by Marie Croke
There are two ways off this forsaken, clogged-up planet: buy your way onto someone’s passenger freighter or grow your own ship yourself from a shipseed. Neither of these are particularly cheap. Nor particularly available. So we crush together as ’scrapers get taller to accommodate, as streets get skinnier, as forests shrink to nothing but a single stunted tree struggling to find light in all the crisscrossing shadows, roots perpetually penned in by concrete and steel. I find places to sleep nearby that tree, that I might lift my head and look at the branches, imagine being an insect crawling among the leaves, living in a paradise. Keeps me going.
’Cause the third way off this planet is to die and get turned to soil destined for hydroponics labs in orbits far from here, and I ain’t ready for that just yet.
Some older woman–sagging skin and brittle bones really, like my mum a few years back just before she was wrapped up for a hydro lab–finds me in a fitful sleep, head pressed against the brick to keep me from sliding, and wakes me with a nudge to my blanket. I almost come up swinging, thinking she’s ’bout to take it. Gotta be quick. Can’t let ’em think that just ’cause I’m small that I’m easy.
She looks down on me without an ounce of pity and says, “Can you dig?”
My thoughts immediately flash to those ancient protected graves, but I figure that’s just the sleep still leaving me. No one would waste good soil on the dead no more. “What’s it to you?”
“Need the help. Get on up and carry my bag and we’ll see what you can do.” She even holds out that canvas bag like I should take it.
“Fuck off with you.” I curl back against the wall like it were a downy mattress and she the sun trying to pull me up.
“That’s a nickel for the curse jar, child.”
“You high? Do I look like I got a nickel? Let ’lone one I’d give you?”
“You’ll have more than that as your daily wage so I guarantee you’ll get that nickel and drop it into the curse jar like a good lad.”
When I do not immediately respond—brain’s slow this morning, still catching up to the connections between “wages” and “digging”—she sighs, exhausted-like.
“I don’t got all day, child. Up. The sprouts need tending.”
She don’t tell me her name until we’re three stories up in this endless city, her bag eating into my skin. Nothing but weird bottles in there. No food. I checked.
“Most of my fosters call me Mama Nina, but you can call me Nina or Nini, whatever makes you most comfortable. Got a name yourself?”
“Sure,” I mumble, though I’m not keen on telling her what that is.
She don’t even acknowledge my lapse. Like she’s used to not knowing things ’bout the kids lugging her shit around. Heh, she’d probably want another nickel for that thought.
I’m busy readjusted the strap digging into my shoulder when she turns into an alley with a wall ’bout six times my size. Shining metal hulls peek out the top–glimpses of growing, stretching ships–and for just a mo I got to stop and stare, licking my lips ’cause that feeling I always get when imagining myself an insect among the leaves of that poor stagnant tree has just hit me harder than I can breathe.
“You going to stand there with my pesticides all day, child? Or are you going to come help?”
I yank my head down, my neck cracking from the effort. This Nina lady is standing just inside of a huge wrought iron gate that looks like it’s been painted with rust. She’s got one hand waving me inside the walls and I get nervous all of a sudden.
“What you want with me?” I demand. No one hands out anything for free. Even the food bank wants your temp and blood and answers on a questionnaire.
“I need your hands,” she says. “And your strength. And your young eyes. Good for picking out those steelworms who like to try and eat their way through the shiproots.” She gestures for me to come on again.
I’m all shaky. Head spinning. Probably from lack of food and sleep and hefting this heavy bag of hers. Maybe even a little from the temptation of working with ship sprouts, which I’m pretty sure she’s saying.
She turns and looks at something I can’t see. Distracted, she says, “Well, I’m not going to wait for you to make up your mind. Just close the gate one way or another. Leave the bag if you do go.”
Then she leaves the gate all swinging and singing a rusty song. With me still holding her bag with its weird bottles in shades of teal and green and gray metal.
I hover at the gate for a long while, staring inward at the shipyard. It’s a small one, not like the colossal ones they’ve got plastered on the ads every street but Sunday. Most of these ships, they’re personal-size. Like the homey ones people guard with their whole lives, raised from a tiny shipseed before they pack their belongings aboard and kick the freshly-grown drive into gear, hoping it don’t have some sneaky disease that would have them limping about up in the starry black.
I’m licking my lips again. Can taste the dirt.
The woman who’d brought me here is helping someone smaller than me care for one of the ships. Her voice carries over, directing the kid to saw off metal protrusions ’cause “these little guys will just steal all the nutrients if we let them grow big enough–got to keep the plant focused on the main event.” She patted the hull above her head.
I can almost feel her not looking at me.
All ’bout the shipyard, in between the stalks and stems and gleaming metal hulls and greenish growing ones, are kids like me. Carrying buckets of soil or mulch or spraying things or shaking the spray-bottles to get ’em to work again. There’s a cottage to my right and a greenhouse bigger than the cottage beside that. The ’scrapers are high ’bout our heads, with two train tracks crisscrossing and making a shadow-X on the whole shipyard.
When Mama Nina comes back to fetch her bag of pesticides, I cradle it to my chest, worried ’bout letting it go.
“Why they helping you?” I ask. I shouldn’t be afraid, but I am. Something inside of me is revving up like a ship-drive, and I’m just hoping that it’s not rotten.
“They’re the rest of my fosters,” she says. “You help with the planting and the care and once you come of age, you’ll get a shipseed of your own.”
“Really?” I know I sound both skeptical and hopeful, but I can’t keep the longing from my voice, no matter how bad I wish to.
Mama Nina beckons me out of the way. “Got to close that gate, child. One way or another.”
I hesitate for just another sec, but as I said, there’s only two ways off this place if you don’t want to end up soil in a hydroponics lab, and… well, Mama Nina let me in the gate, and I’d rather be locked in with ships growing about me and seeds filling a greenhouse than locked out still wishing on stars I can barely see.
About the Author
Marie Croke is an award-winning fantasy and science-fiction writer living in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and her stories can be found in over a dozen magazines, including Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Zooscape, Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, and Fireside. She has worked as a slush editor for multiple magazines, including khōréō, is an assistant editor at Dark Matter Magazine, and her reviews can be found in Apex Magazine. Her hobbies include crochet, birding, and aerial dance. You can find her online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter.