This is part two of “Blue.” You can read part one here.
Pema stared hard at the results as if the numbers might change, might realize the error of their ways and correct themselves.
She ran the analysis again, watched as nutrient levels, base saturations, and mineral ratios spread across her handheld’s screen, held her breath again. Shook her head again. Phosphorus, off target. Not by much, but by now Pema knew that’s all it took.
The pathogen had spread.
Pema deflated. They’d been so careful, followed all contamination and quarantine protocols.
Gusev Colony is a closed system, Pema.
She crouched down in the middle of Row M and ran her hand through the fresh green shoots. The soybeans in Field 4-3 were just four weeks into their vegetative cycle, their round green leaves ankle high. So tender. So vulnerable.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“Pema!” Yaro’s voice cut across the quiet green. “Well?”
Pema looked over at her fellow Assistant Soil Analyst, standing by the irrigation control panel, impatient for the results.
Pema shook her head.
Large Crops Director Sutty passed Pema’s handheld to Small Crops Director Keran, who scanned the results and handed it to Lead Soil Analyst Oll. All three looked as yellow and wilted as the dying winter wheat fields of Greenhouse 3, where Pema and Yaro had found them.
Director Keran frowned. “But we sealed Greenhouse 4 as soon as the pathogen was discovered in Greenhouse 2.”
“We sealed Greenhouse 3 at the same time,” said Lead Oll, gesturing at the rot around them.
Director Sutty shook his head. “There still must be some contamination in the irrigation system. Or the harvesting system…” His brows knitted deep.
“So Greenhouse 4 must be incinerated along with Greenhouse 3, then,” said Director Keran, crossing her arms.
Pema’s mouth fell open. “We can’t lose Greenhouse 4. That will put Large Crops below half-capacity. We won’t be able to…” Pema didn’t finish her sentence.
“We have to kill this pathogen before it spreads to our remaining greenhouses. To Small Crops in Hydroponics,” said Keran, fierce. “We have to save as much of our progress as we can.”
Pema turned to Oll. “We could try another carbon treatment.”
“It doesn’t work,” said Oll, again gesturing to the rot around them.
“We caught it earlier this time,” pressed Pema. “If we adjust the ratio of…”
“Nothing works.” Director Sutty stalked off through the dying winter wheat fields that, like everything they grew in the Ag Unit, had been painstakingly developed, slowly hybridized over countless growth cycles to survive in the just-as-painstakingly developed soil, up to 32% Martian now. It had taken three generations of Gusev Colonists to get this far.
Pema looked out past the dying fields of Greenhouse 3, past the titanium lattices and tri-layered tempered glass walls, to the harsh rocky landscape, the toxic caramel sky. Panic knotted in her chest.
We won’t be able to feed our people, Pema finished her sentence in her head.
Pema stared down her dinner. Lentils for protein, fiber. Tomatoes for lycopene, vitamin C. Mushrooms for B vitamins, selenium. She should eat while she still could, she knew. Pulses grew in Greenhouse 5, which could fall to the pathogen any day, just like the cornfields in Greenhouses 2, the winter wheat fields in Greenhouse 3, and now the soybeans in Greenhouse 4. The pathogen could jump to Small Crops in Hydroponics, wiping out all the vegetables. But the mushrooms. They’d be fine. The untrustworthy, spore-flinging fungi lived under tight control in their own sealed subunit. Total isolation.
Pema could relate.
“Anyone sitting here?”
Pema glanced up. Jorge took that as permission to sit down across from her. “Lentils again, huh?”
And for the foreseeable future, added Pema silently. She couldn’t tell him about the devastating results from Greenhouse 4. Colony Leadership would decide when to share the news that another greenhouse was sick, another crop failing, and, if they couldn’t stop the pathogen, the colony itself may fail. And this time there was no going back. When the 1st Gusev Colony failed, and the 2nd Gusev Colony, the colonists, all original Terrans, could go home. But the 3rd Gusev Colony, their colony, had succeeded, had scratched out a living on Mars for three generations. There was no going home. They were born for Martian gravity; Terran gravity would crush them.
Jorge tucked into his lentils. His knuckles were lined with red dust. Pema wasn’t sure why she’d noticed that. She shifted, cleared her throat. “Did the rovers survive the dust storm yesterday?”
Jorge’s eyes met hers. Pema blushed. She dropper her eyes back down to her dinner tray.
“The big MAGs are fine, but a couple of the small base rovers had to be manually retrieved.” Jorge slapped the shoulder of his Mechanical Unit worksuit, sending up a puff of rust. “I spent the whole day clearing dust out of gear systems.”
Pema nodded, picked up her fork, pushed her tomatoes around.
“There’s a cohort activity tonight, in the Common Room. You should join us.”
Pema usually skipped age cohort activities. Especially since she turned eighteen, and cohort activities took on the added function of testing out future union partners. “I’ve got to get back to Hydroponics.”
“Just something I need to check on.”
“Next time, then.” Jorge smiled.
