Future Tense

“The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees”

Read a new short story by sci-fi author Cat Rambo.

A large tree growing on some sort of spaceship with smaller plants around it.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

“For someone like me,” Nefirah’s client said, “it’s not a question of whether or not I’ll be remembered. The question is precisely how.”

This high up above New York City, the roof penthouse of one of its tallest buildings, the view was a gray boil of smog, and sometimes the glint of windshields as pedal cabs moved through the streets. A few electric-powered vehicles here and there, like the chauffeured one that had brought Nefirah, but for the most part foot or pedal traffic.

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She’d had to get up early to take the car. Never a case of a client accommodating her schedule. Always the other way around.

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This one, K, had chosen an “outdoor” balcony for the audience. A smear of glass showed where the reality of air was walled off. The genetically modified houseplants showcased olive and purple blossoms, shaped like open-walled cages. Thumb-sized finches flitted among them, their colors matching the blossoms. Every once in a while, a lizard made of silver wire flickered across the tiles underfoot, cleaning up bird droppings or falling petals.

The only overt artifice was a subtle letter etched into the glass in one corner. When you were singular and rich enough to take a single symbol as your name, you didn’t need to wallow in it.

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But you wouldn’t want anyone to miss it, either.

“You will make me immortal,” the woman who was a single letter said to Nefirah. “I’ve read about your installations.”

“You understand that it’s not you in the installation,” Nefirah said wearily. She’d had this talk before. The I-word. Immortality. Impossible. “It’s a differentiable neural computer.”

K just shrugged. “I understand that. How could you …”

A look raking up and down Nefirah’s form, the sort of look she’d had before from clients used to being paid the most attention in the room, a sort of “how could I possibly be dependent on this person” expression that mingled irritation and contempt, as K continued, “… hope to put all of me in a container? I know it won’t be me. I’ll stay here on Earth.”

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Bitterness salted that statement. Neither of them said the truth: that K, unable to handle the rigors of space travel, would be one of the few super-wealthy left behind on the devastated Earth. Others had gone long ago to “living centers” on Mars or the moon. Rumors said Elon Musk’s most recent clone planned still to conquer Venus.

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The Earth had been used up. Its fruits and flowers taken. The rest crumpled and discarded by people like this.

Nefirah knew better than to say, “You can’t afford it,” the way she would have to most. Instead she asked, “What do you want me to put your mind in?”

“I want to be a tree,” K said. “The biggest tree outside this world.”

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A finch hopped onto her shoulder, pecking at the fabric as though she were a tree already. She brushed it away with an efficient gesture.

“Outside the world?” Nefirah said, and thought she knew what the woman would say next. But the words were not what she expected.

“I’ll fund the entire Love project if you do what I want.”

Generation ship Love was the largest, longest-running crowdfunding campaign of all time. Kicked off by an initial, rare cooperation between multiple countries, it had limped along for over four decades now. Its initial crew had aged out of eligibility, and others after them.

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Love had inspired three different reality shows; one ran for nearly a decade, doing its best to stir up drama while the people whose existences they were documenting tolerated them for the sake of the revenue they brought in. You could still buy plenty of merchandise; gear from the earliest, least successful show was the most collectible.

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Countless podcasts and blogs were devoted to analyzing the Love, decrying it, hinting that it was part of a vast conspiracy, outright stating that it was part of a vast conspiracy, shipping various personnel together in fanfic couplings, on and on.

So many documentaries, and one tell-all memoir, which was why no one spoke to her Aunt Samirah anymore and also why Samirah had retired to the most luxuriant of Mars’ living centers.

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A late-night talk show punchline: the project that kept going and going and going. The countries involved in its genesis had long ago given up, leaving the individuals involved in the project to keep it lurching forward. Still, it had come closer to success than any other generation ship project. And unlike any of the others, it still had hope.

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Nefirah knew the details of the ship’s journey toward completion intimately. How could she not? The project had eaten the lives of so many close to her.

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The countries had given up on the Love project within a decade, but it continued due to the six families who had taken to the Love with revolutionary zeal. They were why the idea had persisted so long, staggering from one iteration of its budget to another. Six families, though by now there were enough intermarryings that it seemed a single entity, a mass of Hernandezes, Ibrahims, Kims, Muhammeds, Parks, and Smiths that most of them just called the Family.

So many worked on the project, knowing they wouldn’t be on it. Some might have been hoping for a place, sure, who wouldn’t? But Family members committed themselves to the Love, regardless of where they fell on its potential roster. Nefirah’s grandmother had been part of the original group, and she’d borne six children, five of whom had followed in her footsteps, and brought others into the fold as well.

