In time, the third summer at our new home became known as the summer. The settlement had unexpected visitors then, and when they first appeared we had no idea of what they were going to do. For that matter, we never dreamed of what they were capable of becoming. And they were everywhere.
Everyone was looking forward to our third year here as a time of relative ease and rest. In just over two hectic years we planted the farms, built houses and a small village, and salvaged what we could from the transport ship. One night early in the third spring, all the families gathered to watch the decrepit Eden fall from her orbit like a shooting star. It was a happy sight, actually: for ninety-seven generations theEden had carried our civilization across the galaxy in search of a habitable planet, and although she was our home and our heritage, we were as weary of her as she was of us (her damaged life support and eco-regeneration systems were very nearly tapped out and beyond further repair, essentially coughing and wheezing up to the end.) Yes, we were stranded on this planet, but we were very probably stranded in the nick of time. So the death of Eden marked the beginning of a new life for us and our children, a life without steel decks and processed air, a life with distant horizons and sunshine on our faces. The ship was gone, our basic survival was firmly established, and it was time to enjoy our lives.
Far to the west of the settlement there’s the snow-capped, purplish Skyrakers Mountain Range with foothills that like hurricane swells in an ocean of stone; above us there’s a huge sky that comes all the way down to the horizon of the Great Lake to our east; and in between, all the way to the north and south for days and weeks, there’s land lush and green, land growing fragrant meadows and open forests, land that gently rolls up and down like the rise and fall of sighs on a sleeping giant’s chest. Even if we had not come from living in outer space, it was easy to love our new home.
Of course our scout teams had investigated the planet, but they weren’t expected to be able to discover everything. No analysis prepared us for our third summer.
Summer began just like it had the two previous years: with the emergence of the grass bubbles. They begin life as very small slug-like creatures that crawl up from tiny holes in the ground, but once in the grasses and sunlight they soon metamorphose. They inflate themselves into small translucent spheres, and beneath them they trail a half-dozen wispy, ghost-hair streamers. They float up through the grasses, and like soap bubbles they refract the wavelengths of light. They appear only early in the season, and the hungry black birds with the long, yellow split-tails swoop them up immediately. Their appearance this year was no surprise; what no one expected was their number.
In every ecosystem there are creatures with unusual cycles of population, patterns that have no apparent explanation. The Eden’s biology library referenced several examples of these, the most documented being the cicada, a large, rasping insect that was always present but flourished only every seventeen years. An unusual cycle like this was our explanation of the hordes of little bubble bugs that appeared the third summer.
An insignificant few thousand grass bubbles rose from the tilled farms, but the bulk of them came from the undisturbed land to the west. They came to our farms borne on the afternoon breezes. They were harmless but annoying; they left a film on your skin after they blew against you, and the ones that expired or were not completely eaten by the birds were slippery underfoot. We were worried that they would somehow affect our crops, but the children loved them – all they saw were millions of rainbowed bubbles rising from the ground and filling the sky.
Probably because of the extraordinary food supply there was a much larger than usual population of birds, but still, the birds just could not eat all of the bubble bugs. Those that escaped the hungry beaks continued to grow, and when they were about the size of a man’s fist their trailing tentacles were strong enough to wrap around a stem of grass and anchor them against the winds. The birds would still attack them, but one bubble bug would now preoccupy a small number of birds, and this enabled the surviving bubbles to grow even larger.
Only three weeks after they appeared, many had grown to the size of a man’s head. By then they had developed into more than just a bubble with prehensile tentacles. Although they still looked like a hollow glob of clear jelly, they did develop some kind of muscular ability in their spherical bodies. They grew an internal skin, a bubble inside a bubble. The shell was filled with organic gasses heated by the sun, and the internal bubble was filled with air and used for both buoyancy control and propulsion: they inflated and deflated it like a balloon. Contractions would ripple in concentric rings from top to bottom or vice versa, visible but very faint, like the shadow of passing cloud on a hazy day. Air was pulled inside slowly and forced out quickly to propel them in the opposite direction. The bubbles would usually move very slowly, almost lethargically, but they were observed to suddenly spurt a few meters to avoid the dive of a split-tail (we don’t know how they sensed the bird’s approach.) They didn’t always escape, but they were now able to try.
