‘Drown or Die’, Therese Arkenberg

Illustration © 2010 Cécile Matthey.



 [ Under the rusting tree, © 2010 Cécile Matthey ] “Marie Kilcannon is here to see you, ma’am,” her secretary said from the door.

“Send her right in, Tom, thank you.” Sharon replied without taking her eyes from the window. The rains that had come the past week had been heavy, almost as heavy as Earth’s, she’d heard, and more of the trees in the arbor were rusting.

She would have to tell the gardener to plant more ornamental grasses. They didn’t have the high iron content of the trees; like Earth’s grasses, they had incorporated silica into their structure instead. The inundation of water into the atmosphere hadn’t harmed them nearly so much.

“Sharon?”

Marie stood at the edge of the faux-fur carpet, her hydration mask hanging in one hand. Tom should have taken it with the rest of her suit, Sharon thought—but then she saw the chapped skin on Marie’s slender arms.

“You came without a suit,” she said. Not quite a question.

“It’s not like I walked or anything. The way up your path isn’t so long, not after a rain—anyway, I was in a hurry.” A shy smile.

“I guess I was, too—I told Tom to bring you right in without giving you any time...here, let me take that.” She lifted the mask from Marie’s fingers and set it on the table.

“Your garden is beautiful this year.”

“Thanks. Keeping it up has been hell. Terraforming’s really started to affect it. I’m thinking of putting up a shield.”

“Blocking the moisture out the way our home-shields lock the moisture in?” Marie’s lips curled into a soft smile. They weren’t chapped, but pink and faintly gleaming when her tongue ran over them. “That’s clever, Sharon!”

“Thanks.” Marie hadn’t cared so much about the garden last year, her second summer on the planet, their first summer together; Sharon wondered what had changed. “If you bring a suit, maybe we can go walking in them next time.”

“That would be wonderful.” Marie’s eyes had been on the windows, now they turned to her, and Sharon felt pinned beneath their dark, dark gaze.

“But, now...” They met each other halfway for the kiss. Sharon’s bedroom was upstairs, but she had a queen-size in the room beside the study, a holdover from when the distribution business was first starting up and she had worked until collapse some nights. Now it was useful for other things. She had left orders that when Marie Kilcannon visited alone, they were not to be disturbed.


Sharon was a native of Diana, had never been off the desert planet’s surface in her life, and was perfectly accustomed to home-shields, iron trees, and hydration suits when the refugee ships arrived with their news of disaster. It was over for Earth, the climate had been shot to hell, and something like three billion Earth natives who had the resources to escape needed to be seeded out to the colonies. Colonies that, like Diana, didn’t have the climate to support the population crush were to be terraformed until they did.

Speaking of shooting climates to hell...

Still, it was dry outside, despite the recent rains; dry because of the western wind that blew almost constantly, pitilessly from the vast desert plain. Lying sprawled on the polyester sheets, one hand tracing up and down Marie’s naked back, she watched through the windows as silica-rough grasses bowed in the wind and a rust-eaten branch shivered brittlely.

Soon it would fall—even though the branches of Diana’s iron trees were not supposed to, strong and solid as they were meant to be.

“Soon they’ll be able to plant real trees out there,” Marie murmured.

Sharon hid her wince. Real trees—like the iron trunks were just some creative sculpture. But Marie did care for Diana’s somewhat-flora, in her own Earth-native way. She had been excited at the thought of a garden-shield saving them.

Sharon would have to set to work on that right away.

Marie sat up. “I’ll have to head home soon or call Jacob.”

“Call him. Tell him you’re having dinner at my place.”

“Okay...”

“Or does he not like you seeing me?”

Marie gave her a quizzical look. “Of course, he doesn’t know about this...”

“But is he suspicious, or jealous just the same?”

“Of course not.”

Sharon shrugged. Sometimes husbands could be like that. Wives too, no doubt, but she’d never had to worry about a jealous wife. “Then call him.”

