7080 words, short story
You are lucky. You were not born when the fires came.
But I was. I was just eight years old, then. Imagine!
For a long time, we knew the fires were coming. But they had been something only whispered of, something glimpsed on the horizon, something scented on the wind. They had remained unreal.
Then they were upon us with whipping winds, bursts of thunder, lightning strikes, and ashen rain. I see it as if I were still there: the rubble of the houses, the skeletons of roofs, the incinerated timber walls, the fields around us black as a sacrificial corpse.
We escaped in smoke and dust at dawn, beneath blood skies dark with pyrocumulus clouds. We scrambled into the caves, down the hundred stone steps we had hewn into our moon’s rock.
We were orderly until the end, disciplined: but in those final moments panic threatened to tear us apart.
Then, as we rowed out onto the underground lake, an eerie quiet came, a contrast from the apocalyptic roars of the outside world, the settlement swathed in smoke and fear. The only sound was that of oars in the water and the whimpering of the children. The only lights were the bow lanterns and their wavering rings on dark water.
My lungs hurt, and I could not stop crying. It was your grandmother who reached out to me, who dipped her hand into the sulfur-sweet water of Koh Ata, the Grandfather Lake, and made the circle of our moon on my forehead. She said: “This is sealing our memories and embracing the new.”
And her calm went into me, with the crescent arcs of her wetted finger on my flesh. With her words. Always, her words.
But you were not born then. And we are not here to speak of the fires. By the time the fires came, our fate had been decided.
That is what we are here to speak of. The day of that deciding.
It happened right here.
They had walked all day to get to this place—just a bend in the landscape where the river cuts deep into the hillside.
It took them longer than they expected. They arrived when it was already dark. Tired, they made a fire and cooked the evening meal.
I imagine them, green in the phosphor light of the huskfire: There was Kedriye, in her sixties, who had to limp here with her cane, her face strained with the effort of the journey. There was Himal, sitting expressionless and sweating. Her hands were gnarled by a strange arthritis, though she was only in her fifth decade. She would never admit to pain until it overtook her. There was Munire, the oldest among them at seventy. She had lost her mate that spring. She had been their doctor on the ship and was their doctor here on this moon. She looked at Kedriye and Himal, scanning their faces for signs of distress. When she found it, she scowled and muttered. And there was Taner, the last man of their generation. He was missing his left arm, lost in a fall years ago. It had been too badly broken to save, and Munire had to cut it off. Occasionally he winced, as if remembering.
These were the council’s oldest voices. Without them, no decisions could be made.
These four did not know it then, but the survival of their settlement depended on what they would decide here.
They waited for Sonay, your grandmother, to begin. She sat across the fire from them, as was tradition. They faced her like a crescent—like the moon Osman when it passes into the shadow of our home.
Their faces were more than simply tired from the day’s journey: They were faces lined by years of struggle. Faces creased with stress, drained by worry. These past few months had driven the lines on them deeper: These four had thought they finally knew our moon, our little world. They had thought, after decades, they had made it their home.
But then the moon had begun to change.
Their world was dying.
Sonay sat, waiting for the right moment to speak. She knew what was at stake. She knew that if she could not convince them of the truth, all of them would die. Not just those around the fire: everyone in the settlement. If she could not convince them, there would be no future generations here.
Everything depended upon the story she had to tell.
I know it is hard for you to imagine your grandmother young, but she was young then. They were all still young, that first generation born on our home, the children of the first settlers.
Sonay’s hand trembled as she cut the ploughfruit open, sinking the sickle blade of her folding knife into its skin. She twisted the halves, prying it apart. She held it up in the phosphor light of the flames.
“You all know the fruit and how it has changed. Here we have the husk, which looks much the same as it was, though darker now than in the past. And here is the pulp. It also looks much the same, but we know it is not. Its chemical composition is changed. Its smell is much stronger: The oils in the pulp and the husk have increased tenfold. The forest reeks of this oil. And then there is the seed itself.”
She drew the sickle blade through the membrane of the seed. The white dust poured out into her palm, glittering in the light of the huskfire.
