In the Best Fields
This story came from a dream, during a period of my life when I was having narrative dreams like this all the time. I've always been interested in just where the food and clothing comes from in those galaxy spanning space operas, so I guess my dreaming self decided to answer the question for me.
I wish you'd put the stylus down, stop tapping it against your hand, look at me. I wish you weren't so impatient to get this over with and get on to the next thing. I wish you hadn't made up your mind before I opened my mouth. Probably before you walked in here.
Just listen to me anyway. It might be my only chance to tell. They didn't let me tell in the evac, and they didn't let me tell in the ship, and they are surely not going to let me tell in the court. But if you stop tapping that stylus and listen, I could tell you, and that would be something. I could have that, though I probably won't get anything else out of it.
I want to begin with what happened. Do you need to know who I was before the Best fields? It can't really matter. I mean, I was somebody, but the point is what happened to me in the Best fields. Before I was there I used to have a tedious job squinting into nanospace and the old business cycle got to me and I was out on the slopes and I thought why not? Why not take an outdoor job? How hard could it be? -- strolling through the Best fields, half an eye on the mother tractor and half an eye on the tractor babies and another half eye on the field plan laminated into the back of my hand. I knew all about it, I thought. Everybody does. We eat the Best greens and the Best fruit and we see the happy little clips of the cheerful lazy Best farmers singing and slouching in the tender artificial daylight of the Best satellites. Best workers have it good, we think. They get their exercise and they don't have to think or squint into nano all day.
And anyway, the old business cycle doesn't affect the Best business -- everybody has to eat, all the time.
What happened was this: I was humping and hustling grit and sweat and greasy overspray trying to beat the field plan so the last chunk of the day I could slow up just when I would need it, and the sky darkened and lit up, once, twice, six times, like we had materialized inside a fireworks canister, and somebody started screaming, and a strange smell seized the air, and old Betty from three rows over grabbed my arm and began to pull me back, back across the field to where the shed was and the buses were tethered and hovering in the air above. I could hear the loudspeaker was on, but I couldn't hear what it said. I had said from the first day the loudspeaker was worse than useless, because you could never understand a word that came from it. Worse than useless because the supervisors always assumed that because they said something on the loudspeakers, we'd understand everything about it and they would never have to repeat it. It was chaos everyday when they were just telling us which teams would be floated up to the buses and we couldn't hear and everybody went to the wrong place. Now there was no time and no slack and there was nobody on the ground to translate. So we didn't know what they were saying and the noise was just adding to the panic.
Betty wasn't panicking. I guess I was hysterical because I wasn't really paying attention to her or to the noise and the flashing lights. Because I was just thinking about finishing the field plan, following the path on my hand, and it was only Betty pulling on me that broke the pattern. We were running for the shed and the buses. How we expected to get into the buses when the float lines weren't down for us I don't know.
I can still taste it, the air. The one doctor -- the one who didn't say I was fine and I should be looking for work -- said that I should expect "various neurological sequelae." That means he doesn't think the taste will go away. Or the thing that happens in my skin, where it feels like somebody's slicing it off.
Yeah, one doctor said I was fine. He said the way my skin looks is a natural consequence of drinking Light Head and it would go away if I would sober up. He didn't believe me when I said I never drank Light Head before what happened. He also says the thing about my arms and legs is in my imagination, and that the thing about not making it to the bathroom in time is fake. That I do it on purpose. Really, if I could walk fast enough, if I could sort out the sensations, I would not do this to myself. I've been getting better about that anyway. The only thing that works is to assume I've got to go every half hour or so, and never be more than five feet from the bathroom.
Betty made me run. I couldn't have finished the field plan anyway: it fried when the first burst happened. It's still there on my hand: it doesn't turn off. It changes a little sometimes. This part here was blue before it happened. That means that the sprouts over there were ready to cut. That's where I was headed at the time. The tractor babies were just finished here, where it's black, that was blue turning red then because the cutting was almost done. You know that field plan? It was down to the hour, how accurate it was to tell when something was ready to cut, when the field needed watering, feeding, everything.
You'd think they wouldn't need us at all. The mother tractor got all the same information we did, and directed the tractor babies all by herself. The mother tractor fixed the tractor babies. The tractor babies fueled themselves, from the harvest waste and the light. But we had to tend them, to watch them, to mess with the plants and the machines to make everything so smooth. If we didn't do it, things would get tangled, the machines would choke up, the plants would get torn. Somebody even had to ride the field planner, check the readings against themselves to make sure they were consistent.
