Short Fiction by Hannah Hoare
If I stand out on the balcony and let my arms rest against the cool imported-stone barrier, close my eyes, imagine the wind – then, I am almost home. Home, as it was before it shriveled and died.
The forcefield is gone.
The domed houses, plastic-tube walkways and underground greenhouses growing synthetic turquoise vegetables are gone. The Red Planet is gone.
But I can’t keep my eyes closed forever.
Although I sometimes wish I could disappear into the fantasy, I’m always pulled back from the brink by the coward in me. If I don’t eat soon, my blood sugar will plummet. And, for a long, long time, there will be nobody around to find my withered old corpse.
Lethargic, tepid air conditioning whirrs alive as I cross the threshold to the master suite. I try not to notice the maelstrom of sheets on the bed. Eggshell white turning to mummified yellow. I wish I’d asked Lisa to explain how to operate the washing machines before she departed; wish my stupid pride hadn’t got in the way.
Only a month gone. Six more until they come back.
Out of the bedroom. Across the landing, and down the stairs to the main hall.
The manor, once almost warm and inviting, is now a hollow shell without the noise and energy of Lisa’s many underlings scurrying around, keeping it presentable for her. Its Romanesque pillars peel plaster; the floors, dull from many pacing footsteps and recent lack of care, no longer reflect the beautiful artwork on the ceiling. People would have once put a god or two up there: a being from another world. Now, we are on another world. My ceilings are painted with lush English meadows, grazing sheep.
I fiddle with the wall dials, trying to get the air conditioning to pick up a bit. A click, and a clank from somewhere below stairs, and then, silence. The air becomes still and warm.
From the other side of the hall, the door to the downstairs kitchen glares at me. Black faux-wood with a silver-painted bolt. Lisa warned me, before she left me with a kiss on the cheek and her mother’s false smile – “Don’t you be going down to the kitchen. The food prep’s automated, meat’s stocked for seven months, you just need to microwave it when it comes up through the dumbwaiter – okay, Daddy?”
The obvious messages behind her order: you’re too old, Daddy. You’ll hurt yourself, Daddy. And underneath, the most hurtful: rich old men like you will never understand how a kitchen works, Daddy.
Which, I suppose I don’t. I cross under the arch into the lounge and crouch down before the glass cabinets lined like translucent honeycomb beneath the panoramic west window. In each little hexagonal cell sits a small white container. I select one at random; press the glass door with my palm, and when it swings open, I take the little box. Instantly, a mechanical stirring from the floor below. The dumbwaiter slides up from the kitchen, into the empty cell, and deposits an identical container to replace the one I removed.
This will happen, three meals a day, seven days a week, for the next six months.
I place my container into one of two microwaves which sit on the shelf above the cabinets. Press a button, turn a few dials. Four minutes. Press another button. This, I know how to do. I learnt it when I was a boy. Back home.
Believe me, I have tried, and I know I have no reason to complain, but I will never be able to call the Red Planet ‘home’. Home, for me, is still pizza pies in the microwave, sauce running down my school uniform, sitting on the swing-chair in the garden and feeling a real, fresh breeze on my face and noticing the wildflowers that the gardener had forgotten to pull while I waited for father’s sleek black Chevrolet to appear. Home was a pretty, lush compound, which, it was rumored, ended twenty miles from my house at a sky-high fence – too far to ride my bike to.
The bleep of the microwave makes me jump. A bleep, damn it – it used to be a ‘ping’! As I reach for the food, I catch a glimpse of a face watching me. Lisa’s photograph in the red faux-wood frame. Hair still blonde, like mine – this was from twenty years ago, before she campaigned for leadership, before she dyed her curls scarlet. “Red, like the planet,” she told me. “It’s symbolic.” Red, to mask the Townsend family blonde, more likely.
My food is the same as last night. Dog kibble in some sort of chunky sauce. I force my fork in. Brown bubbles to the surface; small chunks of meat float to the top. Unfortunately, I know what animal this is. Lisa told me. Lisa oversees agriculture, along with education, finance, and so forth. We’re a small community. No need for more than one big boss.
No, not boss. “Administrator, Daddy. I’m no more important than anyone else here.” Unspoken: unlike you, playing lord of the manor in this big ole house, Daddy.
And yet, when she told me how the vegetable farms wouldn’t sustain the growing population, and presented her solution – cloned meat, from the bodies of the few animals my fellow investors had insisted on rescuing from the dying Earth – then, I must say I felt a tinge of superiority. Toto was my basset hound. He hadn’t lived more than a month in space, but his legacy lives on in a frozen corpse of cloneable cells, in the smiling faces of a meat-fed human population.
I fork a little meat into my mouth, try not to think about it, and then play with the rest as I make my way to the lounge.
