24.4.07

Sunday Scribblings: A Story about Roots

Well, this response to the Sunday Scribblings prompt rooted was intended first and foremost just to squeeze some fiction out of me, at a time when my creative energy is being eaten up by my troubles. As such, it's hardly the most succinct or focused story you'll come across, but it exists, and that's enough for me.

Rooted

"Ow! What idiot made the ceiling this low?"

I pressed my hands to the ceiling, either side of the strip lights, as I walked beside her. Walking at eighth g had become second nature over the past couple of years - but then someone sticks a low ceiling over your head and you feel like a clumsy toddler again. "Where're your velcro soles?" I asked her.

She looked down at her stripy socks. "They don't fit anymore. My ankles are swelling."

"You're imagining it."

"How, exactly, could I imagine my shoes getting smaller?"

"You've been complaining that they're too small since we first got here. Now all of a sudden they're the right size and it's your feet that are too big. Just get some new shoes and be done with it. Besides, it's only been a week."

"It's more complicated than that. It's all dates and mathematics." She held up a load of fingers to emphasise the point. "And it's all your fault anyway."

"You absolved me of responsibility the moment you uttered the syllable, 'Oops!'"

We stopped by a small doorway, hands pressed to the ceiling. I rapped on the door a few times and it immediately flew open.

"About time!" Matveyev blundered out into the corridor, pulling on a heavy jacket. "I've been sending reports to you people for a week."

"We have a backlog so long you wouldn't believe it," Dawn answered in a low monotone, then with more enthusiasm: "Is this where you live?"

He closed and locked the door, turning his broad back to us. "Yes, this is my room, right here."

"Couldn't you find somewhere with a higher ceiling?" Dawn asked. "Don't you hit your head on it? You're tall."

"I only hit my head when the ceiling is too high. And I can't stand the humming sound on the upper levels."

"What humming sound?"

"You know," I said, "the ventilation."

"Oh yeah," Dawn said, as if remembering a profound but hidden memory. "How long have you been here for?"

"Two months," Matveyev replied.

"You get used to it. You're but a wee babe as far as Callisto is concerned."

"Well, we'll see. But for now, this is where I live. And it's been driving me crazy this past week. Flickering lights, the computers constantly resetting, strange smells…"

Dawn looked at me and bit her lip. "Oh no! It's haunted!"

Matveyev sighed. "If it is, you'd damn well better perform an exorcism. I just want some little cranny to call my own. But everywhere you go there's some niggling little thing driving you nuts!"

"You get used to it," Dawn repeated, with a crooked smile. "Living here is hardly an exact science."

"Ha!" Matveyev barked, humourlessly.

"Look," I said, "you're probably not experiencing anything the rest of us don't normally. But down here, out of the way, it probably just bugs you more. I mean-"

The lights went out. Absolute pitch darkness.

"Spooky," Dawn said.

"Dawn, where's your torch?"

A plastic rustling sound. "You see?" Dawn said. "You upset the ghosts."

"What are you even doing? Where's your torch?" I reached out blindly, finding her waist with my hands.

"That tickles! Just be patient."

I found the small torch on her belt and yanked it away. I pressed the 'on' switch, illuminating Dawn in the act of opening a bag of dried apricots. "You drive me nuts," I told her firmly.

Matveyev reached out and grabbed the bag. "This is contraband!"

Dawn snatched it back. "Not quite: it's my contraband, thank you very much."

"I'm not kidding," Matveyev growled. "Food like that keeps ending up in the hands of the orbital crews - you wouldn't believe the mess it makes in microgravity. Tell me who you got it from, I'll have them snapped in two!"

"We're sick of eating paste," Dawn said disinterestedly. "I'm not in microgravity anymore. Excuse me for having a stomach. And what are you up to?"

"Well, my job?" I suggested. "You know, figuring out why the lights are out." I held a little LCD screen in my hand, waving it around slowly. "You can never get a signal down here. Here we go. Well, that's strange. Maybe it really is ghosts."