“Certainly, you didn’t bring us this far just to show us this. This is not new. We have seen the sickness,” said Himal. “We know what it is caused by: this fungal rot has been invading the forest, more each year, for a decade now.”
Taner continued: “It was nowhere to be seen when we first came. Now it is everywhere, smothering the trees and the undergrowth, killing our crops. The balance is tilted. This year it infected the ploughfruit as well.”
“No,” Kedriye said. “It was here when we arrived. I remember it, down along the rivers. Sometimes so much of it that it would choke all life there, turn the banks into a waste.”
“We knew it was a menace then.” said Himal. “We should have destroyed it. Now we are paying the price. I was for destroying it—burning it with fire.” Others were not. She looked accusingly at Taner.
Every decision, your grandmother thought. They remember every decision that any of them has ever made on the council.
“How could we have known?” Taner asked. “It grew only there.”
“It started there,” said Himal. “And it could have been stopped there. But now it grows everywhere—and has sickened the trees of the forest as well.”
“Yes,” Sonay blew the seed dust from her palm. It swirled, lighter than ash, rising in the heat of the huskfire. Mist off a morning pond, frost on a stubble field, lovely and cold. “Now it grows everywhere. And you are right: the change in the fruit is caused by the fungus. But it is not a sickness. Not quite.”
They fell silent. Fear in their faces, thinking of the gray poison spreading in the forests. Fear as they watched the wraith of dust dissipate upward into the dark.
Good. She needed their fear.
“It is not a sickness. It is a defense.”
The ploughfruit had saved their lives. When the shuttles came down in fire, chaff-scattered over the hills, four out of five shattered and burned in the atmosphere, there were only thirty-four survivors. The soil on this moon was poor. It was blanched of nitrogen, low in biomass. Most of the land was forested, but the forests were not rich: they were nearly a monoculture, dominated by a single species of tree—the ploughfruit. A strange tree, different everywhere it grew. Alone, it could be thick trunked. It could grow wide, with a low crown, as if wanting to shade an entire meadow. When crowded together with its siblings, it grew tall and straight, with a narrow crown. It was a tree determined to spread: even among stones, in places at the edge of the forest where it should not be able to grow, it crawled along the ground, seeking purchase, seeking to extend the forest.
And the ploughfruit made a desert around itself. The settlers soon understood why so little grew on this moon: The trees pulled nitrogen from the ground with their wide-ranging roots and locked it away. With their tannins, they bleached the soil lifeless, alkaline. Murderous to all but their own kind, they created a forest where little could live but themselves and the chitinous, air-filtering polyps the trees seemed to tolerate in their crowns—the fungi the settlers called “forest clams.”
The trees bore a heavy, violet fruit in the heat season. The settlers’ botanist, Rengin, had collected this fruit, cut it apart under the crude microscopes she built, searching for anything the settlers could use. And the bitter fruit, large as a child’s fist, turned out to be good for many things. The tannin-laden pulp, boiled, could be made into an edible, protein-rich paste. The oily husks could be dried and burned for fuel: they gave off a clean, greenish flame, lasting hours.
But the core was what gave the ploughfruit its name. There, sealed behind the stony sarcophagus of its walls, was the nitrogen the trees had stolen from the soil. Crushed and ploughed under, the cores made our fields fertile. Rengin could then plant adapted wheat, a hardy corn, millets, and the longbean native to this moon, which the settlers found along the rivers where the ground was moist and more fertile.
The forest clams, too, were edible. They grew near the crowns of the trees and opened their chitin shells to the passing winds. Gathering them took skill in climbing, something Taner had been best at, bringing basket after basket of clams home for the settlement’s dinner.
Until his fall.
It was a hard life. They were haunted by memories of their dead friends. They squabbled, contending with one another over the smallest things. Their buildings were simple hovels, just roofs over their heads. Their food was a bland monotony.
But they were alive. And after a few years, there were children.
One of those children was your grandmother. She was daughter of Rengin the botanist and of Ozan, the writer, who died before he could see her face. She was inheritor of her father’s straight spine and smile, of his stories. Inheritor, too, of her mother’s scientific mind. And of her knowledge.
