A Breath of Aphrodite
By Rebecca Birch
“NO LIKELIHOOD OF STORM activity, my ass,” Sergeant Schelling growled, hands tense on the controls. “Weather-techs should have to fly through their own mistakes.”
Botany-tech Sarah Munroe squinted through the two-man shuttle’s viewscreen. Outside, a deluge sluiced down through Aphrodite’s perpetual blue mists. The massive trees of the planet’s northern latitudes hid in the fog like rocks in a river, invisible and treacherous.
A violent wind gust buffeted the small ship. Sarah tried to stifle a yelp, but didn’t quite succeed.
The sergeant frowned. “Try to keep distractions to a minimum, Munroe.”
A white-blossomed drifter cluster hit the viewscreen. It slid across the glass, petals drenched and flattened.
Sarah grimaced. She was supposed to be in the lab back at Temporary Exo-Earth Terraforming Station 14, not at the mercy of Aphrodite’s whims.
If Dr. Petersen were still alive, none of this would be happening.
“How much farther?” she asked.
“Which part of no distractions, wasn’t clear?” Schelling snapped. “Do you want us to end up painting the side of a nurse tree?”
Sarah gnawed on her bottom lip and tried to uncurl her painfully clenched fists. Schelling, who’d spent the past five days hectoring her through a crash course in hazardous environment practices and protocols, had made it abundantly clear that he was in command in the field—no questions, no debate.
She needed a distraction, so she picked up her pack from between her feet and opened the flap to catalog her inventory one more time, though she’d checked and double-checked it before boarding the shuttle.
Harness and rope lashed to the outside of the pack. Inside, a breather and a backup. Boot-claws. Gear kit with borer, scanner, and catalyst.
The recitation soothed her nerves—a welcome respite. From the moment she’d learned of Dr. Petersen’s death, her world had turned on end. Command toppled her out of her safe, orderly lab, and she’d found herself trapped in the TETS’ training habitat under Sergeant Schelling’s weighing gaze. When she wasn’t fighting off a breather-induced panic attack, she was fumbling to master the ropes necessary for ascending the nurse trees or accidentally dropping her boring tool off the side of the tree—again.
If there’d been any other choice, Sarah was certain the sergeant would have gone to command and begged for a different partner, but they both knew there weren’t any other options. The terraforming—not just at TETS-14, but planet-wide—was months behind schedule. None of the other TETS crews could spare any techs trained for hazardous environment work, and there wasn’t time to wait for a new one to arrive from Earth. They’d lose the entire seedling crop and fall even further off the timeline.
It was up to Sarah to finish the work, and Schelling must have drawn the short straw to be saddled with making sure she lived through it.
Sarah re-fastened the pack’s flap and glanced at the sergeant out of the corner of her eye. He wasn’t much older than herself, but his time spent outside the TETS had weathered him. He might be handsome if he ever managed to master an expression that wasn’t exasperation or glaring, even with the burn scar that sliced through his short blond hair and claimed the top of his left ear.
There were so many questions Sarah still wanted to ask, but Schelling’s palpable tension kept the words behind her teeth. His job was to keep her safe so she could do her own. He didn’t have to like her. Didn’t have to be kind, or even polite. He only had to keep her alive.
She needed to distract herself, so she rotated her seat to check on her graft seedlings, which were stored in long, low planter beds rolled into warming drawers in the rear of the shuttle.
The shoots were straight, strong, and supple, with broad green leaves only just beginning to unfurl. The roots curled in the soil, ready to be re-planted in the nurse trees’ catalyst-treated sapwood.
This was the first crop she’d husbanded entirely on her own, modifying the seeds for increased oxygen production, using the data Dr. Petersen had collected from the grafting zone. Despite her fear at going out on Aphrodite’s surface, she felt a glimmer of pride that her work would provide a chance for a better life for the billions still trapped on a rapidly deteriorating Earth.
One of the seedlings near the edge of the planter leaned up against the glass, in danger of breaking off some of its leaves. Sarah unbuckled her restraints and headed toward the warming drawers to straighten it before it could sustain permanent damage.
An alarm blared from the console and the shuttle yawed to the right. Sarah grabbed for the nearest handhold.
“Sergeant?” she shouted over the alarm.
“Buckle up, Munroe.” The shuttle veered hard left. Her pack slid into Schelling’s legs. “And get this blasted thing secured.”
Sarah fought her way back to her seat. Another abrupt turn sent her pack careening toward her. She grabbed it with one hand, shoved a leg through a strap, and flung herself at her seat. With hands that wouldn’t stop shaking, she managed to get her safety restraints secured. Her stomach lurched with the shuttle’s motion. The pack’s strap tugged at her and she wrapped her free leg around the outside, pinning it to the chair’s base. The coiled rope dug furrows into her calf.
A vast shape slid into view, cutting through the mist in eddying swirls. Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands clenched around the arms of the chair.