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But enrollment on the Love’s crew wasn’t a hereditary thing, just as it wasn’t for sale. Either would have been antithetical to its spirit. Instead, there were formulas and calculations. The denizens of the ship would be chosen for a variety of characteristics that they would pass onto their descendants. That would be incorporated in humanity to come.

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And here was K, with an arrogance that marked so many of Nefirah’s clients, proposing something just as antithetical, because it suited her. She would make it entirely her memorial, a ship dedicated to her and her wealth.

K would pay any price for that. But what would it cost Nefirah?

“She’ll fund it all,” said cousin Ali. “I’ve confirmed it.” He looked dazed, breathless.

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Since Nefirah had seen him last, he’d gotten a full-body mobile tattoo, writing flickering under the skin, spelling out Love in dozens of languages. A recent style in the family, another fundraising measure. Ali would be prepared to tell anyone who asked about the project, ready to sign them up for the notification list.

“She says you’ll be able to describe the modifications to the core gardens she wants.”

“A redwood,” she said. “Sequoia sempervirens.”

“What?”

“The innermost garden space. She wants a redwood tree in it. The tree will be so large that the space will need to be reconfigured to be built around the tree.”

Ali was quick to piece things together. “And that tree will hold one of your installation computers?”

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“It will be a computer,” she said. “I’m working with neural computers. Living ones.”

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“Why a redwood?”

Nefirah had asked that, too.

“They’re a very American tree,” K told her at their first meeting. “Larger than life.”

“Monumental.”

K continued as though Nefirah had not spoken. “They don’t exist anymore the way they used. A couple of small groves in biodomes, the one in Bezos-ball-land, the hollow earth project.”

A gesture out at the city. “My ancestors built this country, but the place they started was California. San Francisco. I hiked among redwoods as a child. Some of those trees were over 2,000 years old.”

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Nefirah had left it at that, but she wasn’t dumb. She knew what was going on. She told Ali, “It’s her way around the restrictions on naming things after people.”

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Restrictions that had been a deliberate choice by the original Love designers, even though it shot down a major chance at fundraising. Nothing exalting individuals, everything celebrating the communal, including the name Love, an emotion that only existed in the spaces between people.

Ali thought. Amor flickered on his cheekbone, then was replaced by kanji characters. She could tell he didn’t like the idea. But he was weighing it against the chance of the Love getting finished in their lifetime.

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She wanted him to say no. Instead he said, “I’ll check with the planners.”

When the word came back from the group that steered all design decisions, they had come to the choice that she knew they would. This wasn’t the smallest of compromises, but the gardens could be adapted.

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So much of the original plan had been adapted over the years as new technologies appeared and made some things obsolete, others smaller and more efficient, or precipitated new needs, changing specifications or models or even underlying tech.

At the project’s start, they hadn’t even known how they’d propel the ships! Plans for Bussard engines, for solar sails, and other, wilder possibilities before someone finally made Deuterium reaction drives practicable.

But someday it would simply change too far away from the original and everything would be lost. Love had to be implemented soon. Because the day was coming when the world would simply be too poor to keep the project going.

And that made it impossible to say no to K.

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When she turned 18, Nefirah had opted to become one of the family members who devoted themselves to study and aimed for a lucrative career to bring in money for the project.

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Upon graduation, she’d surveyed the possibilities. Someone joked that morticians always had money and she’d thought about her interests—architecture, computers, landscape design. Then that jumble coalesced in her mind into a single idea: memorials.

The Atelier was the first project she had created by herself. Bankrolled by a billionaire fashion designer who had taken a scattershot approach to immortality. Nefirah’s proposal had been one of several hundred.

Had the designer known that hers would be the one to launch the fad, that the wealthy would flock to the idea? Start a career that stretched 20 years now? She thought they might have, but when she asked, they said it had been the only one that appealed to them.

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Why? She wasn’t sure. She’d designed as she would have designed for herself, a cathedral carved into a hillside, and aeolian pipes in it and grown into the trees outside. She’d picked pines for that installation, since they grew quickly. Nowadays it was much easier to accelerate growth and she would have opted for something deciduous, so the songs would change over the seasons, affected by the amount of leaves.

It was the only installation among all the submissions that didn’t reference clothing. She’d tried to create the feeling that she’d thought underlay the design aesthetics underlying their clothing, rather than the garments themselves.

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She came to the designer’s site in simple black-printed clothing, the anonymity of mass culture, and didn’t go in through the special entrance, but rather the one that anyone could take.

