DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Kelthammer and is copyright (c) 2002 by Kelthammer. This story is Rated G.

Mangrove Ghosts


Leonard opened one eye -- one very lazy eye -- and pointedly flipped his wrist, sending the baited hook skimming gently across the tea-colored surface of the lake. "Now what's that supposed to mean?" he asked mildly.

Clark Terrell grinned and worked on playing his own line back to the pole. All around them, the Georgia mountains surrounded the water. At the bottom, it was said, rested a pre-Eugenics Wars' village, growing algae with the dead Christmas trees dumped every January to provide shelter for the many fish. It created an eerie feeling, to be fishing in the chilly mountain air far above a drowned settlement -- maybe like fishing above the Kingdom of Ys in Arthurian folklore.

"I'm not goin' bad on you," the captain told him. Starting to show gray in his hair and beard, he could still be seen as the handsome man that had every woman in his sister's sorority daydreaming. Leonard wondered if his youngest son would follow in his father's footsteps. Hugh was quite the Georgie-Porgie.

"It's just..." Clark tried again. In the meantime, McCoy just flipped his line out for another cast in front of the red water lilies ringing the side of the dock. If a doctor was used to one thing, it was the urge of the layman to analyze him.

This wasn't much of a vacation, as far as they went -- anymore his definition of "quality time" depended on the presence of a certain Fabrini woman -- but it was a much needed change from the hectics of V'Ger and getting reinstated into the Fleet.

"You love a mystery, Len. I don't care where you are, what ship, what planet, what solar system. Remember the first time you brought me here? All you wanted to do was camp out in the swamp. The swamp, for god's sake."

"What's wrong with the mangroves?" Leonard demanded.

"And your dad told me, that you were always in the swamp, every chance you got, scaring the family. Alligators, crocs, black bears, cottonmouths, pythons, cougars and loggerheads!"

Clark far preferred Catalpa Grove, the inland family home of his friend. There centuries-old magnolias and live oaks sprawled with wisteria on lawns of clover, chocolate mint and lemon balm. It was a sensory attack when the acres were cut. Oleander and mimosa grew wild and aggressive. The catalpa that named the community had been in full bloom, with white lacy cup-flowers full of feeding bees. When you got under a good sized tree, it was like sitting under the impulse engines of a shuttle in atmosphere.

"The swamps," Leonard drawled, "are wonderful. Beats skiing in the Alps for god's sake."

"What the hell is wrong with skiing in the Alps?" Terrell wanted to know.

"Nothing, if you don't mind lollygagging around in a mountain range where they keep the records of lost travelers back 600, 700 years. Imagine, gulped down in a Medieval avalanche, and not ID'd until 1945!" McCoy felt a tug on his line, a half-interested nibble but nothing more.

Terrell sighed. "I'd say something poignant about getting drowned, eaten or dissolved less than twelve hours later in the steaming brew of the coastline, but that doesn't bother you at all." He jerked too quickly on his pole and frowned as the fish got away with his bait. "You like a state of flux, Leonard. It appeals to your personal religion, I suppose. But the thing is, you're bored in the Alps. You like being surrounded by explosive growth. Stinking, dying, steaming, sweltering, often poisonous and indifferent -- you love it!" He chuckled softly, shaking his head. "Because its never the same. Always different. The mangroves you walk in today could be blown to the Sargasso in the next hurricane."

His fishing partner was silent for so long he finally snuck a peek at him. The other man was watching intently upon a silky ripple against a sunken log.

"Look at how we first met," Clark finished.

He had a point. The mangroves had been what got Leonard into the Continental Science Fair for Teens. Clark had set up a booth dedicated to plant life that thrived upon heavy metal soils. Leonard had breezed in the next day to set up his booth on the life cycle of the southern mangroves, starting with the pro-WW3 migration of the trees up the coastline into South Carolina (thanks to postwar warming trend).

By the time the day was over, Leonard had learned amazing things about the abilities of hops vines in reclaiming land lost in slides and stripmining. And Clark had learned the importance of storms in delivering West Indies flora to the southern ecosystem. Just finding out monkeys and pythons weren't native to Florida was shock enough; Leonard's presentation was a nonstop lesson in how quickly humans could forget their own history.

"Maybe," McCoy said finally. "But there's more to it than that. I guess you could say ... I'm comforted at knowing that I'm not the most important thing in a swamp. If anything, I'm insignificant."

