Maybe that was the noise Saffi had heard: the sound of Di’s determination. It rang in her ears. Not the door slamming; Di hadn’t slammed it, just let the automatic seals close behind her without a backward glance, but the sound echoed all the same.
Saffi’s hands were curled into fists and the cut sapphires of Di’s ring bit into her left palm. She straightened her stiff fingers and let the ring slip loose, onto the low coffee table which sat beside the sofa she had slumped down onto the moment Di had left. Her wife’s parting words repeated themselves over and over, a descant to the pounding in her skull.
“When you join me in the city, I’ll put it back on,” Di had said, eyes bright and hard. “But, if you stay here…” She’d paused, refusing to meet Saffi’s gaze, turned away to display her profile to perfection. Then her jaw had clenched, and she’d spat her last words to fall into the silence of Saffi’s bewilderment. “Well, it would be best if we parted, I think.”
Then, turning and picking up her handbag and one small holdall, she had walked out into the sunshine. The door had slid shut behind her, shutting out the light, and Saffi had stumbled backward until her calves hit the couch and she fell into it.
Time had slipped and now the afternoon was nearly over. And it had only been 9am when Di had appeared with that damned holdall and a ticket back to the city in her hand.
Blindly, Saffi worked the ring off her own calloused finger and dropped it on the table beside Di’s while her mind raced back to Core City eleven months ago and another ticket that had been grasped in that slim hand. A ticket to paradise, or so Di had said.
* * *
Saffi was slouching in the bio-form couch clutching a margarita and staring at the sky-cars whizzing past their apartment window when Di got home from work. On the 75th floor, high above the smog and with a view all the way to the ocean, it had cost more than they could really afford. But they had everything they could want—fresh food from the robotic farms that covered Felicity’s southern continent; clothes, books and films, imported and Felicitean—even friends close by in the same tower.
She raised her glass in a toast to her wife, new wedding ring glinting in the light.
“Hey, hun. Fancy a drink before we go to Alastair’s party tonight? I bought fresh limes.”
Di waved away the suggestion, slipping off her heels and slumping into the other couch, a strip of plas-film clutched in one hand. “Saf, I—” she started, before pausing to stare out the window for a moment. “Do you mind if we don’t go? There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.” She fiddled with her ring, a matching shape to Saffi’s, but with blue stones gleaming rather than diamonds flashing.
“What’s wrong?” Saffi leaned forward to put a hand on her wife’s knee. “Of course, we don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Did something happen at work?”
Di shrugged. “Sorta. Nothing big, but it’s just one thing after another, you know?”
Saffi nodded. Di hadn’t been happy for a while—dreading going into the office and coming home a washed-out pencil drawing of her usual self. She’d buried the knowledge of it under the excitement of planning their wedding, but she couldn’t deny that her wife was depressed any longer.
“I can’t keep doing this. I just want to run away. Please don’t make me go back.” Tears streamed down Di’s cheek and Saffi jumped up to pull her into a hug.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, love. It’s all right. We’ll fix it. We’ll find you a new job somewhere. A better one.”
“No.” Di pulled away from her. “I’m leaving. I want you to come with me. But either way, I have to get out of here. I can’t take it anymore.” She covered her face in her hands, the plas-film sheet still held tightly in one fist.
Saffi frowned as she looked around their apartment, the one they had spent so much time and money finding. They’d only just got the life they’d been dreaming of since college. Why would Di want to leave now?
“But where do you want to go, love?”
Di thrust the hand holding the plas-film at her.
Taking the crumpled sheet, Saffi unfolded it and stared at the flyer.
“No. You can’t be serious?” She laughed. It must have been some kind of joke.
But Di dropped her hands and glared at her. “I am deadly fucking serious.”
“You want to go North? You want to live in the Shear Zone? What the hell, Di?”
North: Felicity’s second, smaller continent, un-terraformed and given over to reserves to preserve the planet’s native wildlife—and tourist lodges and hotels so people could visit and gawk. And one small strip of land between the sea and the endless forests where die-hard luddites and anti-social, bull-headed settlors scraped a living from the soil. The Shear Zone, star of a hundred novels and films where gender stereotypes ruled and life was cheap.
Saffi wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.
“I’m going, Saf. With or without you.” Di’s jaw was set. When she looked like that, there was no arguing with her. Saffi had learnt that long ago.
“But, how? Neither of us know how to farm. And where are we going to buy tractors and chickens and all that shit?”
A small smile curled up one corner of Di’s mouth. “It’s all taken care of. The Settler Corporation provides everything we need: transport, a plot of land and a house, seeds, animal stock. Tutorials. And if we don’t like it, we can come home.” She reached out to hold Saffi’s hand. “We have a year in our contract to give it all up and come back south, or decide to stay.”
“And we get our apartment back if we quit?”
Di grimaced. “Not exactly. We transfer the apartment to them as payment for the package. But if we come back, they’ll find us somewhere else to live. And it wouldn’t be hard to get a job. Not with your qualifications.”
“I’m not sure, Di. I’m a city girl. I like it here. I’ve never lived anywhere else! Aren’t there other options we can try first? You could retrain. Start over with a different company.”
Di leaned back to stare out the window again, refusing to meet Saffi’s eyes. “I already signed the papers,” she murmured.
Di flushed. “I’m sorry! I got so excited about it and I didn’t think. But it’s for the best. This is a new start for us. A new life to go with our new start.” Di pulled Saffi into her lap and twined their left hands together so their matching rings met.
Saffi stared at their joined hands and knew, as she had known ten years ago when they’d first met, that she couldn’t say no to this woman.
“All right. We’ll give it a try. If it will make you happy.”
“You won’t regret it. I promise.” Di’s voice brightened with excitement as she listed all the things they would need to do and pack before they left while Saffi stared out of the window and thought of all the things she was going to miss.
* * *
The chime of the doorbell brought Saffi back to the present, and she scrubbed the tears from her cheek before answering.
Ivy’s face filled the narrow gap in the doorframe that Saffi allowed to open. “Hey, neighbour!” she said, then her face stilled as she got a good look at Saffi. “Oh dear, darling. What happened? The new clutch of crocahens didn’t all die, did they?” As she spoke, she bustled through the doorway and laid a handmade basket down on the table next to the rings before turning to face Saffi again, hands on hips.
“No, no, nothing like that.” Saffi stumbled over the words, her tongue thick from crying. “The chicks are all doing fine.”
“Well, then, what’s got you looking like a wet weekend in harvest-time?” Ivy frowned. “Bobby said he saw Di in town heading for the shuttle-port. Has she gone back to visit her folks? I daresay you’ll miss her while she’s gone.”
A peal of harsh laughter spilled from Saffi’s throat. “She’s not coming back.”
“Well, no wonder then.” Ivy narrowed her eyes as she inspected Saffi and the state of the living room. “And you’ve been sitting there ever since she left, not moving. Am I right? I thought the yard looked a mess when I parked up.”
Saffi’s head drooped on her neck, too heavy to hold up. “Something like that.”
Ivy sat down next to her on the worn sofa and reached out to pat her hand. “Why don’t you come over to ours for dinner tonight? You look like you could use a good meal and a distraction. My eldest is home from the city and we’re having a big meal to celebrate. That’s why I stopped by, to invite you.”
The unsaid “both” hung in the air between them.
“Unless you’re leaving too?” she added softly.
Saffi dragged a hand across her eyes. “I don’t know. I have no idea what I’m going to do now.”
“Don’t fret about it, dearie. Come to dinner. It won’t look so bad on a full belly and a good night’s sleep. There’s no hurry to decide, after all.”
“No, I guess not.” Saffi sniffed and nodded. “All right. I’ll come over. Thank you, Ivy.”
“You’re welcome, darling. Any time. And let us know if you’re struggling here on your own. I’ll send my boys over to help with the chores whenever you need.”
Saffi managed a smile. “As if you don’t need them working on your own land.”
Ivy started to reply, but Saffi raised a hand to stop her. “I appreciate the offer. I really do. I’ll let you know if I need the help.” If I stay, she thought. If I follow Di back to the city again, it doesn’t much matter if the chores get done or all the crops die.
