‘I don’t think I can got through with it, Matt. We have a child!’ Reese placed her hand gently over her husband’s arm. ‘Can we think again?’
‘I know, love, I know,’ Matt said, taking his wife’s hand in his, ‘but we have the chance to shape this place and make it habitable.’
‘But should we? We’d be changing Lilly’s world for ever and she’s doesn’t have a say in it.’
Matt rested his elbows on the lab bench and leaned his head into his hands. ‘If we don’t do it, Milly might not have a world at all.’
‘It’s too drastic, Matt. We don’t have the right.’ Reese stood next to her husband, seated at the bench, and moved her hand to his shoulder.
‘I think we’re beyond right and wrong,’ he said. ‘The planet isn’t going to support life in the long term unless we do something now, unless we do this.’ He tapped the vial of clear liquid on the bench.
‘If you open the bottle, Matt, you’ll take away everyone’s choice. You know there are other options.’
‘Really, Reese, you’re back to that? Orbital screens? Tunnel habitats forever? I don’t want Milly to have to hide from the sun all her life.’
Reese turned away from her husband. ‘She’d still be human.’
Matt lifted his head and looked at his wife’s back. ‘She’ll still be human after, just different. We’ll all be different.
‘But I still want to travel. I want to see new places, taste new food—’
‘And isn’t that the problem in a nutshell?’ Matt stood and went to Reese, encircled her in his arms and kissed her on the forehead. They stood together in the gloom of the lab.
‘I know, Matt. But Lilly. She’s so small. She’ll never know this life.’
A heavy thwump shook them sideways. The glassware in the lab rattled. One of the fridge lights flickered.
‘They’re coming to stop us,’ said Matt. He turned back to the bench and picked up the glass vial containing the clear liquid. He broke the seal and pulled out the stopper. ‘Too late,’ he said.
Neither of them felt a thing, yet both knew the changes would happen soon and eventually affect every human on the planet. It was a small genetic twist, but they hoped it was enough to divert them from burning the planet to a cinder.
The soldiers handled them roughly and took them to a dark underground prison. Reese was sure they would die there, but she was comforted by knowing Lilly was safe on another continent, with another family, carefully hidden from retribution, but not underground. Reese had faltered at the end, but Matt did what they agreed. She loved him for it and hated his resolve at the same time. She tried to cry, but the changes had already begun, and she couldn’t make the tears.
When the interrogation started, they shone a bright light into her eyes. That felt good. She pulled at the restraints to get closer to the lamp. When the men saw her in the glare, they looked appalled and backed away. They returned in hazard suits, white and masked, and brought a mirror so she could see.
Her skin was green and ridged. White threads like questing roots sprouted from her wrists and ankles. She smiled, but when she looked in the mirror she saw her mouth had become woody and stiff, no longer capable of expression. She relaxed. It was as they had planned. She and Matt had made the sacrifice so all could live under the relentless sun, in the breathless heat. Soon everyone would be able to thrive on the surface and grow in the light. There would be no need to burn fuel to cool the subterranean warrens, no need to hurl tons of carbon dioxide into the sky. Jets would stop flying. Everyone would put down roots and relax into a fixed existence, soaking up the sun, breathing in the CO2, terraforming.
This is who we are.
The Martian City Mound looks like a red conical termite hill, just half a meter tall, with a Mount Fuji cap of bright white carbon dioxide frost evaporating off the top into the morning air.
Johnny found the City Mound while out prospecting and he made first contact using the required FC protocols: Friendly stance. Cautious approach – and stick to the script when it comes to saying anything about humans or Earth. In other words, say nothing about humans or Earth. We don’t want to prompt a War of the Worlds invasion, do we? Johnny transmitted the standard greeting in fourteen dead Martian languages over the intercom on his Do-all. ‘On behalf of Mars Base, Hello! We are pleased to meet you.’ The little Martian critters swarmed over the Mound and milled about in panic. They didn’t respond to Johnny’s greeting, so he started up the language investigation program on his Do-all and left it by the City Mound overnight to discover the linguistics the little guys used to communicate. Each Mound is different. The Do-all relayed its telemetry back to Base before breakfast and Johnny sent me out to retrieve it.
To walk off-Base in the light Mars gravity is a treat. The exercise keeps my modified bones strong and it’s refreshing to expose my pachyderm skin to the chilly Martian morning. I carry a big shovel on my shoulder. It rests neatly between two of my four vertical breathing vanes, the huge pointed plates grafted onto my back that function as external lungs. They reach out into the thin Martian air and synthesize oxygen from the threadbare carbon dioxide atmosphere this cold planet wears as a scarf. As I lope across the red dusty ground toward the Martians’ little stronghold, the breathing plates bounce up and down, tightly, pulling skin. My footprints press deep into the Martian sand.
