Angustum

Content warnings: violence, blood, mentions of pesticides, alcohol (let me know if I should add any!)

With a woosh, the train glided to a stop at Plinth-536F726768756D Station — the stop which I was quickly beginning to realize was the one after mine. A pleasant voice announced our arrival, both in Diplomatic and in Ētué, the planet’s official language. With a similarly pleasant ding! and a puff of the cold evening air, the doors slid upwards and a small ramp extended onto the platform. I left my car alone, and two heavily-armored soldiers entered. I could have sworn I heard a scoff through the faceguard of one of their helmets, and I suddenly felt self-conscious of my mustard yellow uniform.

I walked past a Sofrob booth — its door was covered by a sign bearing the Ētué glyphs for “Out of Order” — and out of the station’s open archway. Looking down the town’s nearly deserted main street, I found only a handful of buildings — a few mills, a barracks or two, a granary, and one that bore the name “Plinth Consolidated Agriculture,” along with a logo of a stylized vase. An administrative building, I figured.

A whir made me realize I had missed something else — the town was covered in cameras. Some pointed out at the gargantuan fields of crops, some watched the street itself, and one, I realized, had just pointed directly at me. 

Heavy, clanking footsteps approached from apparently nowhere, and two soldiers, dressed just like the ones who had entered the train car with me, appeared to either of my sides. I noticed on their chestplates the symbol for Plinth Consolidated Agriculture, just as on the building. They each drew a Cecrian-made semiarcane crossbow and pointed it directly at my skull.

I lifted my hands slowly. The one on my left commanded, in slightly modulated Diplomatic, “State your business in Plinth-536F726768756D.” The soldier recited the town’s name as if from a script.

I coughed nervously. “I, uh, missed my train stop. I was hoping to find lodging here until tomorrow.”

“Lodging requires scrip, outsider,” stated the other flatly. “Either vacate or be—”

“Oi, Plinthmen! ‘oo’s this?” Out from the granary walked an elderly Ētué, with grey fur, amber horns sticking out of the top of a wide brimmed hat, and a maizewood walking stick in his left hand. He wore overalls in the style of an Ētué farmer, and on each of his white sleeves was embroidered a genomic sequence. 

The soldiers spoke in unison after a momentary pause. “Personnel Administrator Tēva. This outsider sought entry into our settlement.” 

“And? Let ‘er in. She can stay ‘ere in the Granary.” His eyes narrowed, and his rectangular pupils seemed to meet my round ones. 

“Be aware: if you proceed with this course of action, the fee to house her will be deducted from your pension.”

“I get it, I get it, my blighted shut-up fee gets shrunk, whatever. So?”

The soldiers seemed annoyed, and the one on the left sighed. “As you command. Outsider, if you are spotted on the street alone prior to the arrival of the train tomorrow, you will be arrested immediately.” Without another word, they lowered their weapons and stomped away.

I cautiously walked over to the man. “Thank you for that, sir, but why did you help me?”

He chuckled. “That’s Corpsman yellow, zin’t?” I nodded, and he continued, “I’s a Corpsman myself, oh… sixty standard ago now. ‘elped resow Til Onif after the war there.”

I scrambled to perform the Unity Corps salute, two fingers on my brow. “I-it’s an honor, sir.”

 He chuckled again. “I ‘elped you because Angustum needs another Corpsman. I put in a request a standard ago and I was ‘oping you were finally ‘ere to respond to it.” 

I felt my cheeks flushing. “You know, the, uh, funny thing, is that I…”

“I ‘eard, I ‘eard, you’re not ‘ere for us. At least, not on intention. You don’t even ‘ave a mission nowtime, do you?” I shook my head ‘no.’ “I know it’s an ‘eap of a thing to ask, but if you’re willinglike, we could use the extra ‘ands. If not, you can be on your way when the train comes through tomorrow. I’ll just ask if you’d be accepting to put in a word with your oversight.”

I thought about my options. Either leave, and never think about whatever problem his people were having again, or stay and learn what he had to say. I decided I’d prefer the latter.

“Thank you. Come into the Granary, if it pleases you. Oh, and my selfname’s Tēva.” 

“I’m Verata.” As I introduced myself, Tēva held the granary door with his walking stick. He walked through after me. The inside was dark. A dim light flickered on and revealed twenty huge metal containers, all marked with the same logo as the soldiers. One of them bore the same “Out of Order” glyphs that I’d seen inside the station. Tēva motioned toward it, saying “Thereways.”

