Notes on Offworld Agriculture, Part 1

by Elena Clark
forum: Notes on Offworld Agriculture, Part 1
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Notes on Offworld Agriculture



           I did not become an agriculture inspector with the intention of having adventures in various far-flung parts of the galaxy, but that's what happened. When I was sent offworld I decided to keep some notes of my impressions, which turned out to be lucky, because they turned out to be much more exciting than I had expected. My friends encouraged me to try and publish them, so I did. I hope you like them. I think more people need to know what's going on out there and you should try to finish my story even if you don't like it. I am not a professional writer, which you probably guessed as soon as you started reading this, if the title didn't tip you off, that is. I tried to polish up my stories so they sounded more like the ones written by real writers. But what you're getting here in the introduction is more like the real me.

           I guess you might want to know a few things about me, since I didn't bother with long explanations while I was writing my notes, since I was keeping them for myself or sending them to my friends and relatives, like I said, and we all know me. Probably somewhere or another on the copy you're reading of this there's a picture of me, so you'll see that I'm female, thirtyish (I was twenty-eight when I left Earth), of European origins, with curly hair that my mother likes to call honey-colored (that's why my name's Honey). I thought I should leave that whole part out, but my editor says people will want to know. Of course I'm an agriculture inspector. I became one because I grew up on a farm in Tennessee and I like plants and animals, but my older brother really wanted the farm and there wasn't enough of it to go around, and anyway I really wanted to go to college, so I did and I got an ag degree and I started working as an extension agent for a few months and then I got a job with the State Board of Agriculture, and that's where this got started.

Honey Tremaine, May 24, 2481

Publisher's Note: We at Starfire Publishing have decided to keep Ms. Tremaine's account of her adventures largely unedited, which may have led to a certain amount of grammatical and/or factual inaccuracy. However, we believe that Ms. Tremaine's message is of an importance that transcends considerations of style, and is in fact heightened by the immediacy of its form.
Starfire Publishing, May 25, 2481

Take Off

           On March 13, 2479, my boss Mr. Thwaite (pronounced Threet) called me into his office in the Agriculture Board's building in downtown Nashville. Mr. Thwaite is about my dad's age but a lot shorter and kind of stooped and doesn't at all look like the kind of person who could or should spend a lot of time attending calvings or milking cows or picking strawberries or cutting tobacco or driving a tractor or hanging around people that do all those things, which is maybe why he spends most of his time indoors in his office, issuing orders and keeping his gray suit clean and his gray hair neatly brushed. I'm glad it's him that gets to do all those things and it's me who gets to run around taking milk samples and soil samples and attending tobacco auctions and doing more interesting stuff like that.

           "Sit down, Ms. Tremaine," Mr. Thwaite said when I came in.

           Mr. Thwaite is the only one at work or anywhere else who calls me "Ms. Tremaine." Everyone else calls me "Honey" or just "Hon," and I never know if they're calling me by my name or if it's just a nickname, which is fine, I don't care either way.

           Mr. Thwaite told me that as I probably knew, more and more planets were lobbying for permission to import agricultural products. This was a concern to the ag states, mostly the South and California. Everything was inspected and quarantined, but still...At the same time, farmers here were interested in seeing what was being done offworld. So after a lot of pressure from the ag states, the government had decided to send someone to look into it. Since the main drive behind this had been Senator Bryson from Tennessee, they were looking for someone from the Tennessee Agriculture Board to go. And Mr. Thwaite thought maybe I should be that person.

           I asked him why it should be me and not someone older and more experienced, and he said that it would involve being offworld for a year or maybe two and no one with a family was willing to do it, but I wasn't married and didn't have any children.

           I said I would have to think about it and I did and I talked to my mom and dad and my brother and my sister-in-law and then the next day I came in and said that I would go. I spent the next couple of weeks getting physical exams and shots and filling out all the paperwork you have to do when you go offworld, and then I packed my bags and on April 1 my mom and my dad and my brother and my sister-in-law drove me to the spaceport in Nashville (I had turned in my worktruck and given my own truck to my brother) and I boarded the spaceship and then we took off.

The Moon.

           My first stop was the Moon, which has no agriculture at all, but it does have mining, and the spaceship I was traveling on had to stop and unload all the stuff it was bringing from the Earth and load up various mining products to take to our next destination. We passengers weren't allowed to leave the spaceport because we were only stopping for 12 hours and they didn't want to have problems with losing us or having some kind of quarantine violation, but we could disembark from the spaceship and go hang out in the lounge, which was in a big clear plastic dome, so we could look up and see the stars and the Earth floating above/below us.

           Part of the lounge had no floor, so we could walk on the bare dirt and say we'd set foot on the Moon itself. Some of us went out to that area and jumped around in the low gravity, which was lots of fun until it made me sick to my stomach and I had to stop and go lie down. We were all sort of giddy from the excitement of leaving Earth. The takeoff from the Moon made me feel even sicker, so I passed a lot of the trip from the Moon to Kalininskaya feeling pretty sorry for myself.


           Kalininskaya was one of the first planets settled. It was settled by a Russian woman named Kalinina. It is very cold, so I guess she felt right at home. Its main agricultural exports are reindeer-like creatures called novoleni, and a special kind of lichen. The lichen is fertilized by the novoleni's manure, and the novoleni live off the lichen. This kind of thing has been banned in the US since the 21st century because it can cause disease, but all kinds of stuff is allowed offworld.

           First I saw a lichen-growing area, which was a big snowy field full of rocks. The rocks are sprayed with liquefied manure, and the lichen grows on them. I thought it would smell like manure, but it didn't, it smelled like snow.

           Then I saw how the novoleni are farmed. You can read my report on it if you want to: it's available through your Percy or your Perdie on the information site for the Board of Agriculture for the State of Tennessee. (Maybe I should mention that while I was on Kalininskaya I had to explain to the people there, who don't speak much English, that a Percy is a Personal Computer and a Perdie is a Personal Reading Device—like a Percy, but smaller). The report is probably not that interesting. Here are some of the important things from it:

           1) The novoleni are HUGE. They are MUCH bigger than horses. A lot of them are 2 meters or more at the shoulder and at least 3 meters from nose to tail.

           2) The novoleni are not very friendly. When you walk by their stalls, they will drag their horns against the bars, or even strike out or kick. I thought they would be more like normal deer.

           3) The novoleni are factory farmed. They live their entire lives (2-3 Earth years, normally) confined to 5-meter box stalls. Once they are full-grown, most of them are slaughtered. They are not slaughtered for their meat, which is toxic, but for an enzyme used to destroy tumors. However, it is not only impossible to farm the novoleni on Earth (because they need the lichen, which only grows on Kalininskaya), it is illegal: they are technically considered to be Class 10 hazardous materials (must be kept offworld at all times).

           I also toured the enzyme collection facility, which was like a cross between a slaughterhouse and a biochemical lab and just as gross as you might think. Much of what was going on there I was not allowed to see because the enzyme extraction process is under patent to KL Enterprises.


