“Status?” Grace asks.
“Six thousand years in the past,” I say, reading from my lens. “Life is a yes.”
“I hate doing this,” she repeats. “Tell me why?”
“Because if we don’t find technology. We won’t survive as a species.”
“Tell me why?”
“I didn’t write the rules. I didn’t say, “look you have a time ship, now plunder earth’s future until it’s all gone. Now plunder each and every planet you come across, future and past.”
“Please, professor. I love your passion.”
“Don’t smart me.”
We get into our zip suits and crank the airlocks. Verdant green, cucumber air. “These aliens,” Grace says, “they’re plant-based?”
“That’s what the scans said.”
“That means there’s a high likely we won’t be able to adapt their tech.”
“I don’t write the rules.”
We make lines through the gloom. Nighttime rains supreme. Moons big and bright. A triad.
“Ocean that way,” Grace says. Her arm arrows the way, her gloved hand an oddity on this inhuman world.
“Scan beeps up nothing that direction.”
“Shall we walk?”
“Three moons are beautiful.”
Sounds of the wind, glistening through grasses. Insect chirp. Maybe not insect. The life forms pollinate. Scans said. If not insect, some sort of pollinator, right? Very peaceful. Very lovely. Lots of colours. Lots of sweet smells.
“You think we’ll find a trove?” Grace asks.
“Could use one.”
“You really think we’re stagnating? As a species?”
“I don’t know. Reports say.”
“Social reports are written by committee.”
“I don’t know.” We ascend a hill. “Smell the ocean?” I ask.
“You should have your mask on,” she says.
“There’s nothing bad about the atmosphere.”
“I like the smells,” I say. “No smells on the station cept stink.”
Grace unhinges her mask. She has a twinkle in her smile when she inhales. “Nice.”
“There’s a primary.” She means an intelligent organism. We study it. It’s a mass of flowers. Red, yellow, orange. No detectable sense organs. But we get lots of electrical activity off it. Definitely a cortex somewhere inside the bush.
“What if they don’t have any tech?” she says.
“Of course they do. Scanner doesn’t lie.”
“Where is it then?”
The flowers swish in the breeze. The smell slithers inside my mouth, twitches across my taste buds. I can feel…
“It wants to know who we are,” Grace says.
“It just asked. Didn’t you smell?”
Grace leans over the flowers and inhales. The flowers furl and unfurl. “Get away,” I order. Grace has her smile on again.
One of the flowers unfolds. In the moonlight, a white seedpod sits on the velvet petals. Grace lifts it in her gloved fingers.
The smell changes. I feel it cover my face like cool water. It is only night air. It is only oxygen and nitrogen and whatever chemicals this creature gives off. I grope for my mask.
Even as I slap my mask back over my mouth and nose, breathe regulation air. Grace’s mouth opens, her gloved hand goes up and pops the seedpod in. She smiles. Smiles, then sits down on the ground and closes her eyes.
“Grace!” I get over to her. I pump stimulant into her air supply then slap her mask over her face. No response. Anger burns. Gritting teeth.
Weapon unholstered. I combust the flower bush in white-hot flame. Much against regulation. Then I pick up Grace and jog back toward the ship.
We make it and I park her inside in her seat. It sucks her down inside. She is breathing. Nothing wrong with her, the ship reports. But she’s stone sleeping.
I want to leave for Grace’s sake. Can’t. Not until I find the tech. You don’t get a license to fly time missions if you can’t bring home the booty. I can’t handle being kept aboard station. Have to be planetside.
I look outside. Decide to wait until morning anyway. We have lots of time. Right?
I dial up the feeds, tune into some broadcast downloaded before we jumped into the past, something about the super bug. It’s always something going to end the human race. Yesterday old age today super bugs tomorrow boredom.
Grace and I had family aspirations. Then she decided she didn’t want to increase the number of children aboard. I didn’t want a family either. I wanted her to be happy so I could be happy and in the end neither of us were. How we ended up out here together, don’t ask me. Officials writing rules. Algorithms gone crazy.
Out the window, dawn breaks in a violet haze. We are surrounded in a glory of vegetation. Scanners ping. Multiple intelligences out there. I take a read on Grace.
Something isn’t right. Her rhythms have changed. I do an eyeball scan. Her skin is peeling. She’s coming apart at the seams the way people shouldn’t. As if she’s been reborn as a snake
“Grace? Are you able to hear?”
