A Handful of Soil

After one hundred and eighty years in space, the chard failed. As Dr. Hoskins’ assistant, Eun saw it before everybody else, the old botanist holding up the ruined leaves for her to examine. They were full of mottled white spots, clearly inedible. “Blight,” he said bleakly. “A new one.”

“That’s too bad,” she said, turning it in her hands. “I guess we’ll have to sterilize this patch, then?” She looked up, was startled to see tears in her mentor’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”

Hands holding soil

He shook his head. “Not just this patch. And not just the chard. The lentils too. We’ll have to kill half the crop to clear it.”

She came over and, a little awkwardly, put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s not your fault. This has been happening more and more.”

“Exactly!” he said, standing up and wiping his eyes. “That’s exactly the problem. And every time it happens we lose a little of our capability to recover.” He started cleaning up, hurling leaves into a trash bin. “Every year the crops are a little more vulnerable, the soil a little weaker, the microbial environment less rich. First chard, then lentils. A double failure, with double jeopardy. How long before a triple failure? A quadruple failure? What will we eat then?”

She knew what he meant. Even this failure meant reduced rations for the twenty thousand inhabitants of the Eden. The enormous station was well-designed and flexible, but without Earth’s supporting industries, that resilience was perpetually being strained. “We can always replant from the genetic reserves.”

“Yes, we’ll replant, in our weak soil, with strains we already know have vulnerabilities. And there will be a new blight.”

“Maybe we should petition the council for new soil imports from the surface.”

“And how much fuel will that take? And will the new microbes help us or kill the crops? We don’t just need new soil. We need new strains, not to mention new equipment. We need a planet, a living planet.”

“It’s all possible. We’ll make the petition.”

He nodded, not meeting her eye. She was immensely fond of him, and concerned. Things must be serious, or he would not be so upset. Or maybe it was just old age.

*

The council didn’t look kindly at the request. “Soil is heavy,” said the head of the logistics committee, Heder Maass, a small red-headed man with a pug nose and reputation for curtness. “You’re talking about us using enormous amounts of fuel to transport dirt. Which you yourselves admit may not solve the problem.”

In response Hoskins reiterated his arguments: that failure to do so would accelerate the decline of the station’s crops. Eun watched in the small audience to the council’s proceedings.

“Accelerate by how much? When will this failure occur? Next year? Or a century from now?”

“There’s no way to say,” replied Hoskins.

“And meanwhile we’ve abandoned Ring Five because we don’t have power,” Maass snapped. “Because we can’t repair the generators there, ever since the main manufactory failed. We’re already running exclusively on the failsafe manufactory. What happens when it fails?” He addressed the wider council now. “Our priority has to be to fix the main manufactory before anything else. It’s been out for two months while we’ve sat here dithering.”

“We can’t fix it,” said the council president, the white-haired June Li. “We don’t have the isotopes we need and aren’t capable of making them.”

“They exist on Earth,” Maass remonstrated. “Let me take the shuttle. I’ve identified three sites where the isotopes we need are likely to be found.”

“Nuclear sites?”

“Obviously. I’ll go down –”

“Nuclear sites in complete disrepair. Leaking radiation everywhere. Or already melted down. Wastelands.”

“I’ll use every possible protection,” Maass said through gritted teeth. “We’ll manufacture robots if needed. The alternatives –”

“The alternatives are either to grant Dr. Hoskins’ request, or to simple continue as we have been. There’s no reason to think the failsafe manufactory will fail anytime soon, and even if it does, we can decide then to go to the surface. But I won’t support it now. The fuel reserves are too precious.” She sighed. “But I’m afraid I can’t support your request, either, doctor, for much the same reason. There’s no guarantee a change of soil will make a lasting difference. So in my view we should continue as we were, until better alternatives are identified.”

As if there were alternatives they hadn’t considered, after nearly two hundred years.

*

But then a friend of Eun’s, Terri Figgs, called her as Eun was doing maintenance on the drip watering system in the Ring Two greenhouse. “Are you busy right now?”

Eun stood up, wiping sweat from her brow. “Kind of.” She was wearing the green coveralls used for farm work, dirt on their knees, dirt underneath her fingernails. The clothes-washing and hand-washing systems were supposed to reclaim all those minerals when they went down the drain, but she wondered if they didn’t lose a little.

“There’s something I need to show you.”

“So show me.”

“It’s a surprise.”

“Can it wait until tonight?”

Terri rolled her eyes. “I guess. But if you knew what it was, you wouldn’t want to wait.”
That made Eun wonder. Something funny Terri had found in the media archives? Something she’d made herself, or something else new created by anyone on board? Or maybe Terri was trying to set her up on a date again, as if they both didn’t know every eligible partner on board. “Give me half an hour to clean up.”

Terri was in Ring One, where she could be close to the communications equipment at the tip of the Axle. She and two other people managed essentially all of the Eden‘s communications (mostly internal, although they used to communicate with two other space habitats, New Haven and Vishnu, until those stations were abandoned). They also managed the few remaining surveillance satellites.

Terri herself was only a little older than Eun, a quirky girl with dark red hair cut shoulder-length. She spent a lot of her time just listening to old music recordings, and even made some music herself, on her computer. She also liked to alter her clothes in funny ways, like she had a button that said, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” on the breast of her jumpsuit.

“Okay,” she said when Eun entered, setting her hands on Eun’s shoulders and directing her to a swivel seat. “Sit right here and fasten your seat belt.” This was kind of a joke, since there was no gravity here, and so strapping in was the only way to sit, period. But Eun did as she was told.

“Let me guess,” she ventured. “You found a new super-cool music video.”

“Well… yes. But that’s not what I need to show you. You ready?” With a exaggerated tap on her screen, Terri brought up a map. It was a satellite image, somewhere mountainous.
Terri looked at her expectantly. Eun said, “What am I looking at, exactly?”

