We’d been living on Toivoa for a year when the trees began to die.
“What, all of them?” Captain Harris’ dark eyebrows furrowed above her wire-rimmed glasses. I sat on the visitors’ side of her desk in her office. It was a small place with bare walls and bare shelves. None of us had much in the way of personal effects, but the Captain took it to the extreme.
“No, ma’am. It started so slowly at first that it seemed natural, but it’s well beyond that now. Maybe five percent?” It was a guess, but it was the best I had.
“Five percent of the trees are dying, and you want me to do what, exactly?”
“Assign a crew to investigate.”
“Are you or are you not the colony’s xenobiologist, Officer Toro?”
“I am. But—”
“What have you found so far?”
“That’s the thing, ma’am.” I rubbed my face. “There’s nothing. No reason I can find for so many trees to be dying.”
“How do you know it’s not natural?”
“It’s well above the norm for a forest of this size and age.”
“Above the norm for a Toivoa forest?” She leaned forward. “Or an Earth forest?”
“An Earth forest, but—”
“I would have hoped you’d have the data to go beyond such comparisons by now, Toro.”
I spread my hands. “It’s more than were dying a year ago.”
“That’s a start.” She picked up the report she’d been reading when I came in. “We don’t have the resources to divert to this right now. Our existence is still precarious. Everyone’s role is critical, and I can’t spare anyone.”
“With all due respect, Captain, our position will be more precarious if we let the forest die.”
“Find me some proof and then we’ll talk. You’re dismissed, Officer Toro.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I kept my voice and face even as I stood and saluted, but once I left her office my expression slid away into disappointment.
The door closed behind me and I turned toward my lab, only to find myself face to face with First Mate Anders. My heart sank even further. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run as his lip curled into a sneer. I squared my shoulders and lowered my eyes, trying to walk by in silence.
“Officer Toro.” I stopped, unable to ignore an acknowledgement from a superior officer. “What were you bothering the captain about?”
“We were discussing the forest, sir.”
“The forest?” he scoffed. “You’re wasting the captain’s time talking about trees?”
At the other end of the hall, two engineering officers stared at us, eyes wide. One whispered something to the other and they both laughed. My cheeks burned.
Anders wasn’t done. “I don’t want to see or hear you bugging the captain again. Just go skulk around your lab doing whatever it is you do. Stay out of the way and try not to get anyone else killed.”
“Yes, sir.” I saluted and rushed back to the lab, not daring to lift my head as I passed the two engineers.
For a few days I obeyed Anders’ instructions. Every time I stepped into the corridor I was seized with panic that I might run into him again. The dread kept me buried away in my lab.
But I couldn’t sit back and let the forest die. Not when so many of us had traveled so long to get here. So after a couple days, when my fear had waned, I got back to work. I started spending time in the forest again, collecting the samples I needed to continue my investigation.
A few weeks after my meeting with the captain I went out to the woods again. It was a humid morning and I took my time. I climbed the small hill at the back of the colony and stopped at the top to look back. The ship perched precariously on the uneven ground. Its sleek hull had been built for the centuries in space, not the ones to come on Toivoa and its craggy features. The landing site that we carefully selected from orbit had turned out to be the nesting habitat of a species of bird, so we’d landed in the nearest open space we could find, even if it wasn’t as flat as we had hoped. The ship was anchored in place by massive spikes; I could see them plunging into the earth from here, even through the light mist that clung to the ground below.
The space around the ship was dotted with outbuildings. There were storage units for vehicles and samples, and some work areas to expand the available space. A few people walked along the paths between them.
I liked the view of the colony from up here. It felt small and far away, which was a nice break from the up-close experience.
I turned away from the ridge and walked into the forest. The trees around the edges were sparse, but as I ventured deeper into the woods the immense trunks grew closer together. I extended an arm and ran my fingers across the smooth blue bark as I passed. Here and there I stopped to examine the spindly branches that hung down like hair, checking for signs of rot or disease.
The avian creatures that perched at the top of the trunks sang to one another. Their voices were harsh but their calls were melodic. I let the sounds wash over me as I picked my way over the massive roots that frequently broke through the ground.
