Randall G. Arnold is a Texas-based speculative fiction writer who enjoys mangling genres and twisting tropes. He recently got serious about the craft, earning honorable mention in the Texas Observer's 2015 and 2016 fiction contests. The 2015 entry, "The Dolphin Riders", was included in the ‘Sirens’ anthology from World Weaver Press. Randall is currently working on a variety of projects.
Melted into a meditative tangle, I soak in the splendor of world weavers.
Steely spiders spin up transparent graphene bowls against the scarlet sky. Deep in the sleeping crust, macroborers earthworm the iron-rich regolith and plant 3D-printed silos.
Even in this technical cocoon, my body hums from robot labours. I’m eager to shed the Earthly husk and plunge naked hands into broken soil.
This ground I offer, as Buddha-fields,
In another garden, from a kinder time, my mother’s father planted his precious seeds, dispensing a treasured proverb for every act, no matter how small:
“Kachou fuugetsu, Uke Mochi.”
Literally: Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon. Experience the beauties of Nature and, in doing so, learn about yourself.
Robots I leave behind in this new installation will craft what Nature cannot: Hydroponic aquariums for cranberries and algae, rainbow koi and freshwater shrimp. Sweepers will skim algae for periodic harvest, sparing the pond-dwellers a thickening green ceiling.
But Nature occasionally eschews her Fibonacci groove to indulge, even embrace chaos. Cranberries fruiting faster than anticipated. Algae spilling over stalled sweepers. Overproducing, even as world-sustaining crops wither back home.
With this installation underway, I’m free to reverse course and audit its predecessors.
Progress can be so nonlinear.
Like this train, my mind wanders the starlit gulf of biodomes.
Martian suburbs will need roads. We’ve been carving off and hailing down chunks of fleet Phobos for that. Greedy Mars was tearing it apart anyway.
Someday, this surface will be crisscrossed with its cast-off blacktop. Percival Lovell’s string-art Mars in negative.
Little Deimos alone remains inviolate, looping and longing for fluid tides, no surface sea to steal her lesser reflection.
Like that tiny Terror moon, I often feel forsaken, steering this trackless train along the spare and frigid edge of Terra Sirenum. But we extraterrestrial Farm Technicians are culled for an ability to not only survive, but also thrive in hominine vacuum.
Sometimes in the quiet, I hear Grandfather patiently instructing me on the toil and reward of gardening. “Ku areba raku ari, Uke Mochi.” Yes, there are hardships and there are delights. Such sayings pruned the reach of a wild child, but oh how I would dearly love to be so lectured again! Then hear him exhort me to press my “little green thumb” against warm brown earth.
When silence hangs too heavy, the radio murmuring of scattered colleagues is welcome music to my ears. It acts as a sedative when sleep laughs at my grasping, and I dream of bright, liquid-lipped nymphs and rosy lotus flowers.
Earth’s long, lonely shade drapes forbiddingly across this project. It taints every print of a crunching boot, covets each fiber shed by decaying spacesuits.
I park near the C3 airlock and, on collapsed knees, beseech a mute Mars for mercy, desperately whispering the prayers of my ancestors:
Respectfully I prostrate with body, speech and mind;
Decades after the confirmation of flowing water, we see hints of imported biologics flourishing in the rusty dust at some landing sites. And I’m as complicit as anyone.
I cannot so easily disregard my spiritual heritage nor the unfortunate impact of our incidental curse. I was taught to care by the greatest caretaker.
I will zealously protect this planet.
So I enter and exit each dome with extra prudence, entreating soundless spirits at every pause. I shan’t be the one invoking drastic decontamination protocol. Shipped back to a ruined Earth to die in disgrace, my eviction made a fiery spectacle by great glowing glass eyes.
If I have harmed anyone in any way,
Disrobing in this intoxicating air is one of Martian life’s sweet pleasures. No judging soul to cluck at the brazenness, nor mock my roll of midriff fat. Alone, or in like company, we cultivators drop clothing easily and shamelessly. The quaint social constructs of home have no utility here, especially among technical wall-flowers.
And there is far rawer sexuality in a mirror-faced excursion suit than in any exposed explorer.
Inside the secure domes, we are free to release. I squat near some spinach, expelling the unused portions of my last repast, happy to dispense that little extra something.
“Waste from me, little seedlings, nutrients for you.”
I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
An idle agribot detects the token donation and groans into action, collecting it for distribution. Why should a single sprout hoard this precious gift?
The following greenhouse shower refreshes so much more than those at Lancôme Base. Something about ruddy Martian mud squishing up between my fleshy toes, the verdant tendril of a stray vine tickling my back as upwelling steam disturbs the interior order.
Once I’ve completed routine duty, I accept a small repast for myself. A basic salad of spinach and cranberries, supplemented with some koi protein paste, so much tastier than tinned dinners.
“Itadakimasu,” I tell the generous biodome things, my palms clasped in standard gratitude.
The first morsel is to cut all delusions.
The small meal passes quickly.
I repack to race against another world’s end. Will we save enough sentient beings in Earth’s surrender to Mars?
The static chatter of teammates buzzes lightly.
If any crisis arises, a distress signal will scream through.
Another solitary crossing between biodomes, another opportunity to reflect.
I remember the good Earth.
The foreign farms of my childhood were great sprawling quilts, variegated assemblies for fattening the masses, unlike most plots on Hokkaido which were tiny refuges of edible color, lovingly hand-dug into backyards by true custodians.
By my adulthood, most were gone.
Before fleeing, I had cast a last mournful look at the grey of Man and the brittle gold of Nature, wondering if the dwindling springs of my youth were just washed-out watercolor dreams.
So much free time draws up so much guilt, like bitter water from an endless well.
At least, the awakening of each installation grants a sliver of forgiveness for my facile desertion of dying Earth. And have I not flourished here? That, too, a drowsy war god’s body under my care. Long after life on Earth has given over to legend, this now-desert world will be bursting with color and song.
A combination of botanic skills and tetherless proclivity made me ideal for Mars, but that was no accident. I sprouted sprite wings in my grandfather’s backyard garden, and just needed a reason to fly.
Uke Mochi, he tenderly called me: goddess who protects food.
I put everything into my work, leaving to yesterday the regrets of greater abandonment.
After perfunctory prayer, I breach this dome. The background hum of pumps and sweepers lulls my fears. In a subsequent supply wave, we’ll welcome pollinators and lizards, but, for now, motile life is limited to pond occupants and hitchhiker fruit flies. Even their unbidden touch is welcome.
I miss crickets. Summer cicadas. Frogs boasting sexual prowess in coarse, throaty carols.
Hypnotized by the bursting bubbles of gulping koi, I am at peace.
New fry swim here, I find to my joy. Wriggling, comma-sized clones of the school I started.
No such personal pleasure for me, rendered sterile by severe career choice.
Whatever living beings there may be, whether moving or standing still, without exception, whether large, great, middling, or small, whether tiny or substantial,
Misgivings are contrary to Zen, so I shrug them off. I have a responsibility to someone else’s legacy: the smallest fry must be separated from their cannibalistic elder siblings. So I set to work, singing hymns of my maternal grandfather. I then attend to the plants.
A surprise when I pull back squash leaves: A very odd fruit, its green-and-yellow skin contorted into a human fetal approximation. I lift it gently, brushing away the Martian soil. The longer I stare at it, the clearer the resemblance. It’s at once intriguing and unsettling, as is the memory it invokes.
When I was old enough to handle them reverently, Grandfather presented me ceramic molds of kappas and fish and fat smiling Buddhas crafted by ancestors so far up the vine that their names were less than a guess.
Molds for kappas were ironic, Grandfather said. The Buddhist kappa is a ravenous little ogre that lurks in streams and drowns unfortunate waders. River child is its literal translation, but much is lost outside the original Japanese. Floating gourds are their bane, Uke Mochi, Grandfather often told me with a wink, offering rescue to the kappa’s potential victims.
Grandfather’s molds grew little gifts. He would fasten them around baby gourds, which swelled over time to fit the image. Once dried, the figures made up with sweet sound what they lacked in living spirit. Crisp seeds rattling primitive rhythms in the chubby hands of my strange baby brother.
I ponder over this queer thing and think of poor Kimu now. To this day, I curse the volcano that claimed my family while I trained in an orbit low enough to feel the heat.
Oh how I wish I could have persuaded Kimu to escape his self-imposed prison and flee with me!
But he was hikikomori, anchored by some undiagnosed agent to a cluttered bedroom. I remember him grinning over his beloved manga, oblivious to the disintegrating world. That’s how I’ll always remember him.
May I in all bodily actions be fully in accord with the holy rules, cherishing Buddha’s Law throughout the rounds of birth and death until my reincarnation as a Buddha.
For some time, I debate the fate of this disconcerting fruit. In the end, I conclude that I’m tired and lonely and filling in features out of wish fulfillment.
The squash is gently returned to its rest, to be harvested by an indifferent robot when it’s ripe.
My segmented convoy slips like a desert snake across diaphanous sand.
An Earth train would glide on solid tracks. Tracks to secure your footing, tracks to fix your path. I rode those trains as an adventurous child in Hakodate. Long bullets that faithfully shot you from points A to Z. Noisy metro cans that beat you into believing in Life.
Until your mahogany-crusted fingernails scraped the grey grit from a window.
I was broken by the Earth’s unexpected upheaval, sorted by the dreary journey across space, and deposited on breathless Mars for slow reassembly.
Now this backtracking feels like an unwinding, a reversal of gain, until I arrive at each previous dome to note its new developments. And then back to work, hoping to complete myself along with my mission.
What was that about progress…?
In my original culture, high responsibility is a blood component. We are lifted to great heights by genetic duty, plunged to great depths by familial shame.
May anyone who merely sees or hears,
Earth is now a tarnished marble in shadow. I find myself searching the skies for it less and less.
I’m barely out of my suit before I notice: the ground at my bare feet is disturbed. My eyes follow a churned trail to discover freshly-parted leaves.
Something has moved in here.
Not a teammate. None should be near…
Fear grips my legs, my lungs, my lips. My mind speeds along impossible tracks as I gape at a huddled form in mute horror.
At last, I creep forward.
Crouching before me is a larger version of that enigmatic C2 squash. Not simply larger, but more defined, distinct.
Humanoid features cannot be so easily dismissed this time.
It’s aware of me now, stretching and yawning and running unconventional eyes over my terrified, immobile form.
It’s smaller than I, and wears my own impenetrable mask of Hakodate memory, a girl’s face, unlined and without shadow. Guileless, guiltless. Ignorant of pain and strife and struggle on a dying world.
Yet, it isn’t quite a lesser carbon copy. The thing sports shiny, scaled skin, and sprouts dense leafy blades where black hair should softly hang. A severed stub protrudes from its rounded belly, and I now spy the umbilical remnant discarded on the ground.
In my naked recklessness, I have unwittingly mated with the slumbering god of war, and our miracle kappa offspring stands in dumb wonder before me.
So much for sterility.
I can’t help but assume some outlandish factor in this rich red soil, one long dormant but recently activated by desperate signals in our DNA. It has harvested all, twisting and mashing the genetic codes of plant and animal into a wondrous and singular new thing.
Stupefied as I may be, I have to report this.
I maintain eye contact with the silently standing thing while squatting and groping for my helmet.
“Lancôme Base, this is Farm Tech Diana Sasaki. I—I have a situation here. Transmitting video. Urgent. Please advise proper action.”
I’m greeted by voiceless noise.
“Lancôme Base, Farm Tech Sasaki requesting immediate response. Urgent, please acknowledge. Andre. Jody. Anyone!”
The crackling continues. What happened to the ambient chatter?
Hectares of alien squash bloom across my mind.
I must decontaminate C1.
The little thing stands, arms limp, observing me with tilted head and glistening eyes. Spring-infused echo of my innocent childhood, oblivious to adult burdens.
But how much of this is me? Did I carry beloved myths like biting mites, scattering seeds of biological revolution along with humble sweet potato and pea?
I find myself drawn deeply into those emerald orbs, where I’m suddenly thinning, dissolving, my vision multiplying. I’m two beings at once, each staring blankly at an enigmatic figure.
I am warm. I am cool. Blood pulses. Chlorophyll streams.
And I’m drowning in new sensations. Growing like a baby gourd into tight, bright new skin.
Then terror finally overtakes wonder and some fuzzy me slams into uncomfortable flesh, stung by infinite pinpricks, gasping as I relearn how to respire.
At my petite feet lies the swooned pretender, felled and curled by karma’s sting. Tiny dust devils leap and swirl before her twitching lips.
I shudder. I have a grim obligation.
My spacesuit slides on easier than ever, a yielding accomplice in destruction. I secure my helmet and stumble clumsily to the main control panel, the suit collapsing at joints into accordion folds.
Tears cascade down hot cheeks as I hover over the self-destruct. My mind plunges into a quantum gap, where dichotomy of duty cleaves me in half. My grandfather murmurs across space and time but I can’t make out his plea.
There is only one course of action now.
I emerge from my funk to find the big switch flipped. Fuel cells will very soon disgorge their toxic contents, pungent pink jelly spilling behind the dumping ponds.
I glance back and beg forgiveness through frozen lips, then Mars-walk to the train, ego draining through my loose boots to be sponged by thirsty soil.
Normally I would confirm supply car connections. Normally I would inspect each car and its cargo, making certain nothing had worked loose in the rough transit here. But there is no more normalcy, no time and certainly no reason. I simply disconnect all cars from the engine and go.
Woody teeth grind across each other as the telltale flare of another load leaves Phobos.
I’m a fair distance away from C1 when instruments register the blast.
Maybe it’s simply guilt or shock, but I swear that escaping heat from the blown hatch pushes cruelly against my vulnerable back. Echoes of Vulcan’s final cry.
I pass a blackened dome and shame briefly burns.
Tyres relentlessly churn soft Martian dust, and Lancôme eventually looms ahead, a welcome half-pearl against the sinking sun.
I brake and leap clumsily toward base.
My body, like a water bubble,
Closer to them now, I hear the rejoicing of my comrades. Warmth washes over me, sweet melody of a chlorophyll torrent humming across every tendon.
Kachou fuugetsu, Uke Mochi.
Konbanwa, Grandfather. I forgive myself.
I struggle to the airlock, desperate to shed this ill-fitting suit and free my spring-green fingers. Caress loving furrows into the sleeping red soil.
Unlined palms press against the crystalline dome, fresh new faces bid welcome to one of their own.