“I don’t know how you can like it there so much.”
“What do you mean?” She gestures at the grove before them, “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s morbid, is it what it is.”
“You’re morbid,” she laughs and stoops down to caress a budding crocus. “Spring is coming, bringing new life, even here…” She trails off wistfully, gazing at the dome above them, the sunlight filtering through hazily.
“Besides,” she turns to face him, “It’s not like I have much choice, do I?”
He turns away, “I know. I’m sorry, Celeste, I’m just feeling frustrated and…”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it and don’t get so worked up, okay? You always get steamed up when you get upset.”
He gazes down and curses, wiping futilely at the condensation fogging up the inside of his vizor.
“You could always just take it off…” she suggests with a wry grin.
He looks at her askance, his voice dull and flat. “You know I can’t.”
She places a hand on his arm, her hand crackling against his suit.
“I was only joking, Paul,” she says gently.
He looks down at the tray of untouched food he brought in earlier.
“You haven’t eaten anything.”
She crosses her arms. “I know. I’m not feeling really hungry. I haven’t felt hungry for a while now.”
“Okay. It figures, I guess. It sounds like the tertiary stage is starting,” he responds, struggling to keep his voice neutral and professional.
A long silence builds between them, broken only by the other inmates, as they tend to the plants or otherwise pass the time, laughing voices calling to each other and, every now and then, the gleeful squeal of a child rings out in the distance.
“What are you thinking?” she asks at last.
“I don’t know, it’s weird, but this place does almost seem… idyllic.”
She gazes around at the view before them, “I know what you mean.” She closes her eyes and breathes deeply the scents which linger in the air, the fresh smell of newly watered grass and the mingling blossoms of the flowers waking from their winter slumber. She opens her eyes, “I miss the breeze though.”
He reaches over and brushes a gloved hand through her auburn hair, buds woven and mingling within the tresses, the chlorophyll in her skin turning it a pale green.
“You are very beautiful, you know.”
She smiles and absentmindedly reaches a hand up to the floral stems which sprout from her scalp.
“Thank you. You look very handsome, too. I’ve always thought hazmat yellow sets off your eyes very well.”
He laughs and looks down, abashed.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she suggests.
“Alright, I still need to take my samples, anyway.”
They set off down the slope, towards a grove of trees, Celeste striding along in her sky-blue overalls, Paul huffing behind her, trapped in his hazmat suit.
“Slow down, please!” But Celeste just smiles over her shoulder.
“I don’t have enough time left to slow down now,” she laughs, sprinting off amongst the trees. Even with her limbs beginning to stiffen, Paul still struggles in her wake, his equipment weighing him down. They don’t stop until they’re in the centre of the circle of trees, a mixture of species, including ash and a gnarled hornbeam. They’re young, not much taller than Celeste and Paul, their limbs twisted, contorted, stretching upwards towards the sun. Celeste gently strokes the bark of a silver birch near to her, her back turned to Paul, as he stretches up to snip the end off a stem, slowly working his way around the circle.
“Do you know why giraffes always graze into the wind?” Paul asks abruptly, as he strains upwards to snip the end from another twig. Celeste smiles at his non-sequitur, but she doesn’t turn around.
“What do you think?”
“When a giraffe starts chewing on acacia leaves, they emit an ethylene gas. The trees next to it detect the gas and release tannins into their leaves. If a giraffe eats too much tannin it can get sick, even die.”
"They talk to each other. The trees.”
“I suppose that’s one way of putting it…” Paul responds, uncertainly, as he deposits the final sample into his case.
“They do.” Celeste insists, “All the time…”
They walk onwards through the wood, until they reach an oak tree, taller than the rest, its canopy spreading above them, the forest floor beneath it dappled by the broken, fragmented sunlight streaming through the leaves.
Celeste crouches down and touches the roots, which writhe and plunge beneath the ground.
“Look at this one. She was one of the first to turn, before I arrived. If you looked underground, you could see her roots spreading to all of the trees around here, sharing her nutrients, helping them grow.”
Celeste stands, her face wreathed in a warm smile. “Like a wise old mother tree.”
“You’re not going to start hugging it, are you?”
“It’s true!” Celeste turns and addresses the tree in a mock, soothing tone. “You don’t mind him now, dear…”
Paul laughs, despite himself. “You are right, though.” He admits, as he looks at the ground and then around at the trees surrounding them. “All of the trees here, they’ll be connected together through the mycorrhizal network…” He smiles at Celeste. “You would have made a great botanist.”
“Who’s to say I won’t one day?...” An awkward silence fills the space between them, with nothing save the distant drone of the air vents overhead to fill it.
Eventually, Paul asks, tentatively: “Can you hear them? Now?”
“Kind of… not words or anything, but feelings, impressions, if that makes sense… Like how you can always pick up on someone’s mood, even when they don’t say or even do anything…”
“What are they feeling now?”
“They’re not particularly thrilled at the moment, I don’t think.” Celeste looks at Paul pointedly, clad head to toe in his garish hazmat suit, secateurs in one gloved hand, specimen case in the other. Paul follows her gaze.
“Stupid question, I guess.” He checks the watch on his wrist. “I should go.” He heaves the sample case in his hand, “get these back to the lab.” Celeste nods, her arms folded. “Any progress…”
Paul just shrugs, “Some, but it’s slow… We don’t even know how anyone else is getting on, anymore.” He pauses, uncertainly, “I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay, really,” Celeste reassures him. She looks around at the encircling woodland. “I was scared, to begin with, but then…” She pauses and looks up at the dome above them, “I realised that, one day, all of this will just… fade away…” She places a palm against the rough bark of the oak tree, gazes around at the forest enveloping them. “But this will remain. And I’ll be a part of it, connected.” She smiles at Paul. “So whatever else happens, don’t feel sorry for me.”
“Okay, I won’t.” He laughs, “I thought I was supposed to be the one, reassuring you.”
They stand there, uncertain, then Celeste rushes forward and wraps her arms around Paul, crinkling his suit. Paul drops his burdens and responds in turn, enfolding her in an embrace.
“You’re right,” Paul concedes, “It won’t be an end, it will be like a new beginning.”
Celeste nods. “Spring will always come 'round again, in the end.”