           Next I went to look at DragonFarmsInc. I was very excited. You might remember the series "Penny the Purple Dragon," which I read over and over again when I was little. Seeing the dragons was a real letdown at first, after all that reading about Penny. For one thing, none of the dragons were purple. Most of them were black, like blacksnakes. In fact, they have a certain amount of blacksnake DNA in them. They also have the DNA of various other kinds of snakes, many of them venomous, because one of the main things they're used for is venom extraction for medical purposes, because they produce a lot more venom than ordinary Earth snakes, since they're about 10-15 meters long and 4-5 meters tall, on average. They also produce useful enzymes in their muscles, and of course there's the fact that people will pay lots of money for dragonhide and dragonbone products.

           Going back to "Penny the Purple Dragon": If you'll recall, Penny spent a lot of her time going around helping her human friends. She could also talk. None of the dragons I saw could talk, but if they could, I don't think they'd spend a lot of their time helping their human friends. I don't think they think of their humans as friends. But I should start at the beginning.

           DragonFarmsInc is located on the planet Draconia. I guess they didn't think very hard when they named it. Draconia is mostly warm and tropical, perfect for raising really big reptiles. The main dragon farms are located around the equator.

           Like the novoleni, the dragons are factory farmed, meaning they're always kept confined. Again, factory farming is not legal in most parts of Earth any more. Each dragon gets a whole longbarn, like what we'd use to keep calves in, to itself, both because they're so big and because they don't tend to get along with each other.

           I was met by Arnold Jackson, the manager of DragonFarm1. He was tall, forty-ish, with a weathered reddish face, missing the two smallest fingers from his left hand, and dressed in old overalls and an even older cap, both with the DragonFarmsInc logo on them. I could have been meeting with the manager of a cow farm back home (except for the logo). He shook my hand and was perfectly polite, but on the other hand, he didn't seem particularly glad to see me.

           "Have you ever seen any dragons, Ms. Tremaine?" he asked me.

           I told him I hadn't.

           "Some people are a little taken aback the first time they encounter a dragon," he said. "But if you do what I tell you, you'll be fine."

           I didn't find this very reassuring, but I was there to see dragons, so I followed him to the barns. He told some workers who were also dressed in DragonFarmsInc overalls and caps to prepare the first three barns for us to look at.

           "We have to corral the dragons into the back half of their barns before we can go up to them," he told me. "You don't want to get any closer than about 8-10 meters from a dragon unless you're wearing protective gear. Unlike what you might have heard, they don't breathe fire—we can't genengineer them for that, they are living creatures—but they can bite. So each barn has a partition in the middle that can hold them to the back half of their barn. We lure them back there with food, and if that doesn't work we drive them back with electric dragon prods, and then we lower the partition. It can be set up for complete containment, meaning it goes all the way from the floor to the ceiling, or for partial containment, meaning they can stick their heads over it. I'm going to have them set it up for partial containment so you can see them directly. We can also watch them from the observation area in the roof, but a lot of people find it more exciting to see them up close."

           The workers went off to the nearest barn, there was some muffled commotion, and then they radioed Arnold Jackson that we could come in. He opened the front door, which was at least 6 meters high and 8 meters wide, and we entered the barn. I realized the barn was actually two structures. There was a concrete outer shell, a space wide enough for two people to walk abreast, and then a concrete inner shell. The outside walls were red and the inside walls were white. The barn had a strange and pretty unpleasant smell, sort of like a chicken barn but more chemical. Arnold Jackson opened the door to the inner shell, and we walked in. The floor was covered with cleanish sand.

           "We clean half the barn each day," he told me. "We contain the dragons in one half and clean the other, switching sides every day. All the equipment and feed for each dragon is housed in the space between the two shells, as well as the machinery for operating the partition, the doors, and the hoists. If we have to do anything to the dragons, some kind of veterinary procedure for example, we shoot them with a tranq dart, wait until they're unconscious, and then hoist them up onto the table, which we roll right into the barn. We do something similar when we slaughter them. We can't tranq them, of course, because that would interfere with the enzymes, so we shoot them, just like you would deer-hunting. Tom Massino and I are the two certified shooters at this facility. Once they've been shot, we hoist the body up, remove all the sand, and the barn becomes a slaughtering facility. Notice that the floors are concrete and have channels running to drains. Of course we have to keep the drains covered until after the sand is removed, otherwise they'd get blocked. The body is cleaned and dismembered and the parts are packed off to the central processing facility. We also do our own venom extractions here and ship the extracted venom to the central plant."

           While Arnold Jackson was talking I started hearing some kind of bellows mechanism. Then it snorted, and I realized it was breathing. We were standing near the front door. At the other end of the barn, about 15 meters away, I could hear the whispery sound of something scaly dragging over the sand. The upper part of the partition had an opening about 3 meters square in it. Something black and sinuous moved across the bottom of the opening. It disappeared from view, and then a black head and neck shot out of the opening with a loud BANG as the dragon lunged against the partition.

           I jumped back. The dragon leaned out the opening and looked at us. It acted like a horse cranky from too much time in its stall, but its head and neck were like the biggest snake in the world. It pulled back its head just like a snake about to strike, and lunged at the partition again with another BANG. It opened its mouth extremely wide, revealing a forked tongue and two fangs as long as my arm. It hissed at us.

           "Dragons tend to be territorial and aggressive," explained Arnold.

           "How fast are they?" I asked.

           "They can strike like a snake, so much faster than most of us can move. As far as covering ground, we normally keep them confined, so we don't know how fast one that was really fit could go. The winged ones can also lift off the ground and glide for short periods of time, because of Draconia's weaker gravity. Most of them, like this one here, are not winged, but we do have a few; dragon wings are a very popular product. Let's move on to the next barn, okay?"

           The next barn contained a winged male dragon the bright green of a grass snake. We watched him from the glass observation post in the roof, which was fine with me, because that black one striking at me had raised my heart rate enough that I didn't think I'd need to exercise for at least a week, even with the lower gravity. He paced his barn anxiously, flapping his wings—there was barely enough room for him to spread them out, his wingspan must have been at least 10 meters—and flicking out his tongue and hissing.

           "It's breeding season, and he can tell," Arnold told me. "We do all the reproduction for them in the lab, but they still know what's going on."

           I had thought the dragons would be slow and ungainly, like alligators, but they were quick and flowing, like a cross between horses, snakes, and cats. They had wedge-shaped heads, like pit vipers, long necks, and bodies that sloped downwards from the shoulders to the hindquarters. Their tails were as long as their necks (about 3-5 meters long), so of their 10-15 meter body length, at least two-thirds of it was neck and tail. Their tails came to a narrow point, just like a snake's. Dragons are cold-blooded, but since the average temperature on Draconia is 30-40 degrees, they have plenty of energy.

           "You're lucky: there's a venom extraction scheduled for the next barn," Arnold told me as we left the winged male.

           The dragon about to have its venom extracted was a big black male without wings. We climbed up to the observation area. All the barns had peaked roofs, 10 meters at the highest point and 6 meters at the eaves. The observation areas were little rooms just big enough for three people, located on the catwalks that ran near the roof between the inner and outer walls.