We walked behind the container, barely squeezing between it and the wall, and Tēva pressed on an exposed stone. It receded into the wall, which slid open, revealing a ramp and the sounds of music and conversation in Ētué.

I walked cautiously into what I immediately realized was a speakeasy of some sort. The bar and tables were maizewood, which had been poured unevenly. A large banner with the Plinth logo on was stuck with more darts than I had time to count. The most expensive object was a sympathetic bronze plate, showing an ionball game taking place in what I suspected was the planet’s capital, Colca. Most of the room’s inhabitants, all but one of whom were Ētué like Tēva, watched the bronze, while others played board games at the tables. The bartender was an indigo-skinned Yemax, dressed in a similar fashion to Tēva and the rest of the bargoers. 

Tēva cleared his throat, and all conversation ceased. A tall woman turned off the music, and a short man reached up to disconnect the ionball game. 

“Allmen, thank you for shucking your ears. This is Corpsman Verata and she’s willinglike to ‘elp us. I brought ‘er ‘ereways to tell ‘er what ‘elp we need.”

“And you want us to tell her too, Mayor Tēva?” A younger Ētué with brown fur and no hat stepped forward. 

“Right you are, Vēso. I’ve not been fieldways since we still ‘ad selfname Angustum. But first… Verata, do you drink?”

“Oh, uh… sometimes. I like a good rationbrew from time to time.”

“Spacer, eh?” I nodded. “Sikal! Fix Verata a Threshman’s Warning, if it pleases you! I’ll cover ‘er tab.”

“With pleasure, Mr. Mayor! How strong do you want it?” The bartender looked at me, their starry eyes glimmering mischievously.

“Uh… weak enough that I’ll remember what I learn today.”

They grinned. “Suit yourself!” As they spoke, Sikal turned around and began pouring a red beverage into a maizeglass cup. They sprinkled in some kind of spice and placed it on the bar. As I walked over, Tēva began to speak. Claiming he didn’t trust his Diplomatic to convey what he meant, he told his story in Ētué, translated by Vēso, who had spoken earlier.

“When I was growing up, like I said, we were called Angustum, not Plinth. The farms were run by the farmers, like everywhere else on the planet. We’d sell our own crops to fund our services. After I came back from Til Onif, I was a hero.” 

Tēva interrupted with a scoff. “No, no, I said I was well-known.”

“Well,” contradicted Vēso, “my parents told me you were a hero. Anyway—” he continued translating for Tēva, “—I took over the operations of my family farm, and eventually, about five standard ago, I was elected mayor. The next year, the Déto family sold their farm to some group called Plinth Consolidated Agriculture. Plinth proceeded to buy up all of the farms in the town, but kept us on as fieldmen.

Under planetary law, they were the only ones who were able to elect the mayor, and so they picked one of their executives to fill my chair and forced me into the role of ‘personnel administrator.’ In other words, I’m in charge of keeping our people in line.”

Vēso cut in again. “Plinth changed our name, knocked down most of our main road, turned our store into one of theirs, so we can only buy food — made from the grain we harvest — with Plinth scrip. They switched from natural pest-killers to poison. Now their soldiers are stationed all the way from here to Colca. With Agricultural Council sanction, too. You probably saw them when you were waiting to get checked onto the planet.”

Tēva finished, “Most of the town fled when their farms got taken over. The thirty of us are the only ones left. And one of their executives is one of those, what do you call it…” Tēva and Vēso began conversing in Ētué. 

“Velav nexi. 101100100, I believe. The same uploaded brain who ran that mine that collapsed on Makarany, if you remember that.” Sikal’s eyes held none of the mirth I had seen in them earlier.

“Thank you. Their soldiers are already mentally linked. And I hear they’re going to bring in drone workers next, so they won’t even need to waste their scrip on us. And then we’ll be well and truly blighted.”

Having long since finished my drink — and a refill — I handed my glass to Sikal, who was offering a rag. “Well, that’s definitely wrong, but how can I help? I’m just one outsider, and they already know who I am, so I can’t trick them any more than you could.”

Tēva seized the floor again. “Well, I did some planning before I put in that request. ‘ow much of a dealman would you say you are?”

“Dealman?”

“Negotiator,” whispered Sikal.

“Oh, that makes sense. Um… well, I took a class after I joined the Corps, but I’m no professional.”

