No Flowers Bloom on Jupiter

Derek Larsen

Flower Girl | Allison Gant | Linocut Print

          Gently, it floats through a gaseous ocean. It’s made of metal and mesh, alien to its surroundings, and the craft glints as it floats up and down on gusts of air. Sand-colored clouds crawl past, and the object blinks its lights as it passes through one. The tip of a gargantuan sail protrudes from the top of the cloud, forging a trail through it, and after some time the craft emerges from the other side of the fog, covered in dew. After a moment the sail fully unfolds and scatters the remainder of the mist aside. It then continues its silent trek through the sky.

          Inside things are similarly serene. The bridge sits vacant, the ship’s captains at rest, and common rooms and dining spaces are similarly dark. Empty corridors hum with a gentle energy, as if simply waiting for something to happen to wake them up. Yet they remain asleep. Life almost never passes through these halls anymore, and today the only stirring on the ship comes from the fitness room.

          Marsha entered her thirteenth lap. She ran doubled over and panting, but she couldn’t let herself quit, not yet. So close to the record, only one more to go. Her steps grew heavier, less rhythmic, and her breathing became ragged. So close. She was hardly running then, barely jogging. Her mind blank, only focused on breathing and not stopping. She didn’t even realize the distance passing until it was done, and a small jingle played over the room intercom. She ran a few more steps, dragging her feet, and collapsed over a railing, labored breathing drowning out the celebratory tune.

          After some time her breathing slowed, still ragged but more stable, and she lifted her head, staring longingly at an inlet in the wall ahead. Marsha pushed herself back up onto her feet again and walked over to the spot, her legs wobbling. She leaned against the wall there and groped for one of the cups in the inlet, finding one and shoving it into the back of the recess in the wall. Beautiful, crystalline water flowed from the hidden dispenser and Marsha sighed, resting her burning-hot cheek against the cool paneling.

          She took her newly-poured water, presented to her with a small beep, and poured it directly into her hair and down her face. With her eyes closed, she groped around in the inlet until she found the sensor and placed the cup into it again. The sound of pouring water started up, and Marsha reached her hands into the wet hair encasing her face, lifting it up over her forehead, opening her eyes again. When the machine finished, she drank.

          Three glasses down and Marsha paused to breathe. She could feel her legs start to ache already, and she slumped back against the wall, eyeing the monitor across the track from her. Total distance: 42.5 km. She did it, a whole marathon. That was better than she had ever done on Earth, although she had had other things to keep her occupied there. No boredom on the planet was ever so powerful that she’d consider running that far away from it. At least now she had the benefit of being pleasantly sore in addition to incredibly bored, a sensation she welcomed with slowing breaths. She looked for a sense of accomplishment within herself and found none, only that abyssal indifference.

          That spurred her into action. Marsha stood slowly and walked to the other side of the room, where a particularly large panel slid open and revealed a small shower. She dropped her clothes into a heap in the corner, set the dial to cold, and stood naked in the freezing rain.

          The doors to the fitness room slid open and Marsha peered out into the corridor, which was dark and quiet save for the soft humming of the air filtration, the snore of the sleeping ship. Upon taking her first step into the hallway, the walls blossomed from their dormant black states into dappled green hues. She was no longer surprised by this transition, but it still brought out an exhausted smile.

          She set off in the direction of her office and the green light illuminated her way as she walked, following her along on the walls. The leaflike patterns surrounding her conjured images of walking through the forest back at home, and Marsha’s posture adjusted to that of a hiker, shouldering the bag of gym clothes and feeling for the ghost of a walking stick, aching like a missing limb. It may only have been a motion sensor and screens along the walls, but Marsha was thankful that the engineers included such a nice touch.

          On her hike through the halls, Marsha passed the dwellings of some of her fellow passengers—the walls around Lucy’s room lit up into a sugary shade of purple as Marsha walked by, and Bryan’s became a gradient of yellows. Relaxing colors just like the flower fields, the home stretch of the trail. The path to home was paved in lavender and towering sunflowers, reaching towards the sun. Just imagining it was soothing. Yet nothing stirred behind any of these doors, and Marsha met nobody else along the way. The vast majority of the crew was sleeping until further notice, and Marsha was torn between appreciating the silence and feeling desperately lonely. On most days it was the latter.

          At last she arrived in front of the door to her office, the panels around which presented a digital assortment of plants and flowers. She would have preferred something subtler, maybe a simple green instead, but the designers insisted that a more literal interpretation of “botanist” would be better to help bypass language barriers and any post-suspension amnesia.