“Look carefully. Look at the color.”

Eun did. She frowned, and then her eyes widened. “Is it… green?”

Terri nodded, a smile ready to burst out on her lips. “It is. I mean, it’s not very green, but it is definitely greenish.”

Some of the excitement drained away. “It could just be a photographic thing. Maybe your lenses…”

“Uh-uh. It’s not. And I’ll show you how I know.” She zoomed into the map, so it was as though they were in an airplane flying overhead. “See these dots?” She pointed out a cluster of dark dots in the landscape. “Now watch. This is an hour later. And now the next day. And the next.”

The dots moved. They did not stay in one place. “What are they?”

“I think they’re animals.”

Eun’s breath caught, involuntary tears springing to her eyes.

*

“Impossible,” Maass declared in council that night. “Just wishful thinking. Or hell, something your assistant cooked up to support this stupid idea for a planetside mission.”

Eun’s face reddened. “I wouldn’t lie about this. And the photos –”

Dr. Hoskins patted her on the knee. “It’s all right. Skepticism is healthy. But unless you have evidence that these photos are doctored – and at first glance, they certainly don’t seem to be – then I’d appreciate you not slandering my assistant, Heder.” He folded his hands in his lap and continued serenely, “And it is not impossible. If anything, it’s surprising we haven’t met more survivors.”

“There were survivors,” President Li reminded them. “They just didn’t go on surviving. They faced many of the same problems we face – a collapse of essential support systems in a hostile environment. We’re just lucky the Eden was so well-designed. And of course it’s possible – likely, even – that there are other survivor groups yet, who choose to remain hidden. Apocalypse doesn’t make you very trusting in that respect.”

“But animals?” Maass said. “Conditions on the surface have always been too challenging to keep animals alive. They nearly all died in the first few years after the Fall. And keeping them alive underground – for two hundred years! – it’s just too far-fetched.”

“The pictures are real,” Terri pointed out, not without some sass. “You can’t just stick your head in the sand and ignore them.”

“This could mean our own survival,” Hoskins said seriously. “We can’t live on this station forever. We’ve always known that.”

President Li nodded and folded her hands in front of her. “We’ll have to send a mission.”

*

It seemed Eun hardly breathed through the whole descent to the surface. Partly this was due to nervousness, never having actually traveled in a shuttle, much less entering the atmosphere, with the shuttle shaking and roaring around them. But partly it was in anticipation of touching down.

Earth! All her life she’d seen it out the windows, so central and yet so distant. But Dr. Hoskins was too old to make the trip, and she was the most qualified to examine the soil quality on the surface. If this location had growing things, then one way or another it was important.

Maass was there, too. It had been agreed that they would attempt both missions – new soil and new nuclear fuel – since there were nuclear sites within a reasonable distance of the green spot. Then there was the pilot and a few others assisting with various tasks. But Eun could care less about any of them. She was going to Earth.

Once they had passed through the upper atmosphere and their speed had decreased, she had eyes for nothing but the surface. There were few clouds today, and she saw the same brown deserts and rocky landscapes she had seen from space. The nuclear devastation of the Fall had been even worse than people had imagined: first the Long Winter, then the realization that the massive explosions had destroyed most of the remaining ozone. After things thawed out, they started heating up. Plants wouldn’t grow. Even the plankton died. And the animals… they’d died early on, right down to the mice.

There was still some grass, here and there. And some insects. That was about it.

They approached the mountains and Eun kept her face to the window. “You press against that glass any harder,” one of the others said, “you’re going to fall out.”

And then: There it was!

Terri hadn’t been wrong. It was green, a valley full of rippling plants. She was pretty sure, even at this distance, that she saw corn. It was planted. “It’s a farm,” she breathed.
One valley, of all those on Earth. One place where the weather patterns had been just right, one place where some survivors had held on, one way or another, through all the darkness their ancestors had wrought.

“Look!” she said suddenly, pointing. “Animals!”

Others peered out their own windows. Alarmed by the noise of the shuttle, a herd of creatures was running across a pasture. “I think they’re goats,” she said wonderingly.

There was a house here, too, human structures made of reddish adobe, with roofs of corrugated steel. People were coming out of them, but Eun didn’t care. “The people here may be hostile,” Maass warned. “If there’s any trouble, run back into the shuttle. The pilot knows what to do, and the shuttle is armed.”

The shuttle’s jets rotated, the craft slowing until it came to a hover; then abruptly it touched down with a thump. Eun undid her buckle. It took some time, but finally the door opened and they walked down the ramp and outside.

Though they’d tried to land in a relatively barren area, still the jets had scorched the earth black around them, and there was a burnt smell and wisps of smoke still rising. When they stepped out from the shadow of the shuttle, though, Eun smelled other things, too, most particularly a smell of manure. The goats were making noises like those she’d seen in videos.

It was hot, the sun high overhead, the sky like nothing she’d ever seen. It was unimaginable, the sky; the pure azure of it was something that human eyes had evolved to see, and here she was experiencing for the first time. Now she realized how terrible their lives were, up there; the Eden was a lifeboat, yes, but it was also a prison.

Though it was oppressively hot and dry, the corn nearby was tall and vigorous, so there must be good groundwater. A group of ten or twelve people were standing in the fields, talking among themselves with expressions of concern and distrust. Only now it occurred to Eun that they might not speak each other’s languages – probably didn’t, even.

But it didn’t matter. She was on Earth.

Maass and the others kept walking toward the farmers, but when Eun reached the planted field she dropped to her knees. She placed her hand in the dark soil, felt its richness and potential. Heedless of harm, she raised a handful of it to her mouth and with the tip of her tongue tasted its substance. We should never have left.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s