The Naming Ceremony for the new world started with a ball in the Director’s palace. The festivities were half in and half out of doors, with perfect Homeworld spring weather even the Director couldn’t have ordered. The air inside was perfumed by banks of flowers, and outdoors the warm, moist night air smelled of life itself. Ambassadors from the forty-three Named Worlds circulated with their companions, speculating on what the Name might be. Scattered among the tables, xenariums exhibited plants from the world being Named.
Doranna Magee tiptoed out of the service room with stalks of orchids trailing from her arms. She inserted the new stems into a flattened arrangement and wrapped the broken stems in paper. “Doranna, you have lilacs for A6,” came through the speaker attached to her earlobe. She turned toward the service room.
On her way, she paused at a xenarium. It was a hollow glass cylinder with a single rubbery gray stalk inside. The plant leaned against the glass, drooping what looked like large gray grapes. The base of the cylinder was cracked, and Doranna realized that the graystick (so the label said) from the new world was wilting. She touched her earlobe. “Peter, X12 is cracked—wilting.”
“Let it. The stuff we’re keeping is in the Museum.”
The celebration went on through the night. At dawn, Doranna passed by the graystick again. Its stalk had withered to a brittle-looking stick, and the grape-things seemed even larger against the glass.
Chimes rang, summoning the revelers to breakfast and the Naming itself. As the last group went in, whispering about the Name, Doranna and her three fellows emerged from the service room.
“Trash truck’s here.” Peter unlocked the exit door. “Break down the arrangements, and be careful. We’re returning the vases for credit.”
The plants from the new world wilted as soon as they were taken out of the cylinders, except for the graystick. It was already dead—its stem dried like a wire and grape-things hanging like shiny glass balls. As Doranna heaved the graystick onto the mound of vegetation in the truck, one of the balls split open. Gray powder spilled onto her smock, but she didn’t wipe it away. The state of her uniform didn’t matter now.
Applause came from the Inner Hall, and at the same time, the sun burst over the horizon.
“Let’s get going,” Peter said from the cab of the truck.
The other three scrambled in with him.
At the first bump in the road, Doranna heard a soft pop. She frowned for a moment, then rested her head on the seat back and slept. Above the dead graystick, a fine gray powder swirled through the air.
In the Inner Hall, the weary celebrants congratulated each other on the Naming of Grain. Grain was a fitting addition to a stellar empire that had never been—no, could not be—conquered.
Behind the truck, the warm Homeworld wind blew the graystick spores across the land.
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