I stopped to collect yet another sample from yet another dying tree when the Green Man stepped out of a shadow to my left.
“You see it too.” His voice was deep and ancient and rasped like the scuff of my feet through the dirt.
“Do you know why it’s happening?” I spoke quietly and didn’t look up from my work. Even after a year, I worried that any sudden movement would spook him away. I wasn’t keen to scare off my only companion, however odd he may be.
He nodded, the foliage of his face flapping with the movement. It would have been funny if his expression weren’t so grave; the leaves that formed his eyebrows were drawn close together and his mouth was turned down.
“You did this.”
“Me?” A shard of panic stabbed through my heart. Not again. I couldn’t handle any more weight on my conscience.
“You,” he repeated, gesturing out toward the colony. The absolution of personal responsibility did little to quell my distress. We’d only been here a year, and already humanity was killing another ecosystem.
“What is it? A parasite? A disease?”
He ignored my questions and stroked the spongy purple leaves of the dying tree with one twiggy hand. “There is still time.”
“What should I do?”
His green eyes bored into mine. “You must get to the root of the problem.”
“Yes, I’ve been trying to find the cause—”
But he was gone, retreating back into the forest without another word.
The Green Man’s revelation gave some direction to my research, but I didn’t find any quick answers. And without proof, I couldn’t go back to the captain. Especially since I hadn’t told anyone else about the Green Man. I couldn’t exactly waltz in and announce that a quasi-deity from old Earth folklore had followed us here and bestowed me with magical knowledge.
Even if I had the data, they still might not believe me. Not after the last time.
So I kept looking.
One night as I blinked my weary eyes over the lens of my microscope, the control panel by my door beeped. It took me a moment to recognize the unfamiliar noise: an entry request.
The panel displayed the name Quinn Barringer. I frowned, but pressed the button to let them in.
“Hey, Gabrielle.” My stomach leapt. I had forgotten how my name sounded in their warm voice.
“Can I come in?” A light sweat glossed their forehead and their blue eyes darted around the lab, looking anywhere but me.
I nodded, hoping they couldn’t tell how fast my heart was beating. “What’s up?”
They stepped inside. “I noticed you were often working late recently and thought I’d stop in to say hi?” The last few words came out in a rush and ended on an upward slant. The uncertainty in their voice was a stark contrast to the security badge on their jumpsuit and the ripples of muscle beneath it.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was the one who should be asking questions, though.
“Hi,” I answered. “I’ve been working a lot, yeah.”
I sighed and ran a hand through my short hair. I was too tired to come up with a lie to usher them out. “The trees are dying, and I don’t know why.”
“That seems… bad. Did you talk to the captain?”
“She said I need proof.”
“Ah.” The single syllable made it clear they knew why the captain wanted proof.
Because no one trusted me, not after what I did to David.
“Hey.” Quinn’s voice snapped me back from the edge of spiraling into worry. “You can figure this out.”
I forced myself to take a deep breath until the panic coating my lungs started to crumble and flake away. “I don’t know. I’ve been studying it for weeks and I’m no closer to an answer.”
“I know you can. You’re the smartest person in this whole colony.”
“And you’re the nicest.” The words were out before I could stop them and my face flushed so hot I thought I would melt away into vapour. Quinn just beamed, their smile brighter than the two moons in the sky.
“Can I visit again? Maybe I can help.”
“Aren’t you on duty?”
They shrugged. “I have breaks.”
“And you want to spend them here? In the lab?” I raised an eyebrow. “You hate this stuff.”
“I never hated it, I just found it boring. Besides, I’m a changed person. The lab has its charms.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I forced a cough. Old habits die hard.
Quinn smiled again, softer this time. “Goodnight, Gabrielle. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I breathed. “Tomorrow.”
The Green Man first appeared to me a month after we arrived on Toivoa. Back then, it was still a miracle every day to feel the wind on my face, to ground my boots in real soil, to walk as far as I wanted. All these things I’d never experienced in my first thirty years. Things my parents and grandparents and twelve generations before them had never known. I relished it, and having my work as an excuse to take long walks in the woods and spend late nights in my lab suited me just fine.
