We were all valuable according to a bright choir of assurances along Directorate Pathway #5. Oxygen converters planted every half meter pumped out relative affirmations intended to keep travelers’ headspace positive and productive. “Laws of Greater Good insure our survival” I repeated in my “for the record” smiling tone, while my gut pitched in a grief, anxiety and repressed anger soup. In my newish sun goggles, still snug with zero leakage, I tilted my head, stuck my eyes on a windowless brick tower, and prayed my tension wasn’t observable to Oversight.
“3 Month Extension” a transparently thin slip of bamboo with her name and new expiration date spit out the holographic lips of Appeals Agent #47. A miniscule neon oval recorded my reaction for my permanent profile. “All decisions are final. Promptly exit Expiry Appeals Tower #3 along the green line and have a positive and productive day”. Its serrated mechanical arm rose from the wall next to me, pointed and tapped on the line. I’d entered maybe 10 minutes before and they didn’t give me an opportunity to plead as I’d rehearsed. Glossy purple toes my little sisters painted 3 days ago stuck out of size 10 wraps, which seemed glued to the floor. We needed more time. Perhaps naively, I’d hoped we would receive one of those 20-year extensions I’d heard about more than once in the past week. They probably didn’t even exist, my mind raged now. “Do you require assistance to exit?” Agent #47 tapped again, this time leaving a smear on the top of my wrap.
“No”, I spat, then added, “thanks” for the record. My legs finally moved, their green line taunting me. As I pushed out the door, I envisioned the 5 of us laid out under a neon dancing tree canopy, mesmerized by whispering leaves and tiny, yet noisily chittering, birds who dove at one another as if playing. My step-father Ghistar taught us about finches. Our family spent as much time as they could afford in the protected areas since they’d partnered five years ago and moved into the grower community, a step up from the recycler community.
“Lithia! Wait up, Lithia!” Henny’s arms enveloped me before she’d fully stopped running and threw me a little off balance as I stopped. Normally, we would’ve laughed at our clumsiness. Instead, I sobbed into her shoulder, the rough hemp uniform scraping my cheeks and nose, her shaking body a confirmation she knew the outcome. “Ok, let’s get to my place so you can collect yourself before going home to tell everyone”, Henny’s words rang with clear pronunciation of each word. Although I could tell it hurt, she pushed me away and wiped my face with her sleeve, uncaring of snot smears. “Stop crying”. People jogged a bit to distance themselves from us. Recorded distress could result in a series of supervisory visits from Safety Officers, and debits. Henny’s unit was second from one end of grower units, and easy to slip into unnoticed during the day while growers worked and most kids trained.
Inside she raced to her room for a hat, while I admired a holographic image of Henny’s lineage all the way back to her great-great grandfather, Mach Lipnee, in 2072. He and his wife had five branches, and each of those had at least three. Large thriving families a Lipnee source of pride, Henny was one of five. I imagined them all perched on the expansive padded bench made of bleached driftwood and dense navy canvas, a sizeable table of real wood set in front of it. In this scene of mine, Eutechia, Henny’s stout mother, her knee-length braid the color of tilled earth coiled on top of her head, brought a bamboo platter of steaming vegetable hash to the rowdy crowd from her all-green galley kitchen splayed against the opposite wall. Not for the first time, the colors brought growing fields, sandy beaches and deep lakes to mind, and tickled a recollection within me. Henny returned with a forced smile. “Here, you can give it back later. Don’t argue, just let me. I still can’t believe Ghistar expired.” She stuck her favorite cowboy hat with ties on me and it popped up from my unruly crown of curls, turned copper by intense sunshine and my hatred of hats. “Here’s a Simplifier. You’re gonna need it, I’m telling you”, she pushed a tiny cup at me while I shook my head. “When you face your Mom and tell her she’s only gotten a bit of an extension, you’re gonna break down, Lithia, you know you will. Then everyone is gonna lose it because you never get upset. That’s why she sent you”.
“You’re right”, I relented. “Such a good friend, always looking out for me. If I didn’t have you…”, my throat closed on me then. “I love you”, I managed, gulped the Simplifier and rushed out the door.
There’d only be three of us if Mom expired in five months, only me and my little sisters. How could I meet the daily, monthly and yearly requirements of the grower community? “Damn it”, I muttered to myself. We’d end up in a community my mother had worked so hard to pull us out of, a harder community my little sisters didn’t remember and weren’t prepared for even a little bit. My own beatings flashed across my mind, as did feelings of vindication when my fist drew Ninbur Sokolov’s blood.
