Ascend, Exalt, Love, Propagate, Rise!
By Sarah Kumari
The Glory smolders through Jehanne’s bloodstream, pulsing its encouragement.
The rivals who have survived along with him–officially ‘Fellow Eminents’ now that selection is over–twitch and moan as their addiction is quenched. Within minutes they are preening, flexing their muscles, stomping, or singing to Mother Elethra.
Jehanne’s training allows him to douse the call, to batter it down with a deliberate shifting of delta waves. He visualizes his metabolism disassembling the compound at industrial speed. This works for the moment.
In the crowd that fills the EverReach company spaceship, Indrine, the rebel woman pretending to be Jehanne’s mother, clutches the hand of the girl playing his sister. They are mixed in with the family and friends of the other Eminents along with villagers and unrelated Fervents that have made the pilgrimage.
The crowd prays collectively, feverish in their good fortune, for the EverReach company will reward the kin of Eminents for two generations.
If Jehanne succeeds in his true mission, his family will be slaughtered.
Indrine narrows her eyes at him. Jehanne, realizing he is static, feels a spark of panic. Glancing at the company guards, he starts to sing, but his voice is too loud, eyes too hard. He softens himself, puts on a show of caressing his arms and flexing. As his muscles pump, bloodstream quickening, he feels the pulse of Glory trying to flow again. Though his body works to burn it, the company dose is purer and more clever than any the rebel chemists could make. Glory’s effect is designed to increase gradually over these long hours, ascending as the Eminents do.
The prayers of the crowd peal and throb around the hangar, dropping to a hush when the shutters at the viewpoint glide open.
Jehanne falls to his knees. This reaction is not faked.
In all her wonder: Mother Elethra, our Beloved Patron, the Phloem of Invention, Oil Bringer, Loving Devourer, our Great Vine.
Seen from the approach, Elethra has engulfed two-thirds of her host moon, Siona. Her roots, as thick as transport runs, coil and writhe into Siona’s seas. These, perpetually filled as torrents flow down the Mother’s West flank back into them. Siona’s forests, which once supported Elethra as a sapling, have been smothered. Now she supports herself, vines roping up over themselves into the atmosphere. At her epicenter, they build into a peak, a ruined, melting fairytale castle, a slow flowing mountain. One vibrant tendril curls up from the middle, giant leaves jagged and poison tipped.
Her fleshy, purplish green flowers are bristling and barbed. There are eight, fewer than ever before. Jehanne’s bloom is the fourth highest. During the selection trials he was careful to qualify as Eminent, but not highly ranked. No point being mostly dead, mostly mad with Glory when he gets there.
The Priest works on the Eminents now, stripping and purifying them. Chanting through the anointments—bright, oils and resins, stinking of plant hormones. She paints their organs, lurid daubs that make caricatures of their sexes. These fluids are all they will wear to their deaths. Naked Power, Raw Glory.
Jehanne can’t wait now. Even his skin is excited. He jitters, babbling prayers with the other Eminents as a transport takes them down to Siona’s surface.
By the time they arrive at Mother Elethra’s base, everything shimmers through Jehanne’s rosy drug haze. Despite this, the Mother looks unhealthy. Pitted and scaled, oozing, rotting and patched with dark fungi.
The priest gives a fevered cry and the climb starts, Eminents scrambling up, frenetic with lust. Jehanne, bred for agility, feels himself at the apex of his life. All moments working for this.
Mites the size of his forearm, glassy-shelled and impenetrable, skitter up Mother’s stalks, and sometimes over his body, with ratchety, hooked limbs. He flails and tries to kick them away, but his bare feet glance off them, their slick exoskeletons bone hard. But the mites do not notice him, and, he realizes, someone in the deepest throes of The Glory should not notice them. Jehanne curbs his reaction and instead pays attention to their steps, watching as they weave. He follows the insects as they navigate past nodules oozing milky glue, rotting footholds, and around hairs the size of human limbs, razor tipped and dripping acid.
