Friday, March 13, 2020

Death in Bloom Kelcey Davis

Life has been created on Mars to terraform it before the Earth becomes uninhabitable; by Kelcey Davis.

It was hours before his alarm would go off. Henry pulled off the sheets and sunk into his house shoes, careful not to disturb Carol. He accepted that sleep had escaped him, and extra time to pack would not be wasted. In the cabinet above the dishwasher he found a packet of noodles and tossed them into the microwave, waiting to open the door until just before the timer. They would not bother to pack the food.

They had not intended to abandon this place when they moved in, now almost a decade ago. Henry couldn't believe he had managed so long. Now, the neighborhood was a ghost town. The suburbs of Los Angeles suffered a quick and steady decline in population, and today the homes on Huston Street contained only a few reluctant owners. Five years ago had marked the beginning of a migration Northward and Eastward. At least, for those neighbors who could afford to move.

The Kissingers had kept Henry company and provided him some sanity in the last few years. The neighborhood was overgrown with weeds that snaked through lawns littered with broken glass and forgotten trash. Once cherished homes filled with refugees who slept away the days. Roofs caved and sidings peeled. That was, of course, outside the kept square of green that joined Henry's lawn with the Kissingers'. They were too elderly to flee, and Henry knew that whatever squatters laid claim to his home would greedily overtake them too, a malignant force overcoming the last bit of Huston Street.

The microwave chimed in announcement of Henry's forgotten noodles. Concerned, he quickly silenced it and listened for signs he had woken the family. He heard a harsh, phlegmy cough from Leah's room. His youngest, her health had suffered the most from the polluted air. Her developing lungs deserved better than this, and concerns for her had fueled their departure. Walking to her room, he saw lights on in the Kissinger house. They would drive them to the airport in a few hours. He was sure that they were suffering the same last-minute nerves as himself.



Laying her head in the grass, she smoothed her fingers across the gentle green blades. The hill, a short walk from Zia's home, had served as her escape since their arrival. And the stars. She could lay for hours, picking apart the stellar tapestry. She yearned for a day when her view would be unobstructed by The Carriage. They had moved near the base of one of its pillars five years ago now. Ayiwo's job had brought them here. Cold metal tubes loomed miles above. The incessant whir polluting the air could be drowned out, ignored, or even provide a peaceful background. But not the obstruction. Her beautiful sky was blocked by the terrible shine of the main tunnel. It would be over soon. The days of judgement neared.



Henry could think only of his children. If not for him, he was doing it for them and the children they would have on their new world. They floated down the hall and into an elevator. The flight from Earth had taken over five long months. Each seemed longer than the last. They grew less tolerant of each other's presence in the tight confines of the shuttle, the implications of departure casting a shadow of remorse over the group. If The Carriage failed, they would perish, and humanity with them. The elevator opened, and they were greeted by one of the ship's stewardesses.

"Henry! So glad to see you. I've got your room all set. Right through here."

They followed down the twisting hall. Silence. The children behaved in somber apathy. Henry would be proud of how quickly they had adjusted to microgravity were he not preoccupied. Leah floated along, propelling herself with short pulls on the safety rail. She would shoot herself off, drift to a stop, and shove again. She was a ghost of her former self. The stewardess lead them to a roomy cabin, two bedrooms joined by a central kitchen. She left in a hurry, no doubt rushing to greet another high-profile client. Henry looked to his wife who strapped herself to the bed, covering her face with a sheet. Carol had been difficult to convince. He understood. Swaying his bag off his shoulders, he clung to a chair, interlocking his feet with the leg rest. Masks were hung on the opposite wall, two adult and two child. For just a few minutes, Henry sank into his chair staring at the too perfect patterns of paint on the low ceiling overhead.

The alarm on his phone jolted Henry out of a deep sleep. He had closed his eyes in the armchair. It was not advisable to enter the transition conscious. Henry secured the children, tucking them into bed. Strapping on their masks, he switched open the valves to release the anesthetic gas. Carol had already masked herself. Taking one last glace at the amorphous outline she made in the sheets, he pressed his face into his own vessel for sleep. He could hardly tell one heartbeat from the next as he twisted the valve.



