The abrasive wind hailed the sand grains sideways. It hissed like a sidewinder. Jenny could hardly hear the crunch of her earth auger drill piercing the soil. She made hole after hole, planting a sapling inside each like a cork in a bottle. Finally, with the wind picking up speed, she gave in to her exhaustion and followed her tracker app back to Base.
Its buttress loomed through the red haze of the sandstorm as she stumbled to the summit of the dune. The great crest of solar panels and air vents rose high above her like a termite mound. She stepped gratefully over the sun-bleached threshold, into the dark porchway.
With the door closed, the soft sounds of her tired breathing and shuffling feet filled up her ears. She kicked off her boots and dropped the drill on the adobe floor with a clang. Grunting, rustling, swearing. Finally, she was released by the toggles, zips and Velcro of her dune suit. Shaking free her curls, her aching arms gratefully hung her wide-brimmed hat and mesh veil on the last empty hook. She was always the last one back to base. She padded downwards, against the stream of warm air rising through the subterranean tunnels, towards the light.
Reaching the lower level, Jenny breathed deeply. The atmosphere of the nursery felt as humid as a rainforest, almost aquatic under the blue growth lights. Passing the rows of plants and plantlets in trough-like shelves stacked to the ceiling, she felt them breathing moisture back into her tight, chapped skin.
When she reached the section marked MATURE AND READY FOR PLANTING, she slung her barrel-shaped backpack onto the floor. The fronds of the saplings sticking out of the top made it look like a huge quiver of green arrows. Every day she challenged herself to plant the whole bagful, but today she had four left thanks to the advancing sand cloud.
To the rest of the team that would be an achievement. The Planting Team Coordinator, Mo, had already written a jovial “Great Work!” up on the community celebrations board, even though there were over thirty saplings left from the team’s allocation today. She quietly recorded her total in the computer system every day with no fanfare. Anything less than the lot did not seem worth celebrating to Jenny.
She carefully stood the four saplings back in their irrigated trough next to the others. Tenderly, she spritzed their limp leaves with a misting bottle and inspected for any damage or pests they might have picked up outside. All clear. She had heard that they had tried to automate this job, teach AIs how to care for and plant the trees. But they just couldn’t hack it. Machines still didn’t rival the care, instinct and adaptability of people. Not out here.
Hanging up her bag and hydration pack, rinsing her hands, she faced the stairwell and hesitated. This was by far the hardest part of her day. Silently hoping that the rest of the team would already be in their beds in the dorm room, she tiptoed down into the hall.
It was comfortably cool down here. The main sun lamps were off. The LED visualiser, which someone had set to show a scene of a mangrove forest, stretched around the walls. It twinkled through shades of green to blue to purple, throwing coloured shadows behind the furniture. Reassured she was alone, she slumped down onto the nearest patchwork floor cushion and closed her eyes.
But there were muffled sounds from the cellar below. Footsteps on the stairs and the clinking of glass grew louder. She screwed her eyes shut tighter. Please, please let them leave her alone this time.
“Jenny, there you are! You know it’s against protocol to stay out tree planting on your own. You might run into trouble in the forest alone.”
Reluctantly, she creaked open her eyelids to see the tall man towering over her. It was Mo, shirt unbuttoned, a fistful of glass bottles held between the fingers of a spade-like hand. His skin had an indigo sheen under the LEDs and his dark eyes crinkled in an expression she interpreted as pity. She couldn’t stand it.
Too exhausted to hold back, she croaked what she suddenly realised were the first words she had spoken that day. “I’ve been working on the forest perimeter. I’m hardly about to be swiped by a lion or squashed by an elephant, am I Mo?”
He held his serious expression for a minute. But then, unexpectedly, burst into booming laughter.
Two days ago, an inexperienced recruit had managed to hide the fact he had heat stroke until the delirium came on. The first sign anyone had that he needed to go back to base to cool off underground was when he began shrieking that he could see a lion hiding in the trees… The saplings in that section were spindly and knee high. They couldn’t have obscured anything larger than a shrew.