He climbs on.
The sky is dark now. Ambient light from Siona’s sister moon provides the only brightness. But at last he’s at the base of the fresh shoot. Here the mites cluster under leaves. The machinations of their insides grind and hum as they peel off reams of glossy, torpedo-shaped eggs from their undersides.
I might live off them, Jehanne thinks, if I weren’t going to die tomorrow.
He climbs on, up into the thinning atmosphere. It’s harder. The stalk, almost vertical now, is smooth and green. Hairs are finer, splintering if he tries them as footholds.
Will the other Eminents rest? His metabolism does its job, crushing down the Glory in its continual release, but he needs a little more to get up, to ignore the pain.
Eventually Jehanne loops his burning arms through a fresh tendril, lays against the stalk for a minute, and shuts his eyes.
The buzzing of an EverReach drone wakes him, it’s beam flashing across his face. Jehanne curses. If they suspect him for a minute, they’ll cast him off the vine. The risk of losing even a single flower would be extreme for the company. One eighth of the system’s EverFuel depends on its pollination, and Mother Elethra is the only of her kind. The company has never let another vine grow, all suitable habitats being outside their political control.
Jehanne puts a placid look on his face, makes a long show of grinding his hips up against the stalk, then roaring and flexing before he climbs on.
His route takes him past the first flower. This has closed now, for the Eminent inside has already pollinated. The wails Jehanne hears from inside are not the pleasure-soaked cries befitting the orgiastic, beautiful deaths they were promised. Eminent number one makes the sound of a mouse pinned by a cat, being flayed slowly. Mites are clumped around the flower stem, not feeding on sap but chittering, as if in anticipation.
Jehanne works against the clenching of his jaw. EverReach has kept so much knowledge for themselves. He wishes he had a way to telegraph it to headquarters. He puts a look on his face that he hopes resembles blissful. The rustle and creak of the Great Vine and the chorus of the mites do not quite hide the thin wail of drone motors as they monitor the Eminents’s progress.
He climbs harder.
His flower has moved, its heavy head hanging down and turned in towards its stem, as if to reject his advance. Her fleshy outer petals are deep-green but veined and flushed with purple. Two EverReach drones hover now as he uses the last of his strength to climb up over the bloom. Her sepals are glossy with a wax that rejects his grip. Arms juddering, he lowers himself down and curls his legs up to enter the flower. As he moves he makes the right faces for those watching but is unable to conceal his lack of erection.
Quickly, quickly he finds the tricipital bud and pumps it with his hand, stimulating the flower to close before the company machines can reach him. The Glory renews itself in his blood. The EverReach chemists have crafted the dose so beautifully, timed it to perfection. Jehanne shuts his eyes and lets it roll over him. The inching movements of the petals enclosing him become a dance, sensual and delicious.
Exalt, Love, Propagate! He is hers, Mother Elethra, Loving Devourer. He has never been so happy. The scent released as the flower closes is a heavy fog. Roses, tomatoes, and something meatier. As it thickens, Jehanne is pulled back into full consciousness, his brain taking him to the training camp where his teachers stand over him, dispensing electric shocks and cold water. The memory is infused with this rich scent, or something that is close enough. He’s awake and he’s here and he needs to act before he’s castrated, flayed, or digested by this bloom. He remembers what he needs to do, but instead he lies in the almost dark, and listens to the quiet, cushioned swill of the flower’s vasculature. He listens, and listens, and feels the Glory drain away, his limbs shuddering for hours as it leaves him. There’s a weight swinging behind his eyes. Pendulous exhaustion.
Will he know? Will he still be alive when they’ve all been pollinated? That will be his time to act, the Great Vine having diverted all her energy to digestion, to producing the rich, oily seeds that fuel a solar system. She’ll be weakest then.
The innermost petals of his flower flinch, dangerously fast, as if sensing his thoughts. EverReach has scientifically dismissed the legends professing Mother Elethra’s sentience. Classic Anthropomorphism, wishful thinking. They say her movements and electrical transmissions are hormonal and reflexive, like any other plant.
