Within an hour, as the Sun rose and lit the room, working as fast as we could, we had learned what had happened. I realized it was all my fault, and I had to stop working for fear I would drop a piece of equipment and break it. Paula arrived as I tried to explain.
"Fruit does not simply get ripe," I said. "It can get ripe and then change again as the season changes. It might become better suited for a certain species of animals that can disperse the seeds more effectively, and it becomes poisonous for other animals. Or maybe the west vine and east vine are different species. Maybe the soil is different."
"Maybe," Grun said. "We've still got a lot to learn."
Ramona nodded. They were exhausted and did not understand.
"I was wrong when I said it was safe, and that is what killed them," I insisted. "Maybe a change in nitrogen metabolism created excess alkaloids. Or perhaps it was a response to pests or pathogens. Or photoinhibition. Maybe it is unusually dry. The trees it parasitizes could have changed in some way."
Paula took my hand. "Come outside and let's talk."
In the warm sunlight, she looked at me gently. "It's always a shock, but we knew things would go wrong."
"I killed them."
"We all ate the west fruit before, and it was fine. It isn't your fault."
"We planted the fields on my recommendation. They could go wrong, too. A lot more people could get killed."
"We'll just avoid the west fruit until we figure it out."
"But what will we eat?"
"We'll find something. I know you're doing your best." She took me by both hands and kissed me.
* * *
My job, besides searching for edible plants, was to describe and classify Pax's vegetation.
At first glance, it looked Earthlike: trees, vines, grasses, and bushes. But the bushes that had leaves like bluish butterfly wings were a sort of land coral, a three-part symbiont involving photosynthesizing algae and tiny animals with stony skeletons that held locked-in-place winged lizards. Other kinds of land corals captured and ate small animals, and at some point bush coral had discovered that keeping prisoners had advantages over hunting.
A second glance at the sky, although it was blue, also proved that we were not on Earth. Green ribbons knobbed with bubbles of hydrogen floated in the air and got tangled in treetops, or perhaps they anchored themselves there. Other floating plants resembled cactus-spined balloons.
Some trees had bark of cellulose acetate plastic that peeled off in sheets with razor-sharp edges. Maybe someday we could process it into rayon cloth or lacquer. One by one, I was finding fruits, seeds, roots, stems, and flowers that might prove useful or edible, which was the pressing issue. Moreover, as the colony's botanist, I had to devise a taxonomy. Every scrap of information would help as we looked for a niche in this ecology for ourselves.
* * *