Carbon To Carbon

“What are you going to do with all her daughters?” Elias asked.

“I have no idea. I’ll probably look for someone else to look after them.”

“You could at least adopt a dozen. Or maybe all of them. It’s not really that much work.”

“I already have a very tight agenda. I barely managed to make some space to attend the funeral.”

The same Aura as always. Hiding behind her work. She was a really pretty person for the kind of work she endured. Involved in meetings all day, in heated discussions between different parties that wanted a piece of the resources of the city for their projects. It was too much for a single person. And yet, Aura managed to deal with all that and more, even amidst a revolution, even after enduring being mocked for having the same name as the city she was in charge of. Perhaps Elias was just a bit jealous of her.

“So, aren’t you going to adopt them? Not a single one?”

“I already made my decision. I told you I don’t have time.”

“So… Why did you come here?”

“She always wanted me to visit the greenhouse. Time and time again I declined… I was too busy… Maybe another time… But I guess it’s a little too late now isn’t it?”

Elias pondered for a few seconds, while hundreds of butterflies fluttered inside the greenhouse. The colorful daughters of Cristina flapped their black wings with crimson and orange tints, unaware their mother had died.

“I guess it is.” Elias finally said. “Have you been practicing your speech?”

“Almost every day. Like I always do.”

“Just remember this is not your everyday political speech. This is different.”

“I know, I know… It’s just that… It’s hard to separate her work from politics.”

Elias lifted his hand and opened it. He waited until one of the butterflies landed on his palm. It started to slowly open and close its wings, showing off its wonderful shades of red painted over black. The veins were barely visible.

“Just don’t make it sound too obvious. You know how popular she was. It’s just a funeral. That’s all.”

Aura continued to wander around the greenhouse while Elias examined the butterfly’s tiny limbs and wings. It really was a place of peace. He remembered Cristina spending most of her free time in that same greenhouse, where the dry air was not a problem, where the smell was nice, and best of all, where her daughters lived. He remembered her kneeling in front of the raised beds, working with the most fertile soil that Elias had ever seen. She didn’t mind getting her clothes dirty, as long as she could be inside that greenhouse, caring for her plants and singing to the butterflies she nursed.

“And how is my dress going?” Aura asked.

Elias chuckled. “It’s proving harder than I expected.”

“But didn’t you say my suggestion was perfect?”

“I did, and I still think that. But I still need to balance a few things. It’s a very difficult position. You want something respectful and solemn, but not too depressive. It also can’t be very colorful for this occasion. I don’t know. No matter what I come up with I still feel someone, somewhere it’s going to criticize you.”

Aura laughed. “Well, that’s exactly how I feel running this city.” She said her goodbyes, gently bowing down her head and leaving the greenhouse in a swift movement that slightly lifted her long black dress with a golden stripe. He had made that dress for her and was still proud of that.

On his way home, Elias took the time to stroll along the gardens of the street next to his home. It was a nice way to leave all the dressmaking work aside and think about something else, to let his mind rest among the varied plants that were cared for, walking on the patches of grass many people used to lie and rest while looking at the milky white sky through the city’s dome that maintained the city’s urbanosphere.

Aura Stratley was a peculiar woman. She loved her flamboyant dresses, going against the tradition of her parents of the usual utilitarian uniforms that were commonly seen around the city. After all, it all started as a small mining town full of contractors. Elias himself was also used to the standard uniform issued to all the workers in the city, clearly following Daxio’s fashion conventions of simplicity and cleanliness.

Aura, the city, also began following those standards. Everything was carefully planned and cared for. Every square meter of the mining town regulated down to the smallest detail. It wasn’t a place to live, but a place to work. Dunhar’s conditions didn’t allow anything that closely resembled to living, not in that remote location. Despite that, the mining base of Aura grew up to a point that it was no longer a place to work. And thus, Aura’s boom began.