Back on Earth, they call us Stegs, after the stegosaurus, or Flies. Neither name is flattering, though butterflies make a prettier, if more misleading analogy. Our insulated skin is so thick and heavy that even if we had muscles to beat our bony respiratory wings, we couldn’t soar above the red dirt of our new home. We can never return to our first planet. Reconversions to Earth-normal bodies are expensive and risky, and they wouldn’t want us back as we are. Earth is finished with dinosaurs.
So what did the Martians have to say when the language program did its thing? Same as always, ‘Kill the intruders! Ready the Mound for war!’
When I arrive at the hill, I can’t help but laugh. It’s so small! Only sixty centimetres in diameter. A dark line of miniature vehicles is winding out from a hole in the base. A microscopic rocket shoots up from the convoy and detonates across my thick leg with a dull crackle. Then a salvo of missiles crashes against my shin. Ow! It prickles! Bellowing, I raise the shovel over my head and bring the blade down flat on the Martian procession. One slap is enough to beat the whole military cavalcade into the ground. Dust billows out from the impact, overwhelms my throat filters and I’m coughing uncontrollably. Martian dust is glassy sharp and tastes of blood. Half blinded, I excavate the Mound, digging down into the gritty soil to clear the tiny tunnels. I pour warmed sulphuric acid into the remains, to exterminate survivors. Not exactly First Contact compliant, but hey, we have to live here.
That’s my job done for the morning. I rub my throat, which will be raw for days, and shrug my shoulders to shake off the ice that has gathered on my breathing plates. There’s an acid splash on the front panel of Johnny’s Do-all and he won’t be best pleased.
This piece was prompted by the theme of identity and a title – “What makes a great day?” I wandered around the title until I found a satirical perspective to illustrate the casual call to conflict and destruction that seems to feature in much (male?) human activity (and perhaps, Martian, too).
‘I’ve been assigned to maintenance!’
‘But maintenance is an honourable profession, young man, why the tears?’
‘Because I could do so much more!’
‘Hm. You just came out of the testing, I suppose?’
‘Why else would I be sitting on the ramp from the testing module?’
‘Now, now, young man, don’t be snarky. Do you know who you’re talking to?’
‘Yes, sir. I do, sir. I’m sorry I offended you, sir.’
‘Oh, no need to be overly formal. Or are you still being sarcastic?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just so angry!’
‘It won’t help. The decisions are final.’
‘That’s why I’m angry. Maintenance? Fixing leaky pipes for the rest of my life? Tracing faulty wiring? Servicing combine harvesters? It’s all so menial.’
‘Someone has to do it.’
‘Yes, you would say that! Oh, sorry, sir! I didn’t mean to—’
‘Quiet, boy! I’ll let that go, but no more snide comments from you, or else.’
‘No, sir. I’m sorry. I’d better be going.’
‘Just a moment, lad. I don’t think you understand.’
‘It’s alright, sir. I’ll be on my way.’
‘Hold on. We all share this world and we all have our place. It’s been this way since landfall. We have a hierarchy for a reason. Some of us are Seniors, like me, and some of us do maintenance. Your role is just as important as mine.’
‘Is this not the way?’
‘You face does not agree with your words, young man.’
‘Sullenness is an unbecoming state for a boy about to begin his apprenticeship.’
‘But I’m never going to fulfil my potential. The testing didn’t work properly.’
‘Of course it did, young man. The testing is very accurate. I oversee the results myself. I am the Senior Administrator.’
‘I know, sir.’
‘What do you think was amiss about your testing?’
‘I scored a perfect mark in each section, sir – physics, chemistry, history, politics, biology, philosophy. I did well in the performance arts, too.’
‘And so, why maintenance? I could administer the farm domes. I could build bridges. I could learn and teach others!’
‘You are disappointed, I suppose.’
‘Yes, sir. Yes, I am very disappointed.’
‘And very full of yourself, if I may say so. Perfect marks? How arrogant! How could you know you did so well?’
‘I’m sure I did.’
‘Hm. You are disturbingly confident.’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘Shall I check?’
‘Er, yes, please. Perhaps there was a mistake.’
‘Let me see.’
‘Is that an electronic tablet, sir?’
‘Yes, of course—’
‘Only I’ve never seen one. I heard about them in school. They’re new.’
‘They are costly to produce, so they’re limited to Seniors for the time being, but I imagine they’ll trickle down into the schools one day, as long as we have people to maintain the machinery that makes them.’
‘Are my results on there?’
‘Your name, young man?’
‘Henry, sir. Henry Hunt.’
‘Hunt, Hunt… Henry Hunt. Here we are.’
‘Well, now. Isn’t that interesting?’
‘An exceptional result!’