"What is it?" Dawn asked, her mouth full of dried apricots.

"Someone has pulled the plug."

"Or something," Dawn added.

Matveyev frowned. "There's a plug?"

"Each section is self-contained, right? So there's one point where this section picks up its power. And the whole place was thrown together like Lego, so it's just a big-arse plug connected to an outside… power… thing."

Dawn handed me her bag of apricots and rolled up her sleeves. "Right, I'll deal with this. Don't let him near my real food. And shine the light on me. Or where I'm looking, I mean. Ouch!"

"Don't forget the low ceiling."

"Yeah, thanks for that."

With Matveyev and me in tow, Dawn fumbled her way along the ceiling, back to the elevator we rode in on. She pushed up with her legs, lifting the ceiling panel at an angle so it tumbled slowly back down, bouncing onto the velcro floor with a soft, scratchy sound. I shone the torch up into the black hole above.

"Freaky," Dawn said. "Maybe it is ghosts."

"There's a letter up there saying, Dear The Living, I have unplugged your infernal lights, as they are too bright for my empty, sunken eye sockets, signed, A Ghost?"

She grabbed onto the edge of the hole and hoisted herself up so her head disappeared inside. "There certainly is. But also, the cable's just disconnected, like someone pulled it out. I can't see any reason why it's not plugged in."

I turned to Matveyev. "Are you the only person living down here?"

He shrugged. "As far as I know."

Dawn looked over her shoulder at me. "Lift me up, I'll plug it back in."

I handed the light to Matveyev and put the bag of apricots in my jacket pocket. Then I wrapped my arms around Dawn's calves and lifted her up. "You're getting heavier," I told her.

She reached up with hands and fumbled in the darkness as Matveyev tried to keep the light steady. "Fuck off, I'm not even eight kilos."

"Kilograms are the SI unit of mass, not weight," I corrected her. "Your mass is always the same on any world."

She ignored me. "Damn it, the cable is catching on something. I'm gonna have to give it a good yank."

"After you plug it back in," I asked, "then what?"

"Call a psychic hotline on the company bill?"

"Interplanetary rates. Nice. Ask them about my love life while you're at it."

A solid clunk sounded from above, and the lights flickered back on. I let Dawn float back down on her own. She landed expertly and dusted her hands. "Problem solved. For-"

With a loud crash, several ceiling panels shattered inwards, further down the corridor, spilling loops of cabling and wires into the passageway.

The three of us stood in silence for a moment.

"I was just about to say, 'for now'," Dawn said.

"You did this," I told her, "you're fixing it."

She grabbed my wrist and pulled me along after her. Closer up, the damage only seemed worse. "Oh, for fuck's sake," Dawn whined. "What a mess."

I peered closer at the knotted bundle of detritus that hung from the ceiling. "What's that brown stuff?"

Dawn pulled a pair of tweezers from her jacket and plucked at the wiring. "Good question. It looks like…"

"Is it a plant?"

"Roots, I think."

"I see," I said. "So it wasn't ghosts, but aliens."

Dawn nodded. "Yep. First come the roots. Then the pods. And then the pod people. We're doomed."

"It was nice knowing you."

"Give me back my apricots. I want to die with a full stomach."

Matveyev was not amused. "You two do realise that we're directly under the arboretum?"

Dawn threw a dried apricot into her mouth. "Really? What a headache that's going to be for whoever's got to fix it. These sections are supposed to be self-contained, didn't someone say that earlier?"

I stared at the tangled mess of roots, strangling the wiring. "It's wet. No wonder there have been having so many problems down here." I sighed. "Yeah, what a headache."

Matveyev shook his head. "Not my headache, I'm glad to say. Just get it fixed. I have a meeting to get to, so…"

He turned towards the elevator.

"Thanks so much," Dawn said, her mouth full.

