LITHIA KNEW WHAT was in the crates in front of her. She had ordered this particular batch herself. Having both dreaded and waited for this moment, she took a few steps forward. Her boots echoed on the deck plate of her ship as she leaned down to open one of the smaller crates.
She keyed in a sequence on the crate’s safety lock. A split second later, the lid yawned open, exhaling a soft mist from its lips. Inside was a single plant. It seemed to be reaching up to greet her with its burgundy brushlike bristles. The aroma of damp soil washed over her. Lithia scooped up a handful of dirt from the inside of the crate. She moved it to her face and smelled it before letting the soil fall through her fingers. It smelled so alive. It’s amazing how a smell can bring back a vivid memory. A simple, familiar scent can trigger a moving recollection, like a key opening a door you forgot was locked. For Lithia, the aroma of wet soil was home. It transported her back to her childhood, when the world was new and vibrant. It was the smell of the first chilled breeze on a cool summer evening. It was the moment the sun dipped below the trees and began to wink away beyond the edge of the world. It was the perfume of satisfaction after a long day of helping her mother tend to the arboretum. Even after all this time, she could still remember the sound of the little dolphin wind chimes that hung from the porch.
The family arboretum was always an adventure waiting to happen. Every plant and every flower was a character in a story. Her mother had told her countless tales about each of them. About why each flower was important and why it was unique.
Lithia had been only seven Earth years old the day her mother told her the legend of the amaranth. Lithia had found her in the back of the family arboretum working on a patch of flowers. Lithia thought she had smelled, sneezed at, and picked the petals off every flower the universe had to offer, but she had never seen one like this before.
“What kind of flowers are those, Mommy?” the young Lithia had asked, furrowing her brows at the crimson, brushlike appearance of the plant. Lithia’s mother looked up from her work; she raised her eyebrows and smiled. Her mother’s smile was beautiful, and the swell of her pregnant stomach lent to the nurturing warmth of it. It radiated all the goodness and happiness in the world. When her mother smiled like that, Lithia almost didn’t mind that her father was rarely there.
“If you come over here and help me, I will tell you a story about it.” Her mother beckoned to her with a small trowel.
She loved her mother’s stories. They were nothing like her father’s, which were all about swashbucklers and cowboys. Her mother’s stories were legends and fairy tales. To this day, Lithia didn’t know whose stories she liked better.
Lithia had run over and hugged her mother, who let out a chuckle. She’d gotten so big, it was all Lithia could do to get her arms around the bulge in her stomach.
“Tell me the story, Mommy!” Lithia had exclaimed.
“Not so fast,” her mother had said. She’d held her at arm’s length for a moment and examined her face before letting her go. “You know . . . you’re beginning to look more like me every day. I wonder if your brother will look more like me or Daddy.”
Lithia wasted no time and knelt in the dirt to help. She had been helping her mother since she’d gotten too big to garden comfortably on her own. She’d flung dirt to the side, making a hole for the flower sitting in a large pot.
“These flowers look strange, Mommy. I’ve never seen anything like them before. What are they?”
Lithia had little interest in gardening, but as long as she could hear a story, she’d keep working. At least until the story was over.
“These . . . these are very special flowers.”
“They don’t look so special,” Lithia had said.
“Looks can be deceiving. If I tell you a story, do you promise never to forget it?”
“Once upon a time, an amaranth and a rose grew side by side in a garden just like ours . . .”
“This is just a story about growing flowers? I thought it was going to be about magic!” Lithia had exclaimed, jabbing the trowel into the dirt and standing up.
Lithia had been an obstinate child, but luckily this was matched by her mother’s patience. She remembered her mother smiling and silencing her by pressing the flowerpot into her hand. “Remember what I said. These are special flowers.”
“They’re just flowers! They don’t look special,” Lithia had whined.
Her mother had struggled to her feet and smiled down at Lithia. “Would I tell you a story just about flowers?”
Lithia had looked up and cocked one of her eyebrows. Her mother had the upper hand. Lithia poked at the ground faster, making up for lost time.
“Once upon a time, an amaranth and a rose blossomed side by side. The rose was beautiful, lush, and red. It was the color of love and passion. The amaranth felt plain in comparison. It was so jealous of the rose that one day the amaranth said in frustration, ‘You’re so beautiful and you smell so nice, no wonder you’re everyone’s favorite!’
“The rose was shocked. She looked at the amaranth and replied, ‘But my beauty is fleeting. My petals will fall, and my beauty will die. Your blossom will never fade. You are everlasting.’”
“You mean, amaranths never die . . . not even if you don’t water them?” Lithia had asked as she finished planting the mysterious flower.
“No. You still have to water them, but they are a symbol of everlasting life. That which never fades, even after being cut.”
“I don’t get it . . . they live forever?”“You’ll understand someday, Lithia. Just promise me you’ll never forget the story,” her mother had said, pulling her daughter into an embrace.
Lithia then pulled away, giggling. She buried her face in the freshly planted flower and inhaled. The cool, crisp aroma filled her lungs.
Lithia pulled herself from her childhood memory and back to the real world. The memory of that warm summer afternoon so many years ago got fuzzy, blending into all the other magenta-colored afternoons from her childhood. She slid back to the present, away from the family orchard and the habitation dome she’d grown up in. Snapping back to a cold metallic room, bathed in a soft amber glow, she felt a sudden longing for those warm, fresh, fragrant days back on Venus.
The cargo control room she was standing in began to blur as a few soft tears beaded in her eyes. She’d known this trip would bring back memories like this, and she reassured herself she could handle it. That those warm, naive childhood memories were far behind her and in a place that could no longer get to her. She knew things were different now as she stood in the cargo area of her vessel, surrounded by industrial loading equipment, and staring at a large stack of shipping crates marked: FLORA.
Lithia leaned her face toward the flower in the middle of the crate and inhaled again. The cool, crisp aroma filled her lungs like it always had, but this time there was something different. Those warm, innocent memories seemed more real for only a few fleeting seconds as sensations from simpler times washed over her before fading into smaller disjointed recollections. She remembered how tall the roof of the dome they’d lived in had seemed, and how the glass shimmered at night. She remembered leaning back on a hill behind her house, wondering if the sky over other planets, like Earth, was just as beautiful. She remembered that, at the time, she’d had no idea Terrans didn’t live in domes like her family did on Venus.
She took a few steps back from the crate and away from her flashbacks. Her world had changed so much since those days.
If only time machines were real, maybe she could go back and tell herself to truly treasure those afternoons with her family. They would all be gone one day.
She needed to draw the line and stop herself. When the impending dark cloud of her teenage memories began to collect on the horizon of her mind. When the smell of freshly cut grass and curried chicken began to dissolve into the smell of ash and embers and the terrible things that took those wonderful, blissfully innocent days away.
Lithia found herself pushing those dark clouds away with the resolve of the present. She needed to seal up the crate and get back to the bridge to take control of her ship.
She dug around in her jacket pocket and pulled out a large, shiny metal earring. She cocked her head to the side, never losing eyesight of the amaranth in the crate. She snapped her earring in place and ran her finger along the outside edge as it covered the length of her ear, finally coming to a loop at the base of her earlobe.
There was a split-second tingle, like ice-cold water running down her spine, as little twinkling lights in her field of view assembled into strings of numbers before arranging into a little computerized helix symbol. The word “Connected” blinked below before both images faded away.
Lithia knelt to close the crate and then left the cargo room. She considered washing her hands before returning to the cockpit but decided not to. She wanted to keep the richness of those memories with her as long as possible. Sometimes her memories brought her so much peace and comfort. The smell of dirt triggered it every time. Now it was hers to take back in the delivery ship she affectionately named the Amaranth, to a place far away from where she grew up. A placed called San Francisco.