Owen and I got married at the register office in Cardiff. We took a flat near the University, a tiny bedsit. I felt very cosmopolitan, living in the capital city, and only a little bit homesick for Swansea. Then Owen came home one night and asked me what I thought about going into space. I laughed because I thought he must be joking, but he wasn’t: They’d offered him a position in a new terraforming colony on G851.5.32 and of course he wanted to go. I was frightened, but it’s not the kind of opportunity you can say no to, is it? And it was only for ten years; afterward we could come back to a full pension. Fame and fortune, he said. I did like the thought of telling my friends. Oooh, hello Emma, how have you been? Yes, it has been quite some time, hasn’t it? You’ve moved to Mumbles Road, have you? That’s nice. We moved to an exoplanet eighteen light-years away. Oh well, we’re back now, of course . . .
That was back when I thought we’d return to Wales one day.
The water here is nothing like the salty sea of home. It’s acidic and eats into the flesh. I shouldn’t even be this close to the shore, in case the spray splashes across and burns me. Everything about G851.5.32 is toxic; I’ve been here so long, even I am.
Megan was born after we’d been here five years. My best friend Jeanine (my only friend) was present for the birth. Owen started off holding my hand, but he couldn’t stand to see me in such pain. In the end, he paced outside until Jeanine went out to tell him that it was all over, that he was the father of a baby girl.
“She looks so fragile,” he said. “I’m afraid to touch her in case she breaks.” It’s true: Megan was a tiny little thing, ice-blue eyes peering at everything, curious.
I worried about her growing up in the colony dome; it was such a sterile environment. “Children need to get muddy,” I said. “They need to be able to explore and get out from under everyone’s feet and just burn up energy.”
“She’ll be running down the sandbars of Swansea Bay before long,” he promised, tickling under her chin. She stared back at him with a serious face.
When she was a baby, I sang Suo Gân to her, the Welsh lullaby. As she got older, I made her laugh with songs about a world she’d never seen: “Oranges and Lemons,” “The Bishop of Bangor’s Jig,” “Sweet Molly Malone.” I told her stories about day-to-day life in Swansea: the covered market, the sandy beach of the bay, Blackpill Lido, the rain. These were as fantastical to her as gold spun from straw.
Once Megan could walk, Owen had protective goggles made for her small face and we took to taking long strolls outside, around the edges of the dome. We went as far as the craggy coastline, where the dark waves crashed against red silt. She sang “Molly Malone” while I told her about making sandcastles and the mewling cries of the seagulls. She gazed at everything with curious eyes.
“Didn’t you get dirty, Mummy?” The colony has very strict rules about sterile conditions. The idea of playing in the sand was as alien to Megan as life in space would be to my school friends. She grew up with constant warnings, having to wear three layers of protective clothing just to open a window. That afternoon, she clutched her favourite toy—a stuffed octopus I made from scraps of synthetic fabric—in one hand and held my hand tightly with the other. She was four years old and she had never been free. I did what I could, kept telling her the stories she loved, tried to explain what a child’s life should be like. It wasn’t the same. She knew it wasn’t.
“Yes,” I told her, “we got very dirty. And then we’d go home and our mummies would make us wash and we’d be clean again.” Megan looked dubious. “It was a different type of dirty, child,” I admitted eventually. “Dirt on Earth doesn’t hurt. In fact, sometimes pregnant women even eat soil.” She laughed at me, the idea so ludicrous, she couldn’t imagine it. When we returned to the dome, we left all our outerwear in the entry bay, where it would be collected and sterilised. The commanders weren’t very pleased with me taking Megan out of the base for walks, but once I found out they weren’t letting us return to Earth, I didn’t much care what they thought.
Owen and I were in the third wave of researchers to come to the colony; there were a few thousand of us at the peak. It was a long trip: five months’ travel and then ten years on the base and another five months home. Still, it seemed reasonable until a few years after Megan was born. The first return mission to California was a disaster. The initial researchers—including my friend Jeanine Davies—were so excited about going home. Jeanine stayed up all night in anticipation. She told me she was going to gorge herself on fresh fruit and vegetables and then go outside and enjoy the feel of the wind against her face. We made plans to meet in Cardiff once Owen’s time was finished. Her only regret was that she wouldn’t see Megan for a few years. She was full of energy, the picture of health. She was going home.
When the capsule delivered them to the space centre in the California desert, the occupants became violently ill. It took a while to get the news. Jeanine was dead. All of them, dead. They carried some unknown bacteria in their gut, which went malignant once they arrived in Earth’s atmosphere. Not just the homecomers, everyone: The bacteria spread with a virulence that hadn’t been seen since the plague. So G851.5.32 was put under quarantine and all further trips to Mother Earth cancelled with no clue as to when we could return.