Matveyev turned back to us. "Oh, and when I find out who's responsible for smuggling that stuff, I'm going to throw them out of the fucking airlock. I'm not kidding."

He stomped off down the corridor.

"I kind of hope he was kidding," I said to Dawn.

"I dunno," she mumbled. "I keep telling you that I want to spend more time outside."

*

The ceiling was high overhead, with a round skylight set into it. Jupiter peered down from above, a thin, sepia crescent. Plants and trees coiled into the air around us, and the soft grass felt strange beneath our feet.

"Knock knock," Dawn called. "Anyone home?"

"Haven't seen you two in a while," a woman's voice replied. "Are you off-duty?"

"We're never off-duty," I said. "Trouble never sleeps. Where are you?"

Tess stood up from behind a big, spiky green bush, short and slightly out of proportion with herself, a trowel in one hand. "I'm here. There's no trouble in my arboretum, I hope?"

"If only there wasn't," Dawn muttered.

"Your plants have been up to no good," I said.

Tess pulled off her gardening gloves and tucked them into one pocket of her grubby trousers. "Really? I shouldn't be surprised."

"Oh no," I said. "Plants are always wandering around, sticking their roots where they're not wanted."

She laughed and beckoned us closer. Dawn gently pushed off from the ground with one foot and reached her in one bound. I followed suit.

"These plants are the only living creatures here apart from humans," Tess said. "We shouldn't expect them to follow our orders."

Dawn was unimpressed. "They would if they knew what's good for them. Biting the hand that waters them."

"Speaking of hands," Tess said, offering her hand to Dawn, "I hear that congratulations are in order."

Dawn folded her arms and grinned. "No they're not. I'm in denial."

Tess looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "Well, okay, sure. Let's step into my office."

*

Tess' office, at least unofficially, was a dark wooden bench overlooking the centre of the arboretum. We sat three in a row, with Dawn in the middle.

"Your plants' roots have broken through the air-tight floor," Dawn said, "and are causing mischief on the level below."

Tess sighed. "Well, I did say that they don't follow my orders."

"I don't think they follow anyone's orders anymore," Dawn said. "I think they've decided that the age of humans is over and it's time to make their move."

"Right," Tess said.

"In the short term," I said, "we just need to fix the ceiling downstairs and make sure that they don't do it again."

"In the long term," Dawn added, "we have no hope of beating them."

"I'm not so sure," I said. "They're just plants."

"That," Dawn said, shooting me a condescending look, "is exactly the kind of complacent thinking that will let them win."

"Yes," Tess added. "I wouldn't underestimate the plants."

"Especially not after Tess has been messing with their genes and otherwise faking them up."

"Faking them up?" Tess repeated.

"Yes," I explained, "Dawn feels that you are failing in your duty to cultivate a convincing simulacrum of Earth by selfishly breeding your own new plants - her words, not mine, I hasten to add."

"I see," Tess said slowly.

Dawn seemed strangely satisfied with that response. "I think that's a confession," she said.

"Well," Tess went on, "I don't see that it's my duty to recreate Earth at all."

Dawn looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "A criminal mind, indeed."

"Seriously. Why recreate Earth? What are we doing here anyway?"

"We find trouble and shoot it," I said.

"We make trouble and it shoots us," Dawn corrected.

"If you like Earth so much, why not do it there?"

"Oh there's much more trouble out here," Dawn said. "Even the plants are stirring it up."

"Be serious for five seconds, Dawn. You're having a baby."

"Yes," Dawn said, "you're clearly growing grapevine here now."

"There are less than two hundred people here. None of us have any secrets," Tess said. And then she looked at me and winked.

I snorted. "I don't know why everyone assumes that I had anything to do with it."

"In fact," Dawn said, leaning back and looking up at the crescent above, "it was Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. I've been here for two years now, and we've become quite friendly. I finally decided to seduce him, and he came to me as a shower of gold…"

"Seduce is a delicate word for it," I interrupted.