Dinner was simple, largely greenhouse-grown fare washed down by a vintage that had come from Earth—unimaginably pricy, it had been part of Sharon’s estate long before the refugee ships arrived three years ago with the news that Earth would never grow grapes again.

Marie had seemed distant in the bedroom, and she wanted to find out why.

She sniffed delicately, almost cautiously, at the pale liquid Sharon poured in her glass. “Are we celebrating something?”

“You tell me.” Sharon corked the bottle and sat back in her chair. “Or are we mourning?”

Marie’s fingers traced the glass’s rim. “I think I might be pregnant.”

Sharon took a sip of wine, thinking. “That explains it. I thought you were acting oddly—well, hormones. Congratulations. So you’re still sleeping with Jacob?”

The fingers stopped tracing, freezing like prey catching sight of a hunter. “I...”

“God, Marie, I’m not judging you—he’s your husband. I was just a little bit startled.”

“You know I’ve wanted to have children.”

“Sure, sure.” She said it soothingly, trying to remove that look from Marie’s eyes. Like a hunted animal. Or a guilty woman.

She’d wanted children for three years, ever since she and Jacob had arrived on Diana in the refugee wave—arrived alone. She had two sons and a daughter. One son had already been established on the Martian colony. One was sent to Prometheus, and the daughter went to Janus II. All sent separate places, the genetic heritage separated by light-decades as they were carried away on the refugee ships. The son on his way to Prometheus must still be in cyro-sleep.

“Well, it’s what we’re supposed to do here, isn’t it?” Marie asked.

Sharon looked up from the tablecloth hem. “Sorry?”

“We’re supposed to breed. Mix and match our genes. Create a viable population here.”

“Sure.”

“Jacob says he’s thrilled. Of course. He knows it’s what I want—and I wouldn’t have slept with him otherwise, Sharon, promise—”

“I said it was no problem—”

But he keeps looking at me—like I’m... unnatural, or something... like I’m trying to replace them!”

Sharon rose and went around the table. Put her arms around the shaking shoulders, let Marie press her face to her stomach.

“It’s all right, sweetheart. Of course you aren’t doing that. And he knows it—but this must be hard for him, I guess. They wer—they’re his children, too.” Encouraging empathy for her mistress’s husband. Well, she’d done stranger things.

“I know. I guess I know that. But thanks for telling me—thanks.” She pulled back, wiping at tears with one hand and pressing the other to her flat stomach. “At least they’re not going to send this one away.”

Sharon sat back down. “I always thought that was bullshit, you know. Splitting up the families. So there’s a little less genetic diversity on each ship, for each colony, but so what? Family, for God’s sake. How desperate do you have to be to break that up?”

“Very,” Marie said. And then they were quiet. They had an agreement not to speak of Earth.


They had to drown this planet. Drown it or die. They needed more oxygen, and for that they needed plants, Earth plants. And Earth’s plants needed water.

And water was poisonous to Diana’s ecosystem, but so what?

So what if your iron garden dies, Sharon? It’s the future of the human race.

Bullshit.

It was Marie’s fourth month. She still visited, though they didn’t make love much anymore. In a way it was a relief to see their relationship was not only physical. There was also talking and walks in the gardens, though that last was also something they didn’t do so frequently anymore.

“You really should get a shield for your plants soon, if you want to save them.” Marie’s eyes flashed behind her hydration mask. She was wearing a suit today, one she had put on after being reminded of the baby, though the climate was nearing the point where she could have gone without one and received only mild discomfort, provided there was no west wind. Today there wasn’t.

Her child—a son, it was determined—would never know an atmosphere without water vapor.

“Yes, I should,” Sharon said. If she didn’t, Marie’s son might never know a Diana with iron trees.

She had no excuse for procrastinating, except that every time she thought of placing calls and ordering a shield, she felt sick to her stomach. It was like getting a colon exam, or admitting defeat. Undignified, uncomfortable, and avoidable, no matter how necessary. Nothing forced her to get those shields.

Only the fact that if she didn’t, the garden would die. And Marie would become very upset with her.

