From Every Opening Flower

From Every Opening Flower

by Jonny M. Duffy & G. David Nordley

Illustrated by Nicholas Jainschigg

“Everything’s negative, Mike,” Nadine’s husky voice reported from the starship Jacqueline Cochran’s biological analysis station. “They’re just gone—and we can’t tell why from up here. There’s nothing left to do but go down.”

Commander Mike Tanner slapped the arm of his chair in frustration. After a month in orbit, the mystery remained. His screen was filled with the planet—a blue and white, green and brown work of art from here. They’d scoured the abandoned settlement with flying and crawling robots and flown through its buildings and forests in virtual reality. The colony’s starship was still waiting in orbit, fully functional—if they’d gone somewhere else, they’d gone in someone else’s spacecraft.

Mike’s older sister, Dena, had been its chief bioforming engineer, and had been down there when the colony fell silent. Gone. He remembered her, not so much as an executive engineer, but as a pixie-haired adventuress, always taking him to new and different places.

Different. “OK, everyone. I think Nadine’s right. I don’t think another orbit or another week will make much difference. We can go down, or—” he offered silent apologies to Sis and all the people back at Tau Ceti who’d worked on the colony “—we can quarantine the place and go home. Nadine?”

“Mike, you sound paranoid. We didn’t ride that beam six light-years just to turn around and go home. Look, whatever happened, happened long ago. The water, the air, and the dust are fine. Genetic samples of everything matched the file data. There’s no detectable threat now.”

An hour later, the shuttle Yeager settled itself down on pillars of annihilation-heated steam into the crater its exhaust made in the overgrown landing field. Mike’s chair rotated forward until his feet touched the flight deck and he looked down “through” the view-screen-covered hull. It was a brilliant clear day with the hazy disk of Epsilon Eridani high in the soft blue sky.

Dena had loved this world—“It’s going to be a really beautiful place. This is my baby, Mike,” she’d said, and since its discovery 130 standard years earlier, the Mars-sized world had been her only baby. Now, he’d inherited it, as he’d inherited many of her toys, so long ago. A tear formed in the corner of Mike’s eye. He’d come as soon as he could, but after fourteen years, there could be no real hope. The Universe, he mused, was not built to human scale.

“Not too lively, is it?” Ian commented. A tall, graceful Englishman, lately from the Nova Britain subcontinent of Tau Ceti III, Ian was reserved, but highly competent. Now, with dry humor, he chipped away at the tension that had been building for the three months since they’d revived on entering the Epsilon Eridani system. “You’ll be all right, Mike?”

Mike rubbed his eye. “Yeah. Make sure the data gets up to the Cochran.

Ian nodded. People double-checked robots that double-checked people. “Cochran, Yeager,” Ian called the mother ship. “We re down nominal, Rod.”

“Copy, Yeager,” starship pilot Rodrigo Cruz replied.

Nadine greeted Mike at the airlock with a smile, her large sparkling eyes framed by high Slavic cheekbones. Her hair matched Mike’s, a light, almost golden brown, but in contrast to his functional crew cut, it streamed all the way down to her waspish waist. Her willowy, almost Gothic 185 cm topped him by 3. It was all self-engineered; her original body had lasted only as long as it took her to get her doctorate in postnatal genetic engineering. She liked looking different, and Mike, in the way that opposites attract, liked that in her.

She looked Mike in the eye—down a little, actually—and gave him a hug. “Warm out there, lover,” she said. Her rich, earthy contralto contrasted sharply with her ethereal appearance, by design.

Lover? As the two senior expedition members, they were more comfortable sleeping with each other than with anyone else and, without any stated intention on either of their parts, it had become exclusive. But Mike would not yet admit to love.

Mike handed Nadine a thirty-centimeter-long double tube with a grip, a trigger, and a five-centimeter viewscreen on the rear end, and a magazine of stun darts, comm flares, and microprobes.

“Why guns?” she asked. “There’s nothing down there. Nothing.”

He smiled. “That’s the problem.”