I suspect it suited everyone else, too. Keep the killer out of sight, out of mind, too busy to hurt anyone else.
On one of my walks I noticed a shadow following me from a distance. Cold fear clenched my stomach. There wasn’t supposed to be sentient life here. Or even large animals. Our scans and studies had never picked up anything larger than the birds and monkey-like creatures that skittered through the tops of the trees.
I kept walking, circling back toward the colony, continuing to collect samples, acting like nothing was wrong despite my trembling hands. The figure kept its distance, and as the colony came into sight, it faded back into the forest.
I probably should have told someone what happened. But I didn’t want to bother the captain about it, I didn’t dare go to any of the other officers, who held me in contempt, and I couldn’t go to security and risk running into Quinn. So I convinced myself I imagined the whole thing and it wasn’t worth telling anyone.
Except that it continued to happen. My follower came closer on every walk until I could make out some details: the green of his face and his lean body rough with bark. He didn’t match the landscape at all. He looked like nothing so much as an Earth tree, albeit one with two legs and a face.
Eventually he came so close I could no longer pretend not to notice. I turned to face him directly.
“Who are you? Why are you following me?”
I didn’t expect an answer. Why would a tree be able to speak? Why would anything on this planet understand our language at all?
But that raspy voice replied, “I am the protector of this forest. Your people brought me with you in your soil and in your hearts. Your kind call me the Green Man.”
“Soil?” It was a pointless detail to focus on, but it was the most solid to me. “We brought no soil; our people have lived among the stars for hundreds of years.”
“You brought enough, from the boots of your ancestors to the halls of your ship and into this forest.”
“Are you a god?”
“I am the protector of this forest,” he repeated again. “Do you intend to harm it?”
“No.” My answer was immediate. “I’ve spent my whole life dreaming of this forest. My ancestors spent their whole lives in space because we didn’t care for our last forest. We intend to live lightly on this planet.”
The leaves of his face rustled for a moment without forming words. Eventually he said, “We shall see.” He merged back into the shadows before I could ask any more questions.
Since then he’s been my occasional companion, sometimes sharing wisdom, sometimes walking with me in silence. A few times, he sang forgotten earth folk songs in his raspy voice while I listened, enraptured.
While I’d always dreamed of the forest, I never thought that someday my best friend would be a tree. But over the course of a few months, that’s what he became, if only by default. He was an odd companion, but I wouldn’t have traded him for the world.
My lab wasn’t very big, not with David’s half of the room closed off. The extra space might have been nice but I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I’d kept everything exactly the way he left it and pulled the privacy barrier across a few weeks after his death. It was the only way I could function.
Quinn’s presence made the space feel even smaller. I could always see them or smell them and on one occasion they stood too close while I was preparing samples and my arm brushed against theirs and my heart beat so fast I thought I would faint.
No matter what they said about being a changed person, they still didn’t have an interest or aptitude for biology. Their help mostly consisted of encouraging words, bringing me tea, or waking me up when I’d fallen asleep slumped over my workbench and making me go to bed.
At first the whole thing was unbearably awkward. I’d grown so used to my own company, to silence and isolation, that I barely knew what to say. I didn’t remember the rhythms of conversation and I couldn’t fall back into old rhythms with Quinn. We had to start fresh. It was like learning the steps to a new dance. Fortunately, they were willing to take the lead.
They asked a lot of questions, about the research, about my work, about how I’d spent my day. Eventually I remembered to ask about their days too, and was quickly reminded that security guards are an endless font of knowledge and gossip. Quinn’s cheerful chatter filled my cold lab with warmth and light.
I was walking into the forest one morning when they called after me.
“Gabby! Wait up!” Quinn jogged out of the ship and down the path toward me. I paused, trying not to flush at the old nickname.
“Nothing,” they laughed. “I thought you might like some company.”
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
“I’m off tomorrow; I can stay up a few hours.” They shrugged. “But I don’t have to, if you want to be alone.”
“No, it’s fine. Of course. I’m just gathering samples though, it won’t be very interesting.”
“I’ve barely spent time in the forest yet,” they said, “so even if you’re a bore, the scenery should be interesting.”
