Notes on Offworld Agriculture, Part 2

by Elena Clark
forum: Notes on Offworld Agriculture, Part 2
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Notes on Offworld Agriculture


New Africa

           I kind of expected to be stopped either from leaving Fischer Island or from landing on New Africa, but I was allowed to board the spaceship on Fischer Island and then disembark from it when I reached New Jo-Burg, no problem.

           I was met at the spaceport by Ben, a friendly chubby man who worked for the New Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce. He made sure I got my luggage and warned me I should put on a hat and sunscreen immediately.

           "The sun is very strong here, Ms. Tremaine," he explained. "All of us have to wear protection, no matter how dark we are, but pale people like you have to be extra careful not to get burned, especially here near the equator. In fact, the Continental Assembly for Liberia Again once proposed a law requiring all inhabitants of the continent to take sunscreen pills, but it was voted down in the Upper House."

           He went on to tell me that there were three continents on New Africa: Liberia Again, New Egypt, and Greater Namibia. Liberia Again was the largest. Its capital was New Kenya, but New Jo-Burg was its agricultural center. It was New Jo-Burg that was sending its products to Novy Mir to be approved for Earth imports, and it was New Jo-Burg that was supplying the Fischer City Vegetable Cooperative with all its non-Terran genetic material for gene splicing.

           "We have of course already provided the testing center on Novy Mir with all the pertinent data regarding our products," said Ben as we rode in a heavily-tinted car from the spaceport to my hotel, "but we'll give it to you as well: the precise genetic makeup of our products, the results of the medical, biological, and ecological tests we did on them, and, naturally, our sales figures and projections. I'm sure you'll find everything you need to convince you our products pose no harm, but I would just like to take this opportunity to point out to you, Ms. Tremaine, that New Africans and residents of all the surrounding planets have been consuming our products for decades with no ill effects. I appreciate that back on Earth you need to be cautious, but really, you Terrans have nothing to fear from New Africa or any of its goods."

           I said I was glad to hear that, but I was there to act as an impartial observer and didn't have the power to make any policy decisions regarding import licenses, and we spent the rest of the ride talking about our families.


           I spent the next two days being shown around various facilities near New Jo-Burg, touring through dairy farms, vegetable farms, fruit orchards, grain fields… Well, you get the picture. It was hot. It was very hot. It was even hotter than a Tennessee parking lot at the end of July. The sun beat down really hard, too. The smell of ripening crops rose from the fields and filled the air, so strong it made my head spin, with a faint aftertaste of pesticide that caught in the back of my throat.

           On the afternoon of the second day, a wind picked up from the west. I saw clouds sitting on the horizon and asked if it was about to rain, but they told me no, those weren't rain clouds, those were dust clouds, and we had to get inside. And sure enough, by the time I'd been bundled back into my car and driven back to the hotel, there was already dust whirling down the streets, covering everything with dirt and forcing everyone inside.

           Because of the dust storm, I had to eat in the hotel restaurant. All the other hotel guests did too, so there was only room for me at the bar. I sat on a slippery wooden barstool, tried to arrange my elbows so they wouldn't bump into the people sitting next to me, and looked at the posters behind the bar. There was a satellite photo of Africa next to a satellite photo of Liberia Again. There was also an aerial picture of Johannesburg next to an aerial picture of New Jo-Burg. Since there was nothing else to look at, I became very familiar with the layout of the two cities by the time my food arrived.

           "What did you get?" asked the man sitting on my left. "Is that fried plantains?"

           "And something with peanuts, and some kind of a fruit drink," I told him, poking at my dinner dubiously.

           He asked me my name, and I said Honey, and he said I must not be from New Africa, and I said no I wasn't, I was from Earth, and he said he was a businessman from New Kenya, and he'd had dealings with a fair number of Terrans but had never been there, and then he asked the woman sitting to my right where she was from, and she said she was a schoolteacher from New N'Djamena, here for a conference. She said she had a cousin in Little Cape Town and she'd originally planned to stay with him, but he didn't have any room for her so she'd ended up in the hotel.

