Flash fiction by Chandler Leigh.
Colson awoke to a growling in his stomach. Sitting up, he saw the bunk across from his was empty, the sheets folded neatly under a thin pillow. The rest of the polyrubber beds along the sparse barracks were identical, the foil-grey quilts undisturbed. He scrambled to get dressed, pulling on a dusty boilersuit and strapping on his filtration helmet. The clock on his visor read eight in the morning, a full hour after his first field shift was supposed to begin.
He sighed, causing warm fog to crawl up the helmet’s glass visor. The other farmers in his barracks must have not bothered to wake him, instead letting him snooze long past the beginning of the morning shift. Those bastards, they even managed to convince Julio, his bunkmate, to play along with their petty punishment.
Last night’s supper hadn’t ended on good terms. It all started when the rest of Colson’s crew had shot him funny looks when he refused to eat the stew served in the canteen. He should have known things were going bad when even Julio, the most level-headed farmer on the whole compound, had edged away from the argument. The whole mission was celebrating its first successful crop harvest, a monumental haul of hardy golden potatoes, and everyone from the grunts to the higher ups were spooning the starchy porridge as if it were laced with gourmet truffles. But not Colson. He didn’t trust the food one bit.
During his field shift the day before, Colson had found several quarter-sized lumps of gray powder growing on the underside of several potato leaves. He tried to warn the other men about his discovery, but they didn’t listen.
You’re being paranoid, they argued. The dust can play tricks on your eyes. Just shut up and chow down.
Fools, the lot of them. Colson had tossed his food in the bin and stomped back to the barracks alone. He’d rather go to bed hungry than be ridiculed by a pack of gluttonous idiots.
And now they were getting back at him by making him late to work duty. He’d be docked half a shift’s pay for that.
Outside he crossed the empty yard between the barracks and the crop fields, kicking up clouds of red dust with his boots. It’d take decades of terraforming to turn this planet into the green paradise their agricultural mission promised it would become. Back on Earth, Colson believed all the glossy posters; they painted the work as a noble calling, an important mission for the interstellar future of humanity. But when he boarded the seed ship to take him into space, an unexplainable dread settled over him. Now it sat like an iron ball in his stomach, heavy beneath the gnaw of hunger.
Colson entered the canteen to find it empty. Even Louis, the surly cook, was missing from his usual spot behind the service counter, the battered pans of rehydrated eggs gone cold and boogery.
His eyes narrowed. Was everyone in the compound, Julio and Louis included, in on this stupid joke?
Begrudgingly, Colson reported to the fields without breakfast, but found them as deserted as the canteen. There was no sign of the other terrafarmers among the plants, no operators manning the massive water spraying apparatus, no fleets of suited men combing the red soil with weed thrashers. There was nothing but green leaves over red earth, all the way to the horizon.
Colson considered going back to his barracks and messaging mission control. He deserved an explanation on what the hell was going on, damnit, and he was going to get one. But as he turned, a gray shimmer among the crop rows caught his eye. Between the rows of potato plants, several foot-high mounds of the mildew sprouted in fleecy oblong pillars.
They were spreading fast.
He stepped through the leaves to get a better look at one of the silvery masses, but his boot caught on something in the dirt. A lone terrafarmer’s helmet lolled in the soil near his crimson-stained feet. The visor was cleaved in two by a jagged crack in the glass.
Colson nudged the helmet with his toe, aiming to read the nameplate screwed to the inner lining, but the gear was coated by an oozing hoary liquid which clung to his boot. A sour dampness, like curdled milk, permeated into Colson’s helmet. Had there been any food in his stomach, it would have forced its way back up his throat.
The helmet’s nameplate read Julio De Jong.
On the edge of his vision, one of the gray mounds of mildew sat up and grinned.
Read more about the author Chandler Leigh HERE.