Henry Mullen had nightmares: scenes from his childhood, stick-like figures walking through the dust. He remembered the gaunt faces and swollen bellies, his own body, his own brittle bones, so brittle that lifting a bag of rice broke two bones in his hand. They never did heal right. And he remembered seeing his mother and his brother die. Silently, solemnly, they just stopped moving.
The nightmares got worse as he got closer to Raphael. The science ship was two weeks away and he was having them every time he slept, often two, three times a night. The nightmares always started with images of emaciated bodies and people with dead looking eyes just waiting and it always ended with shadowy figures moving towards him through the green-gray fog. He knew that once they were safely on the moon, his nightmares would go away. It was the waiting. Henry Mullen hated waiting more then anything else. When he was a child that was all he could do. Wait for the supplies. Wait for the food. Wait for his family to finally die.
Henry Mullen was now wide awake. He loosened the strap that held the upper part of his body to his bed and sat up. It was the third time he had tried to sleep and the third time he woke with the dream. The dream always ended with these same shadowy figures moving toward him through the fog. Of all the horrors he saw when he slept or just close his eyes it was always this scene of faceless people moving toward him through the fog that caused the cold sweat and the stifled scream that jerked him to consciousness. It was also the one image he wasn’t sure was an actual memory. Over and over he would dissect the dream. Who were these people and why moving toward him, and why did it cause such terror? There were no answers. He would move to the fog. The fog had answers. It was gray because it had water vapor. It’s what made it fog. It was green because it had poison in it, poison that was blown off the poison lake. Fish once lived in the lake. They died off long before the time of the dream, long before Henry was born.
Technically Henry Mullen was a biologist. His specialty was the study of animal die offs. What Henry really studied was cause and effect. He knew the exact chemical and biological reasons why the fog was green. He knew the compounds, when they got there and what they did. He knew which species died because of which chemical and which species died because that species died. And which species thrived because their natural predators died. Henry Mullen was an expert on cause and effect.
He understood that a dry winter caused California’s central valley to have the worst harvest on record. He understood that this depleted the world’s food reserve, so low that a local crop failure in upstate New York and Pennsylvania resulted in hunger and panic. This lead to the collapse of governments in Harrisburg and Albany, which lead to the collapse of governments in Washington and New York City, which lead to the collapse of governments in Beijing and Belgium. And all these things turned a bad situation into a catastrophic one. Another local crop failure in Canton lead the government of Wellington, New Zealand to use the last great food reserve on the planet to prevent complete disaster. A locust plague near Mumbai ended that hope. The great famine ensued. Before it ended, six hundred million human beings and countless other animals and entire species were gone. Henry Mullen sat in his bed and followed this intricate series of causes and effects.
He had followed things back to a chemical used for polishing Chrome in the nineteen sixties and the presence of PCBs which were introduced in the lakes from industrial plants, when Henry became acutely aware of his bed. Henry had gotten used to sleeping in his bed. Sitting up in it was another story entirely. His eyes had become accustomed to the darkness. This made him uneasy. This, too, made perfect sense to Henry.
Because Henry Mullen was head of the science team, commander of this ship, etiquette required that he had his own room. Henry Mullen was the only person on the entire ship who didn’t sleep six to a room. Etiquette or no, space on the science ship was very valuable. Everything they needed had to be brought with them. Henry slept in a closet. They didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. There literally wasn’t enough room for Henry Mullen’s bed on the floor. Henry Mullen’s bed ran vertically up one of the walls of his room. It wasn’t as though there was gravity. Who was to say that Henry Mullen alone on the ship didn’t sleep lying down? Maybe the rest of the crew slept standing up, strapped to the wall. Henry Mullen thought this to himself for a moment before he spoke out loud the reason: “because I’m staring at the floor.” When Henry Mullen sat upright in his bed he stared straight at the floor of his room.
In this spaceship the floor really was the floor. People walked on it. It had what they called gravity plating. They got the name from a science fiction movie. Henry had to admit it sounded better than Velcro. Henry laughed. He wondered what it would be like to take a step and not hear that ripping sound.
He couldn’t sleep. He looked at the little green light that illuminated his little room. It shone 8:13. It was 8:13 pm on the eastern shore of the United States of America. Henry couldn’t remember if it was set to Eastern Standard Time because of the launch site in Virginia or mission control in Greenbelt, Maryland. It didn’t really matter. Time was all arbitrary here. The only non-arbitrary thing about it was that from eight till eleven the gyms were reserved for private workouts. Private workouts was Henry’s euphemism. It meant sex.
His people were young. When they launched, Henry was the only person over thirty. He was also the only person over forty. His young crew had very little to do. Everything was automated on the ship. They didn’t fly it, or whatever you do with spaceships. Someone programmed every aspect of the flight two years before it even took off, before Henry was even named commander of the mission. At one time everyone was very busy analyzing data sent from Raphael by probes and rovers, but everything being sent was getting more and more redundant. Henry Mullen’s absolutely brilliant science team basically sat on the ship for three years bored out of their minds.
Using a revolving schedule, crewmembers were allowed to use the gyms for whatever purposes they wanted. When Henry’s turn came he used the gym to exercise in, usually by himself. Regardless, the gyms were occupied for the next three hours. Henry headed toward the bridge: the command center of the ship.
The halls were deserted. There must be a movie or something, thought Henry. Henry made sure to walk. It really was easier to just float. Walking was better exercise. Exercising was their job. His crew exercised for six hours a day. Three years with zero gravity and Henry had no idea whether they were all in fantastic shape or absolutely horrible.
The bridge was nearly empty. Jason Fitzgerald, the officer on duty was playing a computer game. Henry thought it might be Free Cell. Rolm Matir sat at a terminal, programming, no doubt. Neither noticed Henry enter the room.
“What are you doing?” asked Henry.
“Nothing sir,” said Jason Fitzgerald. He then turned the computer screen towards the floor, causing it to go to sleep.
“Not you. You,” said Henry looking toward Rolm Matir.
“I was reprogramming one of the redundant…”
“Oh give it a rest Rolm.”
Henry smiled. Let Rolm amuse himself. He wasn’t really working. He was playing. Let him play, thought Henry.
“All right. Go ahead.”
Rolm smiled. Henry sat down next to Jason Fitzgerald. He pressed a button on the edge of the seat. An arm with a flat screen came out from the seat back. Henry pulled the screen to face him. He pressed another button and a small table with a keyboard came out from the back of the screen. Henry typed a few words. The screen filled with writing and Henry began to read.
“Anything interesting?” Henry asked Jason.
“Same old. We got some raw data for oceanography. Same old.”
Henry nodded. Henry was aware of Jason staring at him.
“Go back to your game.”
He heard Jason chuckle. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jason Fitzgerald turn his screen away from the floor again. He was playing Free Cell.
Everyone sat in silence for a while looking at their computer screens.
“So what are you doing?” asked Jason, breaking the silence. Henry looked over. Jason was looking at Rolm Matir. Henry guessed Jason had just finished his game.
“Just recompiling one of the redundant navigation systems.”
“I enjoy it, actually.”
Henry laughed to himself. He continued to read a report about a soil sample from Raphael. Just another report about another soil sample taken by another probe. It read like all the others. Three years earlier the questions it posed were intriguing. Why wasn’t the water in the soil frozen? Why weren’t there trace minerals in the soil? Why couldn’t they find bacteria, or fungi, or something? How come plants, which appeared to be plants like any variety of plant that grew on the Earth, grew in soil so devoid of nutrients? The report ended the same way as every other report: “Needs more analysis.”
Henry must have involuntarily grunted. For when he looked up, Jason and Rolm were staring at him.
“I hope I didn’t write it,” said Jason.
Henry laughed, “It’s a soil study.”
“I was worried.”
“Something wrong with it?” asked Rolm.
It was more than professional curiosity. Lisa, his wife, was on the soil team. “Needs more analysis,” said Henry.
“Ah,” said Rolm.
It was a running joke on the ship.
“You must admit,” began Jason, “it really does sound more official than we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Henry laughed, out loud this time. Rolm and Jason joined him.
After a while, Henry finally spoke, “These last few weeks seem longer than the last three years.”
“I thought I was the only one,” said Jason Fitzgerald.
“I reprogrammed the algorithm for opening doors.”
“Is it more efficient?” asked Henry.
“Even I couldn’t possibly care if it was,” replied Rolm.
They all laughed again.
“What’s the movie?” asked Henry.
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“I suspect,” started Rolm, “neither could anyone who’s sitting there in the dark, pretending to watch the thing.”
Henry suspected Rolm was correct.
In just two weeks they would be on the ground, safely working. There would be no time then. Three years with nothing to do, then six months of non-stop work. In just six months, ready or not, the farmers would arrive on Raphael.