Munire watched the strange, dead ash of the seed spiral up into the darkness. “A defense?”
“Yes. But it is dark now, and we are all tired.”
You notice she did not say you are all tired. She did not draw a line between her youthful self and their age. She did not want them to think of themselves as two generations around the fire, in skeptical conflict. She wanted them to think of themselves as one. A single group. A unified whole.
Her every word mattered. Because they would have to act as one, if they were going to survive. “We should sleep now. And at dawn, I will finish my story. But I will not only tell you: I will show you.”
Because you need to believe, she said to herself. Because I must make you believe, or we will die.
Did any of them sleep well that night? I do not think so. Your grandmother lay awake worrying, wondering if she was up to the task before her. What of the others? There had been a time in their lives when they had wandered, gathering fruit and clams, or searching for the underwater nests of river eel. Or simply to be away from the settlement. They had wandered in groups, in pairs or alone, for the joy of it.
But as they grew older, and the pains piled up, and the injuries, and the illnesses, they had stayed closer to home and their beds. Many of them had not slept away from the settlement, on the hard ground, for years.
Were they happy to be there, out again in the wild? Or were they consumed by joint-ache, miserable, longing for their beds? I think if they were happy, it kept them awake. And if they were not, that kept them awake as well.
Deep in the middle of the night, your grandmother left her tent. The huskfire was a scattering of beryl motes on the ground. In the sky hung a sliver of Osman and the ruby bead of the planet Dilruba, dead in its iron dust.
The settlers had named many of the stars in honor of their own dead, and your grandmother whispered all she knew. She imagined, as she had as a child, that they watched her from up there. She felt an urgency in their light. Save them, the stars seemed to say. Make them understand.
“Beyhan, Fadime, Perran, Feyda . . . ” she whispered. “How will I live without the sight of you all?”
Just after dawn, she again climbed from her tent. The sound of the river was enough to drown out any noise she made. Still, she was quiet. She crossed the small footbridge she had made to her research station. It was just a shed where she kept a few tools sheltered from the elements, and a table. Carefully, she placed ploughfruit out on the table. She laid out several forest clams. She took the microscope from the shed. She had built it herself, from her mother’s plans, from copper tubing she had traded a good deal for and lenses even more dear from the workshop of Himal’s son. She was proud of it: It was one of only three that had ever existed here. It was both a tool of science and a work of art.
You have seen it? Good. Then you have seen history.
On oiled paper she spread out samples of soil from the face of the hillside. She arranged all this on the table, then rearranged it. She was so absorbed in her task she did not hear Munire coming up behind her.
“None of them are well, but I worry most about Himal,” Munire said.
It was Munire’s habit to simply open her mouth and say what she was thinking. Her speech lacked both greetings and goodbyes. It was a stream of internal dialogue she sometimes allowed others to share in. “She was up most of the night with her pain. I have nothing for her but numbroot. No diagnosis: the swelling attacking her joints could be a virus, a poison, a fungal infection. I don’t know. I have knowledge I took from another planet. Some of it fits here. Most does not.” She ran a finger over the cold copper tube of the microscope. “This is a nice instrument. I often imagine what I could have done for all of us if I had my laboratory and my portable clinic. But all of that was scattered and burned. Along with so many of our friends.”
Along with so many of our friends. The settlers who had died in the initial crashes haunted everyone—even those who had not been born when they were struck down.
Munire looked into the river for a moment, at the light on the water or nothing at all. “This journey has been very difficult for Himal, but she seems to trust you, the way she trusted your mother. I hope you will earn that trust.”
But I doubt it. The words, unsaid, hovered in the bright air like a sixwing hunting its prey.
Sonay shifted her samples on the table and sliced through the skin of one of the ploughfruit, laying it open in two halves. She wanted to say to Munire that it was not her fault: Himal’s illness, the loss of her laboratory in the scattering, all the people who she could not save, first in the crashes and then over the decades here—including her mate, Refik, who had bled from his eyes as he died, wept his own blood as Munire wiped it away with a cloth, never able to find the cause of what killed him.
