by Roger Fritz, 9-9-02
Somewhere in the universe, space is quiet. Then a spaceship bursts out of the incandescent inferno of hyperspace into existence. It crackles with fire and minor explosions and veers as wildly through space as a child's released balloon. It appears to be a random construction of poles and tubes and canisters and inflated sacks lighted from within. Many of the pods and tubes have blackened holes in them, and the entire ship is scorched. Several poles snap, and a portion of the ship sags inward, emitting sparks and steam.
One of the glowing sacks is the emergency control room, and within it three aliens are still alive. Ree Nana is technically in charge now that most of the crew is dead. He resembles a monkey with large, fan-shaped ears. His hair would have been silver if it weren't blackened. "You bumsquabbled crapulous fud!" he howls, and pounds on a stuck valve with a vorpelmeter, which destroys the vorpelmeter but gets the valve working again. He leaps for the control panel and slaps the computer pads while tiny medical robots trail him and try to bandage assorted wounds on his legs and arms.
The two other aliens who've survived finally have to jump him to make him calm down. "We made it, you blatteroon," ululates Shub. "Cut this out!" And she smacks him about the face till he stops thrashing. Shub resembles a praying mantis. Her limbs are so long that she's awkward in confined spaces. Her exoskeleton is currently smoking, and she'll need to regenerate a limb or two.
The third survivor, Filp, is a chunky sphere with many tentacles. Under the charring he's dirt-colored. The three of them curse and weep as they scramble to stabilize the ship's life-support systems. They hit the last computer bumps simultaneously, and gasp in relief as the air clears. "It wasn't my fault," Ree Nana insists, wilting nonetheless under the toxic glares of the other two.
Filp has many eyes on the ends of tentacles, and when he's angry they turn green. "Yes, it is!" Filp's voice is a deep bass. "You were fighting with Skreedop when you should have been manning the cannons. And it was your idea to take on Lord Scranliggish in the first place. You didn't have your facts straight, and friends of mine are dead now because of you!" Filp pokes a tentacle toward the bodies floating in the nearest access tube. He's angry enough to kill Ree Nana on the spot.
"But if the two of you don't stop arguing about it now," inserts Shub, "I will personally bite your appendages off." Her voice grates like breaking mirrors.
The thump of an alarm cuts the conversation short. They pull themselves by handholds to a bank of makeshift periscopes, and let out yelps of fear as they discover they've come out of the last random jump through hyperspace half a diameter from a planet, and are falling toward it with all the speed of gravity.
Desperately they leap to the control bulbs, and over-rev the last of the backup engines to the point where they'll never run at full capacity again, if they run at all. Pieces of the ship break off and fall as it goes through a high-G curve. Ree Nana falls into a fetal crouch, gibbering with fear, and Shub kicks him to make him get back to work.
When the ship makes it into low orbit, they all cheer. Shub and Filp have been looking forward to having some time to beat Ree Nana to within a hair's breadth of his life, but it will have to wait. Shub peers through trinoculars at the scene below. The pieces of the ship that have broken off draw threads of fire down into the clouds. A fight breaks out between Ree Nana and Filp, and they whirl in the zero gravity. Shub ignores them and readjusts her instrument to look through the clouds. "Wait a minute," she says, and something in her voice stops the scuffle. Ree Nana and Filp bounce off the wall and look at her. "Oh no...."
Hours and orbits later they have confirmation. It's true. They weep with joy and break out what's left of the ship's store of intoxicants, though the ship is so broken up they have to send a robot through hard vacuum to retrieve the bottles and boxes. They sing old battle songs and old molting songs and pledge undying comradeship, and they toast each other till first Ree Nana and then Filp pass out. Shub sings alone for awhile, the high silvery songs of migration, and then begins to sob with fear.
The planet is virgin, untouched, undiscovered. No one's ever been there. There are no cities or roads or pollution or any of the other signs of sapients. The entire planet is covered with climax forest. Shub weeps because the planet is so valuable their lives are worth nothing in its shadow, and the chances that they will survive are less than nothing.