The creature was so close its obsidian-black scales, rimmed by scalloped, iridescent green edges, appeared as large as riot-shields. It swam through the cloudbank, easily outpacing the shuttle.
“We’re outside sky-snake territory,” Schelling shouted over the klaxon. “They’re not supposed to be here.”
The sky-snake looped back toward them. Sarah couldn’t tear her gaze away. Half-hidden in the blue mist and pouring rain, its massive body undulated in sleek curves. There were no eyes, only an unbroken expanse of scales. Its head-crest flared into a raised fan, then flattened against its body. The massive jaws spread wide.
Schelling plunged the shuttle toward the surface. The snake twisted after them. A nurse tree loomed just ahead.
They missed the trunk, but crashed through the branches in a hail of split wood. Tree limbs screeched painfully over the hull. The shuttle jerked, shuddered, and lifted again.
The alarm cut out, replaced by the sound of her own pulse throbbing in her ears.
Sarah concentrated on breathing. She glanced at Schelling. His arms shook with the strain of maintaining control of the crippled shuttle and he peered into the fog, as if squinting harder would make the clouds part.
“Munroe,” he said in a carefully controlled voice, not looking away from the view screen, “get your breather on.”
With an effort, Sarah released her white-knuckled grip on the chair. She pulled a breather from the pack and slid it into place over her mouth and nose, grateful now that she’d been forced to practice with it.
“You have to put mine on for me,” Schelling said. “I can’t release the controls.”
The sergeant’s pack was stowed in the cabinet on the far wall. Sarah couldn’t reach it without undoing her restraints, so she grabbed her backup and slipped it over his head.
The shuttle slammed sideways. A curved fang, taller than Sarah and as wide as her thigh, pierced through the roof. The shuttle’s metal shell strained inward.
“Feet off the floor,” Schelling shouted. “Protect your head.”
Sarah obeyed. In the next instant a blinding cascade of electricity arced through the cabin, turning the world white. Then there was nothing but afterimages and the sensation of free-fall. More branches, twisting them through space, slowing the plunge. Her own whimpers, sounding as if they came from another world.
A hard impact.
Sarah’s eyes blinked open. Where the shuttle’s nose had once been, twisted metal framed a forest of immature nurse trees growing at a sharp angle. Mist clung to Sarah’s lashes in thick droplets, blurring details.
Which direction was up?
Her head throbbed. She touched the source of the pain, just below her hairline, and her fingers came away slick with blood.
Sarah looked to her left and found Schelling standing below her on the shuttle’s wall, now the floor. Her braid dangled toward him, nearly touching his shoulder. Dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. Her eyes drifted shut.
Schelling shook her leg. “Munroe, report.”
She moaned. “Here, Sergeant.”
“Are you hurt? Can you move?”
“I—” She swallowed, licked her lips, and tried again. “My head hurts. And my ribs. But I think I can move.”
“Good. Go ahead and release your restraints.”
Sarah hesitated, looking at the drop below her.
“It’s okay,” Schelling said. “I’ll let you down easy.”
It took two tries to undo the restraints. Schelling grunted when he took her weight and Sarah wondered if he’d been injured too, but he set her down gently. When her feet hit the floor, her knees buckled. She grabbed at Schelling’s coverall to keep from falling. He wrapped a quick arm around her waist.
“Sorry, Sergeant,” she said. “Dizzy.”
“Sit,” he said, settling her on the wall-floor. “I’ll salvage what I can, but we need to be gone before the sky-snake wakes up.”
Sarah sat with her head between her knees, listening while Schelling scavenged through the wreckage, accompanied by a litany of muttered curses. Finally the dizziness faded and, when she opened her eyes, she realized the mangled metal beside her was the cabinet where the sergeant’s gear was stowed—including his breathers. She clawed at the crumpled surface.
“Leave it,” Schelling said. “That’s not opening without a blowtorch. I’ve got your pack and the emergency transponder beacon, but I don’t expect it’ll work.” Schelling ran a hand over the scarred side of his head, fingers clenching at the sparse strands of hair. “I blew the shuttle’s electrical system charge through the hull. Wouldn’t be enough to kill that thing, but it did knock it out, and every bit of electronics with it.”
Sarah rubbed her eyebrows. “My seedlings?”
He gestured at the planter boxes, where one of the sky-snake’s fangs still punctured the holding drawers. “There’s a few in one piece.”
With a groan, Sarah stumbled to her feet. “I’ll get what’s left.”
“Negative. No time.”
Sarah sucked in an ozone-filled breath. Breather charges were good for twenty-four hours, and if the shuttle’s electronics were shot—"Sergeant, how far are we from base?”
“Two hours by shuttle,” he said. “Closer to two days on foot.”
Sarah swallowed a sudden metallic taste in the back of her throat. “We aren’t going to make it, are we?”
Schelling didn’t answer. He picked up her pack and slung it over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
If she was going to die out here, at least she was going to finish the work she’d set out to do. Besides, the seedlings were genetically designed to produce extra oxygen. If she could set them—
A shudder shook the shuttle’s remains. Sarah braced herself against the pilot’s seat. Schelling grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her toward the hole at the front of the ship. “Out.”
