"Ascending the Sending Road" is a 10,000 word novelette I wrote early on after establishing my new-found focus to become a published writer back in 2006. In early 2007 I was put on percocet after undergoing a dental procedure, and the resultant screwed-up dreams that night produced the rough glimmer of the story you'll find below. It was really as bizarre as it sounds. I think I figured out a little of what made Lewis Carroll so "special," as they say. Although I quickly swore off the painkillers, I had to admit I was able to see why some writers would turn to them for ideas. This one of mine, in fact, was a doozy!
After waking up from my rather colorful nap, I immediately opened up my Word program and quickly outlined the basic elements of the tale based on the dream. Most of that remains intact. I would spend the next several months of 2007 drafting, revising, submitting, then revising again until the final form you see below emerged just before my 31st birthday. In the four years since, I've come a long way in my crafting skills, but still this story holds a special place in my heart. While I find it a tad overwritten and rather clunky in some of the scenes that were meant to be huge emotional centerpieces, I think at its heart it is a very profound story that I needed to tell. One that should perhaps be reworked and repackaged at some point by yours truly. It's unique in that I think I can take the basic premise and rough outline and expand it into a novel someday. Or, I can grab one particular scene and condense it into a very tight and powerful short story.
I may just do that someday.
But in the meantime, I present you below with one of my more imaginative works to date. It will never sell, but it is a project I am proud of. And re-reading it after all these years I am surprised that, even at such an early stage in my learning process, I was able to craft something of this potential. Go me!
If you would like to comment on this piece, please click on the original announcement link on my blog here. Kindly leave any feedback at the bottom of that page, if you're of a mind to do so. Any tips or suggestions on how to improve the work will also be received warmly.
December 5, 2011
"Ascending the Sending Road"
Written by David J. Batista.
Meishan caught up to her little brother as he stood within a thick tangle of popos weeds near the Forbidden Place. Her useless right leg throbbed from her hobbled run across the field, and she had to lean hard on the crutch while she gathered enough wind into her lungs for a proper scolding. Li Pan scrunched his eyes almost shut and lifted a small hand to his brow as he scanned the lip of the rusty-brown impact crater where nothing living grew.
“Quiet, jieh,” he whispered. “She’s ‘round here somewhere. I heard her calling.”
Meishan swallowed to moisten her throat, then grabbed the boy’s arm with her free hand. “Get away from there, didi. You know we’re not allowed near this place.”
The six-year old squirmed like something wild caught in a snare. “Aw, jieh . . . let me go. I have to find her!”
Meishan ignored the twisted wreckage that gleamed in the sunlight at the center of the depression and threw a nervous glance back the way they’d come. As expected, they were the only two fools out so far from the settlement this close to sunset.
She faced her brother. “Who now?”
“The lady, dum-dum. Didn’t you hear her?” He broke free of her grip and took a few steps back. She grabbed for him again, but the voice froze her hand in mid-reach.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?”
Meishan spun around again on her good leg, heart caught in her chest at the interruption. Lavender weeds waved knee-high in the late afternoon breeze, brushing gently across the foot path leading back to the main road. She craned her neck over the edge of the crater next and studied its steep, downward-sloping walls.
Li Pan clapped his hands and leapt deeper into the weeds, laughing. “Jieh-jieh, come look! I found her!”
“Hello?” the disembodied voice inquired again. “Crewmember? Hello?”
Meishan frowned as she staggered after Li Pan, not recognizing the accented voice. Her brother stopped and reached down into the popos.
“Here she is—look!” He spun around and flourished a black lacquered box under her chin.
“What is it?” Meishan asked, and was startled when the box answered back.
“Hello, young masters. I’m grateful for your assistance.” The voice was feminine and high-pitched. It spoke in a clipped, precise tone reminiscent of her abstract numerations instructor, Mrs. Alai.
Meishan traced a finger along the box’s smooth surface, then snatched it away from her brother’s slack grip.
“Well, it doesn’t look all that dangerous now, does it?” she said. Li Pan nodded. He tried to grab the box back, but Meishan hissed at him and held the object higher.
“Hello?” she spoke at the box. “Are you . . . alive in there?”
“Why yes, young mistress. In a manner of speaking. Might I inquire your designations?”
Li Pan grabbed her arm by the sleeve. “Why does she talk so funny?”
Meishan brushed him away. “Excuse me? Are you asking about our names?”
“I’m Li Pan,” her brother offered. “I’m almost seven years old. This is my sister, Li Meishan. She’s twelve.”
“A sincere pleasure to meet you both. Ah, the Li family. Checking . . .”
The box warmed and vibrated in her hand.
“Here we are. Specialist First Class, Li Weishen. Assigned stateroom 118, pod 26, pylon K3. Wife and two daughters also onboard. One moment, young masters—you two are not listed on either the crew or colonial manifests. Accessing alternate logic map.”
A moment of silence followed, then: “Ah, of course. So simple. My internal chronometer informs me quite some time has elapsed. Tell me, where are we?”
Just then a plaintive note whistled long across the shimmering field from the direction of the road.
Li Pan’s friends were anxious.
“Come along, didi. We're going.” Meishan tucked the box under her left arm and reached for his hand. “We should take this back home for the grownups to look at. I think it’s import—hey!”
Li Pan grabbed the box from under her armpit and danced down the path on bare feet. Meishan evoked a very adult sounding epithet under her breath and chased after him as best she could, shouting threats of future slappies in his wake.
“What is this thing, Pan?” the oldest of the bunch, Lupu, asked in the quiet tones of his people. Meishan watched from a discrete distance as her brother’s friends gathered around him, their mottled-gray torsos bent at languid angles to examine the strange object. A couple of the adolescent Petal Blossoms flashed intense patches of curiosity across their trunks, while another pair conveyed muted hues of anxiety highlighted with suspicion.
Meishan thumped her good foot impatiently by the side of the wide road. She tried to mask her worry even as she watched the large orange sun sink ever deeper beneath the northern horizon.
“I think it’s a pilot box—from Earth,” her brother said with pride. Meishan threw her eyes over and made an annoyed clucking sound.
“Didi, let’s go. We have to get home.”
Naturally, Li Pan ignored her. Meishan fumed, but dared not take a step closer to the group. Instead, she added more slappies to her brother’s ever-growing tally. By the time she was done with him that night, he’d have to stand to sleep.
“You are an astute observer, young master Pan,” the box spoke. “I am indeed a pilot construct, designation: Sephadinux-4X876FL2. But you can call me Sepha if you’d like.”
The immature Petal Blossoms nearest the box blinked vermilion in disbelief.
“It speaks,” the Blossom called Caipa wriggled the cilia of his multi-sensory organ at Li Pan. “How is this possible?”
“I don’t know,” her brother shrugged. “I think its from the ship. That means we must’ve made it, a long time ago.”
“Humans can fashion such devices?” another Blossom—Nimru, if Meishan wasn’t mistaken—bloomed striped bars of skepticism.
“Pardon me,” Sepha interrupted, “am I correct in assuming the rest of you are not human?”
