With the TARDIS door open, Alison raises her voice to carry across the clearing: “Schuaschen person! Please excuse me for addressing you so rudely, but I apologize -- I don’t know your name. I do know, though, that you are pursued by Agricole who have a bounty on your head.”
The person pricks up her branches, crosses the clearing faster than Alison expected, and clasps both of Alison’s hands. Being essentially a human crossed with a tree, she has little softness to her flesh of living wood, yet she holds Alison with a grip both solid and warm. Her skin -- bark? -- is a brown with greyish undertones, seamed with narrow vertical lines; she feels pleasantly, delicately rough to Alison, as if she would never slip from her grasp. She smiles with such vigor that Alison feels herself smile too. As the Schuaschen’s coronal branches almost enclose them both in an eclipse of green light, Alison never wants to let her go.
“Wow! O loftiest and most fruitful of Time Trees, you answered my communications! You came! That’s so ripe -- it’s…” The person searches for a word: “--Juicy!” Her eyes, full of light, are as green as new leaves with the sun shining through.
Still holding the person’s hands, Alison steps back slightly from such distracting intensity. “Well, um, yes, of course we did,” she says with a nod. “The High Council of Time Lords -- Time Trees -- heard your appeal and sent me and my fellow envoys. I’m Alison Cheney, and I’ve come to help you. My ship is a neutral zone, and you will have sanctuary inside if you need it. Please -- come on in.” She pulls the person inside and shuts the door behind her.
The person steps forward, but somehow the step turns into a flying leap that launches her against the center console, where she catches herself by clamping both hands against a railing. Alison runs to her. “Are you all right?”
The person turns to Alison. “I just floated like a leaf in a breeze! I’m so...light! I didn’t even think that your gravity would be different from ours, much less that your ships could generate microgravitational fields.”
Alison recalls that Terripluvium, more massive than Earth, exerts a much stronger pull on everything. Of course the artificial Earth-like gravity inside the TARDIS would seem like flying to a Terripluvian. “Oh yes, we have the gravity here adjusted to our specifications. I do apologize.”
“No, don’t apologize.” The person jumps into another spin; her heavy skirt, made of interlocking tendrils of yellowish moss, flares slightly around her bare feet. She stops herself on the railing again, but with one hand this time and only a slight wobble. “This is so -- bloomin’ -- juicy!”
“As long as you’re not hurt.”
“No, I’m fine.” The person smiles.
“Good.” Alison smiles back. A few seconds pass, after which Alison realizes that she is still grinning into the person’s face in a manner thoroughly unbecoming to a representative of the High Council. “Ahem. So I’m Alison Cheney, and you are…?”
“I bid you welcome to Terripluvium and Crescior, Your Loftiness, Great Time Tree Ellischuan Schennaya.” Turning Alison’s name into a rustle of leaves, the person takes her hands again, but slowly, with more formality, and bows. “I thank you from my heartwood for the shelter under the branches of your ship. I am Uscheschua of the Lilleschall cultivar, communications specialist of the Flower Grove of the Schuelle and ambassador to the Agricole. --Or at least I will be,” she amends, “once the Great Grove of Time Trees has guaranteed our freedom and our safety.”
Uscheschua -- despite the springiness of its possessor, the very name fills Alison with a sense of peace, groundedness, perhaps even -- could such a thing be possible? -- home. She wants to tell Uscheschua how glad she is to have found her; she wants to make her happy and do everything she can to help the Schuaschen -- if only to bring all the green brightness shining once again to Uscheschua’s eyes.
But Alison didn’t come here to make friends. She and Uscheschua are diplomatic envoys with the liberty of the Schuaschen and all the peace of Crescior depending on them. If only she had a clue about what to do next... “Ambassador Lilleschall -- that is your preferred title?”
“Yes! That sounds great!” Uscheschua nods; her branches swish around her face like rays of light. “What is your title, Your Loftiness, Great Time Tree Ellischuan Schennaya? I’ve been branching out with so many only because you are the first Time Tree I’ve met.”
Alison imagines a tree with its roots in one half of the universe and its branches in the other, growing the fruit of many worlds. She wishes that she truly could be a Time Tree, rather than a Lord, for, while Lords have power over the universe, a Time Tree has power in the universe. Its strength comes from the connections it makes between stars and the people who orbit them. “Just Time Tree Cheney, please.”
“Yes, of course, Your -- I mean, Time Tree Cheney.” More smiling occurs. Then Uscheschua seems to remember her lines. “Oh -- and what is your gender? And pronouns?”
“I’m...a woman. With feminine pronouns.” Alison falters slightly only because she’s not used to being asked so directly. Then again, she has been traveling with a male robot and a Time Lord who does not appear to care much about their gender identification, so she has had to give this some thought. Since Uscheschua has brought up the subject, Alison turns the inquiry back on her [?]: “And Ambassador Lilleschall, please tell me your gender and pronouns.”
“Oh, I don’t have one. None of us do. We just all use she and her.”
Alison blinks. Uscheschua’s body, despite the bark of her skin and the branches of her hair, resembles Alison’s in all major appearances. She even has the curve of high-riding breasts and rounded hips. Does the similarity extend beyond what she can see? Why would the Agricole make tree people with only one general body type? “Thank you for telling me. I must have skimmed that portion of the briefing, so I appreciate your indulgence in reminding me.”
“Certainly. Trees who have genders -- they don’t like being asked about them, for some reason. But I can’t tell by looking at them, so I feel that it’s better to ask and get the correct answer first, instead of assuming the wrong thing and making a mistake.”
“That makes sense to me.” Finally, Alison comes up with what seems like a suitably diplomatic activity: “Would you like a tour of my ship?”
Uscheschua agrees, so Alison consults the TARDIS computers for help in plotting a route that will avoid the robot. Before she leads Uscheschua from the control room, however, the communications specialist in Uscheschua comes to the fore. Recognizing that she and Alison are not speaking the same language to each other, she interrogates Alison on the principles behind the TARDIS’ simultaneous translation capabilities. Alison takes refuge in the excuse that, as an ambassador, she specializes in the use of such technology, rather than its engineering. This explanation does not satisfy Uscheschua, who asks how she can use tools without understanding their mechanisms.
Finally the TARDIS generates an executive summary of her translation tools and prints it out in Schuaschen. Uscheschua receives the document with profuse thanks. The tour begins with Uscheschua, walking at Alison’s side with her branches in a book, exclaiming to herself: “Ooooh…very connective -- positively dendritic!” This latter adjective, which appears with various adverbs over the course of Uscheschua’s perusal, seems to mean something like ingenious or brilliant.
Uscheschua finally removes her leaves from the document after several minutes. She gazes at Alison with the slightly unfocused wonder of someone coming out of a book and back into the world. Alison, who knows that sensation herself, smiles. She likes Uscheschua -- Ambassador Lilleschall -- more with each passing second. “If you’re interested in the TARDIS’ functions,” Alison offers, “you could talk to her. I’m sure she would explain herself much better to you than I could.”
Uscheschua’s eyes widen. “I could? Juicy!” Apparently she’s much more conversant with sentient machines than Alison ever was. Then again, perhaps Uscheschua finds a hybrid of consciousness and technology more easy to accept than Alison, as she, a human tree, herself mingles elements that to Alison seem unexpected.
In any case, Alison believes for a moment that she has pried Uscheschua away from her specialty for the time being. Then Uscheschua brings up another language question: “Time Tree Cheney, that’s not Gallifreyan you’re speaking, is it? I was hoping I could practice mine with you.”
“No, I’m sorry, Ambassador Lilleschall. The other two envoys speak Gallifreyan as their first language, but I don’t.” Oh shit, how wil she justify herself? She thinks fast: “My parents were diplomats themselves, on a mission to the Old Earth of the late 1900s Common Era, when I was born. I spent almost all my life there and grew up speaking English. I regret to say that I can’t help you practice your Gallifreyan.”
“But...you know English?” Uscheschua cries in Schuaschen. Then she says carefully, “I know...Anglesch! Langesch eff... Frankenschine!”
Alison pauses, parsing Uscheschua’s susurrant pronunciation. “You know English, right. But can you please say your second sentence again? I didn’t understand.”
“I’m sorry.” Uscheschua shakes her crown. “My pronunciation,” she says in Schuaschen, “must be thoroughly blighted and bug-ridden. I’ll try again.” She composes herself, then says in English, with more enunciation, “I know English too. It is the language of Frankenstein.”
“You’re familiar with Frankenstein?” Mary Shelley’s masterpiece seems to be coming up a lot these days.