But when they wake up the next day, they're feeling crazy and reckless. And after all they have nothing to lose, so they decide to stake the claim. Three months later the three of them are far from the virgin planet. The registration process has bogged down in red tape, as they knew it would. So far, their budget has been able to handle it. They're floating weightlessly along one of the tubular streets of a renegade space-city. Filp is dirt-colored again, and decked out in a blue harness. His tentacles are painted with stripes. Shub is iridescent and sheened with oil. Ree Nana's hair has grown out enough that he has a fuzzy grey pelt.
The street is dirty and badly lighted. The aliens and robots they pass are dirty as well, and make threats or spit sparks or weave by in oblivion, bouncing off the walls of inflated buildings. They turn through an open airlock into a tavern. A noisy crowd fills the central space and piles up against a bar that runs the length of the chamber. The bartenders are kept busy dispensing drinks, inhalants and pills.
A lizard waves at them from one of the booths that lines the outside wall.
They stop at the bar for drugs, and Ree Nana takes a look at the female alien who happens to be next to him. She looks somewhat like an ostrich. "My, aren't you a callipygian figzig," he croons. "Might I possibly interest you in a little firkytoodling?" And then he finds himself suddenly threatened by her boyfriend, who's sitting just beyond her at the bar and looks like a cross between a crocodile and a buzzsaw. Ree Nana calms down when Filp chokes him and drags him away, and they slip into the lizard's booth without further major incident.
"You can thank your lucky bones," hisses the lizard, " that Lord Grizzle has agreed to your usurious demands." Ree Nana wants to punch the lizard for his insolent overtones, but Shub restrains him. Ree Nana yelps. The lizard bristles and murmurs threats, and whisks out of the nook.
Then he sticks his head back in. "The funds are being transferred to your ship's account. Good luck, my friends...." The way he says it gives Filp and Shub chills. Ree Nana is so busy fuming he doesn't seem to hear.
As they slip out of the tavern, Ree Nana is suddenly grabbed by a group of thugs who've been loitering there for the last half hour. "Hey! What's going on?" Ree Nana yells back to Filp and Shub as he's towed off down the street.
"We've had it with you, you mingy lungis," Filp yells after him. "We've sold you into slavery! Part of the deal!"
"And good riddance!" Shub thunders after him. Ree Nana's rageful spluttering diminish as he's towed around a bend in the street. Filp and Shub looked at each other and preen. "It was worth every unit we had to pay," Filp says, "to get them to take the treacherous catlapping kin of a cagmag." Shub's laughter rumbles in agreement, and they go back into the bar to celebrate.
Six months later Ree Nana sits on a bench in a cylindrical chamber inside a landing craft with 22 other aliens. No two of the aliens are of the same race, but they're so cluttered with similar equipment they look more like assembly-lined droids than organics. Ree Nana is complaining bitterly to the beaked alien next to him, and being ignored. "No, no!" Ree Nana growls, "I was framed! I didn't do it! There's been a mistake of some kind!"
Everyone else is ignoring both Ree Nana and the overseer, who is haranguing them in an unintelligible language. The overseer is feeling nervous, so he zaps Ree Nana for his outburst, and then he zaps a couple other slaves just to relieve his feelings. This gets him a round of laughter and scattered applause from those on the benches. Ree Nana writhes in pain and falls over.
Without warning, the bench suddenly folds into the walls of the landing craft, sending the squad sprawling. Then the floor splits and dumps them into wind and a huge roaring sound and freefall. For a moment Ree Nana has confused glimpses of other bodies tumbling around him, and then he is falling away on his back, looking back up at the landing craft as it grows rapidly smaller above him. He screams with terror.
From the forest below, the view is peaceful. Distant thunder rumbles, and the parachutes that open behind the high-flying speck resembled parasolled seeds releasing from a seedpod. But as the parachutes descend, the aliens hanging beneath them become visible: squirming clumps of machinery.
The squad gathers into formation for the final approach and glides down into a clearing. Everyone except one octopoid crash-lands, but the grass is so tall and soft it doesn't matter. It's like landing on a mattress. For a moment, in the silence, sitting in grass taller than he is, under the light of an orange sun, nothing matters to Ree Nana, and he laughs. It's the first time he's laughed in months.
