Story Excerpt

Left to Take the Lead

by Marissa Lingen


The day I found out my uncle Will was still alive, I had been out spraying the crops in a full crinkly hazmat suit. The Earthers I was working for were nice people, but they always whined about the suits. To me they seemed light and airy, hardly even an annoyance compared to a vacuum suit, so I was the one who would get sent out first with the sprayer when the blight warnings came in from the provincial capital in Edmonton.

I didn’t mind. It was the tenth month of my indenture on Earth, and I had almost gotten used to the smell, but even so a little overlay of antifungal didn’t change it much. Earthers always want to know where I was working so they can figure out what smell, because Earthers think it matters—oh, the salt sea smell, they say, nodding wisely, or the grassy prairie smell, or the other Earther things they think they know.

But among us we don’t have to hear where, because we know the stink of dirt and concrete and mixed musk that is Earth, whether it’s got salt sea and juniper on top or snow melt and alpine flowers or growing corn. It’s all Earth.

In my case, though, it was the Canadian prairie, the bit in Alberta right before it buckles up and becomes mountains, the bit nobody settled much until the climate shifted, and now they were keen to have anyone they could get to work on it. Offworlders would do, because they thought the cold of space would get us used to it. They never seemed to understand that we didn’t spend any time up close and personal with the cold of space. The cold of space means something has gone badly wrong, back at home.

Not that I’d gotten to be back at home since the collapse.

It took me just ages to figure out that they don’t think they’re lying when they say, “You’ll get used to the weather.” Apparently when you’ve always had weather, you can get used to different weather. But when you’ve never had weather at all, it’s very hard to get used to blizzards, and tornadoes are just not on the list. Apparently they only used to have them once a year or less. This seemed still unbearable but much closer to civilized to me.

On our ships out in the Oort Cloud, we had tornadoes not at all, and solar storms were points of interest, not terror. Nearly everyone I met on Earth made some comment about being in a tiny ball surrounded by vacuum, as if that didn’t describe their circumstances also. Earthers are weird.

But the Pavelkas were a good assignment for an indenture on Earth: warm-hearted, truly willing to treat their indentured servants as temporary family members. The daughter of the family, Anna-Reese, took the same number of work shifts as we did, and we all ate together, three times a day around the big applewood table in the kitchen. When we were hip-deep in antifungals from yet another blight or exhausted from extra shifts with pregnant bison, so was Anna-Reese. So were her parents. And they gave us time to ourselves in the evening, to read or watch vids or go out or read the boards or message our families.

I didn’t expect much in the way of messages from my family. Most of them had died in the collapse. My little brother and sister would write to me from Mars every Sunday, dutifully, on their foster mother’s urging. I had two uncles remaining, and I didn’t know where either of them might be, or even if Uncle Will was still alive. Uncle Wys was the one I depended on. He messaged me, but I never knew where mining would take him next. He worked the high-risk jobs to try to strike it big enough to buy a ship so Hans and Cora and I could be with him as a family again.

But there was a message waiting in my queue that night when I got the worst of the grime showered off me. The time stamp on the message itself was from my work shift, but internal to the message there was a different date, four years ago. “Dear Monkey,” it started out, “If you’re reading this, I’ve failed.”

It took me another half-hour to stop crying enough to read the rest of the message. No one had called me Monkey in four years. Not since the collapse. But I had to see what else he had to say, whether he was coming for me, and whether it might mean I could be with the rest of my family again. Even though he said he’d failed—there are different kinds of failure. There’s the kind that’s frustrating and you try again, and there’s the kind that leaves your family scattered on two or three different planets and who knew where in the outer system habitats.

I was just getting myself braced to read it when Tessa came in. “My God, what happened to you?”

“My uncle—” I managed.

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry!” Tessa sat down next to me on my bed and hugged me fiercely.

“He’s not dead,” I managed around the hard press of her bony shoulder. “At least I don’t think. I couldn’t—I haven’t—”

She held me out at arm’s length, gripping my shoulders, and waited.

“I haven’t heard from him for years, really years. This isn’t the one I—the one I talk to. I kept not hearing. I’ve asked on every Oort board there is, and nobody can find him.”

Tessa turned me to Uncle Will’s letter and waited while I read it, then read it again. I think she knew that I would go back and reread it over and over if left to my own devices. She softly touched my shoulder to get my attention back, murmuring, “And?”

“He was trying—” I took a shuddering, jagged breath. “He was trying to get to a place where he could have me and my brother and sister again. He was trying to get court decisions reversed on our old property so that we could have our actual home back. He spent every dime he earned on court costs, and he lost. And he doesn’t have a way to get back the guardianship of the little ones now that he’s lost.”