Li Pan giggled. “Don’t you have eyes, Sepha?”
The quartet of young Blossoms fidgeted with uncertainty, Meishan saw. A habit they had adopted from her own people.
“I do not possess organic light-refractory organs, no, young master Pan. However, I am fully compatible with a multitude of sensory input devices. All of which are denied to me in my current reduced form, I’m afraid.”
“What is it saying?” The youngest of the Petal Blossoms, Dulum, broadcasted confusion in cerulean patches. “I’m having trouble recognizing its strange speaking sounds.”
“You are a pilot box, this much we have ascertained,” Lupu voiced with confidence.
“You are correct, sir. And who might you be? Representative of an advanced, sentient race, perhaps? Young master Li Pan . . . first contact protocols of the sanctioned and binding Confederate Charter, Article XXII, Division Four, Section—”
“We are known in your language as the Seed,” Lupu interrupted. “Humans call us ‘Petal Blossoms.’ A trite and arguably redundant appellation, one concedes, but we are content to allow its usage among their kind.”
“And are we now, at this current time, on your home world, sir?”
Nimru flashed confirmation, then seemed to remember the box could not see this display and added: “Yes, this is the mother soil.”
“I must confess to being overwhelmed by this information, honored ones. Curious, what are your present occupations? Are you perchance diplomats?”
“Occupation?” Caipa radiated bright confusion. “We are pilots, as much as you claim to be, pilot-box sepha. This is not our ‘occupation,’ as the humans are wont to say, but rather our only purpose at this stage in our growth cycles.”
“I’m going to be a pilot, too!” Li Pan shouted.
In the distance the curfew bell sounded, sonorous with authority. Panic crept into Meishan’s belly. Dusk was upon them; neither child would escape slappies that evening if they didn’t start back this minute.
“Li Pan, get over here right now!”
Her brother’s eyes grew wide, for once heeding the seriousness in his big sister’s tone. “I have to go,” he apologized to his gathered friends.
The quartet conveyed their sadness through shared flashes of browns and deep umber around their upper growths.
“We will escort you to the first gate, my friend,” Lupu said to the boy.
The group started off at once. The sky glowed a subdued, foamy russet as day deepened towards night. Li Pan skipped ahead while his Blossom friends scuttled to keep pace. Hundreds of tiny, pale tendrils churned beneath their rippled skirts as they moved. The pilot box calling itself Sepha was forgotten for the time being, tucked under her brother’s arm as he lead the way to the settlement.
Meishan hobbled along far behind the procession, feeling tucked away and forgotten herself.
The grownups argued late into evening over Li Pan’s discovery, then set out the next morning with a delegation of four representatives according to the settlement’s charter.
Her father, Li Gan, crimsoned with barely restrained rage when he was denied entrance to the sacred speaking grove. To the Blossoms, such coloring suggested bemusement or joy. Meishan tried not to laugh as she watched the Cultivator, Kiro, cycle through multi-hued patterns of confusion mixed with second-degree accommodation.
“I’m sorry, man ligan,” Kiro repeated, “but again I must insist, for the sanctity of the gathering, that your girl-bud remain here. She will have safe companionship while you and the other delegates converse within.” The Cultivator’s lustrous trunk shivered with sincerity, rustling the growths that peaked above the crest of his splendid crown.
The adolescent Blossoms summoned to keep her company stood a discrete distance away with their colors perfectly muted as they pretended not to notice her. Beyond the blooming natural archway ahead, Mayor Bill Harrington and the other delegates whispered amongst themselves—and to the pilot box, Sepha. They waited to be presented to the Elder ones rooted a few meters ahead, beneath the watchful silence of the towering Ancients.
“You have no damn right to deny her, Kiro. She’s just a child!”
“May I remind you, man ligan, that even at her rootless age our own budlings are navigating beyond the heavens in search of new soil? Furthermore, it is not with malice nor chastisement do we withhold her presence at these proceedings. I am a mere Cultivator. It is my duty to take care the sensitivities of our Elders.”
“Are you saying those old fossils still have it out for my little girl?” Li Gan’s eyes stormed in anger. “Let’s have it, Kiro. That was, what, six seasons ago? You mean to tell me those shriveled old prunes can’t find it in their hearts to forgive the foolish prank of an eight-year old child?”
Meishan pressed herself deeper into the curtain of caltop vines draped above the forest path. She hated when her dieh-dieh got so angry and said things she knew he didn’t mean. Especially when she was being used as the fuel for such rage.
“Seven, man ligan,” Kiro countered in a small voice. “Seven seasons ago. And as I already explained, this decision has not been made due to any perceived intolerance towards your girl-bud. The Elders are in fact—”
“The hell with your Elders and this ridiculous charade at neighborly civility! I’m telling you she never meant any harm to those giant trees of yours. If . . .”
Li Pan had wandered over and now pulled insistently at his father’s sleeve. “Dieh-dieh—please, don’t fight! Can’t you see, Mr. Kiro is coloring good. He doesn’t mean to say anything bad, do you Kiro?”
“Indeed I do not, boy lipan.”
“And Mr. Kiro, my dieh is not really mad at you or the others. He’s just trying to protect my big sister.”
Man and Blossom regarded the child together. A puzzled expression formed on the face of the former, while the latter glowed a contented rouge.
“Boy lipan, I see why the second-stage molts flash your praise.” The Cultivator curved his thin grasping filaments along her brother’s smooth chin.
“The council will be delighted to speak with you and your people, of course,” Kiro’s multi-sensory organ wiggled in her father’s direction, “but I’m afraid I cannot make a concession for the girl-bud limeishan.”
Li Gan regarded the taller Cultivator, but already she could see the anger seep out of him.
“It’s all right, dieh,” Meishan stepped forward. “I really don’t mind, honest. It’s more important that you speak to the council and tell them what we need. Please, go.”
Her father smiled then and stooped to embrace her. “You’re such a fine daughter, my darling,” he said, looking directly into her eyes. Meishan flushed at the attention and lowered her head. “Wait here and mind your manners, okay? We’ll be back before long.”
When Kiro led her father and brother away through the arch, Meishan sighed and leaned forward on her walking stick. The adolescent Blossoms flashed and twisted silently among themselves on the opposite side of the path, cilia pointed away from her.
She limped a few measured steps towards the arch for a clearer view of the proceedings beyond, and perhaps a better ear.
An ethereal hum filled the air around the gathering. Towering more than a hundred meters above the grove, the Ancients conversed among themselves—tall and wise, old beyond counting, and rooted deep into the mother soil. The forest of the sacred lineage stretched far beyond the appointed clearing. Several attendant Cultivators passed with care through the neat rows of immobile colossi. They tended to the needs of the sacred ones and ensured the propagation of future generations.
The Elders congregated in a loose circle at the base of one such giant: a gnarled quartet of wilted forms twisting in unison to the collective rhythm of their ancestors. They gave no impression of being aware of the humans in their presence, and spent the early moments of the gathering sliding thick, dark root-tendrils into the rich soil beneath their skirts.