Saying all of that, trying to comfort her, would just anger her.
Instead, without looking up, Sonay said: “Taner seems to get along fine without his arm.”
Munire scowled. “He was always lazy. Now he has an excuse. Listen,” she caught Sonay’s wrist and squeezed it, hard. “You had better know what you are doing. This little adventure, which I was against, could cost Himal or Kedriye their lives. I hope you’ve at least thought of that.”
Across the river the others were getting out of their tents. Himal came last, crumpled with pain, stumbling, helped by Taner and Kedriye. Munire let go of Sonay’s wrist and crossed the bridge to her aid.
Sonay watched the pressure-band of white fade from the flesh of her wrist. Then she covered her samples with clay bowls and went to light the morning fire.
She cooked the morning meal herself—ploughfruit flour flipcakes, spiced with the scarlet mint-polyp one could find on stones near the edge of running water, and strong mugs of kehve.
It was quiet, except for the constant sound of the river: the water had hollowed out a small gorge, and the light reached its bottom late, leaving dew on the lichen. There were only a few ploughfruit trees, low and twisted among broken stones.
There was no fungus here yet, no gray blight. It felt that morning as if there never would be. The five of them ate their cakes sleepily. Taner told a few jokes. Laughter made them all seem younger.
But Himal’s hands around her mug were skewed and bent, deformed by the swelling of her knuckles. Her lips and chin were stained umber with numbroot. Kedriye’s cane rested against a stone beside her. Taner balanced his plate carefully, cutting the flipcakes with his fork, his mug of kehve clenched between his thighs. Reminders of pain and experience—which often, in this life, are the same.
Before the last plate had been scraped clean, Munire stood up and wiped her hands on her pants.
“Whatever we’re here to see, Sonay, let’s see it. We have a long way back to the settlement and none of us with good knees but you.”
Drawing a line between us.
But Taner stood up gracefully, somehow managing mug and plate with his one hand, and grinned. “I’m missing a joint or two, but my knees, thank you very much, are still all right.”
“Good,” Himal said, grinning wide enough to show a missing bicuspid. “You can carry my pack then. I don’t have a good joint left in my body. Help us up, Sonay.”
Now together again. Thank you, Himal.
They crossed the bridge.
Sonay stood behind the table, with the wall of earth behind her. She removed the covering bowls from the samples.
“If you don’t look too close, this wall of earth behind me looks uniform. It appears much the same from top to bottom. But if you come closer, you will see it is not so: The wall is, in fact, composed of layers of earth quite different from one another. The river has cut away at the hillside here, revealing a record of this moon going back thousands of years. Each age is recorded in one of these bands of dirt. You can see the difference in their color with the naked eye, and the differences in their composition under the microscope.”
She looked at each face. Kedriye, Himal, and Taner were listening closely. Munire, she saw, was just waiting to speak. She pushed on.
“These thickest layers, like in this sample, medium in color, are the soil much as we knew it when we came: nitrogen-poor, low in biomass. The ploughfruit trees are leaching the nitrogen from the soil and storing it in their fruit, as we saw. With no human intervention, the soil grows progressively less productive as these layers build up. The core of the ploughfruit, impenetrable, nearly impervious to rot, locks the nitrogen away. New humus is slowly laid down by dying plants and trees, but the ploughfruit trees leach its minerals away. The situation, for a good deal of time, remains static—at least where the trees are. But then something tilts the balance. In each case it could be something different, but I think in general it is a slight rise in temperature, a natural variation in the cycle. Once the balance is altered, the shift comes quickly—over just a few years, at the most a decade, the composition of the soil changes. We see a swift increase in nitrogen and a corresponding increase in biomass. Here is a sample of this soil: darker, richer.”
“Why wouldn’t the ploughfruit trees take up the extra nitrogen?” This was Munire, probing.
“They do continue to take up nitrogen, for a while. But eventually there is too much nitrogen in the soil for them to absorb.”
“But how would that happen?” Again, Munire.
