Seeds for Titanium by Brandon Crilly
That first time I found the treefolk, I followed the trail of sap.
More spills than you might think in the guts of a Low Market. Fuel dribbles sometimes from the thruster pods. Tiny leaks from a coolant pipe slated for replacement. Rat piss. Those sticky splotches leading around Conduit Seven looked like blood, at first, except darker and thicker. Smelled like sweets instead of iron.
Guess I was sort of following blood, though.
Floor was mostly grating in those maintenance sections, but the sap didn’t leak through much. I tried not to think about little flecks turning rock hard on the pipes and cables underneath; no way the scrubbers could polish that away. Something scratched up the bulkhead in places, too, which would’ve solved my dilemma about calling Security if it weren’t for the leaves around the crawlspace entrance. Curled and bright green but already shriveling when I picked one up. Never saw something grown break apart that quickly.
When I turned up my palm’s nanos, the being inside the crawlspace shuffled toward the light, not away like I expected. Knew what it was even though I’d only seen them on my Link. They say treefolk are huge, but this one couldn’t have been much more than seven feet, all hunched over so it looked more like a bundle of twigs and branches than a being. Okay, you could argue that’s kinda what treefolk are, I guess.
Couple larger pools of sap right near it. Saw some dripping from cuts on its limbs. And the treefolk’s trembling the whole time, making this soft, rustling sound from its leaves rubbing together.
Security should’ve dealt with it. Earn the hefty budget the UN sets aside for their equipment, even though there’d been no issues on my Low Market in years. Except you ever imagine a drone trying to talk to a tree? Didn’t work out so well on the surface when the treefolk first showed themselves, from what I remember. So against all kinds of better judgment, I stuck my hand out and let the nanos brighten a touch more.
“Doesn’t look too comfy in there. Want to come out where there’s a little more space?”
It took repeating that a couple different ways before the treefolk moved. At the time, I didn’t know why it changed its mind about trusting me. I was more concerned with how it moved a lot quicker than I expected, crawling branch over branch until it sort of flowed out into the corridor. The mess of vines and leaves on top pressed against the ceiling and its limbs practically touched both walls. When it stepped forward, one of its three legs buckled but it held steady as a bunch more leaves dropped onto the grating.
With a better look, I counted at least a dozen nicks and cuts across its trunk and front branches, some charred around the edges. Looked like it picked a fight with a magnacutter and lost in the second round.
“There. Roomier.” Couldn’t find a face anywhere on its bark, so I focused on its center of mass. “Don’t suppose you can tell me how you ended up here?”
Meaning the Low Market, not the crawlspace. Far as I’d heard, no treefolk ever left the surface. Too much work to do down there, helping grow the non-sentient trees and keep them balanced with Earth’s towns and whatnot. Didn’t matter what I meant, though, since on that first meeting the treefolk wouldn’t talk to me.
Took another minute of me staring and the treefolk probably staring before I decided what to do and brought it to the observation deck.
My thinking was: trees like sunlight. Treefolk couldn’t be much different, especially the way this one leaned into the glow from my nanos. Never heard of treefolk getting violent, and this one wasn’t menacing or anything other than its size, but I didn’t like being in close quarters with something strong enough to lift a BEV stuck in a gorge.
We took the maintenance corridors where the treefolk would fit; the concourses on B- through D-Deck were bigger but full of station crew and vendors, either from other orbitals or the surface. Used crew-only hatches all the way to the observation deck and stepped out into this huge space full of people. Most had conversations to focus on, nanos to regenerate or the big observation viewport to stare out, but it didn’t take long for someone to notice me coaxing the treefolk further into the open. Pretty soon I had a wide berth of whispering figures, and a bunch of vids streaming through people’s Links. Found a couple later online; I looked more worried about the attention than my new friend.