           The businessman (whose name was Chad) asked the teacher, whose name was Zama (short for Zambia), who her cousin was, and after a long talk, while I slowly ate my not-very-tasty food, they discovered her cousin was the next-door neighbor of Chad's next-door neighbor's sister. Like all the colonized planets, New Africa doesn't have a very large population.

           Chad and Zama ended their discussion with the decision to go to Little Cape Town so Chad could show Zama around, since, he said, everyone should see it at least once. At that point they remembered I was there and invited me to go with them, saying a Terran should see the sights of New Jo-Burg, even the less beautiful ones. Apparently Little Cape Town was a slum.

           "What about the dust storm?"

           Chad winked at me. "Underground streets," he explained. "Dust storms blow up pretty often here in J-B, so there are underground streets connecting all the different parts of town. They don't tell visitors, because they don't want them getting lost down there, but I know how to use them."

           I asked if there was much of a chance of getting lost, and Chad said no, it was kind of dark down there but the streets were all well-marked. Zama said she'd always wanted to walk the underground streets of New Jo-Burg, and now that she had someone who was practically a native guide to escort her she wouldn't be scared, and so very soon we were taking the elevator down to the gym in the basement of the hotel, and then Chad found an unmarked door next to the treadmill, and instead of opening up into a supply closet, it opened up to a set of stairs that led down to a dimly-lit concrete passageway.

           Zama held Chad's hand as she went down the stairs. Once down in the passageway there was a sign pointing towards the city center in one direction and Little Cape Town in the other.

           After walking no more than ten minutes, we came to an intersection. Our passageway, which had been about the width of an ordinary sidewalk, dead-ended into a much bigger street with a lane for cars and sidewalks on either side. We turned left, following the signs for Little Cape Town.

           "Do you know what to expect from Little Cape Town?" Chad asked me as we walked down the empty tunnel.

           I said no, not really, and he said I might find it kind of dirty, and also that some of the inhabitants were a bit unusual, although he didn't specify in what way

           After about ten minutes on the big street we passed a woman walking the other direction, and then a slow-driving car, and about ten minutes after that we came to a sign saying "Little Cape Town" and pointing to a dark tunnel off to the left.

           "People keep stealing the light bulbs out of the lamps," explained Chad. "The city council keeps discussing whether or not to install those new lamps that don't need their bulbs changed, but they always decide people will vandalize those lamps as well, and they're very expensive, so they always choose not to waste the city's money. Fortunately, I came prepared."

           He pulled a flashlight out of his pocket, and Zama said something about how he was so clever to have thought of that, but was he sure we would be safe, and he said yes, he'd done this lots of times, and she said she guessed she could trust him, but she'd need to hold onto his arm in case she tripped, and so we started down the passageway, following the pool of light that glided along in front of Chad and illuminated piles of trash.

           We climbed up a steep set of stairs that were missing their banister and came to a rusty metal door. Chad pulled the door open and we stepped into a storeroom full of musty-smelling sacks. There were partly-rotted sweet potatoes in the room, along with something much more rank. We started threading our way through the sacks. I tripped over one in the dark. It groaned and moved.

           "Oh, I'm SO sorry," I said, jumping from fright.

           "Wa' ou'" mumbled the sack, proving itself to be human, although I couldn't make its shape into anything human no matter how much I strained my eyes. It seemed to be the source of the rank smell. As we moved through the storeroom I noticed more sacks moving. I had never smelled people so dirty. We climbed up a metal ladder and came out a trapdoor into another storeroom.

           "Who were those people?" I asked Chad as soon as we were in the upper room.

           "People who are hiding," he told me, shrugging. "People whose families don't want to look at them."

           We climbed up more stairs and came out into a semi-lit ground-level room full of more sacks that seemed to contain only food. Chad moved confidently across the room and opened a door that led out into a small store, also only semi-lit. I could hear the dust scouring the walls and windows.

