybe? That might explain why it tried broken Saludon with me at first—maybe my damage extended to my language, too?

But mostly I think it treated me like a confused spore, far-flung from its colony, so it was doing what it would have done with any foreign spore-form while trying to assess if it should be neighborly or not. It started crafting new protein chains on a cellular level, trying to communicate by replicating all my movements and constituent parts. And it wasn’t just on the macro level that it was making these changes, like with that crazy spore-form spectacle of a dozen new Leni-look-alikes exploding all around the first. It was on the microscopic, too. The Feru spore-form “tasted” me, if that’s the right word for it. And replicated. And emulated. And waited for my responses before “tasting” and replicating anew.

And, stars, Silv, even just in that brief interaction, did it ever figure me out well.

Because after a few months, just as I’d let myself believe that my mess of a first contact scenario had been forgotten—not only by the Partnership but by the Feru, too—apparently the Feru had given up on trying to reintegrate this one, baffling episode with the rest of itself. And how do I know that? Well . . . because a couple weeks after you were sent back in cryo, to finish your treatment in the bigger bio-chambers here, it was the damnedest thing, Silv.

I thought I’d become, like . . . a parent?

Or gained a clone?

I mean, something that looked like me showed up outside the compound walls: fungal for sure, but also completely cut off from the rest of the Feru. What would you have called it?

Oh, and as if that wasn’t freaky enough, listen—I’ve got the recording right here with me. This is what it called out when it showed up, just pounding on the Partnership’s front gate:

Hooooooome!

Hooooooome!

Hooooooome!

3

Yeah, Silv—crazy, right?

You know, I’m picturing you laughing as you listen to these audfiles once you wake up. And I’ll have deserved your laughter, too—because this has gotta be one of the worst first contacts ever. First I burst into tears with a giant alien, then I whine about my failed relationship and messed-up childhood on a far-flung world, then I accept its baffled attempts at interspecies reassurance, and finally, months later, I wake up to this me-sized baby dumped at my front door. I mean, an all-out war after botched first contact’s gotta be easier to explain, right? This . . . this was just uncomfortable.

And you have no idea how much side-eye I got here for it, too.

I mean, at first it was just Zeph staring at the front gate surveillance footage, then staring back at me, then staring at the monitor again. Then he laughed and said, “Stars, Leni! I know it’s been rough since Silv left, but are you going strange on us?”

Then Manoush got in on it too, telling Zeph, “No, chasing strange. Big difference.”

Which, I mean . . . with friends like these, you know? So I told them, “Mates, it’s not me, and I didn’t consent to whatever that is out there looking like me.”

But all Zeph did was shrug and say, “Well, we don’t know much about it yet, but the Feru does seem to like its jokes.”

And, yeah, fair enough. I probably made it that way when it came to us humans: the biggest jokes of all, from the Feru’s point of view.

Still . . . this didn’t feel like a joke, Silv. That spore-form, it really sounded like it was in pain. Or in trouble. But when I asked about letting it in, Manoush got super serious with me. Which, after all, is his job—protector of the compound, and so forth.

“That’s a hard neg on entry,” he said. “We still don’t know this species well, and we can’t limit its propagation. Plus, it’s not like we can just call the Feru up to see what’s going on. That’s the damned downside of meeting a species that never needed tech to expand—no easy comms system. So, I guess we need to send someone out to see what it wants.”

“Someone.” Right. But you just know who everyone was thinking of, eh, Silv?

I even tried to tell them, I said, “Mates, this is like a shitty B-plot vidfile. Come on now—think: You send me out and maybe that thing takes my identity. You’ll have no idea who you’re letting back in.”

But they just looked at each other, grinning.

“Who says we were gonna let you back in at all?” said Zeph.

“Two slingshot maneuvers with one course-correction,” Manoush added. “Win-win!”

And yeah, Silv, I see what you mean now about sticking with friends who choose to mock your openness when something’s really got you down. About how who we surround ourselves with shapes the forms we take on. Okay, sure, it’s slim pickings out here, too—but it was the same back on Doro, wasn’t it? So where’s the real agency in any of this? When do we get to choose—I mean, really choose—whose behaviors we’re going to learn from as we grow?