Then the overseer is up and shouting. "Get the campsite set up!" he yells, and zaps a couple of slow movers. The squad bounds over the grass, bellying up over the bending blades like body-surfers playing in ocean
waves. The overseer is so irritated by they can hear his dental plates creaking. "You witless wonders are in for it now!" he hollers after them. They get to the edge of the forest, release the perimeter minibots, inflate the tents, impact the foxholes, set up the big gun on its tripod, and all the while they're performing these routine activities the atmosphere of playfulness increases. The overseer nearly has a fit. "Since you blinkards are in such a good mood," he snarls, "let's see how much work you can get done. We've got three hours of daylight left, and I'm going to get six hours of work out of you. Fire up the saws!"
They warm up their laser saws. Ree Nana is put on point, over his cries of protest, and he leads half the squad out through the perimeter. Those left behind wave cheerily. "There are better people for this job," Ree Nana is
shouting as they prod him forward. As the first cutting beam touches the first tree, every alien cries out as one. Many grab their heads and drop to the ground. Ree Nana runs around wildly. Then his feet stick to the ground. He screams and waves his arms franticly. He looks back at the camp for help, but everyone there is screaming and waving their arms like branches tossed in a wind. He looks down and sees that his feet are covered with bark. He panics so deeply that he passes out.
The alien bodies stretch upward, and the equipment they've been carrying tumbles to the forest floor. The last of the screams dies away as the loggers leaf out.
Time passes in the clearing. Vines grow up over the tents and scattered equipment. Things just don't seem to matter to Ree Nana or to the other loggers in the way they once did. Dreamily they pass the days among the other trees in the forest, watching the clouds fly and feeling the rain fall and not caring that the equipment is disappearing into the undergrowth. Somehow it all seems endlessly mildly entertaining and vaguely amusing.
A year passes, and then one day thunder rumbles from the sky. A troopship is using the atmosphere for braking. It draws a line of boiling purple cloud across the clear blue, and descends on downward-pointing jets to land in the same clearing that Ree Nana and the other slaves had mysteriously disappeared from. The ship is there to find out what happened. It's black, and studded with weaponry. Airlocks snap open on both sides, and troops plunge out to deploy in a perimeter. Larger weapons are herded out behind them. Detonations are set off that compact trenches, while spools of robowire unreel themselves. The commander taps his throat mike to check his link with orbital headquarters. "Foxtrot one," he says. "We're down and deploying."
"Cleared to deploy," comes over his helmet's speakers. "Orbital one. Out."
They settle down and wait to see what happens.
The commander sends out patrols. They find nothing harmful. The orbital officers dither for days, and then at last they give the dirt-side commander the go-ahead. His platoon assembles the tree-mowers, and with a crackling hum, the huge plasma blades flicker on. The drivers climb to their cockpits and rev the turbines, and suddenly a wave of change sweeps through the nearest trees. They writhe and shrink, the leafy crowns exploding with muffled, whumping sounds.
The trees split into chunks, and the chunks morph into aliens. Each driver is besieged by naked copies of himself swarming up the sides of his mower and demanding angrily, "Hey! What's going on? What are you doing in my armor? Who are the rest of these guys? Since when do you get to run the mower?"
The commander is screaming to headquarters, but before he can say anything coherent, the base is overrun. The naked clones run right by the perimeter robots, who spin this way and that in confusion. They help themselves to underwear and clothes and food, and the commander is dismayed that some of his men have taken off their armor in order to argue with their alter-selves and try to save some of their rapidly disappearing possessions, and he can no longer tell who's real and who's a copy.
He is even more aggrieved when copies of himself receive as much credence from the group as he does. He tries to call a meeting while he still has some semblance of control, but it quickly gets out of hand and the business at hand winds up being to set up a gambling tournament with the troop ship as the grand prize. The commander weeps bitterly at his helplessness, and then is dismayed afresh to see that a number of the copies of himself are having nervous breakdowns. He tries again to warn Orbital Headquarters over his com, but they don't believe him, and threaten to send down a retrieval platoon. He doubts they'll even do that much.