“I’d better get back and start cooking,” Ivy said, rising to her feet and pulling Saffi into a hug. “There’s a cake in that basket for you and a bottle of my best damson wine. Have a bite now, and bring the basket back with you tonight.” Smiling and wagging a finger at Saffi, she disappeared through the door into the setting sun outside.
Saffi sank back into the sofa with a sigh. She wasn’t sure she was up to an evening with the rowdy Andersen family. But if she didn’t go, Ivy was as like as not to send one of her sons to fetch her. Just like she’d done their first day in the Shear.
* * *
It wasn’t the most prepossessing sight.
The shuttle had dropped them off in town—if you could call ten clapboard buildings a town—and they’d picked up their buggy and supplies at the trading post. Two hours of bumping across non-existent roads later and here they were.
“Welcome home, Saf!” Di squealed as she leapt out of the buggy. “Our own twenty acres of heaven.”
More like twenty acres of dirt and rotten fences, Saffi thought, glancing around the tumbledown farm yard. She hoped the house was in a better state, or at least slightly cleaner.
Di grabbed her hand and tugged her forward. “Let’s check out the barn. Our droids should be around here somewhere.”
Saffi allowed herself to be pulled into the nearest building. Blinking as her eyes adjusted, she made out a huge machine taking up a full third of the hanger. It was silent and still, but the sheer size of it was menacing.
“That’s our harvester,” Di said, staring up at it in awe. She flipped though the manual she held in her free hand. “It’s a HAWS: Heavy Agricultural Work System,” she read. “Let’s call it Horse for short.”
“Sure, if you want.” Saffi tried to sound interested, but was pretty sure she’d failed. She thought of their comfortable, clean apartment in the City and grimaced. “I’m going to go check out the house. See you inside in a bit?”
“Uh-huh,” Di replied, absorbed in the interface for the Horse. “See you soon, love.”
Saffi shook her head as she walked away. It was good to see Di so happy for a change, but she wasn’t overly optimistic that this would work out in the long run. As least they could still go back home if they changed their minds.
The inside of the house was even worse than she expected. Pushing the door open, she coughed as a cloud of dust engulfed her. The floor, the walls, even the windows were coated in it. In a way, it was lucky there was very little furniture that she could see, otherwise that would have been covered in dust too.
A saggy couch sat in the middle of the room with a small table next to it. Through an arch on the other side of the room, Saffi could see cupboards, a sink, and a cooking unit coated in more dust and grime, and there was a single door to her left that, presumably, led to the bedroom and bathroom.
Wrinkling her nose, Saffi walked through to the small kitchen, looking for a broom or a hi-vac or something she could use to start cleaning up. Back home, the house droids had taken care of keeping their apartment clean and tidy, but she had to assume there weren’t any here—the dust told her that.
The kitchen proving empty of anything useful, Saffi turned to the door in the inside wall. She expected a pantry or a broom closet, but she found a set of stairs leading down into darkness, walls festooned in crawler webs.
Pulling her sleeve up over her hand, she reached out and flicked the light switch. Dim bulbs glowed at the bottom of the stairs, dull behind their coating of web. Soft skitterings marked the exodus of crawlers as they scrambled for the shadow.
“Fuck this shit,” Saffi muttered, but she stepped forward into the gloom. There had to be some kind of cleaning equipment somewhere in this dump.
The bottom of the stairs opened out into a basement with a low ceiling. It seemed the same size as the house above, but it was hard to tell with all the boxes and junk piled up every which way. Saffi started poking around, looking for anything useful.
Pulling down one of the boxes, she spotted a figure behind it. With a shriek, she scrambled backward, falling on her butt on the filthy floor.
She cringed, looking up at the figure from behind her hands, but it didn’t move.
Saffi clambered to her feet, heart beating fast, and tried to brush off some of the crud that clung to her clothes. She stepped forward to better see the figure in the dim light and realised that it was a droid.
Reaching up, she felt for the power switch on the back of the unit’s neck and flipped it on before hurrying back across the basement to the stairs.
There was a soft whirr as the droid booted up, then the LEDs on its face started to glow.
“Augmented Farm Unit online.” Its voice buzzed in the close confines of the basement. “Powering up.”
Its head moved back and forth, scanning the room. “Greetings, Em,” it said to Saffi. “I am Unit 5489Za-9. Might I enquire as to the whereabouts of Em Robbins?”
