A Free Short Story
by Linda Nagata
The sample story below, Spectral Expectations, is Linda Nagata’s first published fiction. It can be found in the story collection Goddesses & Other Stories, available at Book View Café.
Spectral Expectations Copyright © 1987 by Linda Nagata. No part of this story may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
It was raining when I landed on Maui, a heavy downpour that pounded the runway and pulled the terminal lights into long, watery reflections. I disembarked, threading my way past bewildered tourists and lei-bearing, professional greeters dressed in authentic Polynesiana.
A sleepy clerk at the rent-a-car booth examined my Hertz card. “Mr. Kyle Fisher,” he mumbled, then turned to his terminal and called up my reservation.
Not much had changed at Kahului airport since I’d last come through, some years back—but elsewhere . . . the industrialized world was in flower. The controversy over lunar mining rights had been settled with minimal loss of life and the ensuing land rush had fostered a global economic spiral-up. The first generation of factory stations in lunar and Earth orbits were already producing more of their own kind. Multi-billion dollar investments were common, because returns came back on the same scale. Projects that would have seemed frivolous two decades ago were suddenly being drawn up in detailed plan—a sure sign of good times. Everybody had a thumb in the pie. Even me. I’d won a position as sector boss on K.B.—my own sweet slice of glory.
“How long is this storm supposed to last?” I asked.
Wonderful. I only had two days of leave left.
For three weeks I’d been moving around the country, sort of a peregrination I guess, saying goodbye to old friends and family, some of whom I didn’t expect to see again. K.B.—Kasorsky Biological Station—was in assembly over Venus and I was bound there, scheduled for a shuttle flight on the 31st—the first leg of a very long journey. I wouldn’t be home for at least seven years.
“Are you here for business or on vacation, sir?” the clerk asked, remembering to be friendly.
“Visiting an old friend.”
Derek and I had been college buddies, and I’d spent more than a few vacations at his folks’ place, trying to lose some of the tensions built up during the University of Hawaii’s long semesters. Graduate school and a few years of honest employment had passed since I’d last visited the Chun farm. I hoped that not too much had changed.
“Hitchhiking’s illegal and you have to wear your seatbelt,” the clerk warned. “And no smoking in the car. Have a great vacation.”
The rain had slacked off to a drizzle by the time I turned onto an unpaved road bordering a prosperous macadamia nut plantation. As I downshifted and leaned on the accelerator, the car skidded in the mud, back wheels fishtailing while the headlights swept crazily across stark, regimented rows of trees. The road climbed for a quarter mile, then split, one branch diving down to cross a gully, the other, narrower, steering a level course. I took that one, forded a long puddle, and pulled up in front of a farmhouse now nearly eighty years old.
The house was dark. Derek had warned me his folks would be out, but I’d thought he at least would be there. Leaving the car lights on, I switched off the engine and made a dash for the covered lanai. An old shepherd dog was lying on a mat by the front door. He got up on stiff limbs and walked over to sniff me, his rheumy eyes friendly.
“Hey, Hoku. You still alive?”
The front door was unlocked so I stuck my head in and yelled. No answer. I found the light switch and hit it. Dim yellow porch lights threw their shadows across the cement floor. I went back to the car to retrieve my bag and turn off the headlights. Derek would show up eventually.
The farm—more of a hobby than a business—belonged to all of the Chun family, though the day-to-day work was done by Derek’s folks. Mostly they grew taro, a semi-aquatic plant that thrives in flooded terraces called lo`i. Taro had been a staple in ancient Hawaii; prepared as poi, it was still a popular food.
I went through the house, but found no one; returned to the lanai to wait.
Some kind of pet bird was roosting on a perch set up in a sheltered corner of the lanai. A bit of sennit bound its leg to the wood. It ruffled its feathers and made an odd, throaty sound as I approached. The bird was beautiful—somewhat larger than a mockingbird and black, with a long tail and tufts of yellow feathers on its wings, on the sides of its head, and at the base of its tail. Its dark brown eyes swept across me, a calculating look.
