It took Michael “Meek” Prouder half an hour to magtube from Claremont to the Coachella Valley desert, near the Nestlé Reservoir entertainment pier. In this oasis of hot dogs, pinwheel fireworks, and whirlygigs, he could lounge and marinate himself, soak up rays as he listened to the music radiating from the dam wall, and sink under the rhythmic roar of artificial waves crashing against the artificial shore. He could walk out into the desert away from the city lights, far enough to gather cactus flowers or, when the sun died and the stars peeked out, to set up his telescope and watch the little matchstick structures floating there in orbit, simultaneously out of reach and close enough to touch.
The Disney Observation Platform, where the uber-wealthy could vacation above them all, free from gravity, gazing at the stars with no shrouding clouds to mask their glory, close enough to the Moon to taste the cheese.
A hundred thousand dollars a day, and cheap at the price.
If his arms were just a little longer. Just a little. If he only had the time. But when he looked in the mirror, at his discolored hands and stained eyes, he knew that time was something he couldn’t afford.
Seventeen-year-old Meek Prouder was dying, and it was his own damned fault. He could see the damage, and feel it, too, a constant itching like ants marching through his veins.
He could soothe that itch by covering his mocha skin in sand, and soaking in the day’s heat. There, bathed in warmth, he could escape the constant reminder of what he had become. There, he could close his eyes against the bright light of day and dream he was on the DOP. He could . . . but then he wouldn’t feel the sunlight on his skin, get that tingle, that sense that something good might trickle into a wasted life. He could just soak it in.
But that feeling vanished like desert dew when he caught the magtube back west, as if every mile drained something from him, something that was alive in the greenhouse, or in the desert, but that trickled out of him in school, or shambling around the neighborhood like a brown bear in purple shades.
And by the time the tube settled onto its rails at Claremont station, all of that warmth had evaporated.
“Hey, Meek,” said Mrs. Adabezi as he walked the last row of the trailer park. “Hey, Meek,” Mr. Zhao nodded, pouring filtered piss on the little picket-rowed vegetable garden. The old man meant no harm. None of them did. But Meek walked on, paying no attention, until he was home.
• • • •
“How was the desert, Michael?” Grandpa Tyrone asked, after a look and a sniff at the bouquet of pink and orange cactus flowers sprouting from a table vase. He smiled as he set a plate stacked high with quinoa pancakes in front of Meek. He was really too weak to cook Meek’s brunch, but when Meek had tried to do his own cooking after Grandma died, the look on his grandfather’s weathered face broke his heart. It was as if Meek was telling him that he was good for nothing these days. Meek couldn’t take that last thing from a man with so little left to give.
While he ate, he told Grandpa of the things he’d seen and the people he’d met out in Palm Springs. Grandpa tried to look attentive but his smiles were slow to rise, and he seemed fatigued and ashen, as if he had eaten a bad apple. Or maybe had some of the same stuff that was killing Meek. Grandpa seemed to think the same about Meek, and asked: “You feeling okay?”
“Let’s go out to the greenhouse,” Grandpa said, and after dishes were cleared and desserts dished into trays, Meek wheeled him out. And there, inside the plastic flaps of the tent in the little square of yard they rented from the Zhaos, they sat and spoke of the old days. Grandpa was ancient enough to remember when the magtube was just built, when the government used that eminent domain thing to build what nobody had wanted.
“What you wanna do, boy?” he asked.
Meek took another big bite of dwarf-peach cobbler and pointed up. “Get up there,” he said. The Moon was high above them, visible through the transparent roof as a big old pie he could just eat up.
Grandpa gummed his cobbler, thoughtful.
“They say people like us don’t go up there,” he said. “That we’re trapped. That robots are taking all the jobs, and folks hate us for being dole babies.” A twinge of pain crossed the old man’s face. Once he’d earned his living by the sweat of his brow, supported a wife and grandson. But the LA Quake had broken the city’s finances and much of the infrastructure, and the corporations that swooped in to provide and maintain services made . . . let’s just say different decisions than had the general electorate.
Declining tax base and virtual classrooms had crumbled the state’s college system. Then they brought in the drone gardeners . . . and early retirement had been the best of Grandpa’s very poor options. Still, he found the optimism to add, “But I still believe that if you use your mind, you can go anywhere you want.”
And he meant it. Grandpa was the only one who didn’t laugh at Meek’s dreams. The last time Meek’s girlfriend Sonja had come to the greenhouse, she’d ooohed and aaahed at the only such facility she’d ever seen, eaten free peaches and pears and nuzzled him with honeyed breath, but just rolled her eyes when he’d told her about the Moon. Space wasn’t for them. Hell, shouldn’t be for anybody, the way she saw it. What good was it, when there weren’t enough jobs right here on Earth?
“All kinds of things came out of people trying to get to space,” he’d said.
“You wanna tell me about satellites again?” Sonja laughed. “Maybe cell phones and microchips, like Mickey says?” She squeaked her voice like the mouse in the cartoon they’d watched in assembly: “We need Space! We need to get to Pluto, Pluto!”
He remembered that animation, an attempt to convince them that tax subsidies were not wasted on the Disney Observation Platforms hovering around the globe. “That stuff is real,” he said, her kisses cooling as he did. “We need dreams even more.” She’d looked at him slyly, smoothing his hand up along her leg. “What are you dreamin’ now, boy?”
“That there’s a way out,” Meek said. “Up there.”
“What?” Her hand froze where it was. “We shippin’ all the broke-asses up there? Ain’t enough spaceships, Meek. You trippin’. The Meek ain’t gonna inherit the Earth.” They’d argued. She’d left. And that was the end of Them.
As he often did, Meek poured all his emotion into his plants, thinking of nothing outside the plastic walls until Grandpa wheeled out with a covered dish of mac and cheese and homegrown broccoli. The old man turned his head to watch what Meek was doing. “Whatchu up to, boy?”
“I want this orchid to dance with this dwarf orange tree, Gramps. Would sell great at the street fair.”
“Did at that, boy.” He peered more closely at Meek’s workbench, with the centrifuge and the pipettes and the little racks and stain-wipes. The label said MONSANTO GENE KIT UNIVERSITY EDITION.
Grandpa squinted. “Where you get that stuff?”
“Traded for it,” Meek mumbled.
His grandfather’s face tightened in response. “You steal that, boy?”
His face burned. “Traded for it.”
“From someone who stole it for you,” said Grandpa, being no fool. “I know you. Don’t you try to lie to me now. You traded what?”
“Stuff I made,” he said, hating himself. A lie was a lie, even when hiding behind a half-truth.
His grandfather scowled, but then began to laugh. “Boy, you ain’t got the sense God gave a gopher, but damned if you don’t straight-up remind me of your daddy.”
Meek’s daddy. He’d been out of work, too, wanted something to do. Meek had only been five years old when his daddy and a few friends tried to rob the OPEC ambassador, and gone to jail forever.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Meek said, and turned on the little box that gave them their entertainment. Meek liked the Wizard of Aaahs science show, and watched its lectures and demonstrations whenever he could wrest the set away from Gramps. Grandpa liked the news. Together they scanned through the dozens of news channels until Meek saw something that he liked: an image of Clarke Station. The Clavius-based Biology Lab was dedicated to recombinant DNA research, where escaping microbes were a quarter-million miles of insulating vacuum away from Earth.
And then an image of the luxurious DOP, visible only as a skeletal matchbox through his telescope.
“No way,” Meek whispered.
“—and on the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of Luna base, we announce the American Space Society’s first annual Science Contest. Five lucky students will receive five-year college scholarships to Yale-Gates and an all-expenses paid trip to the Disney Observation Platform . . .”
It reverberated in his head like a gong.
Trip to the DOP!
• • • •
The contestants would be selected from a pool of science lottery winners, schools being gifted with tickets according to some arcane formula, distribution of said tickets to be determined by each school. Winners would have six weeks to create a project related in some way to human exploration of the solar system.
Six weeks. Then all winners in the western states would gather, and compete for one of the five scholarships.
In the halls of school the next day, he ghosted through classes he was failing anyway, damaged eyes hidden behind his shades, tainted hands concealed in gloves, fear and despair numbing him until he could barely hear what was said to him by the students and teachers.
