Steam Tree (2012)


This story I wrote in 2012. It was nearly picked up by a couple of magazines, but wasn’t quite right for them. What do you think?

Thomas withdrew the drill from the rock face, pulling out the long bit carefully so as not to break it. “Always rushing, always rushing! Take it slow,” Fischer’s ghost said.

How many times had Fischer told him that?

“You take no care of anything, you are careless! How many drillbits do you think we have? You have broken two in the last six weeks!”

Fischer was no longer with him, of course. Thomas’s ears rang only with the noise of the drill, not Fischer’s scolding. His voice was forever stilled, absent from anywhere but Thomas’ imagination.

Fischer was gone, but there were still too many Germans on this planet; so organised, so pompous, always on his case. No doubt they would be back on his case as soon as he returned to town.

In the back of Thomas’ head, Fischer’s ghost made a noise of disgust.

Thomas pulled his goggles up. He was in the shade of the butte, and the air was always cold in this latitude, but the drill was heavy and hard to operate and he was sweating. He wiped perspiration and dust from his face. He risked pulling the filter from his mouth and nose to scratch at the grit caught beneath the seal. He considered taking it off altogether. There were not many plants up here, and consequently, surely, a low allergen count? The mask and goggles were uncomfortable wear for manual labour, but Fischer’s voice harangued him. He pulled the sniffer from his belt, and swiped its screen to bring up the allergen counter. He grunted in reluctant agreement with Fischer’s ghost. He let the mask snap back into place, and pulled his goggles back down.

He blinked. His eyes itched from that one brief exposure. Damn planet. The proteins produced by the local life provoked reactions in nearly all of the colonists. The ones that weren’t affected kept it quiet, but Thomas had seen them sometimes, breathing the air freely and walking about unmasked when they thought they weren’t being watched. They were right to be so secretive, it made his blood boil with envy; he doubted any of the others afflicted would look upon them with any more generosity of spirit.

Thomas took another antihistamine, and waited for the itching to subside. When his eyes stopped watering he bent and fished the sniffer’s probe out of the box behind him. The sniffer was a multi-purpose tablet, but Thomas used it mainly for sniffing, so sniffer is what he called it.

The machine had given him a greater than seventy per cent chance of a palladium-rich copper seam in the scarp. Water samples from the piss-thin trickles that passed for streams on this dry world had drawn him to this area and the butte. The geology was harder to gauge, the planet was less dense than Earth, with a different base chemical composition and a weirdly erratic hydrology, but after five months of prospecting, Thomas liked to think he was figuring it out. The outcrop, a porphyritic intrusion standing proud over compacted loess, looked promising to his eyes.

“Still, sniffer, got to let you have a little smell. Got to be sure,” he muttered to himself. His voice was loud and muffled behind the mask. The sound of it was grating in the silence, and he wondered when he’d started talking to himself.

He shook his head, attached the sniffer’s probe, and pushed it into the rock.

The machine made its binging noise, an irritating synthetic chime that brought a smile of triumph to his face. “Heh, you’re not the only one with a good nose, eh sniffer?”

“You shouldn’t be up here on your own,” Fischer’s ghost said angrily. “You should have gone back to town and got a new partner. It is against regulations to work alone, you know that. You should have gone back to town.”

Thomas shook it off, he didn’t need a partner. Screw regulations and the pompous Germans behind them. He was self-sufficient, wasn’t he? He didn’t need any help. He could do it all by himself, as the sniffer’s merry binging adequately proved.

Central Authority would require a decent sample to back up his readings and all the eco-assessment that went with it before they’d grant a mining license. He reckoned at least that the eco all-clear wouldn’t be a trouble. The sniffer had already given him a conditional permit. If it were good enough for test blasting, it was good enough for extraction; that was the way, in his experience. The landscape was hostile, badlands, an endless succession of crumbling, chest-high ridges carved sharp by flash flooding. He’d seen about three weedy plants crawling about in the past week out here. No problem.

Time to get the explosives.

As Thomas scrambled out from behind the butte, the sun hit him. The warmth through the cold air reminded him of home, sitting content on his parents’ living room floor, surrounded by his siblings. The air was always cold in his parents’ house on the hills, like here, the wind blasting around the outside kept it that way right into summer. But by the fire it was always warm, and the five of them sat in a semi-circle, laughing as they bated one another, or in companionable silence.

He missed home. He always had, ever since he had left, heading from the hills to the south coast, to the city where the work was. Always he’d intended to go back, always, but he hadn’t, convinced he had to prove he could do it, that he could make it on his own in his own way and on his own terms.

He’d been asking himself why for a long time now.