"That's comforting?" Terrell wondered. "Being insignificant?"

McCoy scowled. "C'mon. Look at all the people -- and races -- we've ever encountered that had an overblown view of themselves. Did you ever run into any of them that wasn't packin' a holster full of defensive and hostile insecurities?"

Terrell pondered, and finally shrugged. "Yeah," he admitted.


"Of course, I never encountered new races like you did. Wasn't that part of being Enterprise?"

"Still is." Leonard sighed in a depressed way.

"What's that tone of voice mean?"

"You ever try holding back a hyperactive ship's captain and a Vulcan whose curiosity compartment has overriden the caution compartment in his brain?"

Clark snickered.

"Don't laugh. I once had to test a serum on myself because the immortal children of a quarantined planet had stolen our communicators, Jim got beat up by a gang of those kids and we all came down with a plague of bright blue buboes. Spock said he would never understand the medical mind, and Jim had to fend off a fourteen year old bicentarian with a schoolgirl's crush."



"And here you are on the second tour of duty under them?"

McCoy let his silence speak for itself.

Clark pursed his lips. "That's why I like to command research vessels, Leonard. We don't ride point like you guys. We just follow after."

"Glmph. At least you're getting Pavel. Would do the boy good to get off the Enterprise for a while."

"I agree. He wants to be a Science Officer, and I sure don't see how he can with Spock aboard."

"Speaking of hyperactive ... " Len yawned.

They fished a bit longer in companionable silence. Beyond them, a cluster of spoonbills slipped over the sky, skimming to the coast on their large wings. Pink, white and green flashed by the fishers without a sound.

"Gorgeous," Clark said.


"You ever take a picture of them?"

Leonard shook his head. "Never thought about it." He blinked at Clark's astonishment. "Well, hey," he defended himself. "I'm not like Mea, Clark. I don't pack a camera everywhere I go."

Clark chuckled wryly. Unlike anyone else in 'Fleet, he'd been there during the romance, settlement, and end of Len's first marriage.

* * *

It was so rare to see anybody with a need for Duffy's Antigen, but it happened. Just one more backlash from the Eugenics Wars that the human race was paying for. In this case, it was some arrogant geneticists' intentions of "curing" sickle cell anemia.

He'd been working in wards since his fourteenth birthday, and he'd not seen a Duffy's Case until his nineteenth. Not from a real live person. And what a person.

Mea could have made a living posing for painters.

Just when he was getting over the aesthetic shock of witnessing such perfection between the Bantu and the Swede, she looked up from her reading (latest proof on an Andorian music piece) and smiled at him. The bells woven in her tiny braids rang, and every tooth gleamed.

He'd promptly swallowed his chewing gum. Not that he ever told her that. Not until late in the marriage and early in the divorce, when she was needing to hear something, anything, to make her smile.

Mea was a cosmopolitan child. For her he stopped spending his weekends on the islands. He started seeing more of the other world -- millions of museums and art galleries, a world of culture as unfathomable as Romulan physiology. Instead of steaming his brains out fishing in the channels, he risked chillblains in near-arctic opera houses and music halls. What had been mandatory cultural schooling while growing up, was getting an adult extension with his social life.

Maybe his first mistake was not impressing on her his need to get away from things once in a while.

And "things" could be members of his species. For Mea, relaxation meant a crowded concert or the latest showing of a Van Nuy hologram. She embraced the cutting edge of haute society the way an alcoholic clutched at a bottle. She was an only child and often lonely. Her parents had refused to have more children when her genetic imbalance showed itself, and for some reason chose not to adopt. She thrived in crowds, the noisier the better, and felt as though the masses adopted her.

She enjoyed trips to the tea plantations, where there was live music by local bands, and she could be counted on to interview a few and write an article, snap a shot and have it all submitted to her editors before it was time to brush their teeth in the hotel bath alcove. Occasionally in their truly whirlwind phase of courtship, he would feel like a key deer caught in the burning headlights of a lowland hovercraft, and he'd shake his head and wonder if he could possibly compete with the human race. He was just one person, after all. Mea was into the teeming throng.

There were days when Leonard felt her teeming throng was more like the Mongol Horde. He needed to get away. But Mea wouldn't hear of it without panicking. Isolationism was unhealthy, she insisted. Humans were pack animals. They needed each other. Didn't he know that those weekend trips into the jungle hinted of deep-rooted depression?

She didn't take "balderdash" as an intelligent answer.