He huffed. “Prune the dead branches, ‘arvest the fruits that’re left. Then… ‘ow’s your swordarm?”

“I’m… I fight ranged. I  have a crossbow in my bag.” I patted the pocket where I kept it for emphasis.”

“Even better. ‘ere on Ētué Ésplé, sword means crossbow too. You’re a good swordman?”

“I’d like to think so.” 

His eyes lit up. “Show me,” he commanded, motioning with his right hand at the banner.

“Right now?”

Tēva nodded. “Right now. Twenty paces.” This set off a murmur among the gathered farmers, but I decided to pay it no mind. Instead I cautiously stepped over to the banner. I drew my semiarcane crossbow, preloading it with six bolts and turned around. My footsteps echoed throughout the room. After twenty paces, I whirled around and loosed three shots. With a thunk, they all hit the printed vase, tearing into the banner. The barroom filled with applause.

“Bountiful,” said Tēva. “This is the branch that’ll bear fruit. ‘ere’s my plan. That Nexus character’s a gambler, and ‘e loves theatrics. We’ll make ‘im a bet. A duel at high noon, two of ‘is drones ‘gainst you and me. If we win, they leave, and if they win, we stop complaining.”

A chill ran down my spine. “A duel to the death? Aren’t they made of metal?”

He shook his head, smiling. “Death, no. We’ve made it cloudless what ‘appens if I die.” A few of the assembled farmers laughed, and I heard Vēso say, “we sure did!”

“No,” continued Tēva, “we’ll fight to the yield. And I know we’ll win, because we’ve more at stake. This is my town’s livelihood ‘gainst an opportunity for more cash.”

“And… I don’t mean to deride you, but are you sure you can still fight?”

The crowd all laughed again. “Let me show you.” I moved out of the way. Tēva stepped to where I had been standing. Drawing a crossbow from a holster I hadn’t paid much mind to, he loosed, hitting right inside the tear that my bolts had torn. The applause was as loud as it had been for me — no, even louder, I realized, as I found myself to be clapping as well.

“You can back out if you want, Corpsman Verata. We can wait for another Corpsman. But if you’re in, you’re in. Say the word and I’ll send ‘im a Sofrob.”

I thought about what Tēva said. I could back out, but did I want to? Did I want to let these people down? No, I decided. I wanted to help them. And more quietly, more selfishly, I wanted to be part of something important like this. Having made up my mind, I turned back to Tēva. “Let’s do this.”

With a woosh, the train glided to a stop at Plinth-536F726768756D Station — the train being, I realized almost absently, the one I would have taken if I wanted to get back to Colca. Moments later, two Plinth drones walked out through the archway. Unlike the soldiers, they wore no helmets, but instead identically-colored hats. Their bodies were exactly identical in shape. Their eyes were mechanical, and the rest of their faces were covered by bandanas — the one on my left wore blue, and the one in front of me wore red. They were both dressed in long maizeleather dusters.

Up in the sky, Ētué Ésplé’s sun was at its zenith. I could see a line of what seemed to be stars, which were actually most likely space-vessels waiting to be allowed to enter the atmosphere. The stones that made up the town’s road scraped against the drones’ booted feet. “Remember,” I heard Tēva whisper, “this guy’s real showmanlike. ‘s long as we stay standing and ‘e ‘as ‘is fun, this’ll be a barrel of maize.” I took that to mean “easy.”

With that, the two drones stopped at the same second, and each one held out their right hand to us. As we shook, maizeleather glove against maizeleather glove, they said, in a single, modulated voice, “You know, Personnel Administrator Tēva, I’ve always wanted to participate in a showdown like this. But I admit I’m surprised by the hostility Plinth has faced. If your citizens prefer to administer their own agribusinesses, why don’t they buy farms elsewhere? There would be no need for you to risk your safety.”

Tēva’s tongue clicked. “That’s what you companymen’ll never understand. For you, farming’s just a way to make more cash. For us, it’s our life. If you don’t want me to ‘risk my safety,’ you get your company out of my town. But if you want a showdown like you said you do, then I’m your ‘uckleberry.”

“So be it. Six bolts?”

“Unless you think we need less.”

The drones made a sound like a mechanical scoff. “Six it is. Are we prepared?”

“That we are, Plinthman. That we are.” Tēva turned around, and I quickly followed, watching the drones do the same. 

As we began stepping, three voices called out from our four mouths. “One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten paces! Turn and loose!”

