Errant had studied the reports, had marveled, had thought he’d understood as much as anyone did—but his eyes still rejected their first sight of Midnight’s trees.
He squinted down through the shuttle’s window. A few hours before sunset, the passing terrain was a crumpled expanse of ashy browns and pinks, covered by the pale, irregular blooms of fungal webs and the fine, regular lines of insulated pipes. Interspersed among both of these patterns, though, was another: an array of shapes cut out of absolute darkness. As much as Errant tried to make out gradations of color or get a sense of form, he saw only absence, shapes like holes gnawed through to the realm of antimatter, even as the pilot angled their craft downward and the ground rose to meet them.
They landed beside a pipeline that had looked threadlike from the air but turned out to be at least half Errant’s height. It stretched away behind them, over the horizon and towards the power station’s reservoir, half a hemisphere away. Just ahead, it crossed a stripe of white paint and disappeared behind the matte silhouette. Errant leaned forward, trying to see where the human creation and alien thing met, and asked the shuttle’s other passenger, “What does the line signify?”
Supervisor Heren, Positive Delta Energy’s ranking onsite employee and one of the only survivors of the explosion, snorted. “Safety. Rules say we need a 10-meter perimeter. Of course, they also say to monitor trunk surface temperatures.”
“And you can’t do both?” Cygni Authority had hired Errant as a safety inspector because he could analyze complex systems, trace the impacts and risks of human interactions with strange new biomes. In practice, a lot of that meant pinpointing profit-driven cheats and paradoxes in corporate policies.
Heren’s tone was all vinegar. “We can’t do the work from a distance. The perimeter rule’s just a way for PD to cover their—” She cut off, and her eyes, framed within the narrow opening of her lifted viewplate, flickered towards the pilot.
Her crewmate just leaned back from her controls with a sigh. Errant didn’t think he’d heard her say more than five words together in the two days he’d been down this gravity well.
Heren shook herself. “It’s fine. Like I said, we have to do it regularly. Those reports I assume you read through don’t show any correlation between the explosions and us touching the trees.”
“I remember.” Errant heard the defensive note in his own voice and wanted to cringe. He should be used to wiping metaphorical spit off his face. Cygni was the only interplanetary body with enough leverage to force inspections, and maybe even change, on companies like Positive Delta Energy. When he’d started visiting sites, he’d thought workers would understand he was there to help, but experience had taught him that most assumed him to be an enemy, looking for “gotcha” moments. From their perspective, his report would most likely be toothless or, at worst, an excuse for Positive Delta to fire them all.
That won’t happen. That’s not what I’m here for! I’m going to help keep you safe, so no one else dies. He recognized the impulse to babble assurances, ignored it.
You always care too much, Stephen said, in his head. He forced the memory down, along with the messy emotions it unleashed. This was work. He could only do his best to understand what was really happening here on Midnight. He lowered his own viewplate and turned on his comm. “I’d like to get closer, then.”
But he hesitated once his boots hit soil, staring up at the void-shape before them. Its edges shifted in the wind of Midnight’s thin atmosphere, ragged bits of shadow lifting and settling back.
“Don’t forget to change your settings to infrared.” Heren’s words were still clipped, but there was none of the animus he’d heard before. It made him wonder. Maybe she didn’t hate him on principle.
Then he switched his settings and stopped thinking about anything else.
The landscape around them faded to crepuscular greys, but the tree’s utter blackness resolved a fraction. Errant squinted. He could just make out the suggestion of features—leaves moving against each other and the curve of the trunk beneath them even clearer. He took a cautious step forward, boots over the perimeter line, and another step, and another, until he could put one hand on the trunk. He felt the barest suggestion of heat, transmitted through the fierce insulation of the tree’s surface and the protection of his gloves.
“It’s hard to makes sense of, isn’t it?” Heren’s question surprised him again.
“Yes.” He still felt the need to defend himself. “I did my research, you know. I don’t make it a habit to charge blindly into projects involving unique xenobiology, especially when the organisms generate this much power.”
There was nothing like Midnight’s trees anywhere else. A plant-analog that absorbed such a complete spectrum of light shouldn’t be able to exist. And yet here were the trees, with their blacker-than-black leaves and inscrutable trunks, insulating and protecting the explosively charged cores within them.