A creak alerts Jehanne to the nectary at the center of the flower, surrounded by needle-like fibers. As he watches, it develops a series of radial fissures, emitting liquid, clear and viscous but enough like water that he lunges for it. He pushes his face down to taste carefully, then scoops it up, drinking handful after handful of the sweet, quenching nectar. He blushes then, being fed by this bloom he was supposed to copulate with. The EverReach selection tests and every training drill he’s had for the past six months have tried to imprint the need to procreate here, but this is what his rebel upbringing was designed to combat. He realizes the company never fully explained how to pollinate, only that it would be reflexive, that the Eminents would need no sustenance. Elethra’s nectar has dried, they said. This was how her natural pollinators had gone extinct.
Jehanne is full now, but still the nectar comes. He finds he can’t stop drinking, compelled to take more until he passes out, belly bloated, sugars fast in his blood stream.
He dreams he’s inside a flower, not the vegetal purple of his bloom but somewhere soft and pink, like the roses on his home planet. Every inhalation is sweet and gentle. The bloom holds him in tender petals that sway in the breeze. She talks to him, thanking him for not forcing himself upon her. She cries, weeping that she is made to flower, to bear seed when already she has given the EverReach seed enough to sow the galaxy. Jehanne takes a sip from an iced glass of pink lemonade, a drink he has heard of but never tasted. He thinks about how to tell her that her seeds are crushed for their unique and fiery oils. That she has seeded no sisters or daughters.
Instead he cries with her, sings to her. Songs of freedom and weightlessness.
Jehanne wakes. The petals of his bloom pulse and tremble around him, velvet-rose-pink and fleshy-visceral-purple all at once. If he concentrates, it’s the purple he sees. This is the bloom that will kill him, he thinks. See it properly. Do your work. He waits for some energy, feeling the gentle throb of the pulsing petals against his back. A lacework of vasculature filling with fluid and releasing. Microns in siphons and pistons. He feels these minute movements against his skin where they are detected by a dance of ions, then propelled in synchronized cascades through his neurons. He feels her cadences and realizes that he and Elethra, their biology so different, are a reciprocal symphony of delta waves, hormones and pheromones.
She’s telling him she is ready.
He bites into his cheek, mouth filling with iron and salt, savory and delicious after those hours of consuming only sugars. Jehanne chokes as he pushes his fingers in the rip inside his check, feeling around for what’s hidden in there.
When he finds it, Elethra is ready, her stigma open, a black maw.
He pushes the spore, marble sized, deep into it.
The flower trembles.
It might hurt, he thinks to her. The fungus will consume all of you. The company that tends you will collapse. He doesn’t tell her about the society it controls, how it will dissolve, cause a revolution.
I’m ready, she pulses. I’ve wanted this for a millenia. They’ve pushed for more and more.
You’re the last, he thinks to her. The only.
There’s a seed, she pulses, wrapped in my roots, deep in the ocean. If it grows, sow half of my fruit, use the others. Build a better company.
Genes are activated in the spore the rebels have designed.
Jehanne stays inside and prays, giving thanks for his renewed life and this last gift that is more than he and his people dared hope.
He sings to her of a peace made of freedom and weightlessness and waits for his moment to descend.
About the Author
Sarah Kumari is a former scientist who now organizes conferences and recruits PhD students at a research institution. She lives in Surrey, England, engaging in lightsaber battles and time travel debates with her two boys. Sarah writes speculative and YA fiction in the snatches of time between adulty stuff. She is ecstatic to be sharing oxygen with the authors in the escape pod and hopes her other weird stories and novels will find homes one day.
About the Narrator
Hollis Monroe is an award winning radio producer, opera and jazz singer and Shakespearean. He served as executive producer and also read for Iowa Public Radio’s “The Book Club” for many years and is an active voice actor, emcee and singer.