At night, like the split-tails the grass bubbles would become inactive, anchoring themselves to the grass as the hot air and natural gases inside them would cool with the evening temperature. Because they were heavier at night they were not nearly as mobile, but if unanchored, breezes would blow them out onto the lake. Their tentacles, about three-quarters as long as the balloons were high, held them stationary above the ground, but since we humans are gravity-bound creatures, we were inclined to think that the tentacles like spindly supports, not tethers.
Before we would put the kids to bed, Jenny and I would sit with them on the porch steps. Suzanne, Paul, and Joe would be in their pajamas, between our knees and in our laps, and together we would watch the bubbles settle in for the night. Attracted to porch and house lights, the bubbles would flock to our backyard and our neighbors’. We would sit quietly, and they would hover their way in to the yard, silently puffing until they found a suitable anchor in the grass. Five year-old Suzanne would whisper encouragements to them, pretending to distinguish between them and calling them by name. Jenny and I were very glad of the bubbles: we’ve never found a better way to hypnotize our children to sleep.
Their rate of body growth slowed, but only for a week. We presumed that before they could get any bigger they had to develop their tentacles, because during this week these doubled in length and thickness. Also, each tentacle grew soft hair, like peach fuzz.
At the end of this stage, the bubbles sprouted a second growth of tentacles, fifty to two hundred and fifty per bubble. The original group of a half-dozen tentacles was used for tethering, but the new tentacles only dangled and swayed in wafts of summer air. They were of varying lengths, but only a few were as long as the original tethers. Their function was to generate small pulses and sparkles of light to attract night insects. Now they could vacuum food directly inside them, day and night, constantly. The pulses of gold light, when seen by the thousands, were pretty, but having the silver sparkles blanketing our backyard on a clear night was to be able to walk and to kiss both below and above twinkling stars.
Our bubble bugs had become too big, too mysterious, and too beautiful to be called bugs any longer. No one on the planet had officially named them yet, so we followed the lead of our biologist and began calling them air nettles.
The big black-and-yellow split-tails were still attacking the nettles, but now one bird alone could only bite and leave a quickly healed scar; it took a squad of birds to puncture and completely kill a nettle. Nobody liked to see the birds gang up on a nettle, but in our neighborhood it was our daughter Suzanne who was the first to refuse to watch it.
We were sitting on the porch after dinner, watching the sunset and the nettles bed down, when a nettle was attacked just a few meters from us. When the first bird swooped down and slashed the nettle, Suzanne screamed and then buried her face against my chest to cry. More birds came at the call of the first attack, and when Suzanne heard the beat of many wings she bolted out of my arms and into the yard. She was rescuing the nettle, and followed to rescue her. Jenny and the boys were immediately with us to help swat, punch, and shoo away a swarm of split-tails.
The five of us got a few cuts and scrapes from the flurry of beaks and sharp bird claws, but the nettle had by far received the worst of it. Suzanne was still young enough to believe that her father could fix anything, so when she looked at the nettle collapsed on the ground and then at me, she wiping tears from her big round eyes with her tiny little hands, nothing had to be said.
The problem was this: cow could a man fix a living jelly bag of gas? I tried to stitch up the slashes, but Jenny was much more successful by using adhesive tape. The nettle did not die, but it was only barely alive. We kept it in the barn for a few days and lured insects in for it to eat, safe from the birds until it hopefully regained its strength.
Because we didn’t want Suzanne to develop an attachment to a ding pet, Jenny and I hoped that it would either recover quickly or die soon. I thought of taping a healthy nettle and switching them while Suzanne slept, but she was constantly looking through the damned thing to report on the healing process. When we realized that it was recovering its health, we suspected that it was just the beginning and that Suzanne would develop a strong affection for this strange creature she had saved. What we didn’t expect was the affection the nettle developed for Suzanne.
It followed her – or at least it attempted to follow her – around the barn, behind her, beside her, above her her, but always with her. Suzanne and Nancy the Nettle became inseparable. It became quite common to look at my five year old daughter and listen to her calmly talk as this strange creature floated above her, slowly caressing her hair with its fuzzy tentacles.
