A picnic table underneath strings of faery lights, on the table is pizza, a journal, and mason jars filled with fairy lights

Search for Space Tree

by Pineapple | Content warnings

He dreamed of his grandfather’s farm. He dreamed of the deep orange sky as the sun set. The way columns of darkness streaked through the sky when purple and indigo clouds blocked the light. The way the horizon seemed to stretch forever in front of him as the sun dyed the fields of wheat and maize the color of fire. He dreamed of climbing the tree on the edge of the land, watching the sun set until the moon rose, trying to reach the stars that shone so bright in the Texas countryside.

He dreamed about it even before he left Earth. He dreamed of it while he was still a soldier.

The nuclear war that destroyed Earth’s atmosphere sent people into space in a panic, trying to find somewhere new to live. Inter-planetary travel was already common when the war started, but leaving The Solar System was still in its beginning stages. Many of the planets were research stations. Colonies that were struggling when resources started going to The Last Earth War instead of to the advancement of mankind. Some were tourist destinations or government strongholds.

There was a push for civilians to leave The System. It was still a frontier for mankind. Free real estate, until they ran into hetero-sapiens (aliens, non-humans, what have you). It was something humans were still navigating—physically, politically, and emotionally.

Waylen Plotte left Earth after he was injured on the battlefield. Nothing for him except contaminated soil and bad memories. Most people on the planet were actively fighting in the war—even the leaders had fled to the moon. He had no other jobs to fall back on and the land was shot, so he hopped into a dinky little spaceship he’d bought third hand with all his savings from his stint in the military. He hoped he’d find something out there. A new home, maybe.

But he missed it now. He missed the colors of the sky, the fresh air, the feeling of soil beneath his feet, or the bark of a mesquite tree beneath his palms.

Sometimes he dreamed of it so vividly that he could still feel it when he woke up. Phantom pains in his lost parts and distant memories of what he used to love.

The farm he grew up on was basically a desert now without the protective layers of the atmosphere. Other parts of the world flooded. Waylen lost his right arm and half his chest. Humans are resilient. People plod on. He tried not to dwell on it.

It was easy when Waylen’s crewmate came knocking on the door, distracting him from his own thoughts. He was good at catching him at the perfect time, after waking up but before the depression set in.

“Way, food,” he said through the door. His voice was smooth and had an unmistakable warmth to it, with a hint of his Hindi accent in his words. “You up?”

“I’m up!” he shouted back.

Waylen’s crewmate, Ahim Singh, was a scientist born in the Caloris Basin district of Mercury, who studied all the different little plants, fungi, and bacteria they saw (or didn’t see) on any given planet or rock they stopped on. Waylen was learning that there was all sorts of biodiversity in the universe. Ahim was working on his PhD with a thesis on Earth-like atmospheres outside of The System. It was coming up on two years that they’d been traveling together.

They’d actually hit it off really well. They’d first met at the university on Mercury when Waylen was sent there to get permanent prosthetics after discharge. It was a web of bureaucracy to get there. Waylen signed about a million and one waivers before even being allowed the consultation. But he’d been stuck in a military hospital on Earth in prosthetics that kept clamping up and breaking his coffee mugs and he was sick of it. So, he signed the forms, and they finally sent him to the university hospital on Mercury, where the doctor was both military and a spearhead in the newest Prosthetic Biointegration Tech (PBT): new and experimental biotech that would integrate his living cells with the prosthesis they were attaching, creating a (hopefully) permanent solution. His own blood would flow through it and, the doctors told him, would grow along with his body if he kept up with maintenance, and have clearer touch receptors than other average market options.

Waylen was in the man’s office on campus, anxiety and dread creeping in, when Ahim busted into the room. He was halfway to yelling about how some human biological limits were outdated and discovered under duress and, therefore, not a good indication of how humans could live and thrive.

The doctor turned red with anger and threatened to call security on Ahim if he didn’t leave him alone about the A- while he was with a patient.

Waylen thought it was hilarious. It was the most he’d laughed since his arm got blown off.

Ahim opened the sliding door to Waylen’s room. He was chubby, with dark skin and curly hair. He smiled at Waylen, his eyes quickly sweeping over the room from behind his glasses.