A bottle of wine sits open on the coffee table. 2021 Merlot. And two glasses, only one used. I am in the habit of laying out two, even though Lisa won’t be back for a very, very long time; even though she doesn’t drink home-planet produce. “It just feels weird, drinking something from a plant that will never grow again in its home soil.” Unspoken: you’re drinking my heritage, Daddy. You killed the world, and now you’re drinking its produce. Like a vampire.
But I am different from the other people in this community, little Lisa. I lived on the planet you’re mourning. And if you think that makes me privileged – well, perhaps it does, but it also makes me the last surviving person to see the motherland swallowed by poison-smog and plastic. When I think of the day I drove with Marianne to the sky-high fence, and we stepped out of the compound… Damn it, I need this drink more than anyone!
The meat is surprisingly fresh. Red Planet, tepid air-con, and yet the meat in the downstairs kitchen stays fresh. Not cold enough to keep a carcass frozen. But perhaps, enough to keep a living animal’s body in hibernation.
Don’t go down to the kitchen, Daddy. The food preparation is automated, Daddy.
Drink more wine. The world starts to swim. Thoughts of comatose basset hounds disappear into a red mist, and the rest of the meat goes down easier.
At least, I think I am awake. Or, no – probably not. Because there is a man standing in front of me. Staring at me.
His cheeks are concave. His eyes, ice-blue and staring. His body is fleshy, pale, naked. What looks like leather straps hang from his wrists. If this is one of those dreams, I find myself musing, it can bloody well piss off. I’m too old to be experimenting.
“Hello,” I venture.
The little man continues to stare, silent. I do what I always do when conscious of a dream: I try to will things to happen, chairs to spin, lamps to float. Nothing. Some people can manipulate a lucid dream any way they wish – Lisa did some research into neurological potential; she told me. Perhaps I can will myself home.
“Where are the others?” The man’s voice is thin, feeble, like a bewildered child.
“Oh, they’re all off scouting. Won’t be back for months. Left me all alone, you know.” The staring continues. A dream, of course it’s a dream. But I’ll take it. I try a smile and pat the sofa next to me. “Will you sit down?”
The man looks at my hand; back at my face. “For what are they scouting?”
“Well, for new territories. New places to live.” It’s real, my mind whispers to me. I know I always think this way during dreams, but this feels so real. The man – the thin face, fleshy body, saucer-staring eyes.
“Why aren’t you with them?” I ask.
“They are off scouting. But not you?” With growing confidence, the childlike voice gains a musical quality. He points, accentuating the ‘you’.
“Well, I’m an old man – I’m from the motherland, you know. One of the oldest. And there’s my diabetes”
“I was one of the original investors.” His look is blank. “Of all this, I mean. The Red Planet settlement.”
He cocks his head, regarding me. “And still alive?”
“I was the youngest investor. I inherited a considerable fortune in my teens. My father was CEO of Townsend Petroleum, you know.”
I don’t know why I mention the name. To somebody his age, I would normally have said, ‘a power company’; that is, if I had dared mention it at all. They weren’t even alive when it happened, but they get taught all about it at school, Lisa tells me. They get shown slides of lush meadows followed by charred wastelands. They know what happened to their forefathers’ home planet. Who took it all away. Never mind the money I provided for the Red Planet expedition – I am still of tainted blood.
The man doesn’t say anything. He nods. His blank, crystal eyes remain on my face. I know he can’t be giving me validation, but regardless, I feel myself begin to smile.
“You said di-a-betes. Is di-a-betes a… sick?”
I nod, smile wide at his childlike naivety. Lisa often tells me about her plans to remove all sickness, all defects from the population. “We’re getting close now, Daddy. Real close to perfection.” I guess sickness must be so rare now, the concept is foreign to these young things. “Yes. Diabetes is a sick.”
He copies my slow nod. “Sick is bad. We must remove it from our society. Only then will we have perfection.” It’s a monotonous repetition of something like a chant. I can imagine my Lisa announcing it to the people, gathered in the community dome, waiting to venture out in search of more fruitful land. It makes me shudder. Before my generation became the Devil, humanity had a different evil to worry about. Eugenics.
He looks at my white container. “You got food. Even though you sick.”
I suddenly have a flash of Toto, quivering, elderly, staring into his bowl. Radiant Marianne, already adjusting to the alien climate, asking incredulously – “It’s old, Oliver – why not just let it die?” And my reply – “Because he’s the only family I’ve got.” I can imagine Lisa telling her subordinates the same thing about me, when they undoubtedly ask her why she’s wasting good meat.
“They feed you,” the little man presses. “Why?”
I hold up my half-empty packet and extend the fork towards him. “Here. You look in dire need of a good meal.” He looks at the packet in disdain, and then up at my face. “How about some wine?” He watches, like something from a wildlife documentary, as I pour the rich, red liquid into Lisa’s empty glass. Of course, this offer could only get the same response. Dire old man drinking Mother Earth’s blood. But then I feel the sofa move next to me, the warmth of a body leaning curiously over my shoulder. I smile and turn with the drink. “Cheers.” I press the glass into his clammy, ghost-white hand, and then unsteadily refill mine and gulp it down.
He takes his wine in small, uncertain sips, wrinkling his nose. A little boy trying a new medicine. He glances up at me and I nod, encouraging. What am I encouraging? A companion in sin, I suppose.
“Where did you come from?” My mind skips over the possibilities. Somebody from a rival colony, moving into our now-empty territory? Fell off our scouting ship, perhaps. No, Impossible. Lisa is meticulous with taking registers and record-keeping.
He takes another sip. His eyes have become swimmy. “A room, a big room. Quarantine. The clever ones called it that. They spoke to us, sometimes, but they always stayed outside the plastic screen—”
“The clever ones?”
“The ones that don’t have a sick.” The alcohol has loosened his tongue. He continues, unbridled, with what almost seems like pride; which then becomes crazed, frantic, as if he can’t wait to have all the words out. “We all had a sick, a brain sick, and they said, the clever ones said, they had to keep us in the quarantine, and there were lessons, but then the lessons stopped.”
“You were kept in quarantine,” I slow him. “Why?”
“History lessons. The original investors. They killed the Mother Planet, and then they used their riches to make a new home on the Red Planet.” He looks at me, excited, as if he’s expecting a gold star. When I don’t respond, he adds, “And then all the devils got old, and died. And a society of equals began. That is as it should be.”
So, this is what my daughter is teaching them. Forget wiping out all sickness. This poor, stunted child is from her remedial class, and clearly, we’ve gone back to the Victorian school system. Sickeningly patriotic rote-learning. Institutions. Segregation. This is what happens when you don’t take history to heart, learn from it. When you instead leave it to rot in a gilded cage, because it seems defective, archaic, unable to teach you anything.
A thought occurs. If this disabled child, one of apparently many, has been left behind… “How many of you are there?” I ask.
He finishes his drink, puts the glass down. “We’re going to starve,” he says. Looks at me with a flicker of a smile. No feeling, no understanding of what this means: just another fact offered for praise. “We’re going to starve and die.”
“No, no we’re not,” I tell him. “My daughter rigged something up in the kitchen.” I work it out in my head. “So, there will be three servings of food a day, every day, for the next six months. If we each take half a packet at a time, we’ll be alright until they come back.”
“But they are not coming back,” he says.
I want to reassure him. But his expression is stoic. He has made peace with it, more than I have.
“So why do they feed you?”
I ponder this. “I had a friend,” I tell him. “Marianne. I could pick a co-passenger to come with me to the Red Planet, and she was mine.”
His eyes are alert, fixed on my face, ready to ingest this new lesson.
“She owned a cat. The cat was sick, some sort of parasite. It couldn’t come on the ship with us. But before we boarded, she left a sack of kibble for it. Perhaps it made her feel less guilty.” Like mother, like daughter. “There were other cats in the neighborhood. She could have fed them all. But instead, she locked the doors, kept the food inside, just for that one cat.” I try to smile. It’s painful. “Even though it would die anyway.”
His attention is distracted. From somewhere far away, someone is screaming. A noise, electricity; then strange, deadly silence. Now he is pointing in the direction of the kitchen. The door, open.
I didn’t open it.
“They are making more food for you.” He speaks levelly, clearly. His infantile mind obviously cannot comprehend what’s happening. “They said we would be useful. In quarantine. Before they put us all to sleep.”
I envy his brain. I really do.
“But I got free.” He lifts his hands, dangling straps. “It was warm when I woke up, cold when I fell asleep. The others – they were still asleep.”
Groggy, I start to notice how thick, how hot, how stifling, the atmosphere has become. My eyes flick to the wall dials. Cold air, turned off. “How… how many others?”
His face is pallid. His eyes start to glisten. “I take half. You take half. Two cats alive for half of six months.” The screaming starts again; he forces his hands to his ears and falls against me.
I can’t speak. I hold his little body tight, and he trembles against my chest. Somewhere in the depths of the kitchen, knives are slicing flesh from bone.
I close my eyes. I keep them closed. I am sitting at the wheel of my father’s Chevrolet, Marianne sobbing gently on my shoulder, my eyes fixed on the twenty-mile road through lush meadows back to the mansion. I’m fleeing into the dream. I’m going home.
There was nothing on the other side of that sky-high fence.
This piece was shortlisted for The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 16 – The Climate Issue