What was the imperative that drove people away from their roots, that put them alone in cities they did not know and that did not know them? In later years, he’d come to envy those who had stayed put, the ones he used to sneer at, those who, as the years progressed, prospered amid the support networks of old friends and family. He realised he’d never been more content than those times he sat in that room, warm on one side, chilled on the other, surrounded by the familiar scent of his own family. It was an animal thing, a sense of belonging he’d taken for granted and found nowhere else.

By the time he’d figured this out, it had been too late.

“Hah!” said Fischer’s ghost. “You think so parochially! You are so… agricultural. Where would we be, if our ancestors had not wandered about, left home, moved on? Cowering in Africa, running away from lions, that’s where! Only farming made us stick. Our natural state is motion.” He was a devil’s advocate by habit, Fischer. Or least he had been. Being dead hadn’t lessened his opinionated nature.

“Shut up, Fischer,” growled Thomas. He was growing tired of the man’s constant disagreement. When Fischer had been alive, Thomas had found it impossible to tell if he genuinely believed what he said, or if the older man had spoken this way to goad him. All of it delivered in that patronising manner the German colonists had, as if they were so damn perfect.

He stamped on this train of thought. His internal monologues were worrying him. He was lonely, that was all, but Thomas knew that loneliness led to madness. Human beings were conditioned for society. Thomas’ affected misanthropy aside, he knew that applied as much to him as the next man.

He’d go back into town. Once he had his samples. Living voices and company would shut Fischer up for good.

“You should have returned when I died,” complained Fischer.

Thomas ignored him. He ran down into the next gulley, yellow dust billowing behind him, over the dry bottom, back up the other side. Gravity was slightly stronger here than Earth, but he’d got used to it and moved easily, made fit by the rigours of outdoor life.

He stopped dead.

He wasn’t the only one sniffing around.

Dampfbaum.

Steam tree.

The tree swayed as it shuffled along a gulley. Thomas instinctively ducked back, peering at it over the ridge. All the organisms here had German names, as you’d expect, there being so many Germans on the planet. “Dampfbaum” suited this organism very well. It was a very German kind of tree, thought Thomas, very neat and symmetrical. He could see the Dampfbaum’s five sponge-like flower leaves, set singly on right-angled branches and space equally around its circumference. The tree’s gross stamen bobbed in the middle of the ring of its odd foliage, protruding up from the hollow trunk. The wriggling rootacles that dragged it along as it searched out its prey were hidden to him.

Prey was not strictly accurate. The Dampfbaum did hunt in a manner of speaking, only not for food. It roamed slowly in search of the planet’s single large animal, the Pferdratte, a rodentine thing the size of a pony. The tree tracked the animals’ family groups until close enough to sidle up to one, where it would lick at the beast with its twitching stamen, while dousing it with a cloud of pollen that gushed, steam-like, from its flower-leaves. What the Pferdratte got out of it was anyone’s guess, but they stood politely as the trees lapped away at them and dressed them with sex, uncomplaining at their use as surrogates.

Unfortunately, the tree could not tell the difference between a human being and a Pferdratte. From an objective point of view, the tree was blameless, it wasn’t their fault that the pollen clouds were about the most allergenic thing for human beings on a planet crammed with allergens. Anaphylaxis was the immediate result for a colonist caught in the pollen clouds, mask or not. Death usually followed.

Thomas bit at his upper lip as he considered the situation. The tree was close to his truck, but its flailing roots did not give sufficient purchase for it to clamber over the ridges between the gullies, and so it would be forced to plod around the maze to get near him.

He watched its wobbling progress, flower-leaves swaying as it went.

If he ran, did the whole operation quickly, he’d have time to blow the rock, grab a couple of samples, get on his truck and get the hell out.

“Don’t be a fool!” said Fischer’s ghost.

Thomas admitted it was risky. The steam trees tracked movement. The small staff of colony scientists didn’t know much about their biology as yet; mainly because of the risk in approaching them, so how the trees did this was not clear. Perhaps they found meaning in air currents, or maybe they sensed electrical impulses like Earth’s sharks. But their odd ability had become readily evident soon after landing, when the plants started shuffling in their comical, embarrassed way after the very first surveyor teams, sometimes alone, sometimes in small copses, like so many dirty old men trailing pretty girls in a park.

He would have to be quick, Thomas thought, but only quicker than a steam tree, and that wasn’t very quick at all.

He pushed himself up and over the ridge, and slithered into the next gulley. He ran fast along the bottom. He kept his head down, out of sight of the tree. If this was in any way effective in hiding him, he had no idea. He reached the edge of the gulley, and risked a quick look.