Most things were stuffed messily into the locker by the cabin door, except for the training clothes Waylen had carelessly tossed next to the bed before he’d gone to sleep. Everything was bolted to the floor, and he didn’t leave anything loose. He liked to sleep without the artificial gravity in his room, but he’d forgotten to turn it off as he was getting ready for bed.

“You okay?”

“I’m good.” Waylen raked his hands over his face, rubbing the back of his neck and the tops of his shoulders with his left arm so he didn’t feel the uncanny valley closeness of the PBT’s cover that imitated real skin.

“Your door wasn’t locked,” he noted. “You slept with AG?”

“Forgot to turn it off. We were out in the field gathering samples for you to send back to your prof on Mercury—I was tired from it,” Waylen said.

“You said you used to farm on Earth,” Ahim countered, raising a brow.

“Yeah, when I was a kid. So?”

“And then you were a big, strong soldier man. Picking a couple little flowers tired you out?”

Waylen rolled his eyes, shoving Ahim as he made his way through the narrow corridors to the kitchenette. “What’d you make, anyway? Anything good?”

“Since you said you missed Tex-Mex, I made rice and beans for you,” he teased, trailing behind Waylen.

Waylen huffed, falling into the one chair that fit in the area before Ahim could. Ahim stood at the counter, stretching his legs. He had a habit of sitting too long as he worked, getting lost in the microscopic land of his petri dishes. He’d already divided the pot out into two bowls for them. Waylen grabbed one and scooped the food into his mouth. The spices were a bit off, but it was okay—Ahim was a good scientist, but he wasn’t much of a cook. He’d called it Tex-Mex, but it tasted vaguely like it was meant to be curry. There was a reason Waylen usually cooked, other than Ahim was usually busy studying cellular walls and carbon levels or whatever it was he did.

“Where we going anyway?” Waylen asked. “I thought the new planet atmosphere we were lookin’ at was just, like, an Earth day away.”

Ahim was scrolling on his all-in-one device—social media, maybe, or the news—but he looked away from it to glance up at Waylen. “Ah, I redirected. It was similar to Mercury. We’d need the domes—the atmosphere was very thin when we got close enough to see. Some non-humans might be able to live there, but we can’t. So, I set a course for a new Potential about eighteen hours away. It looks promising in every way, though readings are inconsistent at this distance.” Ahim looked back at the all-in-one, sitting perfectly balanced on the cabinet handles so it was at his eye level.

Waylen ran his left hand over his buzz cut to feel the fuzz of it. He’d always kept it short, even before the army. Now it felt unpleasant. Like dying grass. “Yeah, humans ain’t shit if they aren’t inconsistent,” he mumbled.

Ahim grunted out a laugh. “The new place’ll be hot, though,” he warned.

Waylen shrugged. “I grew up in South Texas. What’s hot?”

“I grew up on Mercury.”

Waylen laughed. “Alright, alright.”

A violent buzzing of vibrations sent Ahim’s all-in-one off the cabinets. Ahim dropped his bowl of rice and beans.

“Ahim?” Waylen asked, raising a brow.

“Waylen—” he stammered. He turned to him with wide eyes.

“What’s going on?”

Ahim handed Waylen the device. Waylen clicked the screen on. The blaring message, taking up the whole screen, was breaking news.


“Oh,” Waylen said.

So that’s why Ahim had dropped the food. Waylen felt his stomach falling in a similar way.

“I…” Ahim began and then stopped. “Are you okay?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“This is a good thing, right? Without the constant nuclear warfare, radiation can start to come down and…”

“Yeah,” he agreed instinctively, nodding. “Yeah.”

“Are you… gonna be okay?” Ahim asked gently.

Waylen shrugged. He wanted to scream. He wanted to rip out the biotech and die all over again—bleed out over the ship like he’d bled into the Earth after he happened to be too close to a bomb. This thing was part of him because of chance—because he decided to join the military on a whim, to defend what he loved—and he’d never get his old self back. He wanted to touch something and feel it like he used to—climb a tree and feel the rough bark cutting into his hands and soles of his feet so he could see the most beautiful thing in the universe.

Instead, he handed Ahim his all-in-one back. “How much longer until we get to the next Potential?”

“About eighteen hours,” Ahim answered, taking the device back gingerly. “Way?”

“I’m gonna clean up the kitchen,” he decided. “You can go back to what you were doing. Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell and all that.”

Ahim huffed a sigh with a concerned look that Waylen chose to ignore as he grabbed a handheld cleaner. He waited until he was sure that Ahim had left to heave a sigh of his own.

Waylen bent down and picked up the glass from the bowl. When it cut his right hand, he didn’t even feel it. He didn’t flinch. But he watched the blood flow from his fingers, anyway. Felt his heartbeat in time with each gush of red. If he peeled away the skin, he would see circuitry and machinery—a different kind of inside than when he’d looked down and saw bone and flesh and muscle and passed out from blood loss and pain. Waylen took a deep breath, ignoring the self-destructive impulse. He was okay—he was alive. He wouldn’t throw that away. A scar on his new arm was nothing.

He cleaned up the rest of the broken dish and forgotten food. He wiped up the floor and washed the dishes.

Waylen used his left hand to cover and bandage the cut. The blood would clot, and the skin would slowly seal itself. And then he went to his room to exercise. It was necessary, all his many, many doctors told him, to keep up with his physical health, and staying active would keep him from getting depressed. It was stupid, but Waylen found that he did tend to feel better after sweating it out. Whether it was with weights, resistance, or picking “a couple little flowers,” finding something to tire himself out was good. It was important to the PBT, too. He had to keep it moving, had to make sure he was using the right as much as the left—keep the blood flowing so the replacement didn’t jam up.

Waylen had always tried hard to stay busy. Riding in a spaceship was surprisingly dull after the initial thrill of space travel. He usually cooked and cleaned. He handled ship maintenance like he’d handled the engine on the old pickup he’d had as a teen, drifting through the farming towns of Texas on road trips. He was working on building a small dancing robot with Ahim’s help during the downtime. None of it was keeping his mind away from the dull feeling in his right hand or the fact that Earth was… Earth was still there.

When he got ready for bed, he locked the door and remembered to turn off the artificial gravity in the room. He slept in zero gravity, floating, as he dreamed of home.

When he woke up, the ship was in orbit around the new Potential. Waylen floated over to the door, turning on the AG. There was a sound like an old computer powering down, and then everything loose in the locker, the clothes he’d tossed to the side, the pillows and blankets, fell to the ground with a thud. It felt like falling back into his body, like falling out of a tree and breaking his arm, his consciousness slamming back into him with about 9.8m/s2 of gravity.

When he went out to see Ahim, he was in the cockpit, looking at detailed scans and photos of the planet. His face was in awe. Jaw dropped and everything.

On the holo-screen in front of him were hi-res pictures of lush greens, soft purples, fluorescent pinks. The most vibrant planet Waylen had seen since Earth.

The ground was laced with thin, stringy vines that looked like clovers but interwoven to create a quilt that covered the red-tinted orange soil. The sky was a washed out indigo a few shades more purple than Earth’s right before the sunset, and pastel like a watercolor painting, splashed with cotton candy yellow clouds in the distance. The flowers were pink, vicious looking things that spotted the grassy network of plants, and over the picture was a note Ahim had written on it that said “cacti???” in rushed handwriting.

“Y’all got cacti in the Caloris Basin?” Waylen asked.

Ahim jumped at the sudden intrusion but quickly turned back to his work. He clicked on the photo. “No, but watch,” he said, crossing his arms, his brows furrowing as he studied with a scientist’s eye.

It played a video of a rainstorm. The flowers blossomed with four large petals to create a bowl, collecting the water that fell straight down from the sky without any wind or breeze. When the rain stopped, the flowers closed again.

“The rain happens routinely. It looks like it’s storing water, hm?” he asked. “Could be close to your Texas home.”

Waylen’s chest ached. “Could be,” he agreed.

“This may be the perfect planet to focus on for my thesis,” Ahim continued. Then, offhand, “Might have to stay here a while. Do you mind?”

 Waylen sifted through all the photos Ahim’s equipment had taken of the planet’s surface already. He wondered what it would look like at sunset, how the weird-plants-instead-of-grass would feel underneath bare feet. The soil looked coarse. Perfect for what seemed like this part of the planet—tropical, almost. Maybe that reddish-orange stuff would feel like sand, and the vines would feel like dried up seaweed washed up on the beaches in the gulf.

“Way?” Ahim asked. When Waylen looked over at him, Ahim was staring at him. “You okay? You look like you’re gonna cry.”

“It looks like Earth.”

