Minoru Misumi greeted each day with a walk in the garden, before the Tai Chi crowd gathered. He was not alone, but the few other early-morning walkers knew to give him leeway. Some ventured to offer him a slight nod when passing, but no one verbally greeted him. They dared not break the unwritten rule of silence until after sunrise.
When the Tai Chi crowd finally arrived, they trickled in one-by-one or in groups, usually threes. He had noticed this phenomenon and thought of asking one of the scientists to explain the statistics, but he found having some mystery in life made it more agreeable. Not everything can be explained, nor should it. Those practitioners who would be working outside that day hung their suits on pegs and placed their helmets on shelves attached to the wall. Shrouded in early morning quiet, they did nothing to disturb it as they took their places in front of the instructor—one-celled organisms evolving into a whole, preprogrammed, slipping precisely into the proper slot. He enjoyed watching their routine; the slow uniformity of motion: grasp the sparrow’s tail; white crane spreads its wings; step back and ride the tiger; snake creeps down; embrace the tiger and return to mountain.
Return to mountain. The phrase caught in his throat.
He watched them from a teak bench set on a slight rise near a cluster of cherry trees—a gift from the Japanese government on Earth. Ten had been lost in transit, but Minoru had nurtured the remaining thirty. Now, almost a decade later, twenty of them flanked the path leading to the arched bridge spanning a Koi pond—echoing that enduring iconic image of a Japanese garden—and the remaining ten had been thoughtfully grouped throughout. Minoru had taken cuttings from the trees and now they numbered close to fifty. Even now, he always had a few softwood cuttings propagating in case of disease.
The garden had been Minoru’s idea. They needed some reminder of home. Some place not designed purely for function, though it provided one. It was still his favorite place, even if his heart ached whenever he sat there. This was where he had watched the communications his wife sent from Earth. He enjoyed watching her image, and their son’s, float amid the low branches. When he was feeling strong, he brought his favorite to replay.
But not today.
The Tai Chi group turned as one, and Minoru’s eyes fell on Ori. She raised her chin and their eyes met until the next movement turned her face from him.
Minoru did not rouse when Commander Hadfield sat on the bench. They watched the synchronized movements below, until the Commander finally said, “You’re called back.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to see your family?”
“I have no family.”
“Your mother is still among the living.”
“Living? I could communicate more with these trees.”
The commander sighed. “She means so little to you? From the reports, I know she often asks for you.”
“And she often mistakes her caretakers for me.”
“This callousness only verifies the decision is the right one.”
“For whom? Me? Or you?”
“For you, Minoru. For you.”
Hadfield put his hands on his knees and pushed off from the bench.
“Be ready for the next shuttle. One month, Minoru. Select your replacement, or someone to fill the gap until the right candidate can be sent from Earth.” He walked down the path, then turned, “It’s for the best.”
A soft knock interrupted Minoru’s thoughts. It was just as well, he had been lying there for hours, listening to John Cage’s “Electronic Music for Piano” series, thinking about going home.
If anywhere was home, it was here, where he’d been for the past eight years. Command Central’s insistence he leave puzzled him. Why did it matter to them, as long as he did his job? They would just have to transport someone else to take his place and the next shuttle was already en route. Normal procedure was to have a switch off. Who would care for the gardens until his replacement arrived?
He turned his back to the door, but the interloper wouldn’t give up. “It’s me. Ori.”
His stomach tightened into a knot. If he didn’t answer, perhaps she would go away.
“Min…Min?” Her soft voice was further muffled by the fuzzy intercom speakers and her call reminded Minoru of the coo of a Mourning Dove.
He sighed and, without turning around, said, “Door: Open.”
The latch clanged and Ori walked in.
“You weren’t at dinner.”
She kneeled on the tatami next to his bed, which consisted of a firm mattress resting on the floor with a single head roll for a pillow. Even though he was American, Minoru preferred it to Western-style beds.
“I heard the rumors. Can they force you to leave?”
“They can do anything they want. You know that.”
“They have to have cause. Did they give you a reason?”
“I’ve been on borrowed time since the end of my first two-year stint. They don’t need cause anymore, I’ve already outstayed my original contract.”
“I was going to ask for an extension.”
That was the one thing he didn’t want her to do. He turned to face her, but said nothing.
“Don’t you miss anything about home?
Minoru rested his forearm across his eyes.
“Sorry. That was a stupid question. It’s just…it’s just I had this crazy romantic notion I’d be enough to make you want to leave this lump of a planet.”
She would be on the next shuttle home, too, unless she put in a request and it was approved.
Ori moved his arm from his face and bent to kiss his lips.
To his anguish, he didn’t resist, but wrapped his arm around her slender waist and pull her closer, until she was on top of him.
Minoru’s heart tripped when he saw the withered edges and dark green enations on the underside of the leaf. He moved around the tree, his hand pushing aside branches and clumps of leaves. He stopped when he saw another one. He plucked it, reached in his pocket for small plastic pouch, and dropped the leaf inside.
Whoever his replacement, he wanted to leave the gardens in pristine condition. Perhaps the withering was from too little water, or too much. The enations were another story. He pulled his eyebrows together as he studied them. No need to panic yet. He took the helixilator, which twisted around the center of the dome, up to the main lab on the first level.
Underneath each dome, the Martian soil had been dug out in the shape of a cone, with the narrowest part at the bottom. The entire process—the digging and building of the domes—had been accomplished mostly by robots years before the colonists arrived. At first there were only three, the central dome and one to the east and another to the west. But, over the years, additional domes had filled in to complete the circle. More circular communities had been started outside the original, but none were ready for colonization. What Minoru liked about the design was there were no sharp edges—in the structures, or his garden.
The wide, high glass dome at the top of each cone allow sunlight to filter through to the lowest level. The huge upper level of the central dome, what was commonly called New Central Park, or NCP, was devoted entirely to food production, as were most of the outer ledges of each subsequent level below. Minuro’s garden covered the wide circular ledge on the second level. Artificial greenhouses, labs, and offices occupied the spaces deeper inside, where sunlight wasn’t a requirement.
The NCP was the hub of the community, with all other domes laid out in a circle a mile away, giving the entire colony approximately a ten mile radius. Each dome was connected by covered tunnels and equipped with a conveyor for those too lazy, or too in a hurry, to walk. There were additional underground emergency tunnels connecting all the domes, but those were rarely used. Each dome had living plants around the outer edges of the levels to help improve the atmosphere, as well as for morale, but NCP held the majority of plant life for the Mars Colony. The other domes were used for living quarters, or for factories, or scientific labs. Each dome had a unique purpose, although they all had the same basic structure.
Minoru made his way to one of the digital microscopes set on one of the long tables set against the wall. He placed the diseased leaf under the scanner and looked at the screen. He leaned in for a closer look just as a flashing red light warned him of an impending emergency announcement.
Attention! All personnel please assemble at the NCP amphitheater immediately.
The tinny echo of the canned voice hung in the air, but Minoru didn’t move his eye from the screen. What he saw disturbed him.
He had a virus.
No need to worry just yet, with proper treatment it could be contain. He might have to remove the diseased tree. It grieved him to see one of them destroyed, but he’d do it for the good of the rest. For all the eight year he was on the planet, there had never been an outbreak of virus among the plant-life—they were that careful. Why did it have to happen just as he was leaving? And, more importantly, how had it happened?
An amphitheater, fashion after the traditional Greek model, had been erected near the front of the NCP dome at the garden level. It was used for meetings, as well as plays, or concerts. It was one of the favorite gathering spots for the community. Even though inside the dome, it had an open-air feel to it. And, just like its predecessors, it provided natural amplification, with little need for an audio system.
It had been forty-five minutes since the announcement. Commander Hadfield scanned the crowd and was satisfied that most of the inhabitants were present.
“I have some disturbing news and I felt it best I tell you all in person. Central Command has lost all communication with the shuttle. It appears it has been lost.”
A murmur arose from the crowd, starting like the slow swell of a wave and then crashing loudly against the shore. A voice called over the noise, “Are you saying it’s been destroyed, or we’ve just lost communication?
The commander turned to his left, toward were the question had been shouted. “From the flight data recorder, it’s apparent the ship’s been destroyed.”
This question came from the other end of the vast space and the commander turned again.
“It’s too early to know. Could have been an asteroid hit. Could have been a malfunction of some sort.”
The crowd was stunned into silence for a moment. Many had friends on the shuttle and were looking forward to seeing them again. Many of the women, and men, were visibly shaking.
“Let’s have a moment of silence for those lost.”
After a moment, he lifted his head and said, “Bottom line for us: there won’t be a shuttle again for several months. We’ll have to make do without the extra supplies. Anyone waiting for special equipment will either have to wait it out, or devise a go-around. This shuttle’s payload won’t be picked up, so we’ll have extra to store. We might have to slow down production. I’ll be meeting with all the department heads to go over logistics.”
Chatter broke out among the large crowd.
“That’s all I know at the moment. When I learn more, I’ll inform all of you. In the meantime, if any of you have any special concerns, set up an appointment with my assistant.” He paused, then said, “Let’s make the best of this situation. It’s not ideal, but if we’re good at anything, it’s improvising.”
Minoru stood at the edge of the amphitheater, having jogged there from the lab. He watched the long faces of the others filing out of the dome. It was a tragedy about the crew, but Minoru had learned how to live with tragedy. For him, delay of the next shuttle meant he’d been given a reprieve. He wouldn’t be leaving in a month, which gave him more time to figure out where the virus had come from, and how to cure it. Under the microscope, the virus didn’t look like anything Minoru had ever seen before. A new strain?
As he walked back to the tree where he’d found the infected leaf, all Minoru could feel was a sense of relief. Since his talk with the Commander, going back to Earth was all he’d thought about. There was nothing left for him there. He wouldn’t even know how to being rebuilding his life. Here he had his trees—his garden.
Anything could happen between now and the next shuttle launch. Maybe he would never have to leave. Over the years, Minoru had learned to expect the unexpected.
He walked to the other trees nearest the one infected and inspected them for signs of the disease.
“Minoru. I thought I’d find you here.”
He turned to see the food production engineer hurrying up the rise.