Pema pulled her knees up to her chest. Behind her, the vertical herb planters ticked in their hourly 1/8th rotation, sending the scent of basil and sage and rosemary wafting through the darkened quiet of the Hydroponics Lab.
She gazed out of the glass dome to the west. Just as the setting sun touched the horizon, a thin blue line cut across the Martian sky, east to west. It lasted only a moment, the combination of the sun’s angle, the atmosphere, and the dust triggering the rare color.
The moment it disappeared, Pema snapped her eyes shut, holding the blue in her vision. She pictured herself in a boat, a salmon pink one, floating on the blue ocean water under the blue Earth sky. Just like A Fisherman From Senegal, a picture from a book she used to have, long ago. A beloved book of Life on Earth. Where was she sailing to? Anywhere. On Earth, she could go anywhere.
An air exchanger turned over, bringing her back to the titanium and glass of the lab, the landscape of rust and rock.
“There must be something we can try,” pressed Pema as she followed Oll through the still-cooling remains of Greenhouse 3, its diseased wheat fields now ash and dust. Pema kept her eyes on Oll’s back, the inert field too painful to look at. Too much like the landscape on the other side of the glass.
“Greenhouse 4’s incineration will go ahead tomorrow, as planned,” said Oll. “Sutty and Keran are adamant.”
“If we lose the soybeans, we’ll starve.”
Oll paused to check Soil Analyst Rylan’s handheld. “Leadership is in contact with Earth,” he said as he scanned the handheld. “They’re sending a supply ship with dehydrated base nutrient foodstuffs…”
“It’ll take eighteen months to get here.”
“…and a second ship, with seeds and soils, will follow six months later.”
“Terran seeds, Terran soils.”
“And we’ll start again.”
Pema shook her head. “It’ll take decades to hybridized these crops again.”
Oll gave the handheld back to Rylan. “In the meantime, we’ll have to lean on Earth.”
Rylan smirked at Pema. “Thought you’d be excited.”
“You’re the one with all the Terran books.”
Pema’s jaw tightened against the rush of fury climbing her throat. “Just the one.” The one with the pictures. The colors. The Life. The one Rylan stole from her, long ago. The one he burned. You’ll never step foot outside Gusev Colony. He’d turned her beloved book to ash to make her forget, but the pictures were seared in her mind’s eye.
“Maybe they’ll send us some of those Earth delicacies the Terran expansioners are always moaning on about,” he said, his voice joking and cruel. “That drink that comes in red cans, maybe? Or Terran pizza, with real cheese and real meat.”
“Pepperoni, I think it’s called,” added Oll.
Pema hid a glare.
“With mushrooms,” added Rylan.
“Sadly, Terran pizza is not considered a base nutrient,” sighed Oll. “Let’s all get back to work.”
Pema stalked away.
She stared out of the glass dome of the Common Room at the jagged slopes of the Columbia Hills in the distance, sharp and unyielding against the dusty caramel sky. How many times had she sat in this exact spot, wishing for a different view? Sunset in the Amazon Canopy. Children Playing in the Mekong River. Alpine Strawberries in Glacier National Park. The old images and captions from her burned Terran book rose in her mind like old friends.
But her view would never change.
“Pema? Everything okay?”
It was Jorge.
“Yes,” said Pema. “No.”
Jorge dropped down in the observation chair next to her.
“You okay?” asked Pema.
“I just wasted the last two hours in Planetary Geology trying to convince them to link the rovers in a looped network, so if one goes down in a dust storm…” He waved himself off. “You don’t want to hear about that. Too boring.”
“Boring? Have you ever compiled nutrient use reports?” That’s what Pema was supposed to be doing, but it felt so useless. All of it felt so useless. She’d be reprimanded for skipping out. But what did it matter?
Jorge laughed, then sighed. “Anyway, they said that’s not how thing are done.”
Pema nodded. “I can relate.”
“If we could just program the rovers to talk to each other, there’s be less damage during dust storms. The rovers could rely on each other out there. Right now, they’re independent systems. Isolated. A big MAG rover could protect a small base rover’s solar panels, if they could talk to each other.” Again Jorge waved himself off. “They said they’d take it under review. That’s something, I guess.”
“It’s something.” Pema took a deep breath, blew it out. “We’re losing Greenhouse 4. Leadership will announce it tonight.”
Jorge’s eyes widened. “That’s bad news, right?”
Pema nodded. “Get ready for rations and dehydrated foodstuffs from Earth. Yum.” Pema rolled her eyes. “No Terran pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms.”
No, something. Pema sat up in her chair. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?
“Spores,” she gasped. Director Keran and Director Sutty did not look happy at the interruption.
“Why aren’t you compiling nutrient use reports?” Director Keran frowned at Pema. “Were you running?”
Pema tried to catch her breath. “The white button mushroom colonies, in the isolation subunit in Hydroponics. We need to transplant them to Greenhouse 4. Immediately.”
Director Keran pinned Pema with a look of pure exasperation. “You know, or should know, that we maintain a strict isolation protocol with fungal colonies for a reason. The spread of their spores would be impossible to stop, or even track. It would wreak havoc on our crop containments.”
