You Could Count on That by David M. Hoenig [sci fi]
Forty years after the Extinction Level Event had changed the world completely, and the crops were still growing only grudgingly and fitfully on our farm. I stood up from where I’d been examining the sprouts in our fourth field. They were pretty much at the same mark as our other three, and they wouldn’t produce enough to feed us through the coming winter. I passed a hand over my forehead, and, moving it down, rubbed my eyes.
“Well?” said Ellie. She stood, stomach just beginning to show a tiny bump as it made room for the three-month old bundle inside.
I finished rubbing, opened my eyes, and looked at my wife. “The latest batch the Center gave us looks like an improvement in overall yield, but not the fifteen per cent they’d projected. We’ll be lucky if it’s five.” I knew I hadn’t been able to keep the disappointment and bitterness out of my voice, and that only added to my irritation.
She reached out to put her hand on my shoulder, tugging me around to face her. She wrapped me in her arms and pressed herself fully against me, and I dropped my lips into the soft corner where her neck and collarbone met. We stood there wordlessly, and I felt her warmth seep into my chest, my pelvis, and my thighs as we held each other. Eventually, I lifted my face from her neck, trying to draw strength from her warmth, from her support.
She let go and stepped back, looking to her left, over field four. It stretched out, geometric furrows symmetrically laid, with hand-stacked stone walls bordering it on all sides. “So, we’ll hunt and forage like we did last year, and the one before,” she said simply.
I wished it were as easy for me to accept the setback and move on. I wished, for about the zillionth time, that I had her steady vision, her resolve, and her obdurate sense of purpose. “Right,” I said, striving to emulate her calm strength. “It’s worked so far for us… I was just hoping for, you know, more this time with the new seed-stock from the Center.”
She held out her hand and I took it, and wordlessly we walked back to the house.
Ellie put her hand on her belly and rubbed it. “I know you’re disappointed, but you know that figuring out how to rebuild the infrastructure for a planet-wide civilization is a long term project. It’s going to be up to our children, and theirs.”
“I know. But you’d think we’d have gotten farther along in agriculture than we have, wouldn’t you? I mean, they were doing genetic modification on plants well before the E.L.E., and they’ve had four decades since.”
She pulled me to a stop, and turned me to see her looking sternly at me. “And we’re doing our part to make that happen. Don’t be ungrateful about what we have, and don’t be resentful of the Center for Rebuilding! They’re doing the best that they can rehabilitating what land they can, doing the science to make it possible, and educating us to keep the momentum going. All of that is ambitious, considering they’re working with less than ten percent of the former United States actually habitable and working.”
“But they said…”
She interrupted me, her tone even, calm, but firm. “When we moved here three years ago, do you remember that they told us we probably wouldn’t even be planting crops here in Kansas by this point? And we’ve got six fields worth of testing ground now. That’s because you and I are a team, and we want this for more than just ourselves.”
I sighed. She was always the strong one. “I know you’re right, Ellie, but…”
“And we’re not going to stop. And our little one isn’t going to stop either.”
She looked so fierce that I couldn’t say anything for a moment. We had been beating the odds for a long time, and now we were doing it again–the doctors at the Center hadn’t been sure we could even have a child together. I put my hand on her belly to and prayed silently that she was right. “I love you, Ellie.”
“Damn right you do.”
I laughed, and just like that, most of my worry just fell away. I took her hand again and we began making our way home again.
As we did, I thought about the hopes and disappointments we had lived with through the seven years I’d known her, and reflected, also for about the zillionth time, how lucky I was to be married to her.
“When was it exactly, that we met?” I asked, more to hear her voice than needing the reminder.
She gave me that I-know-something-secret smile which always buoyed my spirits. “You know when, goof.”
I wanted to lose myself in her smile, and forget the setback in what the gene-genies at the Center had promised would be a ‘banner recovery year for the planet’. “Of course I know. I just like the way you tell the story.”
She chuckled. “Okay,” she said gamely, slowing her pace. “We first met in Earth Science, second period of both of our second year at the CFR’s Science Academy when you fell over me.”
“I tripped, Ellie. It was an accident.”
“I was just glad because it finally made it so you had to talk to me.”
“You do realize that I’d seen you in Basic Biology and Astronomy in year one, right?”
“True, but we didn’t actually meet and speak to each other until the following year.”
“Why was that, do you think?”
“You were too shy, genius,” she said, laughing.
“I was not at all shy,” I said, mock-indignantly. “It’s just that you were so far out of my league that I didn’t want to try, only to find out that you wouldn’t want to have a thing to do with me!”
“Oh, sure. That’s what all the guys said back then.” She paused while I laughed, then went on. “Of course I noticed you back in year one. Heck, I even thought to myself: ‘Now there’s a guy I really want to know’.”
“What?” She’d surprised me enough to stop walking. “Now it’s you who’s goofing with me.”
She just bit her lip and answered with a negative shake of her head. “No, I’m not kidding at all. You were so smart when I had trouble understanding how the E.L.E. had even happened! I was having trouble with the math and visualizing a giant black hole in the center of our galaxy which wasn’t pulling us all in. You just got everything about it, and then explained it during recess right after that class so that I could. I said right then that someone who could understand how we’d gotten into this whole mess was the absolute right partner for me if we were going to get ourselves out again.”
I was stunned. “But I had no idea you’d ever thought that way!”
Her secret-knowing smile returned, and she put her hand out to take mine again. Caught in my surprise I let her. She tugged me into motion, and we resumed walking back home.
“I even remember what you said: it was the image you conjured, of the black hole ‘Sagittarius A’, spinning as it began to eat the giant cloud…”
“Stellar gas cloud,” I said automatically, and shut up when I saw her grinning impishly.
“‘Giant’,” she stressed the word as she quoted me, “‘stellar gas cloud, which struck the spinning singularity like metal on a flywheel, shooting off bursts of cosmic rays like sparks’.” She looked soberly at me. “Your description made it so much more easy to see than the teacher had! How bad luck could be blamed just so much, when I could suddenly see how one of those sparks thrown our way could have pumped enough energy into the sun to trigger the whole Extinction Level Event in the first place.”
I nodded, and swallowed the lump in my throat. I’d had no idea she’d even paid any attention to me at all before we’d met. “That fall was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, Ellie. I might never have been brave enough to say something otherwise.”
Her shoulders began to shake.
It made it me suddenly cold with worry. “Ellie, are you okay? Is it the baby…?
Then she turned to me and I could see she was trying not to laugh. “Your ‘lucky’ fall, genius husband? I guess it’s true what they say after all: accidents do happen.” Her eyes sparkled with the laughter she was restraining.
“What are you saying? It was an accident, and…” And then I saw the truth in her eyes. “Wait, you mean that when I fell over you in Earth Sci…”
She laughed. “Of course I tripped you! You hadn’t even spoken directly to me through a whole year of being in the same classes! God, you were such a lovely idiot, you know?”
I could feel my face redden. It was, had been, my clutziness which had broken the ice, only… it hadn’t been?
“You should see the expression on your face right now!” She broke into sweet laughter before she mimicked me again. “‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t looking because I was reading how the locks on genetic manipulation had been broken once the old regulations and governments fell apart’.” At the expression on my face, she broke out laughing all over again, and because it was a balm to my soul I joined her, embarrassment at long-gone events easily dismissed and forgotten.
Of course, since those early days of frenetic slapping of bandages on the damage to the planet, it really had been genetic manipulation which had enabled us to re-establish footholds here and there.
Like Kansas. And like our farm.
We reached the house and opened the door, but I stopped to take a last look around, and up. Sunlight was filtering down to us, and the fields were getting their share. It was a landscape which my ancestors would have felt was alien, in the extreme, but to me it was the present I shared with Ellie, and the promise of the future for us and our children.
She leaned into me then, and put her head on my shoulder. We stood outside our home, more together than ever, and watched our fields. We saw a lot of potential, but also a reality which needed much more work to get us to the final goals of rebuilding the world under its new reality.
Then the brightness of the sun went away as though a shade had been drawn. We looked at each other and went inside.
Ellie led the way up the stairs, still holding my hand. We dropped off our tools on the next level up from the entrance, and took another set of stairs up again.
As we came up into air, we both blew the remaining water out of our gill slits, which allowed them to lay flat and be much more unobtrusive. Looking up through the glass roof, we could see a heavy bank of clouds which had screened the sun from view. Outside, through the transparent walls of the house, we could see the ocean below us, and little wavelets being whipped by wind.
“Storm,” Ellie said, her voice sounding very different in the air than underwater.
I nodded, unconcerned. It wouldn’t affect our crops, which were close to twenty feet under the waves. I put my arm around her shoulders, and we watched the sea below us as the rain began to fall, hearing it patter onto our roof.
I turned Ellie towards me, and kissed her. I pulled back, put my hand on her tummy, and began to talk to it until she threw her head back and laughed her sweetness over my head like the promise of a new day.
Kansas might be submerged these days in the wake of the E.L.E, but Ellie and I were going to make it bloom, for us and our children.
You could count on that.
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