The treefolk wasn’t keen on following until it spotted the agribase. Then it was me keeping up with its longer legs, even with the hitch in its step, until its feet sunk into the agribase’s soil. Ours was bigger than most — about forty meters squared leading right up to the viewport — but anyone lounging on the clover or leaning against a tree scattered, leaving me and the treefolk on our own.
Didn’t seem too interested in the people. Minus an obvious face, I guessed it was looking out the viewport, so I started explaining the ring of solar collectors outside. The matter/energy converters needed more juice back then, but still not as much as the collectors could catch, so they reflected some onto the observation deck. Fed the agribase’s plants and let people charge their nanos. While I rambled, mine pulsed purple on the backs of my hands; the treefolk pointed at them with the end of a branch.
“Yeah, they’re programmed to charge any chance they get — ”
“That thing isn’t safe.” These four folks in freighter jackets stood in front of the crowd. Closest was a stocky guy a little younger than me — okay, probably a decade or two younger — with that captain swagger you see in some folks. Vendors have that sometimes, too, you might’ve noticed. Emblem of a seahorse on their jackets, probably unique to their company, and pointing these ugly looks over my head.
The treefolk sucked its roots from the soil and stood behind me.
Remember the height difference here.
“Haven’t you heard what their kind have done?” Freighter Man said, pointing.
I hadn’t, beyond what I mentioned earlier. My Link preferences were hard-coded to technical updates, new jerry-rigging vids, and history docudramas. There was a new one out that week about finishing Africa’s Great Green Wall, I think.
“Doesn’t seem to be making any trouble,” I said.
“Not right now, maybe. It caused enough damage on our ship.”
“Yeah. That is so,” Freighter Man sneered. “Caught that thing’s roots worming toward our solar panels after it snuck on board. Bark can be hard as diamonds if it wants. Then it attacked us when we found it.”
The crowd murmured while I looked back at the treefolk. At those magnacutter wounds in its trunk. And the way it started trembling again.
“Diamonds, eh? You must have been lucky then,” I said, since none of them sported so much as a bruise.
Freighter Man caught on pretty quick. “That thing needs to pay.”
“Doubt it can make a transfer right now.”
“Then maybe someone else should,” one of the others said, tapping the multitool on her belt, “for getting in our way.”
Crossing my arms and shrugging didn’t earn me any points with them. Maybe they thought a Low Market maintenance man couldn’t handle a scuffle. Let it be known that working somewhere without much in the way of issues doesn’t mean I’ve never had to handle myself. Let it also be known that doesn’t mean a scuffle is my preference.
“If you want to make things messy, I’m sure it’ll look great on the feed.” Freighter Man glanced at the crowd and the number of eyes shining with active Link uploads. And at the Security unit standing in back, all titanium casing and a blinking uplink to my favorite operator in the control room, who doesn’t have any patience for riffraff.
I might’ve pinged Security while Freighter Man said his piece.
The one with the multitool went white, and he waved at her to back down.
“I warned you,” he said to me. “That thing isn’t safe.”
He didn’t seem to like that, but I didn’t care so much. As he and his lackeys wandered away, I gave Security a wave. “Thanks, Alice. I think I’m good here.”
The treefolk stopped trembling once the freighter crew left the deck. I held out one of my palms but didn’t get too close, not because of what Freighter Man said but because some people’d rather not be touched when they’re scared. When it extended a branch, I gave the rough bark a pat, which didn’t seem too personal.
“You stay here as long as you like. I’ll make sure Security leaves you be.”
* * *
Second time I saw the treefolk, it wasn’t so scared.
Working maintenance on one low-orbit market’s probably the same as any other. I’m just old enough to remember when matter/energy converters were new — that was a big year, let me tell you. Things still fit together weird sometimes, patch jobs to avoid needing a replacement part… I could go on. Point is that since my Market was built by a modern converter, my job involved monitoring and requisitioning more than anything else. But on an orbital the size of a small surface town, there’s a reason I didn’t see the treefolk again for a while.
Meanwhile, my buddy made itself a home.
Didn’t surprise me when the treefolk set down temporary roots; needed to heal enough to head home, right? Nothing on my Link told me how long that might take, but I did read up some on Treefolk 101. You probably know the important stuff, given that thing in your pocket. Found a vid from when they first identified themselves back in 2120, another on how they were working on expanding the old growth forests and actually using our tech to do it sometimes. Read about that tension with the UN; figure Freighter Man was angry about that urban land they gave up after the treefolk sort of just grew into it. Meanwhile, I stopped thinking about our local resident until someone mentioned offhand, in the same tone as the fava bean roaster on C-Deck, that it hadn’t left.
I spotted my buddy from the entrance hatch. Not because the observation deck was any less busy — the treefolk stood ten feet tall now. Station crew barely glanced at it, but the vendors pointed and whispered, taking stills with their Links. When the treefolk’s trunk shifted, someone in a Dead Sea Conglomerate uniform backed away so quickly they fell on their ass. Not that the treefolk was being aggressive. Just looking somewhere new.
Looking at me, actually, from a single glowing eye near the top of its trunk.
As I got closer, the Dead Sea shipper put a wrapped bundle at the treefolk’s base. They looked nervous as one of the branches curled down, but all the treefolk did was offer something back. Small. Bumpy. Like a miniature cantaloupe. I’m sure you can imagine.
Hello, Dermot Klyne.
Voice in my head probably made me gasp. The Dead Sea shipper gave me a sympathetic look, like they knew all about treefolk and I was the newbie who’d never seen one before.
“Thought you’d be long gone by now,” I said, letting the shipper think whatever they liked as they walked away.
That deep voice rattling the base of my neck didn’t hurt so much the second time. Place is here, now, today. Your home accommodates my roots.
I’d noticed as I walked up. The treefolk sported two new legs, and all five split off into dozens of thinner shoots, buried in the agribase’s soil.
“Wouldn’t have pegged a Low Market as more comfortable than the surface.” When the treefolk didn’t respond, I asked, “What was with your Dead Sea friend there?”
It is your kind’s way to want. And want to be useful.
I grunted and leaned forward, to see what the shipper left behind. Just a bundle of wires. Not even intact ones — looked like someone pulled a bunch of old fibreoptics from somewhere, frayed edges and all. Closer to its trunk I saw sheets of titanium, intact circuit boards, crystal drives, and such. Most responded to my nanos, meaning this was usable tech, but the sort of damaged stuff the G-Deck drones fed into the converters.
While I watched, a branch hoisted one of those titanium sheets, sticking it into the mass of vines on what I’d thought was its head, next to some bundles of dead wire. Like decoration. Or armor.
“Anyone else try something stupid?”
No trembling this time. Instead of words, the treefolk sent me this feeling of security that reminded me of my grandmother’s cottage outside Greater Forest Number Twelve.
A bunch of upper branches extended toward the viewport as we reached peak hours for the solar collectors. “Sun feels differently up here?”
I am closer and without interference.
“Huh. Hadn’t thought of it that way.” I held my hand out for my nanos. “Can’t remember if these charged slower on the surface. Been a long time.”
You are same, similar, not identical but close.
Your skin-tech is a symbiosis.
I looked sidelong at its big glowing eye. “You saying I photosynthesize?”
And I swear the treefolk’s leaves rustled like laughter at that one.
Over the next bit, more people arrived with things for the treefolk. One or two looked like they’d been there before. I remember one little kid not wanting to go anywhere near the agribase, until this tiny root poked up and made them giggle. Everything they brought was scrap, but each person walked away with a bumpy seed, bundle of leaves or a tiny branch the treefolk dropped from a limb. My buddy had set up some sort of trading system, like the other vendors, but it seemed to be getting the shaft in return.