With a sharp twist of her arm, Sarah broke free and staggered to the broken storage drawers, ignoring Schelling’s shout. Seedlings lay in a jumbled pile of soil and broken stems.
The ground bucked beneath her, dropping her to her knees beside the fang in the center of the destruction. Fighting the lurching floor, Sarah tossed aside shards of broken glass and scooped up an armful of plants and dirt.
A loud rumble vibrated through her skull and the fang moved, sliding down against the sleeve of her coverall.
Schelling hauled her away by the back of her uniform and shoved her ahead of him. She stumbled and would have fallen, but the sergeant’s grip on her clothes kept her upright.
They reached the ragged edge at the front of the shuttle, several feet above the planet’s surface. Pelting rain beaded on Sarah’s coverall and the hull gave a painful shriek.
Sarah jumped and hit the ground hard. The impact knocked the seedlings from her arms.
Schelling landed behind her and threw her down, covering her body with his own. “Don’t move,” he growled, his breather cold against her ear.
With Schelling’s weight pressing her into the moss, she couldn’t move if she wanted to. It was all she could do to drag in a breath.
The metallic shriek intensified, nearly deafening her, then vanished in a series of snaps and a hail of debris. Sarah flinched and tried to shrink deeper into the moss. Schelling wrapped himself around her, one arm shielding her head. Something crashed over them, forcing a pained grunt from his lips. Sarah glanced up. A piece of hull siding lay over them, TETS-14 painted in large block letters.
She closed her eyes again. Uncontrollable shivers raced through her body.
It wasn’t until Schelling shifted above her that she realized the shower of destruction had ceased. “Stay put,” he said, sliding off her and low-crawling away. The hull fragment settled onto her back, the metal ringing with the rhythm of the rain.
She waited, listening to the breather’s soft hiss.
“It’s gone,” Schelling said. “Come on out.”
Sarah struggled to her knees, fighting the hull fragment’s weight, only to have it vanish. Schelling stood at its side, holding one edge over his head with both hands, green eyes glinting.
Most of the scattered seedling were snapped into pieces, but some had survived. Sarah plucked up the whole ones, cradling them in one arm like she would a child.
Schelling said nothing, but his glare felt heavier than the piece of hull.
When she’d gathered the last intact shoot, Sarah scuttled out from under the metal sheeting. Schelling dropped the edge and it fell to the ground with a rattling thud.
He wrapped a hand around her upper arm and led her firmly away from what was left of the shuttle—sharp edged fragments, broken glass, a few heavier support girders. The bulk of the ship was gone, and the sky-snake with it.
Sarah struggled to keep pace. “Where are we going?”
“Away from this place.”
She twisted her arm against his grasp. “Let me go. I’m not going to run away.”
Schelling rounded on her. “Oh, you’re not are you? What do you call what you did back there?”
“Trying to save our lives, that’s what I call it.”
“By staying inside the mouth of a conscious sky-snake? What do they teach you science-types? All the best ways to die on an alien planet?”
Sarah straightened. She’d had enough of this man demeaning her at every turn. “What did I ever do to you, Sergeant? You’ve done nothing but bark at me since the moment we met. Do you think I like being out here? I’d give anything to be back in the TETS with my seeds and my soil and my mentor still alive. But he’s not. And I’m not. I’m out here—risking my life with barely any training—because command thinks this mission is more important than Dr. Petersen’s life or mine.” Her throat clogged with unspent tears. “Now please, you’re hurting me.”
Schelling released her and took a step back, looking down at his hand as if it belonged to a stranger. The skin above his breather went ruddy. “Petersen was your mentor?”
Sarah rubbed her arm. “Did you know him?”
The sergeant made an inscrutable noise somewhere between a snort and a groan. “I knew him. I watched him die. Because he wouldn’t listen.” He shook his head. “Sky-snakes are drawn to motion. I gave him one simple order. Freeze. He was too wrapped up in those damned drifters. Just one more sample—”
Schelling turned away and kicked a crumpled control panel. It arced out of the clearing and bounced off a juvenile nurse tree, the size of an old Earth redwood. “I was too soft on him. If I’d drilled him harder, he would’ve lived. Instead I dragged what was left of him back to the TETS.” A broad muscle in the back of his shoulder twitched.
He turned and speared Sarah with a gaze so full of fire she took an involuntary step back, her heel sinking in the spongy moss. “I won’t have another life on my hands. You hear me?”
Sarah struggled to swallow around the solid lump that had formed in her throat. “I hear you, but—”
Schelling raised one eyebrow.
She pressed her lips together for courage, then continued. “Dr. Petersen was single-minded. If he was in the middle of a breakthrough, he wouldn’t have even heard you, no matter how well you trained him.”
Schelling stared at her for the space of a heartbeat, then raised his hand and touched the wound on her forehead. His fingertips were rough, but the contact unexpectedly gentle.