Leonard frustrated her. He read shape notes in all four scales, but never sang. He could discourse his palate over a blended whiskey, wine or bourbon, discern the blend of teas or coffee beans in his morning cup, and complain that the baker didn't use spring water in his sourdough bread, but he didn't use that "talent" in a social setting. He was happiest with a big bowl of salmagundi or roasted peanuts; he wanted his food to be real, and carried absolutely no interest in oil paintings. He couldn't care less about Impressionism unless it had water lilies floating on the canvas, and The Magic Flute was the only Mozart he could listen to without groaning.

What Leonard repeatedly tried to tell her was he'd had plenty of "culture" rammed down his throat since he was a boy, and while he could "play the game" with the best, he really had a preference for parties where one could get joyously drunk, listen to their choice of music without guilt, and play tiddlywinks with the soberalls. Mea didn't see society as "playing the game." The differences between them was like a magnesium cloud in an otherwise flawless quartz. First it was only added to the aesthetic joy. Eventually, after looking at it from day to day, you wondered why the hell didn't you just get a clear crystal.

Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad, but he was as determined to "only visit" her world as much as she did with his. And medicine, frankly, was his life as much as writing was hers. He didn't try to tell her why it was so important to him, but then, Leonard didn't talk to anyone about that. If snapping a dead image of spoonbills might detract the wonder his living mind carried of the memory, then speaking of his profession might diminish something he felt inside. He had high feelings about the caduceus. Higher than even most other doctors. And he had a dread of trying to explain his ideals, fearing he might be misunderstood, or treated with amusement. In a way, it was a relief to be madly in love with a woman who really didn't care about his work.

Mea had her reasons for disliking hospitals. They symbolized a lifetime of medical treatment until she reached legal age for the genetic manipulation (consenting adults only). Hospitals meant pain and misery. She chose "life" and that meant a world as far away from sickness and death as possible.

He understood. But while people got under his skin, lifted his blood pressure and left him wanting to yank out his hair in massive clumps, he still liked people. He loved life. Oh, he did a great job of keeping that under a bushel. Until Miranda Jones embarrassed him with her observations of that love. She'd seen that far into him, but not far enough. Like Mea, she didn't fathom why he chose a world of pain and misery. So much for telepaths. If that was a guarantee for wisdom and insight, they should logically outnumber all the primates, right?

So he just withdrew for a while. Rested. Pulled the plug on the input and hung up the "BBL" sign. And the more he fielded complaints about his "misanthropy" the more irritated he got. His temper was typically hot and hard as Georgia red-dog, and quite often, it could strike down innocent bystanders.

* * *

Joanna had always preferred the sandy beaches and dunes that popped up in sheltered scoops around the coast. During the day she scattered the grains off the sea oats and threw them, spiraling, into the wind. She petted the furry leaves of the dusty millers and chewed on the tough red rose hips that sprawled on brambles in the oddest places between the soft mountains of white sand. When Mea's work took her elsewhere, he made some kind of nature outing on the weekends. Mea did the same when his schedule took him across the solar system, only with her Joanna got the liberal arts. At night they'd go down to the water's edge with portable lights. Joanna enjoyed watching the ghost crabs, racing down the dark wet sand like lightning streaks, refilling their gills with water to run back into their burrows. She would catch them with her light, and the little crabs would be immortalized for a bald second, frozen in bringing food to their mouths, before vanishing.

"Why do they run from the water?" she asked.

"Ghost crabs live on land," he told her. "But they can't quite break their ties with the ocean."

And she sat with her chin in her hand, a tiny girl under one of her infamous "sober moods" as she thought it over.

"The ocean is home?" she asked.

"No, not anymore. It was at one time, but they moved to land." He stopped, thinking, and smiled wryly. "In a way its still home to them. That's why they need to come back."

At times he felt for the crabs, running away from the waves yet drawn to them for their very source of life. In the hot months of summer when the nights were endless and pushed down on you like a thunderstorm that never came, he'd be driving home from the hospital and trading one environment for another: the overly cold, "climate controlled" hospital that was nevertheless a disease-ridden and medically difficult sanctuary of sorts ...

... and then there was home, with Joanna giving unhappy looks over dinner while her father and mother reverted to a strained civility that might be worse than screaming at the top of their lungs.

He had no idea what to do about his eroding home. Psyche class didn't prepare you for real life. And when you never encountered anything like this before ... when you had the mixed blessing of coming from a close-knit, loving family with no blasted discernible internal faults at all ... how could you know about domestic earthquakes?

What would his father say? If he were still alive ...

Leonard suddenly pulled over and parked, arms resting on the control dash. Past the line of crushed shell the mangroves rested. Nancy would have been able to give advice, he thought with a new wave of misery. Advice or at least an ear that ... that understood. Her home had been far from ideal, with her parents rehashing the Second Civil War in their living room. And no doubt why she threw herself into Mr. Robert Crater's life. Even vanishing into deep space had to have been better than Catalpa Grove, Georgia.

Damn it, but he hadn't wanted her to leave. That was all she ever talked about at school, when they weren't discussing endless studies or sports or dances. Home wasn't at all appealing to her. Nancy was graceful and smooth on the outside, but inside she was trying to fly away. Maybe he would have had a chance with her if he hadn't been so determined to be a homebody and stay right here.

"Right here" being zat in the neighborhood of her parents, and all her extended relatives. And as much money as her family did have, she wouldn't have been able to escape their sphere of influence even if she took up housing on the moon of Io.

Well, he got what he wanted. He was right here.

Maybe he wasn't a ghost crab. He felt more like the mangrove, the tree that, after working so damn hard to evolve to land, was turning around and trying to evolve back into the salt water. Give them credit for trying, but it was probably a lost cause. The trees had developed such a wonderful system of sowing seeds that could root itself in the shallow silts or float forever on the ocean until it hit land ... develop a painstaking ecosystem that created fresh water in a land of silt, oxygen in soil without, and shelter for things that germinated, hatched, swam, hopped, glided, slithered and flew ...

... only to lose it all when the next hurricane spun out of Africa like the blade off a giant sawblade, and struck at just the right angle to shovel the whole thing off the Atlantic Shelf until the next desperate mangrove pod struck seed in the same spot and started it all over again.

The glorious effort, ending with such dismal failure, struck a sympathetic chord in his spine.

Leonard closed his eyes for a moment, then leaned his head back against the rest and just listened to the nightlife. Countless frogs and insects and birds, an auditory chaos if you didn't know how to translate the threads of sound. Getting trained to translate the diagnostic sounds of the "salt shaker sensors" had been child's play compared to whittling out the news running through the swamp.

For long moments he just listened, as seconds grew to minutes with the patient progress of a mangrove pod sprouting in the silt of low tide.

The mangroves tried because they had to. When you came down to it, nothing was programmed for suicide, and that was what giving up was.

He opened his eyes and popped in a hardanger recording. It was time to go home.

* * *

Clark came in late, apologetic about missing the funeral.

"You were on the blasted border, Clark. I don't see how you could have got here. I got your message."

Clark sighed. He was a conscientious young man, and six months was late for personal condolences. "I'm still sorry."

"Don't be." Len put down his reading. Clark recognized it as the latest from Xenoscience. "Glad you made it in safe."

"The man who punts around twenty foot carnivorous lizards is worried about my being in space?" Clark wondered.

Len made a face. "I was thinking about the transporter."

"Silly me." Clark suddenly cleared his throat and glanced around the room. The extremely empty room. "When are you moving out?"

"I'm almost done. You were lucky to find me." Len got to his feet, moving like a much older man. "My brother's getting the house. Mea doesn't want it."


Len stretched his fingers, looking at the play of muscle under the skin. Four hours ago he'd performed open heart surgery on a Rigellian. He still felt absurdly good; not even his sudden dive into single status. "How long are you in?"

"Not long enough. You want to come home with me?"

Len grinned with surprising ease. "You bring a buddy home after a year in space, your wife will kick you out, you idiot. I'm moving over to my cousin's. He's on the Banks."

"Which cousin is that? You've got three million of them."

"Oh, cute. Seriously. That's the address I gave Starfleet. They'll contact me there."

"You're serious then."


Clark shook his head, finally smiling. "God help the military mind."

* * *

Three hundred years ago, the coast of Georgia had not been tropical. But things change, and global warming tended to linger. Couldn't blame that on the monkeys, though. Those little particular charming plagues upon society had made their homes mid-late in the history of the South, when filmmakers imported the long-tailed demons to add reality to their jungle movies. Movies filmed, they simply let them go where they thrived in the swampy jungles, along with some other things the continent was better off without -- baobabs came to mind. Joanna had once gotten lost under a single tree the size of a football field. It'd taken her father and grandfather the whole day to track her down.