The door hissed up to reveal the cone of an extinct volcano set behind a vista of green. Leaves rustled in the breeze and the smells of the rain forest flowed in over them like a fog of perfume. Other than the geometric boundary of the landing area, there was little hint of human habitation.

Mike wondered how the captain of the first ship to go looking for the Roanoke colony had felt when he came ashore in Virginia, six centuries ago, and found nothing left but ruins.

Mike led the way to the edge of the landing field, scrambling over the rim of the blast crater and on through thick cloverlike plants that squished and slipped beneath their boots. Insects buzzed among brilliant flowers, pursuing their pollination duties. Bird song punctured the silent air—a mourning dove, or its local version, Mike thought. Appropriate. Small critters made occasional scurries.

His sister’s holos had shown her riding horses. Where were the horses? he wondered.

They reached the edge of the field, poked around some overgrown but otherwise intact port structures and gazed through underbrush at the deserted buildings a half-kilometer away. The hour went quickly, and they returned to the hatch. There, Nadine tested their blood and nerve functions.

“No ill effects.” She gave him a look that implied, Let’s get on with it.

Mike frowned, then nodded and called the rest of the team.

There were ten of them, altogether. They walked into the colony on what used to be the main street, pushing away vines and tall grass and sweating with the effort. The lower gravity—less than half that of Tau Ceti III, or Earth—was little help and, in fact, reduced traction. Observation motiles flew silently overhead, covering the area from millimeter wave to ultraviolet and sending the data instantly to the orbiting Cochran.

Once, Mike recalled, the colony had been a carefully tended garden, thoughtfully integrated with its rainforest environment. Now, trees grown twice as big as their ancestors on Earth crowded the sky. Lawns were shoulder-high brush fields, and hills of orange and purple Wendy flowers outlined what had once been walks and curbs. The streets themselves had been overgrown to the point where they were simply paths of lower-height vegetation.

Once in the buildings, they looked by instinct—poking under furniture, prying open doors the robots hadn’t been able to, touching, analyzing, sampling, and speculating. Hours went by, then—

“Mike, Kay Singh, at the Admin building. I just got the data storage room open. It’s been ransacked.” Their astrophysicist was a deliberate, low key, and usually understated woman, so whatever got her excited was likely to be interesting.

“I’ll take the feed,” Mike said.

The picture from Kay’s robot floated in front of Mike. The room was a mess. It had been a typical installation; the central processing units had been five-centimeter cylinders set on an optical shelf a couple of meters long. The shelf had been pulled from the wall and each of the CPUs lay shattered. There were dark—almost black—stains beneath the years of dust on the floor. Nothing moved—which proved nothing, Mike thought.

If they were dealing with something alien, the operative concept was that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic—and being invisible to a robot might be a relatively easy trick.

“Guess we d better take a look personally.”

“I’ll wait for you,” she said.

Mike took his gun from his belt kit. “Stun darts,” he told Nadine. “Better safe…”

Nadine got her own out.

Mike looked at her. “You’re joining me, then?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” She brushed a caterpillar-like something off her arm. “Yuck. You go find a leaf.”

Mike said, “We’ll need to reestablish plant and insect control here.” The bugs were designed not to bite people—as soon as their primitive little sensors recognized one—but sometimes that required crawling on you. “The jungle seems to be overrunning everything.”

“Yeah.”

They reached the Admin building in minutes. The only two-story structure in the little colony, its wide, debris-covered staircase yawned at them ten meters inside the front door. Some local version of ivy had followed its banister up as far as Mike could see. Nadine took the point without asking, flashing him a daredevil grin, and he smiled back at her. Excitement like this was hard to come by, and she wanted it all. He didn’t blame her.

They stepped through the entrance. The colony and its own eyes were still powerless, but Mike’s visor display told him the ship had activated the tiny cameras all crew members wore—there would be a visual record of anything out of sight of the overheads.

They climbed the stairs to the data management area, a circle built around a tall redwood that must have been one of the first plants started in the area. The hall was a torus around the tree, and the rooms were truncated pie-wedges around that.

“Here,” K ...

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