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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Living With Trees

Geetanjali lives in Mumbai and publishes IndianSF online magazine. She is interested in sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, gardening, science, astronomy, and so much more that one life is not enough. On Twitter she is @GeetanjaliD.

I had landed a few weeks ago on Bharini, on a routine scout mission. As a scout cadet I had explored many planets, but none of them came this close to being perfect. Bharini was a find that would earn me my stripes.
The cold rocky landscape was dominated by gigantic trees that had grown sideways, upwards and everywhere. Giant aerial roots supported and enmeshed the whole structure. My eyes failed to separate one tree from the next. They must have been a millennium old at least, to entangle like that. Gnarled old trees that knew nothing of death, nothing of destruction. Living mountains they were.
The 41-Arietis binary cast a faintly bluish light, almost white. Such beauty. Such hues. Such purity. If this is not religion, I don't know what is. Earth must have been pristine like this once.
I rode my mo-pod as it took records and measurements. I relished the first recon, especially on a breathable planet. The thrill of the first, cautious breath, the click of the helmet, the hiss of the new air. Bharini's air was faintly metallic, slightly chilly. In the first few days of setting up camp itself, I had ticked it as a Grade 1--set up base now--class planet.
But as usual, I delayed reporting it back to my base. I spent far too much time on my planets. I prolonged the data collection. I spent time preparing reports, logging minute details, setting up sampling bots, and searching for the lost ones.
I think every other cadet in the corps must have logged more planets than I did. I told myself I was diligent, careful, that I took pride in what I did, saving humanity and all that. But really it was just the joy of visiting pristine landscapes, even the inhospitable ones. There was profound peace in living alone on an uninhabited world. Untainted. Untouched. Unsoiled.
I was done with my sampling in the woods and I was just about to leave, when something crackled above me. There was a soft puffing sound. Before I could snap on my helmet and seal the mo-pod, a dull blue dust had settled on my uniform. I coughed and cursed all the way to camp, tearing my clothes off and injecting meds in my arms. That night, in the delirium of the fever, I thought I wouldn't live to see another day. I was so wrong.
I called them Gravaar trees. It was a name closest to what they had projected in my thoughts. I thought I was hallucinating at first when they voiced. It was the spores, they said, that had sprouted mycelia inside my brain.
In a few days my feelings were augmented with color, my smell with magnetic fields, and my vision with UV. I was disoriented, distressed, and overwhelmed at first. The trees, they steadied me.
The Gravaar trees nurtured me, not knowing retaliation, not knowing apathy. They only knew the religion of sentience and empathy. They showered love, affection, and all things warm and tender upon me. They fed me with a feeling of a light-seen-through-a-womb.
I wafted in blue-rapture as the landscape rose to meet me in ardor. I was the meeting of bodies as the roots of Gravaar trees entwined below in the crust. I felt the mantle rise to their urge in pounding magnetic waves. I arched as the flares from the stars filtered through to the very tips of the trees. I throbbed with the churning of the planet's core. I was full, whole, in kinship beyond love. I was one.
I would never be the same. Neither would they.
They touched the the Earth of my dreams. They felt the War though my nightmares. They smelled the radioactive wastelands from my memories. They perceived the urgency of my job. That's when I felt the purple-gloom spread from root to root, across the crust spreading through the mycelia in their soil.
I knew then that they were the planet. They were all, many and one at once, a super-organism woven across the crust of Bharini.
"I finally sent the report to my base." I voice-whispered to the Gravaar trees. "I am sorry. I could not delay this any further." I cast saffron-righteousness. I had only done my duty after all, yet I was anxious.
Their wave of grey-distress washed over me. I sent pleading-brown but I couldn't find the teat to suckle on their warmth.
"I had to inform my government about your planet, Gravaar trees. It's my job, my duty. I would be guilty of treason otherwise." I was perhaps making the arguments to myself.
The twin suns were setting in the distance. The blue of the day was morphing into intense purples but the scene was no longer calm.
"I am just a cadet." I voiced. "I must transport to my assigned planets. I must report my findings.
"I feel your fear. But you can seed the others too, with your spores, and voice to them as you have done with me. Surely they'll sense your needs.
"The War has taught us a lot. We've learned, we've changed. But we need a new planet. Earth cannot feed all of us anymore.
"Don't be afraid of us." I was petulant. "We'll live with you in peace. Have hope."
For the first time since my communion with the Gravaar trees, I felt the metallic shade of pain-withdrawal. The Gravaar trees were numb-receded.
They cloaked me with black-lingering fear. Even here, this far side of the universe, the color of fear was black. I was left with nothing but silence and a satellite-less night.
The star-speckled expanse lit up briefly as the first ship arrived, streaking across the Bharini sky.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 25th, 2013

Author Comments

Many years ago, when I was about ten and lived in a small town, there was a magnificent Banyan tree close to our house. One day some people got together and chopped it down to make way for a temple. An old man lived in a hut by that tree. We called him "Babaji." He tended to his goats and earned a few paise by manually pumping air in bicycle tires. His protests to stop felling the tree went unheard; he didn't own that piece of land. From that day onwards Babaji stopped speaking to anyone. For many years, I peddled by Babaji's hut on the way home from school. He communicated only with gestures. Perhaps the land owners ran out of funds; the temple never got built. To this day I remember the sound of the axe going chop-chop. Trees have woven themselves into my consciousness since then. This story has its roots in the Babaji and the Banyan tree.

- Geetanjali Dighe
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