“Who?” Saffi asked.
“My owner and the owner of this farmstead,” it replied.
“Oh. I think he’s dead? Or he might have just left and gone back to the City. They didn’t really tell us much.”
“Are you the new owner of this farmstead and this unit.”
“Er, yes. I guess. Di and I just arrived. The company said this plot was ours.”
“Welcome, Em. I am sorry I was not available to greet you or to maintain the house for your arrival. Em Robbins did not appreciate my presence and requested that I turn myself off.” The droid seemed almost rueful and Saffi couldn’t repress a smile.
“You’re very formal, aren’t you?” she said.
The droid looked almost affronted. “My database contains social customs from all sections of society, Em. I am programmed to adapt to my owner’s habits and expectations.”
Saffi laughed. “I suppose that’s good, then. I think we’re gonna need your help. It’s a bit of a state up there.”
“It is my pleasure to serve.” The droid clanked forward, extricating itself from the piled boxes. “In order to complete the ownership transfer, please may I scan your ID.”
“Sure.” Saffi held out her wrist and the droid extended a small probe that passed over her skin.
“Thank you, Em Sapphire. Ownership change processing.” The LEDs flashed red, then green. “Ownership transferred. How might I serve you today?”
“If you could help us get the house vaguely habitable, that would be a great start. We’ll need somewhere to sleep tonight!”
“Of course, Em. Please lead the way upstairs.”
Saffi emerged into daylight to find Di standing in the middle of the kitchen, a huge smile on her face.
“Isn’t this amazing, Saf? All this space!” She spun on the spot, arms raised, but stopped as the droid emerged into the light. “Another droid. This must be our augmented unit.”
“Yeah, I found it switched off in the basement. It’s full of crawlers down there.” Saffi shuddered.
“I shall ensure that they are removed, Em Sapphire,” the droid said. “But first, allow me to clean the living quarters for you and Em Diamond.”
Di beamed. “It’s the best droid ever. So polite! We’ll call you Augie.”
Saffi rubbed her forehead. Was she the only one here who saw what a state everything was in?
While Augie started cleaning up, Di dragged Saffi back outside. “There’s a lot to do, I know,” she said, rubbing Saffi’s arm with one hand. “But it’s going to be amazing. I can see it now. Our own cows in the fields and wheat swaying in the breeze. Chickens in the farmyard and laundry drying on the line. It’ll be just like a storybook.”
“Yeah, Di. Course.” Saffi kicked at the dirt with the toe of one of her brand-new boots. They were already pinching her feet. Then a flash of light caught her eye and her head whipped up. “What’s that?”
Di peered up the road. “It looks like a buggy. But who would be coming to visit us?”
“Oh, god,” Saffi groaned.
“That awful woman from the trading post. The one who was so snooty about the chickens we picked up. She said she’d send her son to bring us over for dinner. Interfering old busybody.”
Di glanced from their still-loaded buggy into the kitchen where Augie was splashing around water and soap. “Well, a free meal wouldn’t go amiss. It’s not like we’ve unpacked yet, and I don’t want to eat in there. Do you?”
Saffi wrinkled her nose. “No.”
“Come on. She seemed nice to me. It’ll be fun.” Di swung her arms, pulling Saffi’s with her. “Gotta meet the neighbours some time.”
Saffi pouted. “Fine. But I still think she’s a busybody.”
Di grinned and swept in to place a kiss on her cheek. “Thank you, love. I do appreciate you coming, you know.”
“I know.” Saffi smiled and swatted her wife’s arm. “Now go be social. I’ll catch up in a moment.”
She leaned back against the wall of the house as Di raced off to greet the man in the buggy. So much for the start of their great adventure, she thought. But at least Di was happy.
* * *
The clomp-clank of Augie’s footsteps on the wooden floor gave Saffi just enough warning to rub her eyes dry before the droid appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Excuse me, Em Sapphire,” they said, polite as ever. “But it is getting late and I could use your assistance in rounding up the crocahens. You know how they dislike being shut in for the night.”
“Yes,” Saffi said. Or tried to say but it came out as a croak, more like the sound of one of the pesky crocahens than human speech. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’ll be right with you, Augie. Sorry. I lost track of time today.”
