They Dreamed of Poppies (a novelette)

BOOK: They Dreamed of Poppies (a novelette)
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They Dreamed of Poppies

by
Saul Tanpepper

© 201
4

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rv.140901

 

We really didn’t know
what to expect. Most of us didn’t even know how we were supposed to feel about the whole situation, the mission. The likelihood of survival wasn’t very good to begin with. Then again, chances were no better had we chosen not to go.

Much of the
doubt stemmed from the mystery of the colonists who went missing fifteen years ago. The uncertainty infected us all, though not enough to dispel the hope we clung to as if it were a life raft. Everyone believed that we would somehow, despite the heavy odds against us, persevere. We would make this work, even if it turned out the planet was just as dead as we feared the colonists were.

Hope. In the entirety of human existence, no tool has ever been wielded to greater effect. And no weapon has ever caused more to be lost.

For those few of us old enough to remember what it was like to stand on solid ground, to dig one’s toes into the damp earth, to feel the wind from some far-off place on our skin, this mission represents more than just a chance to live. It’s about ensuring the survival of our species. It’s about bringing this long journey to an end.

For the rest of the people, the ones who can only attest to knowing the insufficient whisper of filtered air pulsing onto the backs of their necks by the station’s decaying pumps
 — air that has been recycled so many times that the very essence of vitality has been leeched from it — their excitement is more a sort of psychic resonance than it is genuinely emotional. It’s an inherited memory of what it was like to live
outside
, with a sky overhead. They’ve spent their entire lives without setting a single foot on the ground, without feeling the sting of raw sunlight on their faces or smelling a dozen different flowers blooming all at once. They cannot know what it means to connect to a world, to a
place
.

From my reading of the reports I knew that the Mars terraforming project had achieved its every milestone, at least up until the point when communication with the various colonies abruptly stopped.

They had just proven that plants could grow in the nascent atmosphere. Robust plants, fast-growing, though mostly inedible. Most pioneer species, such as mosses and microscopic fungi, saprophytes — plants living off dead, organic matter — bear little nutritional value to humans. Nevertheless, they are essential for establishing and boosting the otherwise infertile soil so that the plants from which we can draw our own nourishment may then thrive.

Based on their progress, they had predicted that the planet would be ready for full-scale habitation and cultivation in less than ten years. Unfortunately, our projections had the hydroponics lab on the station failing after just seven. The colonists were instructed to do whatever they could to advance their timeline.

For years after communication stopped, we debated whether it was that request itself or something they did in response to it which led to our being cut off. We still don’t know.

Naturally, we tried everything we could to reestablish contact, save for actually making the trip out to them. We had
 — make that
have
 — only the one functioning ship, the one I now pilot. At the time, it was deemed too risky, the likelihood of success too small, to chance a scouting mission.

So, instead, we waited and listened. Weeks turned into months, months into years, and no word came. We finally had to admit that something had gone terribly wrong. Four colonies’ worth of people, a fifth of our population, were gone.

The project was scrapped.

We decided instead to focus our energies elsewhere, living on the hope that an alternative to Mars would present itself, and that meanwhile the biolab would outlive our direst projections, that it wouldn’t fail
 . . . wouldn’t fail . . . wouldn’t fail.

It failed. After fourteen years of constant fixes and tinkering, the lab’s nutrient recyclers chugged to a stop. And in the meantime, no alternative opportunity had presented itself.

That was nine months ago. The stores would last, maybe, two more years.

We hastily assembled a small team of eleven of our best people
 — scientists and engineers and mechanics, along with nine of their family members, plus some animals, and a hold full of plants and seeds — and we set out to see if maybe we might salvage something from the Mars attempt.

I was chosen to lead them, which meant that I would not be staying. Rather, my job is to take them, get them established (hopefully), then return to the station, where I still have family. Six months to get there, six more back. A year in between for the colonists to get everything ready for us.

Three hundred and eighty-six human beings. We numbered ten times that many after the biolab experiment we called Earth failed four decades ago.

An alarm on my control console begins to sound, informing me that we have finally arrived.

I take us in over Syrtis Major first, site of the initial landing more than twenty years ago and the smallest permanent settlement. I don’t expect to see much. All eyes are on the monitors and everyone’s talking.

As soon as we have visuals, the chatter stops. “See anything?” I ask, since I need to focus on flying. The general consensus, once the initial shock wears off, is
 . . . dandelions.

They beg me to stay. They want to make another pass, to explore. I keep going. I have my orders.

At Zephyria colony, we find sunflowers.

And then, as we pass over Mare Tyrrhenum at a risky two hundred feet, Siobhan Tierney, our chief scientist, says the ground is covered in mustard. Bryson insists it’s buttercups. They begin to argue, but stop when we leave it behind.

Each of the sites is covered in vibrant blooms. The terrain in between is still as barren as it had been for the billions of years preceding our arrival, but the growth appears to be spreading, sending out tendrils in all colors following the crevasses of the ancient Marscape. Earth flora now covers thousands of alien acres.

We arrive in Aeolis by mid afternoon, site of the largest and most established colony. It’s impossible to tell anything specific about the terrain visually, since it’s covered in growth, so the Auto-Nav selects a smooth, flat spot two kilometers outside the encampment’s perimeter, and there I lower the massive landing pod and all they will need to begin anew. It’s as close as I dare approach to avoid possible contamination.

I am entranced. There are more blooms here than I’ve ever seen before, covering the ground as far as the eye can see. Gorgeous rolling vistas of brilliant color.

Most of the plants appear to be wildflowers and are thus largely without nutritive value for us. Still, my spirits soar. I have to fight the urge to go down there and lay in it. But the infection prevention protocol dictates that I remain on the ship in isolation, just in case I might be exposed to something harmful. It would be devastating if I were to convey an alien disease back to the station.

Not that it really matters, in the long run. If we die, we die. Nevertheless, protocol is protocol.

Once I’ve disengaged the pod from the winch cables, I reluctantly retreat to a low altitude, geosynchronous orbit and switch on the remote cams.

Now I am truly alone.

I satisfy my longing to be down there by slipping into childhood memories. I picture the hill behind our house in Upstate New York
 — what
used
to be New York — and me lying on the carpet of daisies and clover in the deep shade of the one lone, massive elm. That tree managed to defy nearly everything humans and nature could throw at it, whether smog or whittled adolescent avowals of love that proved not to be so immortal after all. Against a canvas of grass, concrete and sky, a vibrant floral rainbow splayed itself out each and every spring. I spent the first half of my childhood playing beneath the perfect isosceles of the tree’s canopy. The second half I passed on the cramped station.

I often think back and wonder, did I ever notice that there were fewer blooms each year leading up to the end?

We took it for granted. All of it.

Until it was gone and it was too late.

After all these years of living on the space station, I remember how much I’ve missed that hill, those fields. That tree. After four decades of confinement within narrow, sterile walls of corroding steel and decaying plastic, it comes back to me how important it is for us humans to connect with the living soil. How vital.

“They’re home,” I whisper. And soon, God willing, I will too.

* * *

Our first task is to locate the colonists, assuming they’re still alive
 — their bodies, if not — and to try and figure out what happened to them.

From my position high above the ground, I divide the crew into thirds and assign them to the initial search and assaying teams; the last group remains aboard the pod to tend to the animals.

As the teams prepare, I take a moment to wonder if the GenAtmos units scattered about the planet are still functioning. At some point, the gas levels will stabilize, but it remains to be seen if that stasis point has yet been reached. At the moment, the atmosphere on the ground is thin, thinner than I would’ve guessed given the robustness of the plant growth. You wouldn’t want to be running any marathons in it, but it’s certainly capable of sustaining life.

Despite the availability of breathable air, I tell everyone to suit up. I have to take into consideration unknown risks. I tell them they’ll be better oxygenated this way and won’t wear themselves out as much. But the pretext quickly crumbles the moment I instruct my second-in-command, Bryson Allendon, to take a chicken with him. “In an open-air cage.”

Bry chuckles. He’s one of the older folks from Before, like me. We first met after our evacuation to the station as children. His forebears were all coal miners, so he carries a lot of guilt around with him, which he medicates in a way that most of us disapprove— with illegally made alcohol. In this particular case, though, he also carries a bit of knowledge from that archaic profession. He says, “Too bad we don’t have any canaries.”

Some of the others give him a confused look. They were born on the station After, so their familiarity with animals and plants and their uses for other than food covers only extant species, not extinct ones.

Neither of us bothers to explain.

I watch the team step out onto the surface, away from the ramp. Knee-deep in growth, sometimes hip-high, they appear to be sinking down into the planet, and a wave of irrational panic washes over me. Like a tidal wave, it drowns my desire to be down there. But as the minutes pass without harm coming to them, this, too, ebbs away, and I wish once more that I weren’t stuck so far away.

They step single-file through a lush patch of marigolds, gingerly snapping stems, crushing leaves and petals. They brush their gloved fingertips over their delicate heads in wonder. Twenty minutes later, they’re out of sight of the ship’s external cams, vanished over a ridge.

I check on the analytical team, who are collecting samples around the immediate vicinity of the pod, then switch to Bryson’s video feed for the scouting party.

“You seeing this, Joe?” his voice welcomes me, crackling through the speaker.

I nod, clear my throat, and say with what little breath hasn’t been stolen from my chest by the incredible expanse of blooms filling the screen before me, “Yeah. I do.”

“Poppies. Big’uns.”

He bends down and the image on my screen swivels dizzyingly, smearing into an indistinct blur. The lens quickly readjusts to the nearer focal point and his hand reappears, sharp and clear. I watch as he cups the petals of one plant between his fingers, and once again I’m left speechless by the flower’s girth. A dark purple pupil inside of a crimson eye. For a moment I have the eerie sensation that it’s staring back at me, that we’ve somehow woken it and it now knows we’re here. When he pulls away, his palm is covered in a red powder.

“What are poppies?” one crewmember asks. “Are they edible?” The questions go unanswered.

“I don’t remember poppies being on the colonists’ inventory,” Siobhan comments.

I confirm that they weren’t. I have the entire list memorized: a few hundred pioneer species of plants, mosses, fungi, and algae to establish the soil. A handful of crop plants, which I’m still not sure were ever sown. On the faunal side, the list includes meat animals and several pairs of dogs of breeding age. Mutts, of course. Better for genetic diversity and all that. The dogs’ll be long dead by now, though their pups and grandpups might still be around if they managed to survive. I realize I don’t hear any barking through the team’s mics.

BOOK: They Dreamed of Poppies (a novelette)
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