Dr. V plucked me off my track of spiraling despair when he noisily settled on his porch in a reclining wooden chair he made from a dying hardwood, and yelled out, “Hi, Lithia! It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
All your days are beautiful, Old Man. “Been a little hard, Dr. V, but you’re right,” I looked around us at the neatly kept gardens in front of tidy home units. A toddler laughed across the way as his mother played peek-a-boo. “In the grower community it’s always a beautiful day, even when it storms. Not sure, though, if we’ll be able to stay, ya know, with Ghistar’s expiration”. I wasn’t sure why I said it to him, perhaps his age made me comfortable enough to announce my fear despite the Simplifier. Maybe it was how everyone kept their distance from us over the past week, even at community meals. Dr. V took a sip of whatever was hot in his cup, both hands almost entirely white from sun damage, and stayed silent behind his sun shades. Mother and I worked from dawn to sunset over the past week, weeding, planting, and picking. Our household’s weekly credits were halved with Ghistar’s absence.
“When do you finish training?” Always the professor.
“With extra time in the fields and studying every weekend, I can finish in a year”. “Grower training is a two year course so you can incorporate the wisdom of changing seasons. You’re gifted for a 2nd generation grower, thanks to your mother.” Dr. V was a professor of agriculture and natural science, a role he seldom relinquished. “The plants and trees have an energy I can’t explain, especially when they are fruiting. Ghistar wanted me to take the planning qualification course, but now…” I looked up at gathering clouds and ordered my tears to fall back into my skull.
“You make your own fate, your own legacy, Lithia. Ghistar is a loss to our entire community, as you can appreciate. We will all have to adjust, especially your family.” He said it as if it was not only obvious, but already a done deal. If I could just finish my training everything else would fall into place; not places I’d dreamed of, but places my sisters and I had a chance without having to resort to crime. When my father was alive and my mother in grower training as well as her recycler job, he withheld food so I’d be hungry enough to steal packets of noodles. He said he began his career of taking at six, too. Still love those noodles.
“I don’t know about fate, Dr. V, but I can try. Do you think I could borrow your bike for a little bit? ” I’d grown more bold than ever in the hour since I left Expiry Appeals Tower #3 with my mother’s piddly 3 month extension.
He hesitated, then nodded, as if pleased. “Only if you tell me how long they extended Calliandra’s expiration. Promise not to tell a soul.” He held up his pinky for some odd reason.
Paz’s family lived in a coveted end unit in the recycler community, although none of them performed the hard and dirty work of recycling. Instead, they sold time. For generations, people from every community bought illegal extensions from the Sokolov family while the government, in return, held them in esteem. The scarce naïve complainer simply expired. Ghistar warned me about them, “They’ll use their lab-created physique to lure you in like a thirsty doe to their pool of short cuts for status, for a better unit, for training, for kids.”
Ninbur Sokolov, my only childhood enemy, flung open the door before I could jangle the bells, all six feet of him grinning, gangly and golden. I’d partner with him if he’d agree to wear a fine white shirt identical to the one he currently sported, rolled at the sleeves, casually unbuttoned, daily. My smile and appreciative stare encouraged him.
“I thought you’d never agree when father told me about Ghistar and your Mom. Who would’ve thought when I was pounding you bloody we’d end up partnered!” He noticed the look on my face, thankfully. “Aww… what a blockhead hello after all this time. Sorry, Lithia. I can do better. You’ll see.” He took my hand and excitedly gave it a squeeze then instantly let it drop when he felt my tremor.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Son!” came a bellow from Paz as he advanced down the hallway with a tap-tap and loud exhalations. The bald “Maestro of Time”, as he referred to himself, had grown wider in the years since Lithia’s family moved, and he’d acquired a cane. His eye shades hinted at day blindness, a common malady in humans who didn’t expire at an average of fifty years. Nin wouldn’t have that issue. Their impressive family lineage holo shone above the arch where he paused, a massive tree with too many branches to count quickly. It doesn’t matter, I reminded myself as I appreciated a forest holo running the entire length of what could only be a Great Room, with a simulated blue sky above us.
In the middle of a sea of unknowns, I prayed for Ghistar’s guidance. Although I couldn’t fathom why Nin liked me now, I was thrilled he didn’t greet me with an insult, or worse-a slap or shove. “Nin, maybe we can start over, now that we’ve grown up and can express our… feelings differently?” I purposely moved closer and looked up at him with wide-eyed innocence, instinctively sure of his attraction. His eyes widened for a second in confirmation.
“You young people! I swear you’re gonna combust!” Paz guffawed, hugely amused by himself. “I know, I know. I was young and full of fire, too, once upon a time.” Quick as a wink, his mirth vanished as he warned, “This is a legally binding contract you are negotiating with one another, with my oversight, of course. As you know, it ain’t standard for folks your age to partner.”
Still looking up at Nin, I began negotiations. “I want ten years for Calliandra Daire in exchange for my partnership with Ninbur”.
“Come. Sit.” Paz lowered his girth into an immense wing-backed chair before a welded round table ten feet across. He slowly rested his cane against one arm and took in my shadow of unruly curls. “You don’t look all that strong for a grower.” As if he could see me.
