Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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Little Green Things

By William R. Warren, Jr.

Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr., as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer

Aphelion One, Day 85

Penny Jones sighed with weary satisfaction as she hit the "SAVE" button on her daily report: her last officially required act of the day. Another day, another dollar, she thought, wryly. Just another mercifully uneventful shift halfway between here and there. She smiled as she remembered a favorite poster she used to have, showing a grinning chimpanzee perched on a toilet, its shorts gathered around its ankles, hand-like feet that didn't quite reach the deck, holding a roll of T.P. -- "The Job Ain't Over 'Til The Paperwork Is Done!"

She caressed a row of root bulbs as she floated past them on her way "south" through the greenhouse. She paused to pluck a plump cherry tomato from what looked like a cluster of shiny red grapes. With only the slightest twinge of guilt, she popped it into her mouth. The tangy juices burst out when she squeezed it between her molars, giving her an entire additional recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, calcium and potassium, as well as sugars and other trace elements. Well, I did work through lunch, after all.

She nodded at the plant. "Thank you!"

She rationalized that this was "Continuous Quality Improvement" and "Product Testing" in action.

No, to be honest, it was greed. It was delicious. She was proud of the Sweet Thousands. One of her better efforts, she reflected. God's candy!

Grow big and strong, my babies! she thought, as though her little Frankenstein's monsters could hear her as she resumed her weightless flight.

Light inhibits stem growth, she recited to herself. That's why plants grow toward the sun. She scoffed at herself for a second. No-brainer! She again blessed her Botany professor at the University of Oklahoma for making her figure that out for herself. Still, she couldn't resist the urge to regard them as happy little thinking beings.

Straining toward their carefully-designed broad-spectrum light panels, her 'clever' plants made no response in return until she reached the hardy mimosa crossbreeds -- the big leafy kale and Chinese cabbages closed into surprisingly compact buds as soon as she thumped them. Just as you should, she silently admonished them, to keep from getting choked on dust storms.

If you can survive the cold. Be weedy and multiply!

She sniggered to herself. God, forgive me, I can't believe I just said that in everybody's company!

Actually, even weeds would be welcome -- if they passed the astronaut training course.

She cast a guilty glance at her charges, but they only nodded their agreement in the five-knot breeze that smelled like everyone else aboard A1, and everything they had done this day in support of the Mission. Rosin-core solder, EVA seal lube, Doc's split pea soup --

This brought yet another involuntary snicker as she added to the list: Everyone else's gastric reaction to Doc's split pea soup. She ever-so-slightly wrinkled her freckled nose as she sniffed the air and grinned. Maybe I should be happy I missed lunch!

The succulent plants reminded her of something in their cocooned state -- ah, yes, the "Audrey-II" from Little Shop of Horrors.

Nothing horrible here -- at least, not right now. And, Rick Moranis was sure cute!

"Good night, kids," she breathed, aiming her CO2-rich words at the wonderful little living things that so depended upon her for their very survival -- much as she and her crewmates depended upon them for the same thing. She watched the fog in the chill air dissipate, and while it did she remembered her backyard in Schofield Barracks, where tiny ferns would fold shut at the slightest touch of her finger, or even her blowing on them hard. Mimosa pudica, she recalled. They were partially responsible for her fascination as a child in the plant life that exploded in furious profusion around her on Oahu. A plant that was aware of her? This was a heady discovery at seven years old!

* * *

Of course, her father had little time for her observations when he would eventually chug into the carport in his dilapidated Morris Minor, his face engraved with the worries of his day. But this was something special! On the day she first found them, she waited until he had paid Debbie-Jean for babysitting her after school at Hickam Elementary (Babysitters! At her age! How humiliating!) and poured himself a glass of the stuff in the locked cabinet.

When the time seemed right, she worked up the nerve to approach him in his kapu study. It was rare that the door was unlocked, to say nothing of wide open, but it was muggy in Hawaii today and the added breeze in the house was welcome. Timidly hovering at the door, she decided to open the conversation with something related to his job, a habit she had learned from her mother. "Daddy?"

Distracted, as usual, he made a noncommittal "Mm-hmm?"

"If you're attached to the only people in the Navy --"

"Attachéd" His tone was gentle, but he didn't look away from his computer monitor. She wasn't sure he was paying attention to her.

"Attachéd," she repeated, rolling the unfamiliar word over on her tongue. "If you're -- attachéd to the only people in the Navy, and you're a Marine, does this mean you're gonna drown?"

"What??" He pushed his mouse aside, touched a button on his keyboard. The blue glow from his bulky monitor disappeared from his face and the pale green cinderblock walls behind him. He took a pen out from behind his ear to bookmark a place in a 3-ring notebook as he closed it.

She guessed even Grups had to do homework, which made hers somehow easier to bear.

After a quick glance over his rich cherry Government desk, which was wedged into a corner away from the slatted window and its cooling draft, he pushed his rolling chair back on the speckled tan linoleum floor and held his arms open in rare invitation to the kapu puka, looking at her for the first time since she spoke. "What do you mean, Pumpkin? C'mere." Invitations to sit on Daddy's lap were few and far between, especially in the "off-limits hiding place" -- the "kapu puka" -- the one room of their quarters she was absolutely denied the satisfaction of her curiosity. (Well, that and the mysterious locked cabinet.)

