The Clements Agricultural Space Crew, planting division, was ready for launch. Rex and Silas were strapped in tight. The weather was clear, and all systems go. The germ rate of the seed was 99.9 percent — excellent numbers. The redesigned plot planter had been field-tested in the best simulation environment possible: four acres of premium, unused cat litter.
The Austrian-made planter was safely strapped down in the hold of the cargo ship along with the drawers of seed packets. All supplies had been double-checked, and extra seed brought in case of a spill. The bio-dome living-pods had previously been installed at the equator of the Red Planet. It was showtime.
The engines rumbled as lift-off began. The cargo ship slowly climbed into the morning sky on its way to Mars. The trip would take just under three hours, including a stop at the Five Star refueling station and Food Mart. The deli had a great selection, and also accepted their company’s card.
After the cargo ship took off, the much smaller and maneuverable scout ship shot into the sky. The Roadrunner, piloted by Ed, would zip ahead and fall behind as needed to make sure there were no problems in either direction. Ed had already made the Mars trip numerous times while scouting for the massive prep-ships.
“This is for the money!” Rex shouted over the roar of the engines as they exited the Earth’s atmosphere.
“And all the pocket change hidden in the couch!” Silas added with a whoop.
Ed smiled slightly at their excitement. “Let’s do this, cargo-jockeys.”
Earth needed more farmland, and Mars was the ticket. Now that magnetic warping had been perfected, the time it took traveling to planets in the solar system was greatly reduced. Even travel to the more distant systems was reasonable, but no planets there would allow Earth crops to be grown. It had taken decades for the Clements Agricultural Science Division to prepare large enough tracts of land on Mars to possibly enable crop growth, and even longer for their plant breeding program to create cultivars that thrived in the reduced light intensity and temperature swings of the Red Planet. Their greenhouses perfectly replicated Mars’ equatorial conditions and became a nice money-maker when they opened them to the curious public and sold tickets.
The goal of the project was to feed the people of Earth with plant-based protein grown on Mars. They needed a combination of crops that would provide the needed amino acids to sustain life. The plants they decided on, which they had heavily modified genetically, that would grow in these conditions were the Three Sisters: corn, winter squash, and pole beans. This trip would be the first planting attempt on Mars without using a greenhouse, and the experimental plots would hopefully yield viable seed. Clements had previously built greenhouses on Mars using Earth soil and climate conditions, which had worked, but fabricating and maintaining structures large enough to yield the amount of grain needed for Earth’s population proved to be too costly. If Mars were to produce enough food to keep the people of Earth alive, this experiment had to work.
The radio stations came and went as the ships traveled to their destination. The farther out they got, the more interstellar country music stations filled the cosmic “airways”. Ed turned down his intercom link and his radio off. Rex and Silas were, as much as they could while being strapped in, bopping around to the music until they came up on the Five Star. They throttled the ships down as they approached the outer rim of the landing pads. Once touching down, they would take the mini shuttle to the main dome. Ed could park closer with his smaller craft and take one of the pneumatic tubes.
The automated robotic fueling arm on the pad would match the correct nozzle to the tank’s fixture and refuel once the company’s card was swiped and the proper code entered on the terminal inside the shuttle. You could pay from inside the ship, but it was a hassle. They made it easier if you went inside and shopped.
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee greeted them as they entered the main dome. The deli had a 24-hour Earth-style breakfast bar and anything else you could want, no matter what system you hailed from. Earth coffee and breakfast food had caught on throughout the entire galaxy, as did country music.
Silas ate enough sausage gravy and biscuits containing a sodium content so high as to put a salt block to shame. Rex decided on vanilla yogurt and a tentacle-looking meat stick which twitched slightly when he bit into it. Ed just kept to plain, black coffee. After much needed — and some well-earned — bathroom breaks, they were back on their way.
They gently lifted their ships off the pads and smoothly accelerated back to deep space. The Five Star was only one-third the way to Mars, but it took the cargo ship almost a full tank to get from the Five Star to Mars and back, so they had to stop and fill up both ways to complete the entire round trip. The Roadrunner could make the entire journey on a single tank, but Ed liked the coffee.
Two hours and change later, the Red Planet loomed large in the distance. They touched down between the field and the bio-domes and began unloading equipment and organizing the drawers of seed packets. They had to back out the planter, which was always a tricky business, and then set up the M.P.S. The Mars Positioning System would assure perfectly planted rows of plots.
“You gonna eat anything before we start, Ed?” asked Silas as he scooted on his back underneath the planter and started taking out the holding pins securing the fingers of the planting hands.
“I’ll get something before I start to drive,” Ed said, kneeling down to help.
“This new gadget beats all, doesn’t it?” Silas said, grunting a bit as he reached to pull out the last pin.
“Kind of spooky looking, but that’s what they came up with to plant the Sisters. You can’t just straight-plant them,” Ed said, stretching out the shiny metal fingers and connecting the wire terminals to them. “It’ll be slow going, but it beats doing it by hand.”
“Yep, there’s always a tradeoff; easier one way makes it harder another,” Silas said, watching the planting fingers come to life as Ed step-checked them.
“The seed drawers are all in order,” Rex said as he walked over. “That robot set of hands still gives me the willies whenever I look at them.”
“You and me both,” said Silas. “I think Ed wants to thumb wrestle them.”
“Not me. I wouldn’t even play a round of poker with them,” Ed laughed. “I think I’ll get that bite to eat now,” he said, walking off toward the Roadrunner.
“I sure hope those bio-domes are better than the ones we had during training,” Rex called after him.
“Probably worse,” Ed called back.
As Ed neared the scout ship, he thought he caught a glimpse of a small, dark shape quickly duck down behind a small dune. He reasoned it was just caffeine jitters and an empty stomach, but he went to have a look anyway. He didn’t see anything, so he continued to the ship and climbed into the small cockpit, closed the canopy, took off his helmet and pulled out his snack container. He ate some crackers and emptied a couple of peanut butter tubes onto a slice of seaweed loaf and washed it down with a bottle of water. He looked over at the bio-domes and hoped they would be a little better than the ones back at the training center.
Planting went slow, but smooth. Ed drove and let the M.P.S handle everything. His only job was to make sure he didn’t have to take manual control in case of a glitch. Rex and Silas, however, had a busy time with constantly pouring the correct packets into the right holes to feed the planting hands which would then insert the seed into the soil at the proper depth and spacing. Occasionally, Ed twisted around to watch them. He thought they looked like two frantic piano players sitting side by side on the same bench banging out an old rag-time tune.
After about twelve hours, they had finished with half the test plots. The planter made the last pass of the day and Ed brought it out of the field and manually lined it up for the first pass of the morning. They all donned their helmets and climbed out of the planter. Ed slithered out of the drivers’ cab and Rex and Silas squeezed through their respective hatches.
“Well, that’s a day,” said Silas, stretching his arms out and arching his back.
“Half-way done,” Rex said as he lay down on the Martian soil.
“Make a snow angel,” Ed chided.
“I’d rather empty out this urine tank and spell my name on the ground,” Rex laughed.
“Go ahead and do both; we’ll take a picture and make it our Christmas card this year,” Silas burst out with laughter, momentarily fogging up his face shield.
They agreed that would probably end their careers with the Clements outfit and so decided instead to head to their individual bio-domes. When Ed got to his, he would find it already occupied.
Ed stepped into the entrance chamber and waited for the exterior hatch to slide shut and the interior one to open. No locks, no codes. If you had reason to get in quick, a forgotten key or code could spell death. He took off his helmet and removed the light protective suit. He noticed the bio-dome was much nicer than the training ones, and the sparse furniture looked much more comfortable. Ed stepped into the kitchen area and almost fainted with shock.
The Being was of average human height, but very thin. It was wearing a dark cloak with the hood pulled partially back and its face looked roughly humanoid. It had a small, clear covering over its nose and mouth which had tiny tubes in either corner going along its cheek line and into the hood. Ed thought, after the initial shock of meeting a Martian wore off, that if he had seen it on the streets of Earth, he would have to look twice to notice something not exactly right about its features.
“Your people have spent much time here as of late,” the Being said evenly. There was no hint of an accent or inflection of voice.
“We’re planting seed,” Ed said slowly. “Our planet needs more land to feed our population,” Ed said, eyeing the being cautiously.
“And so, you take ours,” the Martian said and offered no further words.
“No one is supposed to be living here. It’s uninhabited…we checked.”
“We are not many and can hide easily.”
“You live underground?”
“We mean no harm or disrespect. We just want to farm. That’s all.”
The Martian did not respond. After an uncomfortable pause, Ed tried to continue the conversation.
“What kind of food do your people eat?” Ed asked.
“When you finish, you will take me with you.”
“To destroy your species.”
“Me, and this,” the Martian said, producing a small, clear container from within its cloak. It contained a mushroom-like object.
“What’s that?” Ed asked, nervously looking at the container.
“The spores from this will destroy all life on your planet. Whenever we are invaded, we send one of us with one of these back to the encroaching world. We have not achieved space travel, have no great number of our kind to wage war, but this always works.”
“The perfect army. We don’t have to feed them, arm them, worry about their deaths, or even train them what to do.”
“Is that a bomb?”
“No. It is my lunch box,” the Martian said and opened the container. The Being slightly pulled his mask aside and took a bite of the mushroom and then quickly slid the mask back into place. He returned the mushroom to the container and closed the lid with a sharp click.
“You can eat it?”
“We can. Even the spores. But you cannot. It is our staple food. It sustains us and destroys all others…so far. Anyway, when you leave, I will go with you. I will stow away in the smaller ship, the one you pilot. Do not tell the others. I will already be in your craft when it is time for you to leave.”
“What if I refuse?”
“There is enough of us to take care of the three of you.”
“But you can’t pilot the ships.”
“They will send more if you don’t return.”
“Why didn’t you do this before?” We’ve been coming here for decades.”
“We don’t mind curiosity, but now it appears your people are preparing things for an eventual invasion. That we do mind.”
“How do you speak our language?” Ed suddenly thought to ask.
“We are not stupid,” the Martian said, and then abruptly left.
Ed stood in the kitchen for quite some time trying to absorb what had just happened. He had heard of distant worlds having their entire population wiped out, but never any mention of alien spores being the cause. Of course, this did not rule that out. Tomorrow, they would finish planting and then spend another night in the bio-domes before traveling back to Earth. Ed had to think of something before they left. At least he would have time while sitting in the planter for almost twelve hours straight to figure something out, and then possibly that night to act on it. For now, he had to eat and then sleep. He decided on a vegetarian pot pie for dinner. After he ate, he fell asleep on the couch. It wasn’t as comfortable as it had first looked.
In the morning, Ed could easily have believed that the previous evening’s event was a dream, but his review of the entrance security cam recording dashed that hope. There was the cloaked figure, entering the bio-dome. And of course, Ed himself entering moments later. Then the Martian leaving. Only the entrance was under surveillance, so there was no way of knowing where the being had come from or gone to.
Ed prepared himself for the day and left for the field. It would be difficult keeping this under wraps, but he had no choice. He greeted Rex and Silas next to the planter and they got prepped for the day’s work.
For about twelve hours, Ed completely failed to come up with a plan. They finished, congratulated each other, contacted Clements Mission Control with the good news and then celebrated with one shot of bourbon each in the hold of the cargo ship. The drinks were dispensed from a container, operated by mission control, containing exactly three ounces of cheer. There was a mandatory two hour wait after ingesting the bourbon before being allowed to load up and head back to Earth. All three crew members were waiting, in accordance with protocol, in their individual bio-domes. Ed spent the time pacing, trying one last time to figure something out. He could kill the Martian, but that would only delay things. Besides, the Being could have already contaminated both ships with spores as a backup plan. Apparently, mission control did not monitor the security cams to the bio-domes or they would surely have said something by the time of the post planting celebration.
The two hours were up and the crew began loading. They were soon ready for lift-off. As they roared back into the night sky, Ed scanned the small hull area and found it empty. It must be in the other ship, Ed thought, now it has hostages to keep me quiet. Ed figured that was the Martian’s intention all along, to make it seem as though it were all one person’s ordeal, keep them quiet, and then thwart any plan the person came up with by changing the scenario. It was possible that when they all stopped as planned at the Five Star, there would be one last chance to fix things. There was no way the Being could know about the stop on the way back to Earth. Hopefully, Rex and Silas would just kick back listening to country music and not mention it. When the ships landed at the Five Star, maybe the Martian would think that was the Earth landing. The spores would be contained on the cargo ship and Ed could get a Space Ranger to help.
The intercom link between ships was full of tunes and very little talk between Rex and Silas. Neither of them brought up the Five Star stop. It was the longest stretch of time Ed had ever listened to country music, and he was not becoming a fan. When they neared the Five Star coordinates, the cargo ship sailed on by. Something had happened. Rex and Silas knew they couldn’t make it all the way back without refueling. Ed checked the main flight controls of the cargo ship and saw it was on auto pilot. He hadn’t heard either of them speak for quite some time, but also hadn’t heard any signs of a struggle. Most pilots kept their ships on manual during flights taking less than five hours. It was possible they had simply turned on the autopilot and fallen asleep, but no matter, because they still didn’t have the fuel to reach Earth. He would have to contact them to see what was going on.
“Roadrunner to Cargo One…Roadrunner to Cargo One.”
No answer, just a steady stream of country music. He would have to dock with the ship and board. If he knew Rex and Silas were dead, he could just let things go. The cargo ship would simply run out of fuel and wind up either drifting off past Earth into eternal deep space or burn up on uncontrolled re-entry. It could eventually collide with some other space body, but that would be well away from Earth. Then he could inform Clements of everything and they could take it from there. But as it stood, he didn’t know the state of things, so he would have to board. Ed hoped the Martian had made them put the ship on autopilot and just immobilized them. Either way, he had to find out.
Ed maneuvered the Roadrunner underneath the cargo ship with a half-barrel roll and lined up his bottom emergency exit hatch to the maintenance port on the cargo ship. As long as the Martian didn’t understand what the docking signal that would sound in the cockpit meant, and Rex and Silas (if still alive), didn’t explain what it was, Ed could enter the ship undetected. There were no weapons on board either ship — company policy — so Ed would have to improvise. He made the connection between ships and entered the docking tunnel. When he opened the cargo ship’s interior hatchway, the shiny metallic planter hands slightly gleaming in the dim, pulsing security light caught his eye. He finally had a plan.
Ed crawled underneath the planter and began pulling out the holding pins on the planting fingers and attached the wire terminals. He then went to get three packets of seed, one from each Sister. He entered the planter and placed them next to the feeder holes. He left the right-side hatch open when he exited.
“Now to get the Martian,” he whispered to himself.
Ed crept through the cargo hold as he headed to the cockpit. As he passed the last of the extra seed packet bins, he noticed the lifeless bodies of Rex and Silas. They looked peaceful, as if asleep. He touched their necks to make sure they weren’t just unconscious. They were cold with no pulse. Ed could now simply leave and let things progress as he knew they would, but after finding Rex and Silas, he wanted this thing dead. He would carry out his plan.
Ed pressed the cockpit entrance button and the hatch slid open. The Martian quickly turned toward him and hissed. Ed ran into the cargo hold toward the planter. The Martian followed. Ed slid feet first underneath the planter and then scramble out to the side. He dove through the open hatch and grabbed the packets of seed. The Martian followed Ed the same way under the planter. As soon as Ed heard the Martian get underneath the planting hands, he poured the seed down the delivery holes. The Martian screamed as the metallic planting fingers penetrated its body. As the hands planted the seeds, the screams turned into a frothy gurgling sound that slowly trailed off to silence. Ed exited the planter and looked at the Martian. It was on its back and there was a puddle of what Ed assumed was the Being’s blood. Its hands were mangled and intertwined with the planting fingers, no doubt because the Being had been trying to ward them off as they planted the Three Sisters a few inches deep into his chest.
Ed sat down and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His breathing was hard. The air concentration was low in the cargo hold, so he walked to the cockpit to catch his breath. He closed the hatch behind him, locking it from the inside. He suddenly realized that if it had been locked when he first approached it, things would have gone very differently. He sat down in the main cockpit seat and thanked the stars the hatch had opened. He caught his breath and then throttled down the ship. He put it in distress mode and turned on the emergency warning beacon. That would keep anyone coming upon the ship from boarding it.
He then went back to the Martian. He donned safety gloves and pulled the Being from underneath the planter. He rifled through its cloak until he found the container with the mushroom. This container was no lunch box, and the mushroom was much darker. Maybe because it was ready to produce spores, Ed thought, and then put it in a specimen container located on the side of the ship’s hull. He used a length of rope to tie the Martian’s arms and legs. He could only assume the Being was actually dead.
Ed went back to the Roadrunner and detached the ships. He pulled away and sped off toward Earth. After he reached maximum drive, he contacted Clements and reported everything. He arrived back on Earth an hour later and was met by a military medical crew. He spent two months in quarantine telling the story countless times to countless interrogation teams before they finally released him with a clean bill of health.
Ed took an early retirement from Clements and bought a small farm where he planted absolutely nothing. He never heard anything on the news about the discovery of life on the Red Planet, but he heard plenty about the ever-increasing volume of seed being grown for the people of Earth. A few years before Ed passed away, he did hear big news about how Mars was being inhabited. Massive bio-dome structures had been built and thousands of people had volunteered to go. Soon the first human Martians would be born. Ed just hoped that they would all have comfortable furniture.
Credit: John D. Connelley
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