The steam tree had stopped. Its flower-leaves swayed, its single stamen erect, tasting the air. It shuffled around – damn the things were ridiculous – this way and that, and then recommenced its slow progress forward, albeit ever-so-slightly faster.

Thomas scrambled up the small bluff where his truck was parked. A six wheeler, body held high off the ground, cab armoured against who knew what else might be out here. He hurried round the back and flicked aside the canvas door flap into the tarp-covered flatbed.

The truck was gloomy. It was quite easy to ignore Fischer’s corpse, mummified in bright yellow plastic at the back. He spared it a glance as he pulled the explosives box toward himself. He’d not know what had killed Fischer until he got back to town, but he was pretty sure it was a heart attack.

It was funny, in a way, coming all this way to an alien world against mighty odds, only to be laid low by something so mundane. Thomas was sure Fischer would have preferred a more exotic end, but he probably saw the humour in it. He had had a black sense of the comic.

“We all have to die sometime,” snapped Fischer’s ghost. “Idiot.”

He should have gone back to town as soon as it had happened. Too late now.

Thomas keyed in the code to the box. The lid popped, revealing a dozen sticks of low-yield explosive in cut-foam cavities. He picked up a detonator dot with the dab of his forefinger, where it adhered to the sweat of his skin. He shut the box with his elbows, and made to go. He paused. He placed the stick of explosive down carefully on the metal deck of the flatbed, pulled out the medical kit and stuffed a handful of epinephrine auto-injectors into his pocket to supplement the one all of them, by Central Authority dictat, carried. He scooped up the stick and hurried back around the truck to the gulley.

The steam tree was fifty metres off, waddling away from him, trying to feel a route out of the maze.

Thomas ran with the stick of explosive tucked under one arm, the detonator dot held out before him on his outstretched finger, pulling himself over ridges with his free hand.

Running with a bomb, he almost laughed. This was pretty stupid, but Fischer’s ghost was quiet now Thomas was committed. Fischer had been as greedy as he was judgmental.

Thomas made it to the butte. In his haste, it took him several long seconds to find exactly where he’d left his equipment and the hole he’d drilled. When he found it, he dabbed the dot onto the top of the stick and, as carefully as he could, slid it into the hole.

He gathered up his tools, boxed them and closed the case, ready to make a quick escape. He retreated behind a boulder some distance away.

His mask was steamed up, the cold air dragged at this throat. He craned his neck to see where the tree was – still heading away from him. He dropped down behind the rock and pulled out the sniffer. He set it to trigger the dot, not trusting his phone implant out here in the wilderness.

He checked the tree’s position again, and touched the blinking “Arm” icon on the tablet.

The screen turned to red. “Fire” it said in large letters. They seemed provocative, daring him to tap it. One last glance at the tree.

What the hell, it was a good long way away now.

He tapped the icon. There was a sharp bang and the clatter of rock splinters hitting the ground.

There was the sound of something shifting above him.

He didn’t have time to look up.

“You should have checked the top of the butte, idiot!” said Fischer’s ghost. The edge of fear to the voice scared Thomas, but he could not do anything about it as a boulder caught him on the side of the head. Before Thomas fell unconscious, he remembered Fischer glowering at him over the fire, minutes before he’d started choking and died.

 

****

 

Thomas came around. His mask was still in place. He patted himself down and was relieved to find his arms and lungs and heart and all the other bits of him that kept his mind bound to life still functioned. His head was sticky with drying blood, and he felt woozy, but he counted himself lucky; at least he did until he saw the large rock, pinning his foot to the floor.

He pulled at his leg, then harder as panic took hold. It would not move. He tried again, calming himself enough to attempt extricating the foot from his boot, but it was no use, he was trapped.

“You will have one hell of a case of pins and needles, idiot!” said Fischer. Thomas laughed, then cried, then laughed again, until the part of his mind concerned with survival stepped in, and calmed him down.

Thomas lifted his goggles and wiped his eyes dry. He assessed the situation as coolly as he could, which was to say not very coolly at all, but to his credit he kept hysteria at bay.

His foot was not broken. His other injuries were superficial. His tablet and phone implant still functioned, so as soon as the hemisphere’s only satellite came within range, he could call for help. He could report Fischer’s death too, he thought bitterly. All was not lost.

He had not forgotten the tree, however, and the approaching scrape of rootacles on stone suggested it had not forgotten him.

Thomas lay there, all the panic gone. What was he going to do by getting all upset? His shoulders slumped, the air gone out of him. He felt defeated, unfairly treated. Today had not been a good day. Soon he would be joining Fischer forever. The prospect was not appealing.