Trip to the DOP!
The words echoed in his head in gym class, a soundtrack to the thuds and grunts on the football field, the constant companion of the pain in his knees strangely absent. He was numbing out, he reckoned. Nerve damage, another symptom of the toxins that would take his life. Oh, he could take the hits, but knew that deep down his bones were breaking a little more every day. He had maybe a year. Possibly two. Certainly no more.
Young, desperate, invincible, he had made drugs for the Ballers to supplement the money Grandpa made at the Pomona Street Market, and he knew the chemicals he’d used had poisoned him. “Make more of it,” they said to him. “We can make you rich.”
But it wasn’t enough money to make a damned bit of difference in the long run, and with the time bomb ticking in his blood there wasn’t a long run. Nothing much mattered any more, except the last dream his heart dared to hold.
Meek sleepwalked home, his brain abuzz.
“What you thinking about, boy?” Grandpa seemed more shrunken than usual, his face greenish in the reflected light. “What you doing over there in the back where I can’t get no more? Just because I can’t get around don’t mean that I don’t know what you doin’ back there!”
A locked toolshed abutted the greenhouse, through a vertical slit cut in the plastic. Meek spoke the password to the lock on the shed’s door, and it swung open. This was where he did his magic, where he grew the plants that had earned him the fast money, the “friends,” the things he’d traded for the Monsanto kit. It was stealing, no matter what he said. He knew it, Grandpa knew it. This was why he did it: orchids and dwarf orange trees and crossbreeds with no names. This was his place, the greenhouse within the greenhouse, the only place in this world he felt at home. But maybe there was another world. If he wasn’t almost out of time.
The work sink in his secret place was a simple thing of beaten metal and thin porcelain. A hobgoblin glared back at him from the mirror. Ghoul’s eyes. A ghost without a grave, the sclera tinged green as mold on rotting cheese.
No one knew him. No one would miss him, once Grandpa was gone, which would be soon, he knew. Soon.
And then Meek would be gone, too, as if he had never lived at all.
• • • •
Exactly one week later, Tyrone Prouder didn’t wake up. When the county men came to take him away, Meek refused to let go of his cold hand, or let the paramedics carry his body out of the house. That was his job. Grandpa’s body felt as brittle and hollow as a bag of dried leaves. Because Meek was more man than boy, he was allowed to stay in the house, although relations came sniffing around and told him that they’d had “arrangements” with Grandpa Prouder, “understandings” that they would own the house after his death.
“We’ll take care of you,” Aunt Emma from Bakersfield said.
“And you can believe that,” said “Minister” Folks from Kansas, a cousin or great-uncle or something. Meek didn’t know, and didn’t care.
He spent more and more time in the greenhouse. When he wasn’t deep in his cuttings, he was in the desert soaking in the sun and searching for the little cactus flowers his grandpa loved. He’d bring them back to the trailer because the house was still clotted with family who seemed to think that “wake” meant “move on in.”
They told him to move into his grandfather’s room, but he preferred to let his fat uncle sleep in the postered bed. He, Meek, would dream with the plants, in the moist, warm air rich with their exhalations, where he dropped off into slumber almost as soon as he closed his eyes.
And in dream he was one of them, a member of the only tribe that had ever welcomed him. He had roots, not legs, tendrils that descended to the center of the Earth. And a stalk that was as tall as the Mitsubishi orbital tether, a Superkevlar beanstalk beyond fairy-tale imaginings.
A stalk reaching all the way to the golden DOP floating above them. In his dream he was one of the prize winners who reveled with the rich in that floating castle, from which all of Earth seemed but profit and loss and lands for corporate conquest.
His dreams shifted and pulsed with color and life, sliding through time and space. Now he danced weightless as a dandelion spore on the wind. Now light-stepped among ancient craters, now slept in cryo borne on laser light sails and speeding to the stars.
That Meek did not hear the laughter of the boys and girls in the lunchroom.
He would find a way out. With whatever remained of him, of his life. He would leave this dusty ground behind.
