Congratulations to Mehek Naresh for winning the Eco-fiction 2016 Solarpunk Short Story Contest! This short story is published whole. Judges were Claudie Arseneault, author of Viral Airwaves and editor of Wings of Renewal: A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology, and T.X. Watson and Faith Roses Gregory of Solarpunk Press.
“I don’t want to go.”
They both stopped for a moment. Marlene was pulling a stack of neatly folded cardigans out of a drawer as Ashley sat on the edge of their bed. They were quiet.
“You…you have to go though.”
Ashley had waited her whole life for this opportunity. She’d spent years training and studying. She’d been selected as part of the second group of 25 scientists to escort a mission of a hundred thousand seeds to Mars. It was an honor to serve as one of the scientists working on this. And yet.
“I know I have to go.” Ashley sighed, burying her face in her hands. Marlene walked over to her, pulling Ashley close as she sat next to her, the cardigans abandoned on the dresser top.
“But it’s hard.” Marlene knew. She wouldn’t have been able to leave if asked. And she had a mission of her own here. Her responsibilities were vastly different from Ashley’s, but her assignment no less important. She was the lead engineer on an Earth-based biodiversity initiative that required hyper-evaporation and water suspension in order to test underwater agriculture.
The goal of the next 100 years was simple. Experiment on Earth to figure out what they could salvage of the environment, and spend the rest of the remaining resources attempting to terra form Mars. It was their only option. There were only a few hundred scientists left on Earth, and few were slowly making their way to the neighbor planet to prepare it for Airbus landings. Those Airbuses were humanity’s safety net, but they did have to land eventually. They couldn’t keep running on recycled space waste forever.
“We could have been artists, or writers, or teachers, or anything, and gone off in the Airbus and stayed together,” Ashley opined, standing and pacing.
Marlene nodded. Yes, they could have done all those things. But they were women of science. And Marlene could have joined Ashley in theory.
“Mommy!” A tiny voice reverberated off the halls, the tinkling laugh of their three year old announcing her presence as she entered the room. It was Kay, the dear child they had chosen to have together just before the mission to Mars were announced. And children weren’t allowed there yet. The atmospheric pressure often dipped; oxygen decreased occasionally and, in general, Mars wasn’t safe for kids yet. It certainly wasn’t safe for their boisterous, precious Kay.
Kay bounded into the room and bounced onto Marlene’s lap. She was a short little thing with dark ringlets and an infectious smile. She nuzzled softly into Marlene’s chest, and Marlene held her close. Ashley put her arms around both of them. Kay was the most important part of their lives, but she was also the exact reason Ashley and Marlene couldn’t go together to Mars.
“Mama, are you going to come back so soon?” So soon was their family saying, a little nod of comfort to Kay when either Ashley or Marlene went off to work.
Ashley pulled their daughter onto her lap. “Not so soon, my dove, but someday.” She held the child close. It felt impossible to leave them. There wasn’t much of a choice. The lack of water would have make Marlene’s skill set usable in the future, but not right this moment. Ashley’s skills in soil analysis were the reason she was chosen. It would be selfish, for the fate of society, not to go. It would go against the agreement amongst all those still living. “Collaborate first, for the future.” And she had been offered an out. She could have stayed. But the reasons she dreaded leaving were the exact reasons she was going.
There was hope here on Earth, but it was a slow hope. The work Marlene was doing was meant to be self-sustaining, to be set up to cycle and self-maintain over the course of 10 years. After those ten years, they could come back and start trying to resettle. But for now there was still much to be done requiring human intervention.
They had to leave for the shuttle in thirty minutes. It wasn’t a long walk. They had been staying on the underwater base for the last several months, when their home was finally a foot under water. What had once been the peak of the highest mountain had been submerged, and there wasn’t much to do but go under water. There were ideas about raised platforms that floated on the surface, but that was only a quick fix. To undo the harm of the last millennia, they had to reengage with nature in a way they never had before, and being underwater had done just that.
Marlene put the last of Ashley’s things in her two suitcases as Ashley cradled their daughter, rocking her gently.
“I think that’s everything.” Marlene said softly.
Ashley didn’t stand. It was necessary, for the good of humanity, that she go. It was imperative that she went. And her heart was breaking.
