Scarlet

A new short story in progress! Will probably undergo some edits.

The Community is about 500 people strong. Deafness is prevalent. So is lung cancer. So is depression. It’s hard to say if depression is more prevalent among those dying than among the relatively healthy. A mournful sorrow has settled over all the people like the dust, like the dirt and the starvation. You have to measure above that, or call the prevalence of depression 100%.

A quarter of them make the five mile trek to the launch site every week to collect supplies. The spaceships soar into the sky at five hour intervals, arcing into the heavens and disappearing into unknown worlds. The refugees stand at the chain link fence, fingers intertwining the metal, the dust covering them uniformly. Men, women, children. Almost indistinguishable, but for the relative differences in size. Some days there are no supplies to give them. They stay until nightfall before taking the trek back. The sickest stay behind to be buried by The Caregivers at the launch site.  The line of passengers does not give up its steady march, nobody turns to look at them. Eventually the dead and dying are taken inside.

It would be simple enough to load the healthiest members of The Community onto a rocket and take them to one of the destination worlds. The resources are there, though of course they don’t know that. It would be simple enough to reallocate the resources. But this is not the only community left like this in the dying world. This is not the only problem we’re abandoning on the dusty surface of the Earth, underneath the scarlet skies, beside the toxic algal seas. We did not spend so much, give up so much, to bring them all back with us. There will be no dusty children twining their fingers through a chain link fence in the new world. We were promised more among the stars.

***

Scarlet sits on my lap, gently squirming and sucking on a candy cube. I press the stethoscope to her small, childish chest and quietly shush her when she giggles. Her lungs rasp with every breath. Typical, but beneath that I hear the tell-tale build-up of fluid that signals a more serious problem. She’s been sea bathing.

I sigh and pull out an anti-fungal spray. I quickly apply it to a meat cube and hand it to her. Scarlet squeals with delight and quickly devours it.

Her name is common among the lower classes, the ones left behind. Scarlet, Coral, Sienna, Carmine, Ruby, Cardinal, Cherry. Some of the less intelligent ones just call their children Red. It’s no wonder, about the only natural colour left in the world is red. The sky is red, the algal blooms are red, the precious meat cubes are red. By now it’s hard to remember a time when blue and green were the colours of Earth.

Scarlet has finished her meat cube. She pulls my hair, twining my long black locks into a braid. She gazes up at me with muddy brown eyes, deep-set in sallow brown skin. “Have you been up there?” she points to a rocket soaring up into the sky. “Is it beautiful?”

I have been up there. As a former head of the Dignitaries Hospital, I was one of the first. The spaceship landed on Viridia, the closest destination planet. The planet required a partial protective dome because of the levels of copper in the atmosphere, but it was the closest planet and at the time we couldn’t afford to be picky. The sky was a brilliant blue, clean of the massive levels of dust that already characterized the skies of Earth. The sea was green, a product of the cupric composition of this planet. The blood of the animals was green, their blood proteins similar to our hemocyanin. We had to process the meat to an almost indistinguishable paste before the levels of copper were safe enough to eat. This was before we developed the meat cubes.

It was a foreign, unfamiliar world. But at night, the skies were completely clear. There were no man-made lights on Viridia yet. You could see the nearby nebula, the vast swath of the Milky Way. The moon was a bright blue orb in the sky, many times the size of our own. Earth was not visible from this distance, but my husband, an astronomer, pointed out a cluster of stars he assured me housed out former solar system.

“Yes.” I answered Scarlet. “It is beautiful.”

She smiled her toothy smile and gently tugged my hair. “Will I ever get to go?”

I pressed her into a tight hug to avoid having to answer.

***

I went with The Community during the next trip to get supplies. Leaving them at the fence, I went around to the main gates. Flashing my badge, I soon entered. The launch site was bustling. Evidently the next launch was in a half-hour.

I went around to the big barracks that housed The Caregivers. Mary was sitting at the desk, filling out population reports. I coughed gently and she turned around, flashing me a benevolent smile.

“Hello Mei. So you have your report?” she asked kindly.

I mutely handed her the book with all the names of the refugees and their status.

“I only had to cross out 76 names in the month I was over there. The winds might be dying down. Though I suspect it’s because you’ve been allowing them more rations.”