“Not a problem, Em. Should I wait for you by the coop?”
“No, I’m coming. Just a moment.” She scrubbed her face, hoping the droid hadn’t noticed that she’d been crying. Did droids understand what crying was? And, more importantly, where the hell were her boots?
“To your left, Em.” Augie pointed to where her rogue footwear was leaning against the side of the sofa. Of course, she’d kicked them off after Ivy left and the shock had worn off, leaving her in pieces.
Saffi grabbed the boots and shoved her feet in, not bothering about the laces. “Let’s go then,” she said.
“After you, Em,” Augie replied, moving out of the doorway to give her space to precede them through the kitchen to the back door.
The sun hung low in the western sky as Saffi emerged blinking into what was left of the daylight. It felt like only minutes had passed since Di had left, but the day was nearly over. She’d planned to do so many things today: re-fencing the home ‘lope pasture and planning next year’s seed-crop. And all she’d actually done was cry and refuse to decide what she wanted to do.
Shaking off her thoughts, Saffi headed across the kitchen garden toward the farm’s main yard. Barns lined three sides of the yard: the ‘lope byre, the granary, and the machine store. The fourth side was open to the west, giving her a golden view across the pastures and the ploughed fields. It would have been breathtaking if there had been any air left in her lungs, but Di had already stolen it all with the suddenness of her departure. How could she have been so blind to her wife’s unhappiness?
A voice called from the machine store. Horse was plugged in, recharging from the solar panels after a full day’s work—at least someone was working—and they hailed her as she passed the door.
“Hi, Horse,” Saffi replied, forcing a smile for the friendly droid. “Everything okay?” Augie followed her into the barn.
“Right as rain,” Horse said. “All the wheat is in and I was gonna start on the corn tomorrow. Whaddya think?”
“Sure. Sounds like a great idea.” Saffi paused, mulling over her next words. How to tell Horse that they should do what they thought best? They and Augie might have to run the farm by themselves for a while if she followed Di. It wouldn’t do to let things go to complete wrack and ruin again until a new tenant arrived. It would take far more work to put things back into order than just to keep the farm ticking along. Crops and beasts waited on no woman.
But before she could line up the right way of saying things, Horse interrupted her.
“We heard, Augie and I…we heard Em Diamond went back to the city. Are you going too?”
Saffi laid a hand against Horse’s side and leaned into their comforting weight. “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”
“I hope you don’t. We’d miss you.”
“I’d miss you too,” she said, and realised that it was true. She would miss Augie and Horse, and Ivy and all of the Andersens, far more than she ever missed any of her city friends. But then there was Di to think of.
“Come, Em Sapphire,” Augie interrupted her thoughts. “The light is fading.”
“Oh, the crocahens. Yes.” She pushed herself upright again and moved to the door. “But, call me Saffi. Please? Both of you.” She glanced back at both droids, watching the lights on their fascia flashing in sequence.
“Affirmative, Em Saffie,” Augie replied.
Saffi let out a pained laugh. “Not Em, just Saffi. We’re family, right? Family doesn’t need honorifics.”
“All right, Saffi.” Maybe she imagined it, but Augie’s voice sounded warmer as they said her name freely for the first time. Maybe it was all in her head, but at least they seemed pleased.
“Will do, Saffi,” Horse boomed from their corner of the barn. “Family… I like that.”
The corner of Saffi’s lips lifted at their enthusiasm and she thought how she’d have to tell Di about the droids’ pleasure and persuade her to give up her Em too. Then she remembered and the nascent smile fell.
She spun and headed for the door again, not wanting Augie to see the tears in her eyes. “We’d better round up these damn crocahens then,” she said brightly as Augie followed her back out into the daylight.
The cockerel, Seamus, was perched on top of the coop, scaly tail twitching, and refused to come down until they had rounded up all of his females and ushered them inside. As usual, Saffi suffered a few nips from the broody hens who didn’t want to be parted from the eggs they had laid in bushes and, in one case, up on the axle of the buggy, but at last she shoved the final ungrateful hen into the house.
Seamus crowed to the setting sun and then fluttered down to land on her shoulder, rubbing his beak against her ear.