“Everyone’s overawed at the start,” Heren said. “The first tappers who went in to drill the siphons and lay pipe, they couldn’t get over how uncanny it all was. Soren said—” She stopped again. Soren was the name of the first station’s supervisor. One of the dead.
Errant pulled back, torn between two investigatory desires. On his long transport ride to Midnight, he’d studied two documents to the point of near memorization. One was the anonymous message to Cygni’s Planetary Resource Operations department that had launched this inquiry. The other was Heren’s post-accident debrief, a series of monosyllabic responses to the company rep’s leading questions. He knew he’d have to re-interview her about what happened, to get more than the pain-filled silences between her answers. He’d been dreading it. And here she was giving him an opening—at the moment when he really needed to focus on the facts of the physical environment. He tried to approach both topics at once, and bungled it.
“There’s no explanation of how they manage not to overheat, right? There weren’t any clear indicators, before, when the heat control failed?”
Even faceless inside her helmet, he still felt the look she gave him. “No, Inspector. We don’t have any certain way to predict the explosions. Don’t you think, if we could have anticipated a blast—” Her gloves fisted at her sides.
Elda the pilot spoke up on the channel. “Time to inspect, Inspector.”
Errant hesitated, tried to think of a way to walk back his words, and gave it up. “Right.”
He returned to the tree, circled it with fingers trailing against the not-bark. The siphon jutted out at waist height on its far side, half-hidden in the artificial dimness. Once he remembered to toggle the infrared off, it seemed to float, a crisp shape even in the afternoon light, against the matte blackness. The tap line that stretched down the trunk from the spigot was just as distinct. It ran over the few meters of uneven ground between tree and pipe, a vein in the larger network.
“This tree’s fallow right now.” Heren had moved up beside him, and tapped the meter-transmitter on the spigot’s crest. “PD rule is to give each tree a local-year off. The idea is to prevent the power gradient from becoming unsustainable.”
“Do you know how they settled on these safety guidelines?” Errant asked.
“Do you?” her voice had returned to its low-grade caustic register. Errant wanted to follow up, to push her for thoughts on the soundness of company safety policies, but he was wary of another misstep. Focus on the physical inspection, for now.
He dropped to one knee and began digging his bots out of his pack. Humans were complicated messes of conflicting ideas, intentions, and understandings. Bots, by comparison, were much easier. And these bots were very straightforward. They just wanted to take readings and broadcast them to his terminal back at the power station. He set them in a row on the ground, where they unfolded jointed legs and began scurrying around.
“Those little guys might not make it long enough to give you your data,” Heren said. “The fauna on this planet aren’t very large, but they’re tough and very fast. Their biome’s got plenty of power, after all. They avoid anything our size, but they could destroy that little thing without even trying. Then there’s the fungi. Spores grow on everything.”
“Fortunately, I’ve plenty of bots. We’ll drop this many at every tree we visit,” Errant told her.
Some of the bots went up the trunk, where their surfaces glittered against the abyssal black, and some began burrowing into the bare ground. Besides the dark trees, Midnight was shockingly short on anything that looked like plant life: no dark shrubs or grasses, no competing species that used the same light-absorbing technique to feed itself. The terrain’s varied color came instead from the fungi. The report from the planet’s initial survey team, before PD had staked a claim on Midnight, suggested that not just the giant webs, but an uncounted array of other spores infested the planet’s soil.
Errant looked across the landscape, from one distant trunk to another. PD’s pipe map showed even spokes stretched across half the small planet’s surface, meeting in a point at the heartwood reservoir. He’d assumed that they’d chosen to tap only those trees that happened to stand isolated—but it looked as if the pipes’ spacing followed the trees’. It was like they’d been laid out by some vanished park architect or farmer.
He was about to turn away, when sudden movement caught his eye. “What was that?”
“Elda?” Heren was staring at the point where the horizon had shifted, where the curve of a hillock humped up instead of sloping down. “Query Second Station. David’s monitoring the pipeline grid right now. Anything go out of alignment?”
Fear rinsed through Errant’s gut as he trailed Heren’s hurried steps back to the shuttle, listened to Elda relaying the question.