Sonay walked to the wall and carefully scraped a spoonful of earth from a layer which, when examined closely, did appear darker than those around it.
She brought it to the table and smeared a bit of it on a glass slide.
“You’ll see what I saw: cellular structures in the soil, in these dark layers. They match the structures of the fungus we’ve seen spreading everywhere. This gray blight moves along nitrogen pathways. The higher the levels of nitrogen, the more it thrives and advances. This is the pattern we are witnessing ourselves: the fungus was at first only visible near the streams, away from where the ploughfruit thrive, sheltered in the riparian microclimate, where the more fertile soil is full of nitrogen released from the bodies of river eel and decaying plant life, away from the alkalized soil of the forest. But once the fungus hit our fields, which we had fertilized with the nitrogen captured in the ploughfruit seeds, it rushed across them, smothering our crops. And then it began its march into the forests themselves.”
“Poisoning the trees,” Himal said.
“No. Not poisoning them. Not quite. But causing a reaction. An extreme one.”
When your great-grandmother Rengin died, it was of fever. Your grandmother Sonay was just fifteen then—but a precocious fifteen, absorbing everything her mother could teach her. In those days you would have seen them together everywhere, alike as two drops of water, always in conversation.
The settlement was devastated by Rengin’s passing: she was a friend to everyone. And so, to honor her in a way, the entire settlement became foster parent to Sonay. She moved restlessly from hut to hut, living with everyone and with no one permanently. But people speculated that perhaps Himal was the one she loved most—she could be found in Himal’s hut at least every ninthday, cooking the morning meal, learning Himal’s kehve techniques. And when Himal’s joints began to swell, Sonay began helping around the house.
She lived now and then with Kedriye as well, and even spent a few days in Munire’s house, but Munire was impatient, and shooed her off when she began to annoy her with questions.
Those times were different: the settlement was so small that everyone was wound together in a single fabric. It was not like today, when there are many settlements, and we are scattered far from one another, keeping our secrets and developing our differences. We speak of trust, but in those times they did not need trust: they all knew everything about one another—every foible, every fault. Trust is for strangers.
Sonay continued: “We see this reaction to the fungus now: the oils in the husk and pulp increase, rendering the husk too flammable for a good fire, and the pulp inedible. But the strangest change is in the core: The hard shell of the core changes, becoming this greasy membrane. Inside, there is now no nitrogen. Instead, we get this new substance, like sand or ash.”
“Which you find in the next layer of soil,” interrupted Munire.
“No. The next layer of soil is this one.”
“Black.” Taner interjected. “Yes: I can see it there, in thin lines in the hillside, once you know what to look for. Black like tar.”
“Not tar,” Sonay said. “Carbon. The forests burn.”
“Of course they do.” Munire was rubbing some of the sample between thumb and forefinger. The earth smeared and stained like charcoal. “Every year, there are fires. It’s not unusual. These bands just prove there were fires in the past.”
“No—the fires we have seen are not like this—these fires consume everything. The ploughfruit trees don’t just burn, as in a normal year: The increased oil in their husks, pulp, and bark vaporizes. They explode. This layer of soil is not the trace of a simple forest fire—it is evidence of an inferno—one that has occurred again and again on this moon. One that can start at any moment—today, tomorrow, or in a month—as soon as the right storm comes and lightning strikes the first tree it will set off a chain reaction that will consume the forests and anything else in its way.”
“The forest burns itself to save itself from the fungus,” Kedriye said. “Like a fever, heating the body to kill a virus that cannot survive at the higher temperature. Burning it away.”
The four followed her to the face of the cliff, watched her scrape with a probe at the gray layer above the black, smear the earth with her fingers.
“My mother taught me many things. Not only about the plants she knew here, but of the plants of Earth, as well.”
“Plants that mean nothing to us.” Munire wiped a finger along the gray strip in the earthen wall. “Plants you will never see.”
“Yes. Plants I will never see. Each with a story to tell. My mother said . . . ”
“Plants from under a star whose light has never fallen upon your face.”
“Let the girl finish,” Himal interjected.