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Every installation contained a version of the mind it had been patterned after. But it was, as she’d told K, not immortality. Dannefer v. Lucky the Lockman had established in 2033 that what the mem-tech created was a replica and not an actual person, no matter how many times they passed the Turing test.

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Tiny rooms offered private spaces where one could commune with that mind. Hers was barely big enough to hold her. She’d patterned the rooms after anchorite cells, bare stone and lines, so all you had to think about was the communion.

But she didn’t speak for most of the time she was there, simply sat on the stone floor, listening to the wind’s cadences and thinking about the design decisions she’d made.

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Not just this place, but how she’d structured her life. Her existence was a sculpture in time, dedicated to the Love. She didn’t need anything more than that, to know that she’d help the human race survive. That her Family’s dream would come true.

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When she finally stood, she said to the air, “Why did you want this memorial? You’d already affected history.”

“To remind them I was a person,” came the designer’s soft tones. No recognition tinged it. Another design decision. She’d kept herself out of the data. The slight friendship had been theirs. It didn’t belong to time.

What did belong to time? Could K claim it the way she proposed to? Or rather—Nefirah knew that she could. But should she?

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She returned to her lab and began creating proof of concept trees.

The advantage of wetware computers was their complexity; instead of the 0/1 gates that made up a binary computer, a cell could hold much more sophisticated data structures. A tree would work well. But she didn’t want the scale of space a redwood would take. She started with a simpler tree, the gingko.

That was something they had perfected in working on the generation ship, developing technology that was closer to living things than anything before. It made it able to self-heal, self-administer like a living creature.

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The ship would be one of the most amazing things ever created by humanity, and it was so close. They’d ridden the waves of public funding, of crowdfunds and grant-chasing, no matter how small.

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Now they had K. All that the Family wanted, in exchange for Nefirah’s work. She’d given so much of her life to the project and now here was the expected day, arriving when she’d learned to no longer expect it.

She printed out little blue pots, over-glazed with circuitry, for them, set them in the growth inducers, watched them sprout over the coming days. The tiny gingkoes were charming with their delicate, fan-shaped leaves. When the first was ready, she showed it to another cousin, Sammi.

“How does it work?” Sammi said dubiously.

“Here, give me your arm,” she said, and tapped at the panel set in Sammi’s forearm, then passed it back so Sammi could tap in the access code to authorize the app she’d just installed.

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They waited for it to install.

“Where are you on the List?” her cousin asked, not meeting her eyes. That signaled some change in Sammi’s own status, probably upward.

“Still below the line,” she said. Still not close enough to the top of the list to make it aboard.

“Not by far, though?” Sammi said.

She shook her head and shrugged all at once. You could do that, could pretend that you hadn’t tracked this figure as obsessively as everyone else close to the line. The line fluctuated, that was one of the things about it. “Rumor says they’re going to do a refactoring, major criteria changes, in a few months.”

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No one could predict how the line would shift, let alone the ordering, in a major refactoring.

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“This could make you a Contributor.”

“That’s someone who makes a major change or addition,” she protested. “Not about fundraising.”

“Not just because you secured the funding,” her cousin said. At her blank look, she scoffed and pointed at the trees. “They’ll add more organic life to the project. Did you really not think how major this was?”

“I was always part of the garden group,” she said.

“Implementing your trees will be a group effort,” Sammi said. “But you came up with all of this on your own.”

Sammi’s arm dinged to indicate the app was ready, and she held it back out to Nefirah. She opened the app and clicked through the +organism screen, adding new options.

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“Hello,” she said to it.

“Hello, ma’am!” it piped cheerfully.

“That’s the Sporty default, isn’t it?” Sammi said.

“Yup, same one that drives a lot of today’s toys,” she said. “I needed a personality to put into it, and that one’s public domain.”

“Because you’re advertising the company every time you use it,” said with folded arms. Most of her family had strong opinions on advertising and ethics, not a trait that had helped them advance the ship’s progress, but understandable.

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“It’ll get rewritten before anyone else accesses it,” she said. “That’s one of the differences between the end result and these.”

“How so?”

“They learn from everyone around them and add it to the mix. And personalities get created, amalgamations of those among them, storing strands of memory.”

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“Is that how the redwood will function?”

“No. That’s not at all what K wants. She wants herself undiluted.”

Sammi shook her head, expression incredulous. “You’d think …” she started, poised to reignite a thousand Family discussions about the fate of humanity, of the necessity of setting aside individual ambition and petty pride for the common good, but Nefirah cut her off.

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“She’s the customer,” she said. “If she’s paying the tab, she gets to decide what’s on it.”

She did want to exercise due diligence. Wanted to make sure K understood the tab.

