EDGE OF EXTINCTION
The lines etching his face were as desolate as the ground that he hacked at with a hoe. Carefully working the blade around the dried leaves of a plant that anybody else would have taken for dead, he dug out clumps of dry dirt and clay to expose its withering roots. He set the hoe down and knelt next to the plant, whose leaves were as frail as burnt paper. He pulled a thin plastic vial of water from the pocket of his field shirt. Holding it up against the orange glow of the sun, he counted the tick marks on the vial. He leaned down and carefully poured a thin stream along the roots. The water washed over the roots in a feeble rivulet and then disappeared as the parched ground sucked it away.
“You’re a miracle worker, Emmet.” He looked over his shoulder and saw Colonel Dekker standing at the edge of his field. Emmet stood up, pushing against the ache that never left his bones, and stretched. He ambled towards Dekker with a slight limp while blood worked its way back into his muscles. By the time he reached Dekker, he was almost walking normally. When he shook the Colonel’s hand, he felt his own skin scraping against Dekker’s like sand paper.
“It’s a living,” Emmet said. The two men walked together to a small rise overlooking the MEF compound and the flats beyond its perimeter. The fertile ground of the Highlands, now covered by the neat formations of the Terran Guard, weren’t more than a few miles away, but it might as well have been a thousand. Smoke still seeped from the ground and curled away from burning vehicles. The men who could be recovered to the medical bays were already gone. The rest had been dragged off the field and tossed as ceremoniously as possible onto a burning pyre. As the two men surveyed the scene, Emmet said, “I guess it didn’t go too well.”
“Sorry,” Dekker said.
Emmet put a hand on the Colonel’s shoulder and said, “Come on inside. I have some root tea left.” He led Colonel Dekker back to a boxy structure made from the same resin that prevailed in most everything the Exodus Fleet and the MEF had brought with them. The sides were streaked with deep grooves from years of wind grinding the grit of Shoahn’Tu’s dry ground into it. Faded black markings composed of partial letters and numbers that were barely readable denoted its family group and function as a temporary shelter for three persons. A small array of photovoltaic cells attached to the structure by a bare coil of wire – its protective sheath long stripped away by the wind and grit – fed enough electricity into the module to power a single light and a small coil stove. On cold nights, the batteries it charged provided just enough power for a vent blower to distribute a meager flush of heat throughout the structure.
The two men ducked in through a ragged cloth covering the door way. The plastic hut wasn’t quite tall enough for a man to stand up and they both had to stoop once inside. Emmet took a thin aluminum pot from the plastic shelves molded into the side of the structure and placed it on the coil burner stove. A clear plastic bottle half-filled with a rose-colored liquid sat on the shelf next to it. Emmet unscrewed the cap and poured a small portion into the pot. The coil was efficient and the liquid was almost boiling within a minute. Emmet rubbed his chin, eyeing a small box made from the bark of a cord tree sitting on one of the shelves. He took a quick breath and snatched the box from the shelf. He set it on a cube of plastic molded to the floor that served as a table and took off the lid.
“Please, sit down Colonel,” he said, gesturing at the small bench molded to the wall next to the table. He sat down on the opposite bench, eased the lid off the box and pulled out two crudely crafted clay cups. Keeping his eyes on the cups as he set them on the table, he said, “Jommy made these from the clay field when it rained last year.” He turned his gaze to Colonel Dekker, waiting to see what he would say.
“It’s alright, Emmet. How much water did you folks manage to extract from the field anyway?”
“Enough for a season. Barely.” He stood up and leaned over to fetch the pot by its insulated wire handle. “He did the best he could, but it dried so fast. He didn’t have time to really finish them properly.”
“It’s a nice gesture, Emmet. Be sure to compliment him for me.”
Emmet poured root tea into each of the cups, then placed the pot back on the coil burner stove and turned it off. He lifted his cup and made a toast. “That they shall not perish.”
Dekker picked up his own cup. “That they shall not perish.” Each man took a small sip. Dekker blinked hard. “A little bit goes a long way, doesn’t it?”
Emmet chuckled. “One of the few things around here that does.” He took another sip and shook his head as a shudder ran through his body. “But I think you need it today.”
Dekker carefully placed his cup on the table and leaned forward. “Emmet, be honest with me.” He glanced around the small cube that felt like the inside of a freight container. “How much longer can your people hold on?”
Emmet let out a slow breath through tight lips. “Yeah, that’s a good question.” He took another sip of root tea. “With the new rationing schedule, we’ll lose another 10% of the colony this season. Our stockpile will be gone by then, too.”
“How long can you make it after that?” Dekker asked.
“They don’t tell me these things. I’m sure the mayor’s made his report.”
“Reports are for politicians. I need to hear the truth from a man I can trust. You’ve been here longer than anybody.” Dekker picked up his cup and took another sip. His body swayed and he grunted as he set the cup back down. “What’s the story, Emmet?”
“Well, as we lose more people, the crops we manage to scrape from this ground go further, of course. But the real problem is we’re losing women faster than men.”
“And you’re not breeding right now.”
“Nope. Generational decline.” Emmet took another sip of his tea and leaned back against the wall. He levelled his gaze on Dekker and said, “Seems like we’re back to square one.”
“Yeah, maybe we should have just stayed home.”
“Nah. No chance there at all.”
“How long, Emmet?”
Emmet shook his head and bit his lip as he thought of the farmers like himself scratching at dirt, forcing it to yield to their will and the bit of magic that came from chemistry. “We can’t make the ground here grow anything more, Ben. Whatever we pull out of the ground this season. Well, that’s all we’re going to get.”
Dekker froze. He stared at Emmet and his eyes washed over with a glaze of panic that he couldn’t quite hide. “What?”
“After this harvest, we start starving to death.”
“If we get the Highlands -“
“We start having babies.”
The doorway curtain rustled and Jommy burst into the room. A twitchy 11-year-old wearing the same faded field service overalls as his father, he stopped in mid stride when he saw Dekker. Turning to the Colonel, he stood up straight and gave an exaggerated salute. “Sir!”
Dekker smiled. “Hello Jommy. How have you been?”
Jommy stared at the cups and pointed at them. “Do you like them?”
Dekker smiled and said, “I like them very much.”
“Dad said it’s against the rules.”
“It is.” He winked at Emmet.
Jommy looked at his father and asked, “Am I in trouble?”
“I don’t know, son. That’s up to the Colonel here.”
Jommy’s eyes flitted nervously between the two men.
Dekker lightly tapped his cup and asked, “Why did you make these?”
Jommy knelt down next to the table and rubbed his fingers along the surface of the cup sitting in front of his father. Staring into the root tea, he said, “I made them for Mama. I wanted her to have something nice.” He pulled his hand away and looked at Dekker. “They’re not very good, are they?”
Emmet eyed the Colonel, seeing the man choking back something.
“They’re fine Jommy,” Dekker said. “They’ll be our little secret.”
Jommy looked up at Dekker and a toothy smile spread over his face.
“Go on outside,” Emmet said. “Check the roots for me.”
“Yessir.” Jommy stood up and bounded out the door.
After the boy left, Emmet said, “There’s something else.” He lifted his cup, took a sip and leaned back against the wall. “Some of our farmers went to talk to the Guard.”
Dekker scoffed. “Any luck with that?”
“They never came back.” He took another sip. “I don’t understand them. Why won’t they help their own kind?”
“That’s a question that’s been asked for generations now. The Shoahn’ are gone and they still keep fighting like they’re protecting something,” Dekker said.
“I don’t know. Power, I guess. Or maybe just because they were here first.”
“Ben, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.”
“Go ahead, Emmet. No secrets between us.”
“Has anybody considered that it might be time?” He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “-maybe it’s time to surrender?”
“Can you carry a weapon, Emmet?”
“I’m too old for that sort of thing. I was thinking more about Jommy. You know?”
Dekker picked up his cup turned it in his hand, studying the imprints of the boy’s hand where he had formed the clay. “They don’t have much use for things like this over there.”
“Really, though, how bad could it be?”
Dekker leaned back as a cold mask fell over his face. As the Colonel spoke, Emmet felt a shiver run through him. “Guys like you, the old and the sick; they’ll be put to sleep and tossed on top of each other to burn. The young fellas; they’ll get to the Highlands just fine, in shackles, working the ground until they can’t keep up and then tossed on with the rest. They’ll draw your blood, match up the women with the strongest traits and let them have just enough babies to maintain their ranks. And when they can’t have babies any more, they’ll put them in the fields and wait for them to fall behind quota before tossing them on that pile. And boys like Jommy. He’ll be fine as long as he can shoot straight and take orders. And they won’t care when that order is to toss you on that pile.”
“Come on, Ben, this isn’t Old Earth.”
“No, but it’s the same story. You think they see us as human.”
Emmet felt his hand starting to shake and placed it flat on the table, hoping Dekker wouldn’t see. “How do they see us, then?”
“As less than that. That’s when it really begins. Once the last ties to our history are swept away, they’ll indoctrinate our children in The Way. They’ll try to make us forget who we are.”
Emmet took a long breath and let out a sigh. “But we would be alive.”
A thin eerie grin crept across Dekker’s face as he pulled the cup to his lips and took another sip. He set the cup down slowly and the grin disappeared. He folded his hands and leaned forward.
“Then you and I have different definitions of what it means for a man to be alive.” The Colonel took a long drink, wincing as he set the cup back on the table. “The Way is a hoax. A lie to smother their own regret because they can’t admit they were wrong. We can make something of this place. You’ve said it yourself. All they had to do was let us. Surrender to the Terran Guard? No. We didn’t come all this way just to give up on who we are.”
“It was just a thought.”
“Oh hell, Emmet, it’s an option. You’re not the first one to consider it. I just don’t think that’s why we came here.” Dekker’s expression eased and sadness filled his eyes as he seemed to be choking something back again.
“What is it Ben? No secrets.”
“Alright.” Dekker took another sip and visibly had trouble putting the cup back on the table. “You wouldn’t be asking about surrender if it wasn’t for me.”
Emmet knitted his brow. “How do you mean?”
“I’m the man who lost the Highlands in the first place.”
They both sat in silence as the words hung in the air. Part of him wanted to reach across the table and grab the Colonel by the throat and scream. He had heard it before, but now, coming from the man himself, he couldn’t deny it. The reason his people were starving was sitting right in front of him. Except that wasn’t really true, was it? The real reason was miles away, oiling treads aching to run through his home. They hadn’t done that yet. The man sitting across from him was the reason for that, too. Embarrassed by his own thoughts, Emmet let out a chuckle. “You’re a good man, Ben. You need to let that go.”
“No, I don’t.” Dekker turned the cup slowly on the table, gently grinding it’s dried clay against the green plastic. “I just need to be a better Marine.”
©2016 Michael J Lawrence