She smiled and wrote something down on a pad of paper. I stood by silently as she flipped through the book and recorded the birth rate, the frequency of ages, the prevalence of disease.

“And how many more came while you were there?” she asked finally.

I paused for a moment before answering. “130.”

Mary grimaced. “Is it just me or are the restrictions getting tighter?”

“Why should they be? There’s plenty of room. The Controllers have the resources from before the collapse, and the rockets too. There are probably just more people coming to try their luck.”

She sighed and didn’t answer. “Have you decided if you want to stay? Become one of The Caretakers?” she said, changing the subject and handing me a the refugee book back.

“I’ll stay another month,” I answered slowly, “But this world…”

She nodded. “I understand.”

I stood awkwardly, thumbing over the book. “Have you been to one of the planets? They are beautiful.”

“They are not the same. I have been, and they are not the same. I thought it would be better but…” She shook her head. “I won’t stop you from going. But do consider it.”

I nodded and looked down.

“Is that all?” Mary turned back to her papers.

“Yes. I’ll see you in a month.” I bent my head down in a gentle bow and turned to leave.

***

It was not uncommon for those without families to stay on Earth and become one of The Caregivers. Those of us with medical or survival training were obligated to return for stints to assist the people left on Earth, so long as we did not have responsibilities on one of the other planets. Humanity did not want to seem heartless.

Mary lost her husband in one of the wars that sprung up early in the century. If I had not seen her file, I would not have believed she was ever married. It was common for people to simply forget the loss of a loved one, when the losses flooded too fast to keep track. Mary never forgot. She cut her hair short and swore a vow of celibacy. Whether she kept it in the aftermath of the wars, when food was hard to come by if you didn’t sell everything you had, or when any semblance of humanity was lost to the roving, starving gangs of radiation burned madmen…

She left presumably. We all left, those of us who could. The space program was in its zenith in those years. The majority of any country’s wealth was spent developing the rockets that would take us all away from the problem that plagued the Earth. I remembered handing over my card to the steel-faced General, watching him hold it to his scanning red eye to make sure it wasn’t a forgery. He frowned slightly and I felt the barrel of a gun butt up against me. My husband was in another room, presumably going through the same process. Finally I was given my card back.

“Class 2. Doctor, Dignitaries Hospital,” he barked to the notary sitting at the desk behind him. I was given a green token and sent forward to the launch site.

We stood together, my husband and I, awed by the magnificence of our salvation. The rocket towered above us, glinting white, a depiction of Earth blazoned in vivid greens and blues on the nose. We stepped in holding hands, smiling broadly at our luck in being able to leave the horror behind.

***

In another month I left The Community for good. I had crossed out 92 names and written in 203 more in that month. Mary shook my hand warmly and wished me luck. I did not see her again, not that I expected to. This was my last stint on Earth.

When I stepped off the ship onto the foreign black soil of Viridia, my husband was waiting for me.

“Mei. I have missed you.”

“Victor. I have missed you as well.”

We embraced underneath the foreign blue sky, as we had that first moment we stepped out of the spaceship. We had been so joyous, so pleased with the totality of our escape. Now we embraced mournfully, knowing we would not escape this world, knowing there was nothing left behind under that dusty red sky.

***

I named our first born child Scarlet. It was not an uncommon name, even here where the very blood was green. It was sentimental, a memory of the friends people had on Earth, a reminder of our native red sky.

They would still live on these other planets. The Scarlets and Rubys we had left behind. They would still live among the strange plants and the green blooded animals. The familiar rasp in the lungs of those born on Earth would eventually be replaced by the green hue in the skin of those who were genetically engineered to survive here. And they would be named Scarlet.

Sometimes I looked up at the sky in Viridia and thought I saw the familiar red tinge. If I squinted, I thought I could see the dust clouds rising up from the south. It was long since we stopped bringing people up from Earth. But the launch pad was kept in pristine condition. But the rockets still arced to the sky in a test of our resolve. Back on Earth, people were dying. Back on Earth, the dust was engulfing everything we had ever known. There was nothing to save. We kept moving forward.

Personal notes for revision:

Why was Scarlet sea-bathing when the oceans are so toxic?

Is there a government? Who is organizing these space flights?

Talk about unrest on these planets

Look over the tenses

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