Native in Arbors

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Commander Nonia composed herself—sufficiently, she hoped, to conceal her profound irritation—and entered the ship’s arboretum. Febrile, hothouse air enveloped her. Already her skin itched. With an effort of will she resisted the urge to scratch.

The chamber, of course, should have been sterilised by now. If it wasn’t for Lubna Qassim’s insubordination the flora would be extending their roots into the fertile soil of Planar6. The rest of the crew had been de-arbored upon arrival, their biofilms stripped and spores reintegrated into the human shells that accompanied them on the centuries-long voyage from Earth. It was only Lubna, the one they had to cajole into her fungal form in the first place, who was holding out.

It was enough to make Nonia despair. She punched into the ship’s mesh and wondered what she could say to change Lubna’s mind. A dour and mildewy scent hung in the arboretum. The tree-like growths the crew had been parasitised onto wove and curled around the chamber, cobwebby vines hanging from their branches.

Nonia recalled the outward journey with a shudder. An endless, timeless drift through the void, intermittent thoughts had circled around her mind without once alighting on anything substantial. She became stupid; profoundly, perfectly insensate. An elegant solution to the conundrum of interstellar travel the fungal transformation process might be, but remaining in such a state was incomprehensible.

The mesh crackled. Half-words spilled from the sound-pad, ambling language chains flitting pointlessly from syllable to syllable. Nonia cleared her throat. The voice ceased in an instant. Since she could think of no way to truly express her feelings, she would open her mouth and see what spilled forth.

“Lubna,” she found herself saying, “what the hell do you think you’re playing at?”

It wasn’t great, but neither was the whole situation. Static hissed. A shadowy sibilation emanated from the pad, nebulous and hesitant.

~roots go deeper~

A grey mass undulated on the largest of the trees. Wrapped around the slim trunk, it looked like what it was—a mold deposit, a form chosen for reasons of immortality rather than elegance. Nonia laid her fingertips onto the warm, slimy expanse. A clotted gasp issued forth. She snatched her hand away before Lubna did something unwiser still.

“Deeper? Deeper where?” she said.

Lubna made a sound like snapping twigs and fell silent once more. Nonia bit her tongue to restrain from yelling. It would do no good anyway. But it was she who was ultimately responsible for the success of the mission. The crew were depending on her to establish the colony with a minimum of impediment. The trees had to acclimatise to their new environment. It was imperative they uproot them and build the beginnings of an agricultural base. Lubna’s symbiont, though, would perish without the rhizomatic sustenance of its companions.

And so would she. It wasn’t a decision Nonia could allow herself to make. Not yet.

A murmur rose, congealing into lingual form as subtly as a light breeze ruffles the hair. Nonia was missing Earth, and the mental comparison only made her feel worse.


Lubna’s voice died away. Nonia would oppose nonsense with reason, for all the good it might do. She said, “Don’t you want the colony to be a success? Why did you come all this way otherwise? If you’d just allow us to thread you back into your proper form—”


The word blasted forth violently enough to make Nonia jump. Lubna pulsed and whispered, her grey turning darker, almost black. Nonia couldn’t stand any more of it. It was as if Lubna were more fungus than human now. There was no choice. Either Lubna withered and died or they all did.

As she was turning to leave she paused. More fungus than human?

She reactivated the mesh. “Lubna?” The noise dwindled to a watchful hum. “Do you prefer to stay like this?”


“That’s. . . you? You’ve metamorphosed? But why?”


“Of the tree?” The organism’s limbs sagged, weak and spindly. “They wouldn’t hold your weight.”


“Lubna, please stop.” Again the cautious silence. “You mean something else?”

Guessing was becoming tiresome. If only she could pull Lubna out of her semi-trance and communicate like humans. But she didn’t want to risk a forced intervention. Not yet.

The mold began to change shape, gummy sacs opening out like flower stems. As sections of the mass pulled away from its arboreal host they took on a pallid yellow hue. Nonia knew that Lubna couldn’t survive in this state for long. This might be her best chance of reaching her.

~never wanted~

The voice sounded more like Lubna now, a wracked soreness audible in its tone.

“Never wanted what? To be human?”

~dust and roots. branches dig deep. the soil, the soil. . . ~

The hurt was raw, coarse. Nonia winced in sympathy.

~planet needs roots. only dust. help you, help you~

“It won’t help us if the gardens can’t grow.” The mold loosened, torn flaps hanging limp. “We’ll die, don’t you understand?”

~no time. keep me here. help you grow. help you survive~

“Here in the arboretum?” And then she understood. “Or move you to the surface, as you are? We’d have to adjust the system.”

But Lubna was right. There was no guarantee their gardens would survive. Most migrations fail. Thirst and starvation prevail without the wisdom for adaptation. Humanity transforming a new world to its own needs was the greatest challenge yet. Would it hurt to accept some help from a native?

She switched the mesh to dormancy. Lubna’s form imbedded itself back into its host tree, already darkening. Almost embarrassed to watch such an intimate coupling, Nonia retreated to the cooler climes of the ship’s interior. It would take some selling to the crew. But she was sure they would come round. What choice was there? It was adapt or die.

Rehearsing her explanation, she let her lungs fill with clean, dustless air, nerve-ends tingling with anticipation of her new life on Lubna’s world.

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Matt Thompson is an experimental musician and writer of strange fictions. His work has been published at Interzone, Asimov's, Nature Futures, Best of British SF anthology series and many more worthy venues. You can find him online at