“This should be bandaged.”
It wasn’t an apology, but Sarah thought it was the closest she’d get.
With practiced efficiency, Schelling washed the wound with water squeezed from a handful of saturated moss, checked Sarah’s pupils, and determined that while she’d have a goose-egg, he didn’t think there was worse injury.
“The med-kit was in my pack,” he said, “so we’ll have to improvise.” He undid the zip on his coverall and folded it down to his waist, the undershirt beneath revealing his military-honed physique. Sarah looked away when he pulled up the hem. The sound of tearing fabric told her what he was about.
“This’ll have to do,” he said, coming in close and wrapping the gray fabric around her head. His body radiated warmth. She hadn’t realized just how cool it was out on Aphrodite’s surface, and her rain-soaked clothes made it worse. She resisted the urge to step closer.
Schelling stepped back and inspected his handiwork.
Several strands of hair had escaped Sarah’s braid. They dangled below the makeshift bandage in damp waves, clinging to her breather’s surface. She wiped them away.
“I’d like to bundle the seedlings,” she said.
“Go ahead. I need to inventory the electronics.”
Aphrodite’s storms were intense, but brief, and the rain had already begun to taper off. Sarah sank to the ground and untied a climbing rope from the pack. A downed branch lay nearby. She could use it as a stake to lash the surviving shoots together. She’d already lost over three-quarters of her crop.
The sergeant stood beside her, his coverall still undone to the waist, checking over his weapon. “We’re in luck,” he said. “This wasn’t in contact with the hull when I blew the shuttle.”
Sarah dug her scanner from an exterior pocket on her pants leg. She flipped a switch, holding her breath. The display flared to life. Quickly, she thumbed it back off. “My scanner’s good, too.” She looked up at him. “Why didn’t you try the charge gun on the snake?”
“Snakes’re too big for the hand-held weapons to make much impact. It’d just tick it off.”
Sarah slid the scanner back into its pocket and finished wrapping her seedlings. That done, she paused and looked around her. Mist obscured the view in all directions.
No way to know what creatures might be lurking. No walls. No artificial atmosphere. Nothing but her breather between herself and asphyxiation, and no chance it would last long enough to make it back to safety.
If they were going to have a chance at survival, they had to press on.
Sarah blew out a steadying breath. “I’m ready to head for the graft zone.”
He snapped his weapon’s access panel shut. “Not going that way, Munroe.”
The breeze wafted a drifter cluster between them. The tiny blossoms formed tight orbs inflated like miniature balloons.
Dr. Petersen had wanted these. Enough that it killed him.
Sarah snatched it from the air. The blooms deflated at her touch, releasing a puff of wind, then refilled so fast they didn’t have time to fall.
Schelling dropped to his heels, pulling her attention back to him. He held out the weapon on his open palm. “There’s a homing mechanism in the charge-gun. You’re going to take it, and you’re going to take my breather. They should get you back to the TETS.”
Sarah looked at the gun, then back at Schelling. She recognized the resigned look on his face. She’d worn it herself when Commander Rodrick ordered her into the field. Schelling was prepared to die.
A slow flush spread over his cheeks, barely visible beneath the breather. “I’m ordering you to go.”
“And I refuse. I won’t abandon you.”
Schelling rose, looming over her. His hands shook. “That’s insubordination, Tech.”
She wasn’t going to let him bully her into this. Sarah stood, curling her toes and pressing the soles of her boots into the spongy ground. She raised her chin. “Why should it be me, Sergeant? You’ve got experience out here. A better chance to make it home.”
“You’re my responsibility, Munroe,” he said, his voice rising, “and the one with the know-how to get this mission accomplished. I’m a gun. A shield. There’s plenty like me where I came from.”
“Are we still alive?”
“Are we—” he bit off the words. “Of course, we’re still alive.”
“Because of you.” Sarah jabbed a finger into his chest. ”You saved us from the sky-snake. Now it’s my turn.” She settled the awkward bundle of seedlings against her hip. “Let me set the grafts. They’ll increase the oxygenation in the immediate area. It might be enough to keep us going long enough for rescue.”
“Yes, might. I don’t know for sure. But I am not taking your breather, so you can bring me to the grafting zone, or we can stand here and stare at each other until both our charges go out.”
Quiet settled around them, broken only by the breathers’ soft hush-whirr and the rustling branches. Sarah refused to look away. Her heart thudded. She counted the beats. One. Two. Ten.
Schelling straightened. “Fine, but if we make it, this is going on your record.”
“And they’ll confine me to the TETS? Yes, please.”
Hours later, Sarah trailed behind Schelling through a world she could hardly have imagined. The blue mists, thinner on the high ground, revealed more of the nurse trees. They speared skyward like columns holding up the firmament. High overhead, a multitude of white drifter blossoms floated like so many jellyfish. Native ferns dominated the underbrush. Brushing against the arcing fronds released a strong odor like juniper and amber that Sarah could smell even through the breather’s filter.
