Timothy scratched at the deep, loose soil of Nyulos with the toe of his dusty boot. The pale blue soil floated for a moment in the light gravity and then settled down into a perfectly flat profile. The blue gray soil stretched as far as he could see, punctuated by short, waving copses of darker shimmery grass, like whiskers that he’d missed shaving.
The horizon of the planet stretched unfeatured and round like rising dough in front of his tired eyes. The company told them there were other farms on the planet, hundreds of them if the promo stuff was right, but he’d never seen evidence of another homestead.
When he thought about Kate, he smiled. She was prickly and easily aggravated but when he saw the play of the starlight in her auburn hair, something in his chest squeezed tight. She kept her hair short to avoid the mites that nested in longer locks, but he loved running his rough hands through the brownish red stubble, her dark eyebrows a punctuation to her intent, heart shaped face.
Shimmering blue gazelle-like creatures ran the surface of the planet in vast herds that merged and unmerged kaleidescopically. Huge clouds of dust heralded their arrival, hanging suspended for a moment and then smoothing out after they passed.
The gazelles lived for a season, as far as Timothy could tell, never ate anything and died emaciated. They ran, driven, their entire short existence. When they couldn’t run anymore, they collapsed and died. The dead hulls dried in the arid land and then disappeared into the homogenous soil without leaving any residue.
The round blue sands pulled them in. They were there, then they weren’t.
He remembered Kate’s exultation when she’d finally trapped one. It had a little bit of meat on it, so it must have been young. She butchered it with abandon, the shimmering hide dissolving into the pebbly soil as she skinned it. She seared the meat on a small cooking stove. The juices flowing clear in the fire. She even tried it first, popping a sizzling bit into her mouth and moaning with the joy of it.
The children, raised on food bars, tore into the heavily seasoned stringy meat. There was enough for a mouthful for each of them. And for the first time, Timothy felt there might be a way to succeed on this strange blue planet.
The hot meat melted in his mouth with an odd metallic aftertaste. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had meat, probably some rat back in the Wisco-Illini province that he’d snared and cooked in secret. Most of the animals on earth died out in the ever-rising heat. Just some rodents and other small mammals kept their populations up but anything bigger died out.
The writing on the wall said colonization was the only way for mankind to survive. And so they sent people out with enough supplies to last a couple of years, to habitable planets that seemed like they should support life. The idea was, if they sent enough people, mankind would get lucky and survive. It was a one way ticket to Paradise or Perdition.
An hour after eating, the entire family was violently, viciously ill. They’d throw up over and over, settling into dry heaves after the pale meat erupted, undigested.
The children’s tight stomachs visibly spasming for hours, until finally bringing up blood and hunks of pink intestines.
His son, Brae, a mature eleven year old had wiped the blood off his mouth and said, “It was worth it,” smiling at his horrified mother. His younger daughter Jen, eight, rocked back and forth with her stuffed doll, tears running down her face, silently, a streak of bright red trailing her cheek when the spasms stopped.
They’d died in the early morning hours. His Kate lasting till midday murmuring over and over again how sorry she was. He could almost feel their soft cheeks against his stubble, their bright, clear eyes staring up at him in terror and resignation.
A solitary hot tear pushed through the fine blue dust on his face. His empty stomach twisted into a knot and he hunkered over with the agony of it, a residue of the tainted meat he’d eaten. He wished it had killed him too. Maybe he’d just start walking and see if he would make it to any of the other settlements.
He picked up some of the perfectly round soil of the planet and let it slip through his cracked, dry fingers. He’d done everything he could, everything they asked of him. Why didn’t his crops grow? Other things grew; the grasses, the gazelles. There had to be some reason to it. The company threw people on habitable planets and hoped for the best. There just hadn’t been time to do more.
Guidance from the company had been sparse to non-existent. They encouraged him to be self sufficient and use his resources to be successful and self sufficient. The crops were engineered to seek water from the soil. Light was abundant and the nutrients were present. Plants should grow, he just couldn’t force them to no matter what he tried. And now, what was the point?
He walked, tired and dusty through the soft soil. It seemed to move to accommodate his boots and then flow back in to fill the voids.
A feeling of wellbeing grew as he walked, finally arriving at the graves of his wife and children. He gasped. Pale blue shoots broke through the surface of the soil over where their bodies lay. The plants seemed to grow before his eyes, stretching towards the sun, waving in the soft breeze.
He fell to his knees and wept. The planet tugged urgently at his knees and the tops of his shoes. Timothy sobbed and lay down between his wife and children’s burial sites. He closed his eyes against the harsh sun.
The planet pulled him under the soft blue sand gently and inexorably.