The orchids he didn't mind. He enjoyed their strange colors, sprouting out of the tiniest crooks in the trees like butterflies. He smiled to see them as he walked up the twist of the driveway -- he frowned to see the monkeys had managed to get inside the carport again. Jake would be extremely unhappy to see they'd smeared fruit on the glass. Yet again.

Leonard had given up telling his roommate that monkeys understood revenge as good as any primate. Jake was hardheaded, and still determined to scare the little creatures out of his orange trees. Or maybe he was just obsessive about his fresh juice. It was hard to tell.

He thought Jake was a little odd anyway -- even for a cross-cousin. Lived in the heart of a tiny orangery, and he was breeding Kentucky coffee trees to tolerate the climate. Go figure. Jake thought he was just as loopy for taking up xenomedicine.

"The nearest aliens are way over at the Capitol, and they're mostly Alpha Centaurians!" Jake would shake his head, while Leonard patiently mouthed the familiar words of the weekly speech. "C'mon, cuz, it's not like there's even a lot of humans left in these-here parts! Ever since the Diaspora, you're lucky to see nine people per square mile on the population charts."

"So we don't have to worry about overextending our resources." Leonard stubbornly bisected a squat with the swipe of a cleaver. "Face it, Jake. There's a reason why the south grows most of the food for this continent -- most people don't want to live here anymore."

"That's their narrowminded, faulty, spoiled, uh, stupidity." Jake could get his fur up when reminded, even indirectly, that their family was charitably known as "anachronistic". "So what if most Terrans are bored with a two-season climate? They can go hitch a shuttle to Rigel."

"Most of them have." Leonard reminded him. "As well as Alpha-C, Luna, Sigma ... "

"Well they can have it. And their artificial food sources as well!" Jake grabbed half the pineapple and stormed off with it. Leonard could practically see the smoke trailing from his ears.

* * *

He wiped the sweat off his neck and suddenly ripped his shirt off, feeling the humidity settle on his skin. Last night had worn him out, and he just wanted to be here. Better smell like sweat than the hospital's recycled air.

Recycled air. They lived in one of the planet's largest producers of oxygen, and the hospitals recycled their air.

Better get used to it ... he might be smelling that for a long, long time.

Jake was out; the boat he preferred was gone from the dock and a note on the door said he was out with his fiance, don't wait up cousin. The happy tone made Leonard chuckle as he stepped inside the airy house. Mail rested on the lamp taboret; tapes and slick plastic flyers. He discarded an ad for a Rigellian mail-order spouse, shuddered at a shameless plea to donate to "third world worlds" on the edge of the Federation, and held his breath when he saw the little red personal mailtape.

His hand shook when he picked it up. Joanna's name was on it. And he was terrified of reading the contents. Each note he got got shorter and more impersonal. Distancing herself. He knew. He understood. He was the one leaving her behind, not Mea. He was doing the same thing, with all his affection tied into the "Dear Joanna" and "Love, your dad." He wasn't strong enough for anything else.

No wonder Nancy had finally fled. Staying home when it meant balancing on a knife edge of love and hate would vivisect your soul until there was nothing left to bury.

For a moment he held still, then sank into the cheap couch with his head hanging down. Joanna was, for the moment, a little girl with hair in braids like her mother, laughing with missing baby teeth as she pinned ghost crabs in her flashlight. Not a fourteen year old adult about to enter nursing school.

He'd read the note later. When he had the strength. It wasn't as though she used her letters to verbally abuse him, but the impersonal nature was working just as well. A civilian's star for bravery hung in his closet and he quaked at the thought of communicating with his own flesh and blood.

He set the tape back down on the taboret, and picked up the next. The gilt insignia on the safety lid glimmered in the gold sunlight. With only slightly more confidence, he popped the thing in the reader and snapped the on button.

Starfleet was perfectly glad to have him.

Well, good. That was good. Nice to know somebody did.

He ground the tape in his hands and threw it into the trash, the infamous McCoy temper striking like lightning. Because his acceptance didn't mean he was going to sign his soul over. Nossir. They'd have his loyalty, but never his blind obedience. He might be thirty-two years old, but they weren't going to make him the poster child of the military. Medicine was what he wanted. The military was just the means to his end.

He had one day of cooling his heels before his meeting with the Board. No doubt they were wanting to make sure he was a) serious about volunteering for deep space experience, and b) not insane about volunteering for deep space service.

He took a long, single panoramic sweep of his room, and walked outside.

Poison ivy, heavy with berries, brushed the legs of his pants as he walked by the barrier dunes. He wondered darkly if his immunity would be a plus on some jungle planet where anacardiaca species thrived.

The beach plums were finishing off; he picked a few as he went along without thinking. When he could no longer see the silver froth of the dusty millers he ducked sharper into the growth and waded through the strangler fig and ginger. The sharp smell of spice filled his nose. The dunes blocked his hearing of the ocean like earplugs. Wild honeybees took over with their humming.

His own boat, a punt sort of crossed with a canoe and designed for the 'gator channels, rested ahead not far from "Mosquito Country Cypress." He jumped in, pushing off with one foot and just leaned back in the sun, letting the minuscule current take him out of the bottle-shaped cypress forest and into the thicker tangles.

The mangroves sank into his sight, hot water lapping in muck. Long rubbery proproots danced over the water's edge, and somewhere, a score of day-bold racoons were chirping their birdlike calls as they hunted for shellfish and mudskippers. He eyed a crown conch shell lying on its side, the owner eaten out. A scatter of tiny coon-oysters rested nearby with the still alive neighbors clinging to the roots.

Prop roots grew higher the deeper he went, until they almost towered over his head. He counted sea squirts, anemones, sponges and hydroids hanging to the tough wood. Traces of the invisible raccoons were everywhere, in slippery pawprints and scatters of crabshell, sun-baked to a shade of red they never knew in life.

Marsh snakes looped like vines over the high branches, lazy and slow. He caught a glimpse of cabbage palms in higher ground, then the boat slipped on down the channel and he lost the view. The channel grew deep; cut by the alligators he could see genuine tropical forest now: fishpoison trees, Cuban lemonwood, milk bark and sweet bay rubbed elbows with mahogany, soapberries and inkwood. A cluster of seagrape bobbed in a pool, trapped from last night's tide.

Leonard didn't know how long he explored the channels as the day grew long with shadow. He knew it could be his last chance before he left Earth. And it might even be forever. Nothing was guaranteed. Nothing. If you wanted to draw comfort on anything, it should be on impermanence and transition.

The tide would rise soon. He marked its promise as the snails began to climb upward on the trunks, escaping the future water.

He was turning around when a scatter of plop-plops hit the water around him. Long red pods almost a foot in length struck at his exposed neck and arms. Over his head he heard the rustle of a rising wind as it bothered a swarm of monkeys.

He swept the seeds off and into the water without thinking, letting the ecosystem continue on its course. One pod rested in the bottom of the boat, and after a moment, he picked it up and stuck it in his side pocket. It felt like a better keepsake than a dead, empty conch shell.

He was accepted thirty six hours later. Wearing his new uniform and throwing his civilian clothes in the trash, he faced the starbase eyes forward. He carried two things with him from his home: the Indian ring on his little finger, and the red mangrove pod in his tapecase.

Fourteen years later, sick at heart and weary, he left Starfleet for Daran V. There was a lady waiting for him there, and a life he could be content in. Again his eyes faced forward, his back to the empty disaster of his past. And he carried that ring, and that pod, with him.

That pod remained in his grip until he was drafted for V'Ger. After they returned to Earth he requested leave and visited Clark. But when he said goodbye he returned to the swamps of his childhood and let the pod fall into the muddy water.

He rested in a carpet of sawgrass and watched the slender dark thing bob slowly along the lazy path of water. He put it here because a recent storm had wiped out its older relatives. It was still alive, still waiting to give birth. It would probably make it.

A mangrove pod could build an entire coastline.

But the birds who depended on it also killed it. Under their weight, the trees -- red and black and white and button mangroves -- all sickened and died.

And then there was nothing left but white bleached skeletons. To be swept into the ocean, along with the land they'd fought so hard to win.

Until a single red pod floated to the shore, and stuck tight with its tiny root.

He watched the pod until it slipped out of sight in the blinding glare of sunlight on seawater, chin resting on his drawn up knees. His new uniform was almost the color of the pod, and extremely hot. Heavy, too. Metal weighed him down at his left wrist and right collar. The belts were a joke. How long before he removed the point of the insignia from somebody's navel?

Eventually, he got to his feet, still facing east where the pod had returned home. He tugged the hem of his jacket down, smiled to think of it as a kind of salute, and went back to his life.

The End