She stood with the tip of her nose touching the thick window. Looking out over the endless desert, she wondered what it would feel like to wriggle her toes into the umber sand.
‘What did the doctor say?’
What did the doctor say?
The trip would be expensive and the government would only pay for one way.
The tests were inconclusive.
There was shadowing on the lungs.
On Earth, there were better diagnostic tools.
It was difficult to get a definition of the condition.
It would take six months to travel to Earth, but the government would pay for it.
The condition had not responded to medication.
Every one of her Schefflera subjects was different in infinitesimal ways. They each had their own set of unique traits—from leaf shape and colour down to cell structure: differences that couldn’t be observed without the testing equipment back in their genetic research lab. They were differences that meant the world to her genetic research project. The rows of familiar, tall trees towered before her.
Their clusters of bottom-heavy, green leaves drooped toward the ground, forming little umbrellas that interrupted the sun’s rays, helping her see her work better. At the trees’ heights, feelers covered in purple seeds grew toward the sky, like alien antennae. Enclosed in a protective suit and helmet, she moved from plant to plant. From each, she clipped a leaf
and scraped away a sample of bark with a razor blade. She sealed the specimens in zip-lock bags and numbered them according to their plant of origin. The trees’ branches were left with abrasions: raw, white wood, bordered in vivid green plant juice.
She moved on to the next row of potted plants. They had been outside, in the Martian environment one day longer than the last. As she made her slow way along the rows each day, she could clearly see the deterioration from one to the next. The leaves began to droop, their lime-green faded into cinnamon. Eventually they dried, curled and dropped to the ground. Row forty-two, the last, was no more than an aithochrous graveyard.
When she reached it, she no longer had to use her secateurs to snip off the leaves. She snapped the dehydrated stems easily. There were numerous patches of bark missing, in different stages of regeneration. When she used the razor blade to scrape away bark from the forty-twos, there was no green in the wood underneath. When she had taken specimens from the entire last row, she stood up straight and felt the pressure leave her back.
At the other end of the row, her colleague, Keith, took a photograph of each plant, ambling sideways in his suit. They worked in their own spheres of thought until they had each visited every plant in the test population. It was a task they completed every day, taking up most of their morning’s work.
They waited patiently for the one plant that would change everything. One day, long ago, an ape stood up and an entire new race evolved. That was what they waited for—that one-in-a-million organism, the ape that stood up, the fish that could breathe air. Then they could breed its genes into the population: create a new line of plants suited to the Martian environment. She imagined the day when she would walk along the dead row forty-two and see one green among the many lifeless trees. But she was running out of time to wait. A trip to Earth was not holiday that one returned from: it was forever. The cost of a return ticket was astronomical—more than entire budget of her project.
Keith gave her a thumb up. The suit was heavy and hot and the helmet restricting. She reached up to her neck and pressed the communication button.
‘Mark,’ she said breathlessly. ‘The forty-twos are done.’
She and Keith slogged back to the complex as Mark drove his rover and trailer over to the dead end of the plants. He began to throw the entire forty-second row onto the trailer. She
hung her head and inspected the footprints her space suit left in the ruddy sand. It was so close to her skin—only a few centimetres of space suit separated the sole of her foot from the ground. Again, she saw her toes bury into the sand, the orange-red grains filtering between them.
When they reached the door, she deactivated the airlock and they entered. After they had been sprayed with water and disinfectant, they were freed into the lab. She unclipped her heavy helmet and gratefully pulled it over her head. Her sweaty, frizzy hair stuck to her forehead and she swiped it away. Once she had stripped down to the underwear suit, she towelled down the disinfected specimen bag and carried it through to the sealed lab. Even though she was only just free from the space suit, she put on the full white lab suit, face mask and gloves that were required for handling external specimens.
In the lab, she worked her way through the samples, getting lost in the repetitive use of the machines. She cut away little samples of leaf and bark and examined them under the microscope. She took micro-photographs and made notes on each plant in the test population. When Keith’s voice came through the intercom, she jumped.
‘Are you going for lunch? I’ve been back for an hour.’
‘I just want to get all the spectro done first.’ She focused her eyes back on the spectrometer in front of her.
‘Jemima can do all that.’
‘I’m going to put out the ones with Mark. I think I might try that new lot 472, with the gene insertion we did in October. I’ve got a good feeling about those. What do you think?’
‘You’re the one who’s going to be dealing with the results, Keith.’
‘Yeah, but I’ll video call you … you know you can still be just as involved in the project from Earth.’
‘Sounds good. Use the stuff from October.’
The living room window was her favourite part of her home. The enormous piece of glass had been made-to-order. It ran the distance from the lounge, through the dining area to the kitchen. Outside, the Martian desert ran to the horizon, orange-red and littered with rocks; undisturbed. Most nights, she got home so late that it was too dark to see the view. It served only as great black mirror, continuous with the steel-grey carpet.
She drained the red wine from her glass and placed it on the bench, next to the empty sink. She let the sink fill with warm water and detergent, staring absently into the black window before her. Sinking the wine glass below the layer of foam, she wiped it over with a sponge and placed it in the drying rack. She pulled out the plug and left the kitchen.