“Should we go?” Ashley asked anyway. Because that was what they did. They forged on anyway.
“I guess so.” Marlene zipped up Ashley’s bag and began to pull it. Ashley stood, still holding Kay tightly. They walked out the door, tears streaming silently down their faces, and walked toward the center of the base, where the shuttle would launch Ashley a million miles away from what was most precious to her.
They were there, standing on the platform. Ashley had forced herself to stop crying and tied up her usually free, very curly dark hair into a bun. There were a few other lingering families on the platform. A father hugged his two boys, kneeling before them and asking them to be good. A young triad, two men and a woman with a son the same age as Kay, huddled together, holding their son between them as they hugged. One of the men of that partnership was the base teacher, and Marlene knew him well. He was one of the few nonscientists among them, and one of the few who would be able to stay on the base because of his partnerships.
Marlene and Ashley stood on the platform, and Marlene couldn’t help but cry. This was it. This was their life. This was the woman she had fought and survived for through the chaos of the end of the world, and they were here together, working to fix it. And here was their baby, their most precious baby, who would have to spend a year without her parents together. Without her Mama.
“This is for the best, Marly” Ashley said with a warble in her voice. She’d set down Kay, and as the two women held hands, they looked down at their daughter. Yes, this was for the best. This was for her. This was so that Kay could live on Earth or Mars or other terraformed projects. She could walk on real ground and breathe real air and not spend her whole life trapped under water or in space. This was for her.
Ashley stood on the platform, giving a final hug and kiss to Kay and holding Marlene close. An all call from above came down, and Ashley looked over at her fellow scientists. They had the same look of dread at the thought of leaving their families.
“I love you.” Marlene said with earnest smile and breaking heart.
“I’ll see you so soon. I love you” Ashley’s somber look was replaced with a bit of cheer for Kay. “And I will see my beautiful baby so soon, okay! So so soon! I love you Kay-bear.” She comically held Kay close, who giggled and laughed.
Ashley began to roll her bags toward the loading station. She was wiping away the stream of tears from her cheeks as she reached her baggage check. She loaded her bags on to the cart, which would be delivered to her room. They’d have communication with the base through video chat through the entire trip, but that didn’t change the distance.
Ashley walked onto the shuttle. She couldn’t look back at her family. She’d run right back off and into their arms and never leave.
They managed. They managed through the video chat service between the shuttle and the base. Marlene wouldn’t call Ashley when their daughter was playing “astronaut” or feeding Legos to her stuffed horse. Ashley called the first morning.
“We miss you,” Marlene said somberly as Kay played in her lap.
“I miss you too.”
“How’s it going?” Marlene wanted to know but also desperately didn’t. She knew it was an amazing adventure, but it didn’t mean she didn’t miss her.
“It’s going well. The team is really coming together, and the game plan is strong. I think over the next year we’ll be able to make some strong progress.”
“That’s great!” She did, on some level, know that. She knew they would be coming up with a plan over their time on the trip. The details were vague on the base, and no one wanted to put a timeline on it, but the goal was to let the team work on the Mars base for a year, then come back and give it a year to calibrate the atmosphere. After another year after that, another team would go and live there for a year to make sure everything was okay, and finally, the Airbus with the remaining population would land there. By then, hopefully, there would be some progress made on Earth, and there would be some way to inhabit their planet again.
Marlene and Ashley talked every day, morning, and evening. Marlene received updates on where they were planting, as well as the team’s timeline, and Ashley received update on the water-based projects on Earth. Ashley welcomed any conversation with Kay, who babbled gleefully about animals she had never seen, stars she’d never had a chance to experience, and how much she missed her Mama.
And then the calls stopped.
Marlene had given it a day. Maybe Ashley was busy. Maybe there was something going on and she simply couldn’t call. It was unlike her not to call though, no matter how busy she was.
Other families were worrying too. Marlene could see it in the faces of the women and men left behind whose partners and lovers were on the shuttle. They hadn’t heard anything either.
Delia was the woman in charge, as they’d elected her to be, and questions poured into her office. There were still people on the base who were meant to be tracking the shuttle, keeping it on course, meeting to collaborate between projects so that everything stayed on track.