“You haven’t?” I couldn’t hide my surprise. It was hard to imagine how other members of the colony spent their time without long walks in the woods.
“Nope. I’ve walked along the edges in the safe area a little, but I never seem to be free when exploration groups are going deeper.”
“So you’re just using me as your own personal tour guide?” I teased. Most crewmembers weren’t allowed into the forest unless they were part of a group, not until the woods were explored and mapped out. I had one of the few exceptions since it was necessary to my work. There should have been two of us traveling together for safety, but since David had died I was left to my own devices.
“Hey, after all that tea I’ve made you, you’ve got to be good for something.”
I pulled a face and stuck my tongue out at them. Quinn laughed. The sound filled my heart with warmth, but it didn’t last long.
“Barringer. Toro.” First Mate Anders stood on the path before us, along with Amelia Liu, one of the colony’s medical officers. “Where are you going?”
Quinn answered. “To the forest, sir.”
Anders frowned and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Toro, I thought I told you to stop wasting other people’s time on this.”
I opened my mouth to answer but Quinn jumped in first. “I’m off duty, sir. If anything, I’m infringing on her time.”
Amelia shifted impatiently behind him. She was good friends with Quinn. She had been my friend too, back when I had friends. I saw her lock eyes with Quinn for a moment. Then she glanced at me and her mouth twisted into a frown. I looked away, stung. Her quiet disapproval hurt more than Anders’ anger.
The first mate’s mouth hardened into a straight line and his eyes narrowed at me. “I thought you had better taste in company, Barringer.”
His words would have stung if I wasn’t so used to his contempt. I braced myself for Quinn’s response, but Amelia interrupted first.
“First mate, sir, I hate to butt in, but I’m due in the med bay in ten minutes. Could we get back to our discussion of medical supplies while we have the time?”
Anders sighed. “Very well. Barringer, keep Toro out of trouble if you can. My apologies, Doctor, you were saying?” The two of them turned onto another path.
I stepped forward immediately, head bowed, intent on reaching the forest as quickly as possible.
“I’m sorry,” Quinn said from behind me. “He really has it out for you, huh?”
“You think?” I muttered, still speed walking toward the line of trees ahead.
“Gabrielle, hey.” I didn’t stop, letting Quinn jog to catch up with me. “Come on, we can talk about this.”
“I’d rather not.” I sighed and slowed my pace slightly until Quinn drew even. “Let’s just forget about him and enjoy the forest, okay?”
They peered at my face for a moment. I didn’t turn away, but I didn’t meet their eyes either.
“Okay,” they agreed. “If that’s what you want.”
We walked in silence up the ridge, away from the ship. As we passed the first few trees and entered the forest proper, the tension started to slide out of my shoulders. I inhaled a big breath of forest air. Its scent was unlike anything else I knew, but it reminded me of the hydroponics bay and fruit wine and the spiced cake the kitchen made on holidays, all rolled into one.
I glanced over at Quinn. They must have felt my eyes on them, because they shot me a quick smile.
“It’s beautiful.” Their voice was barely a whisper.
We meandered through the forest together. I stopped every few minutes to collect samples while they gawked up at the trees. After a few minutes I became aware of a familiar figure trailing behind us.
Dammit. Not now, buddy.
Too late. Quinn had already noticed.
“You see it too, then.” They stopped to look at me.
I took a few more steps, trying to get us moving. “You don’t need to worry about it.”
“I’m a security guard. Worrying about it is my job.”
“I promise you we are completely safe, okay? Just let it go.” I glanced over their shoulder. As we stood still to argue, the Green Man drew ever closer.
“You know I can’t do that.”
They turned sharply and I lunged to stop what was coming, but they were stronger and faster than me and I never stood a chance. They drew their stun gun in one fluid motion as they turned.
“Who goes there?”
The Green Man stopped in his course, looking down at Quinn over his oak-leaf nose. He didn’t speak. The two remained locked in a silent stand-off for a minute before the Green Man turned his gaze on me.
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know how to explain this to either of them. “They don’t mean any harm.”
“Hmmm.” The Green Man rustled all his leaves as though a breeze ran through them but didn’t say anything more.
“You know this thing?”
“He’s the Green Man. He’s the protector of the forest.”
“What? What does that even—what?” Quinn kept their focus on the Green Man, but their brow furrowed.
“Just put the gun down, please. I promise he means no harm. Don’t hurt the forest and he won’t hurt you.”
The standoff continued for another tense moment, and then finally, ever so slowly, Quinn lowered the gun.
“Okay. But I’m going to need an explanation.”
“I am the protector of the forest,” the Green Man repeated.
I sighed. Not helpful, my friend.
I filled Quinn in on the folklore and my own history with him as quickly as I could.
“So he just appeared here? Because we were here?”
“I guess so.” I shrugged and looked at the Green Man, trying to put the question off on him.
“Do you know why the trees are dying?” Oh Quinn. Always trying to help. My heart softened into a cloud.
“Humans did this.”
“Is there a connection there? Humans brought you and humans killed the trees?”
“Everything is connected,” the Green Man replied, looking up at the tall trunks of the trees around us. “The forest is connected in more ways than you know.”
“What do you mean?” What was I missing?
“Look closer. You will find the answers.”
And then he was gone, melding into the woods until he was only a shadow and then nothing at all.
“What the—where did he go?” Quinn was on the alert again.
“He always does that. Likes to make an exit, I guess.”
“He… always does that? Gabs, how many times have you met this creature?”
“He’s not a creature; he’s a—I don’t know, a demi-god or something.”
“How many times?”
“I don’t know, Quinn, I don’t keep count.” My voice came out sharper than I intended. I winced and started to apologize, but they cut me off.
“Does the captain know about this?”
“How could I possibly tell her? You think she would ever believe me about that?”
“I don’t know, but if there’s some sort of apparently intelligent life on this supposedly uninhabited planet, I feel like that’s the type of thing our xenobiologist should bring to the attention of the colony.”
They were right. Of course they were. But. “It’s not that simple.” It’s not like anyone would believe me. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure I believed it. The Green Man came and left so silently and never left a trace of his presence. In some ways it was easier to think it was all in my head.
They exhaled and relaxed their shoulders. “I know. I know. But you have to tell them eventually. If you tell the captain, I’ll back you up.”
“Thanks.” My voice was small. I felt like a child who’d been caught in a lie.
“Now don’t you have samples to collect?”
I snuck glances at them as we walked, trying to guess what they were feeling. I couldn’t figure it out, but it was satisfying to see them experience the forest for the first time. They looked up at the trees in awe. When one of the monkey creatures in the branches above started singing, they broke into a grin. They stopped a few times to examine the iridescent wings of the insects that sunned themselves on the trees.
When we got back to the colony, they paused outside the ship.
“Thanks for a beautiful morning.”
“Thanks for coming with me. And thanks for being cool about… that.”
They laughed. “I’m not sure I am, yet. But I’m trying, Gabrielle. I’m trying.”
They walked away down the hall, whistling, and I wanted to try too.
I thought we parted on good terms, but they didn’t visit me in the lab the next three nights. I started to think I’d blown it, again, and drove myself even deeper in my work to quiet the fears that they’d never come back.
On the fourth night the entry request came just after midnight.
“I am. With tea.” They placed the mug in front of me. “I just needed some time to process.”
“Are you mad?” I hated being blunt, but I didn’t know what else to do. I either wanted them in my life for good or out of it. This tenuous rekindling was driving me out of my skin.
“Mad? Why would I be mad?”
Why wouldn’t they be mad? Everyone else still was. But I focused on the more recent issue. “About the whole Green Man thing?”
“No. I guess it’s not hurting anyone. Surprised, yes, and confused, but not mad.”
“Okay.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Good.”
“What are you working on tonight?”
I walked them through the new samples I’d collected and let them look through my microscope. As usual, they didn’t have much to offer in the way of scientific wisdom, but they were always ready with an encouraging word.
“You’ll figure it out.” They laid a hand on my shoulder, just for a moment. It was the first time either of us had intentionally touched since they’d walked through the door a few weeks earlier. I looked down at their hand, surprised to see nothing but their smooth skin and strong fingers against the white fabric of my jumpsuit. I had expected electricity, as if we’d both been building up static energy during our time apart and their touch would release the charge.
They turned to go and at the withdrawal of their touch, a yearning rose up so strong it threatened to drown me.
“Quinn?” I called softly, and they stopped to look back at me. “Why now?”
They didn’t ask what I meant. “I missed you.” A pause. “And I thought maybe you’d finally punished yourself enough.”
“Punished myself? You’re the one who left.”
“I could only let you push me away so many times.” Their words stung but their tone was gentle. “I was never the one who wanted to end things.”
“You don’t hate me?” I felt pathetic, begging for a scrap of reassurance, but I’d been living on scraps for years, and I was running out of energy.
“How could I?” They closed the distance between us, stopping in front of me, their eyes searching mine. “How could you think that of me?”
“Everyone hated me. I hated me.”
“Then everyone’s a fool, including you.” They sighed. “You made a mistake. A big one, sure, but it could have been any of us.”
“It wasn’t, though. It was me.”
“I know. But it doesn’t outweigh all the good things you’ve done.”
There were tears in my eyes then, and I dropped my head to hide them. “How can you say that? How can I be good when I—” I still couldn’t say it. After all this time, I couldn’t name what I had done.
“It’s like your Green Man said. Everything’s connected. We’re all connected. We can’t just sever someone from the rest of the colony. We have to work together, or we all wither and die.”
“Quinn, you’re a genius.”
They blinked. “Am I?”
“That’s it, don’t you see? The trees, they’re all connected. If we sever one, they all wither and die—we must have damaged something when we landed—” I was scrambling for my computer, then, desperate to get my thoughts down as more came rushing in. “That must be what he meant. I’ve been going at it all wrong, studying individual trees when the problem was how they all fit together.”
Quinn hovered near the door and looked at the time.
“I have to get back to work.” It was an apology. “Looks like you do, too.”
“I’m sorry, I—you were so kind and I didn’t even…” I set my computer down. “You’re the best person on this damn ship and I missed you too.”
They bent close and pressed a kiss to my forehead so softly I might have imagined it. And then they were gone.
“When we landed, we drove spikes into the ground to anchor it. These severed the root systems here, here, and here.” I pointed to the spots on the map projected behind the conference table. It had taken a few more weeks of study, but I’d finally located the source of the forest’s problems.
“The trees here aren’t like most Earth trees. The entire forest—across the whole planet, as far as I can tell from my studies here—shares a network of roots that transfers nutrients and resources and maybe even information. It’s not unlike the quaking aspen which could make large clonal colonies, except instead of being individual stems of a single organism, these are all individual, genetically unique trees. Their roots connect and fuse as they grow. If a tree is cut off from the network, it dies, and if too many get cut off, they all start to die. I’ve already observed this process happening in the forest.”
“What do you propose we do?” The captain’s grey eyebrows arched over her sharp nose. “Pull up the anchors? That will leave the ship unstable.”
“Very true, Captain. If we want to keep the ship securely anchored, we’ll have to move it to a new site.”
A rush of conversation started around the table of the command room. The captain raised her hand and silence fell. A trickle of sweat ran down my back as she fixed her stern gaze on me once more.
“How do you know the trees will repair themselves once the anchors are removed? Have you tested this?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I couldn’t test it without damaging the roots further, which seemed unwise. But they definitely won’t heal as long as we stay here. Eventually the whole forest will die out. That will take years, possibly even decades, but we already lost one planet to lack of action. If there’s one simple thing we can do to prevent losing this one, we have to take the chance.”
The uproar started again, and this time the captain let them have at me.
“Where can we go?”
“Won’t there be roots no matter where we try to establish a colony?”
“What if the roots don’t heal?”
I couldn’t even get a word out before more questions cut me off. In the end, I didn’t have to answer any of them.
First mate Anders slammed a fist onto the table, bringing the meeting to silence again. His methods differed from the captain’s, but they worked just as well.
“Enough! Why are we even listening to her? We all know we can’t trust her.”
“Anders.” The captain’s voice was curt but Anders brushed her words away with a sharp gesture.
“No. She was responsible for David’s death. Have you all forgotten?”