“Yes, a classic epic of Old Earth, made in your language by Mary Schellaya. I know its words. Listen!” Seizing Alison’s hands again, Uscheschua closes her eyes, tilts her head back, and recites a passage, her delivery somewhere between a song and the precise beats of a dramatic monologue: “I looked upon Elizabeth as mine -- mine to protect, love, and cherish. All praises bestowed to her I received as made to a possession of my own. We called each other familiarly by the name of cousin. No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me -- my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only.” Making eye contact with Alison again, she says, “Good pronunciation or bad?”
“Wow.” Alison stares. “That was so beautiful and passionate -- like a performance. Great pronunciation! Very juicy!”
Uscheschua laughs and says in English, “Thank you!” Then she switches to Schuaschen and adds, “Well, I am said to be bloomin’ melodramatic, so you are right. Anyway, can I ask you something about Frankenstein, but in Schuaschen? My English is too young to bear fruit of my words.”
“Certainly. I’m no literature expert, but I’ll do my best.”
“A climax -- that’s when the volcano of the story explodes -- the worst part?”
Volcano? Alison thinks. Oh yeah, she did read something in the overviews about Terripluvium being quite busy, volcanically speaking. “Yes, that’s right.”
“People tell me different things about where the volcano lies in Frankenstein. Some people say it’s when the creature opens its eyes and blooms for the first time, scaring Frankenstein. Some people say it’s when the creature confesses to killing George, and some people say it’s when Frankenstein discovers that the creature has killed his wife Elizabeth.
“But wouldn’t the volcano be right there in the beginning, in what I recited?” Uscheschua asks. “That’s the worst part of the story, right there, at least for me. Frankenstein and Elizabeth are only little sprouts when she comes into his grove, and yet he never feels that she’s a fellow tree. He acts as if he’s a blighting rotten gardener.” She crinkles her nose as she delivers this most derogatory of insults.
Alison makes a mental note to omit the TARDIS gardens from the tour. “Yeah, Frankenstein is a selfish arsehole. He thinks he’s the only person in the universe, and everyone else is just an object for him to exploit.”
“Exactly! That’s the infection in his heartwood: he sees himself as the only tree in the forest worthy of Keplershine and rain. He refuses to care properly for the other trees in his grove, like Elizabeth and the creature.” Uscheschua quivers. “Blight it -- those words always make me feel like I’m back in the Fontaneum.”
“What happened there?”
“That’s where I was planted -- in a pot -- by a gardener.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to bring it up, Ambassador Lilleschall.” Noticing that Uscheschua still hasn’t released her hands, Alison squeezes her back, trying to transmit some sympathy through her grip.
“Don’t rustle your twigs.” Uscheschua tosses her head, and her branches flare around her like a living halo with a soft sibilant leaf song of its own. “If I didn’t want to mention it, I would have said so.” She draws Alison toward her and sends Alison’s reassurance back to its source with a quick pulse of her own grasp.
Alison gazes into Uscheschua’s face. Everything she does is like dancing, from the way she runs, to the way she greets people, to the way she loses her balance, and she pulls Alison into her sweet, intimate rhythms as well. “But...if that quote from Frankenstein makes you feel trapped and powerless, why bring it up? Why memorize it?”
Something about this question seems to hurt Uscheschua; Alison can feel her offense in the loosening of her hands and the turn of her head to the side. Uscheschua’s voice lowers: “You know -- you aren’t the only tree who has asked me that. The others of the resistance tell me that it’s a waste of Keplershine to study the words of Mary Schellaya. They want to fell those stories, let them decompose, so that new stories -- our stories, ones of the Schuaschen -- may be grown in their place. They don’t think it’s important how the ancestors of our gardeners grew their ideas.”
“But it is!” cries Alison, historian and lover of dead languages.
“You truly think so?” Uscheschua’s eyes come back to Alison’s, brightening.
“It’s not just important -- it’s imperative! We have to study how people were in the past because then we learn who we were, where we came from, and who we are now.”
“Yes! Yes! I knew you would understand.” And Uscheschua brings her in close again. “The roots of the Schuaschen will always link us to our makers, the Agricole, whether we like it or not. Their past is ours. That is why I am one of the only trees who puts roots into Agricole history and the history of the Earth people who became the Agricole. That is why I know Schuaschen, of course, but also the Flumenarxi and rural dialects of Agricolingua, as well as the language of Frankenstein.”
“So that quote -- that’s one of the ways in which you understand the past?”
“No, Time Tree Cheney,” says Uscheschua, her voice grave, “I use it to understand the present. I’ve memorized it because it tells me how the Agricole gardeners think.” Shadows fall in the green of her eyes. “I use those words to understand my enemy.”