Reading time: 10 min
The humming fluorescence of the artificial sun faded, and with it faded Cyril’s motivation to finish his work. Despite the whirring air circulation systems, a stasis suppressed the room in which he stood, surveying rows and rows of growth pods. The floors were almost clean, but he had slacked today; normally, he finished before the fake sunset. Today, he lugged the mop across stark, white tiles in encroaching darkness.
The room, known as the growth chamber, was never long without light, however. Cyril knew he would soon be illuminated in glowing topaz hues, as he was every night. Each growth pod—and the comatose humans within them—becoming a beacon of bioluminescence. Would it ever seem normal?
A voice shattered his silent contemplation. “Cyril, still at it?” Deep and resonant, the question thundered through the broad space, echoing off the curved white walls that typified the architecture of modern space stations.
Cyril turned to face the speaker, hardly visible in the fading light. “Captain Harris,” he replied, saluting quickly. “Yeah, still got some ground to cover.” His words dripped with unintentional dejection, amplified by the vastness of the growth chamber.
Captain David Harris commanded the space station Ceres as an easy pre-retirement gig. Cyril had learned this over one-too-many glasses of wine with the Captain shortly after joining the station. The appeal was obvious, however: David could fully enjoy the benefits of a military service member without any true risk to his wellbeing, winding down his career. “Well,” David replied, perhaps sensing the tone in Cyril’s voice, “no one is coming overnight to inspect.”
“Thanks,” Cyril replied, understanding the comment’s implication. “Plans tonight?” He continued to mop, not fully abdicating his work yet.
David stepped around a growth pod, which were little more than glorified cots. “Missed my workout, so I’m going now. Can’t sleep otherwise,” the Captain replied. A brief silence followed this comment, which David broke in an awkward mutter: “If you’re sick of this—”
“I know,” Cyril replied, cutting off his Captain in a quasi-mutinous act. It was a familiar offer: Give up on custodial work and return to the field. Whenever Cyril’s work slowed, the offer seemed to follow.
But returning to the field would not bring them back.
“So long as you know,” David replied, waving his hand dismissively. He was within a few feet of Cyril now, having traversed the chamber as the pair spoke. A quick handshake passed between the men, a sign of friendship rather than rank, and David hurried past his subordinate. Suddenly, he paused, and turned to face Cyril once more: “You sleeping here tonight? There’s a new member in Security.”
“Yeah, send them over,” Cyril replied.
David nodded. “Great. I’ll let her know. Still, she won’t notice if floors aren’t perfect,” he said, smiling as he exited the room to the long corridor beyond it.
Cyril heeded his Captain’s words and leaned the mop against the wall, pausing to survey the large space. A massive rectangular prism of blanched white. When alit by the artificial sun—an enormous bulb that rotated around the room—the chamber was nauseatingly bright.
But the room was even more nauseating after the sunset. Cyril took a seat on his usual chair, positioned between the same two growth pods each night.
It would not be long now.
The darkness of space always astounded Cyril. Humanity strived endlessly to push back the dark and scrape away shadows, but there were fleeting moments when the natural world showed its sublime and ineffable scope. These moments reminded Cyril of his place in the universe. Small. Insignificant. Afraid.
As he shrank in the face of the abyss, staring into empty cosmos, a subtle yellow glow began to pulsate behind him. A counterpoint to the pitch black of space. At the sight, he felt a welling in his throat. If the natural world beyond this room was terrifying in its size and disinterest, the nature in this room was terrifying in its focus.
Each growth pod—a white plastic tube housing a bed and comatose body—began to shine with faint incandescence. Each body starting to glow.
A familiar sight, but it always upset Cyril. A deep breath swelled his chest as his eyes traced the nearest comatose body. It was lifeless and pallid.
But not motionless. The dry, cracked lips slowly peeled open.
A drop of warmth formed in the corner of Cyril’s eyes and his hands began to shake.
A slithering yellow shape poked out of the parted lips, emanating a throbbing light. A flower petal escaping the comatose mouth. A second followed, and another. Petal after petal seemingly vomited from the lifeless body, followed by a vinelike stem.
The strange bloom rose and coiled into the air like smoke. Beneath the first, new flowers blossomed, each the same canary yellow with inlets of orange. Smaller flowers grew from the ears and eyes of the body. Even the pores were gilded with microscopic growths as the body became a garden from the alien flora.
