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Authors: Dana Stabenow

No Place Like Home

BOOK: No Place Like Home
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No Place Like Home
Dana Stabenow
Author’s Note

In
Cosmos
Carl Sagan said, “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” I have wanted to write this story ever since I read those words because, may God and Carl forgive me (to paraphrase Alan Jay Lerner), I am not sure that he is right.

WE PUT DOWN
at the equator because it was the warmest latitude on the planet. Also the flattest.

“And the most boring,” Grady said, hunched over the viewport.

“And the safest,” I said, trying to peer over his shoulder.

“Well, it’s no place like home.”

“Not yet,” I said. “Give us time.”

There wasn't much of that going around, and we both knew it. “Look at that darker patch of ground over there. Do you remember if any of the scans showed iron ore deposits in this area?”

“There’s nothing here, Grady,” I said, relieved at the change of subject. “That’s why we landed here, nothing to trip over. Don’t worry, I’ll have the rover up and running in a week and you can prospect your little heart out. That ridge we scanned from our last orbit is less than fifty klicks away.”

He didn’t say anything, but then he didn’t have to. We came from the same place, a planet with too many people and not enough room, where children went hungry, and now some were starving because funds and materiel had been funnelled to this expedition. I thought of my nieces, Joanna and Annie, and my nephew, David. Odds were I’d never see them again, but if I did my job and didn’t screw up, I might help give them a future.

The space station, the habitats at L-4 and L-5, the colonies on the moon, they were self-supporting but their capacity was limited. We needed somewhere to go, a suburbial planet, a bedroom community for six billion. Joanna was eighteen, David ten, Annie two. This planet was theirs.

The plains stretched out in front of us, the far but finite horizon jarring sensibilites accustomed to an infinite ebony expanse. The dirt was blood red, the sky pastel pink. After twenty-five months in transit, sunshine diffused by an atmosphere hurt my eyes.

I felt a touch on my shoulder and turned to see Esme Lauter. I stepped aside. Esme crowded in next to Grady for his first, non-telescopic look at our brave new world, and began a soft chant in Quarto, the language of the Universal Church of Being. The UCB was the fastest growing organized religion back home; at last count there were more Universalists than Cathars. The Council, six of twenty-one senators UCB, made it virtually impossible to assemble a crew for our expedition without at least one pro-life, anti-capital punishment vegan on board.

I understood. In a place of no hope, where daily choices were made between who got to eat and who didn’t, a faith that preached the sanctity of all life was some solace. It gave a spiritual underpinning to the idea that everybody got to eat, although I never did understand the logic of a faith that forbade the eating of meat and allowed the eating of grains and vegetables. Life is life, isn’t it? Either it’s sacred or it isn’t. Esme tried to explain it to me once—“We don’t eat anything with eyes”—but I guess I’m just not the pious type.

I thought again of Joanna and David and Annie, not an ounce of spare flesh between them, as healthy as they were only because my brother-in-law was a commerical fisherman in Prince William Sound. They couldn’t count the fish he caught until he got back to the dock, and there was a lot of open space between the dock and the fishing grounds. Everyone in our family was a card-carrying omnivore.

Esme finished his chant, and explained that it was a prayer of thanksgiving offered up to the creator of all living things, sort of a verbal thank-you card to god for getting us safely to our destination. We murmured something appropriate, and he left.

· · ·

 

We weren’t on the ground more than two hours before Grady had us suiting up. It didn’t take us long to get used to gravity again, and Hiroshi and Roberto had the drills out and in place before sunset. There was ice, all right, thirty-two centimeters below the surface. For once, the gnomes at home had interpreted the probe data correctly. Lucky for us, since our water tanks were running on empty.

“Cold,” Hiroshi said, emerging from his goonsuit shivering and pinch-faced.

“Er than a witch’s tit,” Roberto agreed cheerfully. He'd been nauseous for two years; he didn’t care how cold the planet was so long as it had enough gravity to keep his feet and his dinner down.

I’d been rearranging the furniture in the galley, unbolting tables and chairs from the bulkheads and placing them on what was now the floor. I’d reduced our dining room from three to two dimensions and our ten-man crew was shoulder to shoulder but no one complained. Betty cooked, making a praise-worthy effort at extracting flavor from foil envelopes of alleged food packed two A.U.s away. Betty was a genius in the galley, but Betty Crocker herself would have been culinarily challenged by what we had left in the pantry. I’d have killed for a hot, meaty chili, smothered in onions and shredded cheese.

Grady made a little speech and raised a toast of eighteen, now twenty year-old single malt scotch, hoarded carefully for just this occasion. It didn't taste as smooth here as it did back home, but the flush started hot and low in my gut and spread up and out.

Esme followed the toast with a ceremonial chant. The UCB liturgy has a chant for everything, and encourages lay participation. Hiroshi, a Buddhist and very polite, bent his head. The rest of us waited with varying degrees of patience for it to be over, and went to bed.

It was Grady's night, and either the Glenmorangie or the gravity or both inspired him, because it was an inventive few hours before I got any sleep.

Engineers do it anyway they can.

· · ·

 

I was a mechanic. I’d spent the voyage out minding the drive, not that demanding a job given the passive nature of a nuclear propellant system: detonation, reaction, thrust, course adjustment, coast, detonation. After turnaround about all I had to do was make sure the next charge was in the chute prior to launch, and that the thrust plate hadn’t suffered a meltdown following detonation. Yawn. I was looking forward to handling tools again.

