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Red Garden
a short story by William King

They would have to be leaving soon and he dreaded it. Dreaded climbing back into the tiny cockpit of the lander and watching the martian soil retreat on an LCD monitor. Dreaded the docking with the orbiter and the nine months of confinement with eight other cosmonauts in an area that would be small for one. Most of all he dreaded leaving his garden, the oasis of linked domes he had helped to build here in the red desert.

He dragged his hand through the waters of the pool and felt one of the trout nibble at them. Outside the wind was picking up; he could see the white fan blades of the windmills start to rotate along the edge of the ridge and watched as the dust started to dance. It would mean a maintenance check after the storm but he didn't mind. He had come to enjoy the solitude of the outside.

"I thought I would find you here, comrade," said Christine Zorne from the doorway. He had heard the airlock cycle and wondered who had entered this part of the Garden. He was glad it was her. He liked the soft spoken American more than he liked many of his fellow countrymen. He turned to look at her; a tall willowy shape, long black hair defined against her red mission coverall.

"You thought correctly then, Chris."

She waved her hand in front of her nose and made a disgusted face. "I don't know how you can stand it here, Victor. I mean this place stinks of algae and fish. There are other parts of the Garden that are a whole lot nicer."

"That's no way for a bio-engineer to talk. I think it is nice. It has a certain symmetry. The algae feeds the fish, the fish help feed us and provide fertiliser for the plants. Yes, it has a kind of beauty if you think about it. Also it is a good place to be alone with your thoughts and away from Stein's damned music."

She came across and sat on the pool's rock edge beside him. "You want to be alone a lot these days Victor. I wonder about that. Worry about it too. It's only three days to lift-off. Getting nervous?"

He remained quiet for a time. He noticed that there was still a blank space on her coverall where her Nasa patch had come away, by accident. It was funny how many patches the cosmonauts had lost. Only the fanatic Goliedkin still wore his CCP tab. The dropping of badges had been part of the formation of their own unique international community.

"Don't worry, Chris. It's just that I'll miss this place. I've grown attached to these plants and animals. I shall never see them again after we leave. I am too old to be sent back with the next mission, if there is one. Funding is scarce."

She placed her hand on top of his and squeezed. "I think I understand."

He wondered if she did. She was twenty years younger and had bought a place in the orbiting habitats that the L-5 corporation were building above Earth. He had to return to the dubious pleasure of being a Hero of Soviet Labour teaching in the astronautics centre in Kosmograd.

In three days he would have to leave this place that had been home for three years. He would be leaving the best and most important thing of his life behind and in his secret heart he knew this. Outside the wind roared off the translucent panelling and the windmills gained speed. He watched them spin with the quickness of a thousand days passing. The garden was still save for the rippling of water on the greenish surface of the pond.

"Well, comrade Victor, it seems it falls to us to do the dirty work yet again." This was Blake's style Victor knew, the deadpan delivery of a complaint that was somehow transmuted to humour. The radio made his voice even more expressionless than usual.

They were inspecting the polymer windmills to make sure that the dust had not interfered with moving parts. These were prototypes designed to test the viability of windfarming for any future martian colony. So far they worked well although they produced only a fraction of the base's energy. Diversity of energy production was the aim.

Victor nodded to the Englishman and kept quiet. A gentle breeze tugged at his suit, causing it to ripple slightly although the difference in airpressure prevented much movement. His nose itched but he couldn't scratch it through the visor.

"Looking forward to getting back?" asked Blake conversationally. "I know I am. I'm dying to meet some new faces and drink some real beer."

"You don't like our little Martian red, then?" It was a standing joke. Several of them had rigged up a still using grapes and other produce of the Garden's Mediterranean biome.

"Oh, I like it well enough but it's like everything else here; you exhaust the possibilities inherent in the situation. I mean we've had Martian red, banana wine, orange wine, every bloody kind of fruit wine."

"The garden produces everything we need nutritionally and otherwise."

"Yes, but it's boring. Same things to see and do year in year out. At first it seemed like an adventure; now it's humdrum."

Victor paused and then casually as he could, "You've never felt as if you would like to stay on then?"

Blake laughed. "Hell, no. I've done nearly all I came to do. I want to get back and laze about on a beach for a couple of months. You know I was born near the sea. Lived most of my life with it never more than fifty miles away. I miss it. I miss seagulls."

"I like it here. It's peaceful."

"It's morbid. The place is dead."

"Except for the Garden. It's alive."

"Well, it won't be after we go. It'll soon run down without maintenance. A bit like my ex-wife."

Victor nodded glumly.

Blake cast a furtive look at the Garden. "Victor, would you do me a favour. It's a bit silly."

"Certainly." Blake produced a long folded up tube from the carrypocket in his left leg. He slid something from the tube. Slowly it unfurled. Victor gasped. It was a small, plastic Union Jack, the size of an envelope, on a plastic pole. Carefully Blake planted it beside the largest windmill.

"Take a photo of me and the flag. I bought this in Blackpool for the King's coronation. I've always wanted to do this ever since I read Wyndham's 'Stowaway to Mars'."

Victor turned his helmet camera on Blake. He pressed the control stud in his glove. There was a repeated clicking sound.

After a while Blake walked jauntily back to the Garden and it seemed that his stride had even more bounce than usual for the light gravity. Victor inspected the miniature flag. On the pole it said 'Made in Taiwan'.

As he walked through the gymnasium to the showers after his marswalk he noticed Stein was on the exercise bike again. Blake had once remarked that if they had rigged it to a generator Stein could power the whole Garden. Victor could believe it as he watched the crew-cut American.

Sweat poured down his face and his eyes were closed. He wore a faint half-smile and his head bobbed from side to side in time with the music from his Sony personal stereo. Victor knew that the American had signed a sponsorship deal with the corporation and this petty commercialism was part of the reason Victor disliked Stein.

The American reminded him of all the scare stories that had been told about the Yankees in the last century. He was aggressive, muscular and argumentative. He continued to practise Karate kata even though they looked slower and stranger than ever in the low gravity. He was tanned and sleek and hard. Victor had stared into his cold, blue eyes. He did not doubt that Stein was capable of violence.

Not that the American had ever done anything overtly hostile or was even unfriendly. He just carried an atmosphere about him that made Victor uneasy.

Chris Zorne had teased Victor that he was just jealous because Stein had a thing going with Anna Davydov the only Russian woman on the joint Nasa-Esa-CCP expedition.

Stein finished cycling and his eyes snapped open. He dismounted from the bike and flashed his disarming smile at Victor who started guiltily. Stein walked over to the magnetic weightlifting pulley and grasped the bar.

"Nice day out?" he asked and tugged the bar down with a sharp intake of breath. The bar moved slightly. Victor could see that the system was set at maximum pull.

Victor nodded. Muscles began to move in Stein's neck, distending it oddly as he strained. Like piano wires, Victor thought.

"Know what I miss, Victor? About Earth, I mean."

"Jogging in Central Park," Victor ventured.

"Nope. Ice cream. Going into a shop where you can order any flavour you want. Banana splits, chocolate fudge sundaes. You know in the States you can even get ice-cream with chewing gum in it. Stupid, huh?"

Victor shrugged. He was too busy watching the bar start to move inexorably. "Anything you miss, Victor?"

"Not really. The usual things, sometimes. My apartment. Leningrad, my home city."

There was quiet as Stein concentrated at the bar. He went through fifty repititions. Victor watched amazed and frightened by the display of explosive physical power.

The party was in the Med, the area of the bio-sphere that simulated the climate of Southern Europe. Victor had helped Christine shape it laboriously in the first six months after landing. Treating the soil with specially treated micro-organisms, planting and tending the fruits whose cuttings and seeds they had brought carefully frozen with them. The Med was the first of the domes that had been filled after the algae tank.

"Wasn't the president's message a cracker," said Blake. "All that guff about a bold leap for humanity. Armstrong said it so much better nearly fifty years ago."

"I think the President meant to echo those sentiments, to show we are part of the great pioneer tradition. I think she had one ear on the history tapes," said Stein. "Anyway the joint communiqué from the European heads of state wasn't much better. A beacon of unity for all nations indeed."

Victor watched them all get slowly drunk. Tomorrow they would complete all the preparations for departure and this was the last chance to relax before the austerity of the homeward trip. He pitied the three who had drawn orbiter duty at this time. Still they would be having their own party no doubt. He wished he did not feel so guilty. The message of pride from the Secretary-General had made him almost homesick. Still he had made his decision. Now all he had to do was break it to the others. He wondered how he could do it.

He decided to slip away to the pond. Christine saw him and came with him. They sat by the edge of the pool.

"It would be foolish of a person to want to stay here," she said at last. Victor looked at her sidelong. She was perceptive, like his wife had been.

"Really. I don't know. The garden is self-sustaining now. There is ample power. The solar mirrors, the windmills, the migma reactor out in the desert. Plenty of food."

"Mostly the same. Boring."

"Don't fool yourself, Chris. I grew up during the food shortages of the seventies and the eighties. I know what boredom is. An endless diet of potatoes and bread."

"That's not what I meant. I mean this place. No people. No entertainment."

"Chris, there's plenty of entertainment. Think of all the books and shows we have stored on laserdisc. I believe Sony claimed we had every work of fiction published in Russian, English, French, Spanish and Japanese on that new system of theirs. Plus reams of tapes, videos, computer games. The designers planned for everything, remember?"

"Then there are accidents, medical emergencies, repairs. What about them?"

"There are plenty of spares and we were all taught to perform all vital maintenance functions. There are plenty of diagnostic programmes on the computer."

"Yes, but no-one to perform surgery in case of accident, not once Anna goes."

"A person would have to take his chances. You can get killed crossing a street."

"Don't give me that crap, Victor. My father used to say that about smoking. He died of lung cancer."

He looked at her. In the dim glow of the fluoros her face looked oddly beseeching. There was a kind of desperation in it. He reached out and took her hand.

"I'm not your father." She turned away and stared down into the pool. When she spoke her voice was choked.

"No, but you're like him. Both stubborn old fools. He liked gardening, too."

"I wish I had met him." Victor knew that it was trite but he could think of nothing else to say.

"You would have liked him. He would have said you were an all right guy. For a commie."

Victor laughed out loud. He couldn't help himself. He felt the tension drain out of him. After a while Chris joined in. For a time they held on to each other helplessly.

"Christine, my wife and I, we never had children. But if we had a daughter-"

She pulled away and looked at his face. "Don't say it," she said.

"Chris, don't mention this conversation to anyone, please."

She nodded. "We'd better get back."

They re-entered the Med. Stein's selection of late twentieth century stadium rock blared over the speaker. Anna and the American were necking in a corner. Stein looked up as Victor came and gave him a knowing wink.

They had taken the news better than he expected. It helped that Goliedkin was on the Orbiter. Most of the Americans and the Europeans seemed to think it was a Russian matter.

Naturally Anna, his fellow cosmonaut, had tried to persuade him to return. She feared not trying. She had pointed out all the arguments Christina had used. He had remained stalwart. He was going to stay and look after the garden. She knew there was no sense in threatening him. They were far beyond the reach of any Earthly authority.

LeFevre the Parisian psychologist had tried a different approach. He had pointed out that he was under extra-ordinary stress. That he was obviously in no condition to make such a major life decision. Victor had pointed out that if that were the case it would perhaps be to the crew's advantage not to have him on the return trip.

A potential maniac aboard a spacecraft was a frightening thought. LeFevre backed off as if sensing an implied threat. Victor wondered if he had meant it to be picked up that way.

He had left it to the last second to break the news, knowing that the crew would have to depart soon to pick up the carefully planned Hohmann transfer orbit to Venus and then on to Earth. He saw them go off to the admin dome. They emerged two hours later in two angry groups. Chris, Blake and Lefevre were in one. Stein and Anna Davydov were in the other. The first group wished him good luck and departed for the lander in one of the roller buggies. There was a strained air about them.

Anna and Stein hung around and talked in low voices. Victor went back to the central pond. He took out his shears and began to prune the plants.

The hiss of the airlock cycle announced the arrival of Stein. He was dressed in mission coveralls and his helmet was under his arm. He had airtanks on his back.

"Anna has been talking to Goliedkin on the radio. They want me to bring you back. Goliedkin is convinced that you staying here is some sort of insult to the rest of the Soviet Union."

Victor continued to cut away minor branches from the bushes. The silence grew and the tension grew with it. Eventually Victor turned and looked at Stein. He held the shears in his hand pointing towards the American.

"Are you trying to take me back, Jonothan?"

Stein's eyes followed the blade of the shears. He gave a tense, narrow smile that did not show his teeth. He moved warily towards Victor.

"There's no need for that tone, comrade. I don't want any trouble."

"Then come no closer and there won't be any."

Victor was conscious of the foolishness of what he was doing yet he was not going to give in. He had made his decision. He did not want to hurt Stein or be hurt by him but at the same time he was not going to leave the Garden.

"You really love this place, don't you, Victor?"

Victor nodded. "It needs me. I need it."

"That's pretty screwy. I think you're just scared to make the return journey to earth. You've gotten pretty comfortable here. Inertia is what's keeping you in place."

"It's more than that, can't you see? What we've done here is important. We've created a place of life here where there was none. If I stay here it will prove it can be done. Eventually more people will come. I helped shape this place. It is important to me. Look, you have people back on Earth. Family, friends. I don't. My wife was killed in an airplane accident."

"Victor, put down the shears. I don't need to fight you. I could just walk out and shut down the power or slash the dome then you would have to come with me."

Victor was afraid. He could feel sweat run down his back and feel the rapid beat of his heart. He gripped the shears tightly.

"I still wouldn't come."

Stein smiled. He stood for a long moment as if considering then he spread his hands helplessly. "I wouldn't do it anyway. You're a brave man, Victor. Screwy but brave."

He walked forward, hand outstretched. Victor stared at it. Stein looked him in the eye and kept his hand held out. Victor swallowed nervously. He shifted the shears to his left hand and wiped his palm against the leg of his overalls.

He expected a trick. Stein could strike him when their right hands were clasped or use the leverage for a throw. Stein waited.

Slowly Victor stretched out his hand. As they clasped Victor tensed, anticipating violence.

They shook hands.

"Good luck," said Stein and turned to leave. "I'll try to get them to drop all the supplies we can spare before we go. If things work out you'll be here when the next ship comes in five years. See you give them a proper welcome."

Victor watched as he stepped out of the main airlock and climbed into the second marsbuggy where Anna waited. He waved as they drove off towards the lander.

He watched from the top of a nearby ridge as the lander took off. The tension ebbed as he saw it thunder skyward on its column of flame. They were going to make it. He stared at the scorched ground where the lander had sat. There was a new crater added to the many that pitted the rusty desert. He raised his hand and waved it at the sky, feeling terribly alone. He studied the desolation around him. For a moment be stood and wondered whether he had made the right decision. Then he thought of his garden.

The first martian turned and walked home.

© William King 1988, 2001.

This story first appeared in Dream Science Fiction #17, Autumn 1988.

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