She looked now at the round curve of belly beneath the silver hydrosuit. Pregnancy had made Marie surprisingly sensitive—Sharon hadn’t expected it. She thought all the rumored emotional changes were just legends, like PMS. Apparently not. This wouldn’t be the first fight they’d had—about the trees, or anything, or nothing at all.

“You know what I was thinking of doing,” she said, “I was thinking, in another month or two, of planting an Earth garden—cactuses and stuff, on the south side where they’ll get a breeze off the new lake every once in a while. And I’ll put up shields for when we get that west wind, at least until the west wets up. What do you think?”

“Cacti,” Marie said.

“Sorry?”

“Not cactuses. It’s cacti.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Marie sat on the garden bench. It was iron, made to fit in with the trees, but Sharon had its surface treated with an anti-rusting agent after the first clouds formed. Sometimes she thought of applying the same agent to her arbor—it would kill the trees, by interfering with their chemical processes, but at least it would preserve the corpses. Carl, her new mechanic—new although she’d had him three years, a heavily in-debt refugee she had taken in out of pity—had suggested it. To Earth-natives, there wasn’t much difference between a living tree of Diana, or a dead one.

“Jacob said he was going to plant a garden like that,” Marie said. Sharon mentally kicked herself. “He says it’ll be just like home. We’re close, you know, to the new lake—our town council is thinking of naming it Terra. Lake Terra. I guess it’ll be nice to see Earth plants again...although I’d like to see real trees. Oaks, maples. Jacob says they had the seeds in the holds of the ships when we came here.”

“Maples are pretty, with their red leaves.” Sharon faintly remembered some pictures, seen back in her school days.

“Sometimes they’re green.” Marie shifted. With her pregnancy, crossing her legs was becoming uncomfortable, but she wasn’t in the habit of sitting any other way.

“Do you know what the population of Diana is?” she asked suddenly.

Sharon shrugged. “No. Something like two hundred seventy, three hundred million...”

“Five hundred million. Because of the refugees from Earth. You would have gotten more, but the governments’ coalition figured two hundred million was all the increase you could stand...It was three billion refugees, total. Earth’s population was eight billion.”

“I guess I never really heard.”

“Five billion people were trapped—I guess they’re still there—on a planet that’s slowly becoming a toxic desert, because all the colonies together could support less than half of them. Nobody likes to talk about that. But do you know the absolute numbers of the human race? How many of us there are in the entire universe?”

“No...”

Five billion. That’s it. The people on Earth don’t count, that population’s doomed anyway—so we’re halved. Do you know, three hundred million was the kind of population an affluent country on Earth had in the twenty-first century? We’ve become practically an endangered species!”

Humans, endangered? Sharon looked away from Marie, over the rusting garden. The trees were an endangered species. One deliberately put in danger—for humans. “Well, you and Jake are doing your part to fix that up,” she said.

“What?”

“Aren’t you? Re-seeding? Creating a viable population? Spreading your DNA across the known universe?”

“Not by choice.”

She pointed at Marie’s abdomen. “Was that by choice?”

I didn’t want to lose my children!

“Of course you didn’t. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Please, sit down.”

Marie sat down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to fly off the handle like that.”

“It’s okay.” Breathe, Sharon. Deep breaths in and out. Diana’s oxygen-faint air, lately enriched by some cacti and hardy algae, filtered through the hydrosuit. “You know, I guess I should start having kids myself sometime. The showtime ads—Welcome to Diana, you’re home, settle down and start a family—are beginning to get to me.”

“Don’t be so bitter.”

“What’s there to be bitter about? It’s the future of the human race.”

Sharon—” A gasp, funny sounds coming through the hydrosuit speaker—Marie’s shoulders shuddered; she was crying.

“Sorry. Oh, Marie, I’m sorry, honey.” She put an arm around the shaking shoulders, as close to an embrace as they could come in the hydrosuits. “I guess I am bitter.”

“I just don’t want this.”

“Sorry?”