The tree staggered around the butte, flower-leaves oscillating in time with the wobbles of its trunk. From Thomas’ position, the tree looked tall, but the sense of menace to it was defused somewhat by its clownish walk.

Thomas thrust his hands into his pockets, and pulled out the epinephrine injectors by the handful. He had to be ready.

The tree shambled in a semicircle around him, until a scrabbling, stubby root brushed against his foot. Already Thomas’ skin itched from its presence. The stamen descended, and began to lick at him. Clouds of misty pollen puffed from openings of the flower-leaves.

Immediately Thomas’ throat constricted. His eyes teared. His skin become puffy. With swelling fingers he popped the lid off the first injector, driving its long needle into his leg at random, too panicked to aim properly. He remembered the safety drill just fine, but he’d done that in a training room and with hands that did not resemble bunches of bananas. He felt his throat tighten further. He clicked off the tops of all the jabs, batting the rasping tongue of the tree away. His heart hammered, he was shaking from the adrenaline, his head spinning from the earlier blow. He jabbed in four more needles before his quaking hands dropped them all, and his eyelids bulged so tight the world was squeezed out of existence.

Light. Warm, cheerful, orange light.

He was in his parents’ living room, standing in front of the stove. He talked with a brother he had not seen, in real terms, for a century and a half, surrounded by faces of people happy to be where they were and not in any rush to leave.

Fischer was there too, sitting on the couch in his dirty one-piece environment suit, like a badly made novelty toad. Thomas’ family seemed ignorant of his presence.

“Fischer? Am I dead?” said Thomas. He felt peculiar, like he were in something like a dream, or a schmaltzy Christmas drama, or both. The light blurred oddly, the air was too thick. Only he and Fischer looked real.

“How should I know?” said the German. “I am dead and reduced to a figment of your substandard imagination, remember? You should have taken me back, you should have followed regulations, and then none of this would have happened and you would still have made your claim.”

“Am I dead?” Thomas insisted. He did not feel particularly upset. It was important to know.

“No. Although I think you have discovered what the Pferdratte get out of their strange prostitution.”

“This? A vision? Heaven..?” he tried the last word tentatively. He felt ridiculous saying it out loud, it comforted him nonetheless.

“Pfah!” snorted Fischer. “No. A drug of some kind.”

“Why does it work on me? I’m no Pferdratte.”

Fischer shrugged. “And I’m no biologist.”

Thomas had no reply to that.

He cleared his throat, and looked about the room’s stone walls. It was an old, old house, hundreds of years old, which is why it was so cold all the damn time. His brother carried on talking to him. Thomas strained to hear, but his voice was indistinct, the words meaningless. His brother’s face blurred, impressions of him at different ages overlaid with one another. This was an impression of the place, an aspect of it formed from compacted recollection; a diamond of memory. He experienced a sudden wash of sadness. He wanted to talk to his brother, and he could not.

“All this went, you know,” he said to Fischer, to distract himself. “I was about to go home, and then my parents moved on, and the house was sold, and there was nowhere for us to go back to, no home any more, no centre to our family. We drifted apart, as close as we were. When the colony opened, then I thought, why not? It had all gone. Perhaps I could make a new home for myself here, I thought.” He smiled wryly. “I’m not doing too well at that.”

An uncharacteristic look of sympathy possessed Fischer’s face. “Has it not occurred to you that we move on because we must? That time does not stand still? The universe keeps on going, action through reaction through action, an endless cascade of happening? You are no different. This place is no different. Things changed, as it is in their nature to. Things always change.”

“I only wish I was there more, before it was gone forever.”

“We all do Thomas, but we can’t be. These places never die, they live within us. I learned that a long time ago. Look at this place. In a manner of speaking it is still here, within you.”

“How trite.”

“Yeah, well fuck you too.”

Thomas smiled.

“What, you idiot, why are you smirking like that?” said Fischer.

“If you held your golden moments inside, then why were you so miserable when you were still breathing?”

Fischer laughed uproariously. Thomas’ family were as oblivious to this as they were to the rest of the exchange. “Because I was an asshole Thomas, an asshole! And now I am a dead asshole!”

Thomas looked around the room, trying to pin the sensation of belonging and home in his mind. Already it was fading. His feeling of wellbeing evaporated, to be replaced, degree by torturous degree, with discomfort and pain.

He looked at the faces of his parents, long dead. And at his brothers, whose great grandchildren might walk the distant Earth.

“I’m sorry. I missed you all the time,” he said. “I never told you. I still do.”

Then Thomas came back to his new home. When his sore, sore eyes scratched open, Fischer’s ghost had gone.

So had the tree.

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