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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2296718
A misunderstanding. [Updated old work]
The Wound

by J.J. Robinson II

         "Synchronous orbit established," said the too-happy female voice of the navigational computer, and it reported orbital coordinates.

         He remembered the coordinates as if they were his compartment number or credit code. He had returned to the same place every year at the same time for the last four standard years... since...

         The tiny world was completely unremarkable, a naked, dirty fragment of ice. It was one of only a few objects of any size in orbit around an equally unremarkable red dwarf star. The ice fields of the planetoid were dingy brown, marred by impact craters, deep crevasses, bottomless faults, and vaulted crests. The trenches and canyons were back-filled with rust-red stain, the core of the world bleeding away through its many wounds. In a century, or a millennium, or an eon, it would pass too close to the star, which would shatter the little world to a cloud of frozen fog...and with infinite patience the shards would reaggregate, reassort, and reform the little world to begin the endless, seemingly pointless cycle all over again.

         It was a thoroughly deadly place. The world had no pretense of usefulness that humans could understand. It would never support life, and it would never be economically accessible to life from somewhere else.

         He sort of liked the little world; it didn't make promises, and it didn't insult his intelligence.

         George watched with a strange mixture of wonder, fear, and resignation as the small reddish star peeked tentatively from behind the limb of the world. Harsh rays flashed across the desolate wastes. The tracery of cracks and faults at the limb scattered scintillating, multihued rays toward his eyes.

         He lay almost flat, half-submerged in the form-adapting couch, and slowly finished his breakfast; almost steak and eggs. He had tasted the real dish once while he was stationed on New E'tai, during the ceremony with the Provincial Governor where he got his military decoration. He had been trying to get a food simulator to reproduce the recipe ever since. Like everything else he had tried to do in the last fifteen years, his fake steak and eggs were pretty much a failure.

         He was supposed to have restarted his patrol circuit over an hour ago. He would be twelve hours late if he left orbit now at a painfully rapid rate of acceleration.

         There! Amidst a jumble of glistening glacial blocks, he could see the broad, dark scar. The feature was being slowly eroded by tiny impacts and subsurface processes, and the stain was fading, almost indistinguishable from the natural colors of the surrounding terrain. The wound was being healed.

         George wiped his face on the back of his hand.

         George was the only living human to see a live Tree, and the last human to kill one.

         Unfortunately, the thing had not died immediately on impact, and George had landed near the crash site to investigate.

         Down there. Beside the wound.

         He had been too close....George had watched the creature...had felt it die with his mind. It was weakened, or he wouldn't have lived through the experience. There were still nights when he wished to Heaven he hadn't.

         Seven standard years ago today. George had not recovered from the event. The doctors didn't agree, because modern medicine was extremely paranoid about any suggestion that there was something it couldn't cure, but George knew that he was a very, very sick man. George was now also a confirmed cynic, especially about medicine.

         He had been promoted and decorated for his action in the last battle of the last Man-Tree war. He had been in a showcase unit of the elite Provincial Guard of New E'tai for three years...light years from the frontier. He had promoted everything from military bonds to public health campaigns, as the government capitalized on his immense public popularity.

         A hellish nightmare, those three years. He felt the gnawing anguish of the dying alien thing as though it were his own. Its mind-speech was for its kind, not a completely unrelated species. He knew the whole time that there was only one place in the universe where he could find something like peace, but he tried other ways to solve the problem.

         The dealer met him in the back corner of one of the military brothels on the New E'tai Guard station. George had expected a greasy, subhuman cretin, but the dealer was clean-shaven and dressed in a fashionable six-piece suit. He had seemed more concerned about George's health than the mental health professionals.

         "You gotta be sure about this, son. This is the stuff that we sell to the infantrymen. A low dose, and you don't remember so much, don't get nightmares. But the stuff gets ahold of you, so you got to take more and more. Sooner or later, all those memories all come back...at once. One guy..." The neatly dressed man went on to describe several extraordinarily gruesome crimes committed by deep addicts.

         George had confided in the dealer that he couldn't take his dreams anymore, no matter what. The man finally relented, and sold George his first year's supply for a very reasonable price. He also gave George a supply of a new synergist that was supposed to delay the onset of addiction by intensifying the effect of the drug. He had sold George a year's supply each year for the same price, never going up like dealers usually did with their...confirmed customers.

         The stuff had actually worked for a while. He had a lot of money then, and could finance the means to fake his way through the yearly military medical and pilot's exams. He felt that the doctors and fighter instructors actually knew what he was using. He wasn't the only one using it. They let him get by, because he was a public relations figure, and his physical performance was no longer that important. He was given a routine non-combat patrol in one of the latest, almost fully automated spacecraft available.

         But the drugs finally failed him. They found him doing pretty much what he was doing now...weeping in orbit of a barren planetoid when he was supposed to be on duty, muttering to himself that he couldn't find the wound. He had taken a very large dose of the drug and its synergist, and they had had to keep him strapped down for several days until he cleared the drugs.

         He was a public relations property. They wrote in the official records that George was suffering combat fatigue. They gave him a prescription and different synergists for the drugs, sent him back to his old station on the war front, and told the public that it was what he wanted. They didn't know they were right.

         It was seven years since the last Tree crossed the front. An active peace movement among scientists and professionals had gained more general popularity in the last few years, and the military had fallen from public favor in many places. The war-front was now the frontier, a desperate place populated only by a few research scientists and the extremist Hermits.

         George had been assigned to a watch over a gravitic research station near his old war circuit. The station was a seemingly random collection of spheres fastened to the beams of a sprawling rectangle of open trusses. Removed from the direct influence of any star, the station relied exclusively on its internal fusion generators for power, light, heat, and recycling. Not all of them were always plentiful.

         He was in command of four of the rattiest pilots he had ever seen. Two were failed civilian transport pilots. One, a popular military hero like George, was "recovering" from simultaneous addictions to at least 12 different narcotics and hallucinogens and would have been experimenting with housekeeping and industrial chemicals if George hadn't kept him locked in his sleeping compartment between patrols. The latest arrival was a 20 year old whose influential parents apparently thought that a 2-year term in service would improve his political career.

         The communications officer was over 60, a veteran of three planetary campaigns in various human-human wars. The old man was always full of advice, sometimes prone to preach, but George spent a lot of his free time around him. There was no one else on the station who could or would hold the other end of a conversation.

         The pilots were assigned to guard the scientists from an incursion by Trees, if they ever came back, or humans. A number of anti-intellectual groups had sprung up in the reactionary atmosphere of the post-war years. These paramilitary groups had small fleets of armed ships, and were capable of violence against scientific installations. The fanatical Hermits of the frontier had been known to use their mining rigs against unprotected extrastellar stations in acts of simple vandalism.

         If George had expected gratitude from the scientists, he might have been disappointed. The scientists were single mindedly riveted to their grants and instruments and data, and some showed active dislike for the peacetime military. They only spoke to the pilots when they wanted one of their FTL sensor drones carried to launch position by the fighters. The relationship between the scientists and pilots had been made even worse when the household chemical addict trimmed off the top third of a high-gain aiming array with his port beam while trying to dock with the wrong end of the station.

         Worst of all were the women. There were two on the station. One was a licensed prostitute whose permit had been downgraded to "nominal" when she contracted an incurable, periodically infectious disease. The old whore would talk to the men, and even act interested as long as they had work credit slips. The other woman, one of the scientists, was as beautiful as George had seen; or maybe the circumstances on the station made him less critical. She often emphasized her dislike of all things military, especially when she saw George.

         George found it especially difficult to deal with the boredom, isolation, and hostility because of his peculiar obsession with the memory of the dying Tree. He was sure that if he analyzed the experience enough, he would find out why he was so powerfully drawn, even addicted, to those coordinates above this tiny world. What was the creature trying to communicate to George as it expired on this remote shard of ice? He constantly felt that he was on the verge of understanding something very important, if only somebody would help him figure it out!

         George's normal patrol sortie was a rough triangle, with the station at its coreward apex...Three days out, six days across, seven days back. He would make Continuum jumps to selected patrol stations, drop out, and run on fusion pots for up to a day at a time. In the middle of each reaction drive run, he had to make remote fly-by checks of the robotic early warning buoys. Occasionally, he would have to drop off a replacement buoy from his beam racks.

         Once he had picked up a blip near one of the buoys. The signature belonged to a Hermit miner, who was trying to vandalize the small spherical robot by inhaling it into his particle collector. A Hermit sometimes claimed millions of cubic kilometers as his range of solitude, and attempted to harass or annoy "intruders" into leaving. The Hermit had fled when he detected the armed fighter. It had been the only action any of the pilots had seen in four years.

         George had to divert almost a day in Continuum from the outer leg of his patrol circuit to get to the asteroid, and then about half a day to his next patrol station. When he diverted, buoy number 12 didn't get checked. No one seemed to notice.

         Strangely, the obsession had calmed since he had arrived at the scientific station. He had diverted to the ice world twice in the first month, but thereafter he only visited the crash site on the anniversary. His last one-year supply of drugs had lasted almost three years now. Somehow, he knew that somebody near this place was going to tell him what was going on.

         George sighed raggedly, and wiped his eyes again. He couldn't land on the surface like he had the first time. The ancient fighter had a sealed life capsule...like a crystal womb with no outlet. When he got back to the research station, they would have to dissolve a hole in the envelope with special solvents to get him out. Because of the type of ship assigned to him, he had been forced to come up with an orbital ceremony for the occasion.

         T minus one minute, forty seconds. He lifted the guard on a switch on the grimy zinc-chromate panel under his left hand, moved the toggle. He set the firing coordinates, waited. At the exact standard time when the alien had died, seven years before, he fired the special load from his emergency marker tube. Two minutes and seven seconds later, the impact trench and everything on the surface in a one kilometer radius suddenly turned bright red.

         Okay, he thought, time to go ol' buddy. Can't live your whole life in the past y'know. Time to go.

         He looked out of the transparent ellipsoid of the life capsule at his vessel. The structure of the fighter was nothing but a thin box girder to which the components were attached. His capsule shared the center mounting point with a pod full of tracking electronics and the control computers. The ready-lights on both power reactors flashed green. The instruments showed that all four fusion pots were ready for reaction thrust. He toggled another switch. At the extreme ends of the girder, the mysterious discs of the Continuum accelerators began to vibrate slightly as they started their warm-up sequence.

         The fighter should have been in a museum. It had been built just after the first Tree attack, more than a century and a half ago. Its primitive fusion pots didn't have throttles, of course. The power reactors just initiated small thermonuclear blasts in fuel pellets in the pots. To accelerate faster, just set off the blasts more frequently. The acceleration surge could break the pilot's back if not for the form-adapting couch. Even with the couch, the repeated jolts were almost unbearable after even a few minutes. The old continuum drives required pre-acceleration to .17 C before each jump, which took the better part of an hour.

         George hated the old fighter all the more because he had fought with and lived in the finest, most agile patrol ships ever built. The old ship symbolized the complete failure of his once-promising life and career.

         He had tried to talk the sector commander into reducing the number of patrol stations on each sortie. This would allow the pilots to make more of the journey by Continuum, with no subjective time lapse, and with less use of the lurching, bone-breaking reaction drives. The commander, like everyone else who dealt with George, smiled briefly and forgot the matter.

         Contoured control arms extended from his couch, and George grasped the control sticks. He looked down at the desolate little world once more, and wondered if he would ever come here again. His head moved from side to side in resignation, just like every time before.

         It had been seven years since the last Man-Tree War, and the politicians and businessmen were more interested in protecting internal trade routes and travelers from other humans, so all the top-line fighters were very far away and destined to stay there unless....


         ...Trees came back....

         George happened to glance toward the dawnward limb. Beside the disc of the little red sun was a point of light where nothing had been minutes before! It sparkled in the light, a jewel of terrible beauty. He checked the broad-band EMR...it was definitely a local source, and it was getting slowly closer to his position.

         He couldn't move or breathe for several seconds. It must have jumped into the system and pulled into orbit on the far side of the planet! How could it know where he was?

         He had to break out of orbit, run away! He had to contact the station, tell them to evacuate the civilians. The beautiful woman, the whore, the old man, the addict, the scientists, the liner pilots, the politician--all were helpless.

         Defenses! They had to prepare defenses...

          ...There was no defense against a Tree. Only a precisely targeted strike by a specially designed weapon delivered by a purpose-built fighter spacecraft had the smallest chance to stop a Tree. He had such a weapon, but not the will to use it.

         Suddenly, George was trying to do everything at once. He fumbled wildly with instrument switches and the controls. He tried unsuccessfully to read the composition of the object while trying to activate the ECM emitters, which blanked his own sensors. He tried to activate the defensive maneuvers computer, but his input was so confused that the machine locked up.

         "Please retry," said a cheerful woman's voice.

         Manual controls...get away! He made several movements of the controls which would have torn his fighter apart if the main computer had allowed the fusion pots to act on them.

         He hadn't worked on combat maneuvers in years. He had faked his way through the reviews. He did it because he couldn't face the idea of going into combat again, and now he didn't have a choice.

         Panic...his breathing was uncontrolled, shallow. The low grumble of the life support regulators filled his ears. He felt a slight sting on the back of his hand. When he looked down, he saw the tip of the medical probe as it disappeared into the contoured armrest. Combat drugs.

         At last he made an allowable, coordinated movement of the controls. Blue light tore at his retinae from both sides, even through his shielded faceplate. He surged back into the couch as the ship lurched forward...braking from his orbit, falling straight toward the growing point of light.

         George screamed aloud. He fired a port maneuvering engine. The ship spun violently, stopped again. Blue hell flared on both sides...flared again. The fighter tottered drunkenly out of orbit.

         He fired the fusion pots so fast that he was on the verge of unconsciousness. At last he pulled the rate control stick to null. He swallowed hard as he rotated the life capsule so that he could see aft. He saw with slight relief that the point of light was getting smaller, falling behind.

         A halo of pale blue grew around the point of light. Firing reaction drives...it was moving out of orbit to pursue.

         He slowly regained his composure. He managed to get the proper scanners aimed and activated. The structure mostly resonated near .937 attometers in scans; the curious double peak. Humans had never learned what the material was or what it was for.

         There was no question now; it was a Tree vessel.

         He jabbed desperately at the communicator pad, fought to stop shaking and reduce his breathing to something like a normal rate.

         "T...Tre...Tre...Trees!" He screamed at the communicator.

         The device responded with a low, constant grumble. He checked the directional Continuum transmitter grids, the scrambler. They were set properly.


         The communicator continued to grumble. George's head sank onto his chest, his eyes closed. When he called the station, how was he going to explain where he was, why he was so far off his patrol circuit?

         Why was he thinking about that when certain death was only 700 kilometers away and closing in?

         "Who is that? That Hermit again?" said a voice he didn't recognize. "If you don't know communications protocol, you shouldn't be on this channel! Respond properly or get off!"

         His head snapped upright again.

          "KD7...5...Red, this is...KD...I'm trying to tell you that I've got a Tree warship on my tail, and if you don't get me through to...." George was screaming.

          "George, is that you?" The voice of the communications chief cut in. "What're you talking about? Where have you been? Get me your position, course, and speed!"

          As George set the navigation display to transmit its data, he realized that he had given no thought to a course when he fired the engines. He had launched himself on a completely random course in his rush to get away from the alien ship. He would now reach Continuum threshold within the gravitational distortion of the star, which would make it impossible to predict where he would arrive when he jumped. He was at least 50% likely to arrive somewhere within the atmosphere of the star.

          It would take almost two days to get out of the system's influence on his present vector at the best tolerable acceleration. The Tree would catch up, and when it closed within two kilometers, he would die.

          When he was in training to be a fighter pilot, eight and a half years ago, they had shown films about the consequences of a Tree attack. Humans had only seen twelve Tree vessels in a century and a half, but the populations of three planets, as well as numerous individual commercial passengers and military crews had been wiped out under their assault before any means could be devised to fight them.

         When a Tree ship got within two kilometers, a dreadful meeting of minds took place. The victims who were in the company of other humans during the attack fared the worst. They apparently lost all personal and social inhibitions, often killing each other and themselves, and many worse things. The brains of those caught alone just stopped working after a while.

         3 kilometers.

         "Gorg." The transmission began, but seemed to fade.

         "KD75 Red, you're breaking up."


         It wasn't in his comms. It was in his head.

         "Please," George begged empty space. "I'm just here to remember the one who died here. I don't mean you any harm. Let me go, or at least let the others live."

         "Kill...?" A title entered his head, like [emissary].

         "Yes," George said to empty space. So, the dying alien wasn't an enemy combatant, but an ambassador? "I'm sorry."

         "You sad?"

         "Yes," George sobbed.

         There was a long silence.

         "You killed some of us. We fought back." George said, finally.

         "Dint know. Just talk to them. Dint know they were so weak."

         There was another long silence.

         "Came back soonest. Felt your mind when..." [emissary] "...died. Have protection now."

         "Make place where..." [emissary] "...died meeting place?" the Tree continued after a pause to let George recover again.

         "It was all a mistake? You were just trying to talk to us?" George was overwhelmed by sorrow, horror, and hope, all at once.

         "Yes, Gorg."

          "Make the grave a meeting place, then," he said when he could speak and think again. "I'll tell the others."

         George got more medals and more parades, to his personal disgust. Then they made him the first Man-Tree ambassador. He lived and worked for a long time in the station built by the Tree technicians in the wound on the little world. The Trees had developed shielding to mitigate the devastating power of their telepathic emissions, but he often still needed sedatives to cope with their close proximity.

         But he never again suffered bitter longing and nightmares from the wound.

         With more technical development, two Tree ships were able to tour some of the Human worlds without harm to the inhabitants. Humans, including "Gorg", were able to tour some of the Tree worlds. Both found the other's existence exceedingly strange, but the exchange of technology, understanding, and faith was of great benefit to all.

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