Day 115 on an Alien World

This morning Gary Holbrook watched his wife die.

When he signed up for a brand-new colony on a desolate planet, there was a catch – the mission was for married couples only. Without a suitable spouse, he reluctantly married a woman he’d never met: Margo Murphy, a grubby entomologist who liked butterflies.

Starting with a crash landing upon arrival, everything had gone wrong. Accident after accident had robbed them of colonists, and their desperately needed skills, while damaged and broken equipment had stalled their efforts to make a viable colony. It just seemed bad luck.

But then Gary reads Margo’s journal, and the circumstances surrounding the accidents and her death become suspect. Now, in a race against time, he must unmask a saboteur.

The first communications window with Earth – their only chance to ask for help – is fast approaching, and someone needs to be alive to make that call.


Here’s a taste of the first two chapters:

CHAPTER 1

14:21hrs Mission Day 114

“Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

Hovering by the control room door, Gary Holbrook kept his eyes glued to the monitor as Joan Taggart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“Right engine’s down, left’s responding sluggishly. Have to land. Over,” said Joan, sounding infinitely far away—and for practical purposes, she was. Outside, far beyond the safe colony walls, she was piloting Shuttle 2.

In the control room, the main monitor displayed Joan’s forward cockpit view of Thesan’s landscape. Towering spires of rocks extended towards the sky in all directions and Shuttle 2 was losing altitude bringing the rough terrain closer and closer. Acting Captain Craig Spares leaned over the duty officer, Lucas Ordaz, to get a closer look at the landscape.

Gary took two more paces towards the main video feed. As the colony’s doctor, he felt outside his element, but unwilling to leave. He was walking past when he heard his wife, Margo’s, voice over the radio – she was on the shuttle with Joan. Picking at the cuticle on his left thumb, he tried to forget he’d run into Margo that morning. She was all decked out in a atmo suit, and hadn’t taken the time to ask where she was going.

“There.” Craig pointed to a piece of landscape that looked the same as the rest. He picked up the microphone and pressed the transmit button. “Shuttle 2, there’s a flatter region at your 2 o’clock, aim for that. Over.”

“Margo, get your helmet on,” Joan said, unaware she was transmitting. “Control, say again about landing site. Over.”

“Your 2 o’clock.”

“They don’t have helmets on,” whispered Gary, his eyes fixed on the screen displaying the shuttle’s forward view. All sensors showed Thesan’s atmosphere lacked oxygen. If the bubble of the shuttle’s hull was compromised, their atmo suits were all that would keep the two people on the shuttle alive.

“Dr. Holbrook, get ready to receive casualties,” said Craig, without looking away from the monitor.
Gary didn’t move; rescuing Joan and Margo was impossible. The colony’s only other shuttle lay trapped beneath a mangled hangar door.

The shuttle’s flight pattern grew more erratic, creating the illusion that the pillars of rocks were dancing and twisting. As the shuttle got closer, the rock formations appeared to be grabbing at it with Lovecraftian tentacles. Watching made Gary feel sick to his stomach, but he couldn’t turn away.

A single rock tower loomed in the display. For a split second, the monolith of pock-marked grey consumed the view. The display went black. Joan’s life sign monitor winked out.

“Get me visuals,” demanded Craig. Lucas looked down to the secondary screen in front of him and began searching the video feeds. “Margo, can you hear me?” transmitted Craig.

“Her life-signs are still strong,” said Gary, his eyes fixed on the line indicating Margo’s rapidly beating heart.

“She must’ve got her helmet on in time.” Lucas leaned closer to read Margo’s suit sensors. “Damn! She only has 25 minutes of air. No, make that 20 minutes.” He turned to Craig. “Her suit has a leak. She needs to fix it right away.”

“Margo, do you hear me?” said Craig into the comms system. There was no reply. “Lucas, bring up her helmet cam.”

Lucas turned back to his display.

“It appears to be damaged. Look.” Lucas switched the main display view. The screen went black with a few patches of smudged light left of centre.

“Try the other cameras.”

Lucas flipped through views until he came to the shuttle’s cargo hold view. The camera, once showing the shuttle’s interior, now surveyed the grey landscape. Harsh blue light from the brighter sun illuminated a slice of the valley floor surrounded by finger-like rock formations. The crushed forward section of the shuttle was visible at the top of the screen. Debris littered the landscape between the two sections.

“Margo, respond,” transmitted Craig.

The three of them stood in silence as they waited. Gary closed his eyes hoping to hear Margo’s voice.

“There, movement,” said Lucas, pointing to where the valley floor moved. Gary stepped closer to look. A grey mass extended upwards. Thick waves of mucilaginous ooze slowly dripped away to reveal the mass to be a human form.

“Is the valley floor liquid?” asked Craig.

“It shouldn’t be, but I can’t get any in situ details,” said Lucas. “All the shuttle sensors died in the crash.”

A thick coat of mud clung to Margo’s atmo suit and she was buried in the syrupy fluid halfway up her shins. As she stood motionless for a moment, Gary could almost feel her air venting away. Do something Margo! Raising her muddy gloved hands to her visor, she began wiping. The mud smudged further, but she must have cleared some as she started wading towards the wreckage.

“Ten minutes of air,” said Lucas.

“Margo, respond,” said Craig again.

Margo emerged from the sludge and walk to the aft section. Mud clung to every surface of her suit, making her look more like a Sasquatch than a space explorer.
“There’s no way she’ll find a tear with her suit covered in… what ever that is,” said Lucas, checking the sensor readings once again.

Her form growing in the control room’s screen, Margo walked towards the aft section. Gary couldn’t make out her face under the smeared surface of her helmet. Alarms must be going off telling her she was leaking air. Why isn’t she trying to fix her suit? A pace away, she stopped and stared directly at the camera.

“Five minutes.”

Margo turned and stepped out of view.

“Bring up her helmet cam,” snapped Craig. “Margo! Respond!”

“Leave her alone,” said Gary, his eyes fixed once again on his wife’s life-signs. “Let her have some peace.”

“She’s out of air.” Lucas slumped in his seat.

On cue, Margo’s life sign monitor winked out.

 

Speechless, Gary turned his back on the control room and stepped into the corridor that looped the entire circumference of the Settler III colony. Margo, his wife of only a few months, was gone like so many others. He looked up and down the empty corridor; 114 days ago, the Loop had been a pristine testament to parallel lines and right angles. Now, only bent lines separated by no-longer-airtight doors remained. On the wall ahead, a blast of fire had created a pattern reminiscent of a Rorschach inkblot test. It looked like a butterfly rising out of flames.

The mission organizers claimed they used personality compatibility algorithms to make the matches, but Gary suspected they were made to conveniently fill empty slots on this colonizing mission. He and Margo seemed incompatible. Although she was a scientist, Margo never showed him a refined side. She willingly volunteered to be cross trained in the engineering department, at home tinkering with things and getting dirty – not the intellectual Gary had expected. After three months of marriage he knew little about her, not even what her favourite colour was. Blue perhaps?

A flash of shimmering blue drew his attention. He blinked twice to confirm what he saw. It was a real butterfly on this alien world. The insect flew down the Loop to the left. Butterflies had been one of the few topics Margo and Gary had ever talked about – they were her specialty. She had to be the source of this out-of-place insect. Wings open, the butterfly glowed iridescent blue while the underside of its wings were mottled brown. Gary followed it.

The butterfly had a destination in mind. Its not-so-random flight led Gary off the loop and around a corner towards the outer rim of the ship. With a final shiny flash, it disappeared through the open door of the entomology lab – Margo’s lab.

Overgrown greenery threatened an assault on the corridor with a vanguard of vines already crossing the threshold. He paused – he’d never bothered to visit Margo lab before. The space was smaller than the aquaponics and nursery labs, but being tucked away in an awkward spot meant it also provided privacy. Gary wiped his hands on his pants. Was entering her lab and intrusion?
Inside, he would be alone to think about the woman he didn’t take time to get to know, and now never could. Gary pushed his way past the guardian plants. A jungle of lush green greeted him, a sharp juxtaposition to the charred industrial hues of the corridor. Blue butterflies were everywhere, flapping against unseen breezes hunting for flowers.

Gary filled his lungs with the damp, earthy air – the room felt alive. For the first time since Settler III’s crash, moisture saturated his sinuses. As he looked, remnants of a past order emerged from the jumbled plants. Beneath the foliage, pots stood in neat rows each sporting a label and line of plumbing.

Globulous displays of botanical sexuality peaked out from their leafy shelter everywhere. Hand-sized purple flowers here, golden fist-sized fruit there, a fuzzy purple fruit that could only be described as Muppet testicles – nothing Gary knew the name of. In the corner was a fruit so large Gary didn’t think he could lift it. Under a tuft of broad leaves, little pink bananas were forming, at last something he recognized. Fruit might soon be on the menu, their days of rehydrated rations combined with radishes, sprouts and chlorella smoothies were ending. Food should’ve been better by now, but luck had not been on their side.

The butterfly, following an erratic path between the foliage, led him to the centre of the room. A huge tank filled the only open space. Inside, several dinner-plate sized fish calmly made rounds of the tank. Why were there fish in Margo’s lab?

Through the clear aluminum wall on the other side, he saw a gap in the greenery and something red near the floor. Walking around the tank and plants, he came to a long potting table wider than his arm. Kneeling down, he peered underneath.

So that was where Margo slept. She never came to their shared quarters on their wedding night nor any night after. Under the bench, light filtered through the fish tank illuminated a neatly made bed covered in a thick wool blanket with a red, green and black pattern. Crawling in, he lay down.


CHAPTER 2

10:37hrs January 7, 2147 (4 days to mission departure)

“Identification,” demanded the AI in a flat tone.

Gary looked at it’s simulated face – it was another Nigel, the Conglomerate’s ubiquitous contribution to artificial intelligence. Rumour had it the AI’s face was of the Conglomerate’s CEO Nigel Maximilian West. The trillionaire’s ego was legendary. Gary looked at the boyish face in the kiosk’s screen and swiped his ID.

“Dr Gary Holbrook, your identification has been accepted. What is your destination?” Gary knew his shuttle was the only one departing that day, but the AI’s algorithm’s needed satisfying.

“I’m going to the Settler III, they’re expecting me,” Gary said, trying to look into the waiting room beyond.

“You are on the manifest. The shuttle will arrive at 10:45hrs. Have a nice trip.”

With an electronic ping, the gate to the waiting room opened and Gary passed through. A woman looking out the wall of windows on the far side of the room was the only other occupant. Standing with her back to him, she gave no sign if she heard the gate let him in. She was slightly taller than average, probably the same height as him. Her curly, shoulder-length hair was the same shade of rust as her sweater.

Looking away from the woman, Gary studied the row of plastic chairs filling the centre of the room. They might once have been a cheery lemon yellow, but now were dingy. The unidentified stains and discarded food wrappers on the chairs made his skin crawl. Putting his suitcase down, he wiped his hands on his pants, and took a deep breath. Sitting was out of the question. Tinny muzak played over hidden speakers as the woman continued to stare intently at something outside. Gary walked to the windows.

“Are you going to the Settler?” he asked turning to watch her profile. Up close her sweater looked hand knit and well worn. On her feet were scuffed rubber boots. Was that mud on them? Or… something else?

“Huh?” She didn’t look at him.

Gary wiped his hands on his pants a second time before looking out the window. Just outside was a crack in the tarmac with a small patch of greenery poking out.

“What do you see?” Gary kept a bit of distance between them, wary of her lack of refinement. She might do something unpredictable at any time. Why knit a sweater when one could just be printed?

“There at the edge.” She pointed to a scrap of delicate white. “Pieris rapae.”

“A gum wrapper?”

“Cabbage butterfly. I haven’t seen one living outside since I was a kid.”

Gary watched the little butterfly flutter from weed to weed. It still looked like an animated gum wrapper to him.

“You must be the entomologist.” She nodded and Gary glanced down at her hands. Each finger had a crescent of dirt under the nail. He decided not to offer to shake her hand.

“And you’re Gary Holbrook. Linda said we’d be travelling up together.” She turned towards him and smiled. The woman’s face was symmetrically oval and covered with so many freckles many merged together. Not ugly but…

The Nigel AI announced the arrival of a shuttle moments before the bulbous nosed space craft swooped down in front of them. The woman turned and watched as the tiny butterfly was blown away by the spacecraft’s exhaust.

“Looks like our ride is here,” she said.

The shuttle was uniformly matte grey. Everything about it screamed utility – including the unimaginative ‘Shuttle 2’ stencilled on the side. The side door opened and a dark-haired woman emerged. She held herself like a dancer, managing to look elegant in her standard issue slate grey uniform as she strode across the tarmac. This woman had the same etherial beauty as Gary’s ex-wife. When she came into the waiting room, he turned to greet her.

“Ah, now we’ll have a matched set.” The new woman smiled and for a moment Gary forgot about his unsanitary surroundings.

“You’ve met my brother, I assume,” Gary said, smiling back and extending his right hand. Neil, Gary’s twin, had been part of the Settler III mission since its inception. “I’m Gary.”

“Linda Spares,” she said, taking Gary’s hand. Her enunciation was as perfect as her teeth. Then he noticed her wedding ring. That’s disappointing.

“Doesn’t having twins on a colonizing mission reduce genetic diversity?” asked the other woman.

“Margo!” Linda stepped forward and hugged her. “I’m so glad you decided to come.”

“You can be persuasive,” replied Margo, with a smile.

“You two know each other?” asked Gary. Linda’s grace and Margo’s grubbiness seemed polar opposites.

“Let’s chat in the shuttle. The Captain’s expecting the two of you,” said Linda.

“Hang on.” Margo turned and went to the corner beside a vending machine. She threw on a backpack with ‘Murphy’ stencilled on it and picked up a potted plant and a large grey case. The case was labelled:‘warning: live bees, do not open.’ Gary reflexively took a step further away.

“Another banana?” Linda said, taking the plant. “You always seem to be growing bananas.”
Margo looked down at the plant and shrugged. “Growing them is kinda my thing. Did the rest arrive okay?”

“Yep.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Let’s go,” said Linda. Gary picked up his small case and followed her onto the tarmac. “My best piece of advice for the two of you is to never keep our Captain waiting.”

It was only late morning, yet the particulates in the atmosphere created a yellowish cast like the beginnings of a sunset from centuries ago. He looked at the sky. Today was the first day he’d be travelling off world and the last day he’d stand on this dusty planet. It wasn’t too late, he could still go back to his old life.

“You coming or what?” asked Linda. Gary realized he’d stopped.

“Yes,” he said, following the two women into the shuttle. As soon as he stepped inside, Linda pulled the door shut.

The shuttle’s interior was as bare and functional as the exterior. Up front were seats for a pilot and co-pilot. Behind were two bench seats against the walls with enough space between them to park a small rover. Near the ramp at the back were racks of drawers, presumably containing everything a terraformer needed. It was miles from the first class cabin he’d enjoyed on his flight from Cape Town.

Linda and Margo sat beside each other, still rattling on about bananas. Linda kept the plant on her lap while Margo strapped the bees and her backpack into the seat beside her. Gary took one last look at the door then took a seat across from the women, carefully buckling himself in. He held his case on his lap.

“Joan, we’re ready to go,” shouted Linda to the pilot up front. The pilot gave a thumbs up before turning to her controls. Linda turned back to Margo. “Craig said he found you farming butterflies in a ratty old greenhouse.”

“Rich people’ll pay a lot to decorate their enclosed gardens with real butterflies.”

“I would’ve thought growing food would be more lucrative.”

“Couldn’t get a water permit.”

The shuttle’s engines whined as they took off, drowning out the rest of Linda and Margo’s conversation. Gary looked forward, watching the yellow sky recede to orange then indigo. As they reached orbit, far off stars came into view. The pull of gravity ebbed away and butterflies formed in Gary’s stomach.

“First time off world?” asked Linda.

Gary turned his head too fast and his breakfast threatened to reappear. He swallowed and nodded. Should have taken anti-nausea meds. This time moving his head slowly, he returned to watching the star view outside while willing himself not to get sick. At least it wasn’t going to be a long flight.

Soon Settler III came into view. His new home. The ship was glossy white, its newness apparent on their approach. Configured as a massive ring, it was rotating to produce gravity for its inhabitants. A series of spokes on the inside of the ring converged on a egg-shaped structure at the centre.

“We’ll get towed up to speed on this side of the wormhole,” said Linda. “On the other side, we have a disposable reactor for our deceleration. It’s part of the central module.” She pointed to the egg shape. “The other part of the central module is an algal generator to help with oxygen production.”

“Hmm,” replied Gary. Margo was staring at him. He swallowed and looked back out the window.

“Don’t worry, our ship is the same design as the first two Settler missions. Everything went smoothly for them,” said Linda.

“Including the twisting ship and space crane?” His brother had explained how the ship would become their colony once they arrived at Thesan. Neil’s description had sounded more fantastical than practical.

Once they were close, the shuttle pilot matched Settler III’s spin as huge doors opened on the ship’s side. When the shuttle crossed the ship’s threshold, Gary felt gravity return as a sickening lurch in his stomach. He closed his eyes and swallowed. Neil was his last family, joining him on this mission was for the best. Why did his little brother want to go to a new world? The shuttle gently came to a stop beside its twin as the hanger door closed behind them.

“They’ll cycle in air,” said Linda, as she unbuckled and stood still holding the plant.
After a moment the shuttle door automatically opened and Linda waved them out. As Gary stepped onto the deck, the inside airlock door slip open revealing the rest of the hanger – a functional space full of recently off-loaded cargo stacked in front of racks of tools.

“Can’t keep the Captain waiting,” said Linda as she herded the new comers out the door. “You’ll get the full tour later. Just to orientate you, this is the main corridor, which we call the Loop.”
Gary looked around. The corridor was wide enough the three of them could walk side-by-side with room to spare. In the gently curving walls and uniformly illuminated ceiling Gary started to see the careful design his brother had told him about.

“Why the Loop you ask?” said Linda. “Well, the Settler III is a ring and this corridor is the main connection between all the parts. If you keep walking one direction you’ll end up where you started – because it’s a loop.”

Margo walked over to the wall and ran a finger along the single red band running along at waist height.

“We gotta keep moving,” said Linda, leading them on. Through a room full of video screens, Linda brought them to a door. She pushed the call button and waited.

“Come,” said a voice from within.

“See you guys later,” whispered Linda, pushing the potted plant back into Margo’s hands before backing away from the door.

For a moment Gary and Margo stood side-by-side without glancing at each other. Then, Margo exhaled and pushed the button to open the door. The two of them stepped through the opening.
Subdued lighting and monochromatic wallhangings gave the Captain’s office a calming vibe. The mission leader sat in the centre of the room behind a bird’s-eye maple desk so delicately constructed it would only suit someone of the Captain’s diminutive stature. She looked up from her unrolled scroll as the two of them entered. Every tendril of her black hair was swept perfectly into a twist.

“Dr. Holbrook and Dr. Murphy, please take a seat.” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. She waved to the two celadon upholstered stools in front of her desk. Gary set his case down by the door and sat. Backpack on and still holding the plant and case of bees, Margo took the other stool. “I’m Captain Hori, commander of the first phase of the Thesan colony.”

“I’m pleased to be here,” said Gary looking the Captain in the eye while wishing his words were true.

“Ditto,” said Margo as she looked around the room.

“Good, let’s move on. I assume you both saw the vids about the first two missions. The Thesan mission is the same deal. We’ll be setting up a colony on a recently discovered planet where we’ll build dome greenhouses and begin terraforming.”

Gary nodded, Neil had explained this all to him already.

“To get there we’ll be passing through the wormhole at the Earth-Sun L5 Lagrangian point. Because Settler III is a big cumbersome beast, getting to Thesan is going to take us seven months. To save on resources the crew will be put in stasis for the voyage.”

“Question,” said Margo.

“Go ahead.”

“Are we certain there isn’t already life on this planet?”

“Yes, Dr. Murphy, we are. Let me tell you about the planet.” The Captain took a cube out from a drawer and put it on the desk. She pushed a button and the cube produced a holographic projection of a planet in the space between the three of them.

“That’s it?” Margo looked into the projection and Gary followed her gaze. The planet was almost uniformly grey with a dark band circling the equator.

“That’s Thesan.”

“And, does everything need to be named after ancient gods?” The Captain ignored Margo’s comment.

“Thesan is an excellent terraforming candidate. It’s larger than Earth, but less dense, so gravity will be about the same. It has an atmosphere with Earth-like pressure. Temperatures are consistently below zero, but not so far below that we can’t warm it up by creating a greenhouse effect. Although the surface is mostly rubble covered without many features, the probe reported extensive water deposits beneath the surface. All told, this planet is the perfect starting point for our colony.”

“What’s the dark band?” asked Margo, pointing to the equator of the projection. “It’s a ridge with peaks exceeding 15 km. The current theory is Thesan once had a ring that collapsed onto the surface.”

“And two suns?” Margo pointed to the edge of the projection. The Captain zoomed out to show the rest of the solar system.

“Helios is the main star in this system. Another, smaller star is in an offset orbit which is called Sol. Due to the odd orbits of the two stars, at mid-latitudes, Thesan never experiences a true night.”

“What about other planets?” asked Margo.

“Closer to the suns there’s a mini-Neptune with a pantheon of moons and closer in a pair of planets tidally locked together. It’s theorized there must be more planets further out. The full report is in the archive.”

Margo nodded and Gary suspected she might read it. The Captain deactivated the projection and put the cube away.

“Since both of you are last minute additions to our mission. Dr. Holbrook, your brother will orientate you.” Gary nodded. “And Dr. Murphy, you’ve been assigned your own lab. Our AI can direct you there so you can do something with that.” The Captain gestured towards the potted plant.

“Thanks,” said Margo.

“I’ve also assigned you to cross-train in the engineering department. As soon as you’re settled, contact Mr. Hawkes, our chief engineer.”

“Okay,” said Margo, as she shifted the plant on her lap.

“We depart in four days, so get settled quickly.” The Captain looked down at her scroll as though she was checking items off her list. She tapped the scroll with a finger. “Dr. Murphy, your request to add butterflies to your insect manifest is denied.”

The Captain kept her gaze fixed on Margo as she frowned.

“But…” Margo started.

“I expect you to comply.”

“Fine.” Margo shifted the plant again.

“To our final piece of business. The media circus expects twenty-five smiling, happy couples to begin courageously spreading humanity to a new world.” The Captain stood. Putting both her hands on the desk, the petit woman managed to loom over the two of them. “We are going to uphold that expectation. Most of our crew came to us as married. But, there were a few positions we couldn’t fill with couples, so a handful of single people has been accepted. The two of you are in that category and a compatibility algorithm has matched you.”

Gary glanced over at Margo just as she looked at the wallhangings beside her. How could a grubby butterfly farmer be his ideal match?

“I expect both of you to participate in a broadcasted wedding ceremony with smiles on your faces. Once we leave orbit, your relationship can be as you define it. The only caveat is, I don’t want the two of you to disrupt the harmony of the rest of the crew.”

“I understood this would be the expectation when I joined,” said Gary, glancing down at his perfectly manicured hands. Not for the first time he wondered if sticking with his brother was the best course. It was not too late, he could still return to his practice in Cape Town.

“And you Dr. Murphy?”

“Yeah, I’ll do it.”

“Good. Take some time to get to know each other. I’ll perform the weddings on the eve of our departure.” The Captain looked down to her scroll and began swiping through screens.

Gary looked at Margo again. He had three days to decide if he could tolerate her.

“That will be all,” Captain Hori said without looking up. Gary and Margo stood and left the office.

 

Walking back along the Loop, Gary decided to break the silence between him and Margo. What could he say to this stranger he was about to marry?

“So, what’s your favourite insect?” Gary suppressed a wince at the juvenile question he’d blurted out. Normally he considered himself an excellent conversationalist.

Margo was silent for a moment as she looked down the Loop. He watched her profile as she tucked a curl behind her ear.

“Hmmm, butterflies,” she said, without turning her head. “More specifically, morpho butterflies. I spent years studying how they were responding to the changing habitat of Costa Rican cloud forests.”

“Why morpho butterflies?”

“Because they’re shiny. I love the flash of blue they make when they open their wings.” As she turned back to look him in the eye, her face became softer as though she might smile. “They’re so ethereal, their beauty lasting only months.”

“How long do they live?”

“They live their entire lives in about 115 days.”

Then a mark caught his attention on her neck.

“What’s this?” He leaned towards her and lifted her hair from her neck exposing a hand sized port-wine stain birthmark. She jerked away, her hair falling back into place covering the mark. “There is equipment on board to remove that.”

“I’m not aiming to be a super model.” She must know about his ex-wife, a woman who rushed out to fix any imperfection – real or imagined.

“I was just saying…”

“Gotta go find my lab.” She left before he could say anything further.

 

15:13hrs Mission Day 114

Bringing himself back to the present, Gary looked around Margo’s lab from the low vantage point of her makeshift bed. The bed under the potting table was surprisingly comfortable, and the view almost that of a jungle back on Earth. To one side, the fish tank filtered the bright grow lights creating undulating patterns of light and dark. Every now and then a fish swam up and looked at him before moving on. Further out, morpho butterflies flashed the iridescent blue side of their wings as they meandered between the verdant vegetation.

Above was a grid of metal supporting the potting bench surface. A few things were stored up there. Reaching up, he pulled out an old-fashioned jackpot of paper – two printed photos, a thin book and a well worn notebook. The book was a tired copy of R. Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Gary flipped through the pages and found it full of penciled in notes – a crime that deserved a special place in hell. The writing was tiny to the point of illegibility, so he put the book back and looked at the photos instead.

The first was of a group of five soldiers posing in the desert. In the centre, Craig, now the acting captain, sported a wide grin, not surprising as everyone knew Craig had been recruited from the military. Beside him stood Margo in uniform, smiling. She’d always seemed so serious whenever he’d seen her. It was a double surprise that she’d spent time in the military and that she could appear happy about it. No mention of military service had been included in her official resume.
The second photo showed a family amongst huge trees, two adults and a single child holding a chicken. From the wild hair and birthmark, the child had to be Margo. The family trio were all smiling as though they’d just shared a joke. A sentimental moment long past.

He put the two photos and book back into their hiding place under the bench. Then he flipped open the notebook – it was Margo’s journal, handwritten in clearly legible script.


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