          Marsha stepped through the sliding door and noticed the suspended animation bed crammed into the corner, dust cover still on top. The smooth black carapace made her uneasy, and the thought of the cold dreamless sleep that waited for her should she enter the machine made that feeling stronger. The thought of slipping into limbo so easily was unnerving, and she noticed herself shuddering. Yet the rest of the crew had evidently taken comfort in the idea.

          Marsha refused to join the ranks of those who had openly given up on the expedition and sent themselves into cryogenic sleep, but at times she would have to admit that it was tempting. The ship’s discoveries dried up months ago, the majority of the research teams reaching their limit. To sleep they went, to wait until the return trip or until a new research objective cropped up, whichever came first. It didn’t seem likely that the latter would appear; Earth was prepping for the Titan mission instead. Those sent to sail the waves of the gas giant were overshadowed.

          Marsha dropped her gym bag by the door and the lights flickered on fully, panels on the ceiling and wall imitating the natural light of a sunny day back on Earth. Comforts from a small life back home cluttered the room, leaving the space cramped and crowded, but that’s how Marsha insisted on keeping it. Thick wooden bookshelves stood alongside their sleek modern counterparts, both stuffed full of books and plants. Marsha had brought in a number of specimens from the greenhouse to spruce up her office, and although it was technically against policy, who was going to stop her?

          The tablet on her desk gave the same information it always did—the status of the greenhouse was fine, no changes. Growth was always fine in conditions that replicated Earth. It was exposure to the radically different atmosphere on Jupiter that had been fruitless, and Marsha wondered if her research would ever pay off. She thought she deserved some credit for working this long, longer than anybody else had bothered, but given that she hadn’t discovered anything further than the obvious importance of Earth conditions in growing Earth plants, she doubted anybody would give her work the time of day.

          She set the tablet down, dismissing the notification to wish Jeung a happy birthday. He had been sleeping for a couple of months; Marsha was confident he wouldn’t mind. She stepped back behind the desk and continued to the back of the room, where the entrance to the greenhouse swung open and the humid air immediately clung to her skin. The shelves were overflowing with green life of all kinds, tendrils and roots reaching down from their perches to entwine with their lower neighbors, forming patchwork hedges of hundreds of species of plants. The flower garden was similarly overgrown—at one point comprised of neat rows of similarly-colored petals, it was now a bleeding rainbow of flowers of all colors.

          Marsha was pleased enough to oversee her collection, a capsule of Earth life adrift in a foreign ocean, but she knew today she’d need to do some testing. She pored over the flower bed, scanning for a section that could use some pruning, and she settled on the reds. It was overflowing with roses, one of which Marsha uprooted, leaving a conspicuous hole in the blanket of red petals. One of the crew members from engineering requested that they be overrepresented in the flowerbeds, in some kind of romantic gesture to one of the girls in exobiology. The roses didn’t win her over. Marsha winced.

          She took her rose towards the back of the greenhouse, passing more leafy shelves and rows of legumes underneath, and reached the back end, where tables and computers overlooked an expansive window. Marsha was still unused to seeing the massive cinnamon clouds fill her entire field of view, and she thought for a second that she might fall out into the sky. She paused and admired the world before her, imagined she was back at home, staring up into the atmosphere, watched the clouds swirl serenely off in the distance.

          A flash of lightning illuminated the sky beneath the window, as if to shatter the illusion, and Marsha jumped. She knew there was no danger, but the thought of being stranded on a planet like this wasn’t something she liked to think about. Marsha had been conditioned to accept that there was always a chance of being unable to return, but deep down she had shrugged it off, knowing that she’d get home someday. These days she often found herself doubting that. She already felt stranded, most days.

          Marsha returned her attention to the rose she clutched and planted the flower into a ceramic pot filled with genuine planet earth, setting it down onto a minimalist workbench with a currently-retracted fume hood. She reached out for a monitor and swung the wall-mounted screen closer, displaying the details of previous tests, and simply held it in her hands for a minute. She tapped the screen to open the complete spreadsheet of results, and drew her gaze downward, eyeing the words there. Failure. Incomplete. Inconclusive. Failure. A shaky feeling grew in her stomach as she read the words to herself, unfurling into disappointment.

          Marsha’s goal was to find a way to keep plants alive in such harsh conditions, or at least find out if there were any way it’d be possible. Each attempt was like trying to plant the test flower in a storm cloud. Depressurization was enough to destroy most of them outright, and a myriad of problems presented themselves with each new test. She stared at the screen again. Failure. Incomplete. Inconclusive. Failure. Next page. Inconclusive. Hazardous. Failure. She shoved the screen away, back towards the wall, and slumped down into a stool by the workbench.