• • • •
Pomona High had been allotted three tickets for entrance to the DOP competition, to be won by performance on the AAAS assessment test series. For the first time in months, Meek studied. Hard, like Grandpa had always begged him to do. Barely slept, so deeply buried in his books was he. And to the surprise of everyone in assembly (himself exuberantly included) was called to the podium and awarded second place.
In his dreams that night, chrysanthemums waltzed for joy.
The science fair was held in LA’s rebuilt downtown in Sony Coliseum’s main auditorium, crowded top to bottom with little cubicles in which students from across the state bolted, stapled, and glued up their booths and displays. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. There was no end to the mini-electromag drives and remote-control rockets and home-cobbled radio telescopes. So when the gaunt giant with the wheelbarrow came through the room, people looked and wondered what was new beside ho-ho-ho, what he was doing and if he might be the janitor.
Meek’s eye was caught by the booth a few desks over, one of the few that held something more than circuits and metal and shining glass. Beneath a banner reading Kathleen Chang: Microgravity-Resistant Plant Experiment, the elfin contestant tended busily to her charges, black hair swinging as she turned between her tables.
Her emerald eyes caught his as she explained what she was doing: “I constructed and used a Rotating Wall Vessel to test the effects of null gravity on plant germination and embryo gestation . . .” A busy little crowd had sprouted around her, but it seemed that she spoke just to him. For the moment their eyes met, he thought he was in microgravity himself. Wanted to weightlessly float to Kathleen’s tiny world of spinning centrifuges and magnetic fields in which the diminutive seeds and creatures were endlessly falling, falling, falling, and learn what she was doing and how she was doing it.
He could have watched her all day. But between the oscilloscopes and the SETI micro-dishes, he knew that he had to get to his space and get set up, or the day would get away from him.
While he set up his folding cardboard panels, plants, and scrolling viewslates, the visitors crept by, pretending to care about other things, and watched, and laughed, but Meek silently put everything in its place and stood in his best clothes and his best smile, and waited. The announced big star, Raymond “Wizard of Aaahs” Culpepper, bounced onto the stage and said how proud he was of each and every one of them, and what an honor it was to be here, and how proud their schools must be of them. He was all angular wit and golden charm, enough charisma to flash-fry eggs and brilliant in the brief Q&A that followed. Then, to riotous applause, he sauntered off the stage, and began to circulate around the room.
Meek felt like a love-sick girl. He had never seen anyone who had been to high orbit, let alone the Moon itself. But The Wizard had, and he was a thing of wonder.
I’ve watched you every day, Meek would say after shaking the man’s hand.
I’ve studied every one of your books, he would tell the wonderful Wizard, who would clap him on the shoulder and say, You are a remarkable young man! We have experts who can heal you! Come with me . . .
And that gilded feeling lasted until the gaggle of judges arrived at his booth. The Wonderful Wizard of Aaahs was not among them. The other judges, stripped of stardust, studied his papers and plants, and prodded at the leaves, and talked to him with that slightly distant expression people have when you are merely the pause between the last one and the next one.
His display said, “producing more bioavailable protein per cubic meter of soil” and “more oxygen conversion than any other Butterfly Palm,” and accompanied those grandiose claims with a long list of specifications. The men and the women looked at his numbers and checked his plants and sniffed their noses into the air, saying, “Your numbers are wrong, young man. It isn’t possible for you to have done this.” And they punched numbers on their comms and clucked sadly, as if they actually had shits to give.
The kids around him didn’t laugh. He wished they had. Then he might have raged and broken something. Or someone. He felt the wetness drool from beneath his sunglasses, and, not wishing to be shamed, ran out of the hall and away from the contestants who might, in another, better world, have been friends and peers.
He ran out into the alley, gawping and making goony-bird sounds in the early-evening gloom, trying not to throw up. Who are you? he whipped himself. Who are you to think there is an escape hatch?
For others, perhaps, but not for his grandfather, or father, or him. Never for him. He would die and go into the ground without ever seeing stars that did not wink in contempt. Never feeling that divine sensation of floating free of a grasping Earth. And no one would care.