Pema continued, undaunted. “We don’t need to stop it. Or track it. We want it to spread. Everywhere. On Earth, fungal networks create symbiotic relationships with plant roots, breaking down mineral and organic content and protecting the plants against disease.”
“Yes, we know that Pema,” said Director Sutty. “But we’re not on Earth. We’re on Mars. We can’t grow crops here the way they do there.”
“The spores will spread, strengthening the plants, making them more resilient to the pathogen.” Pema spoke fast now, the enormity of the possibilities building ever higher in her head. A web of symbiotic relationships throughout the greenhouses, life protecting itself, strengthening itself, building on itself.
Director Keran glared at her. “We can’t break containment. Every crop, every plant has different requirements. Mineral, organic, water. They have to be managed separately.”
“But that’s not life,” said Pema. Life in those pictures wasn’t contained, neat and orderly like a science experiment. Terran Life was colorful, abundant, disordered, messy. Free. It went where it wanted.
“We need a biodome.”
Keran’s eyes flashed. “The 1st and 2nd Gusev Colonies tried that. And failed. There’s no way to support a biodome on our limited water resources, no way to hybridize the crops, no way to know what works. It collapsed both times.”
“Keran’s right, Pema,” said Sutty, his voice tired.
Pema looked from one Director to the other. They were all living on the edge of impossible. Of course they wanted to stick to what worked.
“But it’s not working anymore,” Pema said to herself as she stared out the Ag Unit windows at the greenhouses beyond. “We’ve built it up slowly, over three generations. Three major crops and six secondary crops in the greenhouses, a dozen small crops in Hydroponics.” She turned back to Keran and Sutty. “We know what we’re doing. We’re the ones who’ll make a biodome work.”
Sutty shrugged at Pema. “Where would we even start?”
“We need to take down the walls, open the greenhouses up.”
“We could lose everything,” said Sutty.
“We already are.” Pema saw the fear in Sutty’s face. Felt it. The same fear the first colonists must have felt as the life they’d built died. But the people of the 3rd Gusev Colony weren’t the first colonists.
They were the first Martians.
“This is our home,” Pema said to Sutty.
Sutty blinked once, twice. “How quickly could we get the mushroom colonies transplanted?”
“I must object,” said Keran.
“I could do it in a day. Yaro would help. The mushrooms grow in the same hybridized soil, and their water requirements are roughly the same as the soybeans. I think they’d take quickly.”
“This must be run by Leadership first…”
Sutty ignored Keran. “Let’s start in Field 4-1.”
Pema watched her daughter skip through the vegetable patch, terraced to optimize water usage, her bare feet leaving little footprints in the brown-red soil.
“It’s time,” called Jorge. He took their daughter’s hand and led her to the ceremony site.
Striding through the undulating bioscape, Pema’s eye ran over the green soybean fields surrounded by roaming pulses giving way to the gold wheat fields bordered by tubers and herb gardens. She smiled. All was as it should be. She paused to pick a sage leaf, inhaled its spice.
Sutty and Keran nodded at Pema as she joined them next to the open patch the Soil Analysts had prepared. “And now,” said Director Sutty, turning to the small crowd gathered there, “Biodome Director Pema will plant our first tree.”
Sutty handed Pema the precious bundle he’d been cradling in his arms. She unwrapped the roots, held the sapling carefully in two hands. Gusev Colony’s first tree. She set the dwarf apple tree into the prepared hole, the first of five hybridized dwarf apple trees that, in time, would be joined by blueberry bushes and alpine strawberry vines. Gusev Colony’s first fruit orchard. She pressed fresh soil in around the roots, patted and smoothed it with her hands.
Behind her, the sun dropped below the horizon in a flash of blue.
Great story!! It is a nice extension and follow up on Pem’s life. I love Pem’s compassion and her ability to make connections. She proves that it is only through diversity that life exists! Loved it!
Erin Halden says
Thanks for reading Cheryl!
Cathy Ryan says
“They said that is not how things are done.” “We can’t…”
I love the way Pema was able to see beyond those constraints and envision a new thing.
I enjoyed this story very much. Thank you.
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading Cathy!
Dennis Wagers says
I really enjoyed the story. It’s original and fresh.
Erin Halden says
I’m glad you liked it! Thanks so much for reading Dennis!
Victoria Norton says
Erin Halden says
Thanks for reading Victoria!
Ayesha Harben says
I enjoyed this. Was drawn into the story from the beginning. Pema is a compelling character. She is caring, strong, visionary and refuses to give up. I found myself liking her more and more. The world-building is very believable. I’d like more.
Erin Halden says
Thanks so much for reading Ayesha! If you haven’t read Part One yet, you can find it here on Short Fiction Break and on my website at https://erinhalden.com/?p=1041…
I just read Parts 1 & 2 and loved them. In such a short time, you really draw the reader in. Pema is really very likeable; her world so convincing.
I look forward to reading the next installment
Erin Halden says
I’m so glad you enjoyed them! Thanks so much for reading Shirley!!