When the alarm goes off I feel like I ‘m already at work, since my team member, Bonnie, is sleeping in the bunk above mine. Our quarters are tiny, dating from when we first built the outpost, it was all bare bones in the early days; all we wanted was to build the dome so we could get out of the suits.
I still put on the coffee the minute I wake up, an old Earth habit, gulp it, put on the shoes, and run around the perimeter for 45 minutes; I’m staying off the mood drugs, and the running helps me think.
I dreamed of Earth again last night, my old standard, the field of violets in Pennsylvania, right above the elementary school, the same school where my whole family lined up for the vaccines. I can still see the field, and the flowers moving gently in the breeze, and I remember the path through the pines. Everything and everyone is gone to me now.
When I get back, Bonnie is up and not talking at first, and she’s scraped her hair back into a tight topknot. Not good signs, but I have a deal with myself; however Bonnie is acting she’ll get a “Good Morning” from me. Sometimes she’ll grunt, sometimes she’ll be talkative; sometimes she just wants to talk about work, and sometimes she gives me a glimmer of her violent childhood. She’s always been mercurial, all these years. I’ve spent more time with her than anyone.
“Good Morning!” I say, and head for the sink to brush my teeth.
“Here we are again.” Bonnie answers. Great, it’s going to be a talking day.
“At least its Friday!” I say, like I do every Friday. The old sayings are a comfort to me.
I finish my teeth and she straps on her shoes, and we walk to the canteen. We’ve started having better food, but I still go for the protein bars. The eggs from the cloned chickens taste off to me, and they’ve never gotten the flour on the muffins to be tasty. I have more coffee, and we walk to the “Farmyard”, our work detail.
Bonnie checks the daily work orders, and I go off by myself to the back quadrant, and notice one of the hens is frantically fluttering at the edge of the cage. Then I see that one of her chicks is outside of the cage, also desperate, sticking its head repeatedly through the chicken wire, while the mother is flapping her wings in frenzy.
I force myself to scoop up the tiny body, I’m still afraid of birds. It is one of the blond chicks, one of the largest of this group, and it doesn’t have the same striped markings. It seems special so I want to save it even more, and it was probably my fault that the cage was left open. I notice that my heart is beating very rapidly, and that beat is matched by the heartbeat of the tiny chicken in my hand. It is so soft, so fragile, and its head pokes up through my loose fist. Somehow I open the cage with my other hand. I just throw the chick in there, desperate to let it go, and the mother rushes over and tucks the chick under its wings. I feel a moment of triumph; I’ve saved a life! That’s what this project was all about! I had held the flutter of life itself in my hand!
That’s when I hear Mike clapping slowly. Good old Mike. So tall, so slow, so sarcastic.
“How’s it going, Mike?” He usually just plunges into whatever he wants to vent about, I half listen with one eye on the work orders, and today is no different.
“I don’t know why they think I can get all the carrots done today. It’s the same old thing, no one looks at the schedule but when I’m supposed to get off at two then they think of it.”
“Oh man, sorry Mike.” That is the conversation we’ve been having our entire work lives. Sometimes Mike is interesting, he loves to go on and on about old earth history and politics, which I don’t mind listening to; but sometimes he is just a downer.
I didn’t think my life would turn out this way. When we left, the corporation made it seem like we were adventurers, sailing off into the New World, unafraid of strange new life forms, those coiling serpents lying in the roiling sea on the old maps.
Sometime I wonder why Mike got chosen, I know it wasn’t for his work ethic. The suits wanted to protect their investment, so they had a battery of tests for the trip. Like everyone else, I saw a posting that the testing was open to everyone, and signed up for it. I was as amazed as anyone when they kept passing me on to the next level. I had never gotten the second interview in life.
The crew ended up being a mash up of breeders and science types and builders and off we went, just 30 men and 30 women. We went off with uploaded images of lovely Earth sites, like animals and cities and the wonders we left behind, and we brought a simulation of our old food with us, mostly reconstituted powder, which Bonnie says was like camping food. We had seeds and feeds and human needs; I think that was how the phrase went. We had to dig for water under the surface and process it; half of Kepler is ocean water after all.
We breeders all had a genetic component that made us eligible; our team was called “Potential Progeny”, or PP. My “mate”, Bryan, and I weren’t compatible but our gene makeup was supposed to create hardy, smart offspring, pioneer stock, ha. I guess both of us had native intelligence, though neither of us had even finished high school. He was even from the old neighborhood on earth. Bryan was at the first birth, and I remember looking into his eyes when I pushed. He was so good-looking then. What’s that old earth saying? Handsome is as handsome does. Another old phrase.
By the second birth he was flirting with the midwife, and after that he didn’t bother showing up. Now he’s gone off to the other side of the planet, the underwater side; the corporation calls it Oceanside™. I haven’t seen him in over ten Earth years; there are status reports sent to us but I never check them.
At the beginning there was a lot of visionary talk about a new Eden and the frontier and the beauty of the kibbutz model. Of course, most of us only knew of Israel, really the whole Middle East, as a pile of nuclear ash. We just wanted jobs and everything was covered.
They didn’t even want to have a bar on outpost; they thought everyone would be committed to saving humanity, ha. We’d all be loyal comrades and such, like the posters. But, someone figured out how to brew Keplershine from the compost, and so they had to rethink some things. Without the bar, I don’t know how Mike would have made it. He still liked beer thirty, regardless of the planet, and I think he still smoked; someone in hydroponics must have grown some dope. They actually had a darts tourney.
The bar helped people with the heebie jeebies have an outlet, and the serious types could always get the antidepressants. Funny, a lot of the crew of procreators were rebellious types on Earth, but they now seemed anesthetized. You just never know how it would affect people to leave their home planet. Now they do.
As one of the mothers, though, I stayed clean. Remember that old line, “I don’t care it it’s a boy or a girl, as long as its human”…well, some of us were a little worried about that. So we were given the best food and I spent a lot of time pregnant or nursing in those early years; it is kind of a blur now.
I was terrified when we arrived; all I wanted to do was watch images of Earth for the first three weeks, with a few history documentaries thrown in. I loved the film about the Pilgrims, but now they’ve deleted it from the roster; after all, no Indians were going to show up to help us; we weren’t going to discover the Kepler equivalent of turkey, cranberries, corn, or pumpkin, and feast with the aliens.
Too bad the drones never found any evidence of life. No one has left the outpost, and no one seems to want to especially the second generation. Bonnie thinks the kids are all tweaked. They put all the kids in a nursery, and “parents” could go visit but it was always supervised. I don’t know if it’s the best way to raise kids; I still see my progeny around, of course, and they always give me a big smile and act interested in me, but it isn’t the way it was on Earth.
The worst thing is the second generation can’t seem to procreate. Kepler isn’t the first priority of the powers that be anymore; we are on the back burner. And its weird, the kids don’t even want to have sex. When they post the algorithm pairings to control the gene pool, they weren’t even interested. Mike thinks is the filtered water.
In the beginning, it was an issue that it didn’t seem like home at all. I remember all the talk about the foliage; all the bright red, yellow, or orange. They said that everything that was green on Earth would be perceived on Kepler as red tones, something to do with the cones in our eyes and the radiation. Some said the foliage was actually black and white. It was all about interpretation. But we weren’t out there hiking or anything; we just saw it all in the viewfinder. It was all about the outpost, too, we had so much to do. Mostly I just see the walls of the compound.
Bonnie came sidling into the back room. One of our main occupations was bitching about the supervisor.
“Can you believe Miss I Can’t Do Anything Myself is having me clean out the pig area AGAIN?’
“I don’t mind that so much, but she never fills out the work orders they way we do. And she just can’t lay off calling the office every hour or so; I heard they asked her to quit calling so much.” And we’d be off; we could play that game for hours. We were like an old married couple at this point. And we headed back to our quarters, Bonnie talking on and on and me drifting off into a reverie.