And it was Delia who called in the family members of the Mars shuttle on a Tuesday, in the middle of the work day.
Marlene had stopped into the Children’s Center on base to check on Kay, who was busy playing while some of the older kids were working on lessons. Marlene had taught science to the older kids for two years before she moved on to work on her current project, and she knew the room well. She prayed for good news, that the only thing wrong was that the communication antenna had been knocked off the shuttle. That had to be all.
Delia was already at the front of the room as many of the family members trickled in to the room. There wasn’t much fanfare between them. There were somber looks all around, as though they knew what was coming. Something was wrong. They wouldn’t all have been called in like this otherwise. Marlene sat at the back. She was trying to stay calm. There was no real way to stay calm in a time like this, but she had to. She felt that if she kept calm, maybe nothing really, truly bad would have happened.
“I am sorry to call you all in here,” Delia started. She was trying to sound like the leader she was, but they all knew she couldn’t deliver this message without her heart being broken too. Delia was older than most of them, and her husband and son were also on the shuttle.
“Yesterday at 2:04 am the base crew lost communication with Shuttle 912. We attempted to regain communication over the next several hours, and believe that the shuttle was hit with a bit of space trash.” Delia seemed distraught. They had tried, as a society, to rid the sky of the space trash left from generation before. It had been part of a phase where the water hadn’t risen so much, and there were designated crews to clear the skies and reuse the technology that was floating around and repurpose that into other items. Most of the technology running the current Airbus was generated from that trash.
Delia continued, “As commander of the Underwater Base of Earth, I want to inform you that we will do everything in our power to make contact with Shuttle 912. We have alerted the Mars team to let them know that the shuttle’s communication system is down, and we have instructed the Airbus to keep an eye out.” She had tears in her eyes a she made this delivery. “At 5:26 this evening, we lost track of Shuttle 912. Up until then, we were able to track exactly where it was and that it was continuing on course to Mars. We have lost all contact with Shuttle 912.” A sob escaped Delia. She was as affected as all of them, with her whole life up in the air. “I want to keep the members of the Underwater Base informed, especially those with loved ones on this mission.” Delia was composing herself, forcing calm into the wrinkles of her brow, “We need to take heart in the fact that we have experienced, trained professionals working right now to fix this. The Airbus has deployed a search team, and the Mars team is searching from the ground. We are unable to make any real search effort as of right now, but I am confident in both teams to work together on this. In the meantime, I will let you know the facts of the matter. Shuttle 912 has enough oxygen and supplies for 15 days beyond the length of the original mission. By my calculation, they have enough supply for the next 27 days.” Delia took a breath. This part looked like it was too hard to say. We will continue to search and scan and fight for the next thirty days.”
Gasps echoed around the room. They knew that there was too much at stake and not enough resources to search longer than that, but it was devastating to hear.
“I am confident,” Delia said with tears in her eyes, “that we will be able to find the shuttle. And I am confident…I am confident that this will be okay.” It had to be okay for her, for them, for everyone.
Marlene spent a lot of time over the next several days in the control room. The Underwater Base continued their space scanning, searching the starts night and day in shifts. Every adult on the base could use the scanners. They had all been cross-trained to do so, just in case.
And the skies were clear. Impossibly clear. Too clear for comfort.
Her work in the lab, with the water and hyper evaporation, had stopped completely. She, along with the others waiting on loved ones for contact, had been relieved of their duties for the time being. The commander had known that whatever work would happen could be mad up later. For now they supported each other. They spent time with friends and children. And they scanned the sky.
Marlene stared at the radar system. It beeped and beeped, driving her anxiety further and further into territory she couldn’t quite manage. She kneaded a small rubber ball in her hands to keep her focused on the screen.
“Hey, can I join you?” Jessica stood in the doorway. Marlene remembered her from the platform, hugging her partner with their son.
“Of course.” Jessica sat down and scanned a smaller screen.
They were quiet for a moment.
Marlene started, “How are you and-“
“How are you and Caleb holding up?” She couldn’t imagine they were doing well.
“I think we’d be better if we could find the words to tell Alex when Daddy was coming home.” Jessica said somberly. “We can’t find the words yet.”