‘I knew it! Oh, thank you, sir, thank you!’
‘Can I be reassigned, sir?’
‘It’s an exceptional result, I’m afraid.’
‘But that’s good isn’t it?’
‘Not for you, young man. Had your father, or even your mother been in a Senior position, then you would progress immediately to the university. I’m sure you would have done great things. However, university places are in short supply.’
‘But my results!’
‘Young man. I told you before that the decisions of the testing are final and cannot be changed. However, having reviewed your scores, I am minded to make an exception.’
‘Oh, thank you, sir.’
‘Don’t thank me, Henry. It may be harder work than you imagine.’
‘I’ll work as hard as I can, sir, for the benefit of the whole colony!’
‘Is that truly what you want, young Henry? To help us all? In any way you can?’
‘Of course, sir! I know my history and I know the plan. It was difficult for the colony at first. We had to fall back on old skills, plough the land, raise animals for food and put up with harsh conditions. But life improved, technologies became sustainable, people even found time for leisure. Each person turned their talents to their proper place in society. The hierarchy keeps order. But in the future, more people will share in the rewards. We all have a stake in the glorious future!’
‘My, you’re quite the enthusiast, aren’t you? I suppose you know the whole colony manifesto off by heart.’
‘Of course, sir!’
‘Admirable, young Henry. And you have quite the talent for speaking out, too. I see you scored an exceptional result for public oration in the performance test.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Yes, young Henry, you are a remarkable young man. Just the sort of person to cause trouble.’
‘I’m sorry, sir?’
‘Just the sort of bright, articulate rabble-rousing troublemaker that will upset the hierarchy.’
‘Not the sort of person we want to equip with a university education, or Senior connections.’
‘Not, come to think of it, the sort of person we want stirring up dissatisfaction in the middle ranks of maintenance, spreading discord, raising hopes of a glorious future.’
‘We get someone like you every so often, Henry. A brilliant mind, but from the wrong layer of society. Someone who might not want to keep the finer things at a Senior level.’
‘But the plan, sir? The manifesto!’
‘Yes, Henry, the manifesto. We will all have a stake in the glorious future. With the emphasis on will. One day.’
‘Yes, Henry. You see it now. You cannot be allowed to foment revolution amongst the better maintenance castes. I think sewerage or pest control would suit you better. Or perhaps jail.’
‘Yes, jail, if you persist in arguing.’
‘I’ll take pest control, sir.’
‘Sewer cleaning it is, then, young Henry. You said you would work as hard as you can, and this is your opportunity. It’s a short life underground, dear boy, but it benefits the whole colony. Report to the Drain Master tomorrow morning.’
‘Off you go, then.’
‘May I say something?’
‘Hurry up about it.’
‘You said you’re a Senior, but it seems like you’re in maintenance too.’
‘Yes, young Henry. I suppose I am.’
This duologue came to me as I wondered how human society would organise itself on a new planet. Hierarchy and oppression might be an unavoidable aspect of what we take to the stars. In a longer story, it could be the starting point for rebellion and heroes, tragedy and triumph.
Day 992. It’s just me now. No point writing any more. I told you I wasn’t good at keeping a diary. I finally checked the name of this place. They got that right.
Day 990. The sores in my armpits are leaking a pink and smelly fluid.
Day 981. Captain Barnes was killed yesterday when a heavy toilet plunged out of the sky and fell on her head. She kept us alive as long as she could.
Day 975. Four of us left. Four! Out of three hundred. The Consumption is in my lymph nodes now. They’re lumpy and sore.
Day 972. Kelly and Tish drowned in a sinkhole yesterday when they went foraging. It was covered in floating plastic and looked just like the solid ground around it. They stumbled in and couldn’t climb out. Steep sides. Thick, toxic slick on top. Carl saw it happen but couldn’t help. Too sick. He was in tears. Haven’t seen him since.
Day 960. Twelve days since the mass funeral. It’s been a dreadful two weeks, with ninety more Consumption fatalities, and everyone has the symptoms. No one is well enough to deal with the bodies. Almost no lethal skydrops, though. I saw some fluttery stuff in the distance. Paper falling, probably. There was a shower of dollar bills on my birthday. They still use paper money and throw it away when it’s worn out! Crazy.
Day 950. Haven’t slept much. The smell of burning won’t go away. There are ashes on every surface. I think we should have slid the bodies into the sea, under all the plastic bottles. Den is the only person left with any medical training and he said we should kill off the infection with fire rather than pollute the water any further. I wish the wind would blow away the white dust.
Day 946. The bodies are starting to smell really bad.
Day 932. There must be a hundred people who’ve gone down with the Consumption that killed Sasha. It’s like Tuberculosis. Maybe it was a bioweapon. Four have died. I think others will too. Antibiotics don’t work. If only the doctors hadn’t gotten sick.