All of the nettles were soon out of danger from the birds. When they had grown to a meter across, their skin grew not rough but tough, and although it was still translucent and shiny it was (thankfully) no longer wet and slippery. The birds would still attack, but they would no longer take a bite and fly away: their sharp beaks could still puncture nettle skin, but they could not tear it. In essence then, a stationary nettle would use its skin to catch a swooping bird by its beak and break its neck. The birds quit attacking the nettles.
Nancy was too large to follow Suzanne into the house, but just like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere Suzanne went, Nancy was sure to go. At night she waited outside the door, and in the morning she would be there, floating on the porch, one of her tentacles on the latch, holding the screen door open. Suzanne and Nancy had their photos taken by village weekly publication.
By mid-summer our farms were covered with nettles, but we were glad of it. Yes, they did damage some of crops when they anchored themselves at night, but as a natural pest control they were phenomenal. Virtually unhindered by insects, we were looking at a bumper crop. The Eden was gone, and we were going to survive quite comfortably. We felt just a bit complacent about the air nettles and the coming winter.
The nettles had grown quite large, two to three meters across and with tentacles one and half times al long, when they began to use two shapes. When they were mobile the would be the usual contracting and expanding spherical bubble, but when they were resting during the day and while they were tethered at night they flattened themselves, shaping their balloons like the cap of a toadstool. When they were in this form their internal systems took on color, traces of pinks, purples, and blues in vague shapes and thin lines. Far from being ugly or scary, many nettle photographs were hung in homes all over the village. All of our fields and the air above them were was full of painted parachutes in soft focus.
What the purpose of the new form was we didn’t know. Obviously the nettles were maturing, but no one felt them to be a danger. So far no one had ever witnessed or seen any evidence of a nettle harming anything larger than an insect, and when one was in your way you just ushered it aside. Hell, old man Lustine was easily convincing them to carry one end of his paint ladder, and all of the kids were using them like giant yard pillows. And I must confess, out in the fields I’ve napped on them a couple of times.
It was a surprise when they left us. In the middle of a particularly hot morning we noticed that they were floating higher than ever before, a hundred meters in the air, all together, jetting air not in unison but in rhythm. The whole sky was nothing but three-meter bubbles pulsating in a random pattern, like the visual equivalent of a soft rain’s music. The late starters were rising alone and in small clusters, and when the majority of them were high in the air, the entire sky began to move east, out over the Great Lake.
For the first time we realized just how many nettles had survived the birds. They were living not just on and near our homesteads but on all the land all the way to the stone foothills of the Skyrakers Mountains. From what we could tell, a cloud of nettles covered the plains and the forest far to the north and the south, maybe seventy-five percent of the continent.
Nancy the Nettle went with them, too, and Jenny took Suzanne down to the lakeshore to wave goodbye. The rest of the village was there, too. All work stopped, and the beach was lined with families lying on blankets as they watched the nettles fly overhead. Near nightfall people began to barbecue, wine was poured, and blankets were moved closer together. We did not know if we would ever again see the nettles in our lifetime. The entire settlement stayed up all through the night, looking at the moon and stars through the nettles as across the sky they glowed gold and sparkled silver.
Three days later the first nettle washed up on the shore. Mr. Kimble dissected it and preserved some tissue, but the rest of us avoided it. In the next few days several more appeared, all of which were promptly buried. People decided not to take evening walks on the beach, and Jenny made up reasons to forbid Suzanne to leave the yard.
The nettles were not forgotten, but as the days passed they were no longer in the foreground of our thoughts. On the tenth day of their absence I was reminded of them at dawn as I left the house to begin my work. I opened the back door, but I did not have to push open the screen: Nancy was holding it open!
I didn’t see her at first because she was not on the porch; she was floating above it, anchored to the porch roof post but reaching underneath to hold open the door. I followed her tentacle to the porch steps, took one look at her, and ran back into the house.