Meek stripped off his gloves, tore off his shades, and sobbed out his dreams, only belatedly seeing the red glow in the night, smelling the sweet cigar smoke. He turned to see a man leaning against the walled shadows, watching him.
Meek wiped his hand across his face, washing his cheeks with tears. The smoker watched, saying nothing.
“What are you looking at, Mister?” Meek said, and knotted his fists into clubs.
After a pause the man said, “I shouldn’t do this,” and hoisted his cigar emphatically.
Dear God, he knew that voice.
The smoking man tapped his cigar against the wall. “Shouldn’t do that, either.” He laughed.
Meek trembled. Never had he been so close to stardust.
“You had the protein and oxygen plants, right?” asked the Wizard.
“I . . .” The Lord of Aaahs had noticed him? Meek sagged almost to his knees, then pushed himself back upright. “Yeah, that was me.”
“How’d you do?”
“Screwed up, man.” Meek’s voice dulled. “Had my numbers all wrong.”
He looked up at the Wizard, trying to find some words, something that might have some power, but came up empty. It had taken all he had just to get him this far, and he could go no further. Time to slink back to Grandpa’s house, and the solitary cot between the rows.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” The Wizard asked.
Meek flinched. He groped in the darkness, found his shades, and slipped them back on. Culpepper stepped closer. Meek felt transfixed. Trapped. Found out. Couldn’t move as Culpepper reached out and slipped off Meek’s shades, peered into his face like a man examining the map of an unknown country.
“I’m sick,” the boy said.
“How do you feel?” Culpepper asked.
The question didn’t make sense. He knew he was dying, and some part of him now yearned for oblivion. But . . . but . . .
He didn’t actually feel bad. Little appetite, yes, but . . .
Culpepper asked Meek a few questions. The boy couldn’t remember answering them, so shocked was he to be having the conversation at all, but shook himself out of it when Culpepper took him by the hand and said, “Come with me,” and led him back into the hall.
And to the crowd, which watched jostling and tittering and wondering what trouble had befallen his pitiful little cardboard kingdom.
Culpepper called over the judges, and whispered to them. They looked at Meek’s numbers and his pages and to his plants again, and at the materials from which his project was constructed, and too late he realized that in his great fatigue he had left a piece of the box that said UNIVERSITY EDITION.
“His grandfather was the groundskeeper at Schick-Mudd,” someone said.
One of his classmates constructed her hand comm. “The serial number on that box matches a stolen gene kit.”
The halls were roiled by a great disturbance, as the judges examined his equipment more carefully, and then another classmate at a neighboring booth called security. Panic descended like a red shroud. Meek turned and sprinted once again, past the pretty microgravity girl whose crowd gaped as he ran and ran, forgetting the Moon, forgetting the DOP, forgetting everything in his desperation to shed his broken dreams. Then the security guards caught him, and dragged him down like gravity as he screamed.
• • • •
“Michael Prouder,” the duty officer called, and Meek shifted his bulk from the shadowed corner of the holding cell. The other prisoners stared and moved away from him, afraid. The police didn’t seem to want to touch him. They wordlessly led him to the room where he imagined the public defender waited, some desperate night-school lawyer smelling of failure and bad coffee.
But it wasn’t the public defender.
It was The Wizard of Aaahs.
“Look at me, Michael,” Culpepper said. Meek did not, staring down into his hands as if staring hard and long enough might help him vanish into the rivers and green valleys scriven thereon.
“We took blood and urine samples when you came in, you know.”
Yes, he knew.
“Do you know why?”
“The drugs,” Meek said, his own voice a dull roar.
“The drugs. And we went to your house. The police found the things you’d stolen.” Culpepper’s voice was surprisingly gentle.
Meek nodded. Half-truths were lies, and he was done with lies.
“Grandpa needed air,” Meek said, ashamed of how small his voice had become. “He was a smoker, like you. I could make it a little better for him.”
“A little better,” the Wizard said. “So you stole the Monsanto kit. Who taught you how to use it?”
“I learned,” he muttered. “MIT online free school.”
“You taught yourself using the free school? Your grades are . . .” Culpepper searched for a word. “You’re failing every class. You expect me to believe that?”