Landing+1 found me breaking out the components of the rover, essentially a perambulating platform with four enormous wheels. The engine was solar-powered, which made for a relaxed cruising speed and a guaranteed fuel supply. We weren’t going anywhere in a hurry, but we would get there in the end. The cabin was a plated half-sphere. I christened it the Tortoise and the name stuck.

There wasn’t enough oxygen or enough atmosphere to work unsuited, and working with gloves slowed me down. It took until lunch to get the platform assembled, and I’d just started to inflate the first segment of the first tire when Grady called us inside for a break and lunch. I unsuited in the airlock, indulged in a futile wish for a long, hot shower and climbed through engineering and hydroponics to the galley.

Lunch was an herb omelette with a dusting of parmesan and fresh radishes. Grady complimented Betty, and Esme, our hydroponist, and inquired as to the menu for dinner. “Hot beef sandwiches,” Betty said.

“Shit on a shingle,” Hiroshi, the only ex-Marine in the group, said sotto voce.

“I’m going to need water,” Betty said. “Soon.”

“You’ll have it,” Hiroshi said, brightening. Half our crew complement were mining engineers; they were happy to be digging up anything. The sooner I got the Tortoise operational so they could go prospecting, the better.

That night was Esme’s. He was very sweet, but he always had to be in love, and his brand of foreplay involved a lot of verbal reassurance that he was loved in return. If we hadn’t been short one woman, and if I hadn’t lost the toss between Aya, Betty and myself with Kirsten already committed to Roberto, I would have been happy to forego the pleasure. As it was, I murmured a lot of sweet nothings that seemed to satisfy him and fell asleep as soon as possible.

Farmers plant it deep.

· · ·

 

By noon on Landing+2, we had water, about a liter, melted down from a core sample Hiroshi and Kirsten pulled out of the ground three meters off the starboard bow.

By thirteen hundred, Betty had run it through a filter, boiled it in the microwave and we all had a ceremonial sip of reconstituted freeze-dried coffee.

By sixteen hundred, Hiroshi, Kirsten and Aya had installed the drill, the liquifier, the pump, the filter and the catch tank and Boris had attached the flow line to the ship’s potable water coupler.

By seventeen hundred we had running water.

By seventeen-thirty Betty was boiling more water for dinner.

By eighteen hundred, Betty was dead.

· · ·

 

Grady had the crew assemble in the galley the next day at oh-nine.

“Let me get this straight,” Grady said. “You slammed Betty’s hand in the microwave door, and when she tried to fight you, you slugged her. Which blow, Aya reports, knocked her into the bulkhead, where she suffered a severe injury to the brain and died almost instantly.”

Aya, our medic, nodded confirmation.

“Talk,” Grady said. His face was set, and his skin was a dull red all the way up over his scalp.

“I didn't mean to kill her,” Esme said. “But she wouldn’t listen to me. I had to stop her.”

“From doing what?”

“Committing mass murder.”

There followed one of those silences that smells like a riot in waiting. “Okay,” Grady said finally. “You mind explaining that to the rest of us?”

Esme was more than ready to. Like Betty, Esme needed water for his hydroponic system. He’d run a sample through the scope and detected what he unilaterally decided were bacteria, single-celled micro-organisms, the lowest order of life, but life nonetheless.

And we hadn’t brought it with us, it had been here.

“Wait a minute,” Grady said sharply. “There isn't enough oh-two on this rock to sustain life. The imagers, the probes, our own scans from orbit proved that over and over.”

“Bacteria don’t need oxygen, or at least some of them don’t. Facultative anaerobes prefer it, but they can live without it.”

“It’s as close to absolute zero out there as I ever care to get,” Roberto said. “What lives in that?”

“Maybe nothing we know of, yet,” Esme said. “But bacteria live in ice in the poles on homeworld. And one of the reasons bacteria survive so well is that they can go dormant for long periods of time.”

It was about here that I pretty much zoned out of the discussion. Like I said, I was a mechanic. Mine was the care the gear engages. Mine was not the care and feeding of microbes.

For the next hour we sat as Esme showed us pictures of what looked to me like worms, displayed next to a red blood cell pictured in the same scale. It looked like a penny next to an eyelash. Roberto had to be restrained until Esme explained it was his own blood, not Betty’s.

Esme juggled words like “heterotrophs,” and gave an impassioned disquisition on the subject of cyanobacteria, which according to him had single-handedly created the atmosphere back home.

Esme looked Grady in the eye and said firmly, “I think we should shut down operations.”

“And do what?” Grady said. “Esme, if we shut down operations, we stop acquiring water. Even with recycling every ounce of body fluid, we nearly ran out on the trip here. We won’t survive.”

“Then we don’t,” Esme said. “There is life indigenous to this planet, I have proved it, and I don’t care if we die for it, we don’t roll over the top of it just because we can. Life is sacred, Grady. Any life.”

“They have eyes?” I said.

Esme's head snapped around. “What?”

“These bacteria. They have eyes?”

He flushed, almost as red as Grady. “They are,” he said carefully, “the building blocks of life, of all life. Who knows how they will evolve, what forms they will take?” He drew himself up. “The point is, they are life forms, indigenous to this planet, and we don’t shove them out of the way just because we can. We have to stop operations, now.”

BOOK: No Place Like Home
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