Of Bugs, Debts and Distant Planets was originally published in Fifth Di… Magazine in June 2021
Of Bugs, Debts, and Distant Planets
by Vera Brook
The blue-green farming fields of Kenor surround me like a waist-deep sea as I sweep another fern, the bugs rattling like pebbles down the clear tube of my vacuum. One cold, alien sun hangs to my right, another to my left.
There’s nothing I’ll miss about this world when I leave tonight.
I scan the fields for him, but all the workers wear identical uniforms and face shields, carry the same collection cylinders on their backs, and there are hundreds of us. I’ll have to find him on our lunch break. My last chance to tell him how much he means to me, and I’m terrified he’ll try to avoid me, to make things easier on both of us.
I pull back a frond on the dark-blue fern with a stem as thick as my leg. The roots must reach half a mile down. Furry beetles cling to every frond, crowding along the veins, slowly draining the precious juices. The air reeks of ginger and hot solder.
I aim my vacuum nozzle at the bugs.
There is only one human job on Kenor: bug collection. I’ve now done it for eighteen months and ten days. The cost of my mom’s medical debt, passed on to me when she died, and recalculated into off-world labor I owe. I’m lucky her hospital stay was brief; many have it much worse.
I’m usually real good at this job. But today my mind wanders, and I push the switch too high. The suction whistles, and the nozzle swallows the bug and pinches the leaf, tearing the blade.
The bugs’ spit numbs the plant, but this is a major shock. The whole plant shudders and snaps shut like an upside-down umbrella, sinking into the ground.
That plant is worth a fortune, the thick fronds stocked with rare-earth metals it sucks out of the ground.
Heck, even the bugs crawling inside the cylinder on my back are worth more than me, gram for gram, thanks to the trace amounts they’ve ingested. The AI custom-engineered them for the task, down to the spit that lulls the fern’s defences. After we collect them, the lab robots extract the metals and ship the loot back to Earth.
The AI likes efficiency, and it has a fix for every problem.
The chime is a relief. Break time.
I push up my face shield and hurry to the Food Court.
Come on, Jace. Where are you?
It’s not really a food court but a cluster of dispensers the AI sets up for us along the main transport road. Basic chow and water are free, but luxury items like coffee cost extra. Minutes added to your debt, the numbers ticking up, up, becoming hours, becoming extra days the AI owns you. A permanent implant on your forearm displays the exact balance, so you never forget it.
“Nikka, you okay?” I turn, and there is Jace. He grabs my wrist to check my display. “Any penalty?”
My whole body goes rigid. The plant! But my balance is still only hours. “It’s fine.”
We both exhale in relief, even though it’s my skin and my debt. “Good,” Jace says, more to himself than to me. “That’s good.”
I look into his kind eyes, and it’s like a chasm splits open inside me. How do I do this? How can I leave if he’s still here, trapped on this planet for several years after I’m gone?
Pain twists his face, but he shoves it down. He lets go of my wrist. “You hungry?”
He’s holding back, as always. But so am I. Neither of us is good with words.
The chasm inside me gapes wide open, and suddenly I know what to do.
“I could go for coffee,” I say. “But I am buying this time.”
“No way. It’s on me.” And Jace sticks his arm into a payment slot.
I hurry to do the same.
You see, all machines are multi-purpose. You can send credit home to Earth in seconds from any payment slot. The AI wants to keep you here, so they make the process easy. No consent required on the other side, and you can’t take it back.
“Credit transfer,” I snap at the machine that’s brewing my java.
The AI’s response is instant. “Recipient and amount?”
“Jace-Rackham-twenty-eight-months-five-days,” I rattle my order.
The relief takes my breath away. I feel… whole again, the tear inside me mended.
Half of Jace’s debt is mine now. We’ll pay it off and leave this place—together.
“Nikka! Nooo! What have you done?! You can’t stay here! Not for me!”
I brace myself. I have to make him understand; I’m already turning his way.
But… I can’t move. The payment slot clutches my wrist.
Worse, Jace’s arm is trapped too.
Panic licks my spine but I shake it off. Easy. It’s just a glitch. We broke no rules. “My arm is stuck,” I tell the machine. “If I get injured, I cannot work. Let go of me.”
“Please stay calm. You are reassigned to another location. The transport is on the way.”
Jace struggles to break free, shouting now, trying to wrench his hand out of the slot.
“What?! No! She paid off her debt! Nikka!”
“Reassigned?” I ask, not comprehending. “But why?”
The AI must have a reason. Empathy may have been left out of its core programming. But it’s nothing if not rational.
“Excessive attachment impairs productivity. You just demonstrated that the behavior is reciprocal, which perpetuates the pattern. Separation is the optimal solution. Another base on Kenor. You will do the same work.”
I’m too stunned to speak, and Jace, too, falls silent.
We look at each other, he and I.
“We can do this,” I tell him and myself. “See you when it’s done.”
And after a moment, he nods. “Go easy on the coffee.”
The two cold suns of Kenor watch, unmoved, as the hovercraft carries me away.
by Lucy Zhang
They won’t let Ophelia onto the train even though Daddy has already been seated. She can see him by the window in the fancy car with the conference tables between the one-by-two leather seating. His hat casts a shadow on his profile, but she can still make out the familiar bumpy slope of his nose and his long eyelashes and his light, snowy hair. He looks away from the window as she shouts Daddy and the staff have to pull her away from the edge of the platform. The train whistles.
Daddy says this train is the most advanced of its kind. It lets water into a heat exchanger connected to the exhaust system, vaporizes the water to create superheated steam, and directly conveys the steam into the ports of a fuel injection engine. It’s all over the news that this train can take you across the country in only a few hours, all the way to the Outside. Tickets are restricted since the train can’t carry everyone, but everyone wants to leave. Her friend Pat told Ophelia that he was getting snuck out in his father’s huge suitcase, that the ticketers don’t check important passengers’ luggage—it’s too much work and they don’t want to risk their jobs or their own tickets by upsetting favored customers.
Pat and Ophelia are two of the only kids in town whose dads came from the Outside. Their dads are taller with sharper facial features and whiter hair than anyone else, and likewise, Pat and Ophelia tower over their peers and have grey hair—maybe even white under the sun—compared to their peers’ soot black.
It’s not fair, Ophelia thinks. Pat is probably sleeping in the suitcase right now. The station staff tell her to go home. She doesn’t want to go home. Mother will yell at her for chasing after Daddy and Ophelia will most likely have to stand through another round of strikes to her legs. But Mother does none of that, just murmurs “He’s finally gone,” over and over again. Ophelia asks when he’ll be back. “Avoid people like him, O,” Mother says, but what “like him” means, Ophelia doesn’t know.
In the weeks following Daddy’s departure, Ophelia writes him a letter every day and gives it to Mother to mail since she doesn’t know Daddy’s new address. School has been canceled because more people are being drafted to expand the train’s route to neighboring towns with untapped sparkly rocks. The Outside loves sparkly rocks, but Ophelia figures if you can’t eat them, they can’t be that useful. Most of the teachers and older students have already left to work on the construction, and the younger kids spend the day in the playground or the classrooms drawing pictures with the remaining uncracked pieces of chalk. They’re supposed to be reading the textbooks, but there’s only one textbook for every class, and the text is faded and so hard to see that reading over someone else’s shoulder is impossible. “We’ll leave eventually too,” Mother says, “before the food runs out.” According to Mother, the soil is saturated with xenobiotics, and already too toxic for corn and soybeans. It doesn’t kill the plants, but will kill anyone who eats them.
But as other families disappear to neighboring towns further from the coast, with more money and less toxic soil and crops that might not fail, Mother makes no move to pack. Ophelia receives no replies from Daddy, and there aren’t enough kids to throw sandbags with, a game which requires at least seven people for it to be fun—two standing on the ends and the rest standing in the middle dodging the sandbags—not a huge loss for Ophelia, who is too weak to throw fast enough and too tall not to be an easy target, and so she would emerge from games with at least three new bruises.
“When are we going?” Ophelia asks. “Soon, O,” Mother replies. But instead, Mother stops going outside and stays in bed.
It becomes cold and dark outside even though it’s still summer. Ophelia stops going to school and instead folds the lids of paper cigarette boxes into thick cards and tries to flip them, maneuvering aerodynamics to her advantage. Mother waters down the porridge again and adds twice the salt to create a convincing flavor profile. Ophelia starts to create figurines from her old school papers, ripping and crinkling sheets to create long limbs and torsos and narrow, ovular heads. She positions them around her, basks in the feeling of company, and asks them what she should do. They tell her to prepare. She gathers her backpack and dumps out the flimsy workbooks and pencil stubs. She crams in two pairs of underwear, the last of her socks without holes, her thickest sweater and pants since she can handle the heat but not cold, a canteen of water, a chocolate bar Daddy gave her on her first trip to the candy store on the outskirts of town, a map of the train stops she’d snatched from the station when the guards weren’t watching. It is getting darker and colder, and she knows without listening to the rumors that the Inside won’t last much longer. Daddy is supposed to come back for them like he always does, like when Mother lost track of time in the market, immersed in her attempts to haggle down the price of loquat and Daddy would swoop in, laugh off Mother’s penny-picking tendencies, and pay the full price before taking them home. He was like a hero to Ophelia, rescuing her from Mother’s lectures and nitpicking, and Ophelia loved the way he’d flip coins in the air, flicking them with enough force so they’d rotate several times before landing in his palm and clinking with the other coins. And they were always the shiny gold coins, not the dull, rusty, grey-reddish coins Mother carried around.
Before Daddy left on the train to somewhere far away, he left a bag of coins with them. Ophelia counts the coins and places half in the small front pocket of her backpack. “He thinks money can solve all problems,” Mother often said, although Ophelia doesn’t see what’s so wrong with that. Daddy’s money seems to help most of the time. She knows the gold coins are more powerful than the grey ones, and maybe that can help them leave before the Dark sweeps through.
The morning is the only time there’s any light, and even then, it’s the kind of muddled light that makes reading in the dark easier. This is the best time to visit the train station even though she’ll probably be caught by guards. She tugs on sneakers that have been patched several times with old jeans too long for Mother. Mother has been shrinking like a stale sponge from eating only rice and water; Mother could be Ophelia’s sister if it weren’t for the wrinkles.
When she arrives at the train station, the platform is empty. There’s no train on the tracks, no people sitting on the benches, no one manning the gates or monitoring the track switches even though they supposedly have gas burners mounted on the rail to prevent them from freezing—Daddy said it’s the most equipped station in the world, so advanced it could defeat the Dark and more and you’d never have to worry again.
She stands on her toes so her mouth can get closer to the counter’s microphone.
“Can I have two tickets?” Ophelia dumps the gold coins in the metal tray. This should be enough. One gold coin can buy food for a month, maybe more.
No one replies.
Ophelia wanders to one of the machines, and although she’s never used one before, Daddy told her to trust her gut with these gadgets since the buttons are designed to be as user-friendly as possible. She hits the number two on the keypad, dumps all of her coins into the slot, and presses enter. The machine whirrs and vibrates and two perforated tickets slide out of the bottom slot. Ophelia’s hands shake as she holds the tickets. They look similar to what Daddy held, although less shiny, less distinct somehow. It must be because she has two and Daddy had only one, and the more you have, the less special something appears. She folds them on the perforation, excited to show Mother how responsible and prepared she is.
But when she attempts to exit the train station, the Darkness has already spread and she can’t tell which direction is home. She coughs and heaves and runs back into the station. She will sleep at the station today and attempt to head home tomorrow. Plus, it’ll be a good chance to get a sense of the train’s schedule: when and how many times it arrives, how long it waits before departing. Ophelia needs to know these things to spare Mother the worry. It’s honestly so silly that Daddy couldn’t take them all to the Outside in the same trip. Ophelia and Mother could’ve just sat in the back sections where none of the seats were occupied; they wouldn’t have disturbed any of the Outside folks at all, and they didn’t even need conference tables or meal deliveries. Before Daddy left, he had promised “someone will come” and surely that someone meant him, but Ophelia believes actions speak louder than words and that she can find him herself. And she always keeps her promises.
The train never comes.
About the Authors
Vera Brook is a neuroscientist turned science fiction and fantasy writer, and the author of the SAND RUNNER SERIES. Her short fiction has appeared in Hyphen Punk, Fifth Di, Youth Imagination Magazine, and Aphelion. She’s working on two entirely new series, a standalone novel, and a whole lot of short fiction. She also tweets about her writing journey, long and short fiction she loves, and other things that interest her at @VeraBrook1.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in The Rupture, The Offing, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Her chapbook HOLLOWED is forthcoming from Thirty West Publishing, and her micro-chapbook ABSORPTION is forthcoming from Harbor Review in 2022. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.
About the Narrators
Sofia Quintero is a writer and producer who tells stories that meet audiences where they are and take them someplace better. Raised in a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx and graduating from Columbia University, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” has published six novels and twice as many short stories across genres including YA, “chick lit,” and erotica. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote three novels described as “sister-centered hip-hop noir.”
Sofia’s stories are usually ahead of the curve, offering nuanced depictions of underrepresented communities years before the mainstream entertainment industries took up the challenge. Because her novels reflect an intentional hybrid between the commercial and the literary, exploiting popular tropes to raise socio-political issues for broad audiences, they are assigned at colleges across the nation and in multiple disciplines including English, Sociology, Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, Latino studies, African American Studies, and Education.
In 2012, Sofia earned an MFA in Writing and Producing Television from the TV Writers Studio at Long Island University and was a 2017 Made in NY Writers Room Fellow. In addition to developing several projects for television, she’s working on her seventh novel called #Krissette. Inspired by the #SayHerName movement, #Krissette will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2020. Sofia will also be re-releasing her Black Artemis backlist as audiobooks.
Eliza Chan is a writer and occasional narrator of speculative fiction. She has narrated for Pseudopod, Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. It amuses her endlessly that people find her Scottish accent soothing. Eliza has had her own work featured in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy 2019.
When not working on her current novel or reading, Eliza can be found boardgaming, watching anime, baby wrangling and dabbling in crafts. You can find out more at her website www.elizachan.co.uk or on twitter @elizawchan.