Seeds, Temporarily in Their Bed of Lint 

In  by March 24, 2023

The puckering taste of lemon lingers in my memory. Bright, like the stars out my window. Distant for now, like them, too.

Eight worlds. Eight worlds in nine standard years. But none of them perfect.

Each star system has plenty of planets orbiting within, swirling in their gravity pools. Most of those are uninhabitable. My scans have shown me that, so I’ve flown on by.

Eight, though. I’ve stopped at eight, put down landing struts after a slowing burn through atmospheres with acceptable ranges of nitrogen, oxygen, and so on. I’ve taken samples, run tests, even dug a hole once.

One hole.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. The numbers were close but not enough. I packed up and went home.

Home used to be a bright yellow pie, tart curd between crumbling crust and marshmallow-y meringue. He’d worry every time, glasses fogging as he’d open the oven door, that it hadn’t set properly. Holding his breath as the knife would drop through, the piece holding its shape perfectly from server to plate. Home was that first bite, bringing my tongue alive.

The alert chime brings me back to my cockpit, alone and sleeping sitting up. I haven’t used my bed in weeks. I’m entering a new star system, this one with a ninth planet fitting parameters, and I slow the ship, hand resting on the three lumps in my pocket.

Blue with water and promise, there’s a place to land between ice-capped mountains and the rolling desert dunes. The air mix is good, and I leave my dusty helmet in its locker—there’s no point in stopping at places I need it.

It’s the same one I had before leaving; he had a matching one, too, and he wore his more faithfully than I did, the air irritating his deep cedar eyes as waters rose some places and other lush landscapes dried to bone. A doctor gave him eye drops; they only helped a little as we waited for word, moving up the relocation roster.

The foliage on this ninth planet is shades of green I recognize. A lemon tree’s chlorophyll won’t be too alien here. I test the nearby water, running cool and clear: pH, salinity, ion levels—all acceptable.

We’d been promised families would be called together. When I was called to pack my bags and he wasn’t, we didn’t know who to contact. Hours spent on hold only to not have our questions answered, to be transferred to someone else, to have to wait again, and finally, finally, someone guessed it was an error in the system. Our IDs hadn’t been linked in the lottery. We’d had two choices.

Patting my pocket, I begin to dig. The soil’s rich brown colour is full of death-become-life, full of potential. With everything else growing here, these seeds have a chance. Don’t they?

I could’ve stayed. I could’ve stayed with him and waited or gone with my call. He’d told me to go, but I shouldn’t have listened. He’d told me he’d get called soon and to wait for him where it was safe, where I could breathe, where there was a future.

I shouldn’t have listened.

Rock. The steel of my shovel hits rock again and again and again. Dripping sweat, I throw my shovel to the ground. How does anything grow here when the soil’s so thin? When it’s completely solid underneath?

He came to the station to see me off, kissing my forehead, hugging me one last time over and over. His last words weren’t, “I love you.” He took my hand, pressing three tiny bumps into them. “Plant them, Ona,” he said. “The sooner they’re in the ground on our new home, the sooner we’ll have lemons for pie.”

I start to pack up my things. This isn’t it. I can’t plant the seeds here.

Carriers left our home, none of them carrying Marcus. I’m sure they were full of great people. We tried to send messages, tried to check in, but the comms were overloaded. Too many people trying to connect with loved ones and friends—others whose IDs hadn’t been linked.

Marcus died before there was a carrier for him.

Nearly all my equipment is back on board when I hear a voice.

“Hello, traveller.” I turn and see someone, hair long and braided. They’ve spoken in the pidgin language of Earth’s refugees. It’s not their native tongue. It’s not mine either.

“I’m Atine,” they say, and I tell them my name. “What are you doing here?”

“Leaving,” I say. My back is to them, and my cheeks are hot as I load the last of my supplies.

“So soon?” they ask, and I don’t answer. “Would you like some food for your journey?”

The tart thought of citrus fills my mouth with saliva. It’s been so long since I’ve had something other than rations.

My stomach has its say, and I turn back to them, nodding. Atine rifles in their bag, then pulls out a small loaf of bread. They tear it in two, handing me half.

The yeasty warmth overtakes me like a nightmare, encompassing and haunting. As I chew, crust cracking between my teeth, Atine looks at what I’ve done—we’re surrounded by dozens of filled-in holes.

They nod, as if they know.

“What were you hoping to plant?” Atine asks, and bread sticks to my tongue.

Marcus had pressed the lemon seeds into my hand, and they’d stayed in my pocket for weeks as the crowded carrier took me farther and farther from him. Away from our trees. Away from our porch swing. Away from the pie plate my mother had given me before she died.

This place I am now, this ninth planet with its mountains, rivers, and shaded meadows of clover-like growth: this could have been our home.

I swallow hard. “A lemon grove,” I say, and Atine nods again.

“For whom?” they ask.

It was nearly a year before I got confirmation that he hadn’t made it. A friend knew someone in Records; they got me word. I haven’t heard someone say his name since. I haven’t said it either.

“Marcus.” It’s barely more than a whisper.

“Marcus,” Atine echoes.

We stand together in silence, the bread heavy in my stomach, birds lazing overhead in the sun.

“A lemon grove, hm?” Atine finally says. “My village is close. We have many gardens. We could help you, if you’d like.”

The seeds are heavy in my pocket. I’ve been searching for so long; I only have three.

“You don’t have to decide right away,” Atine says. “But you’re welcome to stay awhile. Eat with us. Rest. Spend some time in the fresh air.” They laugh gently, eyeing my pod.

Following Atine to their village, we pass fields of grain, sprawling berry bushes, and vines heavy with grapes.

It was just like we’d talked, Marcus and me.

I don’t have to decide now. This could just be a layover for me on the way to planet ten. But the seeds: they are warm in my pocket, as if they know something, and it has me wondering.

If Atine’s village can grow here on this ninth planet, why can’t I?

Copyright © 2023 Jordan Hirsch

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Jordan Hirsch

Jordan Hirsch writes speculative fiction and poetry in Saint Paul, MN, USA, where she lives with her husband and their two perfect cats. Her work has appeared with Apparition Literary Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. Find her writing thoughts and overuse of Star Trek gifs on Twitter: @jordanrhirsch.

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