Tessa glanced at the picture I keep of them. The cube could easily be programmed to show video loops or a series of still pictures, and I have them stored on there. But I just leave it on one picture, me and Hans and Cora and our cousin Xiang-Ming before she died. We all look really happy. When I can make it to Mars, I’ll get another one with just me and Hans and Cora. The picture was six years ago, and Cora has grown so much. Hans too, but—Cora was just tiny then.

We change so fast.

“I’m sorry your uncle doesn’t have a way to get them back,” said Tessa gently. She’s a very gentle person. “I know that’s important to you. Do you think your uncle hopes to help with your education debts, or—?”

“He can’t do it,” I said. “He feels terrible, he’s blaming himself, but—he can’t. And honestly I don’t know that he understands how in-system education and indenture work.”

“Couldn’t he and your other uncle figure it out together?” said Tessa.

“I don’t know. After the collapse, they—they didn’t agree on what to do next, and there was a big fight, and—I don’t know what will happen. Whether they’re even speaking to each other. Of course if one got a ship, the other would be welcome, but . . . that’s all on Uncle Wys now.”

“Ah,” said Tess, who very clearly had no experience with uncles gallivanting about the outer reaches of the Solar System. I’m not even sure she would know her uncles on the street. She never talked about family beyond parents and siblings. Earthers are weird, they’re all little islands with no connections to speak of. That’s how they ended up with all this mess of debt and indenture, because nobody knows who anybody’s cousin is.

Out in the Oort Cloud, we don’t have indentured servants. Didn’t. We didn’t have indentured servants, before the Chornohora Disaster and everything that followed. I don’t know what the corporations have exported out there now. But in-system, perhaps a third of the people are indentured servants at one point in their lives, mostly due to debts. There’s personal debt and educational debt and family debt and—these people could not have made such a mess of my home if they didn’t think about debt all the damn time.

But I didn’t really have any choice—I got thrust into the middle of their system as a barely emancipated minor. They let me go to university. That’s what they know how to do with the young in-system: educate them, let them rack up debt. I knew that Uncle Wys would send for me as soon as he had the place for us, so I made sure that when I went to that university on Callisto, it was in deep-field astrophysics, something that could be useful to the family ship when we had a family ship again.

Something an Oort girl could properly do.

But Callisto, while it wasn’t anywhere near as in-system crazy as Earth, worked on the same plan: if you didn’t have a family to pay for you, you racked up the debt, and then you worked an indenture in one of the undesirable jobs to pay it off. If I’d taken a degree in something they wanted, something they thought was useful in-system, I could have wiped my indenture clean in a year. Climatologists did that, and research mycologists. Now that I was on Earth, I could see why they wanted so many mycologists. But if I’d chosen either of those fields, I’d be stuck in-system for good when my family needed me. Better to work the Pavelkas’ farm and wait for Uncle Wys.

It made the in-system dramas make a lot more sense, because not only do they have people avoiding indentured servitude at the very last minute, but almost every story has indentured servants in it. Or they’ll have people meeting at the indentured service assignment office and trying to arrange indentures together if it’s a happy story, being haunted by the lost connection if it’s a melancholy one.

When I was little and we were watching one as a family, I asked my mother what that place was, and she said it was like the equivalent of the pilot licensing bureau for in-system people. She was dead wrong and didn’t even know it. She just had no idea how much debt is on these people’s minds, like a malfunctioning beacon every moment: “debt debt debt debt debt debt . . .” They’re not like us, they never say, “It wouldn’t be any use to the family,” when they’ve decided not to do something. They say, “I can’t afford it.”

I’d been spending the last five years living like one of them, hardly ever saying anything about my family out loud. Now there was this message from Uncle Will. And what it was saying was no. No, we can’t be together. No, I’ve failed. No, you have to keep on spraying for rusts and fungus without any idea when you’ll see Hans and Cora again. No.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know what to think. Except that, oh, I was so glad he was alive. I checked to see if there was any way to track a return message. There wasn’t. I could send one, of course—just replying to the sender—but I wouldn’t know if he saw it that day or the next or never. And I wouldn’t know where he was.

That was nothing new.

But the return message could wait, since I couldn’t find him with it and he wasn’t coming for me any time soon. It could wait, and supper couldn’t. I threw a warm flannel shirt on over my clean trousers and undershirt and tried a smile out on Tess.

“That’s pathetic,” she said. “No one would believe that was a happy face. But you’re in luck: the news feed was all bad, so they won’t notice you’re upset. They’ll be too busy with their own problems.”

“Oh,” I said. “Good?”

“Yeah, it’s fabulous. We’ll be out in the suits all week. It’ll be a miracle if the wheat grows at all, with the cocktails of antifungals they’ll have us put on it. Who knows if any of them will work.”

I winced. Hard to tell whether it would be a hard week or a hard year, if the reports were that bad. I propped up my fake smile.