I scared Jenny as I ran past her and up the stairs, and I woke up Suzanne as I carried her from her bedroom. I yelled at the boys to wake up, and as they sleepily followed, the five of us went outside.
Suzanne’s big eyes exploded. In just ten days Nancy had grown to the size of a small house! A tentacle reached for Suzanne, wrapping its fuzzy, tender tip around her shoulders and incidentally brushing hair away from her eyes.
Hundreds of meters in the air more house-sized nettles were working their way back from the lake, but these were the stragglers. During the night the nettles had come home. They had left us only to visit some place beyond the lake, and those that had earlier washed up on the shore must have been too weak or ill to make the journey.
Those that survived the journey had not only grew larger, they had also learned a new trick. Somewhere out on the lake or maybe in a marsh on the other side they picked up some kind of phosphor because their insect-luring tentacles would now glow green or orange if disturbed. Much more powerfully mobile, the nettles no longer needed to anchor themselves at night; some dangled their tentacles onto the fields and some floated high in the sky, pulsing gently, and in the darkness their own slow breath showed itself by the tell-tale green and orange phosphorescence below them.
The kids stayed up late every night, running through the tentacles and chasing each other down paths of green or orange light. They played with the pulses of gold and sparkles of silver, making up countless silly games the way we adults once did not all that long ago.
After we put the kids to bed – and by put I mean dragged – Jenny and I would crawl out the window and onto the roof. We would lie on top of our house and literally watch night breezes pour across the fields and splash through the bioluminescent sky. The nettles were stronger than ever before, so the sparkles were much brighter now, appearing like small camera strobes randomly suspended from millions of strings hung in the sky. We were covered and surrounded by silent fireworks all night, every night. Jenny and had loved each other for many years in our little iron compartment on the Eden, but never before did we share kisses like we did during those nights on the roof.
The nettles continued to grow. Whether or not the insect supply was decreasing or the demand was increasing we could not tell, but it was soon apparent that there was not enough food for the vast number of huge air nettles. There was not any noticeable direct competition between them, but some nettles were more successful than others. The hungry would become weak and eventually drape themselves over the land, immediately becoming a mecca for hungry insects. Other nettles would hover nearby to harvest the feeding bugs, and in this way the weak were strengthening the survivors. Balloon canopies were now averaging fifty meters across.
Their tentacles were not seventy to ninety meters long, thick as a tree trunk at the top but still just a fuzzy baby-finger at the bottom. As the nettles would drift across the sky, sometimes their tentacles would be dragged along the ground, but they gingerly felt their way across every thing they touched, never knocking over so much as a flower vase or a glass of iced water. Their brushing against our bodies was given the same concern as our being touched by a dry summer breeze.
In the evenings teenagers would go to a nettle in a field, pick up the end of a tether tentacle as if were a leash, and with the huge nettle in tow overhead they would walk (slowly) to the lake. They would position the nettle beyond the end of the dock, and using the tentacle like a rope hanging from a tall tree they would swing out over the water. Not only did the nettles not mind this, but after the first few swings they would reach a tentacle back to the dock and offer it to the next swimmer. If he swung from the dock’s highest piling, a seventy-meter tentacle would carry a swimmer maybe fifty meters away from shore. Riders would swing straight through the lower part of the loose mop of tentacles used for luring insects with gold pulses and bright star sparkles, and their passage would disturb the orange or green phosphorescence. So, from the dock, the riders would seem to disappear into a blur of softly colored lights. No sound but the whoosh of wind in his ears, a mostly naked body essentially flying through a peach-fuzz forest of throbbing light – what a ride! (No, teenagers weren’t the only ones to try this!)
Summer was more than half over before the nettles left us again. Like the first time, with the heat of the morning sun together they rose to form a cloud that covered the entire sky. Like before they went out over the lake, and like before we lay on the beach and watched them fly overhead. Like before we waved goodbye to Nancy, but this time we expected to see her again: we suspected that the nettles would be back at least once more before autumn turned into winter.
While the nettles were away we brought in the season’s first harvest. We processed and stored it for the winter, and then we rested. It was between harvests, it was late summer, and so it was time for picnics with the kids, afternoon naps, and slow walks in the night air. And it was time for spitting watermelon seeds in sticky battle with my giggling boys, swimming way out into the lake with Jenny, and rocking Suzanne to sleep on the porch swing. Our world was ripe.