          Marsha planted her elbows on the smooth tabletop and worked her fingers through her hair, which fell forward over her face and pooled on the workbench surface. Why bother trying? What was the point even researching when every route pointed to the same dead end? It finally made sense now, why the rest of the crew had sunk into limbo when their avenues of research had dried up. And their absence just made the constant failure harder to bear. Home seemed very far away now.

          Teary-eyed, Marsha lifted her head from staring at the tabletop and shifted to the rose instead. This thing was just as fragile as her, another life so delicately out of place. One wrong move and it would be broken, too much pressure and it’d be gone. Not at all fit for this alien environment. Neither was she. They had journeyed too far out, made the trek too far into the void. Nobody could make it out here alone. Why not sleep for a couple of months? She’d cumulatively run hundreds of miles but she hadn’t gone anywhere. She’d had one of almost every meal in the pantry, tried her hand at cooking, it all tasted bitter. She’d seen the results of her work, and that tasted bitter too.

          Marsha stood from her hunched position and wiped the tear-streaks from her face with her sleeve. She swept the flowerpot into her arms and cradled it there, rescuing the rose from its surely disastrous fate in testing. Walking over to the window again, she stared blearily into the atmosphere and searched for anything to remind her of home. Clouds, no matter their color, didn’t matter. A wire of lightning shot between two small puffs of salmon-colored sky—that didn’t matter. The fact that she was on a marvel of modern engineering, a sailboat set to drift millions of miles away from its home waters, didn’t matter either.

          The alien world of Jupiter held nothing for her, she decided. It held nothing for anyone. Marsha tried to imagine she were gazing at clouds back on Earth again as she stared out of the window and watched the world float by, but the illusion was gone. She resolved to go under that night, trying to quash the uneasiness the cold mechanical “bed” evoked in her. She lowered her gaze to the rose in her arms and felt a twinge of guilt for uprooting it.

          She wanted to take it into the suspended animation bed with her, as some kind of comfort for her dreamless sleep, but it would die for certain there. It would have to go back to the flowerbed, which she could see reflected into the window from behind her. The empty spot she plucked her rose from obvious even in the smudged image, the hole revealing the mineral-rich soil beneath the scarlet flowers. But what were those beige petals? There were no flowers of that color in the beds—Marsha turned around to make certain.

          Sure enough, the bed of roses was red indeed. There were no flowers anything like those she had seen in the reflection, of that much she was certain. She snapped her neck back to the window to look again, and the beige smudge had moved. It seemed to be crawling across the reflection, as if it were carried by a breeze. It meandered past the flowerbeds and further up the window, passing by Marsha’s reflection now. It wasn’t something moving past her, it was something moving past the window. Out on the other side.

          Marsha stepped forward and pressed her brow up to the glass to get a better view of the smudge, whatever it was. It stood out subtly from the pinkish backdrop of clouds, a speck floating through the vast expanse. It was small, much closer to the window than it appeared. Palm-sized at the largest. It was shaped like a disc, roughly circular, and looked like it was covered in a kind of fiber. Stringy, vine-like tendrils hung beneath the disc as it floated along, swinging as the air flowed through them. Marsha couldn’t help but think of a sunflower, as the fibers stemmed from the thing’s round, craterous center like petals.

          What was this? Almost a year and nobody had seen anything like this. Was it alive? Marsha felt foolish for asking herself the question. It was most definitely alive, anything that looked like this would have to be. The center of the thing pulsed infrequently, retracting its tendrils for a moment and letting them hang again. What was this?

          Marsha scanned the surrounding sky, looking for something alien. There were more—two were floating up from beneath the ship. There was another one meandering off away from the window, which Marsha could see if she craned her neck to find it. She crouched, placed the flowerpot on the floor, and fumbled around on the workbench behind her for a tablet, not taking her eyes off of the window. There was no time to waste, she had to take notes, take photos. Sleeping could wait, it would have to. She ought to wake everyone else up, this was a huge deal, wasn’t it?

          Instead Marsha sat and watched as the things floated by, carried on some stream of wind. More and more had revealed themselves and they formed a veritable cloud of their own, blocking out the salmon sky and the lightning and the flowerbeds in the reflection. The window opened out onto a river of the things passing in and out of view, moving steadily upwards. Reaching for the sun, just like those from home. She was back in the sunflower fields. These sunflowers were awfully beautiful, Marsha thought.