Day 904. Sasha was hit by a skydrop of clinical waste. We had to pull needles and syringes out of her hands, head and back. We showered her with disinfectant and filled her with prophylactic medication. She’s bearing up and making a joke of it all. She says she got hedgehogged! Hedgehogs are spiny animals from England-Up-North, where Sasha was born.
Day 891. Farah’s new enzymes are showing promise at breaking down the plastics. Nylon, Polyester, PVC, even ABS. She’s getting some toxic by-products, but it proves the principle, she says. We can start to get rid of all this plastic.
Day 804. The glass recycling is going well, and Ben’s team is making super-strong conical glass buildings that look fantastic when the double sunset shines through them in the evenings. Skydrops don’t make a scratch on them. It feels like we could be safe from the garbage dumping for the first time since we left the ship.
Day 759. The metal that falls from the sky is going in the new furnaces (not my watch!). We’ve started making wire for electrics.
Day 639. I was bulldozing out a perimeter for the settlement, today, when I saw a massive skydrop. The sky parted like a mouth, and after the blue flash, it started raining down all sorts of junk. It was the biggest I’ve seen. I drove over when it stopped. The skydrops rarely happen in the same place more than once or twice. Still, I left the bulldozer a good distance from the new trash pile. I found a windup watch. A Rolex. I searched the name in the ship’s library. It’s an expensive brand and it still works! Lucky me.
Day 520. Captain Barnes says we have to deal with it. We’re going to move out of the ship and settle. Think big and long-term, she says. Do what has to be done. Everyone’s desperate to move on with the mission and Barnes’s plan is as good as any.
Day 464. Sorry. I got a bit sad about everything. Forgot about the diary again. I think everyone feels the same. We came here to escape the pollution and global warming on Earth. We didn’t think they’d solve their problem by dropping it on us. Literally! Ha ha. But what are we going to do?
Day 365. So it’s been a year. An Earth year plus the travel time, but we slept through that. Two hundred years, all told, since we left to spread our species across the galaxy. While we were sleeping, the bastards on Earth found a way to tunnel wormholes from their polluted planet to our untouched exoplanet. Paradise has become a landfill. Captain Barnes thinks they don’t care where the trash ends up, otherwise they’d be sending explorers. We travelled twelve light years to colonise a cleaner, safer world, and it’s already covered in crap!
Day 200. They chose a new name for the planet. They voted for some ancient Greek word, Eironeia. I heard people laughing about it.
Day 176. The smell sort of fades, if you don’t think about it.
Day 161. BonNestlee, Coca-Peps, PG&AZ, Shellprom, BatterySphere, SodaFab.EU, DUPo plastique, Alset/FDE, Quantille and the rest. Their brands are dropping from quantum holes that unzip the sky. There are acid lakes of fizzing chemical waste hidden under blankets of plastic bottles and discarded clothes. We expected our new planet would have dangers – but not these!
Day 160. They let me go walkabout with just a mask. It stinks like a sewer.
Day 120. Lanfen’s dead. Our first casualty of the expedition. I didn’t know her. It’s the air. Anyone who goes outside unsuited comes back coughing. Lanfen had asthma.
Day 94. The robot vehicles have found Earth trash everywhere. The atmosphere is breathable, apart from plastic fluff in the air and the smell of rotting food. None of the animals penned outside the ship has died, so they’re going to go exploring.
Day 23. There’s something wrong. All the land surface is caked in rotting food, tin cans, and paper waste. The oceans are awash with floating plastics and the air is ticklish with microscopic nylon fibres. It’s mad! No one knows why.
Day 12. We’ve been waiting longer than planned. The Captain won’t say why.
Day 6. I’d like to go outside and do some exercise, but no one’s allowed out until the safety testing is done.
Day 5. The muscle tone is coming back into my legs and arms.
Day 3. Got some sleep last night.
Day 2. I’m going to keep a diary. It’ll probably be garbage, but this is such a great adventure! A new unspoilt world. Somewhere we can start again, turn things around.
Should we seek to colonise new worlds if we bring along the problems we created on Earth? Do we want to become the all-consuming aliens of War of the Worlds and Independence Day, ravaging Terra Two’s biosphere before moving on to Terra Three? That would be irresponsible. Life on Earth should be sustainable before we take our culture to other worlds.
I had already written a story involving a trash planet and decided to imagine its origins. I like the idea of a story you can recycle, so I made this one readable from bottom to top as well as top to bottom.
Featured image at the top: made from Pixabay images (no attribution required)
David Yeomans joined the MA Creative Writing at York St John to begin a second career as a writer, and he has now graduated. He retired as an NHS psychiatrist last year. His work experiences inevitably drift into his writing.