The tournament gets under way in the tent city that's springing up around the encampment. The commander argues with his original crew, what he can collect of them. "We've got to recapture the troop ship," he says, "Don't you see how desperate a situation we're in? We've got to take big chances!"
"Forget it," says his old second-in-command, a lieutenant named Safroo. "The only chance we can see to get back off this planet is to get into the games." And they rush off to the nearest tavern to get started.
The mowers hulk where they've been left, and already the vines are starting to cover them. The commander climbs up onto one of them and cries himself into exhaustion. "You know," he says to himself, "they're
right. Orbital command will argue forever about this one, and in the end they'll do exactly nothing. My only chance to even get back to orbital command is to get into the games myself."
He walks through the chaotic streets, if you can call them that, feeling hopeless. When he happens by a huge tent-tavern called The Purple Pit-stop, he's practically dragged in by one of the owners, a silver-haired monkey with big ears. Ree Nana had wandered in a mellow haze for days after being morphed back into his original form. The long dreams of the trees hung in his brain like a fog. But gradually they blew away, and his old passions reemerged. He'd talked his way into part-ownership of this tavern with sweet talk and promises of sweat equity.
The commander fretted through the recital of the rules, and then he falls to gambling like a madman, exulting as his fortunes rise and raving when they fall. His shouts passed unnoticed in the feverish crowd. The days pass in a haze of exhaustion.
Ree Nana gloats that he's finally the house and is getting rich until he falls into an argument with the other owners and is kicked out. "Cheating the customers is one thing," they tell him, "We expect it. But cheating us? You're lucky we don't kill you here and now." Ree Nana sulks as he goes out into the woods to dig up his stake. He takes it to another tavern, The Floating Orbit, and plunges into the games.
He does so well that three weeks later finds him slumping and disheveled as he faces a gigantic, brutish creature across a table in the center of an impromptu amphitheater, occupied by a tremendous crowd. "You're doomed, you freewheeling fornicator," Ree Nana murmurs. The commander stands humbly behind Ree Nana, holding a towel and a steaming mug. "You want a wipe?" he leans forward to ask. Ree Nana waves him away and frowns at the game board on the table. He moves a counter. The beast howls and leaps up from the table, staggering backwards. Ree Nana bounces and shouts in triumph. The crowd bursts into an uproar, as winners start
trying to collect their winnings and losers start trying to be someplace else in a hurry.
The grand winners file aboard the troop-carrier. Ree Nana is toward the end of the line, and he keeps bobbing up to wave joyfully at the losers he's leaving behind. Most of the crowd are sobbing or muttering angrily. The real commander moans in anguish at losing his last chance to get his ship back, and the copies of him moan in sympathy. The ship lifts off straight up, in a cloud of steam, and then thunders into the sky on a jet of purple cloud. As the last roll of thunder fades away, so do the sounds of lamenting and muttering. The members of the crowd look at each other, and their feet sink into the soil. Their arms sprout upwards. When the commander looks around, he sees through his tears that he is surrounded by a forest of young trees. He wails, but no one wails with him.
A week later the commander and five of his original crew have found each other. Their clothes are ragged, and the carry hand-carved spears. They're so covered with dirt that it acts as camouflage. They're sitting in the shade on the edge of a clearing. They're watching the trail that comes down to a watering hole. "I once knew this guy from Barforgius who had three arms," lieutenant Safroo is saying to the commander. "Two on his left side. Of course, that isn't all that abnormal for Balforgians, but it was unusual. What was more unusual is that he was on the original expedition that discovered the ocean. You probably remember that, if you were watching the news at the time... No? Well, you probably know the Balforgius home-world is one huge city over the whole planet, and after centuries of wondering, finally someone put together an expedition that went all the way down past the last pilings. And what they found was that there was a gigantic ocean covering the whole planet, only it had been roofed over. Of course, this guy I knew, when he got home from the expedition he'd already gambled away all the money he'd made, and his wife was so mad she sold him into slavery. Well, the courts upheld it, and he wound up rowing aboard the space-galleys out beyond Zinthrippa. Of course he didn't survive, no one would. But the slave-owners took a print of his mind once a week the whole time he was rowing, and when he died they just downloaded him into a Thrinkian robot, and the poor guy found that his sentence of 340,000 years was starting to look like he'd actually have to serve the whole thing when...."
