by Lex Chamberlin
Rhian tread alone through the field of bobbing sunflower pods, their old haz suit overtight in the early evening haze. The tenuous gravity of the dying planet required delicate weaving to navigate, and Rhian stumbled some, an intermittent ache flaring in their chest. Watching their own world fall was not like watching another. Their ship sat whirring at the garden’s edge, now stocked with the final harvest’s yield. They touched and peered through the smooth plexiglass of each container before moving on to the next, attentive for the subtle glow of any overlooked seedlings to save.
Midwifery did not suit Rhian well. Still, they understood the obligation, why they were the best choice: so few were genetically suited to tend to the parent flowers of nonbinary species, and their numbers dwindled each year. Now, pod after pod sat barren of the targeted mutations, the viable seedlings already stowed away on Rhian’s ship. They traced the handful of empty transfer capsules at their hip as they continued their closing sweep.
The glint of a missed seedling arrested their stride.
Rhian dove toward the pod controls to begin its retrieval at once— there was time, but not much. Upwind, the predicted gravity storm writhed ever closer on the horizon. The anomaly had ripped apart too many midwives already, shredded acres of flowers much stronger than these; Rhian had noted the fresh carnage over the hill on their approach. Hearty and obscenely plentiful as binary fields were wont to be, rows of pine and marrow and luffa laid utterly demolished by the blight’s wrath. More than one mission ship rested in pieces.
Rhian plucked the transfer capsule out of the pod’s port and restored it to their belt, anxiety buzzing through their breath. How could they have missed it? This would be the last retrieval run possible. The planetary infection had advanced far beyond the colony’s ability to manage, and off-world sterility made each seedling too precious to leave behind. But Rhian hadn’t missed it—the hybrid would still have a chance to grow. They took a moment to exhale.
Then the warning alarms howled awake.
A jolt shot through Rhian’s body as they sprang back into motion. Heedless of protocol, they ran, bouncing on the worsening wind. As they sailed from step to unbalanced step, they cursed their profession, then the doomed soil that wouldn’t sustain, and above all this disease of atmospheric thinning and gravitational demise, leaving planet after planet dead in its wake.
Rhian rushed through the rows with scarcely a glance toward the plants on either side, their duty to finish the harvest weighing like lead in their chest. They pushed away the possibility of any remaining seedlings, the shame their negligence would bring. There was nothing for it: if these were the final minutes of viability, there was only one specimen left to see.
Out of breath and nearly too late, Rhian wobbled to a halt at the end of their route. The parent flower before them stood tall but wilting in its dusty pod. It waited, oblivious as any host plant could be, at the very precipice of its life—all but spent, withered and dry, having borne all that it could in the time it was given. The artificial breeze within its pod dwindled as the power cells died, and Rhian was unsurprised to find no hybrid sibling to be gleaned here, only ordinary seeds remaining. No reason to linger as the timer on Rhian’s belt pleaded for departure in chorus with the alarms overhead.
Still breathing hard, Rhian locked their gloves into the enclosure’s ports and waited for the hiss of pressurization. When it came, they pulled off their rubber gauntlets and stretched out their leaves to caress their parent flower’s petals. They stole time where it didn’t exist, tracing the seeds crumbling from the spliced plant’s floral face, so different from Rhian’s humanoid form. Their heart fluttered as the sunflower seemed to lean back into their palm.
Clear of the field, aboard the loaded ship, it fluttered still as the button was pressed. They didn’t watch as the plexiglass of the pods shattered, keeping their back turned at the control panel, but they heard it, a bright cacophony of dispersing shards. The grounding weights deactivated, thumping into the cracked earth, and Rhian looked then, over a desiccated plain of brittle plants thrashing in reduced gravity, breaking down as their protective shells fell fully away. The storm crept closer to the garden’s edge, and the farthest rows whipped into its maw.
With the last of the hybrid yield secured, the ship rose up. Rhian knew they should be making pragmatic use of their time, every moment crucial. They should head to the nursery to ensure maximal survival of the harvest. They should transmit their report to request a quantity of receiving pods at base. They should be doing anything but standing perfectly still at the window, eyes wide, facial petals wet with sap as a deep ache constricted their lungs.
Somewhere, the tone for atmospheric departure rang out.
There was an oft-articulated sense in the colony that everything the midwives did—the nonbinaries especially, as their numbers fell— mattered incredibly much. But privately, Rhian knew that, in a way, at least here, it mattered not at all. If the seedlings didn’t make it, fragile embryos as they were, Rhian would be the last sunflower to draw breath. And if the little ones did survive, short of a scientific miracle only the binaries had time or abundance to hope for, still there would be nothing after. The mutated seedlings would grow to fill Rhian’s place, endure other worlds and artificial settings as they had. But the bitter fact was by now too well understood:
Without this earth, this sun, this specific position in the galaxy, there could be no more propagation of their strain.
* * *
Rhian did leave the portside window eventually, when the textures and fine detritus of the world’s crumbling surface were lost to sight. They sent a report back to the neonatal department at base, then traversed the empty halls to the ship’s nursery to sort the salvaged seedlings. They optimized containment pods with rich soil, a nurturing air composition, and perfect drips of moisture. No step skipped, no corner cut.
But first, rooted in place, they had borne the necessary witness:
In the dead world’s diminished pull, their unmoored kin had chased the ship. Up, and up, and up, they had risen in its draft, a swan song of tattered flowers through a naked sky. Rhian had pressed their own leaves against the glass, as though they could melt their plantflesh through, give up parts to sustain their doomed foremothers. Give anything at all. But the inanimate foliage had torn and dried and disintegrated with the effort of the chase, drifting apart and away but never down, forsaken as debris in the wasted atmosphere’s remains.
Rhian didn’t move, refused to blink, until there was nothing left to see.
Lex Chamberlin (they/she) is a nonbinary and autistic writer of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror with a master’s degree in book publishing and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. They reside in the Pacific Northwest with their husband and quadrupedal heirs. Find them online at lexchamberlin.com.