Then there was quiet as they climbed back through the airlock—as Elda presumably listened to the response from the power station. Errant tried to lengthen his breaths and not think about the footage he’d seen in his research, images of the first station’s wreckage, of the scorched remains of its inhabitants. It just went, Heren had said in her debrief. He wondered what Stephen would do if he died here, at the foot of an exploding tree on planet Midnight. Probably cry into the shoulder of the next sucker.
Elda said, “Right.” She looked up as they reemerged into the shuttle’s cockpit, nodded at Heren, who already had her faceplate open. Errant hurried to do the same and caught the tail end of a report.
“—a few centimeters’ shift on Foxtrot 7 line, but it doesn’t look like anything the struts can’t adjust to.” Errant recognized the voice of Heren’s second-in-command David, tinny over the ship’s cheap speakers. “We can move that line up in the check rotation, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem. Looks like that hill migration mostly missed the grid.”
Heren sighed. “Copy. We’ll move to the next tree.” She had lost the urgency that propelled her towards the ship, and Elda looked as phlegmatic as ever. Errant imagined they could hear his heart trying to pound its way out through his breastbone. He tried his question again.
“What was that?” He hoped it wasn’t something he’d read about and forgotten.
Heren gave him a look he couldn’t read, all tight eyebrows and narrow eyes. Then she said, “The ground shifts here. Maybe better to say it swells and sinks. We have to keep a tight inspection and maintenance schedule all along the pipelines, to make sure there aren’t interruptions to the flow.”
That definitely hadn’t been in the reports. Errant tried to fit this new and disturbing piece of information into what he knew. “It’s not the tapping activity that causes the groundswells?”
Heren shrugged. “It happens near tapped trees, and near untapped ones. It’s like everything else. There’s no clear correlation. That’s why…” She shrugged her next words away. “That’s everything PD’s tame scientists bothered to figure out.”
Errant couldn’t tell if she was challenging him to do better, or finding another way to tell him his efforts were useless. He looked away and out the window as the planet’s surface fell away again. “This is a strange place.”
“I’m not used to it,” Heren said, “and I’ve been here longer than anyone still alive.”
It took hours to drop the rest of the bots. At least there were no more sudden groundswells, although Errant turned a new, sharper eye to the folds and humps of earth around the trees they visited. Night had overtaken them and masked the trees’ impenetrable shadows by the time they got back to the station, a warren of prefabbed bubbles half dug into the planet’s surface. It was farther than the ruins of the first station from the reservoir full of molten heartwood. Whether that was a safe distance or not—well, he was supposed to find out, wasn’t he? Errant shivered as he crowded into the airlock-shower with Heren and Elda.
The rinse in the airlock, Heren had told him when he first arrived, was because of the fungi. Even with it, interior walls and air filters clogged with wayward spores and required regular scrub-downs, no matter how tight they kept the seals. “It’s a whole pain to delegate half my on-duty people to housework each shift,” she’d said with a shrug. Errant had noticed the yeasty-metallic tang in the air when he’d first landed, but that same early survey had established with certainty that the biome’s fungal inhabitants were nontoxic. Cygni would never have designated the planet open for companies to claim, if they hadn’t.
Inside, Heren went to confer with her on-duty crew and Elda turned her back on him. Errant retreated to the bunk-sized closet that counted as visitor’s quarters.
He tried not to take it personally. He was an outsider, a tenderfoot who couldn’t really understand tapper life, even if he hadn’t been from Cygni. Still, it was lonely.
It was too early to check the data streams from the bots. Without fully meaning to, he opened his terminal and pulled up Stephen’s most recent message one more time. Familiarity, guilt, his better judgement, none of it stopped the toxic mixture of warmth and dread, longing and resentment, that flooded him at the sight of Stephen’s hollow-cheeked, handsome face. He listened again to the latest earnest, full-hearted, meaningless apology.
I know I keep doing this. I know you have no reason to forgive me or want to see me again. I’m broken. I know it. The times when I’m with you are the only—
The door alert pinged. Errant snapped the file closed, feeling like he’d been caught indecent. He scrubbed at his cheeks, as if he could smooth some of their heat away, and then released the hatch. It was Heren.
She hesitated, as guilty-looking as he felt. It took a moment to unsnarl himself from his irrelevant emotions, to remind himself about exploding trees, and hazardous work conditions, and Heren’s ambiguous responses. “Hello, Supervisor. Can I help you with anything?”