Super easy to get philosophical when you’re just talking into an unresponsive comm-screen, though. In that moment, though, in that control room . . . I was stuck, you know? I was stuck with what I’d built up for myself to that point in my life. And hey, Silv, for the record, they’re not a bad crew, overall: Mani, Zeph, and me . . . I’d say we’ve held each other up at least as much as we’ve pushed each other down. Only, that day, it was more of the pushing-down than the building-up, and I was shaking, Silv. I was scared. I mean, I think anyone would be, if a mushroom-double just showed up moaning outside the front gate, banging to be let in, but it really had me thinking pretty dire thoughts. Like, this is it, Leni—this is gonna be the end of you. If you go out there and meet that thing, you’re done for. You’re facing a void where your future was supposed to be.

 . . . Oh, and stars, Silv: I just realized—I never left you an audfile before heading out.

What if something really had happened to me, and I’d never even gotten a chance to . . . ?

Wow.

Wow, yeah, what a winner I’ve been.

So, okay, who knows: maybe a clone version of me wouldn’t’ve been so bad after all.

Even one that smells a bit mulchier than I usually do.

4

Hey Silv—

If you’re wondering about the gap in time stamps, I had to finish some admin tasks before I went on. Counting down the hours left here, I suppose. Had a good wander around the colony, too—saw the sunrise and its incineration plumes in the upper atmosphere. Listened to some of the local wildlife through the monitors, nice and safe from Chigger bites, and helped the last construction crew debark and sanitize. Apparently, we’ve cut down burn-rates from long-term exposure to the microbial engine, too, so hey—there’s a plus for you, eh?

Stars, it’s hard to believe you’ve been in that bio-chamber for so long. I can go see you whenever I like, but I haven’t, you know. I can’t even lie about that now: it’s not a pretty sight, your skin still recovering from that power surge, and I guess I’d just rather remember you as I last saw you, about to take off: full of righteous fury and a pretty solid work ethic, too.

Did you know the Partnership’s considering sending down a counselor to help with trauma recovery here on Drasti Prime? I mean, I kinda think it’s a great idea, what with all the casualties we’ve been taking trying to get the construction site up and running. Those Saludons just cracked the whole mining thing, didn’t they? Meanwhile the Esh and Feru are naturally suited to seeping through the slightest terran openings, so they’ve been having good hunting, too. But here we sluggish humans are, still fighting Chiggers and other natural disasters just to keep the Saludons from laying too much of a claim on this vast world with so many mysteries to it. And I mean, that’s crazy, too, isn’t it? How with the Spinners and the Chiggers and that bewildering solar mech, there’s so much about this place we don’t know yet. So much about its ancient rulers we can’t access—and which’ll probably take ever so much longer to figure out, just because we’re all trying to learn what we can about them on our own.

A counselor, though—whew!

You ask me, Silv, that’s being mighty confident that a lot of our mates’ll even talk to another officer in a professional capacity about what’s eating us—even if, stars above, some of us really need it. You know, a few months back, one of the perimeter guards got to drinking and told us that he actually liked to go outside the barrier and get bitten, just to see what would happen, what he might turn into next. Damned foolish thing to do, we told him. What if he got bitten somewhere vital, and turned too quickly? Plus, didn’t he have any respect for the impact on the rest of us, while he was off regenerating in medbay? The colony’s still too small and fragile for any of us to spend most of our time healing.

But he shrugged it all off, Silv. All our complaints, all our fears, all our reprimands. Told us that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, wandering off and becoming one of those lizards or insects instead. That maybe that was the real reason the Partnership had been drawn to this world in the first place: like, a cosmic calling. Like maybe the endgame for all of us here was to change, to be reborn, and to transform into something incredible and new.

His words were generic spiritualist pap, of course, but that shrug stayed with me, Silv. Waiting, deep inside, for the right moment to strike. And I guess that moment, for me, was when I first saw that giant fungus on the monitor, just . . . crying out in so much pain from a body so much like mine. My memory of that guard’s shrug, his complete indifference to fear of transformation, shot up inside me like some of those fast-growing fronds on Feruvian territory, and then I took that mental image with me, when I went to meet my look-alike outside.

FG, I’ve started calling him.

Get it? A “Fun Guy”—just like me!

Ah, it’ll grow on you, Silv.

That thing sure did on me.