“Dad. Stop.” Nin’s jaw squared, a good sign.
“There’ll be time for courting, Son. Right now let’s stick to reality, as harsh and ugly as it is.”
His purpose clear to me, I responded, “People often underestimate me, Mr. Sokolov.” A smaller wingback chair located directly across from him called my name. “Will you sit next to me, Nin? I’m so nervous.” May as well admit it and wring some benefit from my obvious terror. I angled my body toward Nin and slightly away from his father after we sat, the latter predictably pouting.
Ghistar’s voice rang in my head, “What 19-year-old wouldn’t be afraid? Only a foolish one.” Ghistar also taught me the crucial strategy of right timing.
“Who would’ve thought when Calliandra and Ghistar ascended to the grower community, his recycler blood would expire him decades early? His brother Myser cost him everything after ALL the years he labored and trained, ALL that wasted time. Such a shame.” He rubbed his hands together and smiled at me in contradiction to his words. “This hand-crafted paper of lily stalks, rose petals and iris stalks has served for all of my children’s partnership contracts, but none bring me as much joy as this union between you, Lithia Daire, and my youngest son, Ninbur. Of course, we will begin with a priceless gift of 7 years of life as an extension for your mother in exchange for your lifetime partner oath to Ninbur Sokolov. He wrote my name with a quill he dipped in purple dye and the words, “in exchange” before I stopped him.
“No. I bring more than 30 years and a healthy bloodline. 15 years seems fair, now that I reason it out.”
Paz’s glare made me look at Nin, who once again took one of my hands in his. “Ten it is. The Partnership celebration will take place in January so we can have a day ceremony.”
“Wait! This January? Give me just a sec.” I counted on my fingers; only five months from now. Nin squeezed my other hand in his. “Is January ok with you? Will you be ready? I mean, damn Nin, this is the rest of our lives. If you need more time to, ya know…”
He appeared to seriously consider pledging his life to me in just five months’ time. “Yeah, I know. Listen, Lithia. To be honest, I’ve sampled women from every community to the point that sex with a stranger is just tedious. Let everyone think we’re too young, but I know I want to be partnered to you, only you.” His eyes were honest.
“Nin, I can’t say that I’ve sampled anyone, but to be honest, I did kiss a couple people after I practiced on our home bot.” He smiled then. “Would February be ok with you? It may sound silly, but I feel like 6 months will be easier for my family to accept.”
“February is perfect, Lithia.” He leaned over and kissed me softly, to my surprise. “Please indicate the month and year and we will decide on the day after we discuss it alone, Father.” Nin addressed Paz while he held my gaze. Butterflies fluttered in my belly as I felt his intention and admired his nerve. To say Paz dominated the space was an understatement, but Nin held an air of independence without being disrespectful.
Stop it, fool, I admonished myself. “I hope everything flows this easy, Nin. I think the next point is children. We’re going to make the most beautiful legacy, Mr. Sokolov. I hope to present your first grandchild from Nin within a year of earning my grower cert.” They both studied me intently while I let it hang in the air.
Ghistar told me once, “People don’t need to know what you know, nor what you don’t know. Don’t get caught up with showing off because we’re never as bright as we think.”
“Lithia, you know from my blonde hair and gold skin I was a lab baby, right?” He looked so vulnerable I almost felt badly, but this was for life.
“You can still make babies, though. Of course, I knew”.
Paz appeared uncomfortable as he shifted his weight and struggled for words. “Well, the thing with lab babies is they have to marry a live-birthed human. It’s the law, you know.” I nodded. “It’s also the law that they can’t reproduce more than two humans, despite there being no proof of any abnormalities in their offspring. If you think about it, two allows you to pour into them and not be overwhelmed with work and mothering.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize.” My silence spoke disappointment better than any words could, a trick I’d learned from my mother. “I’d like us to live in the grower community, then.” The sheer anger on their faces made it hard, but I kept on, “We can come visit often, but I want our children to live where people are kinder and less stressed by their work, where “positive and productive” is a real attitude, not just a joke. We will be the first Sokolovs to live in the grower community.” I looked at Nin and he appeared to consider my proposal.
“Father, I won’t become a grower, if that’s what you’re worried about”, he chuckled, “and I like the idea of getting a new start, maybe moving us all up one day.”
The wind kissed my face as I pedaled as fast as possible to deliver my news. It would be ok, maybe. There was so much I needed to talk to Henny about, but first I had to tell my mother she had a ten-year and three-month extension.
“There you are, Lithia. Where did you go? We have company and the best news”, my mother stammered a bit on the last line. What was he doing here? “Dr. V, I mean Ivan, has gifted me ten years in trade for partnering with him. We just signed the contract. Isn’t it wonderful? Now you can finish and get that extra qualification.”