I turned, as a distant engine revved. Headlights flashed somewhere down the road, bouncing in and out of sight until at last a covered jeep rounded the final curve and pulled up behind my muddy rental. The rain had almost stopped.
“Kyle!” a woman’s voice called.
“Terri? Hey Terri! I didn’t know you’d be here. Alright! Man, it’s been years.”
She hopped out of the jeep and hugged me, then Derek came around and we shook hands, grinning like idiots. “You look good,” she told me.
“You too.” And it was true. Terri was Hawaiian/ Chinese/ French/ German; tall, thin, and strong as the earth. She still wore her hair long and straight, still gazed right inside me with those wide, dark, honest eyes. For five years she’d been the manager of the Manawainui Preserve, a tract of rainforest high up on the eastern slopes of Haleakala, one of the two volcanoes that made up the island of Maui.
“I thought you were supposed to be at a conference in New Zealand,” I said.
“Busy. Couldn’t make it.”
“Things have been jumping around here,” Derek said. “That’s why we were late. Hey, grab a seat.” He went inside, came out again, with a bottle of wine, a box of crackers and three plastic tumblers. “Did you see my latest creation?” he asked, and nodded towards the bird.
I glanced at it. It was wide-awake now, its dark eyes gazing coldly at a moth that fluttered around a near-by light.
“I was wondering if that was one of yours. It looks a little . . . primeval.”
“It’s called an o`o,” Derek explained. “Moho bishopi, or Molokai O`o, if you prefer. A delicate species, territorial in habit . . . extinct for over a hundred years.”
Derek was a creationist. That is, he was a geneticist who specialized in re-creating extinct life forms. Just raid a museum, give him a few tissue samples from the preserved carcass of some extinct organism, set him down in the lab facilities at U. of Washington and wait. Within a few months he’d have a transcript of the creature’s DNA code, compiled from information still surviving in the ancient cells. Give him a few more weeks and he’d hand you the assembled chromosomes, ready for propagation. For the past three years he’d been working for the Hui Aloha Aina, a powerful preservationist group devoted to the Manawainui Preserve.
Terri walked over to the bird and encouraged it to hop up on her curled fingers. “Hawaiian bird catchers, the kia manu who collected feathers for the nobility’s ceremonial capes, were supposed to have kept o`o as pets. We thought we’d try.”
“It’s illegal for us to have it,” Derek said. “Wildlife laws and all—so keep your mouth shut.”
Terri moved her hand slowly up and down until the bird spread its wings for balance. It really was beautiful. Then she let it step back onto its perch. “You know that there were no native land mammals in Hawaii before people came here.”
“Sure.” I had a minor in natural history from my U.H. days.
“No reptiles or amphibians either. It seems odd, but except for pueo, the owl, and io, the hawk, these beauties were the ultimate predators in their ecosystem.”
“Yes, fierce carnivores—when they weren’t drinking nectar.”
Eden on Earth, I thought, and remembered a lecture I’d heard once by a professor of exobiology who was adept at drawing parallels:
Imagine a generational starship, self-sufficient for a million years, never calling at any port, creeping through space, through the deep, a tiny world to itself where change runs at the slow, slow pace of genes. With no in-migrations to throw the ecosystem off-balance, it can adapt to itself. Competition becomes more theoretical than real. Low reproductive rates become the norm; plants and insects lose their toxins and their thorns, their bites and stings, their ability to disperse . . . No longer are defenses necessary, because everything is in balance. There is predation, yes, a natural function of any system, but finely tuned, with a minimum of waste. The ecosystem begins to function almost as a single organism . . .
We already have an analog of this imaginary ship: the isolated islands of the Hawaiian archipelago.
Except that ‘had’ would have been the correct verb form. Fifteen hundred years ago the ancestors of the Hawaiian people found these islands. They arrived in great double-hulled canoes, bringing pigs, dogs, rats (by accident!) and plants of their own, clearing land and changing the look of the coastlines. After them, the Europeans came. In the two hundred and fifty years since Captain James Cook made landfall on Kauai, introduced plants, introduced animals—especially cattle, goats, pigs, deer—and introduced disease have destroyed or displaced millennia of evolution. A few pockets of native forest still survive in the rugged mountains, but in a state far from pristine.
Derek pulled out some rickety old chairs and we sat down at a small card table.
“How are things at the preserve?” I asked.
“Bad,” he said. “Real bad.”
“We can’t keep up with it,” Terri said. She shook her head sadly. “I don’t care how many people we have, we can’t keep foreign plants and animals from invading the preserve. The system’s just too sensitive. Our very presence there has an adverse effect on the forest.”
“Damn waste,” Derek said. He reached for the bottle and topped off everyone’s glass, a good cabernet from a Maui vineyard. “A living laboratory of evolution, as they say, gone to Hell.”
Sheet lightning flickered in a cloud bank somewhere off the coast and we turned to watch.
Talk wandered onto other subjects. They asked me questions about Kasorsky Biological Station and I tried to answer. K.B. was one of those New World projects, the end result of the vogue in long-term planning we’d enjoyed for the past few years. Her end-goal was the terraforming of Venus. In the intervening centuries—or at least for the remainder of this one—she would conduct research on various Earth eco-systems, evaluating their relative merits against the eventual needs of the large orbiting colonies we all believed would be built one day. Opponents argued her only purpose was to amuse malnourished evolutionists and ecologists. That, of course, is not true.
Terri tipped her chair back, so that it balanced on two legs. “Remember when we were kids?”, she asked, giving me a hazy, nostalgic smile. “And our parents would take us night fishing at Mokuleia?”
“Sure. Afterwards, we’d make a bonfire on the beach, and tell ghost stories. You always thought the stories were real, especially the one’s your mother told.” Terri’s mother had been one-half Hawaiian and I swear she knew every hair-raising story ever devised about the akua: the ghosts and the gods of ancient Hawaii. Some fears are irrational and deeply ingrained. I shivered then, just thinking about her tales.
“I still believe them. Now, more than ever . . . And I’ve got one for you.”
There was a loud splash in the nearest lo`i; probably a toad.
Derek shot a look over his shoulder and laughed nervously—the perfect accomplice. Terri kept her eyes on me.
“Been having trouble with ghosts?” I asked, trying to be funny.
She nodded. “In the preserve.”
“Oh.” I didn’t glance at the dark and the rain beyond the dimly-lit lanai . . . though I wanted to. I wasn’t going to let her scare me . . . though it was the perfect night for her to try.
“We released the o`o last spring,” Terri said, speaking in a low, clear voice as if she were giving testimony at a criminal trial. “Twelve individuals, all mature. I went back, about a month later and released four more.”
“Yes. They seemed to be doing well. Then I broke my leg trying to get down a waterlogged trail at Ahulili. I was laid up all summer; the preserve went on hold. Nobody was up there that I know of, from June to early September. So nobody felt the change.”
The rain picked up again, a steady drumming on the roof; Derek stared at the table, his fingers laced in a tight weave. Very softly he said, “Apparently the birds had started breeding.”
Terri nodded. “It was an experiment, trying to put the forest back together. And as with any complex experiment, there were . . . unexpected side effects. It seems that things stranger than birds and flowers were lost when the forests were destroyed.”
Derek pushed his chair around so that his back was to the house, not The Night. The chair legs made an awful scraping sound on the cement. He said, “The world used to abound with gods. Maybe they were more than imagination.”
I laughed at him.
Terri smiled. “It was late afternoon,” she said, “when a helicopter dropped me off in the Kuiki grasslands. We went hiking there once, Kyle, remember?”
“Sure I do.” The “grasslands” were an eroded planeze 6,000 feet above sea level on the windward slopes of Haleakala. Once the tract had been fertile, but a hundred and fifty years of browsing by introduced goats and pigs had stripped it of its vegetation. The subsequent erosion had removed up to six feet of soil in some places. Only a few gnarled ohia trees survived there, amidst a patchwork of bare lava and non-native grasses. The goats were gone now, removed in the late eighties by the National Park Service, but the land would need centuries to recover—if it ever did. Terri’s preserve, with its dense forests, was on the lower slopes, where rainfall was higher and less damage had been done.