Held my tongue until this last vendor showed up: young, swarthy, mop of hair on his head, wearing this bright gold coat to cover up his rumpled clothes. Carried himself with that self-important swagger of the Old Union, you know? When he held out what was obviously a burnt out comm node that must have fallen behind a console… well, I’m sure you remember me stepping in.
Don’t worry, I promised this wasn’t about you.
After you left, I told the treefolk, “No way this junk is worth pieces of yourself.”
We grow, change, replace. Nothing permanent given. I am creating the permanent.
“What, like you’re settling in?”
My place is here now.
“Not down there?” I pointed out the window. Even in our Low Market’s thermosphere lane, we didn’t see much but clouds most days. Couldn’t imagine a treefolk preferring that, even with the Sun from the other direction. “Your kind have the run of the forests these days, right?”
Not-forests. Got the sense it hesitated a bit that time. Your forests.
Thought I knew plenty about the old growth forests, or the “Greater and Lesser Forests” like the UN called them. You might not remember when they were first cultivated, giving a bunch of the world back to nature and all that after the treefolk came out of hiding. Seemed to me like Earth was their oyster. Or something that makes sense when you’re talking about plants.
Until the treefolk showed me a memory. Must have been its home, in a forest with huge, leafy trees and moss on every boulder. Some sort of flying squirrel jumping between branches. Looked like the sort of place Grandma would’ve loved to hike. Until the treefolk… shifted perspectives, I guess? Showed me how it saw the forest. The difference between the old trees and the new ones, lab grown to speed up reforestation. Planted not-quite-randomly by well-meaning humans. That flying squirrel’s heart beating steady on account of its forebears living on nutrients in a preserve. Everything fitting together just so, like the Low Market and its matter/energy converted parts.
“Not exactly wild,” I remember saying. “Is it?”
The treefolk didn’t respond, but it didn’t need to that time. I could imagine not feeling at home in that forest, wanting to try something new. Even if that meant tucking dead wires into your branches and dealing with ogling vendors.
Or at least I thought I could.
Maybe I should’ve looked at those wires more closely. But in my defense, my buddy didn’t tell me everything.
* * *
Last time I saw the treefolk… well, you probably know where this is going.
Low Markets might be built with parts that fit together perfectly and space that isn’t wasted, but that doesn’t mean we take things for granted. Sensors all throughout are supposed to tell us when something goes haywire, fed directly to the Link of whichever crewperson is on duty that day.
Yeah, lucky me.
I’d noticed little anomalies in the days before. Sort of thing that happens on any orbital, regardless of how its parts are made. Wires come loose. Gravity nodes shift out of alignment. Microleaks need patching. They happen — but not almost twenty in two days. I was deciding who deserved more hell, the converter techs or the sensor techs, when a scrubber reported a blockage on B-Deck in one of the solar array’s big transistors. An organic mass, of all things.
Should’ve gone to the observation deck first, but I needed to see it to be sure. Humans are wired funny like that, right? The scrubber didn’t have a cam, so I closed the power to that section and crawled my way there. Or tried to, anyway. Made it halfway before I found another blockage: a mottled, dark brown root as thick as my forearm, wound through one of the relays leading to the matter/energy converters.
Didn’t have time to do more than curse before the Imminent Disaster alarms went off.
Here’s what I figure: the treefolk knew someone would notice its roots sooner or later. It must have grown them out carefully, used unimportant junctions and masked them with the scrap it collected. Like the ones I read about on my Link, using our tech to help bring back the old growth. We’ll never know, now, but I have a feeling it knew when the scrubber reported the blockage. Maybe it even knew I’d have to go looking, which conveniently placed me as far from the observation deck as possible without going EVA. Not that I can prove anything, of course, since our final chat didn’t last long.
Security clearance got me to the observation deck despite the alarms. Heard shouts a couple times, always coming from the direction of the airlock, so as far as everyone else knew the alert was real. Didn’t know any differently myself at the time. Blame it on that weird human wiring again.
A month since I found it in that crawlspace, the treefolk’s root-covered not-head brushed the ceiling and its trunk and branches blocked half the viewport. Didn’t make the light in there any less bright. Every solar panel outside hung open toward the Sun; normally we’d close half during peak hours. Opening all of them like the treefolk did collected more energy than the converters could ever use. My nanos recharged in seconds before activating a sheen to protect me from the excess.
Damn if that didn’t hurt in my head.
“What are you doing?” I shouted over the alarms.
That massive eye stared down at me, and I felt like nothing. Not like an insect or station rat, since those critters have a purpose. The treefolk stared at me like I didn’t belong, and I’d be lying if I said I ever shook that feeling completely.
Didn’t stop me from asking: “Were they right? That freighter crew right about you?”
You are respirating.
Which hadn’t occurred to me. Whatever the treefolk wanted, it didn’t include hurting anyone on the Market. If it could control the alarms and reorient the solar collectors — someone in Security got fired for that, I’m sure — it could shut off the oxygen or explode the station core without warning anyone. All those offerings, all that time spent worming its roots into the Low Market’s guts, and the first thing it did was chase everyone away.
I needed to know why.
The treefolk didn’t have to tell me. Probably thought I wouldn’t understand. But I did, as soon as it showed me home. Not the Greater Forest from before, regardless of how hard its kind fought to protect and expand them. The treefolk showed me a forest that didn’t follow any human pattern, our subtle rules and making the world just so. Showed me something completely natural, where everything’s spontaneous and lives and dies by chance. No accelerated growth. No supplements. No selective breeding. The sort of home its kind knew a long time ago, which we never really gave back to them, even though we tried our best.
This home wasn’t on the surface, though. There was a shell around the outside. The crawlspaces, six decks of concourses, administrative levels and docking ports might have been gone, but I knew the shape of my Low Market.
The old promotional vids used to say the matter/energy converters could produce anything, and the treefolk was about to prove them right.
Except in what it showed me, I didn’t see the treefolk itself. “What happens to you?”
My place will be here.
“Now hold on — ”
You should leave, Dermot Klyne.
Right then, my Link warned me the temperature and radiation in the observation deck were almost past what my nanos could block. Something about the treefolk standing there alone didn’t sit right with me. But what was I supposed to do? Waited until my nanos couldn’t shield me anymore, and then I walked away. Not like the treefolk needed me at that point.
I was the last one on the last escape craft. Alice from Security overrode some protocol to keep them from leaving me behind. By the time we circled the Low Market, every window glowed from inside and the solar collectors pulsed in a way they’re not supposed to. Expected the whole thing to come apart — the treefolk’s plan couldn’t possibly work, right?
Except you know it did.
Frankly, I’m surprised no one tried to retake the orbital or some such. Demand reparations from the treefolk on the surface, whatever that would mean. Heard the UN sent a team, and when whatever being lives there now let them in to talk, they couldn’t bring themselves to go further than the airlock. Paid off the company for the orbital and declared it a protected space. Guess we’re not as much like the folks in my docudramas as an old cynic might think, people like Freight Man aside.
If you’ve seen the stills from inside the market, even through the windows, I can’t imagine wanting to touch it. It might have used our tech to come into creation, but it’s a place no human has a right to tread.
Which brings us to you, Union Man.
Don’t need you to just know what happened. I want to make sure you understand it. Because that bumpy seed in your pocket? My buddy might have handed those out, but that doesn’t mean you all get to keep them. Consider it a tax, and one that isn’t too hefty, if you ask me.
Station rats and insects have purpose, but so does a seed, and so do I.
Now you’d best hand it over now, and I’ll go take it home.
Originally published in the August 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Brandon Crilly has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Haven Spec, and other markets. He’s also an Aurora Award-winning podcaster, reviewer, conference organizer, and Dungeon Master for a bunch of other writers. His debut novel Catalyst (Atthis Arts) won a Bronze Medal in Fantasy from the 2023 IPPY Awards.