Zia had no greater love than her wife. She was a force of gentle power. A schoolteacher, she was driven by a passion for education, a result of her tenderness which had always been Zia's escape. It was nearing mealtime and Zia hoped for conversation with her wife. They endured the location of their home for the proximity to Ayiwo's school. She led a classroom for care of primary children, those in the first year of their schooling. Grabbing a handful of root vegetables from their kitchen pot, she set out.

Class was nearing a break and Zia snuck her way into the back, Ayiwo finishing their writing lesson for the day. She left her pupils with a prompt, giving Zia a quick smile and dismissing them for lunch. She skipped towards Zia and embraced her. They sat. Zia looked past her wife to the prompt on the board, an eerie reminder of the approaching days.

"What roles could the children of The Few find on the surface?" Zia read to her wife.

"Is it too much?" Ayiwo said, grabbing a purple carrot from Zia's had.

"No. You would be doing them a disservice asking them to enter the coming days unprepared. How are you handling the conversations?"

"We've been working in groups. I have a good sense now of who understands and who hasn't quite grasped it yet. I'm not sure what more I can do."

Zia took her hand with a gentle squeeze. She knew Ayiwo needed help and she would stay after lunch. Ayiwo didn't need to ask. Most classrooms had been converted to studies of early Martian culture to prepare the children. The young ones took an accelerated course in the nature of life and the consequences of its genesis.

Ayiwo pointed out her problemed group and Zia joined them, hoping to clear up what she could. Unlatching her bracelet, she laid it out on the table, pressing a thin button on the side. It popped open, exposing its list. It seemed endless, but Zia stopped it at a few of her favorite entries. F02501. M02502. They had been assigned the 02500 sector, the one in which today housed her home, her village, and the school in which the children were learning their histories. A young boy across from her laid out his own bracelet, fidgeting with the lock, and opening the list to the same spot.

"They were only numbers," Zia started.

Her young friend slowly scrolled through the list, carefully reading each of the names given to the first generation of the Martian people.

"Their creators thought so little of them that they were assigned only numbers. They were altered. They were grown. They were treated with less respect than we have for our own soil. The Few engineered them to endure the harsh environment but did not allow them to be so enhanced that they would create a world unfit for their creators. What does that say about their dispositions? Their capacities for empathy?"

Zia received only silence and distant looks.

"These are not easy questions. I know we expect a lot from you, but we only hope that you enter the trials informed. And you sir, with all those names to consider, your ancestors speak through you. Do you not wish to represent their truths?"

The young boy who had pulled out his list looked lost in thought. He took one last glance at the names before he replied.

"I can only hope to do justice. I have difficulty with your questions about the children. You regard them as passive beings, manipulated into their current situations. You dismiss them as children, yet you expect us, children, to hold our convictions with certainty. Why must we choose?"

"I understand your worries. We will make no small choices in the coming days. I, and your teacher, only hope to have forced you to question those choices. Do not expect to be absolute in your decisions. Only expect to make them as an informed individual."

Zia stayed through the end of the day. She thought only of her ancestors and hoped to bestow upon the children the ideas she had taken a lifetime to form. She thought of nothing but her ancestors in these days. Altered and grown in a small sky city attachment, along an equatorial section of The Carriage, they had suffered a solitary existance. Condemned to a life of hard labor, they were unleashed on the Martian surface just before the initiation of The Carriage. Years were spent transforming the planet an inch at a time. The soil was enriched, the atmosphere built, and the world populated. Plants brought to the surface evolved to span the continents. New skies brought waters back to the ancient surface. It took centuries.

Time marched only forward. Zia and the Martians could steer the future in the direction they chose. The era over which The Few reigned was facing an end. The trials would start upon the stop of The Carriage, and it had long since begun deceleration.



The Carriage had been designed to distract, to disillude. The cabins were meant to emulate life on Earth but succeeded only in fostering Henry's paranoia. No windows decorated the walls, no clutter of home, only bolted furniture. They had paid extra for a small plant. Even with it the air was stale.

The lead engineer for The Carriage, he had maintained quite the celebrity status during the trip. He expected less than the welcome he received, given that his ideas alone had bought his tickets. They had reached half light speed in six months, shattering all previous records. With a constant acceleration equal to the force felt by gravity on Earth, they had simulated home as best they could. A vessel without the necessary blinders would have surely plunged its passengers into worrisome mental states. Time outside The Carriage pulsed by.

The terraform process was the first of its kind, utilizing machinery of both manmade and biological components. They expected to find a Mars fit for humanity to begin anew. Henry was sure they would. The end processes would begin in hours. Henry was tasked to run the stopping committee, a group that would ensure the surface was up to standards. His pessimism was overshadowed by his desire to feel real, organic ground once again. Earth would have long perished by now. Of that eventuality, he was sure.



Zia and Ayiwo walked to the town center in silence. Deceleration calculations indicated stopping within the hour and they were eager to prepare. Others gathered. The dirt circle outside the polling station was silent but for quick whispers to nearby children from adults concerned with last minute facts. Zia walked to the station and grabbed two voting cards, bringing one back for her wife who waited on a soft patch of grass. Laying her head back into the grass, Zia listened as The Carriage's whirr dimmed to a hum and dissipated.

The Carriage rested. They had a duty to perform. The first face flashed on her voting card and she didn't need to read the name. Each of The Few had been studied by every Martian. They knew their names, their duties, and their reasons. Zia knew Henry Williams. She had no hesitation in her vote. The leader and designer of the project, his reward would be harsh but predictable. Only seconds passed before Zia saw the verdict on her screen. Death, deserved.

The next face was younger, Leah, daughter of Henry. She was a source of great controversy. Spawn of The Carriage's mastermind, her part in the ordeal was purely circumstantial. Did that alone permit her to face no consequences? Was she not, at least, complicit? Zia knew she would be permitted to join the surface. They could not charge a child for the crimes of their parents who dared not solicit their opinion on the departure. That did not mean Zia would avoid voicing her opinion. She skimmed the options on the ballot, death, servitude, or surface. When Leah joined the surface, she would be faced with the reality of her polling numbers. Why, then, should Zia not make her voice heard? Even if she were a small note in the polls, Leah would know others had not supported her arrival. With a sense of purpose, Zia touched death.

It was minutes before the ballot displayed results. Zia gave a quick look to Ayiwo who was equally perplexed at the outcome. Leah would join her father. Shock spread through the gathered crowd. It melted away, overshadowed by a sense of control. Yes, Leah would suffer a gruesome fate. That would serve as a lesson to the children to join the surface. Yes, she had little choice in their arrival, but that did not mark her actions forgivable or without consequence. The children to descend to the surface would live in the shadow of Leah, the child who would not be forgiven.

Henry's wife Carol was next. Again, Zia suffered no hesitation. She had brought death to the Martians and death was what she deserved. Others agreed, and the verdict passed quickly. George, their son, next lit the ballot. Zia thought, and decided it would be unjust to sentence two children in the same situation with the same role to different outcomes. If it must be two children to die, then that was how it would be. To allow them to live would be to allow the most powerful of the children on board The Carriage to descend. Again, she touched death. Again, the Martians agreed.

Adults ticked by on the ballot as did their death sentences. Zia surveyed the crowd, now with a widespread sense of purpose. Those that had wronged them would pay. More adults ticked by and more death sentences were rewarded. Finally, another child appeared. The group would allow this child to descend. Zia hesitated, hitting servitude and sitting back with a smile. She laid her head in Ayiwo's lap and smiled up. She closed her eyes and opened them again at a nudge from her wife. Holding the ballot to her face, she read the verdict, death. How could she have been so wrong? She underestimated the punishment deserved by a member of The Few and risked sending the wrong humans to the surface. Zia's stomach sank as she saw the next face, another child. She could no longer underestimate the severity of the human crimes. Death, she chose her option and was glad to see the conviction agree. Zia felt lifted. Each new face, a new opportunity to voice the fury of the early Martians.

Zia sat up to look at her wife. The last name had entered their ballot screens. Paul, a janitorial worker who had traded his freedom on Earth for a life of service on Mars. Zia and Ayiwo submitted their convictions together. Smiling, Zia flung her ballot to the ground and brought her wife's face close. Her heart raced as they kissed in celebration. On the lips of her wife, Zia tasted old metal. Pulling away, she ran her hand over Ayiwo's skin, warming and reddening at an alarming rate. As Ayiwo's breath turned from hiccup to shallow gasp, Zia rubbed her own skin, now red with blood. She felt a wetness across her that she had no hope to explain as she laid in the dirt, her lungs moist with the air that her throat could not seem to grasp.



