Preface: I took a lot of liberties in writing this, and the devs and fans have my apologies if I’ve made any errors or undue presumptions. This started as a personal creative exercise, but after asking on Discord if there was interest in stories of this kind and receiving some support (including @Molp’s blessing), I decided to share. Enjoy.
Tell Me You Hear Me
Jars Graivestolk let the screen door slam behind him. He jogged down the side steps and mounted his father’s quadrumbler, thumbing the starter as he seated his foot against the accelerator. In the southwest, Hortus was a pale yellow eye peering through a veil of evening summer mist. He could smell the humidity, taste the sea. It had been a long day. It had been a long season.
Apella called from the house. Something about her leaving supper under the heat-lights for his return. He kicked down the pedal and left.
Sunlight on my face. Wind in my eyes. This deafening engine roaring so I don’t have to. My own hair thrashing my neck and brow. Where was I today other than here? Other than waiting for this?
He followed the tractor road south to the clifftop overlooking the Martine Sea and turned off-road into the scrub grass and heather. The quadrumbler cut a swath in the pasture and he could see where the little pine saplings and wild hedge had raised back halfway in the path he rode one week ago, their limbs low and limp yet living still.
He pulled his display from a hip pocket and pinged Asta. No answer. It had been a month now since he had seen her. She had gone to Helion Prime to study silicon material sciences and he had known the weekend visits would not happen. She must have known too, he thought. Yet they each told the other they would make it work. He pushed the display back into his pocket.
Where the cliff broke into a long talus slide of shale and granite he slowed and maneuvered the rumbler down over the fractured stone to a stretch of gravel shoreline. He parked, propped his feet on the handlebars, and pulled from the rear satchel the bottle of E.I. Gin stolen from his father’s cellar. Five or six bottles went missing each month and the man never noticed. Or worse, he noticed and never said anything.
He uncorked the bottle and drank. Then he leaned back and looked straight up into the lavender sky where shades of dusk fought a northern night that would not turn to dark this far north this deep in summer. He drank again. Out beyond the deep purples the first highlights of near stars glimmered and on the worlds around them chemical lakes glassed over with frozen methane, molten stone crested in tidal tsunamis, crucibled geysers spewed their sulfuric haze, and acid rain fell backlit through white starlight and what otherworldly rainbow would that be and what other prismatic wonders alien even to the extent of his imaginings were there that he would never see, that he would never know?
“Oblivion,” he said. “Oblivion. Meet me half way.” And he drank again.
His paternal grandmother’s ranch was one of the oldest plots north of Promitor’s Arctic Circle. Jars was five standard years of age when the old matriarch died and left it all to his father, Hectore Graivestolk. Hectore uprooted the family from their meager magnetite business on Avalon to assume management of Promitor’s extensive Graivestolk Fertilizer Company. The ranch was three quarters of a million acres of scrubland and pasture and was grazed upon by herds of long-nosed gastroyaks and urbuffalo modified genetically to produce enormous quantities of manure. Graivestolk fertilizer supplied nearly half the farms north of the circle line, and those Promitor farms, Jars knew, were the breadbasket that fed most of the Insitor Cooperative. He had a purpose here. His role as a cog in a larger machine was not entirely meaningless. Even his father’s prior business magnetizing ferrous metal for industrial use had purpose – it drove the engine of civilization that helped expand the Cooperative.
Oh, there’s meaning in it. Sure. Haul manure my whole life. Sure.
He wanted to say all this to Asta. He wanted her there to recognize, as only she could, that this burden of futility he felt was real. His heritage had trapped him, he would say, and he could not discard the responsibility for it. And she would convince him it would not last forever, that these feelings could be motivation, and that all this was worth fighting against.
“To what end?” He said. But she was not there to answer. No one answered.
Soon he was sitting in the gravel, his back against the autorumbler’s tire. The pads of his overalls were frayed and caked in dirt and animal waste. Crushed halite rimmed his boots and as he thumped his feet together woodenly tiny flakes of salt rattled to the stones. The E.I. Gin’s hallucinogenic blur was coming on now, and he watched over the dark water where the enormous trade frigates flared on re-entry and burned in colored streaks across the atmosphere to the sprawling trade cities beneath the southern horizon. Where the sky was darkest in the southeast Hortus Station rose over the rim of the world and in that luminous night he watched its shallow arc wheel around and depart in the southwest as silently as it had come. In the further void he spotted the pale dots of Odysseus and Helion Prime, and he cursed the latter’s name for the thorn it held in his heart before realizing the planet was the more distant Avalon, his home world.
In thirty years. In forty. He’ll retire. Or be too worn out to keep working. This place will come to me like it came to him. And I’ll do what? Sell it? It’ll be all I know then.
He could not imagine what answer Asta could provide. He turned to the wind and set his jaw and placed his hand upon the ground as if to steady the world that seemed to rise askew against him and then he realized he would never see her again.
In what morning came he woke with his face in the dirt. The crashing surf rang in his ears. He pushed himself up and caught a thick shard of nanoglass in his hand from the broken bottle of gin. Pieces of glass glittered like stars on the ground around him. He dislodged the shard and watched the blood pool in his palm before turning his hand and letting it splash audibly to the stones.
He pressed his thumb to the wound. It was deep, but it would heal. He would live.
He drove uneasily, nearly overturning the quadrumbler twice on the talus bank. On the pasture he drove slowly, and when he stopped to relieve himself the nausea that shook him when he stood brought up from his bowels a noxious bile. He retched. And then he felt better.
When he returned to the ranch, Apella was watching from behind the screen door. She had worked for his family for fifty years, serving his grandmother as secretary, chef, maid, and perhaps more than a friend. She vanished into the kitchen as he approached, and when he entered she was at the stove with her back to him.
“Supper,” she said, “or breakfast?”
“Neither.” He sat at the table. “Just coffee.”
She brought him a mug of black coffee, a plate heaped with eggs and fried potatoes, and a bandage with gauze. He gauzed and bandaged his palm. Then he peppered the eggs until they were as black as the coffee. Then he began to eat. Apella sat across from him.
“I don’t know where you’re going at night,” she said.
He put down his fork and looked at the mug of coffee.
“And I don’t need to know. But a point comes when you have to ask yourself. Is it helping me or isn’t it?”
He picked up the mug and turned it in his hands. “I know,” he said.
“I wish I could say I believe you.” She would not look away. “I’ve yet to decide on that. But it will happen whether you do or don’t know it. I’ll say just this about it.” She waited. “Young Graivestolk, I’ll say just this about it.”
He looked at her, the old tired eyes rimmed in red and the face tanned and hard.
“No matter what risks you do or don’t take,” she said, “you don’t know what the world holds for you. What it will and won’t provide. And there is a strange chasm between the life you think you desire and the life that would fulfil you most. Don’t mistake me now. You’ll do what you’ll do, and if it’s well-considered I’ll wish you the best. But before you go chasing romance or lofty notions, realize there is no relation – no relation – between what you desire now and how you would feel about it were you to get it. You fix how you respond to this,” and she tapped the table with a pointed fingertip, “to what’s right in front of you, right here and now, and it won’t matter what the world gives you. It can’t give you how to feel about it. You decide that. Do you hear me?”
“Tell me you hear me.”
“I hear you.”
“Good.” Apella stood from the table and grabbed a wash cloth from the counter. “Now wipe your mouth before your father sees you. And finish those eggs.”
He ate. Two weeks later, his father was dead.
Jars was on duty in the western scrub fields operating the bioharvester, driving over the great patties of fecal matter in the wake of the herd. The machine intermittently slurped and sucked at the earth as it retrieved the raw materials that would be filtered and processed into fertilizer. When finally he noticed his display buzzing on the dashboard, it read two missed calls. He answered the third.
“Come to the factory.” The voice was Rulto’s, the operations foreman. “An accident. It’s your father. I’m so sorry.”
Hectore Graivestolk died with as much glory as he had lived. He fell to a simple accident. While clearing debris from the autoshoveler, a jam dislodged quickly and his arm was swept into the machine. His limb was severed roughly at the shoulder and he bled out before the tourniquet arrived. Twenty minutes later when Jars came running into the production floor from the open loading bay, the body had already been covered with a tarp.
Rulto tried to stop him, but he wanted to see. He stepped into the dark pool of blood already tacky in the heat and pulled back the sheeting. His father’s eyes were open and angry. He had thought the dead all find peace in their final moments but his father’s face was a yellowed sneer half stained in blood that retained yet a trace of warmth, a trace of life. The arm was still in the machine.
His father was buried in the family cemetery behind the stables. The funeral was extensive, with readings from prominent business owners across the north who had come to pay their respects or be seen doing so. Jars declined to make a statement. He did not know what to say. This man had been the last remaining family member in his life and their relationship had been strained. Yet Jars grieved the loss of him. And the loss was all the more pained by the undeniable thrill of freedom his death delivered. He did not need to wait for decades. He could do what he chose with his land and his life.
He held the wake immediately after the funeral with more intimate company. Apella wore the same traditional black gown she had worn thirteen years earlier for the death of his grandmother, and her every movement seemed nearly as heartbroken. Asta sent a ten-minute video transmission he could not bear to watch. He asked Rulto to watch it instead.
The old foreman, a middle-aged working man with gray in his moustache and a receding hairline, approached him where he stood along a side wall of his father’s former office. The office was now his own.
“Sir,” Rulto said.
“Please, Rulto. Just Jars.”
“Jars, sir.” He coughed. “Jars, Miss Asta sends her deepest condolences.”
“Rulto, just talk to me. How did she seem? What did she say?”
The man sighed and shook his head. “She wept. She did offer condolences. She stopped weeping and apologized for her absence. And then she wept again and apologized for not visiting regularly.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s about what I thought it’d be.”
In the evening he took a bottle of Rum Runner’s Rum from the liquor cellar – his own cellar, now – and climbed the access ladder to the roof of the factory and then jumped down to sit on the eaves overhanging the loading dock. It was a place he had gone many times as a child, and with his back to the factory wall he could look out over the rolling western skyline out of sight from the house. Rulto found him anyway.
The man sat beside him, saying nothing. They looked out over the land. Overcast skies hung like an inverted snowscape in contrast to the ranch’s lush greenery. A light smog of dirt and dust lay suspended in the north where the livestock herds moved and grazed and moved on again. The light darkened as they watched, Hortus still not setting this far north this deep in summer.
“What time is it?” Jars asked.
Jars handed him the bottle. Rulto drank.
“Go ahead,” Jars said. “You have some catching up to do.”
Rulto drank again. “What will you do?” He handed back the bottle. “The factory must run, no? The ranch must make money.”
Jars brought the bottle to his lips and paused. “The factory will not run.” He drank.
“Do not make any decisions now. Process this. Go through this. Take time, and you’ll think clearer.”
“I have already decided,” he said. “I will strip the factory bare. I will sell the autoshoveler, the quadrumblers, the filtration system, and the animals.”
“Jars, please. This place has history. It is in your blood. Why not transfer operations? Manage from afar. You can return to Avalon, your home world, manage by transmission. Many do.”
“Avalon is not my home, Rulto. I never much cared for magnetite, and I care even less for scraping manure off the fields. But Promitor I love. It’s the factory I will not have.” He looked at the older man whose quiet practicality he so respected. “With those sales we can build a rig just offshore, a farmstead in this very pasture, and a food processor. The empty factory will be our warehouse. We’ll farm – and not with fertilizer. This soil has been fertilized enough. And I can repurpose that harvester for crops. I’m thinking tri-fruits, grain, and beans, on a rotation to maintain soil quality.”
Rulto ran a hand through his thinning hair. “And what then? Rent barge space to ship the good south? Sell at the local market?”
“No.” Jars drank again. “My father had a dream to supply not just northern Promitor, but all of Insitor. He’d said it for decades. I thought him a fool for wishing for it without ever acting on it. But I know now that he was acting on it.” He set aside the bottle and pulled his display from his pocket. He brought up his financial buffer. “Savings. More than I ever knew. I have an inheritance, Rulto. And I’ll honor it. I can afford two cargo ships. You can maintain operations oversight. I will keep this place, but on my own terms. And yes, we’ll be solvent, but not for ourselves or Promitor alone. I have nothing in this world – no home, no true family – other than a dream to be out there. Not just Hortus station, but Antares. And I don’t know, Moria, maybe. Maybe outside all known Faction space someday. And I can do that now. I will do that now.”
Three weeks later, the factory supplies were gone. A week after that, the last of the animals were sold.
Within the month, new papers arrived from the Promitor Chamber of Global Commerce with his name as owner of Graivestolk Fertilizer Company. The day he received the paperwork he filed the missive for a name change. He wanted to rename the company to “Jars,” but Rulto talked him out of it.
“No, no,” he said. “Jars has no zest. No offense. You want something popping. Some zing. Something to remember.”
“How’s Jarso?” Jars asked.
“Eh,” Rulto sighed. “Jarso is also not good. But it is better than Jars.”
Three days later the certificate arrived confirming the company name change to Jarso. With a sardonic grin, he pointed out the ticker to Rulto: JARS.
By mid-Autumn the farmstead was operational, the rig halfway constructed, and the foundation for the food processor had been poured. He was projecting roundtrip expenses to the Hortus Commodity Exchange when Apella cleared her throat from the office door.
“Come in.” He looked up and noticed the darkness in the room. He had been working for hours.
She closed the door behind her. “I think it is time,” she said. “If you are available, we can discuss.”
He turned on the desk light. “Of course I’m available. Available for what?”
She sat opposite across the desk from him. Her hands were tight fists and she took a deep breath before speaking. “I have served your family for three generations. With the change of business, I understand I bring no legitimate-“
She looked at him. “I am perfectly free to retire if I choose.”
“You are. But Apella, you’re invaluable. The upkeep around here, the maintenance-” He could not finish. He watched her. This woman before him had raised him more than any other person had. She had loved his grandmother and extended her devotion to his father and to the ranch and then to him. She had shared with him and his family her compassion, her disappointments, her achievements, her sorrows, her wisdom, her vulnerabilities, and her strength. Within him a deep well of recognition for her life and her beauty and her sacrifice and her very being lay untapped all his life and in this moment it ruptured and broke through him and twisted his face and he could scarcely speak. “Stay.”
Then they were standing and they held each other, rocking.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Thank you. Okay. I’ll stay.”