But as the pilot box, Sepha, wove her tale of far away Earth in a crisp tone, the Elders began communicating in a sluggish but complex array of color flashes. Kiro hastened to translate for the gathered human delegation.
“The council inquires, men-guests: from where did you discover this strange constructed box which lives-not, yet speaks?”
The Elder situated closest to the clearing curled his multi-sensory organ with interest in the Cultivator’s direction. For his part, Kiro maintained a tranquil pink glow as he awaited a response.
Mayor Harrington cleared his throat and took a few steps forward. He glanced at the Elders and wrung his meaty hands above his prodigious waistline.
“One of the children found it among the weeds near the cr—near the landing site.” His eyes darted to Kiro then back at the council as if unsure whom to address.
The Elders were not hard of hearing, simply budded from a generation before human beings had fallen from the sky. Before the Seed learned to graft successive generations with the ability to move loose mouthparts behind sensitive cilia, and produce from them the obstreperous noise-sounds humans called “words.” Lacking the necessary apparatus to produce these sounds themselves, the oldest generation of Blossoms rarely held direct contact with the alien settlers. Such dealings were reserved for the younger molts.
“The council wishes to know,” Kiro said after interpreting the latest flurry of color splotches coming from the august group, “do you intend to use this . . . sepha-box to lead your people back to Earth home soil?”
Uncle Wei cut Harrington off before the older man could answer.
“Of course! That’s what we’re here for. We need your permission, don’t we, just to set foot inside the crater? Although—”
“Pay no attention to my little brother,” Li Gan cut him off. “He speaks when he should not. But his words are true to a certain extent. We do request admission to the site in order to give our AI construct access to useful instruments and star charts. Although we understand most of our tech did not survive the impact.”
“We would also like to ascertain for ourselves,” Matu Wara’ta’anu, the settlement’s chief metallurgist, continued, “how much of the wreck is salvageable to fashion a return craft from. Or perhaps a signal beacon.”
Mayor Harrington nodded. “As you can see, the discovery of this pilot box changes everything for our people. It gives us new hope of returning home.”
During the conversation, Li Pan had wandered over to the Elders. Another Cultivator stopped just beyond the clearing, but made no move to impede his progress. A pair of entwined Elders generated patterns of welcome and curiosity along their bruised trunks. Li Pan laughed and waved back.
After conferring with the council for a few moments, Kiro twisted to face the delegates again and flashed apologetic. “I am sorry to inform you, men-guests, but the Elders agree that this cannot be allowed.”
“What do you mean ‘cannot’?” Uncle Wei took a step forward. “You have some nerve denying us, you—”
“Xiao Wei, bi zui!” Li Gan shouted, startling those present.
Uncle Wei blinked at his older brother’s reproach, looked as if to retaliate, then took a step back and bowed before his sibling, the motion stiff with sarcasm.
“Please, Kiro,” Mayor Harrington spoke up next, calm but unable to mask his perplexity. “Can the council explain the reasoning behind this decision? Are we not neighbors? The settlement is forever in the Seed’s debt for allowing our people to live and prosper on the land generously allotted to us.”
“Yes, let’s not get into how generous,” Uncle Wei muttered. Li Gan shot him a quick look.
Kiro did not appear to heed these last words and turned to broadcast Harrington’s question back to his Elders in a rapid succession of bright patterns. For a time the council remained crouched in silence while the dirt beneath their skirts churned under a flurry of tendrils. Above the clearing, the incessant hum seemed to intensify as the Ancients crowded a little closer and blocked out what little sunlight filtered down through the canopy. The air around them grew heady with silent conversation.
“. . . strange . . .” Sepha’s mellifluous voice came through thin and subdued. “I am receiving unknown signal source . . . from multiple directions. Cannot decrypt . . .” Then the construct’s words faded under a heavy resonance that drowned out all other sounds. Li Pan wandered over to his father’s side, pressing his hands to his ears.
At length the frequency dialed back down to the previous hum, barely below a minor irritant now to the ears of the humans waiting for a response. They shook their heads clear.
“What was that all about?” Uncle Wei said with a tongue that sounded too big for his mouth.
“Forget not, man liwei, that our glorious ancestors are also presiding over this meeting.” Kiro bloomed a dotted pattern of copper elucidation. “They have listened to your requests.”
The Cultivator’s headdress dipped in Harrington’s direction.
“Honored mayor, the council agrees our peoples have coexisted peaceably for the past ten human generations. And during this time only two incidents have arisen when our races could not reach harmonious balance. The most recent you are all no doubt recognizant, and it shall therefore not be spoken of here . . .”
Li Gan’s hand tightened into a fist by his side. Li Pan caught the movement and stared up at his father, eyes wide.
“. . . But the earlier incident I reference now is one which occurred well before the budding of all beings present, save for the Elders and our Ancient ones.”
“You’re talking about my people’s arrival?” Mayor Harrington looked grave. “That was over three hundred years ago, Kiro. None alive today bear responsibility for that terrible event.”
Matu Wara’ta’anu nodded. “That’s right. And according to the written accounts of those who escaped before the impact, our ancestors had no control of the colony ship before it went down.”
“Certainly the pilot box can confirm all this.” Harrington raised the object in his hand. “She was there, after all. Sepha?”
“Yes, this is correct, sirs. After encountering an errant ion storm our astrophysics sensors failed to detect, all—”
“Honored men-guests, we are not here to assign blame for what occurred long away ago,” Kiro glowed apologetic. “The council simply wishes to remind those present that on that star-night cycle, a great catastrophe befell both our peoples. Your forbearers were left bereft of home and transport vessel . . . while the Seed suffered great loss in the resulting conflagration which swept through our sacred groves. Many Ancients perished, never to feel the warmth of the Light Bearer again. Gone with them as well were those budlings not yet ready for flight, denied the honor to spread our seed to other soil-worlds across the stars.”
“So you do blame us for that,” Li Gan said. “And so, what? Now it’s time for us to pay?”
Kiro’s trunk darkened to a regrettable blue ink. “This is not the intended purpose of this remembrance, man ligan. The council only wishes to use this unfortunate incident as a reminder: Human technology is an abomination. The Seed cannot permit its terrible power to loose itself among us again. Nor can we allow our human neighbors to bring the threat of harm to themselves.”
“This is ridiculous!” Matu spat. “We’ve always obeyed your people’s edict forbidding contact with the site. But we have a right to our own technology, especially now that we might use it to find our way home. This isn’t a matter you folk should be deciding for us anymore.”
The hum of the Ancients evaporated in an instant. An eerie silence fell over the gathering. Then all four Elders bloomed urgent colors, each “speaking” at once. Kiro twisted around to receive their messages, his multi-sensory organ quivering beneath his crown.
“Stay calm,” Harrington said in a warning tone to the other delegates. Li Pan broke away from his father’s side and stared back at Meishan across the clearing, bewildered. She ached to come to his side and comfort his fears, yet she was also proud at how brave he was being. Out of her peripheral vision she saw the adolescent molts broadcast nervous patterns between themselves.
At length Kiro turned to regard the humans, his colors muted. “Man-guests, the council cautions against anger . . .”
Uncle Wei opened his mouth, but Mayor Harrington placed a hand on his shoulder.
“. . . and would like to offer a compromise. A solution the council feels will benefit both our races.”
Uncle Wei’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of compromise?”
“Our Elders see fit to offer one of your people the chance to train with our pilots, the second-stage molts. If successful, this individual may someday leave our world and seek the way home to the mother soil you call Earth. Such an offer is, of course, unprecedented among us. But with the rediscovery of pilot-box sepha, the council has recognized this as an auspicious branching in our relationship.”
The men stared in confusion, unable to grasp the full implication of the Cultivator’s words. Eventually Harrington stepped forward again.
“We-we don’t know what to say. This isn’t what we expected, wise council, but I admit the offer is not without merit. We must discuss this with the rest of the settlement, of course. Put it to a vote.”
“We understand, man billharrington.”
“Yes, and we’ll also need some time to decide who among us would be best suited for the task. Perhaps one of the younger, unmarried men . . .” Harrington’s voice trailed off as Kiro’s filament arms weaved negative arcs between them.
“With regrets, man-guests, the council has already settled on an appropriate candidate.”
“You have?” Li Gan asked. “Who?”
“Your boy-bud, lipan.”
Li Pan whooped and clasped his hands together at the mention of his name. He turned to run to Meishan, but their father restrained him.
“I don’t understand,” Li Gan said. “Why my son?”
Kiro hesitated and faced the Elders, but received no response. He turned to the delegation again and flashed reassurances.
“It is of no worry, man ligan. Your boy-bud is beloved among my people. As you know, he alone is allowed free access to our groves and has formed companionship bonds with many of our second-stage molts. Furthermore, he observes many of the principles held by the Seed. Refusing to consume flesh, showing compassion for all growing life. Boy lipan is the ideal human to train among us for these reasons mostly. Is the proposition agreeable?”
Li Gan did not answer, but his brow wrinkled as if lost in thought.
“We, of course, will still need to discuss this with the rest of the settlement,” Harrington placed a hand on Li Gan’s shoulder as he spoke. “This is a lot to take in, you must understand.”
“Of course,” Kiro weaved acknowledgement. “You may return here tomorrow with a decision, man billharrington. However, there is an additional condition to be met before the council will allow this compromise.”
“I knew it!” Uncle Wei harrumphed. “There’s always something else.”
“If man-guests would please leave man ligan with us, the council needs to discuss this next matter with him alone. It concerns your bud, man ligan.”
Li Pan’s father frowned. “What? But I thought you said my boy’s already chosen? What is this?”
“You misunderstand, man ligan. We do not speak of your boy bud lipan now. He is indeed worthy.”
Li Gan’s brow furrowed in confusion. Kiro took a cautious step forward, rigid with urgency.
“This matter, honored sir, concerns your other bud—girl limeishan.”
That night Meishan crouched inside the entrance to her family’s dwelling, her bad leg bent painfully beneath her. Yet she dared not move lest the weight of her father’s angry eyes fall upon her.
“What have you done, Yuru? I told those glowing monstrosities they’re not getting their feelers on our daughter!”
Her mother wilted beneath his shout. She refused to meet his gaze, but spoke in a measured tone. “Yet you and the others have no problem consigning our son to the very care of these self-same monsters? Why is this, husband?”
“That’s different and you know it. The Blossoms love our boy. They see him as one of their own. Meishan on the other hand has been treated like a pestilent menace ever since the accident. They despise her, can’t you see? The only reason they want our girl is to torment her. Make her pay for what they say she did.”
“That’s not true,” niang replied in her patient tone. “They told me they were according Meishan a high honor, on par with that being shown our son. It’s your own anger that clouds your judgment, Gan. It makes you lash out at some perceived injustice against our daughter only you can see.”
Her dieh leaned closer and gripped the sides of the eating table. His hands drained bone white from the effort. Meishan cringed and retreated behind the entrance’s inner wind flap. Her little brother huddled atop the nearby workbench with his bare knees drawn to his chin, sobbing gently.
“You disobeyed me, woman!” her father continued to shout. “You went behind my back and brought our girl right into the den of the dragon. Even after I explicitly told you not to. You might as well have thrown her into its mouth.”
Meishan willed the fighting to stop, wrapping her arms across her chest despite the warmth of the room’s fire. But her tears she kept locked away for now, for Li Pan’s sake.
“Please, dieh-dieh,” she said from her hideaway corner. “Please let me go back. This is my chance to make it better . . . for the horrible thing I did.”
Her father whirled around and pinned his gaze on her, the orange glow from the hearth made his sharp features jut out like a spryhawk’s. She expected to find his wrath boiling behind those eyes, but instead discovered something akin to fear alight there.
“Do not speak of things you don’t understand, child—be silent!”
“Really, Gan, there’s no need to—”
He spun around so quick, his right hand whipping out taut in a blurred flash, that at first Meishan did not understand what her eyes had seen. The slap cut through the tense air inside the room like a knife through boiled squash, striking her mother across the mouth with a wet smack.
“Why did you do it, Yuru? Why did you promise—”
He stopped suddenly. Her niang jerked away swiftly, raising a hand to the side of her face where the skin was already starting to bruise. She didn’t say a word, but her eyes narrowed as they stared directly at dieh. A cold chill ran through Meishan. Li Pan’s cries grew louder.
“I-I’m . . . not letting her go back to them, Yuru,” their father said, then turned his back to them as if it had never happened. His trembling voice, however, betrayed the enormity of what he’d done. The thing Meishan never thought her own father capable of doing.
“That’s my final say on the matter. Obey my wishes, Yuru. I’ll go back there tomorrow morning and tell them she’s never coming back. They can have me instead, if they want.”
Silence. Then he sighed and plodded towards the rear sleeping quarters, shoulders stooped and head bowed.
Niang raised her hand to her face again, but did not make a sound. She sat still like that for an eternity. Li Pan stopped crying and took a tentative step towards his mother, placing a soft hand on her knee.
Meishan did not move, either. She stayed hunkered down in the painful half-kneeling position for what seemed like hours. Eventually their niang got up and carried her dozing brother to the sleeping cots behind the hearth. With slow effort, Meishan gathered her good leg beneath her and grabbed both sides of the narrow entrance nook to hoist herself from the dirt floor. She barely registered the sharp pain that shot up to her hip.
She stumbled out the dwelling and into the chilled anonymity of night, her crutch a dead weight in her right hand. The twin moons, Fat Tiger and Little Sister, provided ample light for her clandestine escape, shining bright and low above the winding stream which skirted the edge of the human settlement. No other souls walked the dusted, narrow lanes between the many bubbled homesteads at this late hour. For that, she was grateful.
With luck it would be hours before anyone realized her absence.
Meishan watched her father approach the verge of the sanctified forest with Li Pan in tow, his long legs stiff and back ramrod straight. She curled into herself, good knee drawn to her chin, as she sat atop the lowest branch of the Ancient. Having lifted her aloft by their strong filament arms, the four Elders waited patiently behind her along the branch.
“Release my daughter now, Kiro,” she heard her father demand of the Cultivator who, along with three other third-stage molts, blocked access to the grove. Meishan leaned over ever so slightly and felt the biting restraint of the caltops keeping her secure to the Ancient’s thick trunk.
“Your girl-bud is not being held against her will, man ligan. The Seed are civilized neighbors.”
“Yeah, well she may have come here on her own, but she did so without parental consent. Among my people, Cultivator, it’s highly uncivilized to harbor a child against her parent’s wishes.”
Kiro’s torso swirled with patterns of inky displeasure. “This is understood among my people as well, man ligan. However, your budling is here of her own free will, and with the consent of your woman-mate.”
Her dieh frowned and stared long at the Cultivator. Behind him Li Pan fidgeted, clearly impatient to start his training. Meishan wondered if she should intervene, but felt a tug from the vines secured around her chest and arms. Behind her an Elder wriggled his sensory cilia while displaying caution tinged with third-degree restraint. The remaining Elders waited near the central column of the Father tree, gripping the caltops and signaling their readiness to continue the climb up.
“Just a moment,” she said to the nearest one she’d nicknamed “Pudge” for the slight bulge along his mid-torso. She suppressed a giggle at the sight of the bump shifting with the Elder’s efforts to maintain balance, then glanced back down. Her father and brother stared up at her.
“Meishan,” dieh shouted. “Come down here right now!”
She resisted the automatic urge to comply with his wishes, unable to forget last night or the unsettling way niang’s lifeless eyes bored into her father’s. A firm pressure pushed against her shoulder and she glanced back to find Pudge wrapping a slender filament around her arm. She appreciated the unexpected comfort; the warm colors of understanding he displayed made her all the more resolute to stay.
“I’m not ready to leave yet, dieh,” she shouted back. “I have so much to learn still. Don’t worry, everything’s fine up here!”
Her words seemed to linger long and shrill in the sun-dappled calm of early morning. A whirlup floated by on filigreed wings, chirped a bright greeting to the figures atop the low branch, then flittered on in search of breakfast.
“As you see, man ligan,” Kiro interceded, “your girl-bud is not harmed. Please, won’t you follow me? The boy lipan’s lessons are with the second-stage molts waiting further up this road.”
“What is she doing up there—and where’s her cane?”
“Man ligan, the Elders are showing her wonders only their own molts and a few select Cultivators are allowed to witness. I assure you she is well-safe in their care.”
Her father said something Meishan did not catch, but Li Pan jumped and waved at her.
“I’ll see you later, jieh. I’m going to go fly now!” He laughed and performed a sloppy cartwheel. Meishan hid a smile with the back of her hand. She caught sight of dieh and her smile melted away.
Li Gan stared at her. Then, without saying another word, he grabbed Li Pan’s hand and allowed Kiro to escort them up the road leading away from the copse.
“Are you sure?”
She studied the quad of Elders arranged around her on the wide, flat branch. They displayed no outward sign of exhaustion from hauling her halfway up the trunk of the Ancient, but Meishan’s arms ached from her own exertions. They’d insisted she attempt the last ten meters of the climb solely on upper arm strength alone. It took a grueling two hours, but she never once complained. The large orange sun the Blossoms called Light Bearer had shadowed their slow ascent and sat directly above them now, bloated and bright, peeking through the gaps of the forest canopy. Meishan’s bad leg cramped, fiery with twisted pain. It took all her resolve not to cry out.
The one she called Pudge stood before her, slack tentacles extended outward near her head. He flashed calm and trust colors at her and seemed to be asking permission to place the appendages around her ears. Meishan found herself comprehending the Elders’ faded colorings the more time she spent with them, but she didn’t know how she felt about prolonged physical contact with one. A part of her still feared this whole exercise was some elaborate punishment ritual in retaliation for her ill-fated mistake years ago. Yet the Elders were nothing but patient and understanding with her so far, and certainly not hostile.
“O-okay, Pudge. I trust you. Just please don’t do anything . . . painful.”
Pudge colored affirmation, underscored with ruddy excitement. Meishan closed her eyes and breathed deep, taking in the sweet perfume of rich soil and scrubbed ginger root belonging to the Petal Blossoms. An aroma all at once alien, yet thoroughly soothing.
The rough, hard bark of the Ancient vibrated against her exposed skin, tuning her in to the tree’s eternal hum. The sensation brought her a sense of warmth—of belonging—that Meishan realized she’d been missing for so long.
It filled her with—
A cool, wet sensation slid into her ears!
Meishan gasped and her eyes flew open, peripheral vision catching sight of a pair of slim, pale threads dangling from either side of her head.
. . . be not afraid, child, a calm voice spoke from within her very thoughts. We are connected as one now. As no other has been outside the Seed.
“Hello? Who . . .?”
But she suspected the answer to her question before she finished it.
“Pudge, is that you?”
It is we, child. Us. We are one.
“Oh, I see. Well, um . . . hello everyone.” She felt foolish speaking aloud, but did not trust her own thoughts at the moment. She felt . . .
. . . confused, afraid, anxious, the collective answered back. We know. Your soul flashes bright, girl limeishan.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I think.”
No human has experienced this wonder. Even our young molts have forgotten the pleasure of singing bright their thoughts, so accustomed are they to making the noise-sounds of the bipeds.
Do not apologize, child. We did not bring you to us for this purpose.
“Yes, I’d wondered about that.”
Many opposed the decision, the collective agreed, but eventually the firmly rooted were swayed by the wisdom of the council. Our glorious ancestors added their weight behind the debate as well. A most unprecedented disruption, truthfully told.
A bright, violet flash of shared humor blazed through her mind’s eye like a never-ending field of popos stretched over the horizon, swaying to a gentle breeze. She trembled from the sheer beauty of the sensation.
“It seems you went to a lot of trouble to get me here,” she said at last. “But why?”
The discovery of pilot-box sepha offered us the chance to mend relations between the Seed and humans. This you know.
Meishan closed her eyes and tried to emote affirmation.
But more importantly, girl limeishan . . . we saw this as an opportunity to heal the pain within you.
She said nothing, yet her emotions spoke louder than words.
Yes. We feel the despair within you, child. Your loneliness is like a shroud that blankets your heart, snuffing out the seed of light buried deep inside your soul. Let us begin your healing.
Meishan opened her eyes and found Pudge twisted low, inches from her face. The others crowded in close behind, pointing their multi-sensory cilia at her. A few stretched drooping limbs in the direction of the caltop curtain near the base of the wide branch. But instead of pointing upwards, they invited her to descend.
We are pleased by your acceptance, girl limeishan, and shall continue your healing tomorrow new-day. At our next meeting, we will guide you along the Sending road to where the ancient and the newly sprouted join to begin the life cycle anew.
Meishan smiled and concentrated on broadcasting contentment to her newfound friends. She basked in their affirming glow, and it was not until after the Elders had lowered her gently onto the soft forest floor hours later that she realized the pain inside her throbbing leg had returned.
Later that afternoon, a sullen mood hung over the celebratory feast back at the settlement. No one danced to the tired, pre-recorded music pumping through the ancient synthcube in one corner of the main clearing. Instead, like disobedient children awaiting punishment, most of the villagers clumped together in sullen groups around the many long tables scattered throughout.
Rather than celebrating Li Pan’s first day of training as Mayor Harrington implored of them, families kept to themselves, casting regretful glances at the far end of the gathering. They spoke in hushed whispers astride their benches, taking quick bites of goat stew and fresh bread, but always returning to the rumor that had spread earlier through the settlement like worm rot. Li Yuru’s humiliation the previous night at the hands of her very own husband had shocked everyone into an uneasy state of mind.
Mayor Harrington and his wife, the good lady Laura, began the meal with a brief prayer and joyous hymn, but to no avail. The rift building between two of their flock was simply too dire to ignore. And not even they could keep their eyes from flickering towards the opposite end of the table where the Li family ate alone.
Meishan trained her face slack and kept her head bowed, not wanting to reveal the turmoil inside her. From time to time she felt the itch of many pairs of eyes crawling across her scalp and down her neck, insistent with accusation. She made the mistake of raising her head just the once, and what met her gaze both embarrassed and angered her; conflicting emotions she didn’t know how to handle.
Who were they to judge her family so harshly? Yet she knew what her father had done, and the red shame of it enflamed her cheeks for all to see.
Li Pan played with a group of older boys seated near the Harringtons, and Meishan found herself grateful for the precocious oblivion of the six-year old. Grateful and not just a little envious of her little didi. He sat there under the protection of innocence, asking that pilot box, Sepha, many questions about spaceflight and distances, unaware of the huge gulf of silence that stretched between his niang and dieh like a chasm.
Li Pan was every boy’s hero at the settlement, and every parent’s pride.
But what was she?
Father did not talk to her about going back to the sacred grove the next day. Said nothing at all, in fact, to the rest of his family the whole evening. But Meishan decided she would not be denied. She’d found acceptance and companionship among the Elders, and for once she felt useful. Valued, perhaps. Even wanted.
Eventually niang excused herself from the table and shuffled back to their dwelling. Father’s eyes did not follow her, but an audible sigh and droop of his shoulders betrayed his regret.
Meishan lowered her head again, the bowl of congealed stew long forgotten before her. Her thoughts instead returned to Pudge and the other Elders awaiting her return. She counted down the hours to nightfall and to the appearance of Fat Tiger and his sibling moon to lead her back to her friends.
“What’s wrong with this one? He’s so white!”
Meishan stood with Pudge at the base of the clearly ailing Ancient, its bark stripped smooth and pale. The others waited near the trunk of the tree, curling their dark root tendrils beneath flowering skirts. Through Pudge she maintained a mental link to all four Blossoms.
Do you not recognize this particular Father tree, student limeishan? Is it not familiar to you?
She paused and glanced around the grove, recognition dawning slowly. It had changed much since that night four years ago, the small copse of trees more densely populated than she remembered. Sunlight filtered through in thin, flickering beams from the crowded canopy above, choked and ineffectual.
The fire burned great, lonely one, the Elders sighed within her thoughts. Our Father trees lost many budlings that season. This Ancient might have perished as well, but our Cultivators labored quick to save it. Several ancestors were uprooted to help nurture him back from darkness. It took many cycles and great effort to move the old ones, but we were able to rekindle this Father’s life force in time. Please, come and learn his pain so that you may better understand your own and heal, girl-bud.
Meishan hesitated, feeling unworthy to do what they wanted. Her mind struggled to process the vibrant images the Elders transmitted to her in a continuous stream.
She saw many things, then, never before witnessed by human eyes. Huge, timeless growths lifting giant root systems from the rich soil as they lumbered slowly down cultivated rows. The bodies of infant budlings raining translucent from the canopy above, flittering light as clouds—but oh so lifeless!—to the forest floor. Meishan herself falling from the lowest branches, one leg taking the brunt of the impact; sputtered torch rolling away from her grasp, igniting again in a tangle of caltop vines.
Tears welled beneath her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Her heart lulled heavy in her chest.
“I . . . I’m so sorry . . .” she tried to say, but the words caught in her throat.
Come, child. Let us ascend and discover together.
Pudge led her to the trunk of the ghostly Father tree. A pair of Elders waited for her above. Another one climbed with deliberate care to join them, using sturdy torso filaments to pull himself up. Pudge paused at the base and twisted towards her, and only then did she notice the speaking appendages dangling unneeded from his multi-sensory organ.
“How . . .?”
You have adapted well to our ministrations, young one, the voice came unaided into her thoughts now. She marveled at the sensation.
You will find you are no longer in need of that as well.
A clear picture-flash of herself dropping her walking stick and taking steps with confidence blossomed in her mind. Meishan hesitated, testing the ground beneath her bad leg for the familiar dull throb of pain. She gasped and opened her right hand, then took a tentative few steps without the cane. Her hip tingled with the strange sensation of walking normally after so many years.
Above her, the Elders glowed their contentment.
With a grin spreading wide across her face, Meishan set her foot atop a pale buttressing root and stepped off to begin the climb. Below her, Pudge twisted his filaments in looped patterns of encouragement.
The pale Father hummed through the soles of her bare feet, and she stretched onto her back to feel the vibration beat through her bones.
“I feel him singing!” Meishan shouted.
Above her, Light Bearer rolled low towards the north, casting lengthy shadows across the vast, rolling ocean of the forest canopy. The climb had been long and arduous, taking all day to reach the crown of the white Ancient. During the ascent she’d spotted Li Pan and the other adolescent molts training in the mid-reaches of several intertwining Father trees nearby. Her brother hollered her name upon spying her, waving and performing deft cartwheels along the thick branches. Showing off as usual. Eventually, urged ever upwards by the Elders, Meishan lost sight of him as she continued the exhaustive climb.
But the glorious sunset made it well worth her sore muscles. She flexed her legs—both of them—and luxuriated in the freedom of movement. Up here the branches grew impossibly wide; an entire homestead could fit comfortably between the stately boughs.
The Elders crowded close to her, basking not only in the precious light of their sun, but in the warmth of her emotions as well.
Heed the Father’s song, student limeishan. His lament is yours as well.
She closed her eyes and listened. The Elders had shown her the whisper points along the Ancient’s thick trunk during their climb. They taught her how to hum her own songs and to flash colored emotions into peculiar receiving pockets tucked into knots along the surface. They explained how constant care kept the old ones healthy and conducive to budding. By the time Light Bearer began its decline, she’d received a wealth of knowledge and visual stimuli to keep her mind busy for days.
But for now she simply stretched out along one smooth bough and let the sensation of the Father tree’s broadcast fill her heart.
Meishan listened for what seemed like hours, never saying a word. In that time the sky overhead colored dark orange into bruised heliotrope, then eventually deepened to black, revealing a vast curtain of twinkling stars. The humming beneath her back increased in bass, resonating deep in her muscles. Around her the forest awakened as other Ancients joined the choir, until a full orchestrated ensemble trembled the very branches around her.
Meishan sat up, her heart pounding with excitement in her chest.
Fear not, girl-bud limeishan, the Elders comforted her, placing gentle filament tips along her arms and legs. Witness now the Sending of our progeny.
The Blossoms glowed in the darkness around her, their pleasure flooding her emotions. Every cell within her felt alive, bubbling to the rhythmic beat of hundreds of unseen drummers. Beside her, the Elders added their own songs to the mix.
Suddenly the twilight sky erupted into a surreal flash of ghostly white as several translucent shapes rose from the forest depths into the night. They drifted on rippling wings above cool crosswinds, circling ever higher until it seemed they danced with the very stars. She strained her eyes to catch a glimpse of the adolescent pilots encased within each gossamer budling, but the glow blinded her.
Boy-bud lipan will someday join them. There is no greater calling among the Seed than to shepherd these first-stage buds through the cold reaches beyond our world.
Meishan allowed their thoughts to sink in, comprehending the enormity of her little brother’s task. She closed her eyes and curled into a fetal position. The exhaustion of the day’s climb washed over her like a warm wave all at once. Before long she sank into a deep slumber.
There, high atop the world of her birth, she dreamt of vast, star-drenched expanses flowing beneath her flying form. She glimpsed wonders never imagined. Li Pan was with her, and her dieh as well. She searched all around, but did not see niang. Meishan despaired, but Li Pan tugged at her arm, pointing with excitement. She followed him and saw a blue-white globe nestled serenely in the cradle of space, growing larger as they neared.
The sight of the looming world frightened her, alien and ancient in its majesty. Earth, the fabled birthplace of her people.
She fled then, abandoning her brother and father, crawling over numerous suns and planetoids in an attempt to find her way back home. All the while her heart hammered in her ears, echoed by the staccato beating of unseen drummers tucked far away in the deepest corners of space.
With each passing season, Meishan grew more confident under the tutelage of her patient instructors. But today’s lesson was different from any other day. For today she would learn to give life back.
Girl limeishan, you must first achieve release from blame before healing may commence.
Meishan knelt inches away from a cluster of receiving pockets near the base of the pale Ancient, now her sole charge. As always, Pudge watched her with patiently twisting filaments, flashing bright ribbons of encouragement throughout his swarthy torso. He exuded a pleasant aroma of peaches and scrubbed ginger, the scent calming her considerably. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply of it, listening. Sounds of the forest blanketed her on all sides, vibrant and alive with song. Several meters above her head, along the mid-reaches of the tree, rustled the remaining Elders as they tended to their own clusters.
The Father tree hummed his content, slowly coming to full bloom after many seasons of attentive care.
Find the song within you, Pudge continued. Sing without restraint, child. Fill your heart with life.
Meishan vanished all negative emotion from her mind. The guilt of her past; the discontent of her people; the shame of her father. She extended her thoughts outward to encompass the natural splendor around her. She felt the love of the Elders flow over her, protective and comforting.
And slowly, like a dawn bloomer unwrapping its petals to welcome the rays of the Light Bearer, a rhythmic hum began above her navel. It welled up inside her, radiating outward, until the sound spilled forth like a cool waterfall rushing past her ears.
With delight she realized the Ancient matched her song with his own.
That’s it, Pudge exclaimed with a rouge burst of excitement within her head. Lean forward now, child. Sing, sing, sing!
Meishan did so, feeling the smooth outer bark press against her lips. She opened her mouth and exhaled into the opening of the special pocket, her song issuing from deep in her belly. The air around her hummed with an almost palpable electric charge, the taste of ozone bitter on the tip of her tongue. But she continued to sing until her heart beat light and fast in her chest, and all sounds but the one song muffled in her ears.
Pudge’s tendrils wrapped around her shoulders and leaned her back gently onto her heels.
You have done well, girl limeishan, he said. Soon this Father tree will bud and bring forth Seed of its own. Rejoice, for you have accomplished a miracle here.
Meishan grinned, feeling giddy and light-headed.
“Jieh!” the voice called up to her just below her low-hanging branch. Meishan leaned over and spied her brother coming to a stop by the roots of the Ancient, his tanned face upturned as his eyes met hers. He’d grown tall and strong over the past couple of years, like the second-stage molts he trained with. But the delight of her recent accomplishment died on Meishan’s lips, to be replaced by a frown at the sight of Li Pan’s troubled expression.
“Come quick, jieh,” he said, and Meishan knew his next words without thinking.
They cremated niang’s body on the fourth day of the fourth week following Meishan’s sixteenth birthday. It was an auspicious day, agreed those who charted such matters by the stars. The proper day for a funeral. Many came to pay their respects to Li Yuru at the temple, lighting incense sticks and dropping straw-fashioned tokens before her urn at the small shrine dieh had built.
At the end of the long afternoon, when the last of the settlers filed past and the echoes of their prayers dwindled in the wind, the Li family remained behind. Silent for the most part.
Meishan sat apart from the others, resting on a smooth bench at the rear of the temple where cool breezes whipped through her hair and dried the sweat from the back of her legs. The Elders waited beyond the squat archway, refusing to set foot inside any human-made structure. However, as they felt great warmth for their beloved pupil, the august molts transmitted their sympathy through soothing color flashes.
Meishan smiled despite the somber mood of the setting.
Only Kiro, the old Cultivator, dared to enter as far as the open doorway to the inner memorial chamber, standing behind Meishan’s left shoulder. The two watched in silence as Li Pan, being the youngest, placed the last brace of smoking prayer sticks before his mother’s urn. Their father stood motionless nearby, and Li Pan startled her by placing his arm around the older man’s waist.
“My brother forgives easily,” Meishan broke the silence finally. She could almost feel Kiro’s cilia turn in her direction.
“Is it not customary at these rituals to offer peace to the living?”
Meishan did not respond, feeling foolish now for making the remark.
“Girl limeishan, what troubles you?” the Cultivator asked. “This rotting disease which took your parent could not be halted by your hands.”
Meishan sighed. “Yes, I know. Our settlement’s physician said the cancer had metastasized to the rest of her body sometime last month. Our medicines were not strong enough to stop it.”
“You misunderstand my wordings, girl limeishan,” Kiro said. She turned on the bench to stare at the Cultivator.
“There is more to healing than remedies and caretaking alone. You of all human beings understand this best.”
“I’m not following.”
“Sometimes to rid a sickness, you must first find the root. But to discover the heart of one’s suffering, sometimes you must first desire joy. Without the promise of light each new day-cycle, child, nights would doom us all.”
“You must first want release from the pain before the cure can take hold,” Meishan said, barely above a whisper. The Elders had been teaching her this same lesson all these years. Yet she could not forget that night her niang’s eyes first went cold.
Dieh turned with Li Pan and headed up the aisle towards them.