“It’s autumn on the Gower right now,” I told Megan. “We’d be picking blackberries if we were home. The skies are grey and rain falls from the sky. The wind is crisp and the roads full of puddles.”
“Did you really go outside without goggles or anything?” Megan had never felt the air against her bare skin. We walked along the high end of the beach, safely away from the acid water. She begged me to tell her more about “the past,” as she called it: Wales was an unobtainable world that only existed in stories. I stopped correcting her after a few years went by. There seemed no point.
“Just an umbrella and sturdy shoes. Mind, we got flu and colds that lasted all winter long as well. You’re lucky in that respect.”
Illness is not common here on our sterilised colony and the medical centre is quick to treat any symptoms. They’ve spent thousands of hours trying to find the bacterium that killed our homecomers, but it appears to be inactive here, mutating to a malicious killer only in the Earth’s atmosphere. And they can’t just send people to Earth to die, even if the scientists on the ground were willing to risk themselves trying to do the research. They isolated the plague in California by cordoning off the entire desert, leaving the carriers to die alone.
“The sea was always cold, but by October it would be freezing. We would walk along the beach on the way home from school. We dared each other to run in and brave it. The water was so cold it felt as if it burned.” Sometimes it took a couple of sips of vodka to get the nerve. The cold would make your heart stop.
I wish I had a bottle of vodka now. The sun’s low in the sky. If I squint, I can almost pretend it’s a brilliant Swansea sunset, rays reflecting off the low clouds to turn the landscape red. I can almost pretend I’m at Oystermouth Road, standing at the long stretch of beach, Jacquelyn daring me to take my togs off and run into the waves.
Megan had the same enthusiastic curiosity about the world as her father the scientist. The dome was stifling to a young girl’s spirit. We explored the local area, but I didn’t dare go very far. Megan complained bitterly when it was time to return. It came to a head when she was caught sneaking out in the middle of the night, without authorisation, without the proper gear. Owen was furious, but I couldn’t blame her for rebelling against the rules and regulations.
“How can we learn more if we lock ourselves away?” she complained. “When I grow up, I’m going to live outdoors and I’m going to see the entire planet. I’m going to study the Homecoming Plague until I find a solution and we can travel again.”
“If you do, I’ll be on the first ship home. I’ll take you to the pier for ice cream.”
Ice cream was one of the few traditional treats that Megan recognized. She never had food except from a container: synthesised vitamins and American processed meat. “You could really just go someplace and get food? You didn’t have a canteen?”
“No. Well, we had restaurants, where we could meet up and have a meal together. It was a social thing. It was a choice.” She was bemused by the concept of choice. Our food is doled out in scoops. If you don’t go to the canteen, you don’t eat.
By her twelfth birthday, food was tightly restricted. We lived on carbohydrate dishes that tasted of cotton, with the tinned goods tightly rationed. Two unmanned ships had successfully reached us with supplies since the quarantine began. Many others failed. We had no idea when the next might come. I fought off the hunger pangs by telling Megan about my favourite dinners when I was her age.
“The beaches of the Gower are full of treasure,” I told her. “We’d go to the beach after school and fish for our supper. Mum would peel a couple of potatoes and fry our catch in butter and that would be dinner.” Mostly Mum heated up frozen dinners from Tesco, but I didn’t like to tell Megan that. Besides, when Mum was sober, she was a pretty good cook. She would always have a go at preparing anything we brought home. “I didn’t have the patience for fishing. My line was always getting tangled up and I hated touching the lugworms. But you could collect all kinds of shellfish at the changing of the tides. Nan used to take us out in the middle of the night with a thermos of whisky and coffee. We’d collect what we could find: oysters, mussels, even crabs.”
Megan’s mouth fell open and she stared at the distant beach disbelievingly. “So they were just there waiting for you to take them? Did you eat them?”
“We steamed them and then we ate them with just a squeeze of lemon juice. Lemons grow on trees, but we bought our fruit from the market.”
“How does steaming work?” It was hard for her to imagine the world I took for granted. Megan never had raw food so she didn’t understand about cooking. The closest she came to seafood was the tinned salmon they served on New Year’s Day.
“You have to steam them to force the shells open so you can get to the meat inside.” Megan looked disappointed. She relished the idea of a movable feast, food simply there for the taking. Our dependence within the colony was so constant; the concept of fending for yourself was a favourite source of wonder for her.
I liked to indulge her. “Sometimes you could catch them with the shells open. I caught buckets of razor clams at the estuary. Find a hole in the sand, that’s where they’ve dug themselves into. You just drop a bit of salt into the hole and then reach in and drag the clams straight out of their shells. They’re plump and meaty. If you were hungry enough, I guess you could simply eat them on the spot. In the old days, they had special knives to pry the shells open and eat them alive.”
“How would you know they weren’t poisonous?”
“There’s not much from the sea that will kill you, not if it’s fresh.”
Not in the Celtic Sea, anyway. I stare out at the poisonous waves of G851.5.32, a mystery to me. Who knows what beasts lurk within its softly glowing swells. The scent is sharp and chemical rather than the briny breeze of Swansea Bay. Everything here is toxic.
“What does it taste like? Food you find on your own, I mean.” By the time Megan was thirteen, I’d given up all hope of returning home. We were “self-sufficient” and a perfect test bed for the colonies of the future, with sterilised capsules transferring data back to Earth. All wonderful research, except that I’d never signed up for this, never wanted to spend a lifetime in space, never would have started a family if I’d known the antiseptic life in the colony was all she’d ever see. Megan’s curiosity became insatiable as she begged for details of a “normal” life, of what she’d missed. I told her about wine and thunderstorms and aeroplanes and guitars. I taught her church hymns and Bonnie Tyler songs and rugby chants. Megan continued to sneak out of the dome, “taking liberties with her safety” it said on the reports. Colony security wasn’t designed to hold in rebellious teenagers; she didn’t find it difficult. I never said anything. How could she grow up in this barren collection of plastic buildings? She needed to explore.
Owen grew distressed. “You are making her homesick for a world she’s never known,” he told me. I didn’t care. I wanted her to know, to understand where she had come from. So I kept telling her the stories, answering her questions. I never noticed how often we returned to the subject of food.
“Shellfish tastes better than anything else in the universe,” I told her. “Especially if you caught it yourself. The fresh air seasons it, we say. But it’s because you put the effort in, you made the food happen.”
“But specifically, what is it like? What do cockles and mussels taste of?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. She had never eaten anything that wasn’t full of preservatives and salt. “They taste like the sea. They taste slick and primordial. They taste of brine and dark blue depths. It’s an Earth flavour. I can’t explain.” She glared at me and stomped out of the room. She wanted facts, not metaphors. She wanted to know and I wasn’t helping. She wanted to go home and taste them for herself.
The silt of the shore is soft and powdery, nothing like the golden sand of Swansea Bay. When I press my fingers into it, the edges of my gloves begin to singe against the damp soil underneath. Everything about this planet is poison. It was never meant for families.
The day Megan told me she had a stomachache, I didn’t think too much about it. “Have you finished your school work?” I asked her. She had daily one-on-one tutorials, taught by some the best scientists of our time, not that an education was any use up here. Still, we stuck to the routines, pretended there was a future.
“I don’t feel well at all,” she said. Those were her last coherent words. She collapsed before I made it across the room to feel her forehead. I carried her to the med station myself, her long legs dragging along the polished hallways. Megan’s eyes opened as I screamed for the nurse to help me. She twisted and began to vomit blood as they pulled her onto the bed and wheeled her into the back rooms. Within a few hours, she was dead.
Owen found refuge in process. He told me they thought she might have the same bacteria that stopped us returning to Earth, that she might be the key to finding the cure. I turned away as he stuttered platitudes, that maybe they would solve the quarantine, that maybe her death wouldn’t be in vain. I couldn’t stand to hear him try to make sense of the tragedy. He stayed at the medical station, signing consent forms, overseeing the process as they cut her open and examined her insides.
I went home and sat in her room, touching her things. I bunched her favourite dress in my fists, hoping to banish the last sight of her, flesh pale as marble, splattered with blood, blue eyes colder than any ice. I collapsed onto her bunk. Once the tears slowed, I ran my fingers over her stuffed octopus like a blind woman, touching the ragged cloth and glassy eyes as if it might hold some of her essence.
The sharp edges of something under her pillow stopped me. I opened my eyes and moved the pillow to see a pair of stolen protective gloves, singed away at the tips, and half a dozen blood-red shells. Two of them were cracked and pried open; the insides sparkled like mother of pearl, wiped clean. Licked clean.
Owen told me that Megan’s death was not preventable. It was an unknown illness, he said, there was nothing that we could have done. He cried as he told me that she’d ingested some sort of parasites. They had rampaged through her flesh, feasting on her organs. He promised me that it was quick, as if I didn’t already know that, as if that was a consolation. I took the shells she’d hidden under her pillow and said nothing.
I press my bare toes into the powdery silt of the barren shore of G851.5.32. It stings, a million pins and needles pricking my flesh. When I was a girl, we would dare each other to dash into the frigid waves of the sea, the water so cold that it burned.
I wonder if it will feel the same, in this alien sea so far from home. I clench the broken shells in my fists and run forward into the breaking waves.
I think it will feel just the same.
© 2013 by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley.