Fledge, p.1

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  Penny Greenhorn


  By Penny Greenhorn

  FLEDGE. Copyright © 2012 by Penny Greenhorn

  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author/publisher.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  For Steve, my first fan.


  Chapter 1

  I always thought I had accepted my situation, made the best of things. Alright, perhaps a bit begrudgingly, but accepted all the same. Now that circumstances have changed, I know that that was not quite true. Deep down, inside some hidden compartment of my mind that I never wanted to investigate, I had hoped that I would find my niche, some place that I fit. Some place I positively belonged. But as I said, things have changed... As for now, well, now it’s a little too late for hope.

  The springs are bunched inside my mattress all wrong, I can feel the coils pressing through the fabric and into my thighs. At least this small problem is easily fixed. There must be more than fifty spares in this tiny hovel of a shed. At the far end, just ten paces from where I sit, they are stacked upright. Flopped together, the only obstruction to their storage is a few bunk beds, dusty, twisted redmetal parts that have been casually strewn about. This place has a stale smell, and more than its fair share of grime. The one tiny window’s pane is crusted over on the outside with the reddust’s residue, and only the barest light of sunset can penetrate my new home. Just enough to write by.

  Strange, you wouldn’t think a soldier would need a journal, now would you? But they gave it to me. Not that I’m an actual soldier, more like a soldier in training. A fledge they tell me, short for fledgling. What they don’t tell me is why I’m here. And hostile take me, I can’t help but wonder every second of the day, why? Why am I here? What I can tell you is the how of it.

  And this is how it started...

  It was early in the day and Colum Almberg had just spoken the very words I had dreaded hearing. He said, “I’ll gladly take your maize, but not until after I’ve traded with the Buttons.”

  We stood beside the rough, cracked ceramic counter which lined the front of his shop, Berg Trading and Goods. Before Colum had come up from the storage cellar, I had let my eyes wander. Heavy tools and unwieldy equipment were pressed along the walls, with buckets of nails in various shapes and sizes stacked up in the corner. Pots and pans were on display, candlesticks and knickknacks all around. The more expensive things were kept out of reach behind the counter, a barrier of sorts. The only thing I couldn’t find here was another farmer. It appeared I was the first to arrive, a fact I was prepared to use to my advantage.

  Mrs. Almberg bustled around nearby, sorting and folding lengths of fabric. Mostly she pretended to pay me no mind, but I caught her watching us every once and again. Colum’s wife traded gossip twice as often as her husband traded goods. I had no doubt every townswoman and farmer’s wife would hear about this visit. Typically a trade would be considered a useless, boring piece of information. But nothing about me was considered boring, and today I was out for the first time, trading on my own.

  “What have the Buttons to do with our business, Mr. Almberg?” I asked calmly, though I already knew his answer.

  I’ll admit, he was good. He didn’t lose the polite smile that had been sitting on his lips ever since I’d arrived, even while stonewalling me. “I’ve a room and a half allotted below stairs for maize stores. I’m sure that’s enough space for the both of you. But all the same, I’d rather wait until I’ve accepted the Buttons’ first.”

  Oh, I understood what he was and wasn’t saying.

  Years ago, when the first farmers were shipped from Earth, land was given out based on the amount of men available to work it. If a father brought his two sons and they were able, then he’d be given three shares of land. Since the surplus was based on the share, the more land a man was given, the more surplus he got. The system was intended to make surplus proportionate to the family’s size, but as they soon realized it was not proportionate, nor was it fair. A man with many sons had the advantage over a single man’s farm, and a man with many daughters was typically miserable.

  So Mr. Buttons and his five sons had a six share farm, six shares of surplus in comparison to my father’s two. What Colum Almberg was trying to avoid was offending the Buttons and losing their business. He only had a certain amount of room to store each crop, and whatever he couldn’t fit, he didn’t accept. And it was clear he’d much rather turn us away than the Buttons, because we didn’t bring in nearly as much business. And although we needed the trade more than the Buttons ever would, I didn’t blame Colum for being careful.

  “Rudolph Buttons was deep into the cups last night. Am I to wait while he sleeps?” I asked evenly.

  Colum briefly pictured Rudolph asleep while the rest of the farmers were rising to work. He was a hardworking man himself, and I knew the image wouldn’t sit well with him. But in the end I saw his face tighten and knew it wasn’t enough. He shrugged slightly, saying, “I have to do what’s best for business. Now don’t fret, I’m sure I’ll have enough space for you both.”

  My shoulders stiffened ever so slightly when he told me not to fret, disliking his attempt to comfort me as if I were a fussy child. I would not fret, and neither would I give in and wait. I had learned from observing Colum Almberg in the past that asking nicely wasn’t enough, and begging certainly wouldn’t make him soften.

  “Are you afraid that the Buttons will hold a grudge? Perhaps Mr. Buttons wouldn’t be happy that you turned away a small portion of his corn, but I don’t think it would be you that he was unhappy with. Rudolph’s da will set into him, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps he’d come out more responsible from the whole experience.”

  Colum’s smile grew sincerely broad, eating up his whole face. “You’re a clever girl, Fiona, and I agree with everything you said, just not enough to change my mind.”

  I let out a sigh, resolved to try my last form of argument, though I was extremely reluctant to do so. “Mr. Almberg, what would the farmers think if they found out that you were putting off small farms in favor of big ones?”

  His face lost its smile, his eyes narrowing. We both ignored his wife, who’d gasped and promptly dropped what she was doing to stare at me. Colum said, “Are you pretending you’d start talk, slander my name, if I don’t trade with you now? You won’t, I don’t believe it.”

  Perhaps I’d get what I wanted if I threatened him, but I wasn’t capable of lying, at least not about this. I said, “No, you’re right. I wouldn’t do that, and I wasn’t trying to convince you that I might. But by your reaction, and that of your wife’s, I gather you wouldn’t want it common knowledge that you hold off on small trades if you have a larger one coming in. And while you’re well within your rights, you must know it’s wrong or you wouldn’t care if I told everyone on Little Red. So my point is—you aren’t being fair. And before you turn me down and tell me to wait again,” I continued, “I want you to admit it. Tell me you know it’s not fair, but that you don’t care, that you’ll do what’s best for your business anyway. Tell me that and I’ll go sit down over there and wait until after Rudolph Buttons decides he
s ready to trade.”

  For the first time in my life I saw Colum Almberg lose his composure. I knew asking him to admit he wasn’t being fair was a stab at his pride, but I felt little remorse. I’d done nothing more than be honest and ask for honesty in return. Perhaps I’d been a bit forward, but I recognized that that was the only way to get what I wanted from Colum Almberg. Begging and pleading did little when compared with cutthroat logic.

  He said nothing at first, and a pregnant moment passed, increasingly awkward because his wife had lost all sense of propriety and was openly gaping at the two of us. Her head swung back and forth, an expression of shock etched on her face. Finally, brows drawn, mouth thin, Colum managed to grunt, “Bring your wagon ‘round back.”

  Mrs. Almberg sucked in her breath audibly. Never before had she seen her husband capitulate on anything he’d set his mind to, perfectly sure before this moment that he was incapable of doing so. Mr. Almberg wasn’t around to witness his wife’s reaction of amazed disbelief. He’d already stormed out through the back door, preparing to make a count of my stores.

  As you might expect, the transaction between me and Colum Almberg didn’t go smoothly after that. I asked him to make his count aloud as we unloaded the wagon. He did so, but not before he gave me a look so full of menace it surprised his wife who was peeking through the shutters. Then I went on to insist that he inspect each and every sack of corn. Mr. Almberg, who was quite at his limit, responded sharply that he only inspected crops that he suspected of being tainted. He added that he never felt the need to check a Frost’s surplus, and although the statement was true, he couldn’t help himself from saying it sarcastically.

  I was unperturbed by his attitude, and replied that I would not be satisfied until he’d checked every sack. I had no desire for him to claim upon further examination, later down the road, that our crop was bad and demand repayment. By the time my corn was stored in the lower levels, Mr. Almberg was muttering, sure he’d never been so put out in all his life. He was cursing the day I had been considered an able hand, and given my share of land. It was an event everyone near and far had heard of and remembered simply because it was so strange.

  My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frost, like so many others, had wanted to be a part of the utopias. As a young couple they’d little money between them and had been struggling for some time, so when places on the new planet were offered, my parents hurried to apply.

  Some years before, Earth had discovered a small pocket of space that contained a group of thriving planets. Earth was stunned to discover these planets contained intelligent beings that rivaled humans with their superior technology. And even more stunning, Earth found a planet that was uninhabited, although it had signs of life—a weed here, a drop of dew there. And so Earth did what its people do best—it laid claim.

  Chapter 2

  The new planet was named Providence, and as my father always pointed out, it was an apt name. According to him, the governments and institutions of Earth presided over Providence as if they were gods, acting as though they had created the planet themselves. But I suppose, in a way, they had.

  As soon as Providence was discovered, those governments and corporations banded together, creating the Union. With self-proclaimed ownership in place they began working on a technology that could force the planet into a more habitable state through terraforming. But once the technology existed, the Union had to ask itself, what next? That was when they decided to use this untouched land to build the perfect civilization upon.

  So the brightest and best from various fields of study were paid to combine forces and think up a societal system that would, in theory, be perfect. The goal was a community without crime. A place where everyone contributed, everyone had what they needed, and no one was hungry or sick. This was to be a place that provided for itself in every way, no need to trade with outside sources. In the end the Union chose six different theories, all with the same objective, but each with a different approach. They were named utopias.

  At first the Union only terraformed a small section of Providence, a triangular patch, though the planet, full of redrock and sand, resisted the effort. It was through sheer determination that the Union managed to make soil on Little Red (a nickname fondly given by her affectionate occupants). But to maintain it, the planet had to be continually controlled with the landscaping technology. My father explained how this was just another method Earth used to keep control over Little Red, thusly ensuring we remained dependant upon the Union, that we never rebelled against their hold.

  After the Triangle Patch was landscaped, utopias were installed. The Union felt they needed protection for their projects, especially since a few of their ships had been found floating in space, the entire crew dead. Military districts were placed within the patch, scattered around the utopias which lined the outer edge. Of course if you had a military, you had to have the food to feed them. So the Union established the farming sector within the triangle’s center.

  My parents wanted to belong to a utopia, they’d dreamed of being a part of the perfect civilization. But for reasons they were never told, they didn’t qualify, but were instead offered a share of farmland.

  I was born on Little Red, and to be fair, the first few years of my life were normal. I was my parents’ first child, and they were delighted to have me. But as the years passed, they soon discovered the disadvantage of not having a son, so they tried for a second child. It took five years of trying before Mum had a successful pregnancy, and needless to say, they desperately hoped for a boy. Instead, my sister Elizabeth was born, and Mum nearly died during her birth. To make matters worse, my mum soon learned that she would not be able to have anymore children. She was devastated, feeling as if she’d failed my da.

  I suppose my da saw his miserable wife, delicate and ill, and that was why he decided to make the promise. He promised he’d never love a child more than he would love Elizabeth, then he bent and kissed my baby sister tenderly on the head. From that moment on Elizabeth was cosseted and pampered by both my parents to prove they loved her just as much as they could love any son.

  But no amount of love could lessen the fact that there existed four mouths to feed and only one share of farmland to provide the surplus to do so. After Lizzie’s birth my da decided he needed a second pair of hands to help on the farm. He could have asked the farmers’ council to give him the third or fourth son of another man, that would have been typical, but my da hesitated because that would mean that a stranger would run the farm when he was dead, and that his wife and daughters (if we had not married) would be entirely dependant upon a stranger. So Da went against tradition, doing what no man had ever done. He petitioned that I, his eldest daughter, might be considered an able pair of hands, that I might be given a share of land. It was not a popular idea amongst the farmers, and the council was appalled that he should ask. My da nearly earned a reputation for being heartless, and my mum avoided town for a good length of time.

  Da explained that Little Red was something like the Old West of Earth, a wild and dangerous frontier. Just getting aboard the ship and surviving transfer was something of a gamble. With that in mind, the Union established a simple structure to life. Outside of the utopias, men on Providence had one of two jobs: military (dangerous) or farming (laborious). Women, well they adopted a more supportive role. Having gone against the grain and turned farmer early on, I couldn’t say what it was they did with much confidence. Cooking and the like, I suppose. And that would have been my lot in life if the council hadn’t taken pity on Da and eventually approved his proposal. So when I was nearly six my father began to teach me everything he’d learned about farming.

  And Colum Almberg cursed the whole affair, wishing my mum had given birth to a dozen boys just so he never had to set eyes on me again. He signed his name hastily to the receipt and pushed it across the counter. I looked it over thoroughly, inquiring about the wort
h of my corn in comparison to other crops I knew my mum would want. Colum looked fit to scream after my seventh question. Perhaps he would have if not for Tim Rawlins, who’d just come through the front door. Colum hurried away from the counter to greet Tim, and if he spared a moment to glance back, I was already gone.

  I drove the wagon home, feeling the felicity of having one’s burden lifted. I, Fiona Frost, had traded in my family’s surplus all on my own, and was currently carrying the receipt to prove it. The job should have been my father’s, but as circumstances culminated, the task fell on me. You see, two days earlier Da discovered Teensy, our milk cow, lying down weak and sickly. He’d announced that he didn’t intend to leave her at such a delicate time, a proclamation which sent Mum into a fit. Her exact words: ‘I’m not satisfied to miss the Surplus Festival for an unfeeling beast that cares nothing for my happiness if it chooses a time like this to be struck ill.’ Elizabeth had cried, and I’d quickly left the house, suddenly remembering a long list of work I needed to complete. Da had yielded quickly, promising to drive my family to the festival.

  The Surplus Festival always took place after the military had collected the food stores owed, which was the majority of a farmer’s crop. Anything the farmer had left after that was considered his surplus. This was a time anticipated by all, for every farmer and his family wanted to trade goods. Farmers who grew corn wanted potatoes, farmers who grew potatoes wanted beans, and so on, but every farmer’s wife wanted sugar. Trading was a renewal of fine things only got but once a growing season. Folks tried to ration, but most couldn’t make it last. So those who grew corn ended up eating corn. Those who grew potatoes were sick of potatoes. And those who had beans, well, they weren’t much pleased either.

  Everyone gathered to town for the Surplus Fest, wanting to let their hair down after a long growing season, prepared to celebrate the trades to come. There was singing and dancing, set to an odd compilation of musical instruments. Things always turned twice as rowdy halfway through the night. The children turned crazed so long after their bedtimes. And the adults were equally undone after indulging in too much ciderbeer. Hence, Rudolph Buttons deep in the cups, a hard celebration for which he would earn a serious dressing down when his da learned I’d beaten them to Berg’s Trading and Goods the morning after. The thought made me smile, the only form of celebration I’d partaken in since harvesting our crop.

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