Of course we moved into the cities of the planet we now know we must call Zobranoirundisi when Worlds Federated finally permitted a colony there. Although Survey had kept a watch on the planet for more than thirty years standard and the cities were obviously on a standby directive, the owners remained conspicuous by their absence. Since Resources and Supplies had agitated in council for another breadbasket planet in that sector of the galaxy and Zobranoirundisi was unoccupied, we were sent in, chartered to be self-sufficient in one sidereal year and to produce a surplus in two.
It would, therefore, have been a great misdirection of effort not to have inhabited the cities—we only moved into four—so patently suitable for humanoid life-forms. The murals that decorated a conspicuous wall in every dwelling unit gave only a vague idea of the physiology of our landlords, always depicted in an attitude of reverent obeisance toward a dominating Tree symbol so that only the backs, the rounded fuzz-covered craniums, and the suggestions of arms extended in front of the bodies were visible.
I suppose if we had not been so concerned with establishing the herds, generally breaking our necks to meet the colony charter requirements, we might have discovered sooner that there had been a gross error. The clues were there. For example, although we inhabited the cities, they could not be made fully “operational” despite all the efforts of Dunlapil, the metropolitan engineer. Then, too, we could find no single example of the Tree anywhere on the lush planet. But, with R&S on our backs to produce, produce, produce, we didn’t take time to delve into the perplexing anomalies.
Dunlapil, with his usual urbane contempt for the botanical, quipped to Martin Chavez, our ecologist, that the Tree was the Tree of Life and therefore mythical.
“Carry the analogy further,” he would tease Martin, “and it explains why the Tree worshipers”—that’s what we called them before we knew—”aren’t around anymore. Some dissident plucked the Apple and got ‘em all kicked out of the Garden of Eden.”
Eden might well have been modeled on this planet, with its velvet fields, parklike forests, and rolling plains. Amid these sat lovely little cities constructed of pressed fibrous blocks tinted in pleasant colors during a manufacturing process whose nature frustrated Dunlapil as much as the absence of Trees perplexed Chavez.
So, suppressing our pervasive sense of trespassing, we moved into the abandoned dwellings, careful not to make any irreparable changes to accommodate our equipment. In fact, the only sophisticated nonindigenous equipment that I, as colony commissioner, permitted within any city was the plastisteel Comtower. I ordered the spaceport constructed beyond a low range of foothills on the rather scrubby plain at some distance from my headquarters city. An old riverbed proved an acceptable road for moving cargo to and from the port, and no one really objected to the distance. It would be far better not to offend our landlords with the dirt and chaos of outer-space commerce close to their pretty city.
We pastured the cattle in neatly separated velvet fields. Martin Chavez worried when close inspection disclosed that each velvet field was underpinned by its own ten-meter-thick foundation of ancient, rock-hard clay. Those same foundations housed what seemed to be a deep irrigation system.
I did ask Martin Chavez to investigate the curious absence of herbivores from a planet so perfectly suited to them. He had catalogued several types of omnivores, a wide variety of fowl, and a plethora of fishes. He did discover some fossil remains of herbivores, but nothing more recent than traces comparable to those of our Pleistocene epoch.
He therefore was forced to conclude—and submitted in a voluminous report with numerous comparisons to nearby galactic examples—that some catastrophes, perhaps the same that had wiped out the humanoids, had eliminated herbivores at an earlier stage.
Whatever the disaster had been—bacterial, viral, or something more esoteric—it did not recur to plague us. We thrived on the planet. The first children, conceived under the bluish alien sun, were born just after we had shipped our first year’s surplus offworld. Life settled into a pleasant seasonal routine: The beef, sheep, horses, kine, even the windoers of Grace’s World imported on an experimental basis, multiplied on the velvet fields. The centenarian crops from half a dozen worlds gave us abundant yields. We had some failures, of course, with inedible or grotesque ergotic mutations, but not enough to be worth more than a minor Chavezian thesis in the record and the shrug of the pioneering farmer. If a colonist is eating well, living comfortably, with leisure time for his kids and time off with his wife on the languid southern seas, he puts up with minor failures and irritations. Even with the omnipresent guilt of trespassing.
I was not the only one who never felt entirely at ease in the pretty cities. But, as I rationalized the intermittent twinges of conscience, it would have been ridiculous to build facilities when empty accommodations were already available, despite their obstinate refusal to work no matter how Dunlapil tried to energize them. Still, we managed fine and gradually came to ignore the anomalies we had never fully explored, settling down to make our gardens and our families grow.
The tenth year was just beginning, with surprising warmth, when Martin Chavez called a meeting with me and Dunlapil. Chavez had even convened it on a Restday, which was annoying as well as unusual.
“Just in case we have to call a meeting of the colony,” he told me when I protested. That statement, on top of his insistence on a meeting, was enough to make me feel apprehensive. Although Martin was a worrier he was no fool; he did not force his problems on anyone unnecessarily, nor was he one for calling useless meetings.
“I’ve an unusual report to make on a new plant growth discernible on the velvet fields, commissioner Sarubbi,” he announced, addressing me formally. “Such a manifestation is not generally associated with simple monocotyledonous plants. I’ve cross-checked both used and unused pastures, and the distortions of the growth in the used fields are distressing.”
“You mean, we’ve imported a virus that’s mutating the indigenous grasses?” I asked. “Or has the old virus that killed off the herbivorous life revived?”
“Nothing like this mutation has ever been classified and no, I don’t think it’s a return of a previous calamity.” Chavez frowned with worry.
“Ah, champion, Martin,” Dunlapil said with some disgust. “Don’t go calling for a planetary quarantine just when we’re showing a nice credit balance.”
Chavez drew himself up indignantly.
“He hasn’t suggested anything of the sort, Dun,” I said, wondering if the urban engineer was annoyed because Chavez might be closer to solving the enigma of the Tree than Dunlapil was the mechanics of the cities. “Please explain, Specialist Chavez.”
“I’ve just recently become aware of a weird evolution from the family Graminaceae, which these plants have resembled until now.” He snapped on the handviewer and projected a slide onto the only wall in my office bare of the ubiquitous murals. “The nodular extrusions now developing in the velvet fields show none of the characteristics of herbaceous plants. No joined stems or slender sheathing leaves.” He looked around to see if we had seen enough before he flashed on a slide of magnified cellular material. “This cross section suggests genus Helianthus, an improbable mutation.” Chavez shrugged his helplessness in presenting such contradictory material. “However, something new is under every sun and we have not yet determined how the usual blue light of this primary will affect growth after prolonged exposure. We might get a Bragae Two effect.”
“The next thing you’ll be telling us, Martin,” Dunlapil said as if to forestall a discourse on galactic comparisons, “is that these plants are the aliens who built these cities.” He shot me a grin.
“That ought to be obvious,” Chavez said with such a lack of rancor that the disbelief I had been entertaining disappeared. “Commissioner”—Chavez’s grave eyes met mine—”can you give me another reason why every city has similarly fenced lots, all placed to catch full daily sun? Why the velvet fields with that central dominant Tree symbol appear to be the reverent focus of the aliens—excuse me—the indigenous species?”
“But they’re humanoid,” Dunlapil said in protest.
“Their culture is agrarian. And there are no grazers. Not a single example of that blasted Tree anywhere on the planet—yet!”
That was when I truly began to be afraid.
“There are no grazing beasts,” Chavez went on inexorably, “because they have been eliminated to protect the velvet fields and whatever is growing in them now.”
“You mean, when those fields bloom with whatever it is they bloom with, the aliens will return?” Dunlapil asked.
Chavez nodded. “If we haven’t irreparably altered the growth cycle.”
“But that’s fantastic! An entire civilization can’t be dependent on a crazy who-knows-how-long cycle of plant life.” Dunlapil was sputtering with indignation.
“Nothing is impossible,” replied Chavez at his most didactic.
“Your research has been sufficiently comprehensive?” I asked him, although I was sick with the sense of impending disaster.
“As comprehensive as my limited equipment and xenobotanical experience allow. I would welcome a chance to submit my findings to a board of specialists with greater experience in esoteric plant-life forms. And I respectfully request that you have Colonial Central send us a team at once. I’m afraid that we’ve already done incalculable damage to the—” He paused and, with a grim smile, corrected himself. “—indigenous organism seeded in those fields.”
The semantic nicety jarred me. If Chavez was even remotely correct, we would require not only xenobotanists and xenobiologists but an entire investigation team from Worlds Federated to examine our intrusion into a domain that had not, after all, been abandoned by its occupants like a Marie Celeste but had simply been lying fallow—with the indigenous natives quiescently in residence.
As Chavez, Dunlapil, and I walked from my office toward the Comtower, I remember now that I felt a little foolish and very scared, like a child reluctant to report an accident to his parents but dutifully conscientious about admitting his misdemeanor. The plastisteel tower had never looked so out of place, so alien, so sacrilegious as it did now.
“Hey, wait a minute, you two,” Dulapil protested. “You know what an investigation team means…”
“Anything and everything must be done to mitigate our offense as soon as possible,” Chavez said, interrupting nervously.
“Dammit!” Dunlapil stopped in his tracks. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Indeed we have. We may have crippled an entire generation.” Chavez spoke with an expression of ineffable sorrow.
“There are plenty of fields we never touched. The aliens—natives—can use them for food.”
Chavez’s sad smile deepened and he gently removed Dunlapil’s hand from his arm. “‘From dust ye came, to dust ye shall return, and from dust shall ye spring again.’”
It was then that Dunlapil understood the enormity of our crime.
“You mean, the plants are the people?”
“What else have I been saying? They are born from the Trees.”
We did what we could even as we waited for the specialists and investigation team to arrive.
First we cleared the animals and crops from every one of the velvet fields. We removed every sign of our colonial occupation from the cities. The team, composed of five nonhuman and three humanoid species, arrived with menacing expedition well before the initial flood of xenospecialists. The team members did not comment on our preliminary efforts to repair our error, nor did they protest their quarters in the hastily erected dwellings on the bare, dusty plain and the subsequent roaring activity of the spaceport close by. All they did was observe with portentous intensity.
Of course, except for vacating the cities—and occupying them was apparently the least of our cumulative crimes—everything we did to remedy our trespass proved horribly inept in the final analysis. We would have been less destructive had we kept the cattle on the velvet fields and not slaughtered them for food. We ought to have let the crops ripen, die, and return to the special soils that had nourished them. For the fields we stripped produced the worst horrors. But how were we to know?
Now, of course, we know all too fully. We are burdened to this very day with guilt and remorse for the wholesale dismemberment and dispersal of those irretrievable beings; eaten, digested, defecated upon by grazers. And again, eaten, digested, and eliminated by those who partook of the grazers’ flesh. Of the countless disintegrated natives removed from their home soil by unwitting carriers, none can bear fruit on foreign soil. And on their own soil, to repeat, the fields we had stripped produced the worst horrors…
I remember when the last report had been turned in to the eight judges composing the investigation team. Its members wasted no further time in formulating their decree. I was called to their conference room to hear the verdict. As I entered, I saw the judges seated on a raised platform, several feet above my head. That in itself was warning that we had lost all status in Worlds Federated.
A flick of the wrist attracted my attention to one of three humans on the team. Humbly I craned my head back, but he refused to glance down at me.
“The investigation is complete,” he said in an emotionless tone. “You have committed the worst act of genocide yet to be recorded in all galactic history.”
“Sir…” My protest was cut off by a second, peremptory gesture.
“Xenobiologists report that the growths in the velvet fields have reached the third stage in their evolution. The parallel between this life-form in its second stage and that of the cellulose fauna of Brandon Two is inescapable.” Chavez had already told me of that parallel. “Now the plants resemble the exorhizomorphs of Planariae Five and it is inevitable that this third stage will give way to the sentient life pictured in the murals of their cities.
“You came here as agrarians and agrarians you shall be, in the fields of those you have mutilated. What final reparations will be levied against you, one and all, cannot be known until the victims of your crimes pronounce the penance whereby you may redeem your species in the eyes of the Worlds Federated.”
He stopped speaking and waved me away. I withdrew to announce the verdict to my dazed fellow colonists. I would far rather that we had been summarily executed then and there, instead of being worn and torn apart by bits and pieces. But that was not the way of judgment for those who trespass in modern enlightened times.
We could not even make an appeal on the grounds that the planet had been released to us, for the colony in its charter took on all responsibility for its subsequent actions, having reaped benefits now so dearly to be paid for.
So we worked from that day until Budding Time late that heinous fall. We watched anxiously as the seedling exorhizomorphs grew at a phenomenal rate until they were ten, then twenty, finally twenty-five feet high, thick-trunked, branching out, lush with green triangular foliage. By midsummer we knew why it was that during our time on the planet we had never been able to find any examples of the Tree: Such Trees grew once every hundred years. For they were the Trees of Life and bore the Fruit of Zobranoirundisi in the cellular wombs, two to a branch, three to eleven branches per Tree. In the good fields—that is, the unviolated fields.
In the others…
The galaxy knows we tried to atone for our crime. Every man, woman, and child was devoted to tending the twisted, stunted, deformed, half-branched Trees that grew so piteously in those desecrated fields. Every one of us watched with growing apprehension and horror as each new day showed further evidence of the extent of our sacrilege. Oh, the hideous difference between those straight, tall, fine Zobranoirundisi and—the Others. We were ready for any sacrifice as penance.
Then, the morning after the first good frost, when the cold had shriveled the stems, the first Zobranoirundisi tore through his vegetable placenta. He shook his tall willowy body, turned and made obeisance to his natal Tree of Life, ate of the soil at its roots, of its triangular foliage … and knew.
I can never retell the agony of that day, when all those Zobranoirundisi faced us, their maimers, and announced the form our expiation would take. We bowed our heads to the inevitable, for we knew the sentence to be just and of Hammurabian simplicity.
We had to give back to the soil what we had taken from it. The handless Zobranoirundisi, recognizing his missing member from the cells now incorporated into the fingers of a young colony child nurtured on milk from cattle fed in the velvet fields, had every right to reclaim what was undeniably his own flesh. The legless Zobranoirundisi could not be condemned to a crippled existence when the Terran child had used the same cells to run freely for seven years on land where previously only Zobranoirundisi had trod.
We rendered, all of us, unto the Zobranoirundisi that which was truly theirs—seed and soil of the velvet fields, part and particle of the originally fertilizing dust that would have been reconstituted during the cycle we had so impiously interrupted.
Nor were we permitted to evade the least segment of required reparation, for the galaxy watched. I will say this of us proudly, though I no longer have a tongue: Mankind will be able to live with its conscience. Not one of us, when required, failed to give his flesh to the Zobranoirundisi in atonement.
© 1973, 2001 by Anne McCaffrey
First appeared in Worlds of If, from The Girl Who Heard Dragons
Reprinted by permission of the author and the author’s agent, The Virginia Kidd Agency