Our engineers and mechanics were working steadily on a long-range airplane to follow the nettles for observation, but it wasn’t completed in time. The nights became cooler and smelled faintly of autumn, and when that huge breath of warm air called false summer came down from the northern latitudes, it was time for the nettles to return to us. In the six week absence many must have died if only to make room in the sky for mature nettles. They were massive. In toadstool shape the smallest were a hundred meters across, and most were twice that, and a few were two hundred fifty meters wide. The tethers were still proportioned an average of one and half times as long as the canopy was wide, so to accommodate their tentacle the nettles now inhabited a much higher plane in the sky. No; they werethe sky.
Nancy was one hundred seventy five meters wide and her tethers no longer wrapped around the back porch roof post; they wrapped around the entire house. Still, though, the fuzzy little tip of one tether would hold open the screen door. I was afraid that a gust of wind cause her to inadvertently rip our home from its foundation and carry it p high into the sky with our children tumbling out the doors and windows, so I, as did the neighbors, suggested that we all camp out in the backyard “to enjoy the air nettles.”
They now spent very little time in their bubble form, preferring to spread almost flat in their toadstool shape. They moved very little, sunning themselves in the sky the way sleepy lizards sun themselves on rocks. They had returned from the lake with more color, and it brightened with every day. Swashes of bright pinks and oranges behind sketchy lines of blues and purples in the patterns of bare trees: they were like a winter sunrise that covered the entire sky and lasted all day long.
They were not feeding, but we didn’t think it was because the insect population had tapered off with the end of summer. They had returned from the lake with less tentacles, and many of their remaining tentacles were dry and brittle. As the nettles sunned themselves over our fields, discarded tentacles would drop to the ground and on impact disintegrate into many small pieces and plumes of dust. We presumed that they were approaching the final stage of their life.
No longer wanting or needing to attract insect food, at night they no longer pulsed orbs of gold or strobes of silver. And the phosphorescence was gone. But they still put on a show. In the early evening they were inactive, but after midnight each nettle would generate an umbrella network of thin, sharp, jagged lines of blue and purple light, and it came not from somewhere in their tentacles but from the “bare trees” inside their canopies. It would flicker and then flash, the light fading into the pinks and oranges of the nettle canopy exactly the way electric lightening flashes and then fades into blue-gray thunderclouds. Like shooting stars, the flashes were over almost before you could point to them.
Everyone slept in backyards or on rooftops. Every night Jenny would pull back her hair into a pony tail and rest her head on the crook of my shoulder, and when we would wake up in the middle of the night, we would lie there together and whisper to each other under an electric sky. Nights like those, life was a wonderland.
Early autumn’s first cold nights accelerated the changes in the nettles. They each kept two of their tethering tentacles, but all the rest dried up and were discarded. Their undersides were now completely exposed, and with binoculars we could see that the bottom surfaces were folding into many thin ridges that emanated from the center like spokes from the hub of a wheel. We watched and waited.
Just before we were to begin the fall harvest, the nettles left us again. We expected them to leave in the morning sun the way they had before, but this time they started late in the afternoon. And they didn’t go out over the lake: they went westward, into the sunset and toward the Skyrakers Mountain Range.
That evening the entire village walked to the end of the road to watch the nettles pass overhead for what very well might have been, as far as we knew then, the last time in our lives. We roasted a pig, we danced in the grass, the kids built fires in the cool autumn night, and the adults got drunk.
The next day the slow end of the nettle cloud was still visible with the help of low-level optics. The low altitude, long distance airplane had been wrecked during testing, so Mr. Kimble took a rover and all the video equipment he could get his hands on and headed west, and he had no shortage of volunteer assistants.
We were busy with the autumn harvest, but we were all constantly glancing westward in hopes of one last glimpse of the nettles. Nights were spent not sleeping but sitting on the peaks of roofs with family and friends. Although we saw only darkness, we persisted in staring through binoculars and telescopes. All our lives we had known only the inside of a spaceship; it would have been unthinkable and unbearable to waste one bit of the nettle phenomena.