5

Hey Silv—

You remember when we were serving on the River of Courage together, both of us taking positions there to escape shitty childhoods on Doro mid-freeze, and you used to make all these references to parts of The Sunmaster’s Journey that I probably learned as a kid in the eastern colony, but definitely did my best to binge drink away?

It took me so long to realize that you weren’t just trying to show me up. Reason #2, right? That defensiveness. How I treated everything like a competition and everything you did, even more so. Like that time you wrote a poem for the annual Partnership call for membership modifications to The Sunmaster’s Journey, and I went around for weeks after you got an honorable mention, just telling everyone bored enough to listen about how I’d been planning a full rewrite of the text myself.

Oh, I know, Silv. I know. If you’d actually wanted to be in a threesome, I’m sure you’d have picked a better third than my damned ego.

I think I get it now, though: why you love the Partnership’s core text so much, and why the Partnership loves it, too. Because it really is a decent template, isn’t it, for teaching the culture behind our language, the sort of partnership to which all of our intergalactic relations supposedly aspire. Either way, “teaching the culture” is exactly what I ended up doing to find common ground with good old FG. Teaching it our ways, our hopes, our words.

Emphasis on “trying,” though, because for the first couple sols the most that FG would say was a howling, anguished Home! Home! Home!, and when I tried to get more out of it, FG just repeated bits back to me, or reverted to Saludon. So I wasn’t sure what to do here, really—take it back to the Feru? Report it to the Spinners and see if they had any ideas?

At least, being around FG in the wilds of Drasti Prime, I got a little bit of the Feru’s immunity against the Chiggers, which definitely can’t handle the spore dust as well as it can our suits, slipping even through our masks with the visors down to insert those nano-protocols. As long as I stayed in FG’s sphere of protection, then, I knew I didn’t have to worry about turning into a giant lizard or beetle or crustacean. But for how long, I wondered. What did FG want? Why did it even exist? Was it one last little Feruvian joke, crafted just to get at me?

I hadn’t the slightest idea, Silv, which is why I thought so much of you, when you were trying to bridge the gaps between us with the right tale or two. Those first sols off-compound, I told FG anything that popped into my head, but nothing about me—because, stars, Silv! Of course I knew better than to make it easier for it to steal my body in my sleep.

So, I told it Sunmaster stories instead.

Your versions, to be precise, since I couldn’t remember most from my own readings. Mostly, I just remembered you referencing a line or a story beat as it suited the occasion between us, and I tried to spin together the whole of each tale for FG from those fragments.

Like, do you remember the one where . . . I mean, of course you do, you remember everything, but humor me here . . . Do you remember the one where the Sunmaster kept trying to escape itself in a long series of disconnected lives? Like, first it was doing recon work on a scout ship not far from Europa, then served as a line cook on a waystation, then lived as a cartel enforcer dumping criminal evidence into the sun, and at some point even as a snail—a rare snail, found only in the gardens of Morau Prison, out on an outpost circling the Restuvian Black Hole, where its only task was to nibble at the prison garden’s toxic leaves?

That’s the story FG liked the most, as far as I could tell—the story of a being who kept waking up in different forms and destinies, which I guess makes sense, the Feru being what it is—so I kept telling that story, and making up more lives for the Sunmaster to go through until it discovered why no number of disparate lives could bring it closer to true mastery over it all.

And as my look-alike listened to my increasingly tenuous version of this story, FG started to get more adventurous. First it stopped whimpering all the time, which was a great start, and then it started saying different words—words in Partner that I couldn’t fully understand, but were still a welcome change from all the tedious Home! Home! Home! business. Even a mysterious run of Seedpod! Flightshell! Spaceshelter! was a step in the right direction.

All that time, though, I was also thinking: Stars, Silv should be here telling this story.

Because you always did tell the best stories. You know that, right?

Or at least, you told the same story over and over, no matter how many times I’d come along to knock it all down, and you’d try to make it that story the best it could be.

The story of us, Silv—as if we’d somehow done the impossible, the thing that even the Sunmaster couldn’t do. As if we’d cycled through all the shitty versions of ourselves, and at last arrived at the right version, so that now, finally!, our perfect life together could really begi—

6

Oh, shit, Silv—

Sorry, that last audfile cut off before I was finished. Pressed the wrong button, I think, but—hah. Probably for the best. I was getting into one of my moods there, wasn’t I?

Look, the point is, I told FG our Sunmaster stories while hanging out with it beyond the protective barrier—and it didn’t eat me; and I didn’t turn into a crustacean. Hell, I didn’t even get adopted by the Spinners and taken to the secret caves where they spin all their solutions to the toughest problems we give them to resolve—much as I’d still super like to have seen those deeper Drasti Prime structures while I could!

(Stars, and maybe we should’ve asked them to spin on us, too, eh Silv? I wonder if there’d’ve been enough cave space for all of the calculations that little problem would’ve involved!)

But like I was saying, in the middle of telling FG some of the Partnership’s core stories to build a common vocabulary, FG got a little too excited, and after a few of those failed bursts in Standard Partner, it tried to get through to me in a way that made more sense to its species. And stars, Silv—are those fungal forms ever strong! No wonder Chiggers don’t stand a chance of seeding them with all their rogue DNA.

So there I was, right in the middle of one of your stories I’d actually forgotten the middle to, when FG wrapped some of its fronds around my arm (so tight that I thought for a moment it was just going to seep into my vascular system and take me over from the inside out), and then it hauled us off toward the Feru. Which, fair enough, okay: maybe it was ready to go home, like it had been saying all this time?

Except that it didn’t even pause as it entered Feru territory, not even when other fronds rose up in friendly greeting—although they didn’t do so for long, if you can believe it. Yeah, no: apparently the sight of a lone human shouting and kicking as a look-alike spore-form marches them both along the marsh doesn’t warrant the Feru’s further attention? Stars, Silv, I know I’ve done the whole manipulative silent-treatment thing myself from time to time, but now I know it definitely feels shitty on the receiving end. When, like, a whole damned field of gold-green frond-stalks chooses to rustle indifferently in the breeze instead of paying you any mind while you’re out there just . . . just screaming for aid. It’s the worst.

Oh, and get this—even the local Spinners, four large clumps of dark furry legs with those damned blue masks over their beady red eyes and salivating mandibles, took their cues from the Feru’s indifference, so they just stood in silence, barely moving about, except to emulate the faint swaying of the Feru, while my mimic hauled me along.

If FG had decided to absorb me right then and there, would any of them have so much as flinched at my death cry?

 . . . Probably not.

So, ah, yeah—best not to dwell on that part right now.

Eventually, though, FG and I ended up on the far side of the Feru territory—which, as you know, meant we were about to engage with the Esh. Crazy things, all those scattered, sentient nebulae: like giant floating jellyfish, if each jellyfish contained a brewing electrical storm under its gelatinous cap. But the Esh weren’t alone, either—if ever an Esh could be called “alone,” even in their more dispersed states. Rather, one of the bigger Esh-clouds was busy conversing with a Saludon squadron, which left me feeling like FG and I were crashing one of those parties where no one wants to be the one to point out that, technically, nobody invited you, but everyone still looks at you like you should just know you don’t belong.

We were all there, actually: the Esh, the Saludons, the Feru (well, its cast-off), and me, Leni—just this mess of a Partnership officer who’d no business being involved in any major interspecies negotiations (if that was, in fact, what was going down in Esh-land at the time).

To top it all off, too, that’s when Manoush’s face popped up on the viewscreen looming over my right-arm console, asking me to explain why I was late with my quarter-sol check-in.

“Ah, sorry, Mani, I, uh, got caught up in something.”

Literally caught up in something—FG’s tendrils—and then carried away.

“What’s that I’m hearing, Leni? What’ve you got going on around you?”

“An interspecies jamboree,” I said, more or less truthfully.

“We’re just picking card games right now,” I added, more or less untruthfully.

But Manoush wasn’t in the playful mood I’d expected, considering how he and Zeph had treated me before sending me out, four-and-a-half sols back. “Leni, listen carefully,” he said. “I need you to quit messing around, get that thing with you to tell us what it wants, and get the hell back here. I don’t have time for this shit—none of us do, back on base.”

And, well, that was an unexpected tone from Manoush, but you know how it goes with the gang, Silv: we’re all fun and jokes until something really serious goes down, and then we snap at each other like we’ve never cracked a joke before in our lives, we don’t even know what a joke is, and most of all, how dare anyone else not already have their full attention fixed on this crazy new problem that’s just shown up in our lives?