“She is not a girl anymore,” Taner said. “We need to stop thinking of this generation that way. Some are almost as old as we were when we arrived.”
“Well, then let the woman finish. Whatever word you like. Either way, everyone should just shut up.”
“Finish, then.” Munire said.
“She taught me their stories, because each of those stories is a possibility. A way we can think about things here. We take what we know, what we understand, and we compare it to what we see before us. In this way, we use the old knowledge to solve new problems. This is analogy—and it is the fire of all new knowledge. This is how we learn: by learning the properties of one thing and then comparing that thing to others. It is the fire of all thought.”
“The fire of all thought. Poetic. That sounds more like your father.” Munire was scowling, rubbing the dirt between her fingers.
“Maybe it does. I wouldn’t know. But I know he believed the same. He believed all stories were just new ways of referring to other stories. Links that went back to the first stories told around the first campfires, and before. He thought the writer’s art was that: to join the present to the past and the future. I followed my parents’ way of thinking—using analogy to find connections. That is how I know our world is about to end.”
Munire had knocked them off balance for a moment, but now Sonay watched their faces turn back to her. Fear. Yes. They felt it themselves. Now she had said it out loud: our world is about to end. And there again in their faces was the fear she needed them to have.
She continued: “On Earth there is a tree called the eucalyptus.”
“If there even is an Earth anymore,” Munire said.
“For the sake of time if nothing else,” Kedriye snapped, “cease these interruptions.”
Munire scowled at the cliff wall as if it, and not Kedriye, had spoken.
Sonay went on. “The eucalyptus produces an oil in its leaves. A natural insecticide. But the oil is also highly flammable: When the forests catch fire, the vapor will often cause the trees to explode. The eucalyptus forests burn hot. The other tree species are so damaged by the fires that they often never grow back. But the eucalyptus comes back. It is fire-resistant, sprouting again years later.
“I thought of the eucalyptus, and of the ploughfruit, and how they might be similar. How there might be an analogy there. And that was when I knew what would happen here. The fire in the forest would kill most of the fungus in the forest, yes. But that is only the beginning. The trees explode, and so does their fruit—and what is in that fruit is driven into the atmosphere. Whole forests of ploughfruit, each tree bearing hundreds of fruit, each fruit filled with millions of these grains. Here—you can see it, if you look closely.”
They leaned in as she smeared the moist, gray layer of clay on a sheet of glass. And all of them could see it glittering there: the white silicate that had floated ghostlike in the fire, whirling its way upward into the night.
“The fires will start in the early days of the heat season, when lightning strikes the forest. They will start, most likely, in several places at once. The same as other years. The same, but not the same: This time, the fires will build momentum, not burn themselves out. The vaporizing oils of the ploughfruit trees will cause them to explode, adding heat to the inferno. Carrying it farther. The fires will link up with one another. Where there are gaps in the forest, their sparks will cross those gaps, and start new fires. Soon, the whole moon will be burning.”
See it. See the forests burning. Believe it.
“Then the next phase will begin. This ‘ash’—these white silicate structures. You remember the way, last night, they rose in the heat of the fire? That is because they are each shaped like a little spiral wing, built to find, uplift, and rise, higher and higher. Billions upon billions of them will rise this way. The winds from the fires will drive the silicate wings high into the atmosphere. And there, high up, a white shield in the stratosphere, they will block much of the light of our star, reflecting it out and away from us, reducing our moon’s albedo—like volcanic ash did on Earth.”
“Again Earth,” Munire muttered to herself.
“Again interrupting,” growled Kedriye.
“This layer is saturated with silicate,” Taner said.
“Yes. And with not much else. The organic compounds in the soil decrease to almost nothing. The invasive fungus is gone, as are traces of most life. The temperature drop caused by the silicate in the atmosphere is probably several degrees. The invasive fungus thrived on a rise in temperature and rich soils. We accelerated the process of its creep forward into the forests when we ploughed nitrogen back into our fields. Once the fungus advanced across the fields and into the forest, the cycle began.