I keep thinking about getting out a little, just a little. I’d love to even go half a mile outside of the compound. They say it isn’t safe and the fear mongering is intense. See, I starting to wonder if it would matter if I died. I gave them six healthy citizens and I’ve never been in love and I don’t value my work…. I might as well risk it all for a few minutes of life, real life, while I still have it. I want to breach the compound; I can’t stop thinking about it.
I imagine going out there, there is talk that you don’t need the helmet and all that freaking gear, and take a little stroll into those intense red trees that I can make out through the dome, even the plastic is scratched and foggy at this point. Take a little satchel of those Kepler crackers that keep me going, and wander around a little.
I have a fantasy for sure; in fact, I’ve dreamed it. I’m walking in the “woods”, but all the plants are different. I see “birds” flitting through the trees, but all the colors are different, so amazing that my dream self gasps. I saw the therapist once and told her about it, and she said I was projecting half memories of earth into my current situation, which is delusional. Whatever. In the fantasy I hear a faint crying, and I search for the source, and I finally find a creature in the undergrowth, a helpless mewling creature. I see it as clearly as I see my field of violets.
I don’t always get to this part of the dream, but sometimes I part the plants, and I see a tiny doughy humanoid, like a fetus, with arms and legs but an unformed face, the eyes are still obscured by a fleshy kind of lid, but you can see them moving. My creature is not pink or brown, like a human baby, but a kind of orange, so it could be hidden in the plants. It is waving its arms and legs and mewling and it seems so natural to pick it up and hold it to my chest, like a baby, and I lift it… And that is as far as the fantasy goes.
Sometimes I have another dream, where ethereal floating life forms are outside the compound, peering in. It is a beautiful sight, like a jellyfish suspended in the air with continually changing glowing orbs of color, the most stunning color.
“Hey, do you want to head out to the bar tonight?” Bonnie asked. “Its Friday night after all!” Somehow we had made it back to our place while I was up in my head. Bonnie rooted there her locker for a fresh shirt, and was actually putting on lip-gloss.
“Oh man, I don’t think so. I kind of have a headache.” I’d been at the bar every Friday night for years. Bonnie took off, in a huff of course, and I lay on my bunk. I covered my face with the pillow; the ambient light was always present in the compound. I could see just a sliver of light, and my eyelashes fluttering as they tried to stay open under the towel. They piped in background music at all times, and I felt like I was drifting into a dream space.
While I was under there I got a vision, of a beautiful colorful glowing oval, and in the center was a brilliant light. It looked a bit like a gorgeous earth flower, with intricate petals and the focal point a brilliant scarlet. The oval kept changing color, but was always intensely beautiful, shifting and changing. I felt a certain peace; perhaps everything would end well. I also heard a faint bell ringing, kind of like when yoga class is over, and the sound grew to a crescendo. Even though I was aware of my body on the bunk, and my eyelids fluttering under the towel, I felt myself lifting and drifting away. Somehow my lovely orb motivated me, that and the music. I felt like I was being summoned, directed somehow. I kept getting the thought that there had to be a corner of the compound that wasn’t completely rigged up; some part of the structure that I could slip through. I guess I fell asleep.
Saturday morning I decided to talk to Bonnie. A tough woman like her was just the person you needed for a mission. We had a feature in the bunkroom, where you could turn down the lighting, and turn on an effect against the wall, kind of like the planetarium I once went to on one of the of the few field trips I had in my school days on earth. A city silhouette was projected with the soft glow of twilight, a purple pink light. Imaginary buildings appeared against the while, with tiny pinpoints of lights in the windows, it was like New York City in the early evening hours. I brewed some tea, lowered the music, and woke Bonnie up.
“Want some of your favorite tea?” She groaned and pulled off her sleep mask, and groggily accepted a cup.