So my heart was in my boots, Silv, because when Manoush gets like this, things are bad back on the compound. Like, really bad.

“Loud and clear, Mani,” I said. “But why, what’s the damage? Don’t hold out on me.”

And Manoush worked his jaw before grinding out, “We’ve got casualties, Len. Another microbial plume surged along the latest the rigging. Multiple casualties just this morning.”

“Casualties? Mani, are you talking injuries or, like—”

“Mostly burns, but bad ones. Zeph’s in a bio-chamber.”

“Zeph’s in a—?!”

“Look, that’s all I know right now, Leni. So get back here, and fast.”

“Affirmative.” I felt my skin go cold to the touch—and since FG was still wrapped around my other wrist, I’m sure it could feel the same.

But then I was acutely aware of the Esh and that Saludon squadron staring at me, and realized they’d heard every word, too.

7

Ah, stars, Silv—

Look, I’m trying to get all this out the right way, the way where I’m honest and up-front about how shit makes me feel instead of going off on another wild tangent until I’ve worn us both out, but sometimes it’s not “feeling” that’s the matter, Silv.

It’s . . . it’s momentum, you know?

Like, there I was in Esh territory, this spore-form locked onto my arm—probably with the strength to take over my body on a whim if it wanted to—while a lightning storm flashed before me in sentient bursts turned to thunderous proclamations (all in Saludon, by the way—which didn’t make things a bit easier), and a whole, stony-faced line of Saludon soldiers stood to the right, and I was still trying to process that Zeph was in danger—Zeph was in a bio-chamber, for star’s sake!—and I didn’t know if I’d be back in time to tell him what an absolute blockhead he’d been for getting banged up in the first place.

Oh, and speaking of that mining site, Silv: To hell with it. To hell with the whole damned project. You know how many we’ve lost since it all started, while trying to access Drasti Prime’s microbial engine without it bursting through in unpredictable ways. But why?—that’s the real question. Why even bother trying to stabilize a colony on a planet that’s always trying to kill us or turn us into other species if we so much as step out of our zone?

Right, right, I know: Because of the Saludons. Because the Partnership needs to stake this claim, even if it kills us, just so it doesn’t automatically fall into the hands of a militia that assimilates whatever the hell it wants, when it wants it—and otherwise bides its time, looking down on free species with something between pity and contempt, because we haven’t proven worthy enough yet to engage it in battle, lose to it in battle, and be consumed by it in turn.

That moment out on Esh-land, Silv  . . . while thinking about Zeph, and Partnership geopolitics, and oh, just the futility of it all, I just wanted to storm over and clock the Saludon squad leader. Lucky, I guess, that FG still had me fast by the arm—but it was the Esh-cloud, really, that put me in my place. After both the Saludons and the Esh-cloud heard me talking to Manoush, the Esh-cloud switched to its freshly acquired Partnership Standard to boom at me, WHAT. WANT. TERRITORY. OURS. FLIMSY. FLESH.

And I just . . .

Stars, Silv, I just laughed. I mean—“Flimsy flesh!”

I’m not even kidding; that’s exactly what the Esh said. Now there’s one we could’ve used on nights when I was just feeling a little too beat to perform, eh?

And, oh, I was ready, Silv; I was going to give it a zinger of a retort for sure, but before I could answer, FG was trying out my voice again: its mushroom-flap of a mouth not quite matching its internal vocal patterns—as if it hadn’t quite connected how the human mouth related to speech—but still managing to produce sounds that were close enough.

“Need! Seedpod! Flightshell! Spaceshelter!” it said, like a rubbery version of me.

And blow me over a debris field, Silv, but that was the context I needed: A ship! FG wanted a ship!

But had it always been looking for a spaceship, or was this new? Had the stories I’d been telling it these past few days given poor old FG a case of wanderlust?

Maybe I’d broken it twice. That sounds like me, doesn’t it, Silv? First, I busted it at the moment of its conception, when it sprang into being as this . . . mess of emotional damage that couldn’t reintegrate with its colony after first contact with me. Bad enough, right? But then I go on encouraging the little weirdo to run off even further from everything it comes from, out from family and community into the distant stars. But to go—where, exactly? Where was Home?