Carol and the children would stay secured in their cabin. The deceleration and descent to the Martian surface did not require their attention. Henry did not want to put them through any more stress. Leaving their cabin, he made his way to the central control room. He joined the ship's pilot along with a few other leading engineers, the stopping committee.

The room had remained untouched on their journey. Now, it would serve its purpose. Henry nodded to the captain who gave the command for their uniform deceleration. The ship came to a halt over the main shaft. They would descend soon, once the team had determined the surface safe. They opened the observation chambers, pointing their tools downwards. For the first time, Henry saw the new Mars. He could have cried. The green, and the surface below, littered with plants. In the distance, they could see a body of what was surely water. Giddiness spread through the room. That was, until, they checked the local camera. The biologicals sent to terraform the surface were gathered, and each held a tablet. At the center of their cluster, on the side of the pillar, was a display. On that display, Henry recognized his own face. Soon, the monitor cycled through more faces. He saw his children, his wife, and his colleagues. There seemed to be accompanying text, and Henry did not need to speak whatever language they had developed to predict what it said. The captain spoke.

"We are recording the text, but don't hope to decipher it soon. We can, at least, look for consistencies."

Henry was angry and annoyed.

"What other reason would they have to display our faces, one after another, at the center of a gathering?"

"We've prepared. This has been discussed." The captain spoke with unwavering certainty, he would suffer no hesitation when the time came.

"I hoped it wouldn't be this way. They had every opportunity. This didn't need to happen."

They sat in silence, Henry staring down at his shoes. They knew. The occupants of that room knew what would quickly unfold on the surface below. Henry waited as more faces passed by on the display.

"No change in the text," announced the captain.

Henry didn't need to be told. He knew it wasn't good. Whether the biologicals were deciding to enslave them or burn them as witches, he didn't care. Whatever fate awaited him awaited his wife and his children. Henry broke the silence.

"Just give them a moment to finish whatever it is their doing. It seems to have been important to the biologicals. We can spare the time."

"I'm sure they won't be long. I'll ready it."

Henry watched as the last faces moved over the displays. Solemnly, he looked at the captain and to the other men that sat quietly in the room. No eyes met his. They knew it needed to be done. He looked back to the captain.

"Ready?"

The captain nodded. The biologicals had a failsafe. The Few would not have invested the time and the money without the assurance of their safety. Henry was tired. He had lived too long and put his family though too much to risk any hold ups now. The gas drifted through the deceleration shaft and dispersed at the base. He watched as the biologicals dropped. In the engineering labs, Henry's pride had been the team that designed it. Seeing it in action now, he had no doubt the plan was flawless. All it took was a white blood cell. A single type of white blood cell, hidden away, not to be worried about. The biologicals would not have been able to suspect it. Dormant, it caused them no harm. A seemingly useless cell, it remained underestimated, their secret undetected. That is, of course, until it was exposed to a catalyst. The cells set off, kamikazes in their own bodies, destroying biologicals from the inside out. They would wait a week before descending to the surface to ensure the gas had been fully effective. One last time, the surface of Mars flowed red.



Carol sat cross-legged on the porch and Henry watched her from the kitchen. She had been so at peace on Mars. Seeing her that way filled him with joy, and he felt that he and his wife had found peace. He walked out to sit with her and saw what she had her eyes on. Leah and George, playing in the grass on a nearby hill.

5 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed the mystery of the story"; trying to piece the two separate storylines together. Well written and a very interesting concept. Thanks for sharing this excellent story.

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  2. A really great intense story. I loved the intensity and the surprise at the end. I usually don't read science fiction, but this makes me reconsider it. It's that good.

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  3. Entertaining story. Not sure how the biologicals knew the names of the Few as they had been up there for generations with seemingly no contact with earth, but an absorbing read.

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  4. Some interesting concepts. But it was a bit hard to follow with all the changes and voices. It seemed to be like a novel crunched down into a short story format.

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  5. A dark imagining of what the future could hold. Themes of ethical and moral responsibility with respect to technology and survival. Ending surprised me, was trending toward a dark place and ended up in an even darker place. Interesting concept, enjoyed reading this.

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