“I love you too, silly,” she murmured to him, then plucked him off his perch and pushed him toward the coop door. “Off you go. You don’t want to be eaten by a wolger, do you?”
He clucked crossly at her a couple of times and then minced into the darkness of the coop. Augie shut the door behind him.
“Intelligent bird,” they said.
“Yes. Much brighter than those Earth chickens the company saddled us with. They barely lasted a week.” How naïve they’d been when they first arrived. Thank goodness Ivy set them straight or they would have been back in the city within a month.
* * *
Saffi looked at the dead chicken cradled in Di’s hands.
“That’s the third one in two days,” Di said, sighing. “What are we doing wrong?”
“The wheat’s not growing either, Augie says,” Saffi replied. “That woman was right. The company has given us crap.”
Di frowned. “No, they wouldn’t. They gave us everything we needed!” She paused. “But maybe it was only what they thought we needed,” she added in a softer voice, turning away to lay the chicken down next to its dead hatch-mates.
Saffi laid a hand on her wife’s shoulder. “Don’t cry, love.”
“It’s just not what I thought it would be like, you know,” Di said, wiping away a tear. She offered Saffi a tremulous smile. “I wanted an adventure. I guess I got more of one than I bargained for.”
“Go back in the house,” Saffi said. “I’ll deal with these… and then go and get some advice from Ivy. There must be something missing from the manuals.” She pushed Di toward the house. “Rest. I’ll take care of everything.”
Di nodded and disappeared inside.
Saffi let out all of her breath in a rush. “Shit.” She turned to Augie, who was waiting patiently beside her. “Do you think you could dispose of these please?” she asked the droid.
“Yes, Em. I will add them to the composter. Their lives will not be wasted.” Augie bent and gathered up the limp bodies in their cold metal hands.
“I’m going to the Andersens,” Saffi said. “Keep an eye on Di for me?”
“Of course, Em.”
The journey to the Andersens farmstead took about thirty minutes in the buggy, bumping over the dusty roads. It gave Saffi too much time to think.
Di had been so happy when they arrived, but it had drained out of her gradually as more and more went wrong on their small farm. It was a different kind of sadness to how she’d been in the City: smaller, less angry, less hopeful. It hurt Saffi to watch her diminish like that.
But, at the same time, despite their failures, despite the dead chickens and the wheat that wouldn’t sprout, there was something deeply satisfying to her here. Rising with the sun and digging her hands into the soil. And at least her veggie patch was doing well—even if nothing else was.
At last, the Andersens’ trim farmhouse appeared from behind a small copse of tringa trees. Ivy would know what to do. Despite only having met the woman a few times, she was so competent and calm that Saffi knew she could be relied on.
With a brisk knock, Saffi stuck her head around the open kitchen door. “Helloo. Anyone home?”
“Sapphire, dear. An expected pleasure.” Ivy beamed at her, dusting flour off her hands onto her apron. “Come in. There’s a batch of biscuits in the oven. You must take some back for your lovely wife, too.”
Saffi let herself be shepherded to a table and took the mug of coffee gratefully. They couldn’t afford real coffee yet. Not with the farm running so poorly. Damn, she had missed it.
Ivy sat opposite, a slight frown on her face as she inspected Saffi. “Out with it, young woman. What’s brought you all this way to see me?”
“It’s all gone wrong, Ivy. The last chicken died this morning, none of our crops will grow, and Di…” Saffi swallowed. “I think I’m losing her. She’s just fading. Right in front of my eyes.”
“Oh, honey.” Ivy moved around the table next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I know it’s hard. It’s always hard starting out. But you’ll get through it. And we’ll help.”
“But why? What did we do wrong?”
“Nothing, dear. It’s that rubbish the company foisted on you. Why would they ever think that Earth birds and crops would survive out here. We’re not even terraformed!” Normally placid, Ivy’s eyes flashed with anger.
But she turned calm again before Saffi could react. “Never mind that. I’ll send you home with two of my crocahen pullets and a batch of eggs. You have an incubator, don’t you?”
“Good. They’ll give you eggs, and meat too, eventually. And last much better than those stupid chickens. Then, you go into town, see Mac at the trade post. Tell him I sent you and that if he doesn’t give you the good seed-crop, I’ll tell Martha what he did last solstice festival.”