“No,” Meek said. “I don’t expect shit. But it’s the truth.”
The Wizard mulled that over. “The amount of increased food value was wrong,” he remarked. “The numbers were wrong.”
Meek sighed. He knew. Everything in the world was wrong. Maybe that hadn’t always been true, but it was certainly true now.
“The oxygen numbers were good, good enough to help your grandfather’s emphysema, but not better than what we already have. I’m sorry.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Meek said. “Be dead soon. Just . . . just wanted to see space before I did.”
Silence in that room, and dying dreams. If Meek had never spoken again, it would have been fine by him. He could be silent, as silent as a plant. He could just bury himself in the desert, and soak in the sun and . . .
“When was the last time you ate?”
“Not hungry,” Meek said.
Culpepper pursed his lips. “How long have your eyes and hands been . . . like this?”
Meek looked at his hands. He didn’t think about it much, just covered it up with gloves and sunglasses. Mr. Cool. The light skin of his hands and the whites of his eyes were pale green.
“When was the last time you ate, Michael?” Culpepper asked again.
“Day before yesterday.”
“Spend a lot of time in the sun, don’t you?”
Meek looked up. “Yeah, I guess.”
It would be a long time before he saw the desert again.
“And the beach,” he whispered. “I like the beach, too.” He loved it almost as much as the desert. But the ocean itself . . . he didn’t like its taste. It didn’t nurture him.
Salt water was for tears.
He wondered if he would ever cry again.
“You created the little peach trees?”
“Dwarfs,” Meek mumbled. “They’re called dwarfs.”
Culpepper reached across the table, took Meek’s wrists. Meek was so surprised that he didn’t pull back. “How long have your palms, the whites of your eyes . . .”
Been green? Long enough to know that he had poisoned himself, somehow. The mutagens, or the processing chemicals the Pomona Ballers needed him to use to extract essence from his plants. He had no one to blame but himself. Just hoped that something special, something good might happen, just once, before he stopped waking up.
Culpepper drummed his fingers on the table then sat straight, as if he had come to a decision. “One of my philosophy teachers once said that if Mozart had been born a Kalahari Bushman, he’d have been known as the best drummer in his family.”
Meek blinked. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means that great genius can be completely lost without the social context to nurture it. That can happen to an entire culture.” The Wizard leaned further forward, pushing at Meek’s space. “And sure as hell to a single boy. He used a stolen Monsanto gene kit to make dwarf fruit trees. Increase the oxygen production of one plant, the protein output of another.” He paused. “That’s not the part that most interests me. He thought he’s changed his plants. But they also changed him.”
“The . . . plants?” Meek could barely breathe.
“Yes. Something happened, Michael. Have you ever heard the term lateral gene transfer?”
“Sure,” Meek scoffed. “Think I’m stupid?”
“Not at all. Not even a bit. You bred those plants, but all organisms are more than their simple genetics. They are also symbiotes and parasites and their interactions with the natural environment, energy and material transfers. Something in those plants transferred to you and your grandfather. Whether through touch or ingestion, we just don’t know. Yet.”
“Genetic change through ingestion?”
The Wizard nodded. “Some organelles are thought to be microorganisms swallowed by prokaryotic cells, but got comfortable instead of digested.” He smiled. “Developed a symbiotic relationship that got passed from generation to generation. According to the autopsy, Tyrone Prouder should have been dead months ago. You kept him alive.”
“That’s what I wanted. The plants . . .” an oddly bashful feeling flooded over him. Could he even say this to someone he didn’t know? He could barely talk about it with his Grandpa. And yet . . . there was something about this man . . .
“They talked to me.”
“I dream about them.”
Culpepper doodled on his notebook. “Do you remember the microgravity exhibit?”
“The truth is that we could be colonizing the asteroid belt, but humans who stay in space for more than a few years might not be able to come home.”
Muscles atrophy. Negative calcium transport spins bones into glass. “Yeah, I heard that.”
“Well, same things happen to plants that happen to animals. They don’t develop properly. That young Miss Chang . . . she bred vines with greater structural integrity, which can more easily resist the negative effects. It’s fascinating. Do you know the term ‘mycorrhizae’?”