Though she hadn’t yet seen any Aphroditian fauna beyond the sky-snake, a hollow hooting sound seemed to be following them. Schelling kept his charge-gun to hand, bringing the weapon into firing position at any disturbance in the underbrush. Sarah had no difficulty following his command to stay still until he could determine if it was safe to move on.
“The hooters won’t hurt us,” he’d said, “but the predators that hunt them will.”
A mixture of perspiration and condensation beaded on Sarah’s face and her shoulders ached from carrying her seedling bundle. Schelling had commandeered her pack, and she hadn’t argued. She could tell he was keeping a slower pace than he would’ve liked. Even so, it was clear the time she’d spent in the TETS’ fitness habitat hadn’t been enough.
A solitary drifter wafted near. Sarah nabbed it and felt the swift release of air against her fingers. “Sergeant, what do you know about these things?”
Schelling glanced back and shrugged. “They’re pretty, I guess, but mostly they’re just a nuisance. I’ve dug too many out of clogged shuttle intakes. Does seem like there’ve been more of them around here since Dr. Petersen started setting the grafts.”
“If he thought they were important, I’d like to get samples back to the lab. Did he say anything about them?”
“Nothing that meant anything to me.”
The largest nurse tree Sarah had seen loomed out of the fog. Schelling approached it and slapped a hand on the trunk. “This is the place. I’ll go up first and set the anchors.” He set down the pack and pulled out the climbing equipment.
Sarah’s gaze followed the expanse of bark up, up, up. She’d known the training habitat back at the TETS wasn’t a good substitute for the real thing, but this? She shook herself. “You’ve got to get to at least—”
“A hundred feet. I know. I’ve done this before.”
“Of course.” Sarah’s clothes clung to her, cold and clammy. She picked at a shoulder. The fabric’s surface tension tugged at her skin until it released with a squelchy pop. Staring at the coverall made it so she didn’t have to look at Schelling. The last thing she wanted to do was make him angry again. “Of course, you have. I’m sorry.”
“Hey,” he said. “Look at me, Munroe.”
Warily, she lifted her eyes to meet his.
“Don’t you hide back in your turtle shell again. I’m trusting you to save our lives.” He clapped her shoulder with one hand. “We’ve practiced for this. You can handle it.”
Sarah wasn’t at all sure she believed him, but at his raised eyebrow, she nodded. If nothing else, she could fake it, for both their sakes. “Let me help you with the boot-claws. They’re my size, so they’ll need adjustment.”
Some judicious strapping managed to lash the claws onto Schelling’s much larger feet in such a way at least the toes would work, and they wouldn’t simply fall off.
Schelling put one foot up on the bark and pressed down to test them. He gave a semi-satisfied grunt. “They’ll do.” He handed Sarah the charge-gun. “I’ll be back as fast as I can.”
Sarah settled herself against the tree trunk and turned her attention to her handful of drifters, to distract herself from the breathers’ rapidly depleting charge. She ran a finger over a blossom and the now-familiar burst of wind puffed free.
There had to be a purpose for it. Maybe a method of locomotion or distributing microscopic genetic material in the gas expulsion? Sarah wanted to run her scanner on them, but she needed to preserve what charge remained to test the success of the grafting.
She rested her head on her forearms and winced at the sharp pain. Her ribs ached where the shuttle’s restraints had bruised her. She hadn’t mentioned that to Schelling, though. He had to be hurting too and, really, what could he do about it? There was nothing to be done but grit her teeth and push through.
Sarah chuckled softly. She’d always considered herself soft. Believed she could never handle a dangerous posting like Dr. Petersen’s or Schelling’s, that she’d crumple under the pressure and all her parents would have left would be a letter of commendation—Lost In Service—and an empty room back home.
Though there was no way to say whether she’d survive this, she was pleased to learn she’d underestimated herself. She hadn’t fallen apart yet and she was determined to keep it that way.
Schelling dropped down beside her. He slipped off the harness and boot-claws. “The anchors are set.”
“I’ll belt myself to one, and you can use the rope to send up the seedlings,” Sarah said, adjusting the claws back to her own size.
The standard number for a nurse tree was five, enough to affect an appreciable change in oxygenation without overwhelming the host tree after the grafts matured, but this wasn’t about terraforming any more. This was about survival.
“All of them.”
The climb was excruciating. Every movement sent pain shooting through Sarah’s chest and if she looked past her feet, vertigo hit so hard she had to close her eyes and press her head to the tree until the world stopped spinning and she could force herself to take another step.
This was nothing like the simulation back at the TETS. The bark was brittle in unexpected places, breaking away under her hands. Only the rope and her claws kept her from falling.
The higher she climbed, the more drifters floated past. At one point, a sky-snake’s dark silhouette slithered past through the fog and Sarah froze, holding her breath. It never came closer and soon disappeared from sight.
By the time she reached the anchors her arms were trembling. She struggled to undo her belt and loop it through the metal fastener. When she was finally secured she yanked on the rope three times, signaling for Schelling to send up the first seedling.
She pulled off her pack, wedged it between herself and the tree, and dug out her borer. The electrical discharge that had knocked out the sky-snake had also shorted the borer, so Sarah set about preparing the nurse tree to receive its new parasites with nothing more than her own strength to bite through the tree’s outer layers.
The inner bark was far harder than she’d figured and she struggled to work her way through, gasping precious oxygen. Finally, pale sapwood flesh slid up out of the borer. With hands shaking so badly she worried she’d drop the jar, Sarah opened the container of catalyst and coated the inside of the bore hole.
She stowed the jar back in a sealed pants-pocket, slid the first seedling’s roots into the treated hole, then waited, holding her breath.
The strange symbiosis encouraged by the catalyst took hold. Seedling roots sank into the nurse tree’s sapwood. Leaves unfurled into wide, shovel-shaped expanses of green.
Despite her discomfort and the hovering awareness that she had only a few hours of air left, this culminating genesis made Sarah forget the cold, the wet—everything.
She tugged the rope to signal for the next shoot. On and on she worked, one graft following the next, as close together as she could place them.
Her hands blistered. The blisters burst. Tears leaked freely, pooling at the top of the breather before collecting enough to slide sideways and over the edge.
There was no time for weakness. No room for pain. The air in her breather tasted stale and left an unpleasant coating inside her mouth. A persistent buzzing hummed in her ears.
When the last graft was set, Sarah pulled off the boot-claws and harness and lowered them down. In a few minutes, Schelling appeared below her, grunting with the effort of the climb. Her own head was spinning now, and not from her injury, she didn’t think. How much worse for him, trying to climb with a depleted breather?
When he was in reach, she grabbed his coverall to help pull him the rest of the way, despite the pain in her tattered palms. He dragged himself onto the branch behind Sarah and propped his hands on the tree, arms on either side of her, sucking in deep breaths. Sarah fed the rope through another anchor and tied it. His weight rested against her back, the hard muscles in his chest rising and falling with each gasp. “Is it working?”
With a muttered prayer, Sarah pulled out her scanner and switched it on. Data flashed onto the screen—atmospheric content percentages, most of it little more than gibberish to her hazy mind. All that mattered was the oxygen level.
Higher than planetary standard, but still below breathable.
All her work—all those years engineering the seedlings to maximize oxygen output, her desperate struggle to seed the grafts before it was too late—all for naught.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Sarah didn’t realize she was shaking until Schelling took one hand off the tree and laid it on her shoulder. “Hey,” he said, breather beside her ear. “Not your fault. You tried, Munroe. Couldn’t have tried harder.”
If she was going to die, she didn’t want the last time she heard her name to be Munroe. “My name’s Sarah,” she said, fighting to control her tremors.
“Sarah,” he replied. “I’m Stefan.”
She gave a weak laugh. “Yes, Sergeant. Stefan.”
“Listen to me, Sarah. While you were up here, I was working on the transponder. I managed to transfer the charge from the weapon. The beacon’s transmitting. Someone back at the TETS will have our location by now. They’ll know something’s gone wrong.”
That should be good, shouldn’t it? “Why do you sound so grim?”
He squeezed her shoulder. “We’ve expended more charge than anticipated. The crash left us farther from the graft site than what they figure into the calculations. More walking. More working ... the breathers won’t make it long enough for the rescue team to reach us.”
“What about the scanner? It’s got a charge. Can’t you transfer it, too?”
“Wouldn’t be enough to make a difference.” He blew out a breath. “We’re back where we started. I’m going to turn off my breather. You save it until the last moment and then make the switch. It’s your best chance.”
“You don’t get to stop me this time.” He touched his chest. “Shield, remember? Let me do my job.”
A drifter floated past, hovering among the grafts. Its blooms touched the surface of Sarah’s breather, releasing its tiny breeze.
The scanner’s readout shifted.
“Get back home and finish your work,” Schelling said. “That’ll make this worth it.” He reached for the switch.
“No!” Sarah grabbed his hand and yanked it so hard her momentum nearly toppled them from the branch. The anchors held, and Stefan managed to grab a piece of the nurse tree’s protruding bark, his other hand bunched in the neck of Sarah’s coverall.
He hauled them back to the top of the branch. “Are you trying to kill us both?”
“No,” Sarah gasped. “The drifters. Look.” She reached for another, setting off the wind, and pointed at the display. “They’re amplifying the oxygen. When they release, there’s just enough for a breath or two before it’s gone. If we can catch them, they should be able to keep us going.”
When the sergeant didn’t reply, she twisted to look at him and found him staring at the shifting graphs on the display. Sarah touched the drifter again, though it hadn’t fully refilled. The resulting expulsion of air didn’t release as much oxygen, but she didn’t care. She waved the scanner. “Don’t you see? This is what Dr. Petersen discovered. The drifters are the key.”
Schelling blinked and shook himself. “Are there enough?”
Sarah reached for another. “There’s got to—”
In the space of a breath, Sarah found herself shoved against the tree trunk, Stefan’s hand pressing hard against her back. She twisted to look behind her and choked on a scream. A sky-snake’s eerie, eyeless head filled her vision.
She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. All she could do was watch. The roar of her own pulse deafened her to any other sound. There was nothing she could do. Nothing Schelling could do. Her fingers dug into his thigh.
In a blur of motion, Stefan tore the breather from his head and aimed it at the sky-snake’s open jaws, turning the control to full power. The creature was so close Sarah could smell its sulfuric breath.
At the last moment, the sky-snake swerved, sliding past them barely a foot from Schelling’s outstretched arm. As soon as it passed, he pressed the breather to his face and sucked in air.
The snake twisted back for another attack.
Once again, Schelling held out his breather like a weapon, his jaw clenched so hard a muscle twitched in the corner, but beyond that tiny motion he didn’t flinch as the nightmare predator approached.
This time, the sky-snake hesitated, a tremor running from its nose to the tip of its tail, sending radiating ripples through the mist. The jaws yawned wide and a hollow reverberation shook the air, then the creature looped away, vanishing in the distance.
Schelling slipped the breather back into place.
Sarah’s strength bled away and she wilted, slumping sideways. Schelling wrapped an arm around her and leaned her back against him, keeping them balanced with his free hand against the nurse tree.
“It’s over. I’ve got you, Munroe.”
Sarah closed her eyes and focused on breathing slowly. Schelling’s heart thudded steadily under her ear while her own raced like a bird’s. She shook her head, hardly able to believe she was still alive. “Did anyone ever tell you you’re a damn good shield?”
His laugh was a low rumble she felt more than heard. “That was luck, more than anything.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just occurred to me there had to be a reason the sky-snake that attacked the shuttle was flying outside its normal territory. They’ve stayed within the range of the mature trees since we started observations on Aphrodite, so something had to have changed. Only thing changing is us. The grafting. More oxygen. Maybe it’s damaging to the snakes. Maybe that’s why the drifters produce it. Some sort of species protection adaptation.”
“So you didn’t know that would work?”
“Nope. But it seemed like a better thing to try than nothing.” He gave her a gentle squeeze. “You okay now?”
She swallowed and nodded.
“Then how about we start collecting drifters before it gets too dark to see ’em.”
By the time night’s inevitable darkness cloaked them, Sarah and Schelling had gathered several good-sized handfuls of floating posies. She used the scanner at first to gauge how much oxygen the drifters were producing. Each bloom required a period of recuperation before it produced a full breath’s worth of oxygen. To be sure she and Schelling were getting enough to keep them going, she kept up the monitoring, but the scanner’s display dimmed with the constant use, and eventually she flicked it off. “We’ll just have to keep up a rotation with what we have,” she said in the sudden blackness left behind. “They’ll have to be enough.”
Darkness amplified every sound. The hooters’ calls were everywhere, and from far below Sarah heard the occasional yowl of a predator. Insects whined, invisible in the dark.
“What happens if a sky-snake comes at night?” she asked. “We won’t be able to see it.”
“Hooters go silent if the snakes come. We’ll know.” His breather wheezed, near the end of its useful life.
Sarah didn’t reply, concentrating instead on keeping track of her drifters. Touch one. Breathe. Touch another. Breathe. Supplement from breather for a bit. Start again.
Time stretched through the blackness like cold sap. How long had it been since she’d last slept? Her pillow back in the TETS was perfect. Soft enough to cradle her head, but firm enough to be supportive. She could almost feel it against her skin, but had it always been so warm?
Schelling shook her. “Stay with me, Munroe.”
She lifted her head, surprised to find she’d been resting it against his chest. That wasn’t right. She was supposed to be counting breaths.
Schelling flipped her breather on and her mind began to clear.
She nodded, forgetting he couldn’t see her, and touched the switch before turning back to her drifters. “Sorry, Sergeant.”
“Talk to me.”
“Anything,” he said. “Just keep talking.”
“You’re trying to keep me awake, aren’t you?”
“Got it in one.”
Of course he was. “You should meet my parents,” she said. “They’d like you.”
Sarah finished her circuit of drifters. It was so hard to think straight. “You’re the kind of person they respect. Brave, skilled—”
“Hey now, stop that. You’re making me blush.”
“I’m serious. You’re exactly the sort of person I could never be.”
Sarah twisted toward him. “I don’t know why you think that’s funny.”
“Just look at what you’re doing. You’re transforming a world. Me, I’m nothing but so much muscle. A grain of sand in a desert of soldiers. No chance to make a real difference.”
“But you do make a difference,” Sarah said, then paused to gather more air from the drifters. “It wasn’t me who figured out how to divert that snake. If I’d been alone, I’d be dead. You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for.”
“And you ran into a sky-snake’s mouth to try to save our lives, so I don’t want to hear how you’ve got no courage.”
Sarah blinked against a sudden stinging in her eyes. “What is this, the mutual admiration society?”
“Maybe it’s the time-to-hear-some-truth club.”
Schelling flipped the switch on his breather for another breath. It stuttered, then went silent.
Sarah grabbed his hand. “Stefan?”
He pulled off the spent breather with his free hand. “It’s all right. You’ve got more left than me. You’re going to make it.”
She took off her own breather and held it to his face. ”We’re going to make it. I’m not giving up now.”
Then there was no time to talk. Only a complex dance of drifters, and passing the breather between them.
The world went fuzzy at the edges. The only real things left were Stefan and his breathing, his warmth wrapped around her, and her dogged determination that he was not going to die.
The dawn came so gradually Sarah almost didn’t notice, but slowly she realized she could see Schelling’s eyes when she pressed the breather to his skin. She blinked and looked around her. The grafts had continued to grow in the night, their leaves in silhouette now half again as large as they’d been the last time she saw them. This was how it worked. The catalyst aided in rapid development, and with it, the grafts would continue to produce more oxygen.
The breather’s wheeze faltered. Sputtered. Died.
Stefan stared at her over its rim, his lips pressed shut, patches of ruddiness blooming on his skin.
A shudder shook Sarah from the top of her skull down through her toes. This was it. She dug out the scanner, hands shaking so hard she could barely thumb the switch. She’d tried to conserve the charge. Was it enough?
Stefan’s arm tightened around her. His heart thudded so hard she could feel it through his unnaturally still ribs. If nothing else, at least she wouldn’t die alone. It was a selfish thought, but his presence made the fear almost bearable.
The scanner hummed and a dim display appeared on the screen. Sarah’s lungs burned and she bit her tongue against the need to drag in a breath. All she could see was the oxygenation line. The only thing that mattered. Up it rose. Higher. Higher.
The line slid over the breathable threshold.
A choked cry slipped from Sarah’s lips. She closed her eyes and took her first true breath of Aphrodite. The mists dampened her tongue and the air tasted like sap, but her lungs accepted it without complaint.
“I take it that’s a good sign?”
“It worked,” she sobbed, then lifted her head and wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. “It worked.”
Schelling lowered the useless breather, taking slow, measured breaths. The ruddy patches faded with each inhalation. He shook his head disbelievingly. “When we get back to the TETS, I’m nominating you for a commendation.”
“When we get back to the TETS, I need to get these drifters into the lab. There’s so many possibilities. Ways we can utilize—”
“Munroe,” Schelling said, cutting off the thought, “don’t be surprised if command has you straight back out in the field.”
“After all this? We didn’t even get the grafts set properly. They’re going to kill this tree before long. It won’t be able support them all.”
“When I give them my report of your performance, they’ll jump at the opportunity. I’m not sure I’ve seen a cooler head under pressure. Besides, I heard they’re bringing over a new lab tech from TETS-12.”
The scanner’s display dimmed and Sarah turned it off. She looked at the brightening world around her. Mist gathered in droplets on the newly planted grafts, glistening silver in the pale light. Drifters hovered like snowflakes in low gravity, dancing at the whim of the breeze. A long-legged insect whirred its scintillating wings, lifting off the nurse tree’s trunk.
Everything felt so different. Almost serene after the sky-snake’s attack the previous day and the long night of terror. Could she do it? Could she really come back out here?
“I’ll be requesting to continue as your partner,” Schelling said.
Sarah studied him out of the corner of her eye. “You sure about that?”
“You didn’t give up on me, Munroe, and you didn’t let me give up on myself.” His voice went gruff. “I’m more sure about this than I think I’ve ever been.”
A weary smile spread across Sarah’s face. “We did good, didn’t we?”
“We did good.”
Muffled shouts rose up from the ground far below. “Sergeant Schelling? Tech Munroe?”
Schelling twisted to look down, cupped his hands, and called, “Up here! You guys have extra breathers?”
“Send ’em up before we come down.”
While Schelling pulled up the breathers, Sarah traced her finger over the graft leaves. They were broad, smooth, almost waxy, and they had saved her life. Because she’d kept her head.
Schelling was right. She hadn’t fallen apart in the field. She’d made a discovery that had the potential to revolutionize the terraforming protocols. And she hadn’t done it alone.
Schelling gripped her shoulder to get her attention and offered her a breather. “Ready to go home?”
“So ready.” She put on the breather and slipped into a spare harness the rescue team had sent up along with it. “Then let’s get back out here and turn this planet into a real home.”
Schelling grinned. “Whatever you say, partner.”
Partner. That sounded good.
Sarah loosed her tether and slid down into the mist, confident in the knowledge that Schelling had a hand on the rope. They could handle whatever Aphrodite threw at them.
They’d do it together.
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle. Her fiction has appeared in the “Grantville Gazette: Universe Annex,” “Abyss & Apex,” and “Every Day Fiction.” When not writing, she enjoys singing and practicing Tae Kwon Do.