Ivy stood, pulling a basket from under the sink and filling it with eggs and a parcel of fresh biscuits.
“Once you’ve got settled with that, you come back and I’ll make my Isaac sell you a pair of ‘lopes, with calves at foot. At cost. Better get your fencing fixed first, though. Old Man Robbins left it in a fine state and you don’t want them to go feral on you.” She passed the overflowing basket to Saffi with a smile. “Don’t forget what I said about Mac, now. He can be a miserly old bugger.”
“I…” Saffi paused to rub her eyes with her knuckles. “I don’t know how to thank you, Ivy. This is too much.”
“Nonsense, dear.” Ivy pushed her out the door and toward the waiting buggy. “It’s tough when you’re starting out. We’ve all been there. You’ll get your chance to help someone else out one day. Now, get going. You’ve got work to do.”
“Yes, Ivy,” Saffi said as she hauled herself back into the buggy, basket of food beside her and a crate of pullets at her feet that Ivy’s droid had placed there.
She backed the buggy out of the yard and grinned as Ivy waved her off. This might not be quite how they planned it, but perhaps they could make their farm work after all. With a little help from their neighbours.
* * *
Augie tapped her on the shoulder. “Are you all right, Saffi?”
“Sorry. Lost in thought for a minute.” She shook herself. This wasn’t like her, to keep drifting off into the past, but she couldn’t seem to stay grounded today.
“Shall I make you some dinner? Food might help.” The droid sounded worried.
“No. Thank you, but I said I’d go to Ivy’s tonight.”
“An excellent idea. Should I ask Horse to take you over?”
“Don’t bother Horse. They have another busy day tomorrow. I’ll take the buggy.” Saffi smiled at Augie and their mother-hen antics as she swung up into the buggy and set off. It was nice to know someone cared, even if it was only programming and wires. It felt like a long time since someone had worried about her.
The familiar landscape raced past as Saffi let her mind drift, barely seeing the road ahead, until the Andersen’s farm-gate loomed in front of her and, with a jolt, she realised she had already arrived.
Ivy came bustling out of the kitchen. “There you are! We were starting to worry. Come inside. Dinner’s nearly ready.”
In a whirlwind of motion, Saffi’s coat was taken away and she was seated at one end of the long dining table, a cold glass of homemade lemonade clutched in one hand. Ivy’s eldest, Mason, sat at the head of the table to her left. The place of honour for the returning hero—if a ten-day journey to the City and back could be called heroic.
Mason grinned at her, raising his glass to clink against hers. “Saf, good to see you! Mum forgot to mention you were coming. No Di tonight?”
Saffi heard an indrawn breath from Ivy, who had just entered the room with a crock of stew grasped in her hands. She glanced over to see Ivy frantically grimacing at her eldest, trying to get him to stop talking, but Mason was oblivious.
“Old Mac mentioned he’d seen her getting on a shuttle when I passed through town,” he continued. “Couldn’t hack it anymore, I suppose? She never seemed like the farming type. Not like you.”
Ivy had put down the stew and was wringing her hands, looking anxiously at Saffi.
I could lie, Saffi thought, tell him Di’s just gone for a visit. That she’ll be back soon. Smooth everything over—for a bit, anyway.
She shook her head and smiled at Mason. “Yes, she went back. I guess things didn’t turn out quite how she hoped here. She was so excited to come, but farming is hard work.”
“You can say that again,” Isaac, Ivy’s husband, murmured.
“But you’ll be staying,” Mason said. It wasn’t a question. “You belong here, like us. The soil is in your bones.”
“I don’t know…” Saffi stared into the bowl of stew Ivy had slipped in front of her. “I—” She stopped herself. Was Mason right? She’d never wanted to leave the City, but now she could barely imagine going back. “It’s a big decision,” she managed, feeling like she was avoiding something. “I still need to think about it.”
* * *
Saffi wiped sweat from her brow with the back of one muddy hand. Planting potatoes was hot work, even with the sun barely risen.
She’d been up at first light, letting out the crocahens to scavenge what they could from the farmyard and the kitchen garden, and she’d almost finished all five rows of potato plants. Plenty to keep the two of them going for the short Felicitean winter. Once she finished this final row, she’d go inside and take Di a cup of tea in bed.