And there it was. The thing we all danced around and never named. My breath hitched and my heart pounded into overtime.
“She never should have been allowed in this meeting, let alone have us considering this half-baked scheme to—”
I was on the verge of running from the room when the captain spoke.
“Quiet, Anders.” Her voice had the sharp edge of a scalpel cutting away all noise.
The tension in the room was palpable by then. The first mate had defied a direct order from the captain. The two had different ideas about leadership and were known to butt heads.
“Science Officer Toro.” The captain turned back to me, her voice still hard. The breath caught in my chest. “You have a month. I’m assigning you a small team of surveyors. Come up with at least three proposed sites where we could re-establish the colony without severing any additional roots. And see what you can learn about the forest’s ability to repair itself.”
“Yes ma’am.” I almost choked on the words.
“Corporal Chen,” the captain was barking orders quickly now, not waiting for answers. “I want a report on how long it would take to pack up the colony, move the outbuildings back onto the ship, secure everything, and set back up once we land.
“Lieutenant Osei. Assign four crewmembers from your team to work with Science Officer Toro on the surveys. She’ll be in charge of those four and I do not want to hear about any disobedience.
“Anders.” The captain didn’t even look at her first mate. “I don’t want to lay eyes on you for a week. Alright, folks, dismissed.”
I lingered as the rest of the meeting dispersed. Captain Harris was still seated and jotting notes.
“You’re hovering, Toro.”
“Sorry, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am. I—thank you.”
She skewered me with a look. “Don’t let me down, Toro. I don’t care if you don’t sleep for the next month. If you prove Anders right I’ll never get the smug grin off his face and I can’t look at that the rest of my life.”
I scurried from the room. Quinn was waiting outside the door, a mug of coffee in each hand. They handed me one without a word, only quirking an eyebrow in question.
I puffed out a breath. “There’s more work to do, but the captain’s on board.”
They wrapped their free arm around my shoulders for a quick squeeze. “Told you she would be. What’s next?”
In the end, Anders’ outburst might have been a good thing. Having the truth out there, spoken, let everyone start to move on. The members of my new survey team were friendly and curious and eager to help. I had almost forgotten how it felt to be part of a team. I started eating in the cafeteria again, and when I slid into a seat next to Quinn, our old friends picked up old conversations as if I’d never been gone. It wasn’t easy at first. I worried that eventually they’d remember what I’d done and turn on me again. But every day they proved me wrong.
In the end, maybe the only one who couldn’t move on was me.
David had been the other xenobiologist. There were at least two people for every job, to ensure there was always someone to pass the knowledge on to the next. David was twenty years my senior. He was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.
When we reached Toivoa, we spent two years in orbit, conducting long range tests, sending down probes and drones and eventually away teams, until we were sure it was safe to land.
I was the one who couldn’t wait until landing. I suggested we bring some samples back to the ship for further study. I convinced the captain to let us do it.
I conducted the initial studies. I declared the samples safe to work with.
David was the one who cut into a sample and released a plume of spores into his face. I ran across the lab to him with a spare oxygen tank, but by the time I got there his face was already purple and swollen around his mask and goggles. By the time the medics arrived, he was gone.
Of course no one in the colony trusted me after that. David was well-known, well-liked, well-respected, and he died because of my mistakes. Of course they all turned on me.
And Quinn… well. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was the one who pushed them away. All I knew at the time was that eventually they stopped calling. They stopped coming over for dinner. They avoided me in corridors and the cafeteria. And that was the end of it.
I thought they hated me too. And I didn’t blame them.
The colony site was barren without the ship and outbuildings. The marks of things that had been there and weren’t any more made it look forlorn. The worn paths leading away from the ship, the dusty patches where the outbuildings had sat, the deep gashes where the ship’s anchors had been secured.
The ship was only a few kilometers away, its thrusters flaring a hot blue as it flew to our new home. We’d be reunited soon enough. A small team of us had stayed behind to monitor the situation here. We’d removed the anchors but now we had to see if the roots would heal and regrow.
Quinn stood next to me on a small rise near the edge of the forest, their hand in mine as we watched the ship shrink away on the horizon. Below, our team members were playing catch in the now-empty space.
