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Love conquers all… including natural disasters and alien invasions in this futuristic fiction collection.
Farming Tract: 782
Year: 2213 Mary stood alone in the middle of a vast golden field, only her little house in the distance to break up the view of her large tract. No signs of civilization, other than her well-ordered crops. She feathered a finger across the tip of the wheat stalk she held. Stiff, but not brittle. Soon the harvest would begin.
Loneliness nagged. She hadn’t thought it would bother her. The interminable days of chores and nightly reporting should have kept her too busy to notice she was alone, without another human being to talk to, other than the dispatcher who’d confirmed that this day, her first shipment would arrive.Tension rode her shoulders, boiled in her belly. Today, her life would change. Again. Among the first who’d stepped outside the dome without a breathing device, she’d taken the chance the air was truly safe, that alien toxins wouldn’t accumulate in her blood or that the newly manufactured atmosphere wouldn’t smother her.
She’d had no fear. Only a sense of wonder and fierce pride that she, Mary Bledsoe from the Americas Sector, was among the first colonists of Mars.
Fifty years of terraforming the barren planet had at last produced a habitable world to replace the one they’d ruined. The Mars-Tech Company owned exclusive rights to the project and had released oxygen trapped in the northern icecap to form an atmosphere to mimic the former success of Earth’s natural greenhouse to normalize the temperatures. They introduced animals, insects, bacteria—everything necessary to ensure the soil would be ready for the first crops. They dug canals to deliver the water beginning to melt from the icecap to the plains, where crops were sown by huge industrial machines—all in preparation for the colonists who would assume responsibility for the first harvests, and thereafter all future plantings.
Mars would feed Earth. Animals bred from the first pairs shipped from the home planet had been raised in cramped stalls inside the domes, but now would be turned over to the farmers and ranchers, further nurturing the classic model of pastoral life that was almost extinct on her own overcrowded planet.
The environmental lessons learned from past mistakes, along with strict adherence to new social rules and an ordered reclamation of Martian resources, became a roadmap for humanity’s survival.
In her own little way, Mary was part of this grand experiment, this last chance for humans to survive long enough before jumping out into the galaxy to find new worlds to populate.
Given her own plot of land as a dowry, she’d eagerly signed her acceptance of a mate, which the company would choose according to her preference profile and attributes needed to complement her skill set. Guesswork, or messy natural selection, wasn’t permitted. This she’d known before making the long journey from Earth to her new home. Since she’d had few relationships, and all had been unsatisfying, she hadn’t thought twice about accepting a mate sight unseen. Better the AI matchmaker make the selection than her.
She had yet to meet her new mate, or even learn his name. However, she was notified days after she’d settled on her small homestead – with its pre-fab concrete cabin, fiberboard barn, canal-fed stream and pond—that he would be selected from among the new shipment of prisoners. Because intelligent, healthy men chose professions which required less physical labor, furloughed prisoners would be given a second chance to earn their freedom by becoming spouses to pioneer men and women—a fresh start for people healthy enough to adapt to the rigors of this life and who harbored no hopes of ever returning home. A different kind of life sentence.
She hoped he’d be strong, and that he harbored no violent tendencies, but again, she trusted in the Company to choose well on her behalf. So far, all their promises had come true.
She’d signed up for a new adventure, a chance to live a life outside the crowded mega-cities of Earth with their choked air and transits.
Here, she could breathe, watch a fiery sunset that had nothing to do with pollutants tainting the air, and the deed for the land was in her own name. Her crops for the next few rotations would be claimed by the Company—the hope being, that after she’d returned their investment in her, she’d be allowed to sell her grains in a free market and reap the profits.
A true pioneer, she’d stepped onto an alien planet, full of hope for a new future for the human race.
For once, that thought didn’t comfort her. Returning inside her home, she glanced around. She noted the grayness surrounding her, and wondered why the Company, with all its psychological studies, hadn’t figured out that cheerfully-colored walls could do wonders to lift a woman’s spirits. But then, it probably seemed like such a little thing, and they hadn’t bothered due to the expense.
She pushed back the sleeves of her shirt and set to cleaning her little home, ignoring the images from her childhood that the smells of lemon and pine pulled from her memories.
The transport arrived amid a whirl of dust kicked up from the barren yard beside the house. The gritty air nearly obscured the moon, Phobos, as it made the first of several orbits for the day. The aircraft hovered, framed by the uneven curves of the asteroid, and then set down with a thud that shuddered the planks of her front porch, vertical engines stalling then shutting off altogether. The dust slowly settled.