“Redwoods are often found growing in circles,” she said on the call she’d insisted on, despite K’s irritation at being interrupted from other, unknown business. “Do you know why?”

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“The circle is a natural shape,” K. said.

“It is because the young trees encircle the parent one when it dies. That lets them grow together, intertwine their roots. Feed each other. A grove is its own entity.”

“And?” An angry ax blade of a word.

“And beyond that, every tree holds literally hundreds of varieties of plants and animals. Some of the insects and reptiles live out their entire lives in the circumference of the tree. Did you know there’s different groups of fungi that grow on them? Some at the top, others on the trunk or among the roots. Every tree is an ecosystem.”

“Like the ship will be,” K said.

“You did pick well. Redwoods are good at converting carbon and being part of the water cycle. An addition that contributes a good deal.”

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K saw no reason to reply. Silence hung in the air like an expensive tapestry, muffling and ostentatious. No street sound up here at all.

Nefirah looked at the little birds hopping on the balcony. “They don’t care that it’s dark?”

“I had them changed,” K said. “I don’t like them singing too early in the morning. They might wake me up.”

What would it be like, to order changes to one’s world so easily, so pettily? Uncaring of what it affected. This was what had brought the world to the brink. And now K demanded a memorial to those thoughts.

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K leaned forward to change the subject, not bothering to afford Nefirah the courtesy of a segue. “You’ve been visiting other installations. The very first one you ever did. And then you went to the Tower last week.”

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Nefirah tensed, not sure what to make of the other’s tone. The thought that K had been monitoring her that closely chilled her. “I did.”

“Why? You didn’t build it.”

Why? Nefirah tried to assemble words in her head.

The flavor of the Tower installation was regret and anger and a certain gleam of pride that it hadn’t, in the end, been her project.

If she’d submitted a proposal, it would have won. Maybe it was arrogance on her part, but she didn’t think so. It was the certainty that came from being not just good, but great. And nothing she’d learned in the years intervening between that moment and this one made her any less certain. She would have won.

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But she’d chosen not to celebrate the man, even though the sum his supporters had raised was truly staggering. A budget beyond comprehension, all to celebrate one petulant and self-satisfied man’s mystique. She couldn’t have done it.

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K didn’t let her begin to say any of this. She said, “Perhaps it was because you are having a fit of the same noble emotions that made you turn it down.”

Her voice was cold and smooth and dangerous. Her face was expressionless.

“No …” Nefirah said, not sure whether it was actually true.

A sweep of a hand cut her off again. “I don’t care what it is. But if you are thinking of declining the project, be aware that if you do, I will not just cut off funding. I will destroy you.”

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Nefirah blinked. “What?” she said. Incredulously.

“Think about the amount of money I have to devote to that task,” K said. “And think about the fact that I am spending it now on my heart’s desire. Don’t make me redefine that desire.”

Her voice held no compromise.

Fear grabbed at Nefirah’s bones, but she kept herself still. It wasn’t herself that Nefirah feared for. K could enable the Love to sail. And the other side of that coin was that she could keep it from ever doing so, no matter how successful fundraising efforts were.

At the same time, what K wanted was antithetical to the Love’s very nature.

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She chose her phrasing with care.

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“Your imprint will be aboard the ship, in the tree,” she said. “My word.”

“Your Family’s word,” K demanded.

“They’re the same,” Nefirah said, but repeated the words as K wished. “My Family’s word.”

The Love was being built in the shadow of the moon, out in space, the only place large enough to accommodate the enormous structure. For rotational spin at 2 RPMs to provide the gravity they would need over the centuries, it had to be massive. It would house 5,375 souls, a number that originally had been 2,000 and since had been adjusted, usually up though not always. The List was determined by this number, and so changes to it had far-reaching implications.

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How many shuttle journeys had Nefirah made out here to the build site? She wasn’t certain, even when she counted back. She hadn’t been allowed to come until the age of independence, but she had done it to celebrate that birthday, booking the three-day trip in advance with a bunch of her cousins, all of them going out to put in six months’ time on building the ship, as their parents had before them. It was part of being a Family member.

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Now she was doing it again, this time as a Contributor, with 500 of the tiny blue pots of gingkoes. She’d had to beg her fellows for the luggage space, had to insist they were needed, that they would give her valuable data.

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She gave most of the pots away over the next few months on the Love, while spending much of her time measuring and directing setup of the tanks in which the redwood would have its genesis. By the day she was done, everyone on board had one, and treated them like pets, talking to them, confiding in them.

More were developing on Earth, where her assistants were still producing them and handing them out to family members, friends, anyone who wanted someone to talk to. Many of those trees would remain on Earth, but others would come out here, taking more of that information with them.