She walked across the steely carpet in bare feet and silver silk pyjamas. In her bedroom, the built-in robe from floor to ceiling was open and empty. All her clothes were packed in the luggage at the foot of her bed. She sat on the ottoman there and reached into her cosmetic bag. She had seven different kinds of medication to take. Each of the boxes had instructions printed on them: take four tablets with food; swallow two whole tablets in the evening; take one whole with water. She popped out the prescribed dose; thirteen tablets in total, but she didn’t stop there. She kept popping the blister packs until they were empty and then examined the pharmaceutical fruit salad in her cupped palm. She stood and walked to the en suite.
In front of the mirror, she put her hand to her mouth and tilted the pills into her mouth. One tiny pink pill escaped and skittled down the sinkhole. She stared as it went down. She opened her mouth and watched as the rest of the pills followed the first down the drain. There were so many that they got stuck. She turned the tap on fast and poked the last of them down. She heard the hiss of the airlock in the main room and backtracked into the bedroom.
‘What’s the matter?’
She moisturised her hands.
‘I don’t like this carpet anymore.’
They paused. They set down their briefcase on the bedside table.
‘You loved this carpet when you built the place.’
‘I don’t like it anymore.’
They sighed in frustration.
‘Does it really matter now?’
‘I’m going to call Kendrick tomorrow. I want to change it.’
‘Change it? Now? There’s only a week left … what’s the point of changing it now?’
She pulled back the dark grey comforter, the silk sheets and slipped in between them.
A leaf fell to the ground. She observed the contrast of the bright green against the rusty desert sand. She attempted to bend, but the suit was too restricting. She abandoned the leaf and clipped another. She was tempted to remove the suit, but she knew it would be deadly. She was standing in a valley of ideal atmospheric pressure. If there was a fluctuation, however, her body fluids would vaporise. At that time of year, the average daily temperature was suitable for plant and animal life. They had chosen that area because of those variables. But the gas levels were not within the correct range to support animal life. That was the variable they were testing. Without sufficient carbon dioxide, the Schefflera slowly shrivelled and died. As a human, she would die much faster; the lack of oxygen would send her unconscious within minutes. She concluded that the most probably cause of death would be asphyxia. If she took her suit off, she estimated she would last a minute; two at most.
‘What the hell have you done?’
It was night again, the window a black mirror. She stood back to observe her new living, dining and kitchen area. Everything—from the tiles and bench tops, to the carpet and blinds—was a different shade of ochre. It was warm on her eyes; the carpet even felt warmer under her feet.
‘You don’t like it?’
‘How are we supposed to sell this place?’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘What’s wrong with it? The whole house is orange. I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a furnace!’
Without answering, she held a paint chart up to the wall.
She snipped a leaf off a tree in the thirty-fifth row. She kept her eyes away from the further end, focusing hard on the plants in front of her. Keith said something to her through the com, but she didn’t listen. When she finally reached row forty-two, she looked hard for a sign of green, a remnant of life. She saw Keith glance at her. She checked the underside of every dehydrated leaf, snapped open branches to see if there was any green wood inside. She did not observe a living test subject.
She glanced back at Keith and saw that he was busy taking photographs. She walked back into the previous grove, putting the row of dead plants between her and her colleague. Her heart pumped as she unclipped the glove of her space suit and pulled it off.
She held her bare palm in front of her face. Her heart raced faster—was it from excitement or was she beginning to die? Maybe she was wrong about the pressure; maybe her bodily fluids, exposed to the force of the outside world, were already starting to vaporise. She slipped off the other glove. Her bare fingers fumbled on the clip that fastened her helmet. Taking one last gulp of oxygen from her tank, she dragged it off her head completely.
Her lips stayed tightly closed. How long could that one breath last? She dropped the heavy helmet to the ground with a crunch on the rocky sand and stripped the rest of the protective suit off, leaving only the skin-tight undergarment. Her heart was pounding as she drew off one sock.
As her sole touched the ground every nerve ending there tingled. She took off the other sock and placed both feet on the ground, wriggling her toes on the powdery soil, just like she had imagined. She gave a sigh that let out her last breath. With her lungs empty, she paused. She reached out and touched one of the Schefflera. Its leaves were papery and crisp under her fingers. She pulled it off and crunched it to pieces. She knelt down with ease, unrestricted by the space suit. Lifting a handful of sand, she let it sift back to the ground. She observed a blurring around the edges of her vision as she began to feel a burning sensation in her ribcage.
Her chest muscles involuntarily sucked in air.
It felt like the first real breath she had ever taken—fresh, cool air that filtered down to the farthest depths of her lungs. The invisible corset that had slowly tightened around her chest over years was released, finally allowing her to breathe.
Keith ran awkwardly in his spacesuit. He reached her as she fell back onto the ground. He put his hand under her head and desperately tried to reach her oxygen apparatus. It was too far away, but she breathed in and out with ease. Keith noticed her breathing and gave up trying to reach the suit. She wondered how long had passed—three minutes? Four? She looked through his visor at his face and smiled. He looked back at her with an expression only scientists wore; the expression she wore when she looked at her plants every day.
By: Amanda Jarrad