Mayor Stratley commissioned him a dress for the day she would be sworn in as the city’s third leader, following the footsteps of her father. Elias considered it one of his best works. It was as special as the period in history the city was going through, a fusion of Daxio’s love for order and minimalism, of Dunhar’s earthy, rusty color palette, and the greens and reds of Crystal Madeino’s influence. It was a mix of all that, reflecting what was happening to the city during that time.

He continued walking along the street until he stumbled upon a group of musicians performing in front of a cheering crowd. One of the musicians acknowledged him by smiling, still too entranced with the guitar’s strings. “Good day Mr. Melotte.” He finally heard her say during a brief pause she took to relax her hand.

It wasn’t that surprising that she recognized him. After all, he had spent countless hours inside the city’s auditorium listening to Madeino’s obsessive demands echoing in the concert hall. He would take measurements of the many musicians and dancers’ figures and design tailored dresses for all of them. It was stressful and exhaustive work, but Madeino was the only one employing dressmakers in the whole city. However, he never got a chance to design and make a dress for her. Oh no, he wasn’t up to the task yet. Those years of relentlessly working concert after concert really helped him perfect his craft, and also allowed him to learn a lot of music and performance theory from who was probably the most talented and radical person to ever set foot on the surface of the planet.

Elias had arrived at the city during those years of rapid growth. He was actually surprised there was work available for him in Dunhar, a sign that things were changing. It was no longer a place people emigrated looking for its underground resources. Decades before the idea of a dressmaker working at Aura was unthinkable, but it became a reality upon his arrival. He left his comfortable life around Daxio during a very special time, designing clothes for Madeino’s ensemble of musicians and dancers. She had been stirring something wonderful in that city. Transforming what once was a boring, standard mining colony full of specialized but cold-mannered workers, into a beautiful city of sound and color. Even today, several years after her disappearance, her ideas and concertos were still influencing the city. Her music still resounded inside the city’s translucent dome.

That very same dome enabled the city to be walkable, allowing people to roam freely around the xeric gardens without relying on the tubular corridors that once interconnected the base’s different buildings. Things have changed a lot in recent years. Now Elias could wear a long black tunic knowing he wasn’t going to arrive home covered in dust. Although things were very different inside the city’s dome, not much had changed outside of it. Dunhar was still a cold, dead, massive rock. And no matter how loud Madeino’s music was inside the city, no matter the number of operas, concerts, and performances, the planet was not going to suddenly transform into the paradise many envisioned.

Terraformation was an old dream, ever since Dunhar was observed in Lauz’s night sky. The question of “What if?” accompanied the lives of many scientists and artists alike. People like Crystal Madeino, like many of Dunhar’s immigrants, dreamed of the planet’s sandy plains turning into lush forests and grasslands. It was a dream everyone wanted realized but no one dared to start. Not even Aura Stratley, the person who had in her hands a large and rich city, the product of the many years of work by her father, and those before before him, when the city was just a small colony in the middle of nowhere. If someone was to start the movement, it was her.

Terraformation was also a dream of Cristina Nereida, who came from Lauz for biology related work, many years before Aura even existed. And like many, was instantly captivated by Madeino’s plans for turning the whole planet into a fertile garden. Like many on the sandy planet, she left the universe without having seen her dream realized, not even the start of it.

Terraformation was a task that needed to be planned across generations. Something more difficult than it sounds. Something that hasn’t been done before. Not on a planetary scale. Even to that day, with all of Daxio and Lauz’s advancements, it was still just a dream, a task of gargantuan proportions. Designing another dress for Aura was nothing in comparison. He had no excuse to complain.

He arrived early at the train station carrying Aura’s dress, protected under a plastic sheet. It didn’t take long for her to arrive, alone, carrying only a small bag and a very simple makeup.

“Is that it?” she asked.

“The dress? Yes, it is.”

“I’ll try it on the way there.”

It was one of the good things about attending a funeral so far away from the city. She had enough time to prepare. The first train of the day due to Colony City arrived. Both Elias and Aura took first class seats well before the vast majority of the passengers boarded the train. There was ample space for both of them, with wide windows and two small compartments for privacy.