“Better,” said Tessa.

The Pavelkas around the supper table that night reminded me of my family when the mining was poor: tight-lipped, ready for the children to talk about anything that would distract them. Tess and I, since we weren’t family, were the “children,” but we didn’t have that much to talk about since we’d spent the day in the fields with them and I was dodging bringing up my uncle.

Catie tried all the same. “What do you hear from your brother and sister, Holly?”

“They seem to have picked up hockey,” I said, smiling ruefully at the way their faces lit up. For me, all Earthers are more or less the same, their little differences over language and religion and politics amounting to family squabbles. They can’t keep our clans straight either. But to them, it matters, and one of the things that makes Canadians happy is hockey. They have a special bond with Martians that way.

“Oh, great!” said Anna-Reese. “They can send you feed of their games—not in real-time with the lag, obviously, and the cost would be too much anyway, but the delayed feed will be almost as satisfying.”

I had not even though of watching entire games of my little siblings darting about Martian ice with little Martians, chasing awkwardly after a puck, but I could see from the way Anna-Reese said it that it was what I had to do. I could see that Hans and Cora would be expecting it. I might have to ask the Pavelkas what to say to them so that it sounded like I was paying attention. I would pay attention, but I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to say. You looked very fast. How well you almost hit the net with the tiny object. Well done, crashing into the other child at the correct time.

Asking the Pavelkas seemed a much better idea than trying to make a go of that sort of conversation myself.

We made short work of the dishes, but the whole time I was thinking of what to write back to my uncle. I thought I knew what I would say to him if I could see him again—I had thought of it hundreds, thousands of times over the last six years—but this was . . . not quite that. For one thing, if I saw him again, I’d know where he was. It turned out that made quite a difference.

“Never mind success or failure,” I wrote, pausing to put “Dear Uncle Will” at the top like a civilized person. “Where are you?” There was no way the messaging software would let me emphasize it enough, but I didn’t want to pay for voice transmission when I didn’t even know the message wouldn’t just drop into the void forever. I could save that credit for Hans and Cora, who would appreciate it.

“Where are you where are you where are you?” I wrote. I sounded more like the girl he’d left than the woman I’d become, but that was all right. It was what I actually wanted to say.

Then I couldn’t think what else. I sat and stared at the message.

“I am well,” I finally wrote, sounding like an etiquette manual, but there was at least room to go on from there. “My indenture here on Earth is on a farm. You wouldn’t believe the weather, far more than just solar storms. And trees! I thought I understood trees, but the little fruit things we have are nothing compared to the trees here.”

I realized that I had no idea whether Uncle Will had been to Earth. Maybe he knew about storms and trees and Earth things. Maybe he’d toured the Earth monuments. Maybe he was on Earth at that very moment, if not as close as Edmonton, somewhere else just like it, with rain and pollen and history. Without knowing, I didn’t know how to tell him the stories of my indenture, what it had been like to begin with, how Tessa had taught me a lot, how I’d adjusted and how I hadn’t.

I had never lived anywhere with trees before. You’d think it would be the same as having high walls or hills or a dome—it’s a high-up thing that’s mostly in your peripheral vision, but it’s really not. The fact that they’re alive turns out to matter a lot. The branches move around, and you can really tell they’re alive. It’s more like living with a herd of giant elephants or something than a dome.

Earth people do not think of it this way. But they should, because that’s what it’s like.

When I first got here, I was wary of the trees. I knew—I’m not stupid—that they didn’t pick up and wander around. I knew that Macbeth was being metaphorical, or mystical, or something. But they were still such large, moving, living things, all right there. I wasn’t used to it. I gave them wide berth when I walked out to do my chores.

Finally Tessa grabbed me by the wrist as we were coming in from our chores. “But look,” she said, dragging me into the back garden. “Here’s you!”

Her people were from New Orleans when there was one, and they kept moving up the mouth of the Mississippi, so now they live in Greater Memphis State. So her accent confused me. Anna-Reese said, “No, the yews are over there.”

Tess giggled and said, “No, it’s holly. Holly.” She put my hand on one of the smooth spiky leaves. I flinched back and then reached out again, more slowly, of my own accord.

“I forgot Dad had this back here,” said Anna-Reese. “Holly tree. You’re right, that’s you, Holly.”

“Hello, me-tree,” I said softly. The glossy dark leaf felt right, it felt just how it looked. We had no excuse to grow holly trees in our ships. Apple trees, pear trees, they earned their keep. Holly trees, no. I had never felt a leaf quite like that, thick and firm and unyielding.

And yet that was not the tree I bonded with. My tree was a little sturdy bigtoothed maple, its leaves thin and jagged and yielding, utterly unlike the holly in every way. You could lean on a maple. You could tell a maple your troubles, but I didn’t. I just leaned and breathed.

Thinking about those early days while trying to write to my Uncle Will, I realized how much distance had formed between us. He hadn’t heard from me when I was in college on Callisto, so writing, “I have a serious relationship with a maple tree,” would probably make no sense. I wrote it down anyway and then added, “but I will be okay leaving it when we get our ship figured out. My friend Tessa who teaches me about Earth and trees will be harder to leave. Maybe she will visit. Have you written to Uncle Wys? He’s going crazy missing you. We all miss you. Don’t wait so long to write again, even if you aren’t writing to say we have our ship back yet. It’s okay. We can work together on it. Love, Holly.”

Then I went to sleep. I’m not usually a great sleeper, but that night I slept fine. I dreamed I was back out in our ship in the void. Waking to the smell of Tessa’s cheap rose shampoo should have been jarring, but instead it was familiar now, home-like in a way I didn’t expect when I first came to Earth.

There was soya bean rust in the next riding to add to the anxiety of the previous day’s announcement, so we spent the day out in the back fields spraying with fungicide and then carefully washing down so we didn’t bring either rust or fungicide into the house. One of Wendell’s friends, a big hearty man from over by Swan Hills, got burns on his hands and almost up to his elbows from where he didn’t get the fungicide washed off. It wasn’t the same kind. Still, it’s a reminder to be careful every time we see him, the long reddish patches that stay on the skin like birthmarks.

The next day was more of the same before we could get back to the usual farm chores. The day after, we were out in the fields as usual, doing the work we knew. I never asked Anna-Reese and Tess what they thought about in the long hours running the farm machinery, but I think everyone knew I thought about my family, about my ship, the ship Uncle Wys would get us.

I heard the ramping up of noise that started the sirens, and I had that tractor backed around and headed for the barn before their wail was full. I fumbled my mask on while I went, in case it was a spore wind, but with the sky the color it was, I was pretty sure it was precipitation instead. Inclement weather. Rain. Rain. Weird, weird stuff, rain. Tessa had managed to convince me to go out in it, and it was nice when it was warm, like a water park or a shower.

But you couldn’t trust it. You could bet that the water park management wasn’t suddenly going to turn the heat all the way down so that you got ice pellets in your face. You could feel sure that your shower wasn’t going to pick you up and dash you against the wall. Rain is not so reliable.

I was always, always the first one into the shelter when the sirens blared. Did not matter how far away I was or whether the others were right there next to it. They took their time. They ambled. They stopped to peer at the sky and speculate, and if there were two of them, they would stand there and talk to each other about it, like they were the audience in the intermission of a concert, wondering what the musician would play in the second set.

Earthers are so weird.

So I got myself settled in the shelter. Eventually the others came in, Tessa and Anna-Reese together, then Wendell, and finally Catie, still wiping her hands on her shirt. She’d been making supper and smelled of fresh basil. I hoped the tornado wouldn’t take the herb patch. I hoped the tornado wouldn’t take any of it, but at the time all I could think of was the herb patch.

I couldn’t do anything during a storm. They all knew it and didn’t bother me, because it wouldn’t do any good. I paced. The rest of them settled right down and played a round of Sheephead, Catie’s favorite, and then a round of 500, Tess’s choice, and then the radio sounded the all-clear.

The tornado was a good eighty kilometers away. Which in space terms is next door, but it’s far enough not to destroy your herb patch. If you had an asteroid pass that close to your hab, you would say how close it was. Everyone would rush to the view windows to gape at it and say how close it was. But on Earth, eighty kilometers means your farm is fine and the neighbors’ farm is not, there, done.

It’s hard to even explain the kind of people you get when they live like this. They watch local news like they were going to have a cousin on it any day, but “local news” usually includes millions of people, none of whom they have any relation to or business deals with.

It’s also hard to get a sense of what to expect from the natural world. Farmers like the Pavelkas don’t routinely keep the gene sequence of their crops on hand. They just don’t. They figure they can get stuff sequenced if they need to. The seed companies try to tell them what’s resistant to different diseases, but the seed companies have lied about that so many times that no one on Earth believes them. Despite that the farmers still don’t keep their own gene database.

I had started to have the feeling that there were more rusts, more blights—generally just more fungus—than would be natural. I was starting to feel like someone was doing this to us—to them, really, but to me, too, as long as I was there. But was that true? Was that a reasonable feeling to have? Or was it just the result of an Oort girl living on an unsequenced planet?

I knew that Anna-Reese and Tess had not sequenced the people they were dating, so I could not fathom how they had any idea what possibilities the future might hold for them. How do you find out what a reasonable number of fungi would look like, from people who behave like that? Even if they’re your friends?


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Copyright © 2018. Left to Take the Lead by Marissa Lingen