The plant died in her hand, but first it sprouted and grew. Feathery, transparent roots twined around her fingers. A delicate stem rose unsteadily, the cotyledons at the top balled like a pair of tiny fists. The roots thickened, clasping her hand and wrapping around her wrist. The speed of growth was astounding. A breakthrough at last, she thought, her heart pounding. Her head spun and her eyes filled with tears.
She and Jack were down to supplements and furtive mouthfuls of dirt – just for something to chew. For months, crop after crop had failed. They ate the leaves and flowers, boiled the stems and roots until they were soft enough to chew. As the number of plants dwindled, the pollinating insects died. They ground up their bitter bodies and ate them too.
This morning, out of a hopeless force of habit, she sorted through the last dead and dying plant matter – dumping a pathetic handful of organic material into the blender. Too weak to walk over to the tap, she gripped the edge of the table and worked up enough spit to wet the brittle leaves. She ran the machine and scraped the green paste off the blades and sides of the blender with her finger. It was barely enough to load one last Petri dish.
In the beginning, they were like Adam and Eve together in this gorgeous, fragile garden. Tray after tray of sprouts and tender plants crowded the tables. They blended samples and sent them through the gene-mixer, a battered tablet wired to a set of Petri dishes. It continually recombined plant DNA, sorting through the thousands of variants for hybrids that would thrive in the harsh Martian climate, plants to pump oxygen into the air while producing an edible crop.
As if in time-lapse, the first leaves opened, their wrinkles smoothing as the plant continued to grow. Symmetric bumps appeared along the main stem, sprouting into true leaves. She tilted her head up to follow the plant's wobbly progress toward the muted light that filtered through the abraded surface of the dome.
"Jack," she called. Although the green light on the wall indicated the commlinks were open, he didn’t answer.
Her body deprived of food, her brain starved of oxygen, she was too weak to go looking for him. She sat heavily on the floor to wait. The roots continued to thicken, and her hand began to tingle. The pace of growth slowed as the stem began to sprout vining tendrils. Her arm shook under the weight of the plant. The leaves trembled.
She tugged at her braid, now streaked with gray, and thought of all the bottles of hair dye lined up on the shelves of all the grocery stores back in Houston. She’d been with Jack since grad school and gone through every color on those shelves including pink and blue. She almost brought a bottle, they had a sixteen-ounce allowance, but in the end she couldn’t decide which color. Instead, Jack packed a bag of grape seeds from his uncle’s vineyard and they joked about what to name next year's vintage.
They got a berth on one of the last dualies before the venture capital ran out. MarsCo had been sending pairs of volunteers out for nearly four years by the time they were finally old enough to qualify for the one-way mission. In the end it worked out perfectly. They stayed just long enough to see Tyler married and Sydney defend her dissertation, then left their grown kids to their lives and set off to make the most of their middle age.
The plant's terminus caught her attention. It dipped and swelled, then formed a cluster of pale buds, which opened into a bouquet of delicate bell-shaped flowers. She marveled as their pale petals slowly deepened to the velvety light-absorbing black they would need here.
After landing, they found the previous team frozen to their ship's bunk. They'd successfully raised the GlasTex dome, but apparently failed to convert their ship into a power station. She looked out at the dull-metal curves of the two egg-shaped landers standing side-by-side just outside the dome. It seemed pointless to drag their bodies out into the relentless winds of the surface. The only burial they would be able to offer would be to cover them with rocks, so they left them together where they lay.
She looked back at the plant now swaying above her. The leaves were beginning to droop. She cradled her cold root-bound arm, staggered over to the buckets lined up against the wall, and plunged the roots into the brackish water. With her arm soaking, she sat back against the wall and watched the leaves, willing them to revive.
Jack had gotten both ships converted, but even with two power sources the CO2 scrubbers struggled. Jack managed to keep them working at around 65 percent, not enough to prevent chronic hypoxia. The plants grew pale, drooped on attenuated stems and failed to set fruit. She and Jack hovered over each crop bickering and tormenting each other in the low oxygen like the helpless parents of an afflicted child. This dying vine embracing her arm was the last one. She looked away from the plant, its already desiccated leaves rattled in her ear. The walls of the dome were so abraded by the constant sandstorms that the landscape beyond was rendered a blurry orange smudge.
Outside, the sun approached the horizon, small, pale and used up like a lozenge someone left on the nightstand. Above her, in the failing light, a single seed pod emerged from among the withered black petals and dropped into the black water with a plop.
"Light," she ordered.
Overhead, the SimSun flickered on dimly. Jack had diverted nearly all the available power to the scrubbers. With her free hand she splashed around the bucket, grabbing the pod as it bobbed to the surface. It was covered in thick peach fuzz and taut with four perfect bumps.
She stood unsteadily, found the seam of the pod with her thumb and gently pried it open. Four bright, green beans rolled out onto the palm of her hand. Hunger gripped her, startling and predatory. Her mouth filled with saliva and she swallowed, closing her hand around the beans. With careful husbandry and the gene mixer, maybe they could still pull through.
The airlock hissed, and Jack pushed the door open with effort. Once burly, now merely tall, his jumpsuit billowed around him as he crossed the room with slow, deliberate movements. With the frayed cuffs of his jacket pushed up to his elbows, his hands dangled overly large from brittle forearms. She walked toward him, dragging the plant behind her.
"You okay, Leigh?" He said, his voice faint. He took her arm and examined the plant's sodden remains. "What happened?"
"In your hand?"
"Yeah, it was the strangest thing."
"That's the last one." He looked around at the abandoned trays of spent soil stacked on the tables. "That's it," he said with relief, and wrapped his arms around her in a wobbly hug. He stepped back and held her face in hands nearly as cold as the freezing air in the room, his blue eyes bright with tears. "Finally."
She shivered, but for once not from the goddamn cold. She held up her other hand to him and opened her fist.
He stared at the open seedpod and the four beans. "No, Leigh," he said closing her hand. "It's too late."
"But, it grew so fast! You should have seen it." She could believe in these seeds even if he couldn’t. She held the beans out to him again.
"No!" he shouted. "It's over." His voice filled the room; the last big thing about him, and it cost him. He staggered back and fell against a table, knocking a tray of substrate to the ground.
She reached out to him, knowing that if he went over they would both go down. He swatted her hand away but she caught his arm and they clung swaying to each other. He made a grab for the beans, but she closed her fist around them.
"It's over," he repeated. His fingernails dug into her skin, trying to pry her hand open. "Four beans and that damn machine, Leigh, it's not enough."
Jack let go of her, tottered over to the gene mixer and swept the Petri dishes and pipettes off the table, sending them clattering to the ground.
She moved to him as fast as she could, but it wasn’t fast enough.
Panting, he yanked out the wires connecting the tablet to the blender and pushed them both off. They landed with a crash.
"You bastard!" she screamed.
He fell then among the desiccated plant matter drifting to the floor in the cold, stagnant air.
She sank to her knees in front of him, unclenched her fist, opened her mouth and slapped her hand against her lips. Two beans slid down her throat whole, the other two she chewed slowly, feeling their turgid resistance against her teeth. They tasted like the smell of warm grass. She swallowed.
His expression crumbled and his body shook. She thought this was it, a fatal arrhythmia. He would be gone and she would be alone. She grabbed his shoulders.
"Don't go," she begged.
He propped himself up on one elbow and let out his wide-open laugh. She hadn't heard that laugh in months. Just like that his anger evaporated.
"They taste good?" he asked when he caught his breath.
He wrapped his hand around hers, pulled it to his dry lips and kissed it.
"I'm sorry. I should have saved two for you."
"Don't worry about it," he said.
"They weren't very filling," she added.
He chuckled and leaned back against a molded crete bench. She scooted over to him and lay against his chest. She could feel each rib through his thermal jacket as she rode the rise and fall of every labored breath.
"Let's just go to sleep, together, like on the ship." His face looked pinched again. The sun disappeared below the horizon, rendering the walls of the dome opaque. She closed her eyes and listened to the wind howl across the land, and to the sand scouring the dome.
At dawn, she felt the sunlight, weak but persistent, and turned her face toward it. Her back rested against the cold crete of the bench. After twenty-one years of marriage she could tell without opening her eyes that Jack was no longer in the room. He probably schlepped back to the scrubbers despite himself.
Normally, there was no rest to be found in sleep. They woke over and over each night gasping and coughing in the CO2-rich atmosphere. But here it was morning, which meant she must have slept straight through. She took a deep breath. The air smelled fine. Perhaps Jack had made some headway with the scrubbers after all. She opened her eyes and trained them on the sun just breaching the horizon. She watched it climb the dome, letting time flow for once without tasks or schedule.
Jack was right. It was time to give up. Weeks ago, he'd thought to have them record a goodbye to the kids so that Tyler and Sydney's last images of them would not be the hollow faced, emaciated creatures they were today. She grabbed the top of the table and pulled herself up to look for Jack, to tell him they could send that last transmission. That is, if she didn't find him already inert, curled under the scrubbers in the warmth of the generator.
She stood with difficulty. She didn't feel weak exactly, but could only move as if in slow motion. Instead of the hollow dizziness she’d become accustomed to, her legs felt leaden. And her feet were stuck to the floor. She tore her eyes away from the sun and looked down. Her boots had split at the toes. Each disgorged a cascade of roots like twin tentacled creatures. Staring at them, she could just detect movement in the slender, hairy ends as they found out the tiny cracks in the regolith of the floor. It tickled.
She looked at the remains of the plant, still wrapped around her arm. New growth had emerged from the dead material. She moved the broad green leaves aside but could not find her hand among them.
"Jack," she called, her voice a hoarse whisper. She tried again but could not speak loud enough to activate the commlink. Her arm rose up of its own accord, turning its leaves toward the light. There was nothing she could do but wait for Jack to find her.
Noon arrived, then afternoon, the sun seemed to accelerate as she turned her head to follow it. The frayed sweater she wore under her jacket grew tight, stretching against her thickening midriff. The constant, gnawing hunger of the past months vanished.
Outside, the wind raged against the dome. She thought of her grandma's old cabin up in Pennsylvania, and how the wind would rattle the windowpanes. She'd inherited the place, and they took the kids to visit the snow once. The weather had been disappointingly warm until the last day when a blizzard obliged. Their flight home was canceled, which was good since they couldn't dig the car out to get to the airport anyway. The cabin had no power and all their electronics ran out of juice.
On paper the trip had been a disaster, but for Tyler and Sydney it was a grand adventure in an alien landscape. They walked together through muffled, snow-stacked woods and skidded around the frozen little pond. Inside, they left their dripping coats and boots in a pile, and she stoked the old potbelly stove with cord wood while Jack and the kids sat wrapped in blankets on the kitchen floor. She managed to get the stove hot enough to warm them up and make a few runny pancakes for dinner. After she tucked the kids into the high old bed, Jack dug the last two beers out of the snow by the door. They sat by the stove and talked until who knows when, since grandma's clock had stopped running years ago.
As the sun sank toward the horizon, Jack shuffled in and called up the SimSun. She smiled, soaking up the extra light even as she saw him gasp and drop the handful of supplements he'd brought for dinner. The pills skittered across the floor as he ran stumbling to her. His warm, moist hands gripped her hips. She ached to put her arms around him, but both of them now reached tirelessly upward. She did manage to tilt her head down and realized that she had grown taller than him.
"Leigh, oh my God!" He reached up and ran his fingers across her lips.
She could not speak.
His breath came in rattling gasps as he opened her coat and moved his hands over her body. He pulled a table up to her, climbed up and began ripping leaves away from a raised arm. Pain shimmered through her body even as the skin began to thicken in response.
"Baby, where's your hand?" he said in a high, panicked tone. She'd never heard him sound so frightened. He reached up and cupped her chin in his palm; by this she guessed her face remained recognizable.
She turned her eyes to him, her lips frozen in place, no longer able to even give him a smile.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out.”
He climbed down and disappeared from view, clattering around the room. Her plump leaves shuddered against each other. She wanted to tell him she wasn't worried, not with the delicious light above and the cool soil below. She reached into it, growing, anchoring herself to this place.
Her fingers stretched toward the light filtering through the dome. Stitches popped as the seams of her jacket split. Out of the corner of her eye, she could just see the gray insulation around the shoulder squeeze out as spiraling green tendrils emerged.
Jack returned with a pair of pruning shears and cut the rest of her clothes away. With great effort she looked down. Her skin was rough and dark. Where the bones of her ribcage had stood out from her shrunken flesh, ridges curved up, disappearing under her breasts, which themselves seemed to be growing a rind.
Jack stepped up onto the table and clipped the new growth from her face. The leaves fell away with an itching sensation. His face was contorted with panic and confusion.
"Hang on," he pleaded.
He found the dead plant from yesterday and clipped the leaves away from it, then set the blades on a thick tendril and squeezed them shut. The shears bit into what felt like her wrist. Pain echoed through her body as the severed vine, with the dead plant bound in its tendrils, dropped to the floor. She thought she could scream then, except for the tender shoots that now filled her throat. Sap oozed from the cut, golden and viscous. He swiped his finger through the liquid, tasted it and looked back to her.
“It still tastes like blood,” he said. “Don’t you leave me here alone.”
She wanted to say, "I'm not going anywhere." He would get it. One of her lame jokes. The kind that used to make him laugh.
Hot tears trickled down her cheeks and soaked into the new rind of her neck. He tossed the shears aside, climbed down off the table and rummaged around again in the shadows at the edge of the dome. The adrenaline from his initial panic gone, he struggled back to her, dragging the mattock with both hands.
Below, her roots cleaved the earth, tunneling through the cool, refreshing soil, absorbing microscopic ice crystals. It felt for all the world like catching snow on her tongue. He managed to lift the mattock, swung it in an arc and plunged it into the ground.
The pain when he lacerated a root was dull, distant; she had many roots now. And he grew weaker with every swing. She wished he would conserve his strength, sit down at her feet. Inside her, the shoots waited whitely in the damp darkness. If he could just hang on for a few more days. Finally, he dropped the mattock and fell against her. He ordered the SimSun off, to slow her growth she presumed.
The bark on her neck cracked and expanded when she turned her face to the East to wait for dawn. She could just feel Jack's slight weight where he rested at the base of her trunk.
Sleeping, please Jack, not dying.
Even in the dark she grew. The dome shrunk around her, close now and uncomfortably warm. She could not stop her growth, only slow it. She would suffocate soon, but she only needed a little more time. The buds pressed against the roof of her mouth. Her leaves brushed the panels at the top of the dome, and she sent tendrils into the seams, anchoring her limbs above her.
When morning arrived she was sure she was alone again. She could no longer tilt her face down or feel his miniscule weight against her trunk. She hoped he would return soon because she would set fruit. She didn't know when, but she knew, like she had known when she was pregnant. She didn't need the grocery store pregnancy tests either time, but she'd bought them, for Jack. They were scientists after all and she understood about proof.
As the sun climbed the sky, she opened what had once been her mouth and let the new stems emerge, each weighed down with a fat, blood red bud. She bent her back and contorted herself to fit within the confines of the dome. Water condensed on the walls, dripping onto her branches. She wouldn’t last much longer in this terrarium. Just long enough, she hoped.
Somewhere below she heard Jack enter the room and gasp. After a time she realized he was climbing her, grunting occasionally with the effort. She had many strong branches to hold him. The buds bloomed, ruby petals trembling with joy as they opened. The flowers bowed their necks toward the floor, and she could see him as if through a compound eye.
He climbed in short bursts, wearing only a tee shirt and his trousers, so impossibly thin. He rested often, cradled in her branches, dozing off. There was time still, if she could survive the close quarters and heat long enough.
When he finally reached the top she watched him search for something resembling a face. All she could offer him was a small bouquet of flowers.
He put his nose to the blossoms and inhaled.
“I don't know if you can hear me,” he gasped, his voice a rattling whisper, “But you smell beautiful ... like that perfume you used to wear.” He stroked the rind where her cheek had been. “How did you do that?”
He sat back against the branch that held him, and she saw the belt: His service pistol in its holster. She made her leaves rattle against each other.
No! She would bear fruit; he would have all he could eat.
“I sent our goodbyes to the kids,” he said.
She directed a tendril toward his arm but could not grow fast enough to prevent him from drawing the gun.
Instead of bringing the gun to his head, he pointed it up at the dome that sealed her in. He fired again and again until the sturdy composite shattered, showering them in sparkling fragments. When the clip was empty, he let the gun drop and curled his knees up to his chest like a child spooned inside the crook of what had once been her neck.
The wild, perfect atmosphere rushed in. The wind whipped around her as she grew up and out, sending tendrils down the sides of the dome.
Jack lay motionless in the bone breaking cold while flowers sprang from every branch, velvet black and tough. It took time to set fruit, longer than he would have lasted. As her growth slowed to something more sustainable, the days spun by faster. She stood over the ruins of the dome, clinging to the regolith and rode the planet as it twirled around the sun. When the bean pods did come, the wind snapped them off greedily, sending them flying in every direction.
Her memories began to fade as she wrapped Jack's body in a green cocoon of tendrils that slowly solidified into a hard lump midway up her massive trunk. As she took his body into hers what she remembered was their eighteen-month trip here.
A blur of vague moments stretching back to earth like a line of bread crumbs. The pinging alarms that roused them out of induced hibernation to grumpily complete some checklist or other. And the torpid lovemaking with Jack before reconnecting to their IVs and curling up together in the pod's dual sleep chamber, their body temps cooling, pulses slowing in lockstep with each other.
This story originally appeared in Interzone.