By the sixth night after they had left us, the mountains were reflecting the nettles’ blue-purple lightening. They were not flashing constantly; roughly every fifteen minutes one would flash, and then those around it would follow, and like a ripple across a pond the light would spread in a circle through the nettle cloud near the mountains. Sometimes it would start in the center, sometimes near an edge, and sometimes in several places at once. It would peter out less than half the way across the tremendous cloud of nettles, or it would echo back and forth, up and down the entire mountain range. Obviously this was some kind of communication between the nettles.
On their seventh night in the mountains the nettles’ ripples had strengthened into waves. They rested more between each flash, but each flash was increasingly brighter and longer. We were over three thousand clicks away, but when the nettles flashed I could see the eyebrows on my children’s faces.
On the eighth night, the entire village was gathered in groups in back yards, on rooftops, and by the lake, but many had drifted off to sleep. Everyone was shaken awake, though, just after midnight.
A flash started in the center of the cloud, beyond the mountains, and in a thin ring it spread outwards, toward us and to the north and south. It passed out of our sight beyond the northwestern and southwestern horizons, and then it echoed back toward the center, no longer a thin ring but now a thin band. The passed in and out seven times, and each time it rapidly grew thicker. The last time the wave started out from the center, it never left the center: the flash just expanded all the way to the nettle cloud’s rim, three thousand clicks in every direction. The entire western night sky from north to south was glowing a very bright purple-tinted white.
We squinted and shielded our eyes, and those standing just fell back to the ground in amazement. All of this from a field of tiny bubbles? But it wasn’t over yet.
The light became more purely white, and the nettle cloud held its flash constant. Four seconds, five seconds, six seconds, brighter and brighter. And then, from the center, the white light became orange and blue and red. Above and below the nettle cloud, the colors rolled outward at a steady but quick pace. The sky was on fire, and the fire was being chased by an engulfing black hole in the night.
Among the adults nothing had to be said; to our children we would someday explain about he combustible organic gases held inside the nettles’ umbrella shells.
In less than two minutes the entire nettle cloud of light had been replaced by a moonless, starless night. We stared westward into the blackness, some of us utterly devoid of thought, some of us crying, none of us detached enough to anticipate the advancing army of sound.
For a moment it was only a grumble, but in another moment it tumbled over us like a storm’s heavy surf. Suzanne screamed into Jenny’s neck, and the boys looked at me as if I could stop it. We huddled together in our backyard, awash in the roar of a sky exploding and burning, caught in a rip tide of thunder.
Before it was over I had a terrible thought, and I dragged my family to the young tree beside our house. I had barely positioned them flat on the ground behind the western side of the tree trunk when the wind started. That immense, half-continent covering fire burned plenty of oxygen, so what had been consumed three thousand clicks west was being replaced partially by vacuuming it from the east.
It lasted for at least three minutes, sucking the windows and draperies out of our house and temporarily pulling the lake a couple of meters up the shore. It stared quickly but died down gradually, and it was a full half hour before the night was still except for the sounds of calling voices.
The next day our spirits were not good. Yes, our crops were in, and yes, the total wind damage to our arms and village was relatively minor. Our major disappointment was with the air nettles. Although the final display was spectacular, we did not expect the nettles to set themselves on fire. It wasn’t only our children who would have enjoyed a happier ending.
The evening after the fire we were sitting at our dinner table when we heard it began to rain softly. We didn’t pay much attention to it until after dinner when the boys and I walked out to the barn. As I said before, the wonderfully fertile land stretches from the Great Lake in the east all the way to the foothills of the Skyrakers Mountain Range in the west, and on the evening after the fire all of my land, and my neighbors’ land, and all of the land on our continent was being sprinkled not with raindrops but with tiny white pellets the size of cookie crumbs. Only five year-old Suzanne didn’t guess that they were air nettle eggs.
It’s been ten years since the summer, and we don’t know how many more years it will be before we’re visited by another good crop of air nettles, but we can wait. After all, this is our home, and we love it here.