Terra Two – Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

“I, the most humble Mother Joachima, now in the one hundred and sixteenth year of my life, in obedience to the request of Mother Superior, was entrusted with chronicling the beginnings of our mission here on Terra Two and the first hundred years of terra forming.”

“Many people would have been better suited for this task, since they are much more knowledgeable and eloquent than I, but I was chosen for I was blessed to witness many of the events first hand. Whether I will be worthy of this task is at the mercy of the Almighty, to Whom I pray for guidance and fair resurgence of my memories.”

“As I advanced in years I got set in my ways, and despite the younger sisters’ attempts to teach me how to use of the neural interlink for writing I can’t make the wicked thing work for me, so after many unsuccessful attempts to transmit the first phrase of the chapter to the central computer I gave up and used my old touch table, a curiosity among the younger sisters and a very cherished heirloom from my grandfather.”

“Many old memories are attached to its shiny surface, polished even more by extensive use, since in the very beginning of our being here it was at times our only way to communicate with Earth as we struggled to put together our energy and communication infrastructure. Of course my grandfather intended it as a sentimental gift and would have probably been stunned to learn how extensively it was used, and what ingenious modifications have been done to it in order to enhance the broadcasting range and the battery life. Grace to Sister Roberta, may the good Lord keep her in health and happiness, for He bestowed on her the sharpest mind an engineer could ever wish for, the table was now running indefinitely on less power that would take to power a led bulb. Not exactly a perpetual motion machine, but close, one can only mess with the laws of physics so much…”

The words failed to migrate to her fingers, which started to get tired from all the typing. She looked at her hands, almost not recognizing them, with thinning skin almost translucent revealing vigorous curling veins and protruding joints, with no embellishment other than her ring, and showing the marks of many decades of hard labor.

It was time for Vespers, so she placed the bracelet on her wrist and activated the interlink. The sister’s prayers burst into her mind with great intensity, and she realized she was late. Mother Superior didn’t tolerate tardiness so Joachima kept her mind very still to blend into the common prayer unnoticed. No such luck, she felt Mother Superior’s quick admonition and intent to talk about this later.

Her mind slowly quieted in prayer, she set aside material concerns and presented her heart to God. The hours passed with light diminishing gradually, from the light rusty color of the day to a deep chocolate brown. Joachima couldn’t help herself and broke her focus to look through the thick windows at the sepia gradients of the spectacular sunsets of Terra Two, amazing blends of light coffee, latte, milk and deep chocolate brown, with delicate iridescences of light brick and deep wine.

She rested her eyes on the soybean fields that looked like they came from the land of the giants, three times the normal height and overflowing with pods due to the lower gravity and extremely nitrogen and phosphorus rich soil. Joachima remembered that this dirt was really blessed with every nutrient a plant would ever need. Terra Two definitely lived to its agricultural paradise promise. It had taken her some time to get used to an image of paradise with coffee colored skies.

The reason their mission started in the first place was that the probe sent from Earth to investigate the new planet, now called Terra Two, came back with surprising and somewhat disconcerting results to the science team. Everybody was expecting the report to show great conditions for mineral extraction, rare metals and new sources of energy. These where present indeed, as they would be on any planet, but what the probe brought back was an ideal profile for agricultural production: a perfect blend of nutrients and soil consistency in the presence of water, a combination that like the best quality flour only needed the yeast of living microorganisms and invertebrates to turn this land into the bread of life.

The science program changed on the fly from the remote possibility of terra forming to active pursuit of this goal. A decade was dedicated to creating a breathable atmosphere, a decade during which the thrills of the hard earned successes were only equaled by the unbelievable and almost insurmountable challenges. It is during that decade that Mother Joachima was born, the second child of a farmer family on the border of North Dakota, and baby sister of her brother Thomas.

She arrived on a gloomy day at the beginning of February when wispy frozen rain knocked on the windows with ghostly little fingers. Her parents named her Sarah, after her grandmother, Sarah Feaherty, a little eight pound bundle of joy with a strangely luminous hair that looked as if it was made from candle flame. Her parents thought her hair color was just baby hair that would change, but Sarah was fated to go through her life donning these luminous tresses that made her look like she descended from a pre-Raphaelite painting, a light and flame color that never dulled with age or hardship, and only recently started showing signs of age.

Shortly after her arrival the family increased again, with a Christmas gift for the Feast of Stephen, a little boy who of course shared the name of his patron saint.

Sarah opened her eyes to life in the middle of a little earthly Eden, learning to walk on lush grass, soft as angel’s wings, under a periwinkle sky.

Her family was huge, with numerous cousins, uncles and great-aunts; when they got together for Thanksgiving the house was bursting at the seams. Sarah’s mother had five sisters, of which two had joined a convent a few miles away from their town. Little Sarah experienced life in the convent as an extension of her home life, a different kind of family, but a family nevertheless. For her the visits to this cloistered space felt just like going to her aunts’ house, complete with home made ice cream and fudge. Her aunts loved children dearly and spoiled little Sarah with the angel hair, as they liked to call her, way too much for the taste of her parents. The aunts disregarded any call for a young child’s need to learn discipline and responsibility and made every one of Sarah’s trips to the convent feel like a visit to wonderland where no rules apply and children are spoiled rotten. Sarah especially liked to sneak into the kitchen through the refectory, because she knew that she would find some goodies waiting for her on the table: fresh baked pastries, warm bread with lavender honey, or hot chocolate.

The kitchen door and windows opened to the herb and vegetable garden, and more often than not they were left open to let the breeze through. Sarah leaned against the door jamb and look into the garden where the nuns were tending to the plants, plucking weeds, harvesting food, and talking about their day.

The most important part of those trips, though, was the fact that only women were allowed on the premises, so the experience was for Sarah and for Sarah alone, something her brothers could never experience. Not that they wished to, but it still made Sarah feel special, which, come to think of it, defied the purpose of being there in the first place.

Sarah’s dad spent almost all his time with the children, either playing catch or putting together a never ending assortment of seesaws, swing sets and tree houses, to Sarah’s mother’s dismay. “How many playthings can a child possibly need?” she wondered, and secretly thought that her husband was building all these play sets more for his enjoyment than at the children’s request.

The most cherished memory for Sarah was when her father, an educated botanist, programmed the tractor to till or harvest and took the children on a walk around the plots to give them practical agricultural instruction and advice about how plants develop and by what time, what diseases and pests to look for, which type of plant belongs to what family, what their parts are, and how to care for them.

Between her father and her aunts, by the time she was ten, Sarah became some sort of gardening expert; she never figured if it was her early developmental years or a true passion for plant life that pushed her in this direction, all she knew and was going to manifest faithfully throughout her life was that nothing made her as happy as being in the garden.

Sarah’s mother was zealously devoted to her children’s education and used every resource at her disposal to further their knowledge. Their home was less of a farm house than a small lab filled with screens broadcasting information at all times of day or night. Basically she thought that as long as the children were awake they should be learning something. Since the useful life of a computerized device was a year tops, and she had to have the latest version, always, the small sunroom behind the house became an experimental ground for the children to take electronics apart and put them back together.

Sarah liked science just as much as the next gal, but at some point her neural pathways were so saturated with quantum theory or new elements on the periodic table that if you shook her, a differential equation fell out. Occasionally she snuck out with a tablet and hid in the tree house, quiet as a mouse, until everybody forgot about her. She liked to stay up there, watching activity unfold, unseen like a little ghost, and record her thoughts on the tablet in her secret diary. To her chagrin she had to find out many years later that her secret diary was the favorite lecture of her brothers, who followed it like a pirate novel, careful not to miss any entry.

By the time Sarah was seventeen, her family grew bigger still, once her older cousins married and had children who grew like weeds. They visited the farm a lot and the neighbors got to watch this unreal scene of a willowy creature with flaming hair walking slowly, almost floating over the grass, surrounded by a large group of children, answering their questions and smiling. This became such a habitual image that after a while they expected the small group to be always together, and seeing Sarah alone would alarm them.

After long and mostly decorative debates around the kitchen table Sarah took the obvious choice and joined the prestigious College for Advanced Horticultural Studies in Christchurch to further her studies in macro biology and botanical genetics, to the pride of her parents, her father especially, and the talk of her neighbors and extended family. It was a dream come true for Sarah, and she suspected that her aunts must have spent some extra hours in prayer to help it along.

CAHS was a miraculous world where every question had answers, no idea was too outrageous and innovation came as natural as breathing. The plants Sarah saw in the botany lab were hybrids she couldn’t even conceive of, not to mention design, plants whose scale was controlled to the micron, diminutive pine trees and gigantic chamomile, leaves of every shade but green processing chlorophyll, plants without roots that could move around at will, transparent roses, rubber trees genetically altered to secrete aluminum, bean plants that changed their color like vegetal chameleons, microscopic baobabs, sub aquatic corn fields, and a soy bean that tasted just like steak.

If anybody took time to design Sarah’s heaven, it would probably have looked like that, she had to keep pinching herself through four whole years to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. After graduation many of her colleagues took enviable positions at the Equatorial Horticulture Institute in Nairobi, the Green Academy of Brasilia, or the Royal Aquatic Farms off the coast of Australia, but Sarah decided to continue her studies at a small experimental farm in the South of France, a very private place that offered one scholarship every ten years to students with very narrowly defined specialty studies, for which Sarah just happened to be a perfect match.