Pema tiptoed through the amber morning light as fast as she dared, her feet silent on the titanium ground panels. She clutched her shoes to her chest to contain her clanging heart and kept her head down, as if this would make the passageway stay empty. Her mother’s voice filled her head.
We’re starting on Field 4-1 today.
Something about a generator down. Routine Maintenance. Pema didn’t hear the rest. Didn’t ask questions. She couldn’t. Panic had gripped her throat too tight.
She grit her teeth. Tiptoeing wasn’t going to get her all the way to Field 4-1 in the Large Crops Unit, then back to the Hydroponics Lab in the Small Crops Unit where she was supposed to be. Lab Director Keran did not tolerate tardiness in her apprentices. A note would be sent to her parents. Questions would be asked.
She glanced down the glass-enclosed passageway, an idea tugging at her. Something that would do more than raise questions, if she were caught.
She could run.
Again, her mother’s voice filled her head. We don’t run, Pema. It’s an overuse of oxygen. Very selfish.
But she thought of the harvester, of what its razor sharp blades would do to her treasure hidden in the soybean plants of Field 4-1. She saw the hand-worn cover with its yellow border framing a picture of a crashing ocean wave, shredded. All the beauty inside scattered across the field. She shuddered.
Just this once.
She took one step, then another, and another, building up her courage first, then her speed. Tension slipped from her shoulders as her legs reached, her feet pounded, her heart pumped. A small smile broke through her frown.
She slid to a stop at the end of the passageway and pulled the entry hatch handle down before she lost her nerve. She rushed with the cycling air into the ordered green of the Large Crops Unit and pressed herself behind a climate control panel, her lungs, unused to running, sucking in the humid air.
She risked a glance around the greenhouse. The Agricultural Team — and her mother — was gathered on the far side, their attention on a large engineering panel. For now. Dropping to hands and knees, she crawled along the edge of the closest field, hoping the soybean plants were tall enough to hide her. She was a lot bigger now than she used to be, back when she would sneak up on her mother at the end of the workday. Pema held her breath and crawled faster.
She reached Field 4-1 and plunged, head down, into Row M-20.
“Looking for something?”
Her head snapped up, and her stomach dropped. Sitting in the middle of the row was that jerk, Rylan. A soil apprentice, like Pema, but a year ahead of her in training, which he seemed to think gave him the right to boss her around whenever they were paired to run soil analyses.
“What are you doing here?” Pema hissed. Then she saw he had her spare use bag open on his lap and her treasure in his sweaty hands. He was flipping through it, smudging up the pages with his grubby fingers.
“That’s mine.” She lunged for it, but Rylan held it out of her grasp.
“No it’s not. This is Terran. You’re 3rd Gen Colonial, like me. As far from Terran as it gets. You stole this.”
“I did not.” Pema’s cheeks burned. It was her book. That new kid just left it lying around in the Habitation corridor, like it was nothing. He was Terran, born and raised, his family one of several brought to Gusev Colony in last year’s expansion. Earth was real to him. He didn’t need the book. She’d had it for six months now and no one had ever asked around about it. So that meant it was hers.
She made another grab for the book, but Rylan blocked her.
“Finders, keepers,” he said as he dropped the book in his canvas use bag. His face hardened into a glare. “Next time you hide something, make sure no one sees you.” He turned his back to Pema and crawled away.
Pema’s heart seized in her chest.
Pema dropped the spent nutrient chips into the incinerator and hit the Fire button. In a flash of red-orange, the chips turned to ashes, adding to the pile already at the bottom of the incinerator that would soon be turned over into compost and spread over the hydroponic beds, where it would nourish them once again.
Gusev Colony is a closed system, Pema.
Pema sighed and returned to testing in-use nutrient chips, her assignment for the day. She’d looked forward to turning twelve for so long, certain her apprenticeship would be more interesting than General Education class. But a year in, she was finding the work she’d been selected to do — Soil Specialist — to be even more boring than all the Core Knowledge manuals she’d had to read in Gen Ed.
She poked a finger into the damp dirt of the vertical planter, searching for nutrient chip #478. The disturbed basil leaves released their sweet scent as her hands worked around their stems. Pema closed her eyes and inhaled, feeling lighter for a moment. But then she opened her eyes and spotted Rylan moving between the lettuce planters.
The one time she wanted to be paired with Rylan, he was off with the Water Usage apprentices testing soil saturation levels to spot-check the drip irrigation system. Every drop of water had to be accounted for, in a closed system. Every seed, every cubic centimeter of soil, every nutrient.
It made Pema want to flood the Hydroponics Lab.
There were floods on Earth. She’d seen them in her book. Great flooding rivers, cool pooling lakes, crashing ocean waves. Floods falling from the sky as great jagged lightning storms tossed out electricity as if it were in unlimited supply. Pema longed to be drenched, submerged, splashed. To be carried away.
She had to get her book back. But how? She couldn’t just walk up to Rylan in front of everyone and demand he give it back. Even if he gave it back to her, it would raise questions. Why did Pema have a Terran picture book with no Core purpose? It would be taken from her, repurposed. In Gusev Colony, there was no room for useless things.
Pema found chip #478, tapped it with her scanner, and watched the results record themselves on the hand-held device’s screen. Still good. She jammed the chip back into the planter. But she wasn’t careful, and a basil plant dropped out, holding on by a single root. Pema tried to push it back in.
Pema turned to face Lab Director Keran. She gave Pema a look so stern it required no words.
“I’m sorry, Director. I think it can be saved …” Pema reached for the dangling plant.
Director Keran stopped her with a sharp wave. “The root system for that whole plant colony is at risk now. Roots grow together, help each other thrive. Damage to one affects them all.” She waved to the closest Plant Specialist, who carefully removed the basil plant, leaving a brown-black hole amidst the green.
“I can get a new basil seed from Seed Storage …” Pema started, but again Director Keran cut her off.
“A basil seed requires .27% more water than a mature plant, to encourage germination. Even if it managed to sprout, the new plant would be out of sync with the rest of its colony. That spot will have to be left bare.”
Pema could feel everyone staring at her, could hear them thinking, Stupid Pema. Her knees shook, her cheeks burned. She brought her hand to her forehead, wanting to hide.
Director Keran cocked her head. “Are you feeling alright, Pema?”
Pema opened her mouth to say yes, she was fine, then stopped. “No, Director. I’m not feeling well.” Her stomach flipped as the lie slipped out. Not feeling well was even more dangerous than running in the colony’s closed system.
“Go immediately to the Medical Unit. I’ll notify them you’re coming.”
Pema grabbed her use bag and walked out of the lab, wishing she could run.
Pema stood in the Common Room, empty at this afternoon hour. Everyone was where they were supposed to be, doing their part to keep the colony functioning. Everyone, except her.
She wasn’t ready to face the Medical Unit attendants’ questions, their assessment that nothing was wrong with her. What she needed to feel better wasn’t in the Med Unit.
It was in Rylan’s use bag.
Pema sank into an observation chair in front of the thick glass wall of the domed Common Room. She stared out across the flat Gusev Crater to the Columbia Hills in the distance, rust brown against the caramel sky. She let her eyes soften, her mind wander. And instead of the dusty Columbia Hills, she saw A Mountaineer on Mount Everest, a black spot against a wall of ice white and granite gray. Instead of the flat crater, she saw A Fisherman off the Coast of Senegal, his faded pink boat floating on the navy blue ocean.
Page by page, caption by caption, her book’s images came to her. A Hang Glider over the Dover Cliffs. A Street Festival in Lima. A Thunderstorm Over the American Prairie. A Lavender field in Provence, A Rose Garden in Rural England. So many pictures, places, colors. More than Pema could ever name.
On Earth, she could go anywhere. See anything. Do anything. All she had to do was walk out her hatch door …
“Hey, there. Where are you supposed to be?”
Pema’s visions fled. She jumped out of her chair to face the man in Engineering day clothes standing behind her, his eyes narrowing as he took in her Agriculture day clothes.
“I’m going,” Pema stammered as she hurried off to the Medical Unit.