           I could hear the hoists moving. "We lower the venom receptor onto the floor and move it around, encouraging the dragon to strike at it," Arnold explained to me. "It's impregnated with the scent of prey. The dragons respond best to the smell of mouse—a lot of their DNA is still snake DNA, despite their size. Once they strike it, we remove it and feed them immediately."

           The venom receptor looked like a mouse-colored beach ball. The chains that lowered it from the ceiling made it move around on the floor like a mouse. The dragon crouched in one corner of its barn, watching the venom receptor with its flat reptile eyes. Suddenly it pounced and struck, opening its mouth incredibly wide, like a rattlesnake. As soon as it had released its fangs, the chains whipped the venom receptor up into the ceiling, while lowering down a piece of meat. The dragon opened its mouth again, exposing a huge palate and throat, and swallowed the meat.

           "They can dislocate their jaws like snakes," Arnold told me. "We don't know how much they can swallow at once; there're stories about them swallowing humans whole, but those are just stories. All the dragons that have ever existed have been kept under extremely controlled conditions."

           He then took me to see the venom processed, which was very technical, so I won't bore you with it here. You can read about it in the detailed report I wrote while orbiting around Draconia after the incident at DragonFarm2, if you want.


           The next day we went to DragonFarm2, which was about 30 k down the road. Originally it was just supposed to be me and a driver, but Arnold Jackson got a call that morning saying there was a problem and they wanted another certified shooter just in case.

           There are only about a thousand people on Draconia. There are about two thousand dragons, but they mostly stay in their barns and don't use the roads (except when they're dead and are being transported in pieces to the central processing plant), so traffic tends to be light. Our little passenger truck didn't meet a single other vehicle during the trip from DragonFarm1 to DragonFarm2.

           We drove on a two-lane paved road that was wide enough for one transport truck, but not two. There was a narrow strip of grass along each side of the road, and a ditch with water in it. Beyond the grass and the ditch there was jungle. It was so thick I could only see about a meter into it, and then my vision was obscured by heavy ferns and vines. The sun beat down on our little tunnel of light, and it was very hot. I could hear lots of insects, but I didn't see or hear any bigger animals. I asked about that, and Arnold told me that near the equator there were no native animals other than the insects. Closer to the poles, he said, there were big savannahs that had large reptile-like creatures. He explained that some of the DNA for the dragons had come from these creatures. They did not appear to be any more intelligent than, for example, the large animals of the African savannah back home, and they left this region of Draconia alone.

           DragonFarm2 looked about like DragonFarm1: a clearing full of row after row of concrete longbarns, painted red on the outside and white on the inside. All the people working there were dressed in blue overalls and blue caps with the DragonFarmsInc logo on them. They were all men. When I asked Arnold about it, he said that most women don't like reptiles and they don't like slaughtering, which pretty much rules out a career at DragonFarms for them. I said I would have thought the high salaries DragonFarms paid would lure in at least some women, and Arnold said were a few, mostly at DragonFarm3, which had a female assistant manager, and the central processing plant, which employed several female scientists and technicians.

           Alan DeWitte, the manager of DragonFarm2, and Jesse White, DragonFarm2's other certified shooter, met us in the parking lot.

           "Thanks for coming, Arnold," Alan said as soon as we got out. "#6 is really acting up. We're going to try to drop him—he's about due anyway—but he may be a little too much for two people to handle. He's been a problem since he hatched. I think half the staff is cheering that today's his day."

           "Okay, no problem. Ms. Tremaine," Arnold said to me, "I'm afraid DragonFarm regulations don't permit anyone who's not a certified shooter or dragon handler to be in the barn during a take-down shot. It's just too dangerous, I'm sure you understand. Why don't you go with Billy here to see the hatchery?"

           I said that was fine, and followed Billy to the hatchery. I didn't want to see anyone take down a dragon anyway. I don't really like killing things, even things like dragons, which I was beginning to think were pretty scary, not at all like my happy memories of Penny from when I was a kid.

           The hatchery looked about like any other hatchery: rows of tables holding artificial nests, each with an egg, a heat lamp, and a thermometer. The only difference was that the nests were in very heavy-duty cages, and each egg was about a meter long, rubbery, and elongated. They looked kind of like giant versions of those candies with the white coating on the outside and licorice on the inside.

           "This one over here is about to hatch," said Billy, walking down to the end of one table. When I came closer I could see something inside the egg was wriggling, which gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

           "They don't have fangs when they come out, just a hatching tooth," said Billy. "Let's see, this one should be a female, black, no wings. That's the kind we raise the most..." He was interrupted by the sound of something large banging around in one of the nearby barns.

           "Just a second, Ms. Tremaine, let me see what's going on. Sometimes they can get kind of upset when we take one down," he said, and went outside.

           Left on my own, I backed away from the hatching dragon and stood near the door. The banging got louder, and was accompanied by trumpeting and snorting sounds. This seemed to encourage the hatching dragon, who writhed in her egg even more vigorously. There was a click and a hum, and the PA system came on.

           "All handlers, all handlers, come to Barn 6, we have a containment situation," said Alan's voice. I could hear shouts and people running around outside. The banging was not getting any weaker. The PA system clicked off. I peeked out the hatchery door. Several dragon handlers ran past me, pulling on heavy protective tunics and helmets as they ran. One shouted at me to get back inside, so I did.

           The PA system suddenly came back on again, but it must have been by accident, because instead of an announcement I heard Alan shouting, "Shoot him, shoot him, bring him down! Oh my G—" and then a scream, and then a crash I heard through both the speakers and the air. I put my head out the door again. An enormous black head was weaving back and forth through a hole in the roof of Barn 6. It hissed at the sky and dove out of sight.

           I heard a shot and a man screaming, and then the head reappeared. It had something in its mouth, which it tossed up in the air like a cat playing with its food, caught in its wide wide mouth, and swallowed down whole. I could see the lump moving down its neck until it disappeared into its body. The dragon sank down a little and then reared back up, making a bigger hole in the roof. It sank down again, and then launched itself out of the barn. It balanced briefly on the edge of the roof, then snapped out its wings and glided down and away, all the way to the edge of the clearing. The dragons in the other barns must have been throwing themselves against their walls, because I could hear the thumping and see the buildings shaking.

           "Get back inside!" one of the handlers screamed at me, pushing me back into the hatchery and slamming and bolting the door shut behind us. He ran to a phone on the wall, picked it up, and pressed a button.

           "DF2, # 6 is loose," he said. "At least one fatality." He listened for a moment, then said, "understood," and hung up the phone.

           "Whatever you do, stay inside," he said, unlocking a cabinet on the wall by the phone. He pulled out a gun that was a meter and a half long and 15 or 20 centimeters in diameter. He loaded a very large cartridge into it and ran back outside.