Hearing the challenge in his voice, Meek felt anger rise up, but also something else . . . pleasurable anticipation, like when someone hits a ball and it’s coming right to you and you can already feel the thunk in your glove.
His mind opened, and he saw the answer as if the search page had opened in front of him. “Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between plants and fungi.”
“How does it work?” Culpepper leaned in, seemed almost to be holding his breath.
Meek recited. “The fungi colonize a host plant’s root system. They . . . provide increased nutrient absorption or water.”
“And do they get anything in return?”
“Carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis.”
“Highest marks,” Culpepper said. “Young Miss Chang used that principle to strengthen her plants. And that strength might well be a secret to resisting microgravity . . .” His voice had become ruminative, and for a moment Meek saw someone new, the scientist beneath the showman. “But you did something that makes it even more potentially interesting.”
Meek was riveted. “What’s that?”
“If there is no way to compensate for microgravity, it may be necessary to modify human beings themselves for long-term colonization efforts. We’ve tried a number of animal approaches, without the success we want. But no one was able to do what you’ve done: The plant chloroplasts . . . well, they sort of talked to your mitochondria. Something happened within you that we’ve not been able to imitate with a billion-dollar lab. You actually photosynthesize, Michael. Not hugely, but enough that you crave sunlight and need less food. Something in your plants operated like a botanical nanocyte, carrying its genetic information into your cells. Amazing.”
“I . . . just tinkered,” Meek whispered.
“Tinkered.” Culpepper rolled the word around in his mouth. Shook his head in wonder.
“Who won the contest?” Meek asked, voice breaking with hope.
“Kid named Quentin Frost, from Eugene, Oregon. His experiment increased output of solar cells.”
There it was. It was never going to happen for him, no matter what, he was—Culpepper studied him. “But there’s one thing more. Did you meet Kathleen Chang? The microgravity girl?”
No, he hadn’t, and what did it matter? What did one loser have to say to another?
“She couldn’t win, because she’s only got half the answer,” Culpepper said. “You have the other half. Someone like you could colonize the asteroid belt. Not people like me. But someone like you. You’re the future, Meek. And it’s possible that we are the past.” He paused, and then smiled. A good, warm smile. Like Grandpa’s.
“So . . .” Meek said slowly. “No Disney Observation Platform . . .?”
“No,” Culpepper grinned. “But have you ever heard of Clarke Station?”
• • • •
It was all a dream. His roots sinking to an impossible depth. His branches and leaves and tendrils extending an impossible reach. And the most beautiful dance he had ever known. Meek awoke in his cot, lying there among his verdant comrades, yawning and stretching and thinking of the wonderful fantasy he’d had. But it was a dream, even now sloughing away like sweet syrup.
He’d had it before. Hoped he would never stop. It was too easy to forget the good things.
He got up from the bed, trying to remember where he was. Who he was, what anything was. He should write the dreams down so he could remember them. Maybe he’d write a book. Someone might want to know about this, one day.
When he reached, he dislodged the pen from its magnetic clip on the planter beside him. It spun into the air, bounced off the wall. He watched it bouncing between the rows of tomatoes and ferns, still not tired of the sight. He dressed without unsnapping his sleep cocoon, and then plucked the pen out of the air and pressed it to the paper of his leather-bound journal, the one that his grandfather had purchased and given to him for his birthday. Oh, Grandpa. If you could only see me now. See me in the observation room with the other tourists.
He had not noticed, but Kathleen Chang had joined him in the observation room. She was even tinier than she’d appeared at the contest. Unlike the other passengers, she didn’t keep her distance. She smiled up at him. “Take off those sunglasses,” she commanded.
“My eyes are green,” he said.
“So are mine.” She smiled. The back of her hand brushed his.
He slipped off his shades. So that’s the world, he thought, watching the Earth recede in infinitesimal stages. It isn’t all concrete and desert, I knew it wasn’t. It’s green.
He shifted to watch the approach screen, the Moon growing every larger, a dream expanding to fill the space before him. Luna. Not dead after all. More alive every day.
All either of us needed was the right dream.
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