“How was the bar last night?”
“Pretty much the usual. Mike was pretty drunk…his team won the darts.”
“Oh nice.” A silence fell, and I decided I had to take the plunge.
“ Have you ever wanted to breach the dome, just for a little bit? See that foliage they always talked about in the beginning?”
“I don’t know. I hated moving around in that suit.”
“I’ve heard talk that you don’t really need the suit.”
“What fool said that?”
“You know Mike’s friend Donald? He says it was just a corporation thing, so we wouldn’t wander off.”
Bonnie snorted. “He’s the dude who believed in chemtrails on earth, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, but doesn’t it make sense? Remember when Valerie had a rip in her suit when we were building, and freaked out but nothing happened? Wouldn’t you love to see all those red leaves? You loved fall back on earth!”
“Not really, its pretty dry and dusty out there. Hey, do you want to check out the new movies on the roster? It’s our day off after all. We can have popcorn for breakfast!”
Our popcorn always tasted dry and stale, and we watched movies every Saturday. I kept glancing over at Bonnie, but she was already totally absorbed in the action. Another day on the outpost, weekend or not.
That night I dreamed of the orb again. It was in the center of my consciousness. The colors kept changing, sometimes a purple with a scarlet center, always shifting and moving. I had often dreamed of the orb, but suddenly it seemed to speak. I heard a voice, or perhaps it was just a thought, pressing into my mind. It seemed to be telling me where to go, and I went. I kept thinking I was sleepwalking. I crept out of our room, and walked through the corridors to the area behind hydroponics. It was dark and quiet in the corridor, and the air smelled faintly medicinal. Maybe the corporation was piping in drugs. No one was around; I could hear faint snoring but that was all. I had brought my breath mask just in case.
The corner of the compound in the back of the warehouse was open, just like the dream had shown me. I put on my breath mask, and crawled under a table. Again I heard the soft sound of the bell, and under the table I saw a tear in the plastic shield of the dome, more like a crack. I pushed against the crack, and it pushed back enough for me to squeeze through. The next layer was also cracked, a little further down. I pushed the breath mask close to my face, and pushed against the dome with all my strength. It gave, and I squeezed through and into the atmosphere. My heart was beating so rapidly I could feel it in my ears. I had never been so afraid, and yet somehow here I was, standing on this alien foundation. The air was dense and moist; I could feel it resting on my skin.
Kepler had a few moons, so there was a kind of twilight, and I could see the red foliage the drone had shown us, glowing in the distance. Suddenly I felt a calmness come over me, and my heart rate slow to a normal steady beat. I stepped on a kind of pine needle on the “ground”, and heard the faint crackling sound my shoes made. I took off the breath mask and just dropped it, and the first few breaths terrified me, but I was still standing.
I felt that the orb was with me, calming me. I thought I heard a rustling in the shrubs, and looked back at the dome once, now barely visible behind me. I used yoga breathing, and kept walking to the copse. This is what I wanted.
In the leaves, which shifted and shone in the moonlight, I heard a whimper. I crept closer, and knelt where I had heard the sound. Pushing away the leaves, I could almost make out a form, emitting a tiny sound. Something made me reach for it, it sounded so vulnerable, and I scooped it up and into my arms. I could feel something pulsing in it; it was a strangely formless thing, soft and pliable. I strained to see it, to bring it closer to my chest. I cradled it like a baby, and I felt it connect to my own heart.
I slowly stood, clutching the “baby” to my chest, and faced the dome once more. I saw the stars, just like you could on Earth, but so clear, unfiltered by the scratched plastic of the dome, and none of them familiar. The sky was alive. I stood on a planet not my own, and bent my head to a living creature, in my arms. And then the orb was all around us, lifting and pulling us in an undulating light, and I felt myself at one with the orb, and with the vast and beautiful cosmos. Home.
Bio: I got an MFA from USF, moved to the Sierra Foothills, and am a lifelong reader. I also love speculative fiction.