Not a hiss or a peep. Her lungs move. I smell a gust of something delicate in the air of the ship. Vapourish, floral. We need to leave. But I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to go home to the station where they’ll stick us in our closets and plug us into the dream machines. Virtual reality space is infinite while physical space is premium. Justification or excuse. Don’t ask me. Everybody’s post biologics. I feel like the only reader in a library. Everyone else pages through the web. Grace told me she felt that way once. Then she changed her mind.
I program a healing purge for her. There’s nothing going back will help. The ship has healing tech good as the station’s. Better. And if worst is worst. I can get a different Grace. When your a time ship, eventualities are covered.
Outside, exploring with growing desperation for the tech, the plants look at me. I feel the air push against my suit. I spot what must be a pollinator. Meters big. Wings bright as jewels. It glides from bush to bush, sipping like a humming bird doesn’t anymore. I have those vids. Everyone on the station spends time on Earth. We aren’t allowed to actually go to Earth. Not the real deal. Not into the past when it hasn’t died it’s fiery death. Humans couldn’t handle their future children, us. That seems perfectly reasonable.
I scan the pollinators and get a micro reading. Smart enough to be happy, I think. Reading says tech is somewhere nearby.
I get to the ocean. There’s a beach as white as snow. I’d love to see for real snow. I did on the last planet. Had to dig through mountains of it. We found big tech on that world. Those aliens had nuclear civilization. Very good genetic computers. Put that in the bank and cashed it for five years virtual vacation. That’s when Grace and I thought about starting a family.
You can’t start a family in virtual reality, though. You always have to come back to the real world unless you want robots to do it for you with needles.
Inside the ocean are more pollinators and plants. Intelligence down there but nothing says tech. I have the urge to pull off my mask and take a breath of the air but I can’t. If I collapse out here like Grace did. No one would save me. No one would save her.
I have to watch and listen and let the smells stay in my imagination.
That’s when I see the flowers following me. They don’t move. I see the reds running along. Yellow flowers along this path, but then as I walk by, they turn red. Clearly they are aware of me.
Back at the ship Grace is a brown woody husk. Her flesh and bones have changed their structure. She is not alive.
Grief isn’t realistic. I take the body and put it on the ground by some of the flowers. They sway toward her against their stems. The ship had crushed a bunch of them. Only noticing now.
I get in and look over at her empty seat. I have to take time back. I have to go ahead six thousand years to arrival point. There will be two of me. One of her.
I turn the dials and make time revert. It’s a short flip of the switch. Two ships now. Two sets of intelligent bushes flattened.
I key my radio and contact the other time ship. “You guys will have a bad day tomorrow,” I say.
Grace comes into view. Her eyebrows flutter. “We should abort?”
“Are you coming with?” That’s me. I’m asking myself if I want to come home with them. I give myself a look.
“No,” I say. “You can leave me here.”
“Among the flowers?” Grace asks. She has a tremble in her voice.
“I’ll probably be dead in a day,” I say. “That’s how it is.”
Grace has her sympathetic face on. “Take something,” she says. “You’ll snap out. You can’t stay here. What about rules?”
“I don’t want to take anything. I don’t feel like it. I want to stay.”
“Yeah,” other me says. “I understand.”
“no,” Grace says. “No we can’t let him.”
“There’s no tech here,” I say. “I understand now. The reading that the scan picks up is from my ship. It’s been here all along. I am staying. I have stayed already.”
Grace is mad now. She grabs the other me and shakes him. “You idiot,” she says. “You damn idiot.”
“You guys better go,” I say. The other me cuts the transmission.
Alone. I take the ship back six thousand years minus a few. I am careful not to change the physical location. Only the temporal. When I arrive, I exit without my suit or mask.
The pollinators hum and chirp and flutter close. I can see the now fully-grown bush next to the ship where I’d left Grace’s body. It turns red in greeting. I lean toward it as it sways toward me on its stem. I inhale the sweet perfume. Awareness of its thoughts. “Status?” it asks.
One of its flowers unfurls to reveal a white seedpod. I take it and place it on my tongue. Swallow.
I sit down. Will it hurt? The smell says it won’t. But it doesn’t matter to me.
I turn so I’m looking away from the ship and toward the ocean. Close my eyes and breathe. This is the tech humans need.