“Can I come in?” She actually glanced over her shoulder. Errant wondered if this was a proposition, thought about trying to head her off… I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m currently in a decaying orbit around a relationship black hole named Stephen… Then she looked back at him and killed that notion with her next words. “I’d like to make sure of your report.”
She wasn’t a big woman, out of her environment suit, but her intensity took up its own space between them. He hadn’t pegged Heren for a company stooge, but she was in charge here, on an empty planet…
“Of course,” he said slowly, and let her inside.
Heren didn’t make him feel any better once the door was closed. She kept standing, arms stiff and fists clenched at her sides, the way they’d been out by the tree. There wasn’t enough room to back away from her.
Finally, she said, “I sent the message to Cygni.”
“Wha—” The implications of her razor-wire tension and furtive aspect grew evolved into new patterns. “Oh—that’s—okay.” Errant took a deep breath, bottled up the urge to begin bombarding her with questions. “Is there—is there anything you’d like to add to that initial report?”
The anonymous alert had been a simple text file, without much more than the bare outlines of PD’s Midnight operation: The company had to build a second power station because the first had been destroyed in an accident; the operation had a shocking mortality rate, even for a frontier project.
Heren closed her eyes, then opened them. He saw her walls buckle, her expression melt into grief and pain. “You have to make them pay. Your report, whatever those little bots dig up from the fungi-soil and the trees, that work needs to damn Positive Delta. Burn them to ashes.”
Errant swallowed against the urge to make some promise, to make her feel better. Meaningless words wouldn’t wipe away her suffering. “If you believe the company is at fault, why did you send your tip anonymously? Testimony from an employee, especially one who,” he hesitated, “who has direct experience of the dangers, would be the strongest voice in an argument for reckless endangerment.”
“And give them an easy target?” Heren demanded. “They could have sent me on my way before you even got here. And how could I know they wouldn’t buy whoever Cygni sent out? I had to see that you actually wanted to know what happened—and I’m still taking a risk. It’s always easier to fault the workers. We must have made mistakes. We can’t have followed all their oh-so-carefully-researched guidelines.” She took a breath, settling herself. “PD could use whatever you write to axe me and my people. Then they’ll say they’ve fixed the problem on the ground, and carry on making money with a new crop of desperate hires. There are always more desperate hires.”
She wasn’t wrong. Even Cygni’s reach was limited. The report would need a convincing argument about the causes of the explosions here on Midnight, to have a hope of making the Positive Delta admit wrongdoing or change their policies.
“Alright,” Errant said. “Let’s start by going back over what happened before. I’m sorry; I know this will be painful, remembering—”
“Oh, don’t worry.” Heren’s lips stretched in a not-smile. “I’m always remembering. You don’t forget coming back from patrol to find a crater where your people should be.”
At least Heren’s testimony drove Stephen and his messages out of Errant’s head. Over the next few days, as he watched the data streams from his bots and began playing with different analysis programs, he kept hearing her words again.
The explosion traveled down the line from the reservoir… They made me sift my people’s bones from the ‘valuable’ wreckage so that they could start over…. Some of them we never found. The ground shifted and they were gone.
It wasn’t just the horror of it though, the way her face went from pain to rage to uncanny stiffness and back again as she talked. He also kept thinking about the groundswells and earth movements. It was weird. The planetary survey hadn’t found tectonic activity, and this movement was smaller-scale anyway—more like something caused by burrowing animals or the shifts of defrosting soil.
His feelings about the strangeness of the data set grew, the more bots he placed in the field, and the longer he looked at what they gathered. There was a lot of information: vast and complex chemical mixtures, spikes of electrical activity. He sat for hours in Second Station’s mess, out of the way of most of the tappers, trying and failing to make sense of it.
He had closed his eyes in the face of the ever-growing bulk of information, and was rubbing the heels of his hands against his forehead, when his terminal bleated: the alert for an incoming message, coded personal. Errant swore.
“That bad?” Elda stood in the doorway. He blinked at her. He’d gotten so used to the tappers’ stonewalling that he barely noticed when they skirted him. But it seemed silent Elda, of all people, softened at the sight of his self-pity.