“You know, I always get excited when traveling first class,” Elias said.

“I remember traveling with my dad when I was little,” Aura grinned with excitement. “It’s still a magical feeling. Don’t get me wrong, regular seats are also pretty good too. But this place feels like home.”

Elias nodded. He only traveled first class when invited to important events, but most of the time he took the regular seats. Still, both accomplished their purpose very well. Visiting the Golden Valley’s most important settlements in an efficient and safe way.

“So, let me see the dress,” Aura asked.

Elias smiled. He removed the plastic sheet and revealed the three pieces that made up the dress: A cape, a headpiece, and the dress itself.

“It’s… It’s beautiful. Just like I imagined it.” Aura was delighted. She couldn’t wait to try it.

“It took me some time to figure it out exactly how I wanted it to look. It turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated.”

“You did a good job. Thank you.”

“I mean, It’s the only thing I can do well here.”

“Making dresses for important people that don’t have anything else to do?” She joked.

Elias chuckled.

“Well, let me try it.” She said. Aura opened the door of one of the cabins and got inside. The train announced its departure and slowly started moving.

Elias walked in front of the window to see the train leave the station. Aura’s reaction was positive and was now relieved he didn’t have any more responsibilities. He could just relax and enjoy the view on the way to the city.

Aura’s idea for the dress came from the very same greenhouse Cristina worked on. “I want my dress to look like one of her butterflies” was Aura’s prompt. The colors? The shape? What specifically was she referring to?

“Well, that’s up to you.” Was what she said.

It was a tricky problem to solve. After all, it was a funeral, not a celebration. And those butterflies were too colorful. But again, perhaps that was what Cristina wanted, not a lamenting memory of her passing, but a hopeful one.

In the end, he went for an all black base, with some crimson and orange accents, especially in the headdress. The cape also had a red lining, but was mostly black, with faint patterns in the back that resembled those of the butterfly’s wings. To the untrained eye, it was just an elegant and solemn dress. To those who knew Cristina well, it was an ode to the last years of her work. Or at least that was Elias’ reason behind the design. He would have to wait for the journalists’ reaction.

Oh yes, the always present journalists. Always hiding among the audience, ready to take the first pictures of Aura’s new dress. Ready to criticize her fashion and administrative decisions alike. He didn’t have to deal with that when he worked with Madeino, but now, as the personal tailor for the city’s mayor, it was a constant annoyance. It was deemed controversial that a city’s mayor would appoint a special person to make a new piece of clothing for each important event, but at the same time, a lot of people considered it a nice way of carrying on with the city’s artistic legacy. “We’re not only here to extract from the soil, but also to nourish our souls.” It was what Aura said every time she was criticized. Something along those lines.

Even her father opposed Aura’s opulent clothing. He always preferred the standard uniforms Daxio issued to all the contractor workers at Aura. It was difficult for him to accept that the base was no longer a workplace. It was way bigger than that. And yet, he achieved a successful administration of the city. Not bad for someone who arrived at the base to work as a life support systems engineer.

Aura stepped outside of the cabin. “How do I look? Did I put on the cape right?”

Suddenly Elias realized what their destination was. It dawned on him why Aura commissioned that dress. Cristina was gone, and they were soon going to say their last goodbye. His smile vanished and was replaced by a deep sadness caused by Aura’s beauty, a beauty that hurt.

She made a full turn, showing the cape and balancing the headdress that turned out to be heavier than expected.

“So… No words at all? You look shocked.”

Elias was speechless. He stepped aside to let Aura see herself reflected in the window, against the backdrop of the sand dunes and the escarpments of the Sierra Dorada.

“Oh.” It was the only thing she managed to say before she started to cry. She sat down and cleaned her tears while Elias flattened the dress’ creases. It had dawned on her too.

“I… I failed her,” she said.

He wanted to comfort her but wasn’t exactly sure how. He sat beside her while she lamented her past decisions, as the train quietly dashed across the desert.