The leader of the Saludon squadron had similar concerns. He flipped open his visor and asked, “What’d you do to that bit of Feru?” Reading my damned mind, Silv: just one more reason I can’t help but hate the whole, creepy lot of them.

“Nothing!” I said—which clearly wasn’t true.

“It just showed up outside our colony’s protective barrier, and I was sent to figure out what the hell it wanted.”—which, okay, sort of was.

But this last part confused the Saludon squad leader even more. “Why you? Did your leader want you to be replaced by a Feruvian replicant?”

And I laughed in spite of myself. “Ha ha—yeah, that’s what I said.” (More or less.)

“Maybe they were trying to get rid of an inferior soldier,” offered one of the other Saludons, pointing to me and then FG with his weapon. “Kind of a two-for-one.”

Which, oof, is also what Manoush and Zeph had said, pretty much.

Damn it, Zeph, I was also thinking at the time. You bio-chambered blockhead.

“Yes, that scans,” the squad leader agreed, before giving me a pitying once-over. “Do you want us to eliminate the replicant, or do have you enough self-sufficiency for that task?”

“No!” I said, startled.

And a pause descended on our ungainly grouping, before the second Saludon officer whispered to his leader, weapon raised: “Was that . . . ‘no’ to the first part, or to the second?”

“The first!” I snapped—though hell if I knew why I was resisting the offer. FG was wrapped so damned tightly around my wrist that I didn’t know if I’d ever get my arm back. But before I could explain, the Esh-cloud—clearly annoyed by all the clutter and non-Eshian cacophony—boomed at everyone: LEAVE!

And then it didn’t even wait for any of us to try to comply. With a furious plume of pent-up nebulous energy, the sentient storm blew me and FG—hard—out to the edge of its territory. In the direction, as it turned out, of the cliffs overlooking the centralized canyon.

The canyon in which the Spinners, mind you, come daily and horrifically to feed.

8

So, Silv . . .

I mean, obviously, I didn’t get eaten. I’m recording this, aren’t I?

(Not a fungal clone, ha ha! Although wouldn’t that be nice?)

And I promise, too, that I didn’t do any lasting damage to our relationships with the Feru, the Esh, and the Saludons—much as I’d still really like to with that last!

But soon after getting tumbled by an Esh-cloud over the edge of that cliff, there I was with FG wrapped around my wrist—FG, who had fluttered its fronds into a parachute as we descended—sitting dazed on the canyon floor with maybe a hundred different local species crawling and whirring and resting and feeding all around me.

It’s not a bad joint, Silv, that canyon, with its threads of ankle-high mist at the right times of the day, and its lush desert-styled vegetation . . . even if, okay, it is kinda weird that the Spinners chose not to allocate this property to any of us. Did our colonies really need a buffer to avoid a fight? Or did the Spinners just like having a core space from which to monitor us?

Boundaries are useful, though, I suppose—so if that is what this all is, I guess I should respect that. There’s been talk on our side, even, of creating a firmer barrier between our land and that of the Feru—and if that happens, crossing the canyon floor might eventually become the easiest point of travel between us. Way easier, I guess, than risking another idly paddling fool slipping from one territory to the next on a skiff, just to cause trouble for the neighbors.

But anyway, whatever its overall function in the grand, Drasti Prime scheme of things, for the moment, there I was, Silv—taking in the beauty of the canyon floor and listening to the keening of my fungal look-alike; and thinking about Zeph; and thinking about FG’s bewildering demand. A ship! Stars, Silv—no way would the Partnership let this Feruvian cast-off enter the service solo: at least not with so much still to be hashed out where basic interspecies treaties were concerned. But what other options were there? The Esh had no need for space-travel in a hard-shelled vessel, while the Saludons were pretty much always on standby for an excuse to kill and capture—definitely not in the business of ferrying tourists across the cosmos.

On alTspeaK forums, you know, tons of people seem to think that this solar-mech you’ve been studying might’ve helped with deep space travel. I know, I know, you’ve got other ideas, but you can see why they’re hoping for the transportation option, right? Because maybe cracking that mystery could take us to wherever the hell those ancient makers are hanging out now, and we could ask them to fix tons of our other problems, too. And besides, why not transportation? Where’s the evidence against it? That tech definitely wasn’t used to stabilize the sun’s growth cycle, like you thought on one of your first tours out, before you hit that first massive wall with your research.

I mean, no offense intended by that part, of course, Silv: You know how it goes, right? Sometimes the greatest triumphs we get in life come from eliminating nonviable possibilities. So I’m not saying it’s a flaw or anything that your guess didn’t work out, because . . .

Huh.

Yeah, we don’t ever talk much about your flaws, now do we, Silv?

And I guess that makes sense, because if you ask me, they’re only flaws in certain contexts. Like, as a researcher, you need that same perseverance. That ability to just keep at something even if it’s difficult, even if it’s hard, even if it’s just . . . you know . . . really wearing you down, and it might never amount to anything we’d call a success in the end. Even if you have a super-lousy setback, and that ancient solar-mech retaliates at your testing, and its blastwave knocks you so hard into a coma that you’re still taking your sweet time coming out of it weeks later, while the rest of your second-degree burns get hugely patched up.

What a scientist! they’ll say when you wake up, Silv. What an admirably driven Partnership officer, giving her all to one of the greatest cosmic pursuits: The desire not just to know, but also to connect. To make new and startling links where none existed before.

But that isn’t always the best trait elsewhere, is it, Silv?

Elsewhere like . . . in love . . . where it’s more like pure gambler’s fallacy: an addiction you can’t quite shake because you never really want to. All this pouring out of more time and energy and feeling . . . oh, especially feeling . . . into a well that’s sometimes just dry to the core, and will never ever give back the way you want it to.

The way most of us feel we deserve.

And, stars, Silv, you do deserve it, you know. You deserve a real chance at—I dunno where my metaphor’s going here; you’re the storyteller: Well-water? Love? Yeah, let’s just call it love—you deserve a real chance, Silv, at that thing with someone who doesn’t get all hung up over what they’re owed, and all the wounds that they desperately want acknowledged but definitely don’t want fixed up, because . . . because they’re too afraid that there’s nothing under them. That if you take away all their wounds you take away what makes them them, too.

Because, yeah, I’ve got my stories, and my reasons, Silv. We both know that much, at least—but this isn’t about either of those just now. This is about . . .

Oh, hell, Silv, it’s . . . about the sound of that waterfall, cascading down whole sides of the Spinner’s canyon in the right season, to converge in this valley where, just like the perimeter guard suggested, life always looks a bit simpler, and easier, and clearer: Eat and be eaten.

Live and copulate and rest and then die.

So I was hanging out down there, right? In the canyon where the Spinners feed, surrounded by all sorts of lizards and insects and arthropods that were just doing their thing without causing the same sort of grief that I always seemed to; and I was looking at this Feruvian cast-off that my mess of a first contact created, this look-alike that had its fronds wrapped so tightly around my arm while it begged for a ship—and all because of how I’d kept going on about my origin story when it and I had first met, and I’d told it that I just wanted to die; and I was thinking about how I’d been called back to base camp and really did need to go check in, to see how Zeph was doing, to see what Manoush needed . . .

When it hit me, Silv.

My man FG—he was right. Or, you know, it was right. The Feru was right.

Because the Partnership on whole? It’ll be fine, whatever happens—and the rest of the colony will figure out this mining situation eventually, and stabilize the microbial-engine shafts so that mining work can continue safely. And you? You’ll get out of that coma, your skin wholly regenerated and then some, and then I’m sure you’ll reveal that solar-mech’s secrets to the whole damned system. That’s just what driven people like you do, you know? You keep going forward.

But me—me, Silv?

Stars, Silv—

I think we both know it’s time I went home.

9

Picture this, Silv: Our good friend the sociopath, Keegler, would say that if a relationship’s just right, it’s no work at all—which is probably why his own relations always end the moment there’s discord, you know? Like, the moment there’s something off, he just gives up and moves on . . . which is not how plenty of couples figure it, but, hey, to each their own.

And yet, how weird is it that all of us—the Keeglers and the non-sociopaths alike—still act like both people in a relationship need to be present for the relationship to exist at all?

Like, if the Partnership walked away from Drasti Prime tomorrow—just, you know, cut its losses, left it to the Saludons, took its chances that this wouldn’t work against our side in the long run—Drasti Prime wouldn’t cease to exist, and the Saludons wouldn’t, either. Their outcomes, and ours, would still intersect no matter what. All we’d be doing, if we walked away, is deciding how much we can take, and how much we think we can control.