“Not how I treat mail from home,” she said with a shrug.
“Oh—no.” He shook his head, reminded again how isolated they were here. “It’s just—I can guess who it’s from.” No one else would ignore his out-of-system auto-response, would pretend he wasn’t busy and working and just completely fed up….
Elda raised an eyebrow. His own words slipped over each other into her silence. “I don’t—I don’t know what to do. He’s toxic, but he needs me, or he needs somebody, and every time I see him, it’s like the reasonable part of my brain just fades away…” He forced himself to stop, mortified. “Sorry.”
She just nodded. “Pheromones, probably.”
“There’s no logic to it, but there’s a feeling. Something you get from him. Or something he gets from you.” She served herself a bowl of vat-protein and rehydrated starches, dug a spoon in, licked it. “I’ve been there. Sorry to hear it.” She sat down with her back to him; conversation concluded.
Elda’s presence gave him the discipline not to immediately open Stephen’s message. Instead, he went back to staring at the data. Something she’d said niggled. Pheromones….
He added another factor to the program he’d been running, watched the patterns of analysis reshape themselves.
The idea was far-fetched, improbable. If he’d been working with a team, he would have been embarrassed to even suggest it—but once it had occurred to him, he couldn’t let it go. Instead, the notion gained weight and substance as the bots’ output kept accumulating.
He was almost ready to risk his theory to a recording when another tree blew up.
The shockwave ripped through the earth and shook the station habitat. Errant scrambled to his feet as people who’d been off-shift flooded into the common area, wide-eyed and still in pajamas. The four tappers monitoring the grid were still cupped within their screens, hands flying as they tried to assess the damage.
Heren pushed herself through the press of people and turned to the nearest monitor. “Which one?”
Her eyes didn’t leave her screen. “Zed 12.”
Everyone started speaking at once. “What—” “No—” “That can’t be possi—”
“Alright, then!” Heren shouted them all down. “Cyn, are you sure?”
The monitor nodded. Errant’s gut clenched. He didn’t remember all the designations, but Zed was the spoke of the pipeline starburst that ran closest to the station.
Someone else was asking questions now. “Any fluctuations beforehand? No warnings?”
He needed to see what his own data showed. He pulled out his handheld, skimmed the feeds. Most bots were still transmitting. The feed from Zed 12 was gone, of course, but what the history of the last few minutes showed—it made his breath go tight. “Wait, Heren!”
Heren glared at him. “What is it? What’s causing this?”
“I don’t want to jump….” His voice faltered.
“You don’t want to jump to conclusions, and what, maybe prevent anyone else from dying?” Heren scoffed. “I don’t know why I tried so hard to get you here, if you are going to sit back and take notes while trees go up around us—”
“Wait.” That was Heren’s second, David, bristling and stepping into her space. “Heren, you called in Cygni? You risked all our jobs for some data-jockey’s writeup?”
“I’d rather that than keep risking your lives!” Emotion broke in Heren’s voice, and everyone started talking again.
She was right. He had to choose the clearest path towards safety, too, whatever everyone else thought. “Supervisor?”
Somehow, she heard him amid the hubbub. “Quiet, everyone! I said, quiet!”
Errant spoke into the grudging silence. “I’m not certain, but If I’m right—we should evacuate now.”
“You can’t wait until you file your report to get us fired—” someone began.
“No.” He took a deep breath. “The reports PD sent me. They mentioned the way, when the first power station went up, that there was a series of earlier explosions.”
Heren nodded, but David waved that point away, “Yes, but it wasn’t like they triggered each other. We don’t know why that is. The tap lines between the trees run in parallel. The blasts were isolated by both time and space.
“Yes, but the connection isn’t about what happened; it’s about what didn’t happen.” Errant looked around at the confused faces, and forged ahead. “All my monitoring points to a lot of activity throughout planet’s soil, and I mean a lot—electrical and chemical movement in patterns I can barely see the edges of. It’s at a level of complexity that suggests advanced processes, things like awareness, communicative movement.
“One thing I did see is that all that faded away from Zed 12, starting a few hours ago, and then dropped down to nothing just before it went up. There are a lot more fading spots right now, around a lot more trees.”