“Oh, poor Omar. He’s still embarrassed about that, you know! Tolu asked him today ‘Omar, did you really see something, or were you just lion to us?’”
Jenny let herself crack a smile. Her dry lips literally cracked. She tried to lick away the beads of blood before Mo could notice. He passed her a chilled bottle of sorghum beer, sat down too and looked sincerely at her.
“My lovely, I don’t mean to patronise you, I know you can handle the tough conditions. And I fully understand that… some of us might prefer our own company. But there’s more to life than tree-planting, right?”
Jenny didn’t reply. They both took a gulp of the cold, tangy beer. Mo settled into his cushion.
“The team have really tried to make Base feel like home,” he said. “I see us as a big family really. Will you try to join us to eat tomorrow?”
Their gaze met again. Maybe it wasn’t pity Jenny could see in his eyes. She faltered.
“I’ll try,” She said.
Mo beamed. He seemed about to say something else, but she heaved herself up to standing. She planned to eat whatever dinner leftovers there were in the storeroom, then take a bag of tree seeds from the passively refrigerated seedbank in the chilly, cave-like depths of the building and start them off germinating in the nursery. It would save someone inexperienced from rushing the job tomorrow morning.
She turned back from the doorway and saw Mo was standing too. “I waited up for you because… there’s something I’ve got to show you.”
Perplexed, she followed him into the corridor. They walked past the entrance to the aquaponics room and the dormitories, into the information hall. The bookshelves lining the hexagonal room were crammed with brick-like volumes on practical botany, battered field ID guides, glossy science journals, climate-fiction novels and local oral history transcripts. The vent in the centre of the domed ceiling whistled slightly as the wind outside, high above, stirred the air.
Mo went straight to the large, round table in the middle of the room and powered on the information system. The hologram screen quickly materialised. He swiped the air with his finger, impatiently dismissing the red sandstorm warning, the daily solar panel performance report, and the internal air flow and water system notifications that flashed up. He navigated to the messages tab with a flick of the wrist and stared into the retinal scanner to log in. Opening the top message, Mo stepped back so Jenny could see.
The header read: IMPORTANT – NOTICE OF PROJECT COMPLETION. FOR THE ATTENTION OF PLANTING TEAM COORDINATORS OF BASES 1–29.
“I wanted you to be the first to know,” Mo whispered.
Jenny hastily skimmed the words of the message.
“…congratulating teams one through twenty-nine on outstanding progress in reforesting… detects that water cycling established in the past decade by planted areas is now robust and temperature extremes are stabilising… zone of remaining desert habitat is to be preserved for the conservation of endemic species for future generations… all planting base employees to be discharged with a generous reward package one month from today…”
The satellite photograph below morphed to show the trees of the planting areas advancing month by month. Like the iris of a great green eye reacting to the sunlight, the forest pulled inwards over the map from every point of the compass. The great red pupil of the desert retracted to a fraction of its 2020 size. Heart racing, Jenny watched the animated map as it played and replayed. Mo put a hand on her shaking shoulder.
She found herself staring at her village. It was not marked on the picture, but she knew instinctively where it was. The map showed the forest wrapping it in a green embrace.
The looming, bittersweet homesickness washed over her, but this time she didn’t try to hold it back. She imagined, no, she felt the patter of raindrops on her head as she stepped from the doorway of her home. She watched her children splashing in the cool puddles, chasing each other around the trunks of the trees, scattering the chickens and goats, laughing.
Suddenly she was laughing too, and so was Mo. It had all been worth it.
In just one month, they were going home.
Emma Brown UK Emma is a student, writer and illustrator from the south east of England. She joined the Cli-Fi Meetup during the 2020 lockdown, fresh from reading Rob Hopkins’ “From What Is To What If” and keen to find a creative community online. While studying sustainability, she finds exploring positive futures through Cli-Fi radically illuminating. View all posts