The commander raises a hand to silence Safroo. A deer-like animal has come out of the forest and is stepping down to the water hole. The commander gestures for the others to be still, and then he cautiously moves into position to throw his spear. The deer senses something is wrong and raises it's snout. The commander throws his spear, and it wounds the animal's left hind leg. It leaps and cries. The rest of the band burst out of hiding and run forward, but the commander drops to the ground, clutching his leg and yelling. "Wait, wait!" he shouts.
The crew comes back confused as he rips open what remains of his pant leg. As the wound disappears from the animal's leg, it appears on the commander's. He screams in pain. The band draws together into a tight knot. The deer-like animal gets up and wanders away. The crew mutters unhappily as they improvise a stretcher to carry the commander back to camp. He's stopped screaming because he's passed out.
Ree Nana has made a friend on the troopship. During the three weeks it has taken them to track down a junk dealer, he's succeeded in annoying everyone on board except for a guy named Safroo. Safroo is also hated by everyone else, and the result is they spend a lot of time together. Safroo resembles a long-legged turtle, but he's so agile that he wins most physical games, so now they mostly play board games and card games, where they're about equally adept at cheating.
"I was born on a frontier planet," Safroo is telling Ree Nana one day as they eat their dried rations, "and as a hatchling I was sold to the military. I did well and rose to the rank of lieutenant. Which is what I was doing on the troopship. But the whole experience of the games was a real revelation to me. I'm a different person because of it. You have no idea! It wasn't the gambling that was so intoxicating, it was the being free and unrestrained. Now that's heady stuff! That's what I want more of."
"It's not all it's cracked up to be," Ree Nana tells him, "especially for an idiot like you," and they fall into one of their frequent scuffles. They're interrupted by the announcement over the ship's com that they're about to dock with the junk dealer. They dart to nearby portholes to see.
The junk dealer's ship is so colossal that it's approach occludes the view of space like a small moon. It's entire surface is covered with wrecked ships.
The junk dealer himself resembles a frog except that he is maroon and the size of a pony. He comes aboard with his entourage, dripping jewelry. "What, all of you in this one little ship? How tawdry." He knows they're outlaws, and couldn't care less. With the credit he gives them for the troopship, and only after days of bargaining, the crew buys a number of smaller craft, and they scatter into space. Ree Nana and Safroo decide to team up, and they head for a newly discovered planet. They heard about it from a rat they were talking to on the junk dealer's ship.
The commander and his band threaten a tree. The last tatters of their clothes are gone, and have been replaced with loincloths, vests and armbands. They dance around the tree, whooping and taking near-miss swings with stone axes, until the tree had pushed out flowers and ripened them into a variety of fruits, nuts and small melons. One of the dancers is the real Safroo. He whoops like a banshee. The branches bend down so the band can pick their bounty. "Now this is the life," Safroo says to the commander, who scowls and has no idea what he's talking about.
Seventy galaxies away, the copy of Safroo comes home from work. He has a job with a demolition company. His wife is floating in the hot pool on the living room, and the kids jump out of the water to run and leap on top of
him. Their home has no roof, and the walls are hedges. Furniture is mostly oddly shaped bumps in the lawn. The children pull him into the pool, and then they want him to tell them stories. "Tell us about when you were a logger," they giggle.
"Oh, not that old story," Safroo tickles them into distraction, and instead tells them stories of their planet's aborigines, hunting through the jungles and sailing the oceans in outrigger canoes. Ree Nana comes over after the children are asleep, and he and Safroo split a pitcher of beer and play some cribbage.
"Well, I think it's time to kill the cockabaloo and be done with it," Ree Nana says. "The timing is right. The bosses won't care, and we can take over his share of the squeeze."
"You're right," Safroo says. "I got a family to feed. We gotta think about our careers here."
They talk about a plan to do away with their supervisor, and then they drift into talking about the old days when neither of them had jobs or families or responsibilities, and they roamed the universe.
"Those were the days," Safroo sighs.
They hardly remembered any more which of the stories are lies.