The engineers in charge of the ship’s “lungs” had been wary of the idea at first, but after working with the little trees, many had become fans of the creatures, willing to tweak equations to incorporate their continued existence and growth.

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“What about the redwood?” a venting system engineer asked her at her farewell party. Everyone knew her mission. Everyone knew what K’s funding meant, and that Nefirah had secured it. But they didn’t understand how what K wanted would change the ship. Make it not just a memorial to a person, but to the idea that a person should be remembered that way.

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“I’ve worked up a series of plans,” she said offhandedly. “One for the most successful, ranging down to the least. It’ll be determined by what’s possible at launch.”

“Within the year,” he said, eyes shining. She felt a lump in her own throat. Within the year.

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The chauffeured car was waiting at the deportation station, sweeping her up to report to K first, before sleep or food or thought. She had one gingko tree left, but when she offered it, K’s expression was pure contempt.

“That’s merely a proof-of-concept experiment,” she said. “I want reassurance that you can create the actual piece itself. Is it possible?”

Nefirah didn’t know whether she was honestly dithering or using the chance to torture the other woman a little. Either way, K seemed unphased.

“I thought you might like to see how the gingko works,” she said.

“You said these aren’t the same when we were talking last night.” K’s call had been unexpected and demanding, quizzing Nefirah over multiple details despite the lateness of the hour, as well as her presence at the launch party K had planned.

“No, they’re not,” Nefirah said proudly. “They’re better. They take memes from everyone they come in contact with, even pass some of that back and forth between each other, like a network. They become new things, amalgams.”

The contempt was outright sneer now. “Corrupted data. And not what I asked for.”

“I can do what you asked,” Nefirah said. “Put your facsimile in the single tree. But I’m offering you a chance to become part of something bigger instead. An ecosystem rather than a single tree. Remember how important an ecosystem is to a tree.”

Giving K a chance to be a true part of the Love. A chance Nefirah hoped she’d take. The consequences … her mind skittered through possibilities.

“Bigger,” K breathed out, as though the word were unfamiliar. Incomprehensible. “A tiny part of a tinier tree. No, unless it is the redwood, I rescind my offer.” Unspoken was the threat that lurked to be enacted afterward.

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“No, I’ll do it,” Nefirah said. She felt dull and beaten, sagging with gravity’s renewal. All she wanted was to go home and lie down.

K studied her. “You’ve performed very well, all in all,” she said. “We’ll have to think about a suitable next project.”

“I need to focus on this until the launch,” Nefirah said, confused.

K said, “I like your work. You’ll stay and do more for me.”

Nefirah stared. Give up the dream, now that she was finally one of those who would make the journey? Emotion dizzied her, fear and rage mingled. “You can’t …”

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“I can. It’s a small condition to add,” K said, smiling. “At least, I think your Family will find it small.”

Into Nefirah’s silence, she added, “You are dismissed now.”

K was kind on the day of the launch. She didn’t force Nefirah to watch with her for very long. Long enough to see the footage of the great ship moving, snail slow at first, and then gathering speed as the engines blazed.

There were plenty of people at the launch party. Nefirah stayed on the edges, watching the ebb and swirl around K.

When she was ready, she wandered out onto the balcony. The finches still hopped from blossom cage to blossom cage. A silver lizard flickered and was gone.

Nefirah looked out at the dying world. She was in a bubble for now, K’s bubble, but sooner or later it would pop.

But now the Love sailed out between the stars. And it held hundreds of the tiny green ginkgoes, and each of those held so many people, including herself. Held them in a way that was not static, but changing, the way humanity changed, bit by bit over time.

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And the redwood, there in the center of the ship, would also change. Lacking the ecosystem necessary to sustain it, lacking the interactions, the myriad of insects and fungi and other organisms that would keep it alive, it would die within the next few years and begin to decay. Her plans would tell the technicians on board how to seed the dead wood with bacteria and fungi, let it break down, let it nourish other plants, other lives.

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Reports from the ship would eventually tell K what she had done. But she could not claim Nefirah had cheated her. The redwood held an imprint of her, in the central garden. Even there one would find a few pots of gingkoes, nestled among its roots.

K would persist, but not in the redwood. Rather in the gingkoes, where she would be, as she’d called it, corrupted. Mixed in to the rest and diluted. But creating something new in the process.

Nefirah smiled, and stepped off the balcony, and flew into the stars.

Read a response essay by Tamara Kneese, an expert on the digital afterlife.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt
Good Job, Robin,” by JoeAnn Hart
Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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