“I-just-don’t-want-this.” Marie sniffed and made as if to wipe her nose though the mask. “This planet, and the fact that we’re killing it...and my kids...and Jacob’s goddamn cactus garden, and now you...I want to go home,” she said. “I want to go back.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” She rubbed Marie’s back and let her head in its mask rest on her shoulder. “I...” I’m sorry? I love you? I’m sure it’ll be all right?

She said instead, so softly she was sure Marie couldn’t hear, “I want to go home, too.”


“Call for you, ma’am, Kilcannon residence.”

“I’ll take it in here, thanks, Tom.”

“Sharon?”

She nearly fell from her chair—it wasn’t the voice she’d expected. “Jacob? Hi. What is it?”

“Marie.”

Oh, God. Hands kneading the edge of her desk, she said, “What’s up? Anything wrong?”

“She’s healthy...but Sharon, it’s been hard on her. And...she doesn’t know I’m saying this...she’s always much happier after she’s spent the day with you. And she and I, lately we just can’t seem to get along... stress, I think.”

“Sure,” Sharon said. “And hormones.”

“Well, I was going to ask... if it isn’t too much trouble...maybe she can stay at your place a few days.”

Sharon’s mouth was open, and after a moment she realized the sound she thought was the halting hum of the humidifier came from her. “Sorry,” she said. “I was just thinking...”

“If it would inconvenience you, it’s by no means necessary. We can make other plans.” Jacob sounded testy—excellent, just excellent, she had offended him. Though she supposed with that sound she could hardly have done anything else.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’d love to have Marie over. I’m just thinking of what I need to prepare—”

“We’ll bring most of her things over. She’ll be fine in a guest room, she’ll cause you no trouble... er.” Jacob cleared his throat, an embarrassed sound. “We’re very grateful...”

“It’s absolutely no problem.” She smiled, because she’d heard such things carried in the voice. I should be happier, she thought. If nothing else, this proves he suspects nothing. “She can come over anytime. I’ll have a room ready.”

“Thank you.” Jacob’s voice was heavy with relief. “I know she loves being with you—I’m sure you’ll do her good.”


“Do you want to come outside?”

The shape at the window said, “No.”

“Sunlight will be good for you.”

“I can get sunlight here.”

“Fresh air is good, too.”

“Dry air, you mean.”

“It’s more humid now.”

Marie turned to look at her with shadow-shrouded eyes in a face like a skull, drawn and pale. Her hair hung limply, uncombed, cleaned only when Sharon insisted. The last time she had done it herself, bathing Marie like a baby. All her body was like her face, starved-looking, unhealthy, except her swollen abdomen.

“You’ve got to take care of yourself,” Sharon said, almost angrily.

“Of course.” She brushed her belly, like a teenager feeling a tender pimple. “Vessel for the second generation, aren’t I?”

“Nobody thinks of you that way.” Sharon made herself unclench her fists. “You’re not on the refugee ships anymore, Marie. Not some number lost in the shuffle, not some DNA strands recorded in a geneticist’s computer. Call me short-sighted, but you’re what I see, Marie. You. And you have a baby coming, and you and Jacob want that baby, and having that baby takes a lot out of you, so you’d better take care of yourself!”

Marie stepped slowly, almost reluctantly, away from the window.

“I’ll help you suit up,” Sharon said, knowing she wouldn’t be able to manage all the tubes and clasps on her own. It wasn’t that she needed strength or lacked knowledge of the procedure, Marie just didn’t have the patience anymore to fit everything together. She got irritated, impatient, dispirited easily, far too easily. Sharon had called Jacob once, asked if she should have any pills or anything, but there was nothing really wrong, he said, just some stress and excitement, and maybe a little homesickness. When he had talked to Marie himself, she insisted there was nothing wrong.

Three of the iron trees still stood, the oldest and thickest, trunks still solid though streaked with rust. The rest lay in sandy piles across the yard—Sharon had directed her gardener to sweep them up, but he had been busy lately, working on the new cactus garden.

Marie looked at the trees but said nothing, as if she lacked the strength for a rebuke.