“The gray fungus is powerful: along the leading edge of its advance, plants wither and die—before it has even reached them. And as they die, they release nitrogen back into the soil. It builds its own road. But how? Again, analogy. My mother told me of a fungus on Earth, Laccaria bicolor—the bicolored deceiver. When there is a lack of nitrogen, it releases a toxin into the soil that poisons all the tiny organisms. They die and release the nitrogen tied up in their bodies.”
“Becoming fertilizer for the invader,” said Kedriye.
“Yes. And our fields are filled with small insects, burrowers, and gnawers looking to feed on our crops, come up from their riparian ecosystem into the newly fertile areas we have created. The gray fungus builds a road into the forest by killing them and feeding on their corpses. The same way it has been doing for eons. As the moon warms, slight climate shifts give the fungus the foothold it exploits. Just a trend in the natural cycle of warming and cooling, miniscule but enough. Here in this cliff’s records, these cycles are hundreds of years apart. But the last one this moon saw was only ninety years ago. Nowhere else in the record does the shift occur so quickly.”
“Unintentionally, we have caused this.” Taner said, looking up from his examination of the gray layer under the microscope.
“We can’t have.” Munire, too, was now looking at the smear of glittering, ashen clay on the glass. “That’s ridiculous. We number in the dozens. We only live on one small part of this moon. How could we affect the entire moon with a few struggling farms?”
“It seems impossible,” Sonay said, “but that is because what we see is only a part of the story. Our part. The real story on this moon—the one we unwittingly have become a part of—this war. A war fought in slow motion, over millions of years, between two species. A war that has escalated to a scale that encompasses even the atmosphere, even the climate of the moon itself. But it is not a war between the ploughfruit and the gray fungus. It is, in fact, a war between two species of fungus. And one wields the ploughfruit as its weapon.”
“How can that be?” Munire picked up one of the ploughfruit from the table. For a moment, Sonay thought she was going to throw it at her.
So much anger.
But your grandmother knew people well—as well as she knew her plants, or better. All her life, since the tragedy of the crash, Munire had sought to understand this moon, sought to understand it so she could save her friends. She had eked out knowledge, struggling over decades. Enough to save some people. But not enough to save her mate, or many others she had cared for. And now, even what little she had gained was slipping away. Now she watched the world change and saw how much she did not know about any of it—how futile her own searches for understanding had been.
It was not anger that ate away at Munire: it was fear. Fear she did not, in fact, understand anything at all. Fear she could help no one.
“The ploughfruit are the dominant tree in the forest. They alkalize the soil, capture nitrogen. They trap the nitrogen in their pits, surrounding it with a stony shell that doesn’t decompose, making it useless to the environment around them. With nothing to fertilize growth, competitors die. This reduces competition and allows them to thrive.”
“That is how it appears, yes.” Sonay took the fruit from Munire gently, placed it back on the table with the others. “But we don’t see the whole story. Because we have not been looking in the right place. My mother talked often of fungus: the forest clams are a fungal polyp, with shells made of chitin—the same material fungus uses for its cell walls, even on Earth. And have you noticed that everywhere we go in the forest—all over this moon—the clams are the same?”
“I noticed,” Taner said. “I searched a long time for variety among the forest clams, but I never found it. No matter how far I walked.”
“Exactly,” said Sonay. “But why? I thought about this for a long time. And then I remembered what my mother had told me about something on Earth.”
“Your mother,” Munire began, but a warning look from Kedriye silenced her.
“What is the largest creature on Earth?” Sonay directed the question at all of them, but was looking at Munire.
“If Earth even exists anymore . . . ”
“The largest creature. What is it?”
Munire shrugged. “On land, most likely the elephant. In the sea, the blue whale.”
“Wrong,” Sonay said. “You’re wrong. Those are the largest animals. But the largest creature on Earth is a clonal colony of Armillaria solidipes, commonly called the honey fungus. It covers an area of ten square kilometers, and when our colony left Earth it was already over nine thousand years old.”
Sonay picked up a forest clam from the table, opening its chitinous shell.
“The clams look slightly different from one another, varying by phenotype depending on how and where they grow. But we know they are the same species.”
“And good with spaghetti,” Taner added.
