Love of Botany


By Margaret Karmazin

Bonaski took a long swig of her tea. She had the mannerisms of a cowboy. "The breesk can bite but it's easy to kick one off. They only attack if you step on their nests, which tend to lie under low bushes. The firndle is only interested in eating breesks, so you needn't worry about them. To them, you are just furniture. There's a mean sonuvabitch insect thing that will take a chunk out of your skin. It has a proboscis five centimeters long. It won't make you sick or anything, though. There are some snakelike creatures called tithers slithering around, but they won't bother you. The mawk-mawks stay in the treetops and live on fruit. Worst thing that will happen is they'll drop things on your head. There's not much to worry about out in those woods, but..." She paused, then went on. "Well, there's a story about some weird tree, but I really don't know much about it. Might just be one of those things the former groups make up to scare the greenhorns. I wouldn't put much stock in it."

I leaned forward. "Well, naturally I need to know everything. I mean I'll be out there day after day alone."

Bonaski set her cup down with a ringing clink on the metal table. "You know, no matter where you work, they have their stories. The ghost scorpions on Mars, the stinging cloud on Roster II, you know how it is."

"Cut the bull," I said. "What is it?"

She smiled. "They say something lives in the woods that plays with your heart."


"Yeah, it sounds dumber than usual. The story originated with the first group here. One entomologist got all sickly, claimed he was in love with a 'woman in the woods.' After he couldn't work anymore, they sent him home. That was it. The story took on some glamour after that but none of us have seen anything."

I nodded. I had a friend who had worked on Mars and claimed he felt a ghost scorpion on his thigh, but he had a sense of humor about it. My own father had been stationed on Blighten's third moon for six months and was respectful about their sentient lightning myths, though he never experienced anything himself. But this story was a strange one.

"Played with his heart, did it?" I mumbled.

Bonaski stood up, hands firm on the table. "I'd better get back. Fredericks will have my hide. He's regenerating a breesk leg and all worked up."


Edenal, the month of January

The work grew fascinating, and I found that I didn't need people as much as I'd thought. Other than Bonaski, I didn't do much socializing. Occasionally, I passed some time with Gosset, one evening downing a couple of beers. Reasonable guy, half decent sense of humor, but that was it. He'd be back to the grindstone and there I was. If you can't fight 'em, join 'em, so soon I was out in that forest at the crack of dawn, which is a much brighter crack than those on Earth, making me grateful for the canopy of the forest.

The top layer of trees were of a variety to thrive in intense sun, while those underneath preferred shade. This was not a rain forest. There was plenty of underground water to feed the roots. About once a week the thunder clouds rolled in out of nowhere and made a downpour that would pound a tin roof in. (Our pods were built to withstand the rains by material and shape, being basically fancy teepees.)

My sleeping was erratic, so occasionally I set up a carry-cot in the forest and seriously napped. Nothing seemed to bother me now. I found the breesks adorable, sort of a cross between a weasel and a kitten. The firndle, on the other hand, could be annoying if on the hunt, but I discovered a way to repel it, by singing popular songs. As for those bugs with the bite, I got the idea of wearing garlic juice (by stealing part of the precious supply from the kitchen), and they let me alone. Sometimes.

The Prirose was indeed exquisite. The refreshing feel of its smooth, blue-green stalk in the Edenal heat was praiseworthy alone. I rubbed my cheeks and forehead against it in mild ecstasy. As for the famous aroma, I had nothing new to add to the acclaim except to say that it surely must have been good for my health, for I had never breathed so deeply as I did when inhaling it. A botanist clearly had to make a superhuman effort on Edenal not to limit her study to just the areas surrounding the Priroses.

So far I had catalogued 247 varieties of flora and noticed nine different animals, thirteen insects and one thing that was difficult to classify. I was happy that there was no sentient life on Edenal to complicate things. As it was, I could imagine it taking me years to finish what I was doing. Life everywhere is extremely diverse.


Edenal, the month of February

One afternoon (if you could call it "afternoon," since the larger sun was never at midpoint in the sky), something unsettling happened. I was working halfway between two Priroses, enjoying their delicate scent, when I swear I heard someone call my name. The voice was masculine, rich and baritone. It happened twice in succession: "Valerie, Valerie," and that was it. I shot up from my stooped position to peer about, but there was nothing. Later, I questioned the pod group but no one had even been in the forest that day.

"Drumm, we're deep into regeneration, you know that," barked Fredericks, and not even Bonaski bothered to glance up.

I hoped I wasn't losing it. Although I understood that auditory hallucinations were not that rare an occurrence in the healthy population. But I did happen to be on an alien moon, and I was socially isolated. And such a combo of circumstances had been known to lead to major breakdowns. People sent back to Earth drooling onto their chests after the medication took effect. That old injection into the neck while your crew holds you down, one volunteering to sit on your chest.

"Take a break!" shouted Gosset. "Have a beer!"

I ignored him and somewhat guardedly walked back into the woods. My senses were on hyper alert, and I found myself sweating more than usual.

An hour later, I lay on the ground, eyes focused on a tiny shoot breaking through the crumbly, black soil: something that appeared fungus-like yet not quite. Its color was a pale rose. My finger was extended to gently poke the little thing, when again I heard that voice.

"Valerie," it said. "You are very beautiful."

I stood up, my heart in my throat.

"Here," said the voice, and I turned in terror.

Through the filtered light of the forest, I squinted, aware that I'd lost all the saliva in my mouth and probably any future hope of manufacturing any.

"Here," said the cheerful voice, and I suddenly saw. A man stood near a tree of sorts to the left of a small Prirose. From my vantage point, he appeared to be dressed in a Three Musketeer outfit minus the three cornered hat with the plume. His white, poet's shirt was open at the neck, his hips slim, his thighs muscular in the tight pants and his feet encased in flipped down black leather boots. His hair was thick and chin length, falling down over one eye but tucked behind his ears, its color a deep auburn. I could not make out his eyes well from that distance, but his face was ruggedly handsome, the jaw square exactly as I admired in a man.

What was this? One of the crew celebrating Halloween four months late? But that was absurd. Had someone from an earlier crew cracked up and run off to live in the forest, wearing this silly (but quite arresting) outfit? That would have been in the records. There was no one in the present pod crew who remotely resembled this man. I hated to say it, but they were all a rather physically unappealing bunch. I was probably the best looking of the lot.

So who was this man?

"Come here," he said.

I replied, "Yeah, right. Who are you?"

"I am Phylba. That is exactly who I am."

I didn't budge. "But who are you? You're not supposed to be here! There are no humanoids on this moon! There is no sentient life here. You must be an hallucination! From the Prirose, that's what it is. I've inhaled too much of it!" (Although there had never been any reports of hallucination or negative effects from inhaling the Prirose scent.)

"No," said the man. "The scent cannot hurt you. I cannot hurt you. Nothing in this place will hurt you, other than a flier here and there, but not serious. You are safe."

I stared at him. He did not move except to wave one hand in a rather odd manner. "You are beautiful. Your heart speaks to me. I have been watching you."