“My climate-read says the humidity’s fifteen percent today,” Sharon said, mostly for the sake of saying something. “Not bad. Wind’s from the south, of course, but we’ve got the suits on in case it changes...”

“Of course,” Marie said. “Wouldn’t want to dry out, would we?”

Sharon led her to the iron bench. She was always leading her places, it seemed, or coaxing her to eat, or helping her suit up or bathe. No lover’s touches, anymore. She felt more like an old wife helping her spouse dying of some wasting disease.

Morbid thought. She shook it off.

“I wonder what it’s like on other planets,” Marie said. “If they’ve had to change them so much. Probably wouldn’t have to import hydrogen on Prometheus, I’ve heard it’s pretty wet there anyway...”

“All sorts of places,” Sharon said. “I guess it’s different everywhere.” She supposed it meant something, that Marie would expend the energy to wonder.

The boot of Marie’s hydrosuit scuffed the sand. “Imagine,” she said, “All the colonies they’ve set up—how many are there? Over twenty?”

“Something like that.”

“And almost all of them had life of their own before we came. Life that’s evolved for millions of years and then...done.” She pointed at a mound of rusty sand.

“It happens,” Sharon said, though of course it didn’t, not in the natural order of things.

But since when did the natural order count for anything?

“Of course,” Marie said. “Look at Earth.”

Sharon was about to ask what she meant when the pointing finger went from the sand mound to a wiggling thing tucked in a silica bush’s shadow and Marie gasped, “What’s that?”

“That?” Sharon stood and crept closer, slowly, so it wouldn’t run or wiggle away. “It’s, um...a sand-waver, maybe.”

“Maybe?” Marie followed her.

“They don’t usually look like this.”

The thing wiggled harder as they approached. Probably a sand-waver—that wiggling might be the weary echo of its usual graceful glide. No wonder, though, that this one wasn’t more graceful. The shell covering its head, which normally made it look like a horseshoe crab formed by a turtle glued onto a tadpole (Jacob’s words, Sharon remembered from some party, describing the things to some other Earth-natives attending, Marie clinging to his arm; maybe this was the party where she had met her), had sloughed off, like something melting. Wrinkled shards lay scattered across the sand, and the body they revealed was pale brown, wet-looking, and twisting in obvious pain.

“Oh...” Marie said.

“Yeah.” Sharon turned away. Time to go inside, for sure. Marie didn’t need to see this—

Oh,” she said again. Sharon looked over her shoulder to see her kneeling, reaching out, and before she could stop her, gathering the creature into her arms.

“I’m not sure...” The warning died in her mouth. What might happen? The sand-waver couldn’t hurt Marie through the suit, and she didn’t seem to be doing it any more harm.

“Sharon, can we help it? Is there anything we can do?”

“I don’t know.” She had never known a sand-weaver to grow back shell, though admittedly she’d never known one to lose it either, and it wasn’t like anyone on Diana studied how to treat water-poisoning. She assumed that was what it was. She didn’t have drying-suits or dehumidifiers or anything like that.

“Sharon, let’s take him inside.” Marie’s eyes were wide, her words rushed; she seemed panicked.

“I can’t. It’s even damper in there.”

“Oh. Right...” She was biting her lip, Sharon could see through the mask. Then, “Why couldn’t you have had a shield? I told you to put one up...It was your idea in the first place—it would have saved them, don’t you see? It could have saved them! Why didn’t you do it?”

The reasons were long, complex, and too weak to give her, Sharon knew, too weak to stand against Marie’s frustrated sobs. The only thing strong enough to stand against anger was anger, so she said, “It wouldn’t have done any good, anyway.”

“What?”

“Look, you know it! This planet’s dying. We’re drowning it, making it all nice and perfect for humans to live on—killing everything that’s evolved to live on it in the first place! I could save a dozen trees or a sand-waver, but what good does that do, really? Nobody else cares. Eventually I’ll die, and the estate will go to somebody who doesn’t give a damn, and the shields will go down, and they’ll all die. So why bother?”

“Why both...” Marie broke off, looking at the sand-waver in her arms. It had stopped wiggling. “I always thought you’d bother.”

“I don’t anymore. I’m sick of being the only one who cares.”

“I care,” Marie said. She crouched and set the sand-waver down, on the pile of rusty sand at her feet. “I’ve always cared. About what we’re doing to this planet—about what we’re doing to ourselves. About what we did to Earth. We killed it.” She stepped to the bench, mechanically, and dropped into it. “And to save the human race, we split up families, we divided our DNA to give our descendents a good genetic heritage, and now we massacre ecosystems so they’ll have the right sort of environment. And some people cared—we didn’t want to lose our children, you didn’t want to lose your planet, but...so what?”

“Yeah,” Sharon said. “So what? It’s the future of the human race.”

“Bullshit.”

She sat down beside the shaking figure in the hydrosuit. “I love you, Marie.”

“Thanks.”

But she wouldn’t stop crying. An Earth-native habit, that; children on Diana were taught better than to waste water on tears. It was a show of respect, mainly, for the preciousness of water—nobody was really put in danger of dehydration by crying.

This, the death of a planet, was surely an occasion for tears if there ever was one.

Sharon, dry-eyed, put her arms around Marie and held her for a long time.


When she awoke, the other side of the bed was empty.

It hadn’t been, the night before—Marie had been there, and though they hadn’t made love in the literal sense they had held each other, kissed, spoken softly about nothing until they fell asleep.

It was good, she supposed, that Marie was out of bed so early. Usually she slept in, even until noon some days. If she had more energy, or at least the will to use it, perhaps the scene in the garden yesterday had been worth it.

Sharon rolled out of bed, dressed, hummed softly as she went downstairs. It was an old song, one she hadn’t heard for a while but always remembered, a lullaby. She thought Marie might like to hear it.

Marie wasn’t in the dining room as she had expected. She went to the parlor door, peered in—nothing—and was halfway to her study before she realized that Marie wouldn’t have gone in there without her. Thinking she might be in the bathroom, she had decided to go into the dining room and wait when the door at the far end of the hall opened.

“Ma’am...”

“Tom.” She turned, saw his face; she ran down the hall to the foyer. “What is it?”

He pointed, vaguely, behind him. No words.

Sharon opened her closet, grabbed down a hydrosuit and fumbled it on. She was pulling the mask over her head as she ran out the door.

No native of Diana, no matter her hurry, would step outside without a suit.

The fact seemed both irrelevant and deeply vital.

She hung from the tallest tree, a blur of rose pink—the color of her nightshirt and her chapped skin. Bare feet dangled above an overturned chair. How could she not have noticed it missing from the dining room?

She hadn’t worn a hydrosuit or a mask. Sharon couldn’t look at her face—she knew what happened to eyes when someone died that way, and she knew what happened to eyes without a mask, they’d shown her videos in grade school.

Though Diana had been drier, then.

“Tom,” she called. “Get...somebody. The police, maybe. And tell Jacob. But...we need somebody to get her down...hurry!” The branches of the remaining iron trees were still study, mostly, not rusted through or even near it, and Marie was slight, but Sharon imagined her body as an unbearable burden; at any moment she expected the branch holding her to snap.

“Yes, ma’am.” She heard, faintly, the door closing behind him.

Thoughts, then, falling like drops of water.

She should have gotten the shield.

Jacob had no family on Diana now, though he had some children on Mars, Janus II, and Prometheus.

Those children would never know.

Diana was still dying, and she was back to being the only one who cared.

She had told Marie she loved her. She couldn’t remember ever saying it before.

“Bullshit.” She didn’t know what she was saying it to; everything, perhaps. It would be nice if it was all bullshit, if none of it was worthwhile or true.

She felt liquid pooling around her chin. Her face felt wet—she realized she was crying. She pulled off her mask and stood, staring at the base of the tree, her tears drying in the arid western wind.


© 2010, Therese Arkenberg

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