Sonay smiled. “I think if we could look at their genome, we would discover they are not only a single species: I think, if we had the ability to test them properly, we would find they are genetically identical—the polyps of a single fungus, whose network is spread throughout the forests of this entire moon. Everywhere I dig in the forest, the threads of this fungus permeate the soil. They encase the root tips of every ploughfruit tree and extend in all directions. As far as I have wandered, every ploughfruit appears chained to this fungal system. And I don’t think the forest clams are its fruiting bodies the way mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of underground fungi on Earth: Not quite. The forest clams contain no spores at all. They release nothing. They are structured not like a fungus on Earth, but more like a filter-feeding animal, folded and flanged to capture passing air.
“I think they are, in fact, a warning system. They are tasting the air, trying to detect the chemical signature and spores of the gray fungus. And once they do, once they sense enough of it, the fungus releases a set of chemical commands that alters the way the ploughfruit behaves—changes the trees’ entire cycle. The ploughfruit stops storing nitrogen. It begins, instead, to take up silica from the soil and weave the tiny white flakes in the pits of its fruit. It increases its oil production so that it will burn better. It begins to release a flammable aerosol into the air around its leaves, waiting for the lightning. And while it is doing all of this, it is also preparing to shut down: all but an area in the ball of its root, where it will store nutrients under the soil so that after it unleashes its deadly payload into the atmosphere, and the planet turns cold and infertile, it can hibernate through the long winter it has created.”
Now your grandmother pauses a moment. Here, in this space of silence, is the turning point. She has told them what she knows: now she must convince them to act. It is not enough that they know: They must be made to use that knowledge. They must believe it so deeply they will change everything about the way they have lived. These four, the oldest and most respected members of the council, must believe the story so completely they will tell it to everyone else. And those people too must accept it and change. All of this must happen if this little society is to survive what is to come.
She waits for the question. It is Kedriye, finally, who asks it:
“How long do we have?”
“Perhaps as little as a day—in which case none of this matters. Or maybe a few years, if we are lucky. Time enough to prepare, if we have the will to do so. If we can convince the others.”
“It’s not long enough,” Himal said.
“It will have to be,” Sonay said. “There isn’t any chance it will be longer than that.”
“Perhaps, if we worked together. If we stopped our bickering, and we focused on this one thing, it would be enough time,” Kedriye said.
“We’ll never convince the council,” Taner said. “It will all just go round and round, as usual, with factions and bickering.”
“And nothing done,” Himal added.
Another long silence.
Your grandmother faltered, then. She told me this: she lost faith in herself, in them. She was certain she had failed.
But then Munire spoke, turning her back to the earthen wall, the hieroglyph of war.
“I will convince them. I’ve lost so many, over these years. I’m not losing any more of you.”
You know the rest: In the end, Munire spoke before the council, and she did convince them. The settlement had a year and a half to prepare. They stockpiled and built shelters in the caves under ground. They collected fuel and processed food. They cleared the forests away from the settlements, and from the mouths of the caves where they would spend the long winter.
It was hard work. But in the end, when the fires began, covering almost the entire surface of our moon, driving the ash into the sky, the settlers were ready enough.
The winter was long and difficult. Later we called those years “The Years of Eating Paste.” But we lived through them, and now we are greater in number than we were.
And we learned the story of this moon and how to live within that story: We learned to destroy the gray fungus when we see it. We learned to surround our fields with a strip of alkalized earth, to keep it away from our crops, and not feed the cycle anew. The natural cycles of the moon will continue, of course. But not, at least, due to our actions.
All of this is because of Sonay, your grandmother. We lived because of her power to listen, to compare, to learn. And then to teach others, to make them believe.
Without her, there would be no us.
And that is why we are here, you and I, in this place—this bend in the landscape where the river cuts deep into the hillside. This is where she saved our world. This is where she wanted to rest, forever.
Take a handful of earth from the hillside, there. You can see the bands of earth yourself, can’t you? If you look closely and know the story, that is.
That’s it. Now scatter it over her shroud. She loved you and would have wanted you to have the honor.