           The other dragons were still rattling banging on their walls. The hatching dragon squirmed inside her egg. I moved closer. Something poked through. It disappeared for a moment, and then the head ripped out. It peered at me with its snake eyes for a moment. A claw sliced the rest of the egg open, and the baby dragon uncoiled. A light on her cage lit up and there was a dinging noise. The baby opened her mouth hungrily. I backed away despite myself. The baby suddenly switched her attention from me to the ceiling. I looked up too. There was a noise like the wind in the trees, and then all the rafters creaked as something heavy settled on the roof. The building quivered. I crawled under one of the tables. There was a shot, and then another, and then the building quivered again, and something very heavy slid down the roof and hit the ground. I could hear it thrashing against the wall, and feel how the tables trembled and the cages rattled. There was another shot, and the thrashing became weaker and weaker and eventually stopped.


           Alan DeWitte got eaten, which I guess shows that dragons are capable of swallowing an adult human whole. Jesse White and Arnold Jackson both got multiple fractures from when the dragon ripped the barn apart. #6 got shot and killed. And I got hustled onto a ship and off Draconia in record speed, although not before I signed a waiver saying I held DragonFarmsInc completely harmless in the matter of my mental and physical health after my traumatic experience. I was also not supposed to tell anyone about the incident, but as you can see, I didn't keep my word there. I felt circumstances compelled me to speak out.

           After a couple of days on a moon in orbit around Draconia, I set off for Fischer Island.

Fischer Island

           Fischer Island is not an island, it's an entire planet. According to local legend, it's called Fischer Island because James Fischer, who led the colonization expedition, liked to joke that other people dreamed of having their own private islands, while he had thought bigger and gotten his own planet. At least, that's what it said in the brochure on the spaceship. Although how much faith you can put in those travel brochures the spaceship companies provide you with so you can pass the first 1/87th of the trip being entertained by descriptions of your destination point, I don't know. My gut instinct is to say not very much, but on the other hand I have a hard time imagining United Starlines or the Interplanetary Travel Group employing anyone with enough imagination to lie. I used ITG for this leg of the trip, and they are a dull collection of people. Dull but efficient, apparently, because we arrived at the Fischer Island Spaceport ahead of schedule.

           Arriving by spaceship is much less satisfying than arriving by plane because you don't get to see anything as you come in. All you get is the same inside of the spaceship you've been staring at for several eternities. You can't even read without getting a headache from the gravity and pressure changes. Then it's the underground tunnels with their shiny metal walls, the baggage carousels, the long lines waiting to have your paperwork and your body inspected, all without a glimpse of the place you've come to see.

           The public terminal of the Fischer Island Spaceport, which also serves as an airport terminal, train station, and market, was satisfyingly different after the boring lack of variety of the disembarkation process. A shiny metal door swooshed open and spat me out of the world of ITG and into the offworld's most serious producer of fruits and vegetables.

           The terminal was a glassed-in structure like a large greenhouse. The second floor rose out of the middle of the ground floor like the top tier of a wedding cake. There were no walls or ceilings between the two floors.

           Because of my early arrival my escort was not there to escort me, so I was given a tour of the place by a member of the cleaning staff. Like most of the people I saw on Fischer
Island, he looked Subcontinental.

           The first floor was a mixture of fruit stands and seating for people waiting for flights, which gave the impression that someone had had the bright idea of combining a jetport with the produce section of a supermarket. My temporary guide showed me around the terminal, remarking on the different types of edible fruits and vegetables for sale. Some I recognized and some I didn't.

           The second floor was wholly dedicated to food. It was about ten meters up in the air, surrounded by just a handrail, and of course the glass walls and glass ceiling of the building, so I felt I was a lot higher than I would have liked. This was made worse because the elevators were out of order, so we had to hike up the escalators, which were also stopped. I thought it was funny that the spaceport people were able to fly from planet to planet but couldn't keep the escalators working.

           The fruits and vegetables were heaped up in big displays. My guide led me around, pointing out all the different items for sale and telling me where they were from. "Broccoli from Ardistan," he said, "tomatoes from here in Fischer City, lettuce from Wide Plains, and these are potatoes; I don't know where they're from."

           "I don't either," I said, "but originally they're from America, like me."

           He looked at me, then at the sacks of potatoes, and grinned. "That's nice," he said.

           What interested me the most were the things that looked like citrus fruits, only the color of a purple potato. They were already sliced—apparently they would not spoil, even though they were in ordinary mesh sacks, just like the regular, unsliced oranges and grapefruits. One of the sacks I saw had been thrown onto the floor and smashed.

           My guide shook his head. "Some people don't like these," he said. "They say they're unnatural. There's a group trying to destroy them."

           Before I could ask him more about this fruit-hating group, my real escort arrived. Her name was Pooni, she also looked Subcontinental, and she spoke English fluently but with a faint accent. She greeted me warmly, told me the inspections would start tomorrow, and asked me what I would like to do for the rest of the afternoon. I told her I'd like to go for a walk.

           "Oh, what a good idea!" she said enthusiastically. "We can walk through the town center and up onto City Hill. Your luggage has already been taken to your hotel, so you don't have to worry about that."

           I agreed that would be fine. We descended the perilous escalator (going down was even worse than going up, because I felt like I was going to pitch forward right through the glass walls of the terminal) and headed for the exit. Standing by the glass doors was a little old lady, evidently watching out for us.

           "Miz Jane!" exclaimed Pooni. "What a pleasure!" She went over to the little old lady and began fussing over her the way people do over elderly people they'd rather not deal with but are constrained by good manners to be polite to.

           "You're going up to City Hill?" said Miz Jane, smiling at me. She had short springy curls that had probably once been strawberry blond, and bright blue eyes. "How nice! I'll have to go with you and tell you all about it."

           Pooni looked less than overjoyed at this prospect, but there was no way to escape, so she accepted the addition of Miz Jane to our outing as graciously as possible. We left the terminal, Pooni leading us like an imperious mother duck and Miz Jane and me following along side by side.

           As far as I had gathered from looking around while I was up on the second floor of the terminal, the spaceport was situated a little ways off by itself. Less than a kilometer to the south was what was called "the town center," although the only thing it was in the center of was itself and a lot of fields and pastures. According to the brochures on the spaceship, it had been built as a showplace, and it was separate from the commercial center of Fischer City. East of the terminal was City Hill, which was just a grass-covered rise. From its top you could look west towards the spaceport, south to the town center, and north to Fischer City itself. Most of the view was agricultural land.

           It took us fifteen or twenty minutes to walk along the quiet two-lane road from the terminal to the town center. At one point Miz Jane said cheerfully, "Give me your arm, young lady, I need something to lean on," so I obliged her. We walked arm-in-arm for a few minutes, Miz Jane telling me good-naturedly about this and that. As we drew closer to the town center, she leaned more heavily on my arm and began patting and rubbing it with her free hand.

           "When I was a girl we used to walk arm-in-arm like this all the time," she told me, her voice quavering a little. She seemed older and frailer than she had when we set out, and I wondered if the walk had been too much for her and if we should have left her at the terminal and how we were going to get her to the top of City Hill.

           "And we would hold hands like this," she said, reaching with her left hand across her body and taking my right hand in it. "It was the best way to walk with your friends and tell secrets." It seemed an uncomfortable position to me, with our outside arms stretched out in front of us, forcing us to walk turned slightly towards each other, but perhaps it would have worked better if I hadn't been so much taller than Miz Jane. "It's very nice," I said agreeably.