And all these flowers pulsed with bioluminescence, emanating a flamelike glow, painting the massive chamber yellow and orange.
Cyril’s limbs tremored in the uncanny light. No matter how many times he saw the sprouting, it remained bizarre. Each growth pod now housed an alien plant, all shining with a sickening amber.
A voice behind Cyril caused him to jump: “Cyril?” His breath caught in his chest at the unexpected noise. “Captain Harris told me to come see you.”
Cyril sat with a young woman named Ashley, the newest member of the security team. She wore a typical off-duty tan jumpsuit, alongside a neutral if nervous expression on her face. “Did you request to be stationed on the Ceres?” Cyril asked.
Ashley shook her head promptly. “No, uh,” she paused, seemingly unsure of her next words.
Cyril realized the concern. “I’m on long-term leave. No formalities or titles with me,” he said, waving his hand slightly and offering a calming smile. “Well, Captain Harris is a good man.”
At this, Ashley’s gaze dropped to the floor, awash in yellow phosphorescence. Cyril’s brow furrowed. Had she heard the rumours about the Captain? His fingers clutched at his knees, rustling the fabric of jumpsuit. He took a purposeful, calming breath.
“Whatever you’ve heard, it doesn’t matter,” Cyril said, standing up and stretching slightly. “He does his job well. We all do.” As he spoke, Cyril walked towards the window. His vision was drawn into the immense gravity of space, while his peripherals burned with the Odihlia light around him. “It isn’t stressful work. That’s why some of us are here.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Ashley asked.
Cyril expected the question. Everyone asked it. As his eyes focused on a faint star in the distance, he responded as usual: “Not quite. But it is a nice perk anyway.”
Another anticipated question. Steeling his heart, Cyril inhaled and turned to face Ashley, who had also left her chair and now stood near him. “Those two—the man and the woman,” Cyril said, pointing to the two bodies their chairs had been positioned between. “They are named Jeffrey and Alice. The three of us discovered the Odihlia.”
Cyril heard the breath catch in Ashley’s chest. Her eyebrows twitched before she spoke: “But they… well, they look…”
The sentence trailed off. The words seeped into the aether, dissipating in the massive room. Burnt away by the bioluminescence cascading over every surface and creeping into every corner. Smiling, Cyril nodded. “They look younger than me, right?” He had explained this plenty. Captain Harris sent all the new recruits to Cyril. Recently, the disparity in apparent age between him and his friends surprised recruits. “The Odihlia does that. People infected with it seem to stop aging.
“Their suits breached after a cave-in. We were looking for flora or fauna, or minerals—anything that could be a resource. They landed in an Odihlia patch; we didn’t have a name for them then. That night, both suffocated as roots filled their lungs. And these glowing yellow flowers burst from their bodies.
“But their bodies were still alive, somehow, the next day. Comatose. Have been ever since. That’s what fuels an Odihlia: we’re their soil.”
Cyril finished his story with a paltry mutter. Each time this yellow light washed over him, the despair of those first days after their discovery resurfaced. And each time he told this story to a new member of the station, his insides ached.
“I’m sorry,” Ashley said. “Is that why you’re here?”
Nodding, Cyril’s eyes passed between the bodies of Jeffrey and Alice, uncanny in their unnatural youth. “How could I leave them? Officially, I’m on long-term mental health leave. Unofficially, I’m a custodian.”
“Why did Captain Harris tell me to ask you about this?”
Another expected question, one he had asked himself in the past. But he knew the answer, inconvenient as it may be for him. “This station—and everyone on it—works to bring the Odihlia to full bloom. When that happens, they produce crystals, which are harvested and used for… well, too many things for me to name. Probably lots I don’t know, too. Each year, demand for the Odihlia crystals grows.
“But the Captain wants everyone to understand the human cost. While their full fruitful lifespan isn’t known, the oldest plants here are nearly a decade old. Ten years of guaranteed, passive resource production, and all it takes is a single human body as host.”
Cyril paused, surveying the growth chamber, a veritable field of pulsing orange and yellow light. He inhaled, wondering whether his next statement was necessary. But he always said it: “If people downplay that last part, it could be dangerous. It’s easier to find warm bodies, willing or otherwise, than planets to exploit.”
Ashley nodded, but her gaze rested somewhere beyond Cyril. Somewhere past the window, into the abyss. “I don’t think any policymakers are that horrible.”
The custodian smiled faintly. Feigned enthusiasm. The incessant light scorched away any levity in the gesture. A field of flowers hummed and shone, exclaiming their existence, each living only by killing their host. The human bodies were technically alive, Cyril knew, but there was no life there. His friends were gone. Rendered into little more than soil for an alien flower.
“I hope so,” he finally replied.
Captain Harris sat behind his desk, wearing his ceremonial uniform. Today, the Captain would host some Governmental officials whose titles Cyril had already forgotten. The custodian’s grey jumpsuit seemed irreverent by comparison. He tugged at his sleeves and smoothed wrinkles as his Captain spoke: “Ashley said you had a good talk about the flowers.”
A good talk? Cyril felt his brows twitch and furrow. “It was pretty standard fare.”
“For you, sure,” David replied, leaning back. He crossed his arms, and Cyril eyed the pristine, royal blue uniform for creases, stressed on behalf of his Captain. “But hopefully noteworthy for Ashley.”
Cyril hesitated before responding. “Do people ever leave the Ceres because of the Odihlia?” A pause lingered in the room, bringing a smothering silence.
Eventually, the Captain nodded. A deep inhale followed. “Frequently enough, yes.”
“Are there jobs where people don’t have to deal with something like that?” Cyril asked, genuinely curious. Since the conversation with Ashley, Cyril had been thinking about the rumours surrounding Captain Harris. The tacit accusation that he was here because of some failure during combat.
“Probably. And I’m sure plenty are worse. There’s too much out there to really know which job would be best. Or worst,” the Captain said, uncrossing his arms and placing them heavily on his desk. He leaned forward, eyebrows raised, and voice lowered. “I’m sure whatever horrors we’ve discovered pale in comparison to the worst that’s out there. But it’d be foolish to think there aren’t positives to discover. Possible improvements to our lives.
“You’re sure you don’t want to go back out?” David asked, his powerful voice made gentle. Cyril shook his head, unable to find words as he reflected on his Captain’s comment. David leaned back and raised his gaze to the ceiling above. Stark white, like everything else. “I get it.”
Cyril nodded, understanding the implication. David’s desire for a pre-retirement gig seemed natural to Cyril, who had never learned the specifics of his Captain’s career. But rumours spread. Especially in a space station, where ideas had nowhere to run. They would gestate and mutate, crawling their way into the ears and minds of every person aboard.
Whatever Captain David Harris had experienced must have horrified him. How could Cyril blame anyone for avoiding the horrors of the universe?
“Eventually, we won’t need to do this,” David said. “Growth pods will be abhorrent to future generations, I’m sure. The same way we look back on fracking and slave labour with disgust. But for now, well, we need the Odihlia. They’re among our most efficient resources, and probably the most versatile.”
“You think we’ll find better methods of hosting them? Or better resources?” Cyril asked, fully aware his Captain could not know the answer.
“It’s my job to think things like that,” David replied, adjusting the cuffs of his uniform.
Cyril doubted whether David had answered him honestly, but he did not press his Captain further, finding rare hope in the words. David dismissed him, and the custodian saluted as he left the office, seemingly surprising his superior. Just down the hall sat the growth chamber, though the walk seemed endless as he turned over David’s words in his mind.
He began cleaning when he arrived, mopping the same stretches of plain white that he had cleaned every day for nearly a decade. A rush of familiarity coursed through him, bringing the warmth inherent to routine. Inherent to security and consistency and assuredness in his place.
In a few hours, the parasites would bloom, birthing more crystals. As always, the leaves and petals would claw their ways out of mouths and eyes and ears, and Cyril would retch at the sight.
But as he cleaned, his eyes were drawn to the window, scanning the endless expanse ensconcing the Ceres in every direction. Distant stars were like pinpricks, a smattering of tiny lights, struggling to shine through the oppressive void. And each of these stars could house billions, trillions of lifeforms. None of them would ever know of his existence. None of them would care for the bodies in the growth pods. For Jeffrey and Alice.
Only the Odihlia would care for those bodies.
Elsewhere, countless human expeditions sought alternative fuels and resources. Perhaps Captain Harris was right. Perhaps, Cyril thought, somewhere in the vast, impersonal universe, humanity could find a perfect sustainable solution.
But for now, the flowers would soon awaken. Their light would fill the room, pushing away the disinterested dark and bathing their hosts—and Cyril—in their glow.
Copyright 2022 Tyler Hackney