For the first few months, they’d both been up early every day. There’d been a lot to do, especially after they’d had to replant all the fields when the company’s shit seeds had failed to germinate and they’d had to start again with their neighbour’s help. But lately, Di had been sleeping in a lot more. And, when she did get up, she spent more time in the house than working on the farm.
Not that she even kept the house clean or did much of the cooking – Saffi and Augie had to do those chores between them. Di just seemed to spend the day drifting from room to room and then complaining when she couldn’t sleep at night.
Saffi thought Di would sleep much better if she actually left the house and did something, but the one time she’d tried to say anything, she’d nearly had her nose bitten off for her trouble.
With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and headed inside. Ten minutes, she thought, and one last try at persuading her to come out and help me with the ‘lope fencing. I won’t push her. But I wish she would just help me.
* * *
The house was dark when Saffi got back. Augie must have gone out to visit Horse, or shut itself down for the night.
She flicked on the lights and sunk onto the sofa. What did she want? That was the question. It had always been about Di—what Di wanted, what made her happy—or about what needed to be done to keep their lives on track. Saffi wasn’t sure she could remember the last time she’d done something just because she wanted to do it.
A blinking red light caught her eye. A message on their old phone unit. She leaned over and pressed call-back, and the vid-screen flashed into life on the wall.
The call connected and Di appeared, hair wet from the shower. “Saf, babe, there you are. I’ve been trying to call you all evening. Look at the apartment the company found for us!” She leaned back and gestured at the room behind her. A window took up the whole wall, giving a panoramic view of the city. The furnishings were shiny chrome and bio-couches, and a team of house droids were tidying up, one folding Di’s discarded towel and mopping up the water she’d left behind as she raced to the phone.
“Looks… great, love. Really great. I’m glad you like it.”
“And you’ll never guess who I ran into in the hall,” Di gushed. “Tony!”
Saffi shrugged, shaking her head in confusion.
“You remember Tony. From my old job. He’s invited us to a party he’s having on Saturday and promised to introduce me to some people who are hiring. I could have a job by next week.” Di beamed into the camera, eyes sparkling with excitement.
It was always the same, Saffi thought. Di loved everything new, and then the shine wore off.
“I’m sure he knows people in data analysis as well. Or they’ll be at the party. Everyone will be there. It’ll be easy to find a job for you too once you show your face.” Di hadn’t seemed to notice Saffi’s silence. That wasn’t unusual either. Why had she never recognised that before? “So, when are you coming back? I’m sure there’s stuff you want to finish off there, but there’s only a few weeks until the end of the year. You need to let the company know you’re leaving so they can pick you up before it’s too late. Why don’t you call them in the morning? Then you can be back for the party.”
Saffi grimaced, grasping for an answer to the unanswerable question, wishing Di would just shut up for thirty seconds so that she could think. Images of Augie and Horse, of Seamus and his bevy of clucking brides, of crops glowing in the sunlight, of Ivy and her family, flashed through her mind.
“I’m sorry, love,” she said at last. “I think you’re on your own this time.”
“What?” Di frowned, leaning into the camera. “But you’re the one who didn’t want to leave the City in the first place!”
“I know.” Saffi looked around at the shabby couch, the curtains she’d made for the windows with her own two hands, her dusty boots by the front door. “But, somewhere along the line, this old place became home.”
Saffi cut off Di’s shocked denial by turning off the screen. It didn’t matter, not really. All that was important was still here, with her. She rose and walked through the kitchen, out the back door, and into the moonlight.
Felicity’s biggest moon was high in the sky, bright and full. Its smaller companion nestled below it, a sharp crescent. Perhaps Saffi would find a new companion of her own one day but, for now, the moons were enough as they turned her farmyard silver.
A soft crow from the henhouse was Seamus settling to sleep and the ‘lopes whuffed from their pen by the barn, dreaming soft herbivore dreams of long grass and sweet water.
Saffi leaned on her garden fence, bare feet nestled in the dirt, and smiled as tears ran down her cheeks. It hurt to lose Di and, more, to lose her dreams of what their future could have been. But this, right here, was where she belonged.