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  • Jacob Alcott

Soil Farmer at the End of the World

Raymond Birch woke up at the same time every day, it was hard not to. As soon as the sun rose enough past the horizon, the light would reflect off of the dust in the air and create a great emanation that was impossible to ignore, let alone sleep through. Even through the blackout curtains -which were really just old black trash bags and duct tape- the dust glowed and lit up the room. The light that shown through the bags was a dusky grey that made the room look like an old black and white movie. Raymond would try and rustle a sheet over his eyes but eventually, he would have to get up and face it.

What he faced was the end of the world. The long, drawn-out end of the world that he was born into and had always lived through. His socked feet made no noise as he droned across the floor to the end of his room but his aching joints all popped and crackled with each of his morning movements.

Ray made his way into the cellar from a hatch in the corridor outside his room. The aluminum-plated stairs led him down into a cement room lined with shelves. The shelves were packed with rows of cans and jars full of jams and vegetables floating in brine, all adorned with a layer of dust growing thicker the closer you got to the other side of the room. The room was dark and smelled like a mixture of vinegar and old things. Old things like forgotten books or a trunk grandfathers once kept in their attics. Ray shuffled slow down to the middle of the room looking for a hanging string to turn the light on. After a few moments of waving his arms through the darkness he found it and pulled, though nothing happened. Ray sighed “Son of a bitch” and kept shuffling tentatively forward to the other end of the room.

He wondered if he was the first person to notice the light was out and if he wasn’t, why nobody would change it. He wondered why those sorts of things were always his job, why no one ever pitched in to do those things. He let out a small chuckle and found the handle for the door.

The light outside was blinding so Ray wore thick tinted goggles that held tight around his face. The air was dust-laden to the point that he had to wear a heavy mask that prevented breathing it in. He also wore long sleeves and pants to prevent abrasions from the debris. Not an inch of him was exposed, even the back of his neck and hair were covered. His daughter used to laugh and tell him he looked like a diver in a baggy wet suit. Her words echoed in his ears through the static of dust blowing by.

Ray made his way to the shed and checked the screen directly outside. The screen was encased in a thick plastic case to protect it and was attached to a big metal stand connected directly to the shed. The metal stand was worn from the constant dust, creating small holes crudely taped closed to protect the wiring inside. Ray was a farmer, not an engineer. The screen itself, like everything Ray owned, was caked in a crusted layer of dust that he had to wipe off in order to read. The screen, now visible, told a graph of soil components for the fields. It read: Lot I: 60% Phosphorous, 20% Nitrogen, 10% Potassium, 5% Trace. Lot II: 50% Potassium, 30% Nitrogen, 15% Phosphorus, 5% Trace. Lot III: SYS_ERR

“Fuck me” Ray said under his breath while he peered to the other side of the shed. Water was seeping into the ground and creating a muck of saturated sand and organic matter, half decomposed.

Ray hurried into the shed, down the steps to the cement floor, and passed the two large rotating barrels over to a third barrel, stagnant and leaking.

“God Damnit, what's the problem?” Ray shouted.

A man, younger than Ray who was only in his mid 30’s, jolted his head from behind the unmoving barrel.

“Fuck if I know, it jammed when we were loading in the scraps from yesterday.”

“This has been going on since yesterday?” Ray asked, growing more and more upset.

“No, we couldn't add anything yesterday because the truck they sent yesterday wasn't big enough to hold it all”

“Son of a bitch…” Ray paused, thought for a second before running up to the barrel.

“Shut it down. Turn it off, if it's not moving, it’ll blow out the motor.”

To this, the young man's face became grim and he hurried to shut it down. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn't know.”

“I know Erasmus, it's not your fault. Try and rewire the two other barrels to run independently. We’re gonna have to empty it out and unclog it by hand.”

Erasmus pulled a lever, powering down the main terminal that sent power to the individual motors. “Try and work quick, if these two barrels sit too long, they’ll dry out and it won’t be worth it to waste the water rehydrating them. We’ll have to start over.” Erasmus nodded confidently, but Ray could see the sweat on his brow. “Relax Raz, it’s not gonna dry out right away. We’ll be fine.”

A sudden quake rumbles the shed, filling the air with dust. Erasmus bursts into a deep, painful coughing fit. Ray, having had no time to remove his protective equipment was largely unaffected.

“I’m gonna go deal with that.” Ray told Erasmus “Start unloading the scraps and soil into bins and I’ll be back to help in a bit.”

Erasmus, still coughing, gives Ray a thumbs up as he heads for the door.

Outside, Raymond saw an all black cargo-fitted hover-copter hovering next to the shed. It’s larger than usual, most likely too large for what he was going to be able to give that day because of the jam. Ray approached the hover-copter but no one came out. Ray looked around at the hot arid wasteland around him. Heatwaves lifted from the ground all around him and made him wonder if the vehicle hovering there in front of him was just a mirage, only half-serious of course. The plane of sand and dust went on as far as he could see. Hover-copter was the only viable mode of transportation to and from the MetroLiner and the only people who lived on the surface were soil farmers like him. Plus the ones left behind after the exodus, though Ray never believed anyone could have made it all this time.

Those poor bastards. Ray had often thought. Left behind to wither away in this heat, no food or water. At least they got to leave, one way or another. Me and Raz are withering too, just much much slower.

Ray glanced up, shading his already sunglassed eyes to look at the hover-copter near his house, blades still buzzing. Hover-copters were like the helicopters of the past but with the new atmosphere of dust and the damage, the blades would take, helicopters were no longer usable. On these new machines, however, the blades were on the bottom and had no exposure except for the very bottom. Above the blades were vents, filled with filters that stopped dust from coming through to the blades. They were very expensive to make and so only officials from the MetroLiner were able to use them.

They got very few visitors. Really only the “Metro-men” -as Erasmus put it- ever showed up to collect the finished soil and that only happened once or twice a week.

“No hello?” Ray shouted over the spinning blades. No response. “I don't have enough for this shipment. What you took yesterday was all that we had, we didn't think you’d be back so soon.” Still nothing. “Look, I’m sor-”

Suddenly about a dozen sharp, spear-like legs shot out diagonally from the bottom of the body of the vehicle and pierced into the ground. The blades slowly came to a stop and a ramp protruded from the hover-copter. A man came out from a sliding door, he was wearing what looked like an old scuba suit, skin-tight except for a bulky tank encasing his head. It was clear that the man was naked underneath but the suit still had the ridiculous print of a three-piece suit painted over it. Raymond held back his laughter every time he saw it.

“Where’s the soil?” The man asked.

“We don't have any ready. What you took yesterday was it, why are you back so early?”

“The boy said there was too much yesterday and now you don't have enough? Where is what was left from yesterday?”

“We had a problem overnight with one of the machines.” The sound of machinery starting projected from the shed. “But it sounds like it’s fixed” Ray added.

The man in the suit placed two fingers on the side of the bowl on his head and the glass tinted. He stood still with his hand on the bowl for several seconds before the glass became translucent again. His face had not changed but now he spoke with a new directive.

“Send over all of your recent soil journals and all of your research. This will be the last collection. Here is a Tablet that’s connected directly to the MetroLiner, use it only to upload research notes.”

“Wait what?” Ray said to the Metro-man, turning to leave.

“Hey, I’m sorry but jams like this happen. This is the first time in all the years I’ve been down here that I’ve missed a pick-up.”

The man continued to stride up the ramp. Ray took a few steps forward and spun the man around. Instantly Ray found himself paralyzed with a sudden pain radiating down his leg. He fell to his knees, looking up at the man now turned to him. “Deterr-o Toxin administered, future potential outbursts will be less tolerated.”

“Are you gonna fucking leave us here?!” Ray shouted

“Metro-liner still at max capacity. No admittance until further notice.”

“And when the fuck will that be?” Ray groaned through his teeth, the toxins still crippling him.

“Raymond F. Birch, #105 in line for admittance. Erasmus J. Albright, #479 in line for admittance.” Erasmus, being born much later than Raymond, was also much farther down the list. Erasmus’ place in line also never changed, being that he was one of the rare cases of a child being born on the surface. Ray, like most of the other soil farmers, was born on the MetroLiner and sent to an inexperienced farmer, sometime in their mid 20’s, to be raised and taught to take up the trade. This is where Ray’s daughter came from. Though she was not his biological daughter, it mattered very little to him.

Erasmus, though, would never receive a child. Because of his terrestrial status, his biometric data was never stored, and though both his parents were born on the MetroLiner and their data properly stored, conception of a child born of two individuals with prolonged exposure to the dust had significant “dark spots” that the MetroLiner’s governing body didn't yet understand. These were too many variables to for them to account for, and so they just left him alone, for better or for worse.

Raymond scowled at the thought of ever leaving without Erasmus. Though he knew that if he ever wanted to leave, he’d have to.

“Hey, you need us. Without our soil, you guys are fucked up there. Don't think I haven't noticed, I see all the research reports. Ninety percent of it comes from my farm for Krise sakes.” Raymond now staggering to his shaky legs.

The Metro-man stopped mid-stride and lifted his hand to his tank, darkening it again. After a longer pause than last time, the bowl on the man’s shoulders cleared up again and he turned to face Raymond directly. “Raymond F. Birch #1 in line for admittance. Admittance granted.”

Raymond felt his whole being stutter for a moment then surge with ecstasy. His knees felt weak and he teetered, though now for a new reason. The Metro-man approached Raymond and, grabbing his shoulders, directed him up the ramp into the hover-copter. Raymond hesitated and tried to stop. “Wait, what about Raz. Erasmus J. Albright. He needs to come too.”

Raymond tried to shake off the clutching hands to no success. “Erasmus J. Albright, #479 in line for admittance.” The metro-man said in his cold unwavering voice.

“No wait, stop. I’m not going without him.” Raymond now squirming more violently. He felt the hands on his shoulders bear down on him and, panicking, landed an elbow in the Metro-man’s abdomen. The Metro-man was as hard as granite and had seemed to not notice the blow. Fear bit into Raymond as he knew he was being taken away. He thrashed violently and felt his gloved hand crack through glass and he heard the shatter. Though he could not turn, he knew what he had done.

The hands-on his shoulders now closed like vice grips on his collar bones, sending an intense pain into his neck and chest. Suddenly the hands released and Raymond turned to see the Metro-man flail and writhe as the sand and wind tore against his bare face. Raymond looked upon him, saw his pale, grayish face be instantly rubbed raw by the sand, and wondered if everyone on the MetroLiner had such grotesque skin. Though the man was certainly in pain, his mouth did not make a sound. The Metro-man threw his arms up wildly in an animalistic flurry, knocking the tinted goggles off of Raymond’s face. The last thing he saw was the Metro-man stumble backward and fall off of the ramp.

Raymond again fell and curled, recumbent in the endless sand yard. He pressed his palms to his eyes furiously to try and stop the sandy winds from permanently blinding him. He heard the mechanical whirring of what he believed to be the hover-copter’s ramp and legs retracting and knew that it would be taking off. The fear of it leaving without them was outweighed by the fear and pain of the wind on his bare skin; if he didn't find his goggles soon, he'd likely die. Even now, laying on the ground he could feel his body being buried by sand. The Hover-copter was gone now, the last sounds of it faded and all he could hear now was the sound of his daughter calling out for him as the memories came back.

Raymond tried hard to bottle up these memories but as the sand bore down on his, grating the exposed skin on his cheeks and filling his eyes, he had no power over his thoughts as they burst forth.

He remembered waking up to make her breakfast like he did every morning, shuffling across the floor to her room and then down to the kitchen. When he passed her room, he poked his head in to wake her but she wasn't there. Curious though unconcerned, he thought she would be waiting for him in the kitchen. Once he made his way down, he saw that she had been missing from the kitchen as well. Worry began to crest over him so he called her name though no answer was received. He hurried into the cellar and threw open the door. He was greeted to harsh light and blasting wind, sending dust and sand into the corridor of his house. He knew in an instant that she would be out there. He trudged through the amounting pile of sand, getting closer to the door outside. The goggles by the door were covered in sand and now mostly useless to him, but he did his best to wipe them clean and put them on and they protected his eyes from exposure. He searched for hours. Practically suffocating in sand each time he tried to call her name.

Erasmus, whose bunk was in the soil shed, was oblivious to all of this until he went looking for Raymond who had now been very late for the morning's soil treatment. What Erasmus found was a man, badly beaten by the wind and sand, refusing to stop fighting a battle he could not win. Erasmus had to drag Raymond into the soil shed against his will, Raymond screaming the entire way.

Raymond was left with scars all over his body and face, a constant reminder of what he lost. Now, as he lay in the sand writhing in physical and mental agony, he quietly called out her name one last time. Calliope.

As Raymond began to lose consciousness, the seal he had made over his eyes with his hands began to relax and he felt the sharp pain on the lids of his eyes. Suddenly he felt his hands press even tighter around his face than before as something wrapped around his head and bound the seal tight again. Raymond felt his body being dragged though he could not stop from losing consciousness.

When he awoke, his eyes were bandaged and his body was covered in ointment.

“Hey, take it easy,” Erasmus called to him after hearing him grown. “Don’t move too much or else you’ll scrape off the ointment and we’ll have to start over.”

Raymond, unable to see because of the bandages, recognized the sound of the bins turning and knew they were in the shed. He laid still, not knowing what Erasmus deduced from the sight he had seen when he came to drag him away. The hover-copter would have been long gone and the body of the Metro-man could have easily been completely buried in sand at that point.

“What happened to you up there?”

Raymond tried to answer but his mouth was dry and full of cuts and sores, and any movement from his face caused incredible pain from the friction burns on his eyes and cheeks.

“Sorry,” Erasmus noticed the pain, “Should’ve seen that coming… No matter, your eyes might be salvaged, it looked like you covered them pretty well up until the end, and I might've found you in time. But only time will tell.” Erasmus spoke to him, knowing he would not get an answer.

“I knew something was up when I heard the hover-copter leave and you didn't come back, I’m glad I came to check on you.” Erasmus continued to cough, still hoarse from the initial inhalation of dust when the hover-copter first arrived. Raymond heard the cough and groaned, knowing it was not good.

Raymond laid back and relaxed his body, he knew that the only thing he could do now was wait. They had enough food for a few months, maybe even a year if they really wouldn't be working at all. He could try and lie to Erasmus, say that they would be back to pick up more soil soon though Ray knew it would only last about a week until he got wise to it. He could say fuck it, he thought, and burn the place to the ground, kill themselves before the Metro-men came to kill them. Especially after an assault like that, accident though it was, he knew they’d either be back soon to kill them both or they would just leave them out there to starve eventually.

Lastly, he thought about using the soil he had spent so long trying to perfect. If he could set up a plot, maybe he could grow food down here and sustain himself and Erasmus. They had seeds, mostly for research and soil testing, not typically what someone would want to grow and eat. But Raymond thought it could work if they only got a little lucky.

These considerations came from his desperation and he knew it. He tried to quiet his mind and breathed deeply, feeling the crackling in his lungs. He let out a small cough that pained his raw face and Erasmus came over to tend to him. He felt grateful for Erasmus, this was the second time he had saved his life. His gratitude changed to worry as he laid on that table and wondered what they would do next.

The day, for him, was over. All he could do was rest, lay in that bed until he healed, wait to see if he’d ever see again, and wait to see what the Metro-men would do.

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