“And what if someone does not deserve to experience joy, Cultivator? What happens to that person then?”
Kiro colored confusion. “This is not a matter for you to decide, child. All healing must start from within. With forgiveness. Without this seed of truth, growth cannot continue.
“You have learned to nurture one Father, girl limeishan. Perhaps it is time you set your skill to healing another.”
The Cultivator’s words echoed in her thoughts as Meishan left the temple behind and paused along the dirt road for her father to catch up.
“You don’t look well, dieh,” she said when she fell in beside him, keeping measured pace to his slow, broken tread. When had her father grown so old?
Ahead, Kiro and Li Pan spoke in collaborative whispers, likely discussing her brother’s first test flight a week from now. The eleven-year old was understandably excited to be paired with his very own budling. Behind everyone trailed the Elders, keeping a respectful distance, but of course always connected to her thoughts.
“I am not well, daughter,” Li Gan agreed, his voice hollow with grief and fatigue. “There is nothing more left for me in this world. I should’ve been cremated alongside your mother, for all the difference it would make.”
She glanced over at her father. The stooped, grey-haired figure a shade of the giant he’d once been in her little girl’s eyes.
“Don’t talk like that, dieh. You know it’s not true. You still have . . . your children.” Inwardly she cursed her cowardice. Why did it have to be so difficult to say?
Her father stopped and gripped her arm. The movement caught her by surprise. She turned to meet his searching gaze.
“Do I, Meishan? Do I have you?” His eyes appeared sad, but dry. Tired.
She opened her mouth, then closed it again.
“What happened to my little girl? You are so distant now . . . so different. You’re becoming more and more like the Blossoms every day.”
A spark of anger. “And what’s wrong with that? Look, you could probably—” She caught herself. This was not going the way it should.
Switching to a softer tone, she said: “Look, dieh, I’ll always be your daughter. Nothing’s changed.”
“But it has, my darling Mei-zi,” he said, reverting to the endearment he hadn’t used since she was a little girl. Since before the fire. “You don’t look at me with the same love in your eyes as before. Where has that gone?”
Meishan covered her father’s hand with her own. She smiled at him, although the warmth behind it did not yet reach her heart. “It’s there, dieh. You just have to know how to find it.”
Her father nodded. “And will you show me how?”
She didn’t respond, but took her hand away and placed her arm around his thin shoulders.
Rose-colored clouds suddenly bloomed through her thoughts. Meishan couldn’t decide whether they came from the Elders following behind, or from deep within herself. But as with the pale Ancient, she knew her healing was going to be a slow process.
She would be patient.
At long last the day-cycle came when the Blossoms proclaimed Li Pan ready to travel the stars. It seemed the entire settlement turned out that morning to see the fourteen-year old ascend the pale Father tree—Meishan’s tree—for the final time. They lined the dirt path which skirted the sacred copse, leaving all the shouting and fanfare from the previous night’s revelry back at the village and arriving in solemn cheer.
Within the cultivated grove, gathered around the base of several large Ancients, twisted a small group of second-stage molts flashing muted colors of elation among their ranks. They would ascend with her brother to the very top of the Father tree and slip into the translucent budlings waiting above. His mission to find Earth was theirs as well, human and Petal Blossom together; the greatest single Sending ceremony ever witnessed by the Seed.
Mayor Harrington stood with the Li family near the tree after giving his farewell speech to the pilots. The Cultivator, Amwu, stepped forward to speak for the council and commence the ascending. Kiro, shrunken and bent in the manner of the Elders, drooped his crown in her direction and spoke aloud.
“Your sibling has blossomed well, woman limeishan. He’s learned much.”
Meishan glanced over at her beaming little brother and gave him a quick hug.
“Yes, didi has a big head now,” she said. “The pressure building inside will prove dangerous in the vacuum of deep space.”
Kiro bloomed dull violet, and Li Pan laughed aloud.
“Don’t worry, jieh,” he said, returning the hug. “I’ll be mindful to keep a level head, without you around to slap it crooked that is.” Then, in a conspiratorial whisper he added: “There’s so much to see out there!”
Meishan stood back and studied her little brother, now several centimeters taller than herself. “I’m going to miss you, Pan.”
She leaned over and addressed the pilot box hanging from a side pouch slung across his shoulders. “You better keep him out of trouble, Sepha. You hear me?”
“I shall endeavor my best, young mistress.”
Li Pan patted the pouch softly. Then his smile melted away and he leaned in close to her ear.
“Why don’t you come with me, jieh? There’s room for one more inside the pod. Kiro tells me you know about the Ancients and their budding cycles as much as the best caretakers. You’re probably better prepared than I am for this journey.”
Meishan laughed and kissed him on the cheek. “I doubt that. But, no, as tempting as it is to see Earth with my own eyes,” she lied, “I think it’s best I stay behind. I’m comfortable here, Pan.”
Her brother studied his older sibling, looking very much like their father when he was young. Then he nodded. “I see. A lot has changed since we were kids.”
As if on cue, both siblings turned to find dieh standing several meters off to one side, far from the Father tree and the Blossoms gathered beneath it. He appeared lost in thought as he stared back down the path leading to the settlement.
“Why don’t you take him along?” Meishan whispered.
Li Pan shook his head. “I’ve already asked him. He said no, of course.”
Meishan tried to mask her confusion, but did not entirely succeed.
“I know, jieh, I know. But he insists he has to stay here. For her . . .”
Meishan hugged him again and rested her head on his shoulder. “So much is being asked of you,” she said, holding back tears. “You shouldn’t be the one to play hero.”
Li Pan squeezed her hand. “I will be back, big sister. I promise.”
Meishan nodded, but wondered if she’d ever see her brother again. A reasonable fear, she knew, yet an emotion Pudge would be disappointed to read in the colors of her heart. But the dream from all those years ago atop the white Ancient remained fresh and frightening with its foreboding portent of doom. Whatever waited out there, it was perhaps best left unfounded.
She knew she couldn’t say these things out loud, nor would it make much difference if she did. So instead she turned with her brother to watch the sacred Sending ceremony begin. Amwu twisted his torso filaments in complex patterns above his majestic crown, flashing bright orange and vermillion. The settlers in attendance went still, entranced by the display. Meishan’s heart saddened at the sight even as she tried to broadcast her own wishes of safety and well-being to the brave pilots.
A coldness settled around her as Li Pan disentangled from their embrace. Her brother took a few steps towards the base of the Father tree, stopped, then turned to wave.
Dieh appeared at her side, standing close enough for Meishan to feel his body tremble. She saw him wave back at his son and surprised herself by placing her arm around the old man’s waist. The gesture steadied him, seemed to make him melt into her.
Together they watched Li Pan begin the long ascent, his strong arms and legs making an easy climb to the lowest hanging vines. The pale Father tree thrummed contentment as the other pilots followed the Sending road, and the air became thick with the chorus of nearby Ancients.
Father and daughter stood still together, arm in arm, staring up into the filtered dawn as Li Pan vanished through the canopy, and ascended into legend.