“She always implored me to do something, to take action. But I didn’t do anything. It’s something I wouldn’t be able to handle. It’s too much work!”

“It’s alright,” Elias said, trying to calm her nerves. “She knew very well she was not going to live long enough to see her dream realized.”

“I know! But she trusted me! She wanted me to start the movement! I told her multiple times I wasn’t the person she believed I was, but she wouldn’t listen. She always told me I was the one, and that no one else was good enough.” She sighed.

Elias loved the trips through the desert, especially during the early morning, when the colors were still striking and vivid. But not like this. One of the perks of being Aura’s personal tailor was that he had to listen to her complaints and troubled, sometimes erratic mind.

The first class compartments had several amenities such as a coffee dispenser and a box full of grain bars. He served two cups and took a pair of bars, offering one of each to Aura.

“You haven’t eaten, have you?”

“No.” she sobbed. “Thank you.”

Elias took a sip of his coffee. “After all the things you have done, you still don’t trust yourself?”

“I’ve done many things. Things I’ve considered to be risky, but nothing like that. No one in Dunhar has attempted that before and succeeded at it. Madeino tried and look what happened to her. One does not lead the transformation of an entire planet alone.”

“But you won’t be alone. There are lots of people rooting for it. If there’s someone that they would listen to, it’s you. They are tired of waiting for a miracle, and many see you as their only hope.

“This is not helping.” She rubbed her forehead, making her wrinkles ever so visible. “Just let me think alone for some time.”

She stood up and locked herself in one of the cabins.

Perhaps that’s why terraforming a planet was so difficult, Elias thought. Starting was the hardest step. Where should they start? What should they give priority to? How much were they willing to sacrifice in order to achieve something whose fruits would be collected by their future descendants? Elias didn’t have the answer for that.

The train stopped. Aura, who had spent most of the time in solitude, immediately stood up and tapped Elias’ shoulder. He was half asleep but it didn’t take long for him to remember what was coming next. He stood in front of Aura and gave the final touches to her dress while she put on a pair of dark, round glasses.

“How do I look? Haven’t I ruined the dress, right?”

“You look perfect. Don’t worry too much about it. Just do what you do best.”

“I will try,” she said with a smile, her eyes hidden behind her dark glasses. She had probably cried more than once during the trip, but Elias wasn’t sure, he had been asleep for the most part.

The doors of the train slid open and in front of them there was a path made by a surprisingly silent crowd.

“This is… Different.” Aura whispered.

It really was. Elias was used to the loud crowds that cheered Aura’s presence, and was expecting something similar upon their arrival to Colony City, the largest and oldest settlement in Dunhar. Instead, people kept silence, showing the respect that the death of a person as influential as Cristina deserved. The city’s leader was also there. Wearing long, ceremonial robes with his closest staff behind him.

Aura greeted him with a reverence, and the major replied with a hug. They turned to the group of journalists that took photographs to commemorate the event. They were not smiling, for it wasn’t another diplomatic meeting. They were there to remember the life and work of a woman that both cities cherished.

“Mayor Stratley, thanks for joining our mourning today. And to you too, Mr. Melotte, it’s good seeing you again.” The leader greeted them both.

Elias nodded and smiled. It felt nice knowing the mayor still remembered his name.

“I couldn’t refuse the invitation.” Aura replied. “Nereida touched the lives of our people in very special ways.”

“Indeed she did. Not only here but in Lauz too. Speaking about that, we have special guests that are looking forward to meeting you.”

“Hmm?” Aura inquired. “Who are these special people?”

“Their shuttle landed two days ago. They’re still getting used to the gravity, but we’ll meet with them very soon.”

“Right. Dunharian gravity. I tend to forget it’s not the same everywhere.” Aura said.