Just a headache, she’d explained to her mother at community dinner, when she asked why Pema had spent the afternoon resting in the Medical Unit. It was true enough. She’d spent the whole afternoon racking her brain for a way to get her book back till it really did hurt.
She still didn’t know what to do.
Rylan hadn’t been in the cafeteria for dinner. And he wasn’t in the Common Room for community time either. There were only two other places he could be. In his family’s Habitation, or in one of the Agricultural Units. He wouldn’t have authorized access to any other part of the colony.
Pema couldn’t go to his Habitation. She had to hope she’d find him in an Ag Unit.
She started in the Hydroponics Lab. With all the non-essential systems shut down for regeneration, the only light in the lab came from the sunset, its deepening crimson setting the glass dome above Pema’s head afire. She wove through the rows of green planters, looking. Hoping.
The sound of a page being turned, so foreign in Gusev Colony, rippled the still air of the lab. She followed it into Row L-36. There was Rylan, standing among the sweet pea vines, her book open in his hands.
She approached slowly, not wanting to interrupt him. She remembered how mesmerized she’d been when she’d first looked through the book. He came to one of her favorite pages. Young Villagers Playing in the Mekong River. She couldn’t help herself. She stepped closer.
“Look! They have so much water they play in it!” she said, pointing to the children in the river. “Can you imagine?”
Rylan slapped the book shut. “It’s not real.”
Pema’s eyebrows knit. “Yes it is. Those are real pictures, from Earth.”
“It’s not real,” spit Rylan.
Pema tipped her chin. “It is real. You can go to all those places. On Earth, you can just walk around outside. You can run, if you want. Or fly. You can go anywhere you want, do anything you want. I’m going there someday …”
Rylan snorted. “You can’t go there. You’re 3rd Gen. The gravity would crush you.”
Pema’s shoulders dropped. “Just give me the book.”
Rylan held it out of her reach.
“You don’t even like it. You think its all fake. So just give back.”
“It’s not real. Not for us.” Rylan pushed Pema away and stalked off. Pema followed. Rylan sped up, turned a corner. He already had his hand on the handle by the time she caught up.
“This book is useless.” He threw her book into the incinerator pod and hit Fire.
Pema screamed and rushed to the incinerator, tugging on the handle. But once the cycle started, the door stayed locked. Through the thick glass, she saw the red-orange flash sear the book’s cover. The yellow border blackened, then the words on the cover. National Geographic. Then the crashing ocean wave. In just moments, it was nothing but ash.
“Now it can be put to use,” said Rylan flatly.
Hands gripping the incinerator handle, Pema dropped to her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It was mine.”
“You’ll never step foot out of Gusev Colony,” said Rylan, his voice tight. “You’ll never even step foot out of this lab.”
“I hate you!” she spit at Rylan. He turned his back to her and walked away.
She let go of the incinerator handle and slid down to the floor, sobs bursting from her chest, again and again, until her voice was hoarse, her heart empty, and she had no choice but to be quiet.
Beyond the glass bubble of the lab, the sun hovered above the horizon. Pema glued her swollen eyes to it and held her breath. Just as the sun touched the horizon, a thin blue line cut across the Martian sky, east to west. It looked blue because of the angle and the thin atmosphere and dust, Pema knew. But still. It was blue, like the Earth sky. Like a river. Like a crashing ocean wave.
The sun dropped away, the blue blinked out. But it would be back, tomorrow at sunset. Everyday at sunset, she could see blue.
Pema forced herself onto her feet. She needed to get back to the Common Room before she was missed. She wove through the lab, past vegetables and small fruits and herbs, pausing in front of the basil planter, minus a basil plant because of her. She touched the empty spot with her finger.
Sage seeds don’t require as much water to germinate as basil seeds, she thought absently.
Pema’s eyes widened. That wasn’t how things were done in the Hydroponics Lab. One did not mix non-complimentary plant varieties. Lab Director Keran would disapprove.
But wasn’t something better than nothing?
Pema found a sage seed in Seed Storage and pressed it deep into the bare spot, working it gently around the basil roots. She dragged her hand across her tear-stained cheeks and stood back.
Not a perfect fit, she knew. But just maybe, a sage surrounded by basil could find a way to thrive.