My first bolt hit the red bandana, tearing a small hole into it. One embedded itself into the maizeleather overcoat that Sikal had loaned me.

I heard Tēva shout as I loosed my next bolt. Barely surpressing the urge to look over at him, I felt my hat — again, Sikal’s — fall from my head.

Pain blossomed in my right arm, and my left swung wildly, somehow causing my third bolt to hit Tēva’s opponent just under the eye. 

The next bolts thunked simultaneously, mine into Red’s chest and his grazing my leg.

I heard a loud clank from Blue as I loosed my next bolt, nailing Red straight in the crossbow-hand, which did not seem to be metallic. I didn’t have time to figure out what Red hit, but I couldn’t feel any additional pain.

Dimly, I realized we each only had a single bolt left. I had to make this count. As quickly as I could, I aimed mine directly at Red’s forehead. Right as I loosed it, his own took off toward me.

I braced myself for the pain that I knew was coming. Squeezing my eyes shut, I heard two loud clanking noises, one in front of me and one from the left. Two bodies thumped onto the stony ground. 

Daring to open my eyes, I found a mass of metal, almost exactly between Red and me. It looked, I realized, almost exactly how it would look if two metal crossbow bolts collided with each other in midair.

My head swung to the left. Blue was lying on the street, hand bleeding, eyes covered. He wasn’t breathing, but neither was Red, who was still standing. 

Tēva, too, had fallen, his hands clutching his right leg. A bolt had hit his thigh, and his walking stick lay down the street, another bolt embedded in it. I ran over to him. “Are-are you all right?”

He coughed. “I’ll be… blight it, I’ll be ‘ealthways once I see an ‘ealman. ‘e just got me right where I almost lost my leg on Til Onif.”

The drones beeped. Red, who was now holding Blue, began to speak. “Well. Never let it be said I’m not a Velav of my word. Plinth Consolidated Agriculture will cease operations in the Angustum region. Congratulations, Personnel Administrator Tēva, and good luck in the next election. If you manage to survive that long.” As insulting as the statement was, the Nexus’s voice kept a totally neutral tone. 

With that, Red walked to the Plinth administrative building, boots still scraping against the road’s stones. 

I turned to Tēva. “Does Angustum have a doctor?”

He coughed again. “Aye, Lēna lives thereways.” He pointed, and followed with something in Ētué.

“Do you think you can get there on your own?”

“Aye, if you’ll stand nearways. And ‘elp me up.” Slowly, I brought him to his feet, and we walked in the direction of the building he had indicated.

With a woosh, the train glided to a stop at Plinth-536F726768756D Station — soon to be renamed Angustum Station, Tēva had assured me from his bed in Lēna’s makeshift hospital. The doors rose up with the ding! I had heard when I arrived in town.

“Will you be all right on the way back to Colca?” asked Sikal, motioning to the bandages on my leg and arm. 

I nodded. “It doesn’t hurt that much anymore. Will Tēva be all right while we wait for the doctor from the city to come here?”

They laughed. “Oh, Verata, do you really think he’d let something like this keep him down? If we’re ok, he’ll be ok.”

“Good. Good to hear it. Oh! I still have your hat and your jacket! Why don’t you—”

I moved to take them off, but Sikal waved their hand. “Keep them. You never know when you need a good hat or a good coat. I can buy replacements, and we want you to have something to remember us by.”

“Stars, thank you, Sikal. Is there anything else you want me to do in Colca before I leave the planet?”

“Just deliver Tēva’s message to the Agricultural Council building. And… come back and visit, someday? First round’s on the house.”

I laughed, and shook Sikal’s hand, my cyan fingers curling around their indigo palm. “Be safe, Sikal. You and everyone here.”

“You too, Verata.”

The train played another chime, and I ran onto the car, taking my seat right as the door slid closed. With another woosh, I set off, back the way I came.

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4 Comments

  1. A stunning metaphor for real-life encroachment on small farms, as well as the introduction of invasive pesticides that attempt to supplant the pre-existing pest control systems developed by the original inhabitants! This might just be my interpretation, though, of course.

    It’s very well-written, with consistent dialogue and a strong voice: I usually have trouble keeping up with science fiction because I lose track of the descriptors, but you did an excellent job giving just enough (but not too much) information! The planet and civilization felt distinct and new, and I loved the characters introduced, even if they were just there for a short time.

    This was a wonderful piece! Have a wonderful day.

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