A hailstorm of sharp-edged words. “Communications? How could you possibly—”
“—So your little bug bots just set it off—”
“Things were fine until—”
Errant held up his hands. “Please! Cygni sent me because of the explosions, but the problem is really something bigger: They don’t understand how this biome works. Neither do I, fully, but it looks like there’s something here, and it has decided that it’s tired of firing warning shots.”
There was silence as they all tried to make sense of that.
“You think,” Heren said at last. “The trees are sentient?”
He knew how it sounded. “It’s one possible explanation. There has to be some calculus at work, something driving that level of complex interaction.”
“Why would they blow themselves up, then?”
“I don’t know!” He hefted his handheld, trying to suggest the scope of what it held. “I could walk you through the pointers in my data, explain my bots’ readings, but the patterns I’m seeing tell me we don’t have time. We need to get out of here. It’s not safe.”
The pause after his words was full of shifting glances, until Heren asked another question.
“Can you prove it? I mean, really prove it, with hard evidence besides your voice and maybe ours—”
“If we believe you,” David muttered.
“—And maybe ours?” she repeated. “Positive Delta’s not going to let go of this place, this much energy, if they get any choice in the matter. Say we evacuate now; if PD doesn’t accept your report, they’ll be back with a new crew soon enough.”
She was right. He didn’t want her to be; he wanted her to get them all offworld right now. He admitted, “The strongest evidence would be to have some of my mobile collectors with their samples. Physical evidence is much harder to deny—but it’s all out in the field. It’s too much of a risk to re-collect all the bots.”
Heren gave him that same folded-brow look, long and piercing.
Then she lifted her chin, turned to Elda, “You’re going to pilot the big shuttle.” To her second: “David, you’re in charge on the flight out.” Other questions started to fill the air, but she kept talking. “Inspector Errant. I’ll ride with you, and before we leave, we’re going to retrieve at least some of your little bots.”
The flurry of evacuation passed Errant by. He didn’t want to think about what was coming next, so he stared at the data feeds. Energy signatures kept fluctuating and spiking among the roots of every tree he had monitored. It could well be the cadence of a language he had no tools to translate—but even if that was true, there was much he still didn’t understand, much that still didn’t make sense.
He and Heren sat in the shuttle as the station’s emergency evacuation craft lifted off. Heren spoke up on the common channel. “Good speed, people.”
There was no response from the bigger ship. It rose and dwindled in the purple-grey sky, and Heren woke the shuttle’s engines.
He checked his handheld one more time. “Go west-southwest, along pipeline Bravo. It looks the most stable right now.”
Even with the shuttle at its maximum velocity, the nearest tree was long minutes away. Heren, bent over the controls, spoke without looking at him. “So, will Positive Delta face sanctions for reckless endangerment after all this?”
Errant tried to visualize the shape of his completed report. “Probably not. If it’s a new sentient species, Cygni will start assessing Midnight’s planetary sovereignty before they rule on how PD was running this harvesting operation. Findings about worker treatment may get lost in the shuffle.”
“The fuck you say.” The yoke twitched under Heren’s hands, and the entire shuttle shuddered. “PD kept us here when the trees started exploding. An entire station was destroyed. They don’t get to treat that like nothing.”
Errant cringed at the swooping flight, at his own helplessness. Memories of Stephen intruded suddenly—this trapped feeling was the same as the worst of their fights. He tried, as he had then, to find the words that would move the other person. “I know it’s not what you want, but it does stymie them. What’s at stake here, now, what we could prove, is bigger than showing what went wrong before. An intelligent species—that’s a discovery that changes things. There’ll be more research, different regulations on the planet, xenolinguists and biologists coming in to try to understand them—if we ever figure out how to approach them without triggering more tree explosions. Positive Delta certainly won’t be able to harvest energy here any time soon; maybe not ever again.”
Heren’s hands steadied on the controls, but her voice didn’t. “You know my crew all hate me now? I just put them out of a job. You’ve got to be desperate to take one like this, and they were good at it. They’re just as good as Soren and Ida and the rest of my first crew. Just as disposable.”
She paused, and Errant saw her throat work. “I could have taken the company’s hush money. They offered a ride out of here, early retirement after the accident—but they shouldn’t get to just keep going.”