           "The storm must have knocked the power out," Chad said quietly. "It looks like they're running off the auxiliary generators." More loudly he said, "Addis? Addis, you there? It's Chad; I've come to show these lovely ladies the sights of Little Cape Town."

           A very short man with dark olive skin, a large hooked nose, and greasy black hair appeared from behind barrels of sweet potatoes and came over to us. As he got closer I could see his natural shortness was made worse by the severe stoop of his back. The top of his head barely came to my elbow. He smelled like used cooking oil and unfamiliar spices.

           "And am I one of the sights of Little Cape Town?" he asked, his voice harsh and grating. He gave both me and Zama a sharp look. "I can assure you ladies that there are many sights much more shocking than I in this city; indeed, you must have walked past of some of them on your way upstairs."

           "Oh, come on, Addis," Chad started to say, but he was interrupted by the little man. "I suppose you've come to gawp at us," he said sourly. "See the monsters of Little Cape Town! The only place in the galaxy that could field its own freak show! Ooh and aah over the mysterious ailments that afflict its residents!"

           Zama drew back so that Chad was shielding her from Addis, but I stepped forward. "Really, I don't know very much about Little Cape Town at all. Are there really many people here who are… sick?" I asked.

           "Yes, there are many people here who are 'sick,' as you say, missy," said Addis. "Many who…" but just then a young woman walked through an unseen door behind the onion and garlic barrels.

           "Hello, Lexie," said Addis.

           "Evening, Addie," she said. Her bright yellow turban and dress contrasted with the strained expression on her face.

           "Your brother's downstairs," Addis told her. "He rolled in just before the storm."

           "Thank you, Addie," the young woman said gratefully. She made to go to the stairs we had just come up, but Addis stopped her.

           "There are some bad sorts down there, my dear," he warned her. "One-Eyed Sfax and Legless Bamako, among others."

           "Thank you Addie, I'll be careful," she promised, and disappeared down the stairway.

           "Her brother is one of the ones who is 'sick,'" said Addis when as she was gone. "No arms, no legs, a body no bigger than mine. Her parents obeyed the law that the city council in its infinite wisdom and compassion passed in '61, and tried to turn him over to Our Lady of Mercy hospital, but Lexie was afraid of what would happen and got him away. Now he begs by the North End, but when a dust storm comes he takes shelter with me, and Lexie comes to visit him, brings him food and things like that. She tries to give him money, too, but she has to be careful, she can't give him very much, because otherwise the stronger, meaner ones will take it away from him. But you've spent enough time inside with me: go out and see for yourself."

           "I'll take them to the South End," said Chad. He steered Zama and me around all the barrels to the door Lexie had just come through, pulled it open, and led us down another concrete passageway.

           "Are there people like that all over New Africa, or is it just here in Little Cape Town?" I asked.

           "Only here, as far as I know," he answered cheerfully. "Crazy, isn't it?"

           "The poor things," said Zama, and I couldn't tell if she really cared or if she was just trying to look nice in front of Chad.

           "It seems funny they'd only be born here," I said. "What's so special about this place? Is there a source of radiation nearby?"

           "Who knows?" I let Chad do all the talking until we got to the South End, where we climbed a set of rickety metal stairs up to a door that opened into a big dark empty space. Abstract patterns seemed to wash in front of my eyes.

           "What's this?" I asked, while Zama clutched at Chad's arm.

           "The South End Market," he answered. "It's glassed in, but they shut it down anyway during a storm, to give these guys a place to stay." I realized I was seeing dust swirling past the transparent walls.

           Chad shone his flashlight around the market. It picked out forms huddled on the market floor. One close to us sat up.

           "Who're you?" it demanded. "Why you bothering us?" Chad pointed the flashlight at it, and I saw a tiny rat-like face with a mouthful of pointed teeth and eyes set much too close together.

           "Go 'way!" moaned the person next to him. The beam from the flashlight showed a disfiguring bulge on the back of his head, as if another head were struggling to burst free.

           More and more of the shapes in the darkness were moving, rising, coming towards us. I saw someone whose legs were fused together slither along on her belly, someone with no legs scoot along on his hands, someone whose head was kinked to the side staring at us through eyes that were set almost vertically. No one looked friendly.

           "Let's go," said Zama.

           "Just a minute, just a minute, let's see more of them," said Chad.

           "Let's get out of here," said Zama, tugging at his sleeve. I was already turning for the door. I scrabbled at it till it came open, and ran down the stairs. Chad and Zama came close behind me. Chad kept trying to make jokes all the way back to the store about the people we'd seen, but Zama and I said nothing.

           "So did you see the sights of Little Cape Town?" Addis asked, appearing from behind a barrel as we came back into the store. He was so short the barrels hid him completely.

           "How many are there?" I asked.

           "The sick ones? Maybe a thousand, maybe two, hard to tell: Mercy tries to collect all of them, but we have more than five hundred here in Little Cape Town. Sometimes the police come in and round them up, but some always escape."

           "How long has this been happening?"

           "Children born 'sick'?"


           He shrugged, which looked strange with his hunchback. "Since I was born," he said.

           "Is there an official explanation for it?" I asked.

           "As you know, the vast majority of the settlers on New Africa came from Old Africa, and people from that continent are much more genetically diverse than people elsewhere. The official explanation is that there was some event that caused unknown recessive genes, which had stayed hidden for millennia back on Earth, to become dominant, or to start manifesting themselves in unexpected and unwanted ways. So say Mercy and the city council."

           "But?" I asked.

           "But my parents worked in the New Johannesburg Gene Extraction Facility, and so do Lexie's, and so, for that matter, did Legless Bamako's. Most people who live in Little Cape Town have a family member who works there: this area was originally built as housing for its workers."

           "Oh." Something banged against the door, and I jumped.

           "Just trash from the street," said Addis.

           "Isn't that where most of the genengineering work is done?" I asked. "And where most of the genetic material exported to Fischer Island is prepared?"

           "Yes it is. And where the deer on Kalininskaya were first bred, and where DragonFarms created its first embryos."

           "And do you think that…?" The wind went still in the middle of my sentence, and a long wail from a siren filled the silence that had been left behind.

           "I think that the police are coming, and I have people to hide. Go out onto the street, turn right, and keep walking until you come back to your hotel, tourists. Leave the sights of Little Cape Town alone."

           "No I won't," I said, but Chad and Zama had already pulled me out the door before I could be heard.

The New Johannesburg Gene Extraction Facility

           Ben made no mention of my adventures when I met him the next morning, so I figured he hadn't heard about them. I was glad. I guessed he wouldn't approve, and he'd probably lie about what I'd seen.

           "I'm afraid the dust storm has made it impossible to continue our crop viewing," he told me. "Most of the crops must be under half a meter of dust, and the roads are impassable anyway."

           I asked him if the crops had been ruined, and he said no, they were genengineered to withstand dust storms like this. The farmers had special dust-clearers they'd put on their combines, and by the end of the day all the fields would be raked clean and the crops would be upright again. But unfortunately, he said, the roads wouldn't be clear in time for us to go out and see this.

           "Have a nice touristy day, Ms. Tremaine, and see all the beautiful sights of New Jo-Burg," he suggested. "We could set up a guided tour for you."

           "I'd like to see the Gene Extraction Facility," I told him, but he just frowned and said he thought that might be difficult. When I asked him why, he frowned some more and said I wouldn't find it very interesting.

           "I would find it interesting because I'm here to inspect your agricultural practices, so the place where the genengineering happens is important," I told him, but he just frowned some more and said I wouldn't be able to understand anything that went on there. I told him I would, and anyway I wanted to see it, and then he said something about how they had strict security there and I hadn't been cleared to visit yet, and it would take all day, and didn't I want to enjoy myself and have a good time?