She folded her arms and took an angry breath. "Okay, so maybe I was talking with Jupiter one day and I kissed him by accident."

"By accident?" Tess asked.

I nodded. "And don't forget the part where you exclaimed, 'Oops!'"

"How do you kiss someone by accident?" Tess persisted.

"The important thing is that we both wanted to kiss in general - of course, how could any mere god resist me? It's just that I was the only one who thought we both wanted to kiss at that specific moment in time."

"Aw, Dawn," Tess cooed, "I find it so hard to think of you as being so coy and clumsy."

Dawn continued, a little impatiently, "In any case, end result: I'm going to have a baby in about seven months or so. But I'm not actually going to be pregnant in the intervening time period, because I'm in denial. Speaking of which, why are we even talking about this right now?"

"Because," Tess said, "I'm trying to show you that you're setting down roots here, on Callisto. And that you'll probably never go back to Earth."

"I don't know about that. I might go back for a short holiday - go for a swim, eat apricots, jump for very short distances. All that stuff you can only do on Earth."

Tess looked at me with some concern. "She does know, doesn't she?"

Before I could say anything, Dawn answered herself: "Of course she knows."

"A child born at one eighth g would probably never be able to go to Earth," Tess said sternly. "Only if he or she was prepared to endure considerable discomfort."

"Yes," Dawn said, "she knew that."

"Your child is one of the first of a strange and wonderful generation. A generation of, well, aliens."

"Amazing. And you know what? If it'd like to be born from a pod instead of all this palaver with my uterus, I'd be more than happy."

"Anyway, my point is that I think creating a replica of Earth here would go completely against the spirit of the whole endeavour. Nominally this may be about scientific studies and Helium 3, but whether we like it or not, we're setting down roots."

"These roots are pesky things," Dawn concluded.

"Quite."

Dawn sighed theatrically. "I think we may have to dig a hole."

"Excuse me?"

"We have to find out how the plants are getting through to the level below. Worst case scenario is we find that the plants are pushing their roots through the floor itself. And then we'll have to reinforce it - from above or below, whichever is easiest."

"If from above," Tess said thoughtfully, "then that would mean uprooting all my plants, wouldn't it?"

Dawn sat up and put her hands on her knees. "I'm sure they'd be fine. Like you said, we've all been uprooted from the Earth, and we've all turned out okay, haven't we?"

She grabbed my hand and stood. "Come on," she said. "You've got a lot of digging to do."

"Me? What about you?"

Tess rolled her eyes and started to walk away. "I'll get some spades."

Dawn paid no attention to her, just made puppy-dog eyes at me and said, "But I'm pregnant."

I feigned shock. "I didn't think you wanted anyone to give you special treatment."

"I didn't mean you. Besides, you're supposed to give me special treatment anyway, because you love me."

"Why don't you do the digging because you love me? And, " I added, sotto voce, "because it was your 'superior' black market condom."

"Fine," she said, looking down at my feet and nudging me in the ribs. "I guess we'll both have to dig. Happy now?"

I looked up at Jupiter, then back at Dawn. I smiled. "Yes," I said. "Very happy."

She rolled her eyes. "I didn't mean it so seriously."

"You never mean anything seriously."

"I mean this very seriously," she said, then leant forward to kiss me lightly on the cheek.

I pushed her away playfully. "Oh, how cute!"

"Dig a hole for me?" she asked demurely.

"No," I said. "Dig it together."

She smiled back at me, and I squeezed her hand.

2 comments:

Geosomin said...

I keep saying it, but you really have a knack for dialog...your characters sound like real people - people I know, with distinctly different personalities.
As someone who isn't very eloquent and can't write a story very well (believe me I've tried - it ends up the level of an elementary school student english project), I am always a bit in awe when I enjoy & read what I think is good fiction. And I really think what you write is good fiction - thanks for posting it. I enjoyed it.

Floraine Kay said...

Really tightly written. Very snappy dialogue.