Marlene walked in the door with Kay, who was sleeping on her shoulder. She lay the small child on the couch, went to the freezer, and pulled out a meal to heat. It wasn’t energy-efficient for everyone to cook, so the Underwater Base had frozen meals, jerky, and rations for how much energy was used. Right now, the water-based turbines that kept the base going were doing fine, but they knew they had to expand those eventually. The hope when all this started was that they’d be out in 10 years. That they wouldn’t have enough children to need to expand. But now they had to. One crisis at a time.
As Marlene heated the food, she thought about Jessica and Caleb. Ashley had worked closely with Bryant, so she knew the family second-hand from what Ashley told her. Maybe it was time to see them more often. They could get the kids together…Alex must have been Kay’s age.
The heater beeped, waking Kay, who had been stirring for a few minutes at the whir of the machine. Marlene wondered how a child who grew up with the whirring of machines could ever stir from such a noise from a food heater, but she wasn’t one to argue with toddler brains or their logic.
“Mommy?” the little one toddled over to the kitchen, rubbing her eyes. She was a vision of sweetness, and it broke Marlene’s heart that she looked almost identical to Ashley.
“Hi baby.” Marlene picked her up and walked over to the food heater, pulling out the tray. She had a gift for multi-tasking, holding the baby in one hand and divvying up the food into two plates with the other. There were rehydrated potatoes, some unconventional colored…asparagus, she hoped was what it was, and a piece of meat covered in thick brown gravy. Food wasn’t quite food anymore. It wasn’t grown from the Earth or raised on a farm. For now, there was a lab, and that was what they had to feed the base. And that would do for now.
They sat at the little round table, and Marlene put Kay in her high chair before going back to get the plates.
“Mommy, where’s Mama?” Kay asked in the hopeful way she asked every evening.
Marlene couldn’t bring herself to tell their baby anything, so she kept passing the buck to the next day, hoping she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all. “She’ll be back soon, baby girl.” Marlene tried to eat, but the food was too hot. She took the plate from Kay so she wouldn’t hurt herself.
“Can Mama call?” Kay was the spitting image of Ashley, with her soft brown skin and warm eyes and hair that looked like a lion’s mane. Marlene was terrible with Kay’s hair, but Ashley was so patient, sitting with their daughter in her lap and braiding it before child care.
“Not right now, baby, but soon.” Marlene could feel the tears coming.
“So soon?” Kay said, innocently.
There were twelve days left before they would call off the search.
Caleb and Jessica were over. It was three days to the deadline. Rations would be running out, oxygen stores depleting. If any of the crew survived it would be a miracle. And the only thing there was to do was to fret, hope, and pray.
Kay and Alex were sitting on the floor, playing with small stuffed horses. Toys were made from clothing that was too worn to be re-sewn into clothing. Nothing was wasted anymore. There wasn’t spare new material to make toys, so they did what they could with what they had.
“Can I make tea? Coffee?” Marlene’s voice broke on the second ask. She was frantic, nervous. There was nothing that would calm her, nothing that would shake away the fear she held in her heart.
“I’ll have some tea. Chamomile if you have it,” Jessica responded, attempting calm. They all felt like screaming in impatience as the days ticked by. It was all too much to bear.
Caleb didn’t answer. He seemed numb. Marlene wished she could numb out the pain, make it all go away.
After tea, the kids played and the adults were mostly silent through it. As much as Marlene wanted to share in some of the pain, this wasn’t working.
The commander called her in. Marlene didn’t want to go, thinking she was the only one, but apparently everyone had been called in separately. There wasn’t any news to report, from what she’d heard.
“Come on in Marlene,” said Delia after a knock.
“Commander.” Marlene bowed her head slightly in respect.
“Please now, Marly, it’s been 20 years.”
“How are you, Delia?” Marlene’s mother had been friends with Delia. Mom had been lost on one of the first missions to Mars, her body never recovered.
“I am as to be expected, child.” Delia gestured for Marlene to sit, and she did. “And you?”
“About the same.” Marlene had spent a lot of the last day trying not to cry in front of Kay, which was getting harder and harder. But tomorrow was the day they would call off the search.
“I wanted to let you know that we will all be gathering on the platform the shuttle launched from tomorrow at noon,” Delia said quietly. Her wispy grey hair was up severely in a tight bun, but her soft green eyes held much more kindness than anyone would know on first glance.
“Have you heard anything at all?” Marlene had so much hope for the hopeless.
“I need you to keep this a secret Marlene.” Delia rose and closed the door. She stood in front of it. Marlene held her breath.
“The Airbus patrols found a mangled shuttle that they are hauling to the Airbus as we speak. They can’t even tell if it our shuttle or another.”
Marlene gasped. The only other lost shuttle had held her mother.
“If it is the old shuttle we will have something to go on to figure out what happened with that case. If it is our shuttle…,” Delia paused. “I don’t want to know if it is our most recent shuttle.”
Marlene was in tears.
Delia continued. “You are the only one on base who had a member of family on the older shuttle. I needed you to know beforehand. I didn’t want you to be blindsided by all of this.”
“Thank you for the warning, Delia.” Marlene knew tomorrow would break her heart, whether for Ashley, or for her mother. There was so much that hurt right now she could barely breathe.
“I want you to go home and hold that kid of yours and make sure you are prepared for tomorrow. However it goes, we will get through this.”
And so tomorrow came, despite how desperately Marlene didn’t want it to come. She dreaded it more than anything in the world, and she wanted to stay in her room. But she dropped Kay off at child care and joined the other families on the platform. They’d know at noon.
The crowd stood huddled together. Marlene saw the faces of mothers, father, partners, and spouses. She guessed the rest of the children were with Kay. It’d be easier to explain to them alone, one on one.
A hush fell over them as time neared. They might have an announcement from the Airbus. No one knew what they were going to receive. Marlene had asked Delia that morning how they would receive the news, and there wasn’t any concrete answer.
The minutes ticked by. 11:58.
The silence killed Marlene. She looked around. The gathered group of 40 or so were looking to each other. No one moved. No one dared speak.
What were they waiting for? A phone call? A video transmission? Some kind of sign from the sky?
Marlene started to panic. Why weren’t they hearing anything?
People were pacing. Marlene looked over at Jessica, who had tears in her eyes. Jessica was thinking what everyone didn’t want to combat, didn’t want to imagine just yet.
Others were crying now, hard. One woman with short black hair fell to the ground in sobs.
One person wandered off, maybe to check on a young child.
They had to hear something. They were going to hear something.
Marlene wanted to tear her hair out. There was nothing to do; there was everything to do. They should know something by now.
A ring pealed from across the room. It wasn’t from the shuttle, apparently. It was a random number.
“Maybe I shouldn’t pick it up,” said the man who the phone belonged to.
Marlene willed him to pick it up. Hearing anything was better than this.
He picked up the phone. He broke into a sob, falling to the floor. “It’s you. It’s really you!” he was sobbing into the phone.
Suddenly many phones were going off. As people around her began to pick up, there were screeches of joy, leaps into the air, and more crying from relief.
Almost everyone around her now was on the phone. Delia was taking a phone call and hadn’t yet addressed the crowd. Jessica and Caleb were hugging and sobbing with the phone between them. The scene was chaotic and loud, making it impossible to hear new calls. Marlene pulled out her phone and stared. Her little family was her screen saver, but no call just yet.
It’d happen. It had to.
Delia called attention to the crowd, asking if everyone had heard from their loved ones.
Marlene hadn’t. But she had to. She was going to hear any second. Wasn’t she?
She received a sympathetic look from Jessica, who was still on the phone with Bryant. Delia came over to her and hugged her. Someone should ask about Ashley. Someone had to. She couldn’t form the words to ask anyone to do so. Her body was shaking, her world crumbling. This mission, this world she lived had taken…Marlene’s phone rang. It buzzed and buzzed from a random number, and she picked up with a flicker of hope.
Marlene broke down. It was her. Of course it was her. Of course she was okay.
“Marly, honey, are you there?”
Marlene couldn’t get her words together, she was crying too hard. She was overcome with relief, more than she ever had been before.
“Yeah, it’s me! Hi! I love you. I love you, Marly. Is Kay there? Is she okay? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. Kay is okay. I love you.”
The shuttle had been pelted with asteroids, hit by space trash, and dragged way off course. Quick thinking on the part of the captain had led the group into a safety bunker right after the tracker cut off. They couldn’t get a message out to anyone, couldn’t set off a location, or raise any alarm. The outer shuttle was so damaged they couldn’t even attempt to leave the bunker. So they waited, holed up together, and hoped someone, something would save them.
For now, they were staying on the Airbus. It would be hard to get them back to the Underwater Base. They would, after all, have to build another shuttle.
That evening, Marlene called the Airbus and was directed to Ashley’s room. Ashley was fresh out of a shower, in a soft looking blue robe.
Kay was sitting on Marlene’s lap, and shrieked in delight. “Mama!”
And, suddenly, the little child burst into tears. Marlene realized with all the anxiety in the base and her anxiety at home, some of that must have been absorbed by their daughter.
“Oh hey, Kay, it’s okay, baby girl. Don’t you worry. Mama is right here.” Ashley spoke softly, gently. Kay hopped off Marlene’s lap and ran up to the screen Ashley was projected on.
“Mama, are you going to come home now?” Kay stood there, too close to the screen for Ashley to see her, in her soft pink pajamas and hair pulled back, looking just like her mama.
“Yes, baby. I’m going to come home soon.”
“So soon?” Kay asked, and Ashley looked to Marlene.
Delia had called Marlene in. It had been a week, and plans were in order to restart the building of a shuttle on the Airbus by their engineers. It was revealed that many of the seeds had been damaged or lost, so it’d be another several years before it’d be worth it to try and make another trip to Mars. Maybe, by then, it’d be safe. Maybe, by then, they could all go together as a family.
As Marlene knocked, she wondered why the commander would be calling her in. Somehow everyone had survived what could have been a massive tragedy and, for that, they were grateful.
“Come in,” called the commander.
Delia walked over, and they hugged. There had been so much more hugging and warmth among the base since that day.
“How are you settling back in?” Delia asked as she sat at her desk.
Marlene smiled. “We’re doing just fine. And you?”
“I am relieved.” Delia smiled, taking a sip of her coffee. “Neil and James are doing well, and I am so grateful.”
They paused. Marlene wasn’t sure what else there was to say.
“Marlene, I hope I didn’t hurt you by suggesting it might have been your mother’s shuttle.”
Marlene paused. “No…you didn’t hurt me.”
“Your mother was a good woman, Marlene. When her shuttle was lost, just like with this mission, we were sure we would find it.”
“We were still above ground then. If anything, it’d have been easier to find.” Marlene finished.
“Exactly.” Delia sighed. “I miss your mother dearly, Marly.”
“I know you do, Delia.” Marlene wasn’t sure what exactly had transpired between Delia and her mother, but she could guess.
“There will be time again when we can be on land on this planet. I may not live to see it, but in your daughter’s lifetime, it will happen.”
Marlene nodded. That was the goal. That was everyone’s goal. The ability to work and live and play on Earth again. The ability to do the same on Mars. There was goodness in both those goals.
“You two were the last two to get down here, and we almost didn’t make it getting you.” Delia remembered. They’d been through too many harrowing experiences for one lifetime.
Marlene nodded. “Do you know when we’ll be able to get those on the Airbus down here?”
“We’ve hit some major setbacks. I’m not entirely sure, but I am working hard with the coordinator of the Airbus and the lead of the Mars Project to make it happen.”
Marlene paused. “Delia.”
“I made peace with my mother’s passing a long time ago. It was just scary.”
“To almost lose one the most important person in your life again?” Delia finished.
“This, too, I understand.” Delia had not only lost Marlene’s mother but almost lost her husband and son. It would have been devastating. “Thank you for stopping in, Marlene. I just wanted to see if you were alright.”
“Thank you Delia.”
“Send Ashley my regards.” Delia called as Marlene walked out the door.
That, Marlene could do.
Mehek Naresh is an Indian American writer working and living in Central Florida. She’s previously written for The Rainbow Hub, Videshi Magazine, and Rude Girl Magazine. “Left Behind” is her first published fiction piece.