She’d been sweeping, preparing the cabin for the transport’s arrival. As with every element of the Company’s schedule, it arrived precisely on time. Although prepared, a flutter of anticipation tickled her belly. She set aside the broom, wiped her palms against the sides of her sturdy blue work pants, and descended the stairs, eager to meet the shipment.
A man dressed in a gray Company coverall climbed out of the cockpit and strode toward her. She pasted on a smile. “Welcome.”
His sharp gaze swept her little cabin, the golden fields beyond it, and then finally rested on her. “You Mary Bledsoe?”
He likely wondered how someone of her stature had managed to pass the physical tests to qualify for farming. She stiffened her spine to add a few centimeters to her small, wiry frame, and met his gaze with her usual calm, chilly stare. “I am.” She bit back a sarcastic, Who else do you think I could be? Every one of the thousand colonists had been handpicked and transported by the Company—they had a monopoly on Martian transportation and industry.
His mouth twitched, but he kept his gaze steady. “I have your shipment, and I’ll need your signature on the bill of lading.”
She nodded. “I’ll need to inspect.” She’d received notice of the contents of the shipment via the comm-console situated in the cabin’s main room shortly after claiming her homestead.
Although the fields had been pre-planted and her new home fully furnished, there were still some items, especially the perishables, that needed stocking: replacement blades for the combine sheltered in the barn, pallets of foodstuffs, clothing and fuel packs…and her mate.
Trying not to appear overeager to see him, she waited as the transport commander’s crew scurried to let down the rear ramp and roll out the pallets. With well-trained efficiency, they stacked them beside the porch. She counted the pallets with their quick-wrapped goods, signed for delivery, and then shoved her hands into her pockets to hide the fact they were beginning to shake.
The commander’s mouth firmed into a straight line. “Did you receive training in the use of the B-Mod collar?”
He knew she had. Otherwise she wouldn’t be here, already in possession of a land grant.
She gave a curt nod. “Yes. I also signed saying I knew there were no guarantees for my safety or his willingness to work. If we don’t suit, if he proves stubborn, then I’ll return him.”
“Just don’t get too attached, ma’am. You have enough on your hands without coddling one of these rejects.”
The brusque quality of his voice surprised her. Was he truly worried? Should she be more concerned?
He handed her the chain with the controller for the prisoner’s behavior modification collar, a thin ID tag with a recessed button on one side, the B-Mod chip. She slipped it over her head and followed him to the side of the transport. The guard inside the vehicle opened the door.
The prisoner scooted on the seat toward the edge, hands still in manacles, then slid to the ground beside her.
Heartbeat rising, she gazed up into a face set in grim lines. Blue eyes, cold as ice, sparked with some deep emotion as he stared back.
He was larger than she had expected. Surprisingly so. Prisoners built like this one were generally shipped to Company loading docks or to the arena. Built like a gladiator, she studied his broad chest and wide shoulders. His arms and thighs were deeply muscled. “You’re sure he’s mine?” she asked, turning toward the commander who’d fished a key from his pocket to unlock the prisoner’s handcuffs.
The pilot’s grunt and the flinty glare he gave the prisoner said he too had some reservations. “His collar matches the invoice. Guess they thought you might need the extra muscle.”
Anger flashed at his comment. She’d had enough of men thinking she wasn’t up to the rigors of Martian prairie life.
Her hand still gripped the B-Mod chip. She slipped it slowly away, remembering her training. Show no fear. As long as she had the chip, she had control. Lifting her chin, she cleared her expression. “Do you have a name?” An inane question. She winced inwardly.
One side of his mouth quirked, but it might have been her imagination because he gave her a stony stare. “Colm O’Riordan.”
The commander cleared his throat.
“Ma’am,” the prisoner amended with a drawl.
Heat crept up her neck, but she ignored the blush threatening to suffuse her face. Turning back to the commander, she offered her hand.
His grip was strong, the look he gave her doubtful. “Good luck to you, Mary.”
Not a professional salutation, but no one had said her first name, all on its own, for a very long time. She gave him a warm smile. “Thanks for everything. We’ll be fine here.”
A duffle was tossed from the transport by one of the guards. The bag was small. Likely only a couple changes of clothing for the prisoner. She jerked her chin toward it, knowing she was still being observed by the crew. “Bring it,” she said, making her tone curt. She turned, walking toward the cabin, wondering if the lock on her new mate’s door could actually hold him.