Old Betty knew what was going down from the moment the sky darkened the first time, she was the first screaming I heard, but she wasn't panicking, she was telling everybody to run. She had lived through one of these before, a long time before. She knew what happened to people if they were too close to the stuff. She didn't tell me what it was, though, what was going on, until I tried to stop and catch my breath. I'm not your fastest or lightest on my feet, and really soon my lungs were bursting and I just wanted to lie down and gasp and gulp air and dirt and I didn't care what else. Betty kicked me. She leaned over and she did that thing -- harsh, you know, like spitting words -- where you know the person is really serious. She said if I ever wanted to live I better run, and if I ran fast enough I might even be able to have a baby or something, but if I lay there one more second she'd give me up for dead, and I got up and somehow I ran again. And I got to the shed between the fifth and the sixth blooming of light and sound, and there we were, most of the women of the field, but the float lines didn't come down to us and there was nothing but the loudspeaker speaking loud but not so you could understand it. You could smell it now, and it smelled like bleach and ammonia and dead things mixed together, as if it were cleaning time at the mortuary. I wanted to just heave up my guts and my burning lungs, and be done with it. Besides the smell, there was also the noise: distant, faint booming, and still somebody screaming, but it wasn't panic anymore, it was that kind of screaming they do when they're hurt badly enough they can't control themselves anymore. I couldn't tell where it was coming from. Betty went off to look, she was the one most able to think and do.
There was somebody who could make out what the loudspeaker was saying. Zabrina said they were telling us to get back to work and finish the field plans, everything was normal and there was nothing to be worried about. She yelled -- "Pinche! Send us the fucking float lines!"
Betty came back dragging somebody I don't think I'd have recognized even if I had been around longer. I mean, I could tell she was human, but I only knew she was a woman because we all were on that field. The person was not screaming, she was making this other noise, a noise I would not believe if somebody was pretending to be hurt that bad. "There's about three more," Betty said.
By then I was feeling better and I offered to go back out in the field and get them but Bety took some people who were better runners and I got to help with the hurt one. Somebody had some water and I could bring myself to touch her, though I was afraid I would make things worse -- but it was pretty clear things couldn't get much worse.
The rest of us took turns yelling at the bus, and they never did send down the float lines until the scheduled time, and when we got up into the bus, they were all saying this and that about how we'd be lucky if we weren't fired and how we were superstitious cowards and they'd dock us hard for the day. They were all for leaving the hurt ones behind, but we had somebody hang on to each of the float lines while we worked out a way to hold them and hold the lines, and we floated up with them, all four of them, though it didn't do them much good because they died in the bus, all of them. One of them made it almost all the way back to the dormitories. When we tried to talk to the drivers about the dying women they said it was because they had done something stupid with the tractor babies. One of them said it like he meant that the women had tried to do something sexual with the tractor babies. This got to me somehow, I was holding this woman's hand and she was dying right then and there and the bus driver was saying this nasty stuff and saying it was her own fault and I knew what I had seen. So I yelled at him and I was all but getting up to pound him when Betty made me sit down and keep holding that woman's hand. And that's the first I knew that something had happened to me, too, in that first dumb moment when I was watching the sky and not understanding what Betty was yelling about, because my hand that was holding the dying woman's hand was changing color already and it was beginning to do that thing. The thing where the skin feels like it's being sliced off, and then the hand gets weak. But I could hold on to that woman's hand, and I did, even after she was clearly dead.
I never did know her name. I have read the reports, and I know the names of the three people that are listed as dying that day, but I know four of them died in the busses and another two died on the ground before the night was over, and I don't know whether the woman whose hand I was holding was one of those three or a different person whose name has disappeared from the reports.
On the ground they finally admitted something not normal was happening because they didn't let us go to our dormitories, they sent us to a training room and brought us sandwiches and told us to push the tables and chairs back and make a night of it there. The dead women disappeared somewhere in this process. They didn't tell us anything, and they didn't ask us anything yet. In the morning they took us out one by one and we had to tell the story to some stranger in a suit with real buttons. After that we never saw each other again: we went off to visitor rooms all over Best, and one by one we were shipped off home or someplace. I came home, anyway. My sister's been really good about it.
So there it is. They treated the field while we were in it, and they wouldn't let us escape -- nor the bus drivers, and I think they got pretty sick too, and they've admitted it, more or less, and they've stopped saying it was a bunch of crazy women out of their gourds on Light Head doing crazy things to the mother tractors and getting electrocuted. But they've somehow hidden the deaths of three women -- I know they died, I saw them die! and they've gotten people like you to say the rest of us are not really damaged, we're hysterical or something. Fine. I'm hysterical is why I can't grip a stylus like that one you won't stop tapping, is why my skin looks like that and feels like that. I'm hysterical is why I can't stand straight and I can't walk straight. I'm hysterical is why I've got all these speckles in my eyes all the time and I can't go back to squinting into nanospace. I can accept that.
Both of the doctors said I'm going to live. The one who said I'm fine and I should go out and get a job said it's all a matter of attitude anyway. The other one seemed to think the "various neurological sequelae" were no big deal and I should just get on with it anyway. When I asked about the standing and walking thing he said sometimes it's like that. I asked would it get better and he said sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. I asked what I was going to do now and he said he didn't know. Nobody knows. Not my sister, who says all these things about how the whole universe should know what happened in the Best fields. Not the doctors, not me.