           "Yes, this is just like when I was young," she said, looking up at me and smiling tremulously. She began stroking my fingers with hers. I tried to support her without crushing or hurrying her. Pooni was getting ahead of us.

           "Oh, the town center!" Miz Jane cried out suddenly. I had been concentrating so hard on shuffling along in our unusual handhold that I hadn't noticed where we were.

           While the road leading from the spaceport, with its grass shoulders, ditches, and the fields on either side of it, could have just as easily been somewhere in rural America as on a distant planet, the town center looked like it had come directly from central Italy. It was small, just two or three city blocks. In the middle was a piazza/arcade-like space flagged with yellow sandstone. It was covered with a vaulted roof, like the inside of a cathedral. All around this central square were buildings, built with the same reddish-yellow brick as the arcade roof, and with the same Tuscan-style architecture. I felt as if I'd somehow left Fischer Island and ended up in Florence, except that instead of the hordes of tourists I'd seen on documentaries about Italy, there were just a few Islanders strolling around the piazza. The roof provided a pleasant shade, while the openings where the streets ran between the buildings allowed in enough light and air to give us the impression we were outside. I looked up at the roof, admiring the shape of the vaults, the lines of brick that ran from the four corners to the point at the top, outlining the ribs of the ceiling.

           Pooni had kept going while Miz Jane and I had come to a halt, so we were now separated by the width of the arcade. Pooni stopped and waited for us, apparently willing to leave us to our own devices. Miz Jane was looking around as if she, too, were a newcomer here.

           "It's beautiful," I told her. "Whose idea was it to build something like this here? Was it James Fischer's?"

           Miz Jane was getting more and more agitated. "My husband works here," she told me. She pointed to a building off to our right. "Over there."

           "Really? What does he do?" I was surprised someone her age had a husband who was still working.

           "He works over there," she repeated. "Over there. In that office. He's over there. He'll come out and say hello to us. His office is on the second floor."

           I looked at the building she was indicating. There was no sign announcing what business took place in it.

           "What's your husband's name?" I asked.

           "They say he doesn't work there anymore, but he does. He'll come out... Maybe we should go see him. If he looks out his window and sees we're ignoring him, his feelings will be hurt. He works on the second floor." She was squeezing my fingers almost painfully. I was beginning to realize this was not normal behavior, that Miz Jane was ill.

           "Maybe we should keep walking," I suggested. "We can stop by and see your husband some other time."

           Pooni came hurrying over to us. "Come on, Miz Jane," she said firmly. "We have to keep going or we'll be late."

           "I have to see my husband... He'll be angry if I don't say hello."

           "Your husband doesn't work here anymore. Remember? We've had this conversation before."

           "He does! You're trying to trick me!"

           "No, you need to help show our guest around, remember? We need to show her City Hill, remember? That's what your husband would want you to do." Pooni coaxed Miz Jane across the piazza and down a street that suddenly carried us out of Tuscany and back into rural America. We followed a footpath that ran from the town center up to the top of City Hill. Miz Jane allowed me to guide her along, the climb proving to be less of a problem than I had feared. She was no longer talking, but she kept looking around uncertainly.

           We reached the top of the hill and enjoyed the view. Spaceport, the city center—which from above just looked like a collection of stone buildings, lacking the grace and intricacy that was apparent close up—Fischer City with its square glass-and-metal structures, rolling hills and fields with the occasional orchard or cow pasture. Nothing exceptional, but it was pleasantly home-like.

           "Do you like it?" asked Miz Jane.

           "Very much," I told her honestly.

           "I'm glad you like my place," she said complacently and wandered off to pick a flower from a nearby tree. She brought the flower back over to me. It was about the size of my two hands together, roughly the shape of a magnolia blossom, but dark reddish-purple. "For you, young lady," she said, but then took it away from me and set it in a small hole in the ground and admired it, as if it were a flower arrangement in a vase.

           "Have you lived here all your life?" I asked her. A confused expression crossed her face.

           "I came here with my husband," she said after a while. "This is our place. I like it here, don't you?"

           "Yes I do," I agreed. "Do you live in Fischer City?" But she didn't answer me, continuing to admire her flower instead. Eventually she noticed me again.

           "What's your name, young lady?" she asked. "I can't remember; you know how we old ladies are."

           I told her my name.

           "That's nice," she said. She fell silent for a while, staring off towards the city.

           "My name is Jane Fischer," she said suddenly. "This is my island. What are you doing here?"

           "I'm here for my job," I told her. "I'm supposed to look at the farms. After this I'll go on to New Africa."

           "Oh," she said. "Did I tell you my name is Jane Fischer? This is my island. Islands are very strange places, did you know that?"

           "Yes, I've noticed," I said.

           "You should watch out," she told me.

           That was all I could get out of Miz Jane. We finished admiring the view from City Hill and decided to walk back to the town center and drive from there to Fischer City. Miz Jane followed us back down the hill, clutching her flower in her hands and crushing it. When we got to the town center she wandered off into the building she had pointed out earlier.

           "Should we let her go?" I asked.

           "Oh, she'll be fine," said Pooni. "She lives there; her people will take care of her."

           "Is she really James Fischer's wife?" I asked.

           "Yes. He's dead, you know. She hasn't been the same since he died, and lately she's been more and more confused. We can't get rid of her, unfortunately: she's considered to be a fixture around here. But pretty soon she'll have to be confined, and then we won't have to bother with her any more."


           The next morning I was met by someone who was not Pooni, to my relief, but who looked enough like her to be her brother. He introduced himself as Veej, and said he had orders from the Fischer City Vegetable Cooperative (FCVC) to drive me over to their headquarters and show me around.

           "Facvac is very pleased that you're here, Ms. Tremaine," he told me cheerfully. "They're sure once you've toured their facilities, you'll see the rumors about their products' harmfulness are just that: rumors."

           "What?" I said, which is how I learned about the local nicknames for the FCDC (Fischer City Dairy Cooperative, aka facdac), FCFC (Fischer City Fruit Cooperative, aka facfac), and FCVC. I didn't mention that I hadn't heard anything about the possible harmfulness of their products, but I was very interested to hear there were rumors. I also started to worry about the food I'd eaten there, which had all been, as I'd been told with pride, locally grown.

           After a short drive through green rolling hills, we came to the FCVC farm, which looked a lot like the spaceport. Actually, for a moment I though it was the spaceport, but then I saw it was not one greenhouse, but a whole city of them.

           "Don't you have any field crops?" I asked Veej. "Or is everything greenhouse-grown?"

           He shrugged. "I'm just a driver," he said, "but farther out from the city I know they have big fields growing all kinds of stuff. These are just for the most special plants, and of course the development labs."

           We pulled up to a building that looked like a regular greenhouse except the glass was smoked and rippled, like what you see sometimes in showers and bathroom windows.