           "Seeing the Gene Extraction Facility is my idea of a good time," I told him, and then he wriggled his shoulders and repeated that they had strict security, and when I tried to convince him to arrange for me to get a special pass or something, he said, "Frankly, Ms. Tremaine, I don't see why you're so keen to go there, as you're not qualified to inspect a facility of that type. You should just stick to something you understand, like cows." So I told him in that case, fine, I'd spend the day walking around J-B and I didn't need an escort and I'd see him tomorrow, and he left.

           I decided not to even try getting into the Gene Extraction Facility. I thought about going to Mercy Hospital, but I figured I wouldn't get very far with that either, so in the end I decided to try and make my way back to Addis's shop and see if I could talk to him some more.

           I had noticed some street signs the night before, so I knew more or less where it was. I got a map from the hotel information desk and started walking there. Automatic street cleaners were sweeping up dust, and lots of people were hurrying here and there. A lot of them were dressed in bright clothes and carrying baskets on their heads, just like they might have five hundred or a thousand years ago back on Earth. I was by far the palest person I saw all day.

           Little Cape Town wasn't very pretty by daylight. I didn't see any "sick" people, but there were ordinary beggars with missing limbs or missing teeth on street corners. Some of the ones with legs looked like they might try and chase me down, but they didn't. Most of the people on the street were wearing worn dull clothing, and there was lots of trash, as well as at least 30 centimeters of dust. The street cleaners must come to Little Cape Town last.

           At first I thought Addis's shop was closed, but when I pushed the door it swung open. There were no customers. I walked around looking for him until he surprised me by appearing from behind a barrel.

           "The Terran," he said when he saw me. "I told you to go away."

           "I told you yesterday I wasn't going to stop asking questions, and I won't. This is my job. I don't want whatever problem you have here in Little Cape Town coming back to Tennessee just because someone threatened me."

           "Others have made such fine statements before," Addis told me.

           "New Africa desperately wants to export its ag products to Earth," I said. "They might try to hide stuff from me, but I'm betting they won't hurt me, because then I might send in a bad report."

           A tall thin man with white hair that contrasted shockingly with his very black skin came in just then and began walking around the shop, picking out items and putting them in his basket while trying not to stare at me. He stopped by a barrel of sweet potatoes and asked Addis where they were from.

           "They're from Otjomuise," Addis told him. "You know I only stock food from over there."

           "They look a bit funny," said the man, squeezing them. "A funny shape. Are you sure...?"

           "Would I lie to you, Dee-Dee? You know I never sell anything I wouldn't eat myself."

           "If you're sure, Addie." He put a couple in his basket, paid, and left.

           "What's this about Otjomuise?" I asked as soon as he was gone.

           Addis didn't want to tell me, and said I should leave and go tour around the downtown and have a good time, so I told him my original plan had been to spend the day at the Gene Extraction Facility, but Ben had told me they wouldn't let me in, so I was here instead.

           "Burundi Samson is Legless Bamako's father," Addis said. "He and his wife were both lab assistants at the Facility, just as my parents were. Marakeche, his wife, was my mother's best friend. They were the most beautiful women in Little Cape Town. They both miscarried twice, and then they both conceived at the same time. My mother gave birth to me, and Marakeche gave birth to Legless Bamako. At first people said it was a punishment from Allah for being so beautiful. Then their shift-mate Angola had a girl who was born with her legs fused together. Then more and more of these 'sick' children were born, and Mercy began to round them up."

           "But this must have started decades ago," I said.

           "Yes. At first they said that these women must have been taking unapproved medicines to lessen their nausea when they were carrying. Then they suggested that they had used hallucinogens and emetics while taking part in witchcraft rituals from the old world. But my mother and Marakeche only went to mosque. Then, as I told you last night, they announced that it must be latent genes, resurfacing after millennia of being lost amongst the richness that is Africa. But here in Little Cape Town we had other ideas. Some people said it was all the new food people were eating, and some people said it was the work they were doing. For do you know what the shift on which my mother, Marakeche, and Angola were working, was doing?"


           "They were making dragons," he said.

           The bell at the door jangled, and Lexie walked in. "Everyone's home safe, Addie," she said. She frowned when she saw me. She frowned even more when Addis told her who I was.

           "What do you think, Honey?" she asked me.

           I told her that with the dust storm I hadn't been able to see as much as I would have liked, and they weren't letting me see the Gene Extraction Facility, which is what I really wanted to see, and people didn't seem very willing to tell me stuff. She looked like she wanted to say something, but she left instead. I asked Addis if she knew something I would want to know, and he said I seemed to want to know everything, so I asked him to tell me about the dragons.

           "New Africa was the first planet settled in this part of the galaxy," he began, "so when people began inhabiting other planets, our infrastructure was already in place, and we were able to provide the facilities necessary to do most of the original R&D for their products. DragonFarms, for example, came up with the idea of making dragons, found a suitable planet, and colonized it, but for the first decade of their existence they had to do their gene extraction and splicing here in New Johannesburg. As you can imagine, they pushed the boundaries of science and technology farther than they had ever been pushed before, and some people say they broke them."

           "What does that mean?"

           He shrugged. "That's just what they say. I imagine they mean they did things they should not have done, and created something dangerous."

           I said the dragons certainly were dangerous, but as far as I knew people on Draconia were not being born with terrible birth defects, and they weren't on Fischer Island either.

           "But you see," he said, "the dragons on Draconia have already been created. Yes, they breed them in a lab, but it is still perfectly normal in vitro fertilization. It was here at the New Johannesburg Gene Extraction Facility that they took the blood of snakes and lizards and those creatures on the savannahs of Draconia, and knitted them together, and it was here that the FCFC combined native and Terran DNA to make their purple fruit that will not spoil even when cut open and exposed to air. Now, my mother claimed it was the chemicals they used to extract the alien genes, and her friend Marakeche claimed it was the loose bits of foreign DNA, and their shift-mate Angola claimed it was a punishment from Allah for meddling with things best left untouched, but whatever it was, it happened here."

           I asked him if I could talk to any of these people, or anyone who might know anything, but he said most of them were dead and the rest wouldn't talk to a Terran or anyone else they didn't know, and I had better go back to the hotel before my keepers figured out where I was. I said I wanted to know more about Otjomuise and why the food from there was supposed to be safer than other food, but then Lexie came back in and said, "People are coming, Addie."

           "What people?" he asked.

           "The people who look after people like her," she said. Addis said I had to leave right away, so I did. As soon as I went out onto the sidewalk, a man and a woman in uniform-like dark blue suits came up to me and told me very politely they had been looking for me because they thought I might have gotten lost and asked me what I'd been doing there. I told them I had decided to see the sights of Little Cape Town, and I had gone into the shop to cool off and ask the best way back to the hotel.

           "You'd best come with us," they said, and led me back to the hotel and up to my room. A few minutes later Ben showed up and said he was afraid the dust storm had covered the crops and the roads so thickly it would be days before I could see anything, so why didn't I go visit Greater Namibia instead? He'd already arranged for me to catch the evening flight to the Windhoek Intercontinental Jetport, where I would be met by someone from the Windhoek Chamber of Commerce and shown around. A driver would meet me in the hotel lobby in half an hour to take me to the jetport. I couldn't think of anything to do about it, so I said okay.

Little Windhoek

           Three hours later I had been checked out of the hotel, driven to the jetport, and flown across the ocean to New Windhoek, the capital of Greater Namibia. A woman who introduced herself as Avoire met me as I got off the jet.

           "We don't get many visitors from Earth," she said, smiling and showing that she had dimples in both cheeks, even though she was very slender. "What are you doing here in New Africa, Ms. Tremaine?"

           I told her I was an agriculture inspector. She said the area around New Windhoek mostly had just small family farms that only sold their produce locally and certainly weren't planning to export to Earth.

           "I'd still like to see them," I told her.

           "I'll tell you what: you should talk to my sister Sassandra," she told me. "She and her husband have a small farm up north of the city, in Little Windhoek. I'll take you out there tomorrow."

           I said that would be great, and she drove me to my hotel and left me to eat by myself in the hotel restaurant and go to bed early.


           The next morning Avoire met me in the hotel lobby, wearing her dimples and a bright purple dress made of a single piece of cloth wrapped around her body. She told me her boss at the Chamber of Commerce had given her the day to show me around, so she was going to drive me out to her sister's place and we could spend all day there. She warned me it wouldn't be much compared with what I'd seen around New Jo-Burg, and I said that was fine, since I'd gotten pretty tired of looking at hundreds of hectares of millet with nothing to break the monotony.

           New Windhoek was much smaller than New Jo-Burg. It was right on a small bay and looked sort of like pictures I'd seen of San Francisco. The buildings were mostly made of light-colored stone with pastel-colored doors and trim, and lots of flowers on the porches and in flower boxes on the front windows. There were palm trees at many of the street corners. The streets were extremely clean. There were a few cars, most of which were small and round just like the one Avoire was driving, but most of the people walked or rode bicycles or skateboards. There were lots of children wearing matching uniforms and walking two by two. Unlike New Jo-Burg, where there had been all different kinds of people, most of the people I saw there were tall and slender like Avoire, with oval faces, high cheekbones, and very dark skin.

           "It's so pretty and clean here," I said to Avoire.

           "We pride ourselves on the attractiveness of our city," she told me. "And we have the best weather in New Africa. It stays like this practically year-round, except when we have rain storms, but those pass quickly and wash everything clean."

           It was about 25 degrees and sunny, with a gentle breeze blowing off the bay. I told her that compared with the dusty heat of New Jo-Burg, this seemed like paradise, and she smiled and said many people would agree with me.

           Once we left the city we entered a rolling highlands covered with light green grass. Whenever we came to the top of a rise, I could look over my shoulder and see the ocean and the city, and when we dipped down into a valley all I could see was sky. We drove for about an hour without seeing any settlements and hardly any other cars, and then we came to a small town. Some of the buildings were made of the same light-colored stone as in New Windhoek, and some of them were made of wood with leaf roofs.

           "This is officially known Grootfontein," Avoire told me, "but the people who live here normally call it Otjomuise. There is another village a little ways down the road that people call Ai-Gams. The two villages and the area around them are unofficially known as Little Windhoek."

           I told her I had heard shopkeepers in New Jo-Burg advertising produce from Otjomuise, and asked her why.

           "The farmers here are famous for their natural methods," she told me. "About twenty years ago Greater Namibia accused Liberia Again of unfairly devaluing its currency, and trade between the two continents shut down for a while. This included trade of anything developed at the Facility in Little Cape Town. So the farmers began raising things that didn't depend on help from the Facility. Trading started up again after a couple of years, but the farmers chose to continue growing things naturally. They can't produce nearly so much, of course, and they can't grow the kinds of things you can get over in New Jo-Burg—medicinal plants, for example, such as those flowers whose pollen is used to cure leukemia—but they make enough to get by, and there's a market for their produce on the other continents now." She turned down a dirt track that ran between two rows of spreading trees with shiny dark-green leaves.

           There were wheat fields with stalks higher than my waist on either side of the trees. The track dipped down a little and stopped in front of a wooden house that was just hidden from the main road by the trees, the wheat, and the hollow in the ground. It was roofed with the same giant leaves as the wooden houses in Otjomuise. Behind it I could see clumps of plants that looked sort of like the elephant ears we grew back home. Behind that there was a big vegetable garden, a few rows of banana trees, and a large corn field. The corn was only shoulder-high on me and still green, and I realized I didn't know what the season was.

           Two girls with corn-rowed hair and matching light-pink dresses were playing in the front yard with a dog that looked like a Blue Healer. They were throwing corn cobs through a swing hanging from a very large spreading tree. I had seen pictures of similar trees in documentaries about Africa, but I couldn't remember the name of it. The Blue Healer was jumping the swing and catching the corn cobs in midair.

           When the girls saw us, they dropped their corn cobs and ran over, screaming "Aunty Avoire! Aunty Avoire!"