“Yeah. The first real potential Potential we’ve run into, huh?” he said, sounding a bit like he was walking on eggshells. “If you don’t want to stay, I can… you know, like, I can call the university and they’ll send a ship for me.”

“There’s no trees in any of these pictures,” Waylen said.

Ahim looked over at the photos as Waylen quickly scrolled through them. “Well—hey—Waylen, slow down—”

“Why aren’t there any trees? Did you take photos of the whole planet?”

“Only what I’ve been able to see so far,” he answered. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Waylen sighed. “You don’t have trees on Mercury, either. What do kids do for fun? Where do you hide during hide and seek?”

“We played indoors mostly,” he said, nudging Waylen in the side. “You know, colony kids and everything. We have the domes so it feels like outside, but the space is still… scientifically sterile and kind of uncultured. It’s growing, you know.”

He was defensive about it, like everyone was about their hometowns.

“Anyway,” Ahim continued, clearing his throat. “There’s no real scientific designation between, like, a bush and a tree. There aren’t shrubs as far as we’ve seen here, just flowers, so… actually, I suppose the network groundcover must have something to do with that, assuming that they are reacting to sunlight…” he bent down to start typing notes on the projection keyboard from his all-in-one.

“Have you ever been to Earth?” Waylen asked.

“No, it’s always been closed to civilians since I was old enough to travel,” Ahim said, looking up at his notes. “Why?”

“Do you want to?”

Ahim shrugged. “I would have liked to, maybe, before the war,” he explained, waving his hand in some gesture Waylen didn’t understand. “But now… It wouldn’t be the same.”

“No,” Waylen agreed, sighing. “It won’t.”

But neither was he, Waylen thought, rubbing his hands together. It was okay. They both changed. They both survived.

“Wouldn’t studying Earth’s atmosphere be good for your thesis?”

“I have studied it,” Ahim answered. “But who knows how long the radiation would take to go down completely? Or how it would affect the atmosphere?”

“All that time on the sun-radiation planet—and you know nothing about radiation, but all about atmospheres?” Waylen asked.

Everybody studied radiation on Mercury,” Ahim answered. He looked over at him, tearing his eyes away from his work. “What are you getting at?”

“I… Nothing.” Waylen looked back at the photos. At the pretty colors, all in the wrong places. The wide expanse of sky, with nothing blocking it. He gestured to the pictures, the notes, the graphs he didn’t understand. “You really think this is something, huh?”

“I don’t know,” he said. His eyes sparkled, reflecting the vivid colors of everything in front of him when he looked back at the holograms. “It could be. It could be a new home.”

“Not for me.”

Ahim turned around to look at him.

“It’ll always be Earth. Texas,” he said, feeling the conviction in both his hands. Both his arms. In his entire chest. His entire being, new parts and old. “Can’t replace it.”

“Hey, what happened to your hand?”

Waylen was staring at the photos, massaging the cut on his prosthesis with his left hand so blood soaked through the bandage. It felt warm. “I mean, like… I could go home now… technically… couldn’t I?”

“I guess so.” Ahim leaned against the table. “It… won’t be what you remember.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “I lost an arm. Earth lost… I don’t know, a lot of stuff. Doesn’t stop me from wanting to go back.”

“I… okay.” Ahim let out a long sigh, trying to find his footing. “I’ll call my professor. See if they can send out a ship for me, and you can head back, if you’re sure, and—”

“Come with me,” Waylen said. “Just… for a little bit. Drop me off. Get some new stuff on the planet and the atmosphere and then come back here. It’d be good for your thesis.”

Ahim’s head swiveled back to all the data he’d already gathered.

“I can’t say how much of it is still standing, but there’s so much I wanna show you,” Way said with a laugh. “I can’t wait to sit in the sunlight.”

“You need to get your PBT fixed, Way,” Ahim scolded, good-naturedly.

Waylen looked down at the prosthetic and smiled. “Yeah,” he agreed. “We can stop by your place on the way. Deal?”

Ahim rolled his eyes. “Deal.”

Waylen held out his right hand and they shook on it.

Ahim took a few more scans, a few more photos, and set a course for The System. He even agreed to work on the dancing robot on the way but said he had to call the professor first. Waylen went to check maintenance to make sure they could get back to Mercury and Earth as quickly and safely as possible. He didn’t want anything to go wrong on his way home.

2 thoughts on “Search for Space Tree”

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