“I walked down to the forest,” Terri said. “And set up camp where I always do, in a small patch of moss and ferns between the trees.
“A full moon rose around eight o’clock that night. It cast a grey light across the forest and washed out all but the brightest stars. I watched it for awhile, then crawled into the tent and fell asleep.
“But about midnight a gust of wind blew through camp, banging together the aluminum dishes I’d hung on a tree to dry and waking me with a start. I listened, and heard strange yippings—like lost puppies crying. It was the call of ua`u, the seabird that nests in burrows in the cliffs above Kipahulu Valley. Strange, I thought, that they’d be stirring. They’re birds of the twilight, flying in to shore at dusk, and out to sea again before the sun rises. In the middle night they’re quiet. So something had disturbed them.
“I sat up in my sleeping bag, trying to be silent . . . but the tent floor crackled as I moved. The outer door was partially unzipped. I leaned over and peered through the screened slit.
“The gust of wind that woke me had passed. The camp was quiet again. But there were groaning sounds in the forest. A loud crack! wrenched the air, followed by a rush of twigs being torn apart as a tree branch fell. “The wind came again then, this time in a flurry of gusts that shook the tree-tops and blew dark clouds across the moonlit sky. I wriggled out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the tent and hurried to quiet the clatter of the pans. With two pots and an aluminum cup clutched in my hands, I paused to listen.
“There was the sound of wind soughing through the trees; the lonely moans of branches as they scraped against each other . . . and on the edge of hearing a low-pitched trilling . . . as if the wind had made a flute of some beetle-drilled bough and was playing it in minor key.
“‘Imagination, Terri,’ I told myself, holding my breath to hear. But the breeze was gaining strength, and the sound—if it had ever existed at all—was lost in its roar.”
She let a few seconds of silence fall there. Her eyes grew distant, her gaze wandered away from mine, restless, shifting to the attentive bird, to Derek, then finally resting on the dark that surrounded our little light. A chill walked with insect legs up and down my spine.
“It says something of the strangeness of the night,” Terri said, “that I could sleep at all, but I did. For a while.
“At three o’clock I awoke again. I checked my watch: the liquid crystal figures said 3:00 AM exactly. The wind had died, but there’d been rain, and water was still dripping from the trees onto leaves, onto my tent, splashing with a sharp, slapping sound—pock! The forest seemed to be moving around me.
“Inside my tent, the darkness was impenetrable. I lay still, eyes open on nothingness, waiting. There was no humming, no drumming—only the quiet drip-drip of stray raindrops falling on the tent. Yet I felt a presence all around me.” Her eyes closed, and she smiled, peaceful. “Its aura was cool,” she said, “like leaves under moonlight, humus on the forest floor, tumbling mountain streams. Vast, like the roots of volcanoes. And old—yet younger than the sea. It seemed to permeate the life forms of the forest: the plants, the birds, the snails, the insects and—me.”
Her eyes flew open. “Kyle, it was in me.
“Oh, my thoughts still moved in their own channels, but at the same time I could feel traces of the other. Something that breathed in diurnal rhythms, echoing the slow flux of energies in the day/night/day/night cycle. It wasn’t evil, no; but not beneficent either. Only existing. In me. I trembled when I realized that. I didn’t dare look to either side.”
She steepled her hands, pressed the tips of her fingers against her chin, eyes fixed on the table. “Yet even in that moment, I’m not sure I wanted it gone. Who?, I thought, and maybe I formed the question with my lips. What are you? And immediately the presence began to withdraw. It was a spirit, seeping out of my nose and mouth. I stopped breathing, hoping to catch it, but it slipped away. The wind rustled briefly, then silence.”
Derek let out a long breath. I swallowed. “Good story,” I said. And tried to laugh.