The commander and his band are walking single-file through the forest. "And my cousin got into space-gliding," Safroo is saying to the commander. "Of course, none of that would have been possible without the invention of the personal re-entry shield by the Kalbozi. Until then, there was no way for a guy in a space suit to survive re-entry. But after that, the hang glider people took it up, and for a couple years my cousin would take the elevator up to the top of the atmosphere and bail out with nothing but a suit, a shield and an inflatable glider. He tried to get me to do it, but I told him I already had better ways to die. Later on, he had to admit that some of it had been in reaction to his father's death. It was as though he had to do something death-defying...."
"You know," the commander says, "I have listened to you through training. I have listened to you through the descent and deployment. I have had to listen to you through this entire humiliating ordeal. Don't you think that you could learn more by listening once in awhile instead of talking all the time?"
"Exactly," Safroo says. "I was just saying to Jocko the other day that it's the person who listens who does the learning. In fact, I knew this guy from Razissa once who...."
The commander raises a hand to interrupt Safroo. The band has come out of the forest into a large and sunny hillside clearing. An autumn breeze sends waves rippling through the ripe grain that covers most of the meadow. The commander points at the grain. "Deploy!" he says. The band squeals with pleasure and sets about harvesting. They grind the grain with flat rocks, and the yeast-bearer comes forward with the sacred gourd.
"Oh Giver of Fermentation," he intones, and waves his hands in ceremonial gestures. They make dough with water from a nearby stream, mold the dough into loaves and set them in the shade to rise. Later they'll put them on rocks in the sun to bake.
Then they spread out to sunbathe. The commander relaxes in the warmth and reflects on his life. It isn't so bad. He enjoys leading the band, and their nomadic lifestyle has come to suit him. He thinks of himself as a pioneer, leading his stalwarts into a new way of life. He'd like to find a place to found a village. Of course, it would help if his stalwarts weren't constantly moaning and complaining about every little thing.
Despite the sunlight, the real Safroo is griping about feeling cold. He tries to start a fire on a dished rock, but the earth swallows the fire, stone and all, as it always does. Safroo laughs and dances away.
Safroo's clone crouches with his wife by the deathbed of one of their children. Late evening sunlight slants over the tall reed walls. The bed is a grassy hump with a flat top. Their daughter is dying from a childhood illness that isn't usually fatal. Safroo and his wife hug each other and weep.
A year later, Safroo stops on his way home from work one day to leave a bouquet on Delio's grave. "So much has changed since you died, my dear," he says. One thing that hasn't changed is that he's still grieving. Scattered trees shade the hillside cemetery, and there's a bench by his daughter's grave. Safroo feels peaceful there, and stays longer than he should.
He's getting up to leave when he notices a sprout an inch high growing from his daughter's grave. Safroo shocks himself with a howl of exultation that seems to spring up from deep in his belly. That evening he's in such a good humor he takes his old friend Ree Nana out for a beer. "This puzzles me," Safroo says.
"What? You mean why you yelled?" Ree Nana asks. Neither can come up with an answer.
Nor does Safroo know why it feels so important to put a fence around the shoot and talk the groundskeepers into letting it grow. But he goes back early the next morning and does it anyway.
Safroo and Ree Nana sit on the same bench in the same graveyard, though so many years have passed they're both withered old-timers. From many of the graves grow large trees. "The demolition business was good to us," Ree Nana says, trying to start a conversation.
"Yes," says Safroo, in the tone of one who's lost all interest in business.
"You haven't been the same since your wife died," Ree Nana says, looking up into the trees. A game board lies beside them, unused. Ree Nana wishes he could get a response out of Safroo, but he can't seem to today, so he picks up a newspaper. He begins reading some of the stories out loud, and they both have to chuckle.
"The mysterious tree cult is spreading across the galaxy at a rate that's unusual for new religions," Ree Nana reads. Safroo chortles. Ree Nana looks at him with raised eyebrows. "Scientists are trying to trace the rise of the cult back to its sources, even as they puzzle over the new sect's dynamism," he continues. They both laugh. They know perfectly well what its sources are.
Three centuries later, the graveyard is thick with giant trees. Safroo's clone and four generations of his descendants grow there, but then the graveyard had become too crowded for new plantings.
One day like any other a change spreads upward from the soil over the tree that grew from Delio's grave. The bark lightens in color, and ripples as though what lay under it were muscle rather than wood. With a shudder, the tree wakes up. She tosses her limbs, and wades through the soil to wake up her neighbor. He stretches and mumbles, shakes his leaves, and then wades off to wake up his neighbor. The hubub spreads. Whole forests become mobile. Lawns wake up and dart away like schools of fish.
That fall the coastal cities are overrun by migrations of giant redwoods, who wade gracefully through the streets as though the asphalt were pudding. Some of the younger trees swarm up the sides of buildings and leap off into space. They spread their branches to slow their fall, but still they hit hard enough to crack concrete. They scamper up to do it again, and by the time the migration has passed, they have leveled huge swaths through the cities. The aborigines invoke disaster aid from their governments, and fall to arguing over whether to rebuild or use tactical nuclear weapons against these nightmarish trees. By the time they decide to use the weapons, the government has disintegrated to the point where it's no longer possible.
One night, fifty years later, a band of aborigines crouches behind some scattered rocks in the moonlight. They're dressed in colorful leggings and vests, and they smother their giggles as they peek from hiding. "Wait, wait," a young man whispers to a child. "I'll tell you when." He's excited, and the child is thrilled. Next to the man is a pile of gourds and bulging sacks.
An orchard of peach trees approaches, their leaves tossing as though rippled by the wind, although the night is calm.
As they pass the rocks, the natives leap out of hiding and swarm up into the trees. The men on the ground quickly toss their bundles up to the women. And then they all settle in, calling to each other, picking peaches, gossiping as they hang up their provisions and string hammocks between the branches. The peach trees are going south for the winter, and the aborigines are going with them. There's plenty of time now to tell stories to the children.
Two thousand years later, in a huge clearing in an old-growth forest, a busy market offers color and noise and hot fritters-on-a-stick. In the middle of the marketplace, a seedpod the size of a house-trailer is being loaded with bundles and passengers. The pod has windows and a door, though they aren't rectangular. The passengers wave as the doors are sealed, and then the pod lifts off silently and rises into the sky.
Three hours later the seedpod is in low orbit and approaching a spherical thicket the size of a skyscraper. Similar thickets are scattered through space as far as the passengers can see. Here and there, beings in space suits or in small seedpods can be seen flying from thicket to thicket, or zooming about in space for the fun of it. Formation flying is in vogue this year.
The seedpod docks in a dimple in the foliage, and the passengers float out into a passageway made of living twigs and leaves. At the end of the hall, they float into the customs chamber. "Oh wow!" says one of the passengers. "This is the largest seedpod I've ever seen."
"This is only the beginning," another passenger comments. "We'll be seeing wonders on this junket."
Ten million years later, hardly an inhabited system in this galaxy doesn't have its great space forest, encircling the native star in a series of prodigious green rings, and sheltering whatever aborigines the system has produced.
Sasquam sits in the lounge at her local gravity-ring catapult, waiting for her ship to be called. Her entourage footles about her. She's using the time by dictating her memoirs, so she seems to be talking to thin air. She says, "My fondest memories from the Fractal Olympics are of the sky ribbon shows by Fyodoon. You should have seen them, Dear Hearts. He'd put them on at night, and the sky would be covered with veils of shifting color. He's a faulous artist, of course, and the most delightful conversationalist, but his sky show that year was so moving it brought tears to my eyes...."
Sasquam is one of the interstellar artists who travel to the farthest systems, troubadours on a cosmic circuit, carrying the latest news, dramas and fads to outlying groves no matter how far from the center they might lie.
Glossary (From The Word Lover's Dictionary, by Josefa Heifetz):
blatteroon: a babbler
blinkard: obtuse person
cagmag: inferior food
callipygian: having shapely buttocks
catlap: a weak drink, fit only for cats
clinchpoop: a jerk
cockabaloo: a bullying boss
fizgig: a flirtatious woman
footle: waste time, talk nonsense
lungis: a lout
mingy: mean and stingy
volpelmeter: instrument to measure the profundity of the vimitron
Here's a version of Forestation you can download: