Sunday, October 16, 2011
FICTION: The Rose Cycle By Cathy Bible
It had been years since Captain Gabriel Brizo smelled a real rose. The ones that Lieutenant Jordan grew in the horticulture experiment bay on the Demeter were beautiful – lush, full, and deep crimson – but the scent wasn’t the same. He leaned in to take a deep breath of their faint perfume.
It struck Gabriel in that moment that the roses were like Jordan. She was not the type of woman he would have gone after at home. But here, in the isolation of deep space – like the scent of her roses – she was close enough.
“They’re not doing well,” said Jordan.
“Hmm – what?” said Gabriel.
“The roses. They’re not doing well. Do you ever listen to me the first time?”
“Sorry Leanne. Just distracted. They look good to me.”
“Look at the leaves toward the bottom.”
Lieutenant Jordan pulled back the thick green leaves at the top to reveal brown, wilted growth speckled with almost perfectly symmetrical gray dots.
“It looks diseased, but not like anything I’ve ever seen before. And with the sterile soil and water and controlled conditions here, the chance of disease would be almost nil.”
“I'd hate to lose the roses. They're the only beautiful thing on this floating heap. Present company excluded, of course,” said Gabriel
It's not just the roses I'm worried about,” said Leanne, ignoring the compliment. “If there’s something off with the water recycling system, or the atmosphere, it could eventually affect the rest of our crops, or even our crew.”
“We only have four people on this station to begin with. We don't have anyone to spare,” said Gabriel.
“I know,” replied Jordan. “I want to run some tests on the water system. And we should check with Lieutenant Denton to see if there are any anomalies in the life support systems.”
“Agreed,” said Gabriel. He looked awkwardly into her eyes, and then reached for her hand, which she pulled away.
“Look,” said Jordan, averting her glance. “There is obviously a spark between us, and we've both had a lot of fun trying to light that spark into a fire.”
“What – are you dumping me, here?” said Gabriel.
“I don't know if dump is the right word. You have to actually be with someone to dump them. I don't know if we have enough of a relationship for me to dump you.”
“Well, what would you call it, then?”
“I don't know. A lot of fun. Companionship in a lonely corner of space. But we're not going to be here forever. My assignment is up soon, and if this isn't something that's going to work anywhere else but here, I don't want to get attached.” She paused and looked downward. “More attached.”
Gabriel reached out to lift her chin and make an argument for their romance, but thought better of it. It was entirely possible that she was right. But that didn't make it any less lonely.
Technical officer Oliver Denton's office had a well earned nickname – the mole hole. The only bright spots were the flashing lights on the control panels - like a dark, cold cave full of stars. And its odd and reclusive tenant only poked his head out when necessary.
Gabriel and Leanne carefully broached the doorway.
Piles of papers and a half-eaten plate of food fell from Denton's desk as he spun around.
“Captain Brizo. Lieutenant Jordan. Wow, you guys don't visit me here very often,” he said.
“Well, as inviting as it is in here, we just don’t make it down as much as we’d like. But we need your help with something,” said Gabriel.
“Oh, how nice to be needed for something,” said Denton, “other than keeping this giant trash can together and operating correctly, of course.”
“Of course,” said Jordan.
Denton wiped away beads of sweat from his forehead.
“Are you feeling okay?” said LeAnn. “It’s almost cold in here.”
“I have a little bit of a headache,” replied Denton. “But otherwise, I feel fine. Why?”
“Nothing. Just concerned,” said Jordan.
“How kind,” said Denton. “Now, what brings you to this dismal little neck of the woods?”
“We need to know if there have been any problems with the life support systems,” said Gabriel.
“What – feeling a little short of breath lately?”
“Not us,” said Jordan. “My plants are dying, and I don't know why. Just trying to rule out environmental causes.”
“And you brought your boyfriend to help you out?” said Denton. “Hey, Brizo, if you're not able to keep up in the sack, don't blame it on lack of oxygen, old fella.”
“And if you can't get the girl yourself, don't blame it on me, old fella,” snapped Gabriel. “And try to remember you're speaking to your captain, here. I'd be happy to send you back home for a court martial and get a more agreeable technical officer.”
Denton pursed his lips and abruptly turned back to his control panel.
“Yeah, good luck with that,” he mumbled.
“What's that?” asked Gabriel.
“Nothing,” said Denton.
“That’s what I thought.”
Gabriel quietly fumed as Denton ran through his diagnostics. He found Denton to be the most infuriating crew member he’d ever commanded. In almost every way, he was Gabriel’s polar opposite – disorganized, disrespectful, antisocial. But, like everything else about the Demeter – he was stuck with it. Finding crew members willing to take an assignment this remote was nearly impossible and even if there were a volunteer, it would take nearly year of travel to get them there.
Denton swirled around as he finished his testing. “There's nothing wrong with life support. Whatever your problem is, it has nothing to do with my post.”
“That's all we needed to know,” said Leanne, flustered. She turned on her heel and pushed Gabriel out of the way as she hustled out the door.
“Nice,” said Gabriel. “Nice people skills.” He stepped out the door and called after Jordan. “Lieutenant Jordan!” She continued her brisk march down the hall, undeterred.
Gabriel turned back to find Denton slumped over his station.
“Denton? Are you okay? Oliver?”
Denton didn't respond. Gabriel rushed over and shook Denton's arm.
“This isn't funny, Denton!”
Gabriel grabbed the Denton's shoulders and pulled him up. Denton fell back limp in his chair, his face pale and beaded with sweat. Gabriel felt his neck – cold, no pulse.
“Shit!” Gabriel laid Denton on the floor and tried for several minutes to revive him, with no success. He slammed his fist on the floor. “Shit!”
He took off down the hall, breathlessly running toward the horticulture bay. He arrived and threw the door open.
Jordan leaped up from her microscope.
“What the hell? You scared me!”
As Gabriel struggled to catch his breath, he noticed that Leanne looked paler than usual. Or did she? Was he being paranoid?
“It's Denton,” he said.
“Yeah, I know – he's an ass.”
“No, worse. He's a dead ass.”
“He's dead, Leanne. After you left, he passed out at his station.”
“Shit!” said Leanne.
“Did you find anything wrong with the water?”
“No,” said Leanne. “I almost wish I had. That might at least help explain what's going on. We need to get a message out to command ASAP”
“Agreed. I'm on my way.”
Gabriel paused as he reached the door.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I guess. Other than – well, all of this.”
Gabriel noticed a ring of sweat around her neck. She looked pale, didn't she? Yes, she definitely looked pale. Or was it the lighting?
“Okay. Let me know if that changes, okay?”
Ensign Evan Freeland was staring blankly at his reflection in the observation glass as Captain Brizo walked in. Noticing Gabriel's reflection alongside his own, he turned around.
“What's up, Captain?”
“You don't want to know,” replied Gabriel. “We need to get a message out to home now, if not sooner.”
“I can try, but I can't guarantee when it will go through. We've been out of contact for the past couple of days,” said Freeland.
“Why didn't you report this to me?” said Gabriel.
“No need. Nothing going on. Nothing important to send or receive.”
“What if control had an important message for us?”
“Have they ever?” replied Freeland, rolling his eyes.
Gabriel sighed. He understood. This station was the red-headed stepchild of the space program. With the horticulture program and water recycling system, they were self reliant, and control only checked in occasionally for a status report. And they hadn't even done that in recent memory. In fact, Gabriel had pretty much forgotten what the purpose of this mission was.
“How have you been feeling lately?” asked Gabriel.
“Fine – I guess. Same as always. Why?”
Freeland raised an eyebrow.
“Probably no reason,” said Gabriel. “Nothing you need to worry about right now.”
“If you say so, captain,” said Freeland.
“Please, just keep trying to open a channel . Let me know immediately when you have contact.”
“Sure thing,” said Freeland. “And you let me know when I definitely need to worry.”
“Yeah,” said Gabriel. “I will.”
At that moment, Jordan's voice echoed through the paging system.
“Yes, Lieutenant Jordan?”
“Can you please come down here right away.”
“Coming,” said Gabriel.
Freeland cocked his head to the side and looked at Gabriel inquisitively.
“I'll let you know,” said Gabriel as rushed toward the door.
Gabriel knew immediately as he entered the horticulture bay that something was very wrong. The usual rows of green were heavily punctuated with brown and gray.
“What the hell?” said Gabriel.
“This has all happened in the last 45 minutes,” said Jordan, panicked. Whatever was happening with the roses spread. Fast.”
“Do you have any idea at all what's going on? Anything, ideas, wild theories?” asked Gabriel desperately.
“I wish I did,” said Leanne, tears welling in her eyes. I don't know, they're all dying. All of our food, all of my babies, they're dying.”
As Gabriel moved to put his hand on her shoulder, her face went ghostly white. She began to gasp for air.
“Leanne!” shouted Gabriel as she collapsed into his arms and went limp.
“No, no. NO! You are not going to do this to me!” shouted Gabriel. He started CPR. No response. He closed his fist and began to pound on her chest. “Goddammit! Breathe!”
After several minutes, he collapsed, spent. He looked up, and through his tears, he saw that all the remaining traces of green were gray, and what had turned brown was now black, almost disappearing into the background.
He bolted up and ran back toward Freeland's station. As he sped down the hallway, the lights grew dimmer, and the sounds of the machinery in the station slowed from crisp whirs and beeps to long, deep groans. As he reached the threshold of the comm bay, he stumbled and fell face-long onto the ground. As he lifted his head, he was eye to eye with the lifeless face of Freeland.
He lifted himself to his knees, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the control panel. Why was he the only one left alive? Was he immune to this, or just waiting his turn?
Gabriel dragged himself to the control panel. “Captain Brizo of the Demeter outpost calling control. Come in control. Please come in if you can hear me. We have an emergency situation. I repeat, we have an extreme emergency situation.”
Gabriel sat down on the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. His chin sank to his knees as he started to sob. Either he was going to die soon, or he was going to live and be alone. He was afraid it was going to be the latter. His field of vision narrowed and the room slowly went dark as he fell sideways.
“Come in control. Please come in,” Gabriel mumbled with tears in his eyes.
“Captain Brizo? Gabriel? Gabriel!”
Gabriel's head jerked up as his eyes slowly opened. The doctor stood before him with about a dozen young faces in the background. He noticed the strong, sweet smell of roses. Real roses. He rolled his head to the side to see the bouquet in a vase beside his bed.
“Do you know where you are, Captain Brizo?” said the doctor.
“The Demeter,” he groggily replied.
“No, Gabriel. You're in the hospital. Look around? Do you remember now?”
Gabriel's rolled his head back and stared at the ceiling.
The doctor turned to face his students.
“Captain Gabriel Brizo. Age 37. He was the commander and sole occupant of the Demeter outpost, an experimental and extremely remote agricultural station.
“After about a year into his assignment, there was a communications malfunction and we lost contact. This case is of particular interest as an example of the psychological affects of extreme isolation. Because of the remote location of the Demeter, it took nearly another year to get a crew out there. By they reached Captain Brizo, it appeared he'd created a complete crew in his mind, whom he believed had perished. He gave us very detailed information – names, ranks, physical descriptions. He even had a love affair going with the female crew member he’d created.”
“I take it you weren’t able to disabuse him of that notion?” asked one of the students.
“No, and he went catatonic shortly thereafter. So far, nothing we've tried has been able to break him out. The only thing he responds to at all are the roses. They seem to comfort him for a short time, and then he becomes agitated again. We don’t understand why.”
Gabriel once again looked toward the bouquet by his bed.
It had been years since Captain Gabriel Brizo had smelled a real rose. The ones that Lieutenant Jordan grew in the horticulture experiment bay on the Demeter were beautiful – lush, full, and deep crimson – but the scent wasn’t the same. He leaned in to take a deep breath of their faint perfume.