And when I made contact with the Feru in my messed up state half a standard back, I created a relationship that didn’t just stop when I went away, or even when I decided not to include it in the official report. Nah, my bad vibes had an impact long after that first run-in. I mean, this poor thing, Silv, this sentient Feruvian cast-off: After I’d left, it just kept struggling to replicate my behaviors and biochemistry so it could understand me, and reach out to me, and maybe help fix me. In a way, then, my trauma had become its trauma—so what else could the whole Feru do, as a spore-colony with its overall well-being to consider?

It did the only thing it could, really: The Feru cut out that hurting part of itself, the part that I’d unintentionally wounded, and it set that spore-form firmly to one side, to spare the rest of itself from living with that wild and erratic addiction to my trauma running through it all the time. But, also, it didn’t kill that part of itself—and why would it? The Feru’s a fungus, after all! Creating something new out of destruction is kind of its main gig.

And hey, true to form, FG’s still learning and growing, too—which is kind of neat, Silv, even if it does also put more direct responsibility on me than . . . well, than I think I’ve ever really admitted to having in my life. Even with you. Especially with you.

But also, Silv, because it replicates, adapts, and mirrors me so well, when FG latched on, I think I finally had a chance to see all the trauma I never could set aside on my own. All the shit that I carried with me from Doro to the River of Courage, and then from the River of Courage to Drasti Prime. All the trauma that I just laid and laid at your feet over the last few years, while calling that kind of separation, that compartmentalization, good enough.

It wasn’t good enough, Silv . . . but I hope you’ll grant me a little leeway here for all the muck ups to date, because it’s not as easy for a human to cut out parts of itself as it is for a fungus. And I guess that goes for relationships, too, because, I mean, the way I’ve acted, the way you’ve acted . . . There’s no complete severance here, is there? Not ever. For years we’ve reinforced things with each other that’ll always exist deep inside, no matter how the stars turn for us next.

You know, ever since the Feru were ‘discovered’ by the Partnership, alTspeaK forums have been going wild over the species’ dramatic way of mimicking and replicating to communicate, like that’s even something new. But it’s not, is it? It’s the same as we’ve always done: us, and plenty of other species, majorly sentient or not. Courtship is so often about mirroring each other’s movements that, to some extent, I guess our trauma has to be, too.

Anyway, that day in the canyon, still a bit dazed and confused and cranky with the Saludons for what they’d made the Partnership do, I looked up at the sound of that beautifully cascading water and saw a group of Spinners in Feru-masks lined up at the canyon’s edge, readying their blood-curdling shrieks before leaping to feed.

And I knew it’d be all right, Silv.

I knew that, after I got back to our compound, I was going to say my goodbyes to Mani and Zeph (who’s better now, by the way—you’ll see; he was only in the bio-chamber for a couple sols, lucky sod). I was going to say goodbye to all of Drasti Prime, too, and most of all—even if only through these audfiles—I was going to say goodbye to you. For good, Silv. The way I should’ve done the first time you tried to break from your researcher’s instincts and put up harder barriers with me. The way I never could bring myself to do before, though, because . . . because without you, who’d I be left with? Who’d I finally have to confront, out in the slim pickings of this whole damned Partnership frontier?

FG felt it, too: that transformation within me on the canyon floor, as hundreds of panicked critters scuttled and darted for shelter while those terrible arachnoid shadows surged overhead. And so at last my look-alike sighed, and released my arm, and more trustingly said: Home?

To which, well, yeah—

“Home,” I agreed.

Because I’d finally made the first contact I’d been putting off for years, Silv.

A lifetime, perhaps.

Stars, I hope I don’t mess this one up, too.

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This story is 9672 words long.

ISSUE 162, March 2020

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Clarkesworld: Year Eleven Volume One

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

M. L. Clark

Canadian by birth, M. L. Clark now calls MedellĂ­n, Colombia "home." Clark is the published author of science- and speculative-fiction stories in Analog, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, as well as in three year's best anthologies, among other publications. Other writing projects include poetry, reviews, essays (especially for a secular-humanist column at Patheos.com: "Another White Atheist in Colombia"), and a novel in the universe of "To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things" and "Leave-Taking."

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maggieclark.org

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