           "Facvac HQ," announced Veej, and guided me into the building, which let down all my expectations by being a normal office building inside, not a dirt- or plastic-floored greenhouse full of plants. There was a security guard by the door in a brown-and-green facvac uniform, and a pretty well-dressed receptionist sitting behind a desk. Both looked a lot like Pooni and Veej. Directly behind the receptionist was more of the rippled smoked glass, so you couldn't see the rest of the building. Veej told the receptionist who I was, and she made a note on her Percy screen and printed out a badge for me.

           "Dr. Robinson will be with you directly," she said. "Why don't you have a seat while you wait? Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee? Something to eat?"

           I'd already had breakfast and I didn't want to eat any more of the FCVC's products than I could help, so I refused and sat down next to what looked disappointingly like a perfectly ordinary begonia, and started to read Vegetables Now, the FCVC's weekly publication.

           I had just gotten to an article on the FCVC's revolutionary new product, high-calcium tomatoes, cucumbers, and celery, when Dr. Robinson walked in. The big ag companies had been working on and off on developing high-calcium vegetables for a couple of centuries, but they'd always had an unpleasant chalky taste. Vegetables Now claimed new research breakthroughs had gotten rid of the chalkiness, and made "a healthful and savory product that not only tastes great, but will completely do away with the need to consume dairy products."

           "Oh Ms. Tremaine, what a pleasure to meet you," said Dr. Robinson, sweeping across the room. He didn't shake hands, he just patted my hand. He was tall, taller than me, with a sharp nose and chin, high forehead, and lots of hair that had once been black but was turning gray. He was wearing a very good suit.

           "And how are you finding Fischer Island, Honey? May I call you Honey? It suits you so well."

           "Sure," I said, wanting for the first time in my life not to be called Honey. "Wow, you guys must really like wedding cakes."

           Doctor Robinson seemed kind of surprised by this remark, but it was just because we'd gone into the main part of the building and it was built like the spaceport, with wedding-cake-tiers of floors rising from the middle and escalators running up the outside of the layers. It was the sort of thing that probably sounded great to an architect, but I thought it was pretty nauseating, especially the escalators.

           "It looks like a wedding cake," I explained.

           "I suppose it does," agreed Doctor Robinson. "We found this to be a good design for greenhouses," he explained. "Space-efficient while still allowing air to circulate, but at the same time you can regulate the temperature from floor to floor quite precisely. And once people became used to it, well… And of course now it's one of the defining features of our architecture, as I'm sure you've read."

           I hadn't, but I didn't want to say so, and anyway I'd kind of figured it out for myself by then, so I just nodded.

           "Here we have the main administrative offices of the FCVC," he said, pronouncing all the letters properly, "so if there are any questions you have about that…"

           "Well of course I'd like to know about the size of your organization, its products and its aims, things like that," I said quickly, "but I'm sure I can upload that onto my Perdie pretty easily. What I'd really like to know is your development and research techniques, and of course a tour of the facilities." I knew a tour that wasn't a surprise inspection was unlikely to find very many small infractions, but sometimes you get lucky and stumble onto something so big the farm can't hide it.

           "Of course," said Doctor Robinson smoothly, leading me by the arm over to the edge of the building, "although I'm afraid that our escalator for the basement, where our main R&D is done, is out of service today, so we'll have to walk down."

           "Wow, it seems like all the escalators in Fischer City are down," I said. "I haven't seen a working one since I've gotten here."

           "Oh I'm sure that's not the case, Honey," said Dr. Robinson quickly. "You can be assured that we have all the modern conveniences here in Fischer City, and everything is in tip-top condition, with the highest levels of service and maintenance."

           I thought he seemed kind of defensive over such a trivial thing, and I also thought escalators were not exactly what I'd call a "modern convenience," seeing as how they'd been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, but I didn't say anything on either count. We walked down the out-of-service escalator into the underground portion of the FCVC HQ, which was much too big to just be called a basement. That part of the building had shed its greenhouse appearance and looked like any kind of a lab, although the occasional tray of seedlings did suggest an agricultural slant to the research.

           Dr. Robinson spent a long time touring me through a few very clean, very organized lab rooms, where researchers told me enthusiastically how they were working on making more nutritious, tastier, longer-lasting, hardier, better-keeping vegetables. I saw the revolutionary high-calcium tomatoes, which I reluctantly tasted. They tasted just fine.

           "You just had 30% of your calcium for the day," a lab worker told me proudly. "One of these guys will give you your minimum daily requirement, and if you need more, all you have to do is eat another slice or two, or a few stalks of our celery, or one of our other delicious products. You'll never have to eat dairy products again, isn't that wonderful!"

           "Uh, I guess," I said. "But why?"

           "Excuse me?"

           "Why is it so wonderful that I'd never have to eat dairy products again? What if I like dairy products?"

           The lab worker—her name was Arianna, and she was also even taller than me (it seemed like the FCVC only hired tall people), and much thinner, with bright red hair that was pulled back scarily tight, so I wondered if her hairstyle worked as kind of a temporary face lift—then treated me to a long explanation, supported by Dr. Robinson, of how humans had evolved without the consumption of dairy products in Africa back on Earth, and that cows were not native to Fischer Island and therefore shouldn't be allowed there, and how the FCDC was made up of a bunch of low-life scumbags who did nothing but cheat, mislead the public about their products, and take money and consumers away from the much more deserving FCVC.

           This led to a lengthy digression on the evils of the FCFC, which kept trying to brainwash the Islanders into believing fruit was more healthful than vegetables, and wouldn't allow the FCVC to grow anything classified as a fruit, and kept trying to get more and more plants classified as fruits, so that, for example, they were currently suing the FCVC over the right to grow tomatoes, which they claimed were a fruit.

           "Tomatoes are a fruit," I said. Both Arianna and Dr. Robinson jumped on me and explained there was no hard-and-fast definition of the difference between fruits and vegetables, and while on Earth fruits were often defined as those edible parts of a plant that contained seeds, on Fischer Island the difference was defined according to the edible portion's sugar content and "sweetness factor." Tomatoes generally fell on the vegetable side of the line, but some of the new products, including the high-calcium strains, were so sweet—"we were so committed to making a quality product, we shot ourselves in the foot," explained Dr. Robinson-that technically they could be classed as fruits, which was what was causing the current wrangle between the two cooperatives.

           Having learned my lesson, I nodded politely and said nothing, but the main thing I learned in Arianna's lab was that all the different co-ops didn't get along at all, and in fact seemed determined to do each other as much harm as possible.

           I saw a few more labs, none of which were very interesting, and then Dr. Robinson proposed we go visit a greenhouse. I asked if there were any purple vegetables that could stay good for days even when they were sliced up, like the purple fruit I'd seen in the spaceport, but Dr. Robinson made a face and said the FCFC had the patent on that process, and frankly he didn't advise that I eat any more of those fruits than I could help.

           "Why?" I asked.

           "Because they're a hybrid between Terran fruit and native plants," he explained. "Both the ability to tolerate exposure to air, and the distinctive purple color, are common features of Fischerite plants. But who knows what the long-term effects of ingesting that genetic material might be?"

