The Second First Time

by L. Lambert Lawson

Sarah had always hoped she’d walk into a morning like this. Hoped more than knew. Crisp air, fresh, the first breath she’d ever taken outdoors. Her instinct screamed at her to run–no, frolic she amended; yes, frolic’s the word–but the stiff scientist in her intervened. Instead, she sat the clear, plastic case in the grass, careful not to rattle the gift inside, and gawped at the vista. Purple mountains surged from the earth, a loose connection of lakes lapping at their feet. Skimming the water, grebes traded titters, the high-pitched calls scaring Sarah even though she’d worn out every file in Dr. Miloslaw’s Podcast of the Natural World, Vols I-IV. Flowing grasses gave the landscape of movement, waving green shot through with yellow and red slashes, flowers Jason had coded.

“For you,” he’d said.

“For us,” she’d replied. “For everyone in these bunkers.” He’d opened his mouth to get the final word, but she’d kissed him quiet.

And now, in the presence of all their years of work, she was the one nudged into silence. They’d done it. All of them. Really done it. She raised her arms in glee, but, again, the scientist in her interceded. There’d be time for joy later. Joy and a touch of wine, her First Earth weakness.

She slid a notebook out of her breast pocket and made ticks with a pencil. “Purpled ridges,” she said. “Check. Alpine bodies of water. Check. Avian species and cumulus clouds overhead. Check and check.” She stooped and ran long fingers through the grass at her feet, dug her nails into the soil, damp but not as thick as she’d been told real soil would be. As she combed the earth, organic matter in various stages of decay floated toward her face. She inhaled, relishing each breath as though it were her first–and since she’d lived in the bunker for most of her 29 years, ever since the Aura Flash had wiped out First Earth, each breath really was like a first breath. A second first breath. She filled her lungs, each drawing a present she couldn’t resist unwrapping early, before Jason arrived.

“Hurry Jason,” she said aloud, and she said it again, much louder, analyzing how her voice sounded in the open air, how it dripped down the mountain, skidded across the lakes, and pinged off the far mountain faces, all in a matter of microseconds. Her heart thudded in her chest, and, this time, the scientist failed to still the woman inside. Sarah fell to her knees and hot tears limned her cheeks and plopped onto the earth. Their Earth. And for right now, her Earth.

She looked over her shoulder, into the clear, plastic case she’d carried in on the hike. The penultimate piece of the puzzle sat within, oblivious to the wider world. The gift Dr. Miloslaw had dreamed of for Second Earth, a propagating pine he’d called it. The secret lived in the needles, but he wouldn’t explain that part. “Just code it,” he’d said. “Then plant it.”

So Sarah flipped the hinges on top of the case and let the pine feel non-bunker air tickle its needles for the first time. Then she lifted the small pine delicately in two hands and sat it on the grass. Now what? A spade–she’d need a spade. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a spade? She placed her palm flat against her forehead, thinking. Then, she had it. The case. She could rip the door off and dig with it.

But she didn’t have to.

The roots of the little pine sawed back and forth at the grass, the motions jerky at first but then becoming smooth as they dug into the soil. Loose dirt piled around the rootball as the pine burrowed farther into the earth. Slowly, methodically, the propagating pine planted itself.

Herself, Sarah thought. It’s a she. Dingo. A random name, a silly name, she knew, but one that felt right. What a nice… and then the pine trembled, and Sarah took a step back. Each point of those tiny needles glowed red, and Sarah retreated farther away. And when the needles detached from the tiny trunk and rocketed across the landscape, glancing off stones and diving into grass and squiggling into mud, Sarah dived behind a boulder. A woody, green scent exploded into the air, and the sky disappeared behind a symphony of jittering pine needles. Much later, when she thought it safe, Sarah uncovered herself, stood, and fell back to the ground.

All around her, all over the now saw tooth horizon, all along the shores of the lakes: pine trees. Verdigris and emerald, pea and puce. Every color of an emerald rainbow. Pine trees everywhere.

The world was complete. Their world, this Second Earth. The morning after the Aura Flash, First Earth had woken to a diseased world: baked earth, charred forests, bare ocean floors. When the others awakened in Second Earth, once Dr. Miloslaw gave the all clear, the deathly nightmare of First Earth would be erased.

She couldn’t wait for Jason to see it, to share it with her. Couldn’t wait for his code to unfurl from her cuticles and follicles. She’d have to be patient. Creating a human surely couldn’t be as easy as creating a pine. Or could it? She peeled three fingernail tips off her right hand, plucked several long hairs from her head. She dug into the earth with the heel of her shoe, too impatient to break the case into a psuedo-spade. She tittered like the grebes. Then, she placed her genetic code in the hole and covered it. Smooshed the earth down. Closed her eyes. Counted twenty heartbeats. Waited. Counted twenty more. When she opened her eyes, nothing had changed. Same lump of dirt; same teeming forest-scape.

No Jason.

“Dr. Miloslaw,” she said. “There’s a problem.” The air crackled as if an errant radio signal were scratching against the dirt. Syllables whispered against her cheeks. “Dr. Miloslaw. Amplify to 120.”

Then the scratching became humming, the syllables words. “Hello, Sarah,” a voice said.

“Jason!” A pause. “Jason?”

“I know. Not exactly how we planned. But I can see you. I can see it. My God. We did it.” His voice came through like thunder from a nearby storm.

Sarah angled in different directions, posing for the grasses and birds and cerulean expanse. “Where’s the camera?”

“Miloslaw coded them into the trees. They’re everywhere. Sort of disorienting, really.”

“Can you cross over?”

“Not yet. There’s a…complication.” When Sarah didn’t reply, couldn’t reply because her heart had crawled into her trachea, he continued. “I don’t seem to have a body.”

“Jason,” Sarah whispered.

“Sarah,” Jason said, his voice closer, raspier. Sarah turned and looked up into smooth, blue eyes and an open smile. In one hand, a tapered bottle of montepulciano, fingers vined around two glass stems.

“Just kidding,” he said, blocking her fists with his free arm. “Ouch. Okay…okay. It was a joke.”

“Not funny.”

“No. Well…sort of.”

Sarah dropped her fists. “Can you believe it?”

“I believed in it when all we had was code.”

“Do you think Dr. Miloslaw…” she began, but it didn’t matter. The good doctor didn’t matter. Not right now. Only Jason mattered. Only that they were together again, up on this vista they’d created, sinking shallow footprints into the soil, and holding each other like it was the very first time. The second first time.

The End