Fiction — Nov 6, 2020
In the not-so-distant future, food is a source of memory, survival, and human connection in this speculative fiction short story.
By Stef Ferrari
Editor’s Note: This fictional short story is published in the fall 2020 issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.
Eve had one job. And it was the only one on Earth that she intended to do.
If you included the work she did in the years before they left, then truly, she’d been training for this her entire life. Eve was fortunate; not everyone had a skill that could translate in this new world. Of course, she’d never intended to become a researcher. Field work used to mean tending to the animals and tilling the soil. Now it was about finding elemental analogues, to try to recreate food the way it once was.
As far as tasks on the station went, hers was satisfying enough. Mars was habitable and satisfactory from a biological perspective. But the landscape was as cold as the artificial air pumped into the station, and although she wasn’t permitted to have the feeling or the memory, Eve missed the California sun. That warmth, that shine, it all stuck with her—a sense memory buried so deep that no amount of time in space could relieve her of it. But she told no one of her nostalgia, of course. Everyone carried vestiges of their past lives, fermented into their personalities, but in this place if she let on, she could be considered dangerous—even contagious. So she kept quiet, did the job, and didn’t complain.
When word came in of the discovery, Eve was the natural choice. Not just because of her experience and expertise, but because of her focus and dedication, and her willingness to take on any job. This was one they’d been waiting for. In early days, the situation was still being monitored, there were still deployments and teams, still regular reports thanks to tech embedded before they’d taken off. There were a few items they searched for fervently, knowing they contained much of what could be foundational to their work—trying to supplement the population’s dietary needs that were once met naturally on Earth.
After a while though, most had given up. It had been so long; the program deteriorated, the personnel atrophied, and the tools designed to assist in the search decayed.
Those at the helm started to forget they wanted these resources. To survive, hope must be inoculated against complacency, and given that the feeling is so closely tied to remembrance it simply faded with time. They’d forgotten why they should keep investing in a relationship with a forsaken planet.
Now there was more speculation than fact about what was still down on Earth. Wild conjecture. Rumors. Conspiracy theories. About how the human body would react on its surface. About exposure, about what had lingered and proliferated in the air since they left, about factors they couldn’t even know to fear. Myths and legends were created to explain away questions and ease grief, until time could neutralize curiosity and longing.
And then there was the emotional fallout, a very real, documented side effect that experts hadn’t spent nearly enough time investigating before uprooting an entire society.
The human brain, powerful and obstinate, was a wild card. Eve had heard about early missions—sometimes rumors spread about researchers who disappeared, their time back on Earth had driven them to madness. The resurfacing of memories were too compelling, too traumatic, and it emotionally corrupted them like an overexposed negative, inhibiting them from developing further. Grief was a plague as stubborn as a virus, and the antidote was extreme: to erase memory, prohibit recollection, forbid nostalgia. But Eve resisted; her natural curiosity made her cling to her memory desperately, even as it eroded with the passage of time. She craved a return to Earth, to see for herself.
Her expectations of the planet were a construct now—an amalgamation of reports and statistics, digital recreations or second-hand descriptions. In their new reality, having a memory all one’s own, of a time pre-dating their arrival on the station, was practically a criminal activity. On the station, they were encouraged to forget their pasts; what would have happened naturally over the course of time was accelerated by messages that remembering life on Earth could be dangerous to one’s health. No one needed yet another thing to fear and repression techniques proliferated, positioned as self-preservation—preventative medicine.
This didn’t entirely work on her, but it was enough to muddy her remaining mental image. Eve was certain part of her resilience was the relationship with her mother, Olympia, who seemed impervious to the treatments. Olympia had always been resistant to authority, dissenting to common opinions. It was now part of Eve’s DNA.
Olympia was the only reason Eve had to think twice about accepting the job. To take the mission meant leaving her mother alone on the cold, stark station, distantly orbiting a sun that once provided life to the planet they abandoned. The one that was now her destination. In the end, Eve knew she had to go. It wasn’t ego; it was fact; she was the only one capable.
The journey would be Eve’s alone, so the preparation was fast and minimal. On the day she was scheduled to leave, she readied in their shared pod. Eve secured her pack, tightened the elastic band around her ponytail, and strapped on the side compartment designed for her identification and emergency contact information, in case something went wrong.
Olympia had been staring intently at Eve, knowing the severity with which her daughter had approached every task in her life, ever since she was a child. As usual, she was unflappable, a trait that was both admirable and irksome to Eve over the years.
“Don’t forget to drink,” Eve said, handing her mother one of the reverse engineered meal substitutes that had been keeping them alive. Olympia received it humorlessly and without acknowledgement.
“My girl, when was the last time you smiled?” Olympia asked, reaching for Eve’s hand and slowing her quick preparations.
Eve contained her exasperation. “Mom, I have a pretty serious job. This isn’t exactly a turn at the maypole.” What she didn’t say was: And on top of that, I have to worry about you.
“You know, you don’t have to protect me,” Olympia said, intuitively. “I’d be better off living a shorter life with a little more fun in the company department,” she winked. “You’ve got to remember to live.”
“Uh huh,” Eve said, wondering what kind of life Olympia had in mind these days. How must this all have seemed to someone with two dozen more years of life experience? She leaned down to kiss her mother’s cheek, noticing the way her skin had become papery in the last few years. “I’ll see you very soon.”
“Bring me back a souvenir, will you?” Olympia called after her, holding up a bottle. “I can’t keep eating this garbage.”
Eve stepped off the ship. Based on reports, she expected a barren terrain, neglected, hostile. But this was a pastoral painting lifted from a museum wall. There was lush grass, feathery wheat fields in which each stalk looked like a giant paintbrush itself. And though it was dusk, there was evidence in the warm air that this land had seen the sun, and recently.
When Eve had seen where the discovery had been made, she knew the risk of recollection was even greater than she’d expected. What was once Olympia Farms wasn’t far from where she’d be landing. Against all protocol prohibiting things like imagination, she couldn’t help but wonder: what was left?
Standing in that field, she was acutely aware of the proximity to the land on which she was raised. Her mother, subverting all expectations of women in her day, not only launched a farm all on her own, but she named it after herself too. Olympia was a product of women’s liberation, a proudly single mother who had no cause for a husband. What comprised the fields of Olympia Farms were cuttings of grit grafted onto stalks of passion, grown in the fertile soil of necessity.
Eve immediately switched on the nostalgia deflector shield, invented when it became obvious how dangerous memories could be. She was especially vulnerable here, given the exposure to familiar territory.
In the years since, she’d wondered if she’d made the right choice about leaving Earth. After all, there was no certainty that the world would end, just rampant speculation and sensationalizing, uncertainty and confusion. Looking around at the landscape now, she felt sick. It was evident that humans were still inhabiting this place. She wanted to be outraged; she was told to be at least frightened. Yet what stirred in her was respect and awe. This was evidence of human spirit, the resilience and the resistance she’d imagined and hoped were alive and well.
Immersed in this reality, with her feet planted on terrestrial soil, her memories flooded her, overloading the shield’s circuits. She hadn’t cried in a decade, but suddenly it felt like a real threat. The danger of allowing those emotional reactions had been conditioned out of them during the years since leaving Earth, so when her breath caught in her throat, when her eyes began to sting in a way she associated with a scraped knee, a bee sting, a broken heart, she concentrated on forcing them back. Fortunately, she was interrupted before her thoughts could consume her.
“Hello,” a voice said. It arrived muffled thanks to the obstruction of her headset, which kept her in communication with the ship, but she could tell the figure was a woman and that she was within a stone’s throw. “I figured one of you might show.”
Eve turned to find the source of the voice: the woman was dressed in denim jeans and a jacket the color of cinnamon, wearing no protective gear whatsoever, unless you counted the work boots. Her mind raced. What? How? She had so many questions, but what paralyzed her was the casual delivery, the very normalcy of the scene in front of her.
Eve forgot her manners like she’d forgotten most things about Earthly interaction; she didn’t offer her own name in return. She returned a blank stare, her logical mind calling her back to the matter at hand, the sample that had been detected, the point of this entire mission and her presence on this planet.
“Nothing, huh? That’s okay, you’re not the first one to have that reaction,” the woman said, and smiled. No. She smirked. “I’m Greta.” Eve was certain she’d be arriving on a planet mostly abandoned, uninhabitable in the best-case scenario and outright deadly at its worst. And now she faced this person who, entirely nonplussed and very much alive, was staring at her as if this protective suit was utter nonsense. In a moment, Eve went from feeling distressed at seeing this civilian risk her life, to utterly foolish. “Anyway, come with me. I know why you’re here. Actually, I’m surprised it took you so long.”
“You knew? And you weren’t worried about us showing up?”
“To collect your precious sample?” Greta laughed. “Are you kidding? I welcome it. I’m overrun with them these days.”
“I…I’m not sure I follow. How is that possible?” Eve asked, still grasping for her bearings, her words, a sense of decorum, still considering whether or not she wanted to be having this interaction at all.
“I know you people decided having a memory is a no-no, but surely you haven’t forgotten how farming works?” Greta’s eyes were the green of unripe figs, and she was a little smug when she asked, “You do remember food, don’t you?”
Eve didn’t know how to explain—of course, her life on Mars was all about food. Well, in theory. What she did now was help sustain life—the purpose of growing food was to keep people alive. Calories. Nutrients. Metrics. But it didn’t feed people. Isn’t that what her mother was always talking about? The difference between living and being alive?
“Speaking of which, we’re about to get another storm; you can’t take off in this,” Greta said. The sky was threatening and electric with cloud activity; the weather made it all the more clear that this was a planet still experiencing its natural rhythms, healthy and active. “Come inside, it’ll pass eventually.”
“I have to get this done and get back,” Eve said, adjusting her pack and taking her eyes off Greta. She couldn’t focus on the task at hand with those green eyes on her.
“Oh, you really have been gone too long,” Greta laughed. “You’re not going anywhere. Besides, I can help you complete your little mission and you’ll be on your way in no time. I promise.”
Eve didn’t know enough about this place that was once her home to feel trusting of anyone or anything, but her options were limited. She could return to the ship and wait out the storm, or she could follow Greta. The pull of one human being on another was surprisingly strong, something Eve could hardly recall and yet now could not deny.
She followed Greta inside; the house was a museum, an homage to the old days. Photos lined the walls in both color and black and white. There were antique chairs, some ancient looking cookware, a television set that predated even Eve’s days on Earth.
“You can take off that ridiculous suit, you know. The air quality here is perfectly suited for human beings,” Greta said, putting a kettle on the stove. Eve struggled to wrap her mind around the idea of relinquishing the gear, but in the context of this organically cozy home, she was an unnatural element. “You might as well get comfortable. Or did they wipe the idea of comfort from your memory too?”
Greta put on a record player and stepped away. Disarmed, Eve watched the vinyl spin, and she listened to the voices rise from the small speakers, swirling around her. Music was banned on Mars—its ability to trigger memory made it too risky. Now, she realized just how deeply she missed it, and was so distracted that she almost didn’t notice the aroma of butter and the sound of sizzling.
“Are you cooking?” she choked. Eve hadn’t been around real cooking in ages.
“Relax,” Greta said. “I’ve been eating my own cooking for years, and believe it or not, you’re not the only one who has come for dinner. Though I warn you, you might not want to leave.”
Suddenly, Eve was reminded of those who took similar journeys and never returned. They were believed to have been lost—killed in the line of duty, driven mad with memory. But maybe there was another explanation.
Eve was surprised at the rumble in her stomach, another human feeling that had been edited out of the experience with time-release bottled meals and mind-control strategies. But that aroma was a powerful override.
She had begun to permit herself a few of those sensations; they felt too good to ignore. But then Greta put the plate down, and there it was. The missing element. What they’d been searching for, hoping to recreate on the station. The self-contained, nearly perfect natural creation. The egg.
“Are you insane?” Eve was almost shouting now. “You cooked the egg?” Did she just travel all this way only to be served the holy grail, the object of her entire mission?
“Of course I’m cooking them,” Greta said, wiping her hands on a dish towel, unphased. “Do you think I’d insult Miss Scarlett by squandering her precious eggs?”
Eve had come nearly immeasurable distance in both time and space in hopes that she could obtain and transport at least one delicate specimen—something they could synthetically fertilize and try to extract all kinds of genetic material to engineer an egg proxy on a large scale. And here was this woman, cracking and frying them with butter, salt, and a wry smile.
“These girls lay faster than I can eat, and there aren’t enough of us left to feed. Y’all should really think about coming back,” Greta laughed, leaned back, and put her boots up on the chair across from her, warming her hands around a ceramic mug of steaming tea. “Or all this good stuff is going to go to waste.”
Eve didn’t dare pick up the fork placed in front of her at first. But somewhere inside was Olympia’s voice, a mantra about being a polite houseguest. And now faced with this plate before her—a piece of seeded toast with a pat of honeysuckle yellow butter, scrambled eggs in a messy pile with visible flakes of salt—Eve’s resolve evaporated. She took a bite and in seconds, she was six years old. Her mother in a polka-dotted apron. Then twelve, at a friend’s house for a sleepover, having breakfast at the kitchen table. Sixteen, as a waitress at the local diner, scarfing down a plate in between tables. She was traveling through time more efficiently than through any method they’d invented on Mars. She never stopped to wonder if she would suffer long-term effects; she reveled in every scene.
When she was through, Eve had tears in her eyes. This time, she let them come, comforting and familiar, and from what she could tell, not dangerous in the least.
“Well?” Greta asked. Eve hadn’t even realized she’d devoured the entire plate. “I’ve got to give Scarlett a report. What’d ya think?”
Eve looked at her host. For the first time, she realized how beautiful Greta was to her weary, unobstructed eyes. She was experiencing what was in front of her with complete clarity.
“I think…” she shook her head, closed her eyes, put a hand to her forehead. “I think I want to introduce you to my mother.”
Greta laughed and prepared Eve a second plate. “Plenty more where that came from.”
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