“They won’t—” Errant tried to say, but his terminal interrupted him with a shrilled warning and, while the tone still jangled the air of the cockpit, an explosion bloomed, blue-white and closer than the horizon’s line.
Errant clung to his seat. “Do you think we should—”
Heren angled the skimmer’s nose down. “We’re coming up on Bravo 1. Do your readings say we can land?”
They bounced down by a tree that looked just like the first he’d visited. Errant forced muscles knotted in anticipation of another eruption to unclench. Out of the shuttle, across the meaningless line, he dropped down at the foot of the tree. His fingers were clumsy in their gloves, but they managed to scoop up three of the bots, which had responded to his recall command and swum up out of the earth.
He hesitated, scanning the data feeds. There were a handful more bots converging on this point. He looked out across Midnight’s lonely terrain. It looked like there were more of the pale fungal webs now, more uneven swells across the landscape. The sight shifted something in his mind, in the way his thoughts worried over the data.
Something you need, Elda had said. What did the trees need? What did they have? What—or who—had the agency here?
“Errant.” Heren hadn’t left the shuttle. “Can this tree see or feel us here?”
“It’s not the trees,” Errant said. The nearest bot was seconds away. “It’s the mycelial network.”
“The mycelial network,” he repeated, “the fungus system that connects the trees underground. It must somehow draw off the excess energy the trees absorb—that’s how they don’t overheat—and it diverts minerals from the soil to them. How else could those trees get enough nutrition, without other plant-equivalent growth around?” He shivered, thinking of the network beneath them, a mass of impulses, awareness, and intentions woven into the earth and through the roots of the dark tree, wicking away its overburden of energy and subtly directing its growth.
“How does that even—” Heren began.
Then the data feed from the incoming bot—from all his bots—disappeared. The earth beneath his feet shivered, even as he pushed himself up and into motion.
“Come on!” Heren shouted as he stumbled forward. The ground bucked and white filaments spread around him like starbursts.
He threw himself into the shuttle’s airlock. The engine raced, but he felt no lift.
Heren swore. “Something’s caught—”
Errant made it to his seat in the cockpit as she fought with the controls, finally rotating the thrusters and gunning them to rip free of the filaments that had seized the landing feet. The shuttle leapt from the ground.
The air around the ship turned to fire as the tree went up beneath them and the shockwave threatened to knock them out of the sky. Heren stayed glued to the controls, leaning forward as if she could will the ship faster. Gravity dug its claws into Errant’s bones and flesh as the shuttle shot upwards on a steep trajectory.
“The whole grid is going,” Errant didn’t have the bot data anymore, but he could watch the feeds from Midnight’s human-made structures disappear one by one. “That’s the reservoir. That’s the station.” He imagined the web of explosions spreading across the planet’s surface beneath, all that pent-up energy released in a great, cleansing rush.
The shuttle’s engine strained, and then the cockpit’s viewscreen turned black and bloomed with stars. Another few moments of pressure, and the gee forces of acceleration fell away, leaving them in the calm of freefall.
Errant had a new, uncomfortable thought.
“Can this ship do interplanetary distances?” His Cygni transport wouldn’t be back in system for another five standard days.
Heren made a noncommittal noise. “Not officially. We’ll make it to the relay station, though. That’s where the escape craft was headed.”
“Oh. Will you meet your crew there?” He saw her expression change, and regretted the words.
“Former crew.” The bitterness was back in her tone. “They won’t want to see me. Besides, I think I should stick with you for now. Go on record about everything I saw and did at Midnight’s stations, the first one and the second.” She gave him a smile that was almost convincing. “That has to count for something, right?”
“We’ll make PD feel it,” Errant promised her. “And your people will come around.”
Heren shrugged. “Maybe. I did betray them.”
“I’d hope they see that losing a job is the smaller evil in all this. Hell, if an alien fungus can blow up half its own planet to get rid of its human parasites—” He stopped, afraid that he might have been too flippant in the face of everything she’d been through, but she nodded.
“You have to excise the rotten bits, so they don’t kill you.”
“Huh.” Errant let that idea settle into him for a long moment as they pushed farther into space. “Yes, you really do.” Then, because they had some time before they reached the relay station, he pulled up his personal correspondence files on his handheld and deleted some messages that he didn’t need respond to.