Terri looked up and caught me with her remarkable eyes. “But Kyle, it isn’t finished yet.”
“I wondered: what could it be?”
“The spirit of an old kahuna,” I suggested. “A Hawaiian priest.”
She shook her head. “No. I could tell it was not human, it was too strange, I could sense that much. And . . . it was a timeless thing as well. It couldn’t conceive of past and future as we do; for it, only the present was real. My questions had disturbed it you see, because to ask a question implies expectation and expectation demands a future.
“So dawn came—a bright morning—and I decided to stay, against all nocturnal intentions. Maybe I was enchanted even then, I don’t know . . . but I wasn’t afraid anymore. And there was work to do.
“In the preserve, even routine observations are fun. I watched a community of apapane—little red-feathered, black-winged birds—hunt nectar in the ohi`a trees. I saw an i`iwi and a crested honeycreeper. Then I sighted a pair of our o`o and followed them around, making notes and taking pictures; they seemed to have a nest somewhere nearby.
“But it wasn’t long before the birds finished their morning foraging, and fell silent. I turned to my transect lines after that, vegetational surveys that allow us to track changes in the preserve. As the morning passed, clouds built up over the slopes, and by noon the rain began. I kept on. It was past two o’ clock when I clambered across a shallow gully, water streaming in my eyes, and paused to rest.
“In the cloud-wrapped forest everything was grey except for the occasional blooms: red lehua or purple ohawai. It was a separate world—so isolated—an island of timeless past. I leaned against a fern-encrusted tree to catch my breath, listening to the stillness around me. I was the only animate creature anywhere to be seen. For a moment I felt as if I’d slipped in time and space to a jungle that had never known humankind. I felt small, like a nervous cricket crouching under a leaf, shivering in the rain.
“It was then that the sense of presence returned to me. It came slowly, so that I didn’t notice it until it had been with me for a time. Then a dark shadow flitted across the edge of my vision. I turned instantly—but all I saw were rain-wet leaves and moss-laden branches. Yet the awareness was there, as strong as last night, in me, in the forest, in every nearby living thing.
“Until then, I had almost convinced myself that the incidents of the night had been a dream. But I wasn’t sleeping now. ‘E kala mai,’ I said softly. ‘Go on, akua. Leave me alone. Please.’
“I didn’t run, though I wanted to. I kept to a walk, concentrating on building up false images in my mind: I wasn’t really alone and far from home; no, friends were waiting around the corner; food and warmth were only a few minutes away.
“In an hour I’d made it back to camp. I stripped off my wet gear and dove into the tent, burrowing into the sleeping bag and pulling it up over my head. By the time evening came around, I was almost calm again. But the presence hadn’t left me. It stayed with me, the whole time I was there.”
Terri sighed. “I got used to it, Kyle—that’s the scary part. I learned to live within it; I liked being part of it—for awhile. I stayed for days and while I was there, I suffered no human doubts, no human expectations. It was wonderful. Especially late at night, when I was only half-awake. Then it was like a drug haze, a tremendous sense of inevitability and changelessness. This akua, this forest spirit had learned during fifteen hundred years of Hawaiian occupation all about human needs. It knew mine perfectly.
“My food ran out eventually. Other than that, I’m not sure I would have left.”
Derek stirred. “I went back with her later,” he said. “And everything she says is true.”
“Except that the sense was weaker . . . in company. Synchronicity. It was harder to forget our human selves when we were both there to remind each other of what we were. It’s a true story, Kyle. Do you believe me?”
I blinked. Are you kidding, my dear? “No.”
“But it’s true.”
“Well. That’s good, I guess.”
She looked at Derek. I followed her gaze and saw him nod. “We wondered what it was,” she said. “And where it came from . . . because it hadn’t been there before. What had changed?, we asked ourselves. What? Except that life had been returned to the forest. Organisms once extinct were again part of the community. An ancient community: whole, balanced . . . functioning as a unit. Could this be the answer? Could the akua be a byproduct of a finely tuned ecosystem? Even as the mind is a byproduct of that organic system we call the brain?”
“You’ve had too much wine,” I said. “You always talk too much when you’ve had too much wine.”
“Kyle,” she chided. “Just think about it for a minute, please. What is an organism, except a collection of discrete cells existing together in a fixed yet flexible pattern that allows the free exchange of information? Substitute discrete organisms for cells, design a method of communication between the parts involving a high number of associational paths . . . why should a superorganism not exist?”
“By ‘communication’ you mean telepathy, psionics.”
A tiny smile flickered across her lips. She knew that subject was a sore point with me. “Telepathy might work—”
“Uh-uh.” I shook my head. “Never has; never will.”
“—until you consider that most of the organisms involved don’t possess enough neuronal matter to constitute a brain.”
Derek spoke up. “Of course we could postulate auras, intuition. Psychic phenomena that don’t require higher brain function. Some people will tell you that all life forms have a latent awareness of other life forms—an expanded Gaia hypothesis.”
“And the world is carried on the back of a turtle,” I snapped.
Terri laid a soothing hand on mine. “There are more mundane forms of communication that might work too,” she said. “The human mind may be nothing more than an intricate set of chemical reactions, yet apparently that’s enough to produce thought, civilization, K.B. station. Suppose in the eco-organism, pheromones serve as an analog of the mind’s chemical messengers. Communication by airborne scent would be slow compared to the electrical impulse generated in a nerve cell, but a pheromone has the advantage in range. Insects can detect certain substances over a distance of two kilometers.”
“Humans don’t possess the analytical chemistry equipment of insects.”
“So far as we know.”
“Neither do snails or o`o. Or trees.”
She laughed softly. “Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a lot we don’t know about communication—or about the brain; the mind. But maybe you’ll have a chance to find out.”
Inexplicably, I felt my chest go tight. “Me? What’s that supposed to mean?”
She held up her hand. “In a minute. First, there’s one more thing you should know.”
I waited, wary.
“We—Derek and I—believe that if it can, this akua will assimilate all life forms into itself, into a single superorganism—the forest. It must do this to survive. Alien forms like you and me can’t coexist with it for long because we disrupt the pattern in which it finds its existence. So it must guide us towards a state of compatibility.”
“But Terri, how?”
“Remember the drug haze, Kyle? The ability to induce an effect like that would be a wonderful adaptation for disarming a dangerous intruder. And don’t forget: human, o`o, or snail, we’re all Earth organisms. We share the same biochemical pathways. It’s not as if a new communications system would have to be devised every time a strange creature entered the woods.” She drew in a deep breath. “So. Either we change and are absorbed by the akua . . . or we die.”
“Or it dies,” Derek said. “More likely.”
Terri grunted an agreement. Apparently that was not the option she preferred.
“Be careful next time you’re in the preserve,” I suggested. I didn’t say it nicely.
“I will. And I want you to be careful on K.B. station.”
My eyebrows rose.
Derek said: “You know Mackenzie’s been collecting ecosystems for K.B.”
“Sure. That’s why the station exists.”
“She had a Costa Rican rainforest scheduled for the third deck of sector three, but that fell through. Wars, she said. Too many biologists killed trying to collect specimens. So she gave that deck to us.”
“To you? Mackenzie didn’t say anything to me—”
“You’ve been on the road for weeks; she couldn’t catch up with you to let you know.”
“A true story, Kyle,” Terri said . . . as if it cost her. “I wish it weren’t, but I had to tell you before you go. In the void . . . it’s always night, isn’t it?”
There aren’t many people in the huge vaults of K.B. station. From horizon to upcurving horizon, only jungle. It can make a man feel very small. On the third deck of sector three the Manawainui Experimental Forest is thriving; has been, for nearly five years. Soon, it’ll be time to introduce the birds—honeycreepers, parrotbills, and of course the o`o—and then the system will be complete.
Lately, I’ve started thinking about Terri again. I try to remember a time during our long childhood when she played a prank on me. I can’t. Terri never joked. I told her story to some friends on K.B. station. I make sure I’m never alone.
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