Part of me longed to go with the ship. I’d examined the new site multiple times and they’d be using ground penetrating radar to guide the installation of the new anchors, but I still wanted to be there to make sure this didn’t happen again.
I couldn’t do both. The colony had trusted me despite my past mistakes; I had to do the same.
There was a rustling behind us and the Green Man came to stand on my other side.
“You did well.”
“Is it enough? Will the trees heal?”
I was no longer afraid to look at him. I examined every inch of his leafy face, searching for some sign of reassurance.
“No.” My heart sank at his words. “Not on their own.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“No, child. But there’s something I can do.”
“Of course, youngling. I am the protector of the forest.”
He walked down the slope to the empty space where the ship had been. Our crew members shrank back at his approach. With Quinn’s help, I had eventually told the Captain about the Green Man. We’d even taken her to meet him. But she’d decided not to disclose that information to the crew at large, at least not yet. Our teammates had no idea what was approaching them. First one reached for their gun and then another, and soon there were six guns pointing at my friend.
“Ah, crap.” I started down the hill, but Quinn was already ahead of me. I followed after them, my feet thudding heavily down the hill. “Don’t shoot!”
“Don’t shoot!” Quinn echoed, their voice louder than mine. “Don’t shoot!”
The others obeyed but didn’t lower their weapons. The Green Man walked on, unperturbed, until he reached the middle of the space where the ship had been. He turned toward us and looked right through me for a moment before closing his eyes. He raised his arms and his body started to change. His arms grew into wide, sturdy branches; his body thickened into a broad trunk; his legs melded together as roots plunged from his feet into the earth below.
“What in all the cosmos is happening right now?” someone asked, voice caught between awe and terror.
“Gabrielle? Quinn? What is that?”
“It’s—he’s—a friend.” I had no time for more than that. “I’ll explain later.”
I crossed the rest of the field toward the Green Man, who was more tree than man by now, though his face was still discernible. Quinn hung back with the rest of the crew to make sure they didn’t do anything rash.
“What are you doing?” My voice was a whisper. My friend was unrecognizable and I wasn’t even sure he could answer me.
“I’m merging my roots with theirs. I will repair the gaps.”
“Will that work?”
His face was disappearing into his trunk; leaves along its outer edges fluttered to the ground. His mouth still moved. “It will.” His voice was fading too; it was no longer the deep thrum of a gale through a forest, but a single flower shivering in the breeze. “I am the protector of the forest.”
“Will you be okay?”
“I will be here, youngling. I will be here.”
His voice faded to nothing on the last word as the leaves of his lips tumbled away. I caught them and clutched them to my chest.
I was alone in the field with a massive oak; a single Earth tree on an alien planet. I fell to its base and wrapped my arms around him, sobbing into his trunk until I had no tears left to cry.
It did work. Radar scans the next day confirmed his roots had melded seamlessly into the network and repaired the damage.
I insisted we stay longer to make sure, though I really spent the time looking for any flicker of intelligence from the oak tree.
We could only wait so long. There was work to be done.
Six months later I was working with a team to clean up the rest of the damage to the former colony site. Two knots had appeared on his trunk, like eyes watching over us.
Two years after that, Quinn and I were married under his branches. I swore there was a hint of a smile beneath the eyes as we said our vows.
We brought our children to picnic in the meadow that had blossomed around him. They played among the little oak saplings and I taught them about acorns. Above us, the eye knots were starting to regain their old green twinkle.
I taught biology and ecology to the children of the colony. I brought class after class out to the meadow, using the oak tree to teach them about our history from Earth to the stars to the surface of Toivoa. The children pointed and whispered at the face on the tree, and I knew it wasn’t just my imagination.
I’m training my assistant now, a bright young biologist who will continue my studies here. There’s still so much to discover on this planet. The Green Man’s face is fully formed, verdant, the leaves resplendent. We study him too. I lean against his trunk sometimes and just talk. I tell him about my life, about Quinn and the kids, about how the forests healed and flourished. I listen for an answer in the wind sweeping through his branches.
Maybe, by the time I’m old, the Green Man will walk amongst us once more.
Until then, I will be the protector of the forest.