She dashed to accept the offer before he changed his mind, leapt into his lap and was rewarded with a big hug and bristly smooch. She was unable to resist peeking at the computer screen -- it showed a baffling array of multicolored pipes that built themselves at breakneck speed: probably part of his job, of which she could not fathom the significance. "I'm sorry, little wahine, what did you say? What do you mean, 'drown'? Why would you think I'd -- drown?"

There was a sudden catch in his voice. It was an effort on his part to not add, "...too."

Surrounded in his big arms, she felt a little foolish and took a moment to marshal her thoughts, as well as revel in the rare lap-time. She delayed answering his question for as long as she dared, then started as thoughts occurred to her. "Mommy told me you worked for the only Navy people, but I go to school with a lot of kids whose mommies and daddies are in the Navy. How can your see-yoes be the only people?" (Whatever a see-yoe was.)

For a moment, Major James David Jones was perplexed and silent, but then threw his head back and laughed at the perforated-panel white ceiling and rewarded Penny with an extra big hug. She wasn't sure what she had said, but she absorbed and returned the embrace, grinning but not really understanding why. Still chuckling, he set her out on his knee to turn her face-to-face.

"Little pupule, I don't work for only Navy people. A lot of them are Navy, but a bunch are Grunts like your old man." He playfully smirked as he finished his sentence.

"You're not old!" she protested. Mr. Miller, her teacher -- now he was old!

"Well, older than you," he teased, poking a finger at the tip of her nose.

She pouted her lower lip, "And I'm not pupule, either!" Her daddy again laughed at the ceiling. His breath had a wonderful sweet smell to it that she often noticed from his friends who would come over to play cards or make barbecue or just sit around and talk serious talk. When this happened, she would be confined to her room for the duration. (Usually with the company's kids: her neighborhood friends and classmates, and sometimes newcomers or acquaintances from Kaneohe, all the way across the island!)

Sometimes, she and Daddy would be the 'company' -- she loved the yellow sandy beaches at Kaneohe, and the body-surfing was a LOT better than Waikiki offered. It was a long time since she'd been to Waikiki. She loved the mahi-mahi at the 'oh-see' at Fort DeRussy, plus they had real live music when it wasn't raining.

"No, sweetie, you are definitely not pupule," he admitted. "I think the people I work for on the Mainland are, sometimes, but you are not crazy."

"Are they the ones who want you to drown?" she asked, unbidden tears welling up and stinging her eyes. "Like Mommy?" Overwhelmed with memories of that Christmas day at Fort DeRussy, she buried her face in his chest and released a sob.

"Wait, wait a second, Punkin, what do you mean with this 'drowning' business?" He chuckled, "I'm not gonna drown, where did you get an idea like that?"

Muffled against him, she said, "Mommy said --" and she paused.

Daddy became Major Jones. "What did Mommy say?"

Afraid of something she didn't have words for, Penny hesitated, then said, "Mommy said you work for the only Navy department and you are attached -- attachéd-- to the sink fleet. I don't want you to sink like Mommy." She clutched at his shirt and allowed herself to cry for a while. A long while, as it turned out, and she heard Daddy sniffle a little bit as he patted her shoulders.

A roar filled her ears, once, twice, thrice -- affording them a moment of thought while conversation was impossible: a flight of B2 flying wings departing Hickam Field. She resisted the habitual urge to jump up and run outside to watch. They were so awesome in the late afternoon sun! But time with Daddy was more awesome still, and didn't happen as often these days.

Eventually he eased his squeeze and set her back on his knee, wiping his cheeks of the sweat that had appeared there. He took a deep breath and gave her the Serious Look, the one she knew better than to interrupt.

"Sweetie, I'm going to tell you a secret, but you have to promise me. You can't tell anyone. This is just between you and me. Promise?"

She wiped her nose and nodded.

"Promise?" he repeated.

"I promise," she sniffled in turn.

"This has to be your very best promise," he admonished her. "Cross your heart?"

"And hope to die," she nodded.

"Stick a needle in your eye?" he pressed, all business. She looked at him with different eyes -- he knew what a serious promise meant! She couldn't find words, so merely nodded.

He regarded her for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, "Just between us?"

"Just us, Daddy, I swear!" Now he was teasing her, she thought.

Another deep breath, and he started slowly. "I think you misunderstood Mommy," he said. "It's not a sink fleet, it's pronounced 'sink pack fleet' -- "

She opened her mouth to ask a question but The Look stopped her short. "It isn't spelled like it sounds, it's what's called an acronym. An abbreviation. That's where you take the first letters of a bunch of words and make a new word out of them. 'Sink" is spelled 'C-I-N-C', and that means 'Commander In Chief'. 'P-A-C' means the Pacific Ocean, and 'F-L-T' --"

"Means 'fleet', " she volunteered, unable to resist showing off a little. This got an unexpected smile from him, a mixture of pride with a touch of sadness, so she continued, "So you work for --" she paused, "-- C-I-C-P-O-F." Her brow furrowed. "Sispof. That's not a word, it doesn't make any sense."

Her father rolled his eyes and he chuckled. "You're right, little wahine, it doesn't make any sense. But that's why I laughed so hard when we were watching 'MASH' the other night and Hawkeye called one of his see-yoes a 'NINCOMPAC'." His smile skewed to one side of his face, and he continued, but she wasn't sure he was looking at, or talking to, her. "And I'm not sure they make sense, most of the time." He focused on her again. "But it's called 'sink-pack-fleet' and spelled 'C-I-N-C-P-A-C-F-L-T' and it means Commander-In-Chief, Pacific Fleet."

Her eyes widened. "That sounds important!"

He widened his eyes in kind and leaned in close to her face. "It is," he whispered.

"Especially right now, with all the stuff going on in the world."

She digested this for a moment. "And is sink fleet pack the only navy we got?"

He paused for a moment. "Sink pack fleet," he reminded her. "CINCPACFLT. And Mommy didn't say 'only', she probably said 'O-N-I'. It may have come out 'o-nee' but she didn't get the whole acronym thing like you do. She used to say she married a bowl of alphabet soup." He snickered, then made a goofy face, indicating that she had meant him. Penny laughed in spite of herself. But for that moment his eyes were far away..

"So what does 'O-N-I' mean?" she asked.

His eyes returned to meet hers, but his expression became serious.

"I'll tell you sometime," he said through smiling teeth that somehow didn't reassure her. "But not today." They paused for a moment, and feeling the advantage slip away, she remembered what had triggered the entire conversation.

"Daddy, there's a plant in the flowerbed that moves! All by itself, I touch it and it moves!"

"Whoa!" he rocked back. "Moving plants? This I have got to see!" She hopped off of his lap and grabbed his hand, pulling him upright, both making exaggerated noises at the pretended effort to move. He stole a quick glance at his desk, the computer and the window before he followed her, pausing only to jingle the key ring in his pocket and punch the lock on the door before he pulled it shut behind him.

She led him around to the back of the quarters and showed him a low ground-covering fern. With the merest touch of her finger, the leaves folded up into a neat little blade. Her father was duly impressed and asked her if she knew what a Venus flytrap was. When she admitted she did not, he said, "Tell ya what, kiddo, let's talk about it. How does Chinese sound for dinner?"

"At the place at Waimea?" she asked hopefully.

He smiled. "Why not?"

On the way to the ugly pea-soup-green used car he stooped to pick up a couple of shiny forest-green avocadoes the size of cantaloupes that had fallen from the tree between their quarters and the next-door neighbor's, and a yellowing papaya (ugh! Too perfumy!) and set them on the brick wall that enclosed their patio, where a recently-cut bunch of tiny bananas hung from the clothesline, surrounded by a cloud of fruit flies.

"I can't wait to tell the kids at school that --"

"EXCUSE ME??" Major Jones barked and glared at her sternly.

"Oh," she recalled. She crossed her heart, stuck an imaginary needle in her eye and pulled an imaginary zipper shut over her pressed lips. She gave him the best Brownie hand-oath she could manage.

Major Jones turned back into Daddy. "'At's my girl." He smiled broadly and opened her car door for her, as befit the behavior of a gentleman with his lady. As she waited for him to round the "boot" (what was that all about?) she sniffed the comfortable smells of the interior of the many-times recycled automobile: rotting leather, lost french-fries, traces of Daddy's Jovan cologne and somebody's long-gone tobacco. A nauseating, artificial pine air freshener dangling from the crackled rear-view mirror. She felt very special, and didn't know whether she was looking more forward to Chinese at Waimea or talking to Daddy about this Venus flytrap thing.

* * *

Penny was just beginning to recall the wonderful nut-like taste of those green gifts from the Earth when she realized that the bok choi was beginning to open again, spreading its hungry leaves to consume the artificial Martian sunlight and excrete precious oxygen. How long had she been daydreaming? She realized that she didn't know.

Neither did she care. Too long? Or maybe not long enough.

She inhaled a deep spearmint-scented breath and blew it at her babies, enriching their relative partial pressure of carbon dioxide (they already wafted in the breeze from the air recycling system) and silently bade them good night.

She found her Velcro-soled slippers stuck to the Kevlar-fiber "wall" by the door to the core of the module, right where she left them. She slipped them on, cinched the straps, and glanced back for a quick, cursory inspection of her domain, much as her father had done those many years ago.

Everything appeared to be battened down.

Satisfied, she wriggled out of her heated coveralls and plugged them in to recharge. She pulled off her "Bob MacKenzie" knit cap and affixed it to the wall beside the coveralls. Then she opened the thermal curtain and stuck her head into the core, glancing in both directions before entering it.

Nobody was in sight, but she resisted the urge to fly toward her berth. Grasping the doorframe, she stuck her feet to the hookstrips she had taped to the "deck" and forced herself to "walk" home.

It had been a good day.


©2009 William R. Warren, Jr.

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