           "Uh, yeah," I said. "Have people been eating this stuff for long?"

           "Well, people have been eating native flora since the first year or two of settlement here. But the genengineered products, that have a combination of Terran and Fischerite genetic material, have only been on the market for about a decade."

           Privately I thought a decade was ample time for negative side effects to show, but I didn't say that to Dr. Robinson. And my experiences on Draconia had caused me to question the wisdom of mixed-world genengineering, anyway.

           "So the FCVC doesn't do Terran-Fischerite gene splicing, then?" I asked instead.

           "No, because the FCFC has patented all those procedures, as I told you. We bring all our non-Terran genetic material from New Africa."

           That hardly sounded any better to me, even though I hadn't been to New Africa yet, but I just made a mental note of it and let him lead me up the out-of-service escalator, out the HQ building, and into some greenhouses, where I saw a bunch of vegetables. I mean, loads and loads of them. I'd never seen such gigantic greenhouses. The exact figures are in my report, if you want to see them, but otherwise, just take my word for it: there were a LOT.

           "We're preparing to expand our offworld markets," said Dr. Robinson, as I entered into my Perdie how many thousand kilos of vegetables were around me. "We already do a considerable business with New Africa and Draconia, as well as more distant worlds, but of course we're very interested in breaking into the Terran market, as anyone would be. That's why we're so pleased you're here, Ms. Tremaine"—somehow I'd gone from being Honey to Ms. Tremaine when the business pitch started—"so you can see how beneficial our products are, and how benign they are, of course, both to human health and to the natural environment. Would you care to see more of our production tables, and our field crops?"

           I said I would, and I wondered why everyone at the FCVC had been talking down all the other products of Fischer Island if they wanted to convince me their products were harmless. I mean, I do know about cross-pollination.

           After a while even Dr. Robinson got tired of gazing upon the magnificence of the FCVC's production tables, and suggested we break for lunch. We ate in the HQ cafeteria, which only served vegetables, of course. I tried various kinds of tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, beets, zucchini, and so on, all of which were genengineered to provide me with my complete nutritional requirements. Dr. Robinson tried to convince me the high-protein eggplant, which was strangely rubbery, was superior to the original because of its meatiness and delicate flavor, but he didn't make much of a convert out of me.

           After lunch we went out to the parking lot and Veej drove us around to see wheat, oat, barley, soybean, and corn fields. If you think that sounds boring, you're right. Not that I have anything against looking at crops, obviously, but I wasn't allowed to actually go into any of the fields, for fear of contamination. Dr. Robinson didn't say whether that meant contamination of the field by me, or me by the field.

           "I hope you'll send back a favorable report, Ms. Tremaine, or rather, Honey," he said as he got out of the vehicle, squeezing my hand a little too long. "I certainly enjoyed spending the day with you, and I hope you did too."

           "I spend the day with me a lot," I said, but Dr. Robinson looked confused, so I told him, "your operation is very interesting." Veej drove off then, so Dr. Robinson had to be satisfied with that.

           "So what do you think of facvac?" Veej asked as soon as we were on the road again.

           I said I thought they had serious problems getting along with the other co-ops, and asked if all the co-ops were that competitive.

           "Ever since James Fischer died, yeah," he said. "I mean, they were setting up in that direction even before he died, but once he was gone, they fell on each other like dogs."

           He then went on to tell me how the FCVC and the FCFC had first banded together to try and take over the FCDC, but once that had failed, they had turned on each other.

           "I thought the activists would make them cooperate again, Ms. Tremaine, but they haven't, they've just carried on, and now the activists are getting more and more active, so I don't know what's going to happen."

           I asked him about the activists, but he just shrugged uneasily and said there were some people who didn't like all the genengineering and other stuff the co-ops were doing, and didn't like the way they were being run, either.

           "Like how?" I asked.

           Veej wriggled his shoulders again and explained that when James Fischer had originally set up the co-ops, they had been just that, real cooperatives run by the workers, who shared in the profits. But after a few decades some people thought they could make it more profitable and more efficient to run the co-ops with stockholders and hourly employees. James Fischer had stood against them while he was alive, but then he had died, and there was no one to stop the changes.

           "His wife tried," Veej said, "but she was never an aggressive person, or good at business, and so she just got pushed to the side, and now she's gone crazy, poor old thing. The activists like to claim it's the food that made her crazy, but old people just go that way sometimes, don't they?"

           I agreed they did, and asked Veej if, as an FCVC employee, he was required to eat only vegetables.

           "Facvac pays my wages," he said, grinning, "but I still have a mango milkshake every day with lunch."

           I asked him if he knew any of the activists, but he said he wouldn't introduce me even if he did, and then he dropped me off at my hotel.

The Blender

           Once I was in my room I thought for a while about everything I'd heard that day. I knew that not only did Fischer Island not have permission to export its products to Earth, it didn't even have permission to send samples to Novy Mir, our offworld testing station. The only place that had gotten that right for plant products was New Africa, and none of their products had been certified Earth-safe yet. Certain animal products, like the enzymes from the novoleni and enzymes, venom, skin, and bones from the dragons on Draconia, were allowed on Earth, but all those things were harvested, thoroughly processed, and packaged in non-biocontaminating forms before they ever reached Novy Mir, let alone Earth itself. And they were never ingested as food, only used as medicine and other things that were easier to control.

           Earth already had its own genengineered food products, of course. But we certainly didn't have the kind of stuff available on Fischer Island. So Dr. Robinson and the people behind him might be right in thinking it was worth pursuing Terran importation rights aggressively. I wrote up a long report about what I'd seen, including at the end a recommendation that any importation of Fischerite products be done with extreme caution, and sent it off before I went to bed.

           The next day was more or less the same, except I saw fruits instead of vegetables, including the purple fruits, which sat about conspicuously halved and quartered in the FCFC offices. And the next day I went to see the FCDC, which was also about the same, except there were cows instead of plants. After the novoleni and the dragons it was nice to see that the cows seemed quite normal. Although apparently they had been genengineered to provide milk and meat that was high in vitamins, so there was no need to ever eat vegetables if you didn't want to. The FCFC had also assured me you could get a complete meal just by eating their fruits. By the end of the third day of this kind of propaganda, I was getting pretty tired of it, so I was glad I was scheduled to set off for New Africa.

           That night I went out of the hotel to a restaurant down the street called The Blender. It was supposedly where the locals who knew where to go went. It was brightly light and the chairs, tables, and counters were made of different colors of glass.

           It was pretty crowded, but I got seated right away and started trying to read the menu. It was difficult because it had dark blue lettering on a light-blue transparent background.

           "You have to put it down on the table," said someone behind me. I put it down on the table, which was the same color as the menu material, and sure enough, I could read the words.

           "Hey thanks," I said, and discovered it was Veej who had given me the advice. He was there with Pooni.

           "You should try Number 3," he said. "It's the best, if you like noodles. Or Number 5, if you like curry."

           I said I'd try Number 3. Veej and Pooni went to walk over to their table, when someone who looked a lot like Veej got up from the table next to mine and stopped them.

           "Spending some of your ill-gotten gains?" he demanded, putting his hand on Veej's shoulder.

           "Go away, Joshi," said Pooni angrily, and tried to push past him to her table.

           "What, you don't want to talk to your own brother?" said Joshi, holding out his other arm and blocking her path.

           "Not when he's crazy," said Pooni. She tried to move his arm, but since she was small and he was big, she failed.

           "Well I guess you'd know about crazy," he said. "Since that's what you do."

           "I don't know what you're talking about." Pooni tried to get past him again, and again he blocked her path. Veej was still just standing there, letting Joshi hold onto his shoulder.

           "Yes you do. Everyone knows it was you and your friends who—"

           "Oh come on Joshi, that's ridiculous," said Veej quickly. "You can't possibly think Pooni had anything to do with that. She'd never hurt anyone, you know that."

           "She hurts people every day," said Joshi. "Her and all her friends. How many people have you poisoned, Pooni? How many people have been poisoned because of you?"

           "I don't know what you're talking about," she repeated.

           "Yes you do, you're just too stupid to admit it," said Joshi, and he let go of Veej and started shaking Pooni by the shoulders. I thought Veej or someone nearby would step in, but they didn't, so I jumped up and said, "hey now, hey now, enough, okay, there's no need for any of that," and pulled Joshi and Pooni apart.

           "Who're you?" demanded Joshi, and then before I could answer, said nastily, "you must be the inspector, here to see if our products are safe to bring home."

           "Uh-huh," I said.

           "Well, and what do you think?"

           "I don't know," I told him. I noticed that three more young men had come up and were flanking Joshi. "I'm recommending extreme caution."

           "Has anyone told you the truth? Have they told you what's going on out here?"

           "Why don't you tell me," I said.

           "Okay, but not here. Nothing we say here is safe."

           "So take me somewhere safe," I suggested, and let them lead me out of The Blender and away, in spite of Pooni and Veej's warning looks.

           I followed them down the street to Joshi's apartment. I hadn't been in a private home in Fischer City before, and I was glad to see the apartment buildings were just ordinary apartment buildings, although built with lots of glass, and not the greenhouse/wedding-cake design of the public buildings.

           When we got into Joshi's apartment he took out a sound recorder, switched it on, and started running it over the walls. "Checking for bugs," he said darkly.

           "Would they really bug you?" I asked doubtfully.

           "They'll stop at nothing," he said even more darkly, while his three sidekicks nodded emphatically behind him. "Look what they did to Jane Fischer!"

           "What did they do to Jane Fischer?" I asked.

           "They poisoned her, they made her crazy!"

           "They did? How? And why?"

           "Because she tried to stop them, that's why!"

           "Stop them from what?" I asked.

           "From their plans, that's what, from their plans!" said Joshi, starting to sound a little crazy himself.

           "What plans?" I asked.

           "Well, you know Draconia, right? You've heard of DragonFarmsInc, haven't you?"

           I said I had just been there.

           "And? What did you think?"

           "They had problems while I was there," I said. "One of the dragons killed someone."

           "You see! You see! Do you think that attack was a fluke? Did you know dragon-related injuries have gone up twenty percent in the past two years? One of my coworkers' cousins is a nurse at DF3, and she's been keeping track. It must have been one of their fighting dragons!"

           "Fighting dragons? They don't have fighting dragons!"

           "That's what you think," said Joshi meaningfully. "They've been breeding them in secret."


           "To take over Earth, of course," said Joshi.

           "There's only a thousand people on Draconia," I pointed out. "They couldn't possibly take over Earth. And why would they want to, anyway?"

           "For money, of course, for money. And it's not just them, it's the big guys here on Fischer Island, and New Africa, and Kalininskaya, and all the big breeding and production planets. They're tired of not being allowed to export to Earth. Seven billion people, seven billion potential consumers, that's more than all the rest of the galaxy put together. Most of these planets were settled by people who wanted to get rich. They came here, they set up their businesses, and they had promises from Earth that soon, soon they would be able to start exporting their products and make money, more money than you could possibly imagine. Why else would anyone do it? That's why James Fischer came here, and that's why all the people he brought from India and Pakistan came with him. Don't let the talk about cooperatives fool you: they were supposed to be cooperatives, but they were going to be cooperatives where all the members would make lots and lots of money. Only some people wanted to take more than their share, and James Fischer died, and his wife tried to stand up to them, and they gave her some of their new 'products', and she started to forget who she was and where she was living, and now Earth is saying no, we still don't want your products, we're not sure if they're safe, which they should say, because they're not safe. And people here are starting to get angry because we've seen what this stuff can do. And now those of us in the Escalators and Lifts union have decided to do something about it."

           "But DragonFarmsInc products are exported to Earth," I said, "and everyone seems to be perfectly healthy here on Fischer Island. Well, except for Jane Fischer, but old people can get like that without being poisoned."

           "You just think that because you haven't seen everything," said Joshi contemptuously. "And sure, DragonFarms gets to export some stuff to Earth, but they have plans, big plans, and Earth isn't having any of it. And the same goes for Kalininskaya. And Fischer Island and New Africa have been cut out completely, and they're getting more and more desperate, and experimenting more and more, doing more and more gene splicing with local and Terran genes, and pretty soon it's going to come back to bite them."

           "So how can I find out about this?" I asked. "It's not like people are going to tell me this stuff on official tours. Back home I'd go ask the neighbors, poke around, maybe watch the farm for a couple of days, but out here I don't have the resources for that."

           "Where are you going next, New Africa?"

           "I'm leaving on the shuttle tomorrow morning."

           "They'll tour you around, tell you all kinds of nonsense, but as soon as you get a chance to get away, go to Little Cape Town."

           "Little Cape Town?"

           "Yeah. It's part of New Jo-Burg." He lowered his voice. "We have connections there with the Anti-Mercy League, but we can't share them with you—they might catch you and make you tell them everything."

           "I don't know if I want to get involved with this," I said. "Especially if I can't talk to anyone useful."

           "Just go to Little Cape Town, walk around a bit, go into a few shops, try and talk to people. It'll be enough to convince you."

           I agreed to do that, and Joshi said it was time for me to go back to the hotel. When I said I still hadn't had any dinner, he gave me some food he said was safe (cutting his eyes this way and that as he said it), and told me to go back to my room and not to tell anyone I had spoken with him. So I didn't, until now, of course. I didn't know how much to believe of what he had told me, but I also knew there was something going on here on Fischer Island, and I wanted to find out what it was. I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to find, or how I was going to handle it when I did, but I set off the next morning for New Africa full of determination.





copyright 2006 Elena Clark.

Elena Clark:

I have had the privilege to engage in a fast-paced and lucrative career of animal and child care, with occasional forays into food service and administrative assistance. I am also abnormally over-educated. I currently live in North Carolina.

Previous publication credits: 1st place, novella division, Bardic Tales and Sage Advice, 2005

Reader's Choice, Flash Fiction, Bewildering Stories Contest 2

Also, my short story "Witch Light" will appear in the October issue of Worlds of Wonder

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