           "Acacia!" cried Avoire, picking up the smaller girl-about seven, I guessed—and twirling her around. I remembered that the spreading flat-topped trees were acacias.

           "And Mowana!" added Avoire, putting down Acacia and slinging the older girl—probably about nine—over her shoulder. I remembered from the same documentaries that Mowana was another name for the baobab tree.

           A woman who looked enough like Avoire to be her identical twin, including the dimples, came out of the house. She was wearing purple overalls and no shoes. I realized I didn't know what kind of dangers in the way of snakes, hookworms, and stinging insects lurked in the grass here. I guessed not very many, because judging by the size of the place Avoire's sister could certainly afford shoes if she wanted them.

           Sassandra invited us into the house and offered us lemonade and agreed to show me around the farm and answer all my questions that she could. She left Acacia and Mowana with her sister, and led me out into the back yard.

           The elephant ears were used to make the roof, she told me. They had been created on Earth and brought over to New Africa, where they thrived. The corn had also been created on Earth to be nutritious and hardy, and also thrived, as did the wheat. We picked some ears of corn and some heads of wheat, and looked at them. They looked normal to me. Sassandra said when they harvested the corn and wheat they kept some for seed and food, traded some in Otjomuise and Ai-Gams for other farmers' produce, and sold whatever was left in New Windhoek. She didn't know what happened to it after that, but she said in the past couple of years prices had risen considerably, and she had been told it was because buyers from Liberia Again were trying to buy everything up. The crops grown around New Jo-Burg, she told me, normally had a dual purpose, so once they were harvested they would first be processed to extract useful enzymes, genes, and so on, and only then converted into food, which meant that you never got anything fresh and unprocessed there.

           I asked her if she had heard of the deformed people being born in Little Cape Town, and she said she'd heard rumors. When I described some of them, she shuddered and said the idea of anything like happening to her girls made her feel sick, and no wonder people there were desperate for good clean food from Little Windhoek.

           When we got back to the house I turned my Perdie back on (I'd had it off to save power) and Mr. Thwaite's face came looming up at me out of the screen, which was impressive because the screen was only 10 centimeters square. As soon as he saw me, he demanded to know where I had been and why wasn't I in New Johannesburg like I was supposed to be.

           I explained to him everything that had happened since I arrived on New Africa. Mr. Thwaite looked like he wanted to say one of those words that, being a Pentecostal, he's not allowed to, but he didn't. Instead, he said, "Do you remember your itinerary for the next few stops?"

           I told him sure, I was supposed to go to Pangea to check out their birds (I was really looking forward to that), then to Gaia to see their insect and pangolin breeding setup (I was looking forward to that even more), and then to New Arctica to tour their fish-whale breeding oceans (I was also looking forward to that, but not quite as much as the pangolins).

           "Skip Pangea and Gaia," he told me. "You can go back when it's less urgent. The scientists on Novy Mir are getting strange readings off some samples from New Africa."

           I asked him strange like how, and he said he didn't know exactly but he'd be uploading everything he'd been sent onto my Perdie and I could read about it on the journey there. He finished by telling me to get back to New Windhoek as soon as possible and to try and catch that evening's flight to the New African Moon, because according to the schedule he'd found I could get a flight with ITG to New Arctica the next morning.

           "What about all the stuff I've found here on New Africa?" I asked him. "It sounds pretty important; don't you think I should stick around and try and find out what's going on?"

           "That's not going anywhere, and anyway it sounds like they're not going to help you much, so go ahead and get out of there," he told me. "New Arctica is the place to be right now. How's your Japanese?"

           I told him it was nonexistent, and he said that was too bad, but probably they spoke a fair amount of English over there and Senator Bryson's office was already working on contacting my guide and warning her I'd be showing up early. Then he told me again to leave as soon as possible.

           As soon as he cut the connection, I told Sassandra and Avoire what had happened, and Avoire agreed she could drive me back right away, and I thanked Sassandra and said goodbye to the girls and got into the car and we sped away down the road, with New Windhoek and the bay and the ocean appearing quickly before us.




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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