The city’s leader guided the guests through the city’s ample streets towards the place where the funeral would take place. Behind them, the procession followed slowly. Elias hadn’t visited the city in a long time. He used to visit it frequently when he accompanied Madeino and their entire staff on the train, always traveling between both cities to perform in front of a large and exciting audience. The sight of the concentric steps of the old open pit mine going deep into the dunharian soil was always impressive. Over time, people reclaimed the space that gigantic machines had excavated. It was an ideal place. With a bit of overhead protection in the form of a tent, the city was safe from the strong winds and unsuitable atmosphere. The tent clearly showed its age, with patches of new plastic covering old ruptures. It was a testament to the city’s willingness to endure anything.

Elias turned back to the group. It was still a long walk to where the ceremony was going to take place. Aura was now well ahead of him, busy talking with the city’s major. It was better not to interrupt her.

Minutes later they arrived at the entrance of a tall building. They took the stairs into a large hall, illuminated by warm lights on the walls and roof. Inside, the view was majestic. The large chorus’ singing reverberated in the hall, where hundreds of people, wearing yellow and red, mourned Christina’s body, resting on top of a red blanket.

The view was entrancing. It was like no other funeral Melotte had attended in Daxio, like nothing he had ever experienced before. All those people, singing in unison, crying, waving their hands and rising candles, all because of a single person. Christina had been truly influential. It revealed to Elias that the extent of her actions went beyond anything he had imagined.

Aura took off her glasses. She now looked like the least striking figure in the whole room. Her dark dress barely contrasted against the dark walls. Black was definitely not the color to mourn someone as bright as Cristina.

The chanting continued for several more minutes, all directed towards her, in the center of the large hall adorned with red and green, and yellow veils.

“I’ve never seen a funeral as impressive as this.” He whispered to Aura.”

“Me neither. People from three different planets were involved in the preparations. It’s extraordinary. Three planets coming together just for a single person.” Aura replied, whispering too, only to immediately resume her chant.

Elias was incapable of following the lyrics of the songs that Aura and the rest sang with fervor. He hadn’t practiced the local language enough, relying instead on the fact that a large part of Aura’s population spoke one of Daxio’s most common languages thanks to the constant influx of mining workers. Even so, he could feel the pain and sorrow in those long and heavy notes. The singing continued, with engulfing melodies that combined with the pipe organ’s vibrations made the experience even more grandiose.

Later, when a small group began to sing a song with percussion and string instruments, Elias realized those were Lauz’s traditional songs, performed by the small chorus that was visiting Dunhar for the first time. They were wearing even more colorful clothes, shades of blue and yellow in intricate patterns that made it impossible to not notice the cheerful group, singing with such vibrancy even during those sad moments.

Slowly, the notes diminished in volume, until silence returned to the room. He was even able to hear his own breathing, with the occasional coughing, sobbing and crying in the distance. The mayor, as the host of the event, called for the people that would give their speeches to come to the center of the room. Two persons that Elias didn’t recognize, probably Cristina’s relatives, walked to the lectern, along with Aura, her father, and two women in school uniforms.

The first ones to speak were Cristina’s great-grandsons, thanking everyone for coming together to give their farewells to the bright biologist. They talked about Cristina’s decision to rest for eternity in the infinite sands of Dunhar, a desire the entire family respected and acknowledged.

Then it was the turn of two of Cristina’s best students. Both women remembered her as a great biologist, teacher, mother, poet and woman.

“…And because of this, the university recognizes Nereida’s invaluable work in the field of botany, genetics, and most importantly, entomology. We recognize the genetic modifications she introduced to the butterfly population she worked on are significant enough to become its own unique species. These new introduced traits allow them to survive in drier environments and lower oxygen levels.” She paused for a moment to get air. “Her work has been instrumental in developing the techniques and tools to genetically modify species so they can survive in a terraformed Dunhar.”

The student seemed tired, nervous, and shy. She looked short of breath and her legs were shaking.

“We know… We have a long way to go before we can see a breathable Dunhar. However, her work must not be forgotten. This is why…”

She was gasping for air, using the lectern as additional support for her weak legs. Elias knew exactly what was happening.

“The university has decided to name this new species after her: Vermilia Cristinae"

She would have collapsed to the floor if it weren’t for Ewan’s quick reflexes. The trip to another planet, the gravity, the funeral, the large audience. It was too much for her. She was overwhelmed.

