The Trellis

by Larry Niven & Brenda Cooper

Kyle refolded the napkins and pulled the tall water drop glasses back towards the plates. Lark wasn't due for two hours, and he'd changed the sign announcing her sixteenth birthday twice, switched placemats once, and dropped a knife on the floor. He paced.

Boot steps. Henry's signature slow shuffle identified him before he rounded the corner into the huge galley. The older man surveyed the perfect table, and his lips curled into a slow smile. “Quit worrying, Kyle,” he said. “She won't say so, but she'll be glad to see you.”

Kyle sighed. “I haven't been here much this year.” Henry watched over Lark when Kyle was visiting Charon. Too often.

Pluto was beautiful as it fell towards the windy dark of aphelion. Crystalline methane and nitrogen clouds sparkled as the light from the base hit them from below, illuminating a gauzy barrier between the frozen surface and the heavens. The clouds drifted across Charon's face. Charon never moved in the sky: directly overhead from where the trellis touched down, a brilliant white sphere where Earth's Moon would have been tiny and flat.

From Charon Kyle could see stars, “A handy thing,” he reminded Lark whenever he left, “for an astronomer.” On Pluto the refreezing atmosphere hid them. Lark fought him, wheedling and demanding, until he let her stay on Pluto after the changing skies made his work impossible here. The base personnel were her family, and Kyle didn't have the will to fight her. He told himself Little Siberia on Pluto was better for her than the larger and more frenetic Christy Base on Charon. He'd have to watch over Lark in Charon. Here, she was safe. It meant they were separated for months at a time.

Lark worked. Everyone over twelve in Little Siberia base worked.

Lark was sixteen. For years she had been obsessed with the genetically engineered creepers that rooted at Charon and carried water to Pluto's icy but almost waterless surface. It was a fitting job for a student. The creepers themselves had been shaped by a Christy Base school project in 2181, two years after settlement of the Pluto/Charon bases, while the twin planets were still falling toward the Sun and Pluto's atmosphere was rebuilding itself. Now, in 2240, a strange white forest spanned the 17,000 klicks between the two white planets. Named after the mythical river guarded by the boatman Charon, the forest Styx was a writhing mass of wide hollow limbs, translucent spiked leaves, and diaphanous flowers clinging to a Hoytether trellis that spanned the gap between the twin planets. Generations of genetic engineers, most of them students, had nurtured and changed the creepers, giving them a high metabolism that manufactured heat and food, turning them into conduits for food, water, and energy. Manipulating the creepers was rich entertainment for bright minds locked in a frozen system.

The creepers mystified Kyle.

Lark was there now, a hundred and sixty klicks above Pluto base, crawling down toward Little Siberia in her tiny exploration module. Henry monitored her progress, keeping her father's presence at Little Siberia a surprise.

Kyle looked over at Henry. “Did you hear from her? Is she on her way?”

Henry grinned, slow and lazy, not answering immediately. Kyle usually felt like water running downhill past molasses when he was around the older man. He made himself stand still and at least look patient. Finally Henry said, “She's on her way. Calm down.”

“I haven't seen her for three months. She listens to you. She might not even notice I'm here.”

“That's the way of all teens,” Henry said. “It's not about me.”

Kyle smiled tiredly. “I brought her a present.” He produced a box from the nearby table, opened it, and held up a yellow dress with orange and black ribbons lining the bodice and strung through the skirt. Little metal balls hung on the ends of the ribbons. “I got her some leggings, too, so it'll work in Pluto gravity.”

Henry shook his head. “Impractical.” He was still smiling. “You paid to freight that over, and you're going to freight it away as well? It must have cost a pretty penny.”

“Henry—sometimes you just gotta let go and do something stupid. Lark's birthday is today—not after we get to Jupiter. We're leaving in two months. Maybe. I'm competing for a grant to work at Jupiter next year. Lark will need something nice to wear at Jupiter Station. Besides, Chuska Smith makes these. Almost all of us parents with teens pitched in to help her pay the material freight last ship. The kids on Christy Base are excited about moving on.”

“Lark isn't.”

“I know.” Lark loved Pluto. “She'll understand when we get to Jupiter. I'm looking forward to showing her Cassini University.”

“You think about every place but here.”

“Yeah, well, this is the end, Henry. The end of the solar system, and they're not even planets. Dead end of an astronomy career, too. All the best scopes are on remotes now. There are jobs in Jupiter System, and I have to pay for Lark's schooling. So it's not like there's a choice. Have you decided where you're going yet?”

“They'll let an old codger stay until the last ship. Maybe I won't leave at all.”

“You could come with us. Surely they need general repair people at Jupiter Station. Pluto won't be safe in a few years.”

“Yeah, I know, maybe I'll be blown off by the cyclonic winds of a dying atmosphere.” It was a joke—Pluto's atmosphere was barely thicker than vacuum—but Henry's voice was flat and noncommittal, his eyes rolled up so the whites showed. “I'm seventy-three, you know. Maybe I'll hang around as far towards aphelion as I can, and send back data.”

“We've got automatic sensors for that. You have to think about what you're going to do.” Kyle folded the dress carefully, and set in the box. “Hey, Mars Adventurer is scheduled for...” he looked at his watch, “...now. Join me?”

“Nah. There's enough excitement in my life. Besides, don't you know those are staged? But you go ahead— keep your mind off waiting. She'll be down soon.” Henry shuffled off.

* * *
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