Previously published in Tales of the Talisman ©2006
It’s so beautiful, he thought, shoulders relaxing, stomach tightening, eyes wide with excitement. Sooooooooo beautiful.
Frank was enthralled, lost in the sight of the vast sky above him. It was not a particularly fantastic evening there in the dome. Anyone who regularly took a peek at the night sky now and then would find nothing fascinating in the bubble’s view of the galaxy’s self-arrangement that night.
It was worth it.
But Frank was not one of those who got to look up very often. That was not the deal he had made in life. Frank had spent far too long living in gloom, toiling in the underground, working for the good of the colony, existing—hoping, longing, dreaming ...
Oh, yeah ...
Frank dug his tired shoulders into the ground—into the grass beneath them. It felt luxurious, the way he imagined silk to feel. Or the cheek of God.
Relaxing—it felt so marvelous. And, he could do such a thing there with ease. The soil within the dome was soft, moist—squishy, even. This was most unlike the rest of the planet’s surface which was brittle, fried—desiccated. The crusts ensnared within the domes, they were being brought to life, though. Slowly. Painfully slowly. One patch at a time.
It was sooooooooo worth it.
Domes erected. Debris concentrated—soiled bits of this and that—whatever was not reclaimed for the bio pits—went into the domes. And, of course, that was precious little, for everything was reclaimed in the colony. Not a slip of paper, not a loose strand from a piece of clothing. Fingernail clippings, peeling skin, even spit was collected. Indeed, even deceased human bodies were returned to the soup, broken down as nutrients for plants and animals. Bone meal mixed with feed, organs fed to pigs, flesh dried and shredded, broken down into reclaimable chemicals, everything used.
There were, as they said, no graveyards on Mars.
The old phrase made Frank think ...
Weren’t there, though, actually? Of a sorts?
And then, as the thought rolled round in the old man’s mind, he bit into the first of the apple sections, and his eyes filled with tears. Flavor rushed through his memory, looking for points of reference. Fifty-nine years of meals. Three meals a day. Fifty-nine years gives a man close to a half million meals to remember.
Oh, God, he thought, Oh my God in heaven.
He chewed at the slice of fruit, his mouth filling with saliva at the rich, thrilling taste of the apple. His tongue played with the wedge’s flap of skin, worried at it as it caught in between two of his teeth. Nothing like that ever happened at a normal meal time.
No—all the previous meals of his life had simply been a part of existence, like breathing. You picked the flavor of paste you wanted that evening or morning, or whatever time it was, and you sat with your mates and you ate. The paste slid down, tasting like what it was supposed to taste like—chemically guaranteed. The pucks were there as well, in their assorted flavors, round and thick and hard—created purposely tough to encourage gnawing and chewing, made so to keep human teeth from falling into disrepair from lack of challenge.
Never again, not after this ...
Frank bit into a cherry, and his tears rolled anew. As the first drops of juice exploded within his mouth, he froze around the sensation—small, thick, perfect dark flesh with a texture woven with joy, colored by life—he had to pause, had to savor the fantastic moment. Cherry, washing over his gums, tongue, taste buds, juice reaching the back of his throat;
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh hhhhh hhhhhh hh—”
It was worth it.
The cherry was chewed slowly, the flesh of it pulled away in the tiniest slivers. Each chewed respectfully, its flavor savored, marveled at, worshipped. Sprawled there in the grass, Frank knew he had made the right decision. He had worked long and hard, and he had earned his reward.
“Pear,” he said quietly, holding the green/golden skinned lump of fruit in his hand. “That’s what you’re called.”
Many different types of produce were grown on Mars; mankind had been there some seventy years, after all. But every potato, every lettuce leaf and section of orange, every bit of every crop went to the kitchens, to be chopped and blended and pureed. The colony had many mouths to feed. Food had to be produced the most efficient ways possible. What Frank was doing could hardly be called efficient.
So what do you taste like?
Frank bit into the pear and his eyes shown with wonder. It was everything he could have hoped for, and nothing like what he had imagined. Born on Mars, whole life spent toiling there, digging, building, pushing mankind’s interests outward into the universe, he had never imagined that eating, that food, could taste so rich, so overwhelming.
The extravagance of Frank’s luncheon staggered the back of his brain. When he had finished his first cherry, he had simply dropped the pit on the ground. He had cleaned it as thoroughly as human teeth and tongue and saliva could manage, and to the naked eye it had certainly looked stripped free of meat. The kitchens would have done a better job, certainly, and used the seed as well. The second cherry had been devoured with less reverence, had been spat away recklessly as greed sought a third and fourth, both popped into Frank’s mouth at the same time. He had watched the two seeds arc away from him even as he reached for more.
But, of course, such was the purpose of Frank’s meal. He had petitioned to be a planter, one of those who got to feast to their heart’s content on whatever they desired. He had the years, had the seniority, had the clean record of a man who had done his job and served faithfully. And thus, when the new dome had been opened for planting, he had gone momentarily light-headed with giddiness, for his name had been on the highly-prized planter’s rolls.
Not in the first ranks, those who would spread the grasses and flowers, but there nonetheless. He would be one of those who spread the secondary seeds. A mere five year wait. So great was Frank’s anticipation that the time practically flew by. And, now that his time had come, it was just as splendid as he had imagined.
Oh, yeah ...
Frank took another big, slopping bite from his pear, staring at one of the earlier team’s rose bushes as he did so. It was in bloom, delicate fists of yellow all up and down its boldly thrusting branches. Pushing his bare back into the grass once more, Frank felt the first team had done a splendid job. Tossing the remainder of his pear in an arc which dropped it in an open hollow, Frank smiled. Those who came after him would respect his work as well.
He would have to work fast, however. The injection the doctor had given him was beginning to take a solid hold upon his nervous system. He could feel himself becoming warmer—sleepy. They had told him it would happen. Quickly, he ran through another entire handful of cherries, popping them into his mouth, sucking free their meat and spitting the seeds as far from himself as they could. Frank laughed as one sputtered from his mouth awkwardly and rolled down his bare chest.
Many petitioned to be planters, but few could be given the honor. Most bodies simply had to be reclaimed. But Frank, naked under the stars, when the drugs drifted him off into death he would stay where he lie, and he would rot slowly—naturally—and his rich juice would feed the soil and his blood would blossom in the cherry trees to follow. Future generations would not know his name, but they would honor his sacrifice.
Sooooooooo worth it.
No, Frank told himself, There were no graveyards on Mars. But there were wonderful, wonderful orchards.