This is still in rough draft, so this excerpt could change by the time I finish this story.
I also don’t know when I’m going to finish this, because of my oddball writing process. I’m not sure how odd it is, I don’t know enough other writers that well. But it seems odd to me.
I had this idea about a year and a half ago. It started as a scribbled note: ‘humans explore galaxy, and there’s grass everywhere there’s life. Why?’ I added a few exploratory notes over the next few days, brainstorming random ideas for a plotline. I started the story, wrote a thousand words, and there it sat for a few months. I came back later, discarded the last five hundred, and wrote a new thousand.
Then I ran up against a point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the idea, and I put the notebook that contained it in a stack of notebooks with half-started ideas, and wrote other things. Last week, looking through notebooks, I ran across it again. Some new ideas about it had congealed by then; the concept is an interesting one and it had come to mind occasionally over the months I left it fallow.
I started writing again. I really want to know where the grass came from, and what the protagonist’s story is. I’ve added four thousand words to it over the last week, and it’s shaping up into a story. I have an idea about the people behind the spread of grass throughout the galaxy. Actually, I have several. The ideas are fighting it out as I approach the point where I’ll have to explain. I don’t know what will emerge. Will it be one idea, the other, a new idea I haven’t had yet, or a synthesis of the thoughts I’ve already had?
I’m not sure. I don’t think this one will go back into the pile of half-finished stories to marinate again, but it might. It has the feeling of a story I’m going to finish to me now, though. We’ll see.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt of my rough work on Prairie and Stars. I hope I can finish it soon. I really love that title and I want to see it on a cover.
…the approach to the star system is a typical blur. Days of tasteless food, tasteless exercise, tasteless waiting for Ship to catalog and name the various planetary bodies. Periodically, I have taken over the naming in the past, but I have had no taste for the task in the last dozen centuries or so. I don’t even look at the names. I do look at the habitability indices. There’s a 108, minimal variability from the ancestral conditions of Earth. The range of 80-120 is considered habitable over at least 50% of land surface, 90-110 without special equipment. These things change, given enough time or human intervention. When I left Earth, it would have been considered a 105. At one point, in my second millennium, it reached as high as a 118, warming and pollution rendering the Equatorial third of the planet largely useless to humans outside of refrigerated habitats. Today, it is a scrupulously maintained 100, supporting a population of 100 million licensed ancestral aboriginals and 10 to 20 billion tourists at any given time.
This planet, this 108, is a little dry and sports a Pangaeaic continent with heavy mountain formation near the coast facing approaching prevailing winds. This creates a rain-shadow desert the size of Asia.
Aside from that, it is hospitable compared to the average planet. There are a lot of gas giants, of superheated Venuses, of high-gravity colossi and thin-atmosphered wastes. As Ship approaches orbit, I know already what I will see as telescopic sensors examine the surface closely. There is, of course, no obvious intelligent life. None has been found anywhere in seven thousand years of exploration, and I am not expecting it here. Humans being what they are, we still look for it. But one thing is everywhere humans have found, on every planet with soil and free water and a biosphere even close to what humans could possibly inhabit.
Grass. The viewscreen shows me a waving expanse of tall grass, purple tassels with curved scarlet tails depending from the top of each grain head. A little different than the last planet or the one before, but grass. It is the one constant in the known universe.
I have seen grass so fine I thought it was moss until I examined it under a microviewer. I have seen grass that covered near-boiling oceans like a yellow mosquito net. I have seen grass so enormous I mistook it for a mountain range, huge colonial slabs of fused stalks spreading roots out to absorb the streams and rivers it spawned from its own scored and gnarled slopes. If grass holds any slightest surprise for me in the future, I cannot imagine how it could.
I let Ship pick its own orbit, slowly precessing to cover the entire surface of the world as we survey it. The images flow through my mind, processed but essentially untouched, considered but only automatically in the expected patterns, filed and stored and forgotten. There is grass in a hundred variations, and something like a fern in a dozen forms, and a slow amoebic thing like a flowing moss. The oceans hold something like trilobites, jellyfish blobs and tiny translucent undulating ribbons that seem related to the blobs, and even a tiny clumsy amphibian-thing that raises a lush featherlike gill high over its stumpy sensory stalk and ventures onto the damp beach on its belly when it’s sufficiently foggy out, to nibble at the vegetation there that no other animal can reach.
Fairly advanced, as life goes. Not one Earthlike world in ten thousand has gotten as far as animals that can live entirely on land. This one is almost there. Maybe in another million years, or ten million, the feather-gill-amphibian-thing will evolve into something with a proper enclosed lung and begin to eat the ferns and grass inland.
Or maybe it will die, go extinct, vanish. As old as I am, I cannot imagine living long enough to see which happens. I cannot imagine wanting to. I… cannot imagine at all, I think.
Survey completed, I call the probes home and wait for them to arrive and complete their self-checks and decontamination routines.
“There is a contact at the edge of the system,” Ship says as I wait. “Under power. Another survey ship.”
“Tell it that I’ve already surveyed here. Squirt it a copy of our results,” I tell Ship. I have no interest in keeping the information to myself; the entire point of surveying is to spread knowledge. I think back—how long has it been since I’ve discovered anything worth keeping to myself? I can’t remember. Back in the early days, certainly; the first thousand years when First Contact was surely right around the corner and governance was uncertain, still in the hands of men first and AIs second instead of the other way around.
Instead, an image forms in front of my eyes. Politely, I keep the annoyance—a tiny whiff of genuine feeling, of real annoyance?—out of my expression.
“Survey has been completed,” I say. “My Ship has shared results with your Ship.”
“I have been surveying the Oort cloud of the neighboring system, and observed your arrival,” she says. “I have shared an interesting finding with your Ship as well. I would like to share it with you, also.”
“I’m sure my Ship will pass it along,” I say, dismissive, flat, unengaged.
“I have located an artifact. It is not of human manufacture…