They brought a chair for her to rest, while everyone celebrated Cristina’s achievement. Having a new species of butterfly named after you, what an accomplishment.

Then it was time for Ewan to speak. He cleared his throat, straightened his uniform and walked to the lectern, adjusting the microphone.

“I once asked Cristina about her decision to leave her body in Dunhar when the moment came. I asked her, why not in Lauz? After all, her family and home was there, and she could have a proper burial. On this planet, a burial is not something we can afford. Anyone that has ever worked in life support systems can tell you that. This city is a closed system, and as such, everything must be recycled, including what remains of the people that are no longer with us. Organic matter is too expensive to bury it in the sand.”

“Cristina knew all that. She knew she wouldn’t be able to get a proper burial here, and still wanted this planet to be her final place of rest. And I asked again, why? Why Dunhar?”

“I didn’t realize the full extent of what used to be my job until she answered my question. She made me realize that working with life support systems, with water and oxygen recycling, fertilizers, and carbon dioxide scrubbing was not only about keeping people alive.”

“She told me she wanted to form part of Dunhar’s biosphere when the time came. She wanted her body, her atoms, her carbon and oxygen and hydrogen to flow within this city’s metal veins and tubes until they could be released into the atmosphere.”

“Dead people are still within us, because they are part of us. They are in the water you drink, and the air you breathe. It may sound weird, but it’s the truth. The bodies of all the people that have died in this city are still here, in one way or another.”

That was a bad way to word it, Elias thought. Aura’s father was never good at speeches.

“Sorry if I make you all feel uncomfortable,” Ewan said. “She made me feel that way too when she first told me that,” he chuckled.

“But don’t listen to me, listen to her, to one of her poems that best explains her decision to remain on this planet.” He was clearly looking to lighten up the mood.

He then proceeded to read one of Cristina’s many poems.

“I want to be the air of the new world, and a breeze of wind entering the window during a cold night.

“I want to be that drop of sweat on the forehead during a sunny day, and the cloud that gives its water during a summer evening.

“I want to become the leaf the caterpillar eats just after being born, and the tree branch that gives shade to a loving couple.”

“Dust to dust and carbon to carbon, for our bodies are mere vessels of our dreams.”

He thanked everyone and returned to his seat.

Finally, it was Aura’s turn to speak. She smiled at her father and walked to the microphone. She looked at the audience, and then at Cristina’s body. She sighed, almost about to cry.

“Cristina left everything to pursue her biggest dream. Her family, her planet, her home. We like to say that Dunhar is a blank canvas, that everything is possible here because there’s no clear path. You have to find your own.”

“She found her path and purpose in a greenhouse she built, where she conducted research on a particularly colorful butterfly. But she always wanted to see them flutter on Dunhar, not on a greenhouse. She spent many hours, days, years working with them, caring for them. She saw them as her own daughters,” she tried to giggle. “It was a lot of work for little payoff, after all, she knew she wouldn’t be alive to see that day.”

“She embodied Dunhar’s hardworking spirit. Working for a cause whose fruits will be enjoyed many generations later. Like many, she saw in this infinite desert the possibility of transforming this planet into a green paradise. Artists and scientists alike, immigrants coming from both Daxio and Lauz with the goal of transforming the planet. It’s a goal everyone can strive for.”

“She was a firm believer that this planet could be transformed, that everyone had the chance of doing so, no matter how small their contribution. We must not forget her idealism, optimism and dedication to her work.”

Her eyes were red and full of tears. She stepped down and her father cleaned them.

After a final prayer in Cristina’s local language, they covered her body with a white veil. The singing started again, as a few volunteers began to bring tables and cushions to the hall.

“Are we going to eat now?” asked Elias as Aura came back.

“They brought fish,” she said, “All the way from Lauz. They even brought cooks to prepare it. Steamed fish with salad.”

“I haven’t eaten fish in a long time.” He said. It was certainly something to look forward to.