“Tantie, I can’t sleep.”
My nefie’s hair curls around the edges of the hotel pillow like roots holding fast to a stone. Her eyes are big and dark and full of sky.
The glass on her bedside table is empty.
“Would you like some water?” I ask her.
“No, thank you,” she says. “I’m not thirsty.”
I sit beside her on the edge of the bed and smooth the crisp covers over her shoulders.
“Why can’t you sleep, nefie?”
Her eyes shift from my face to the dome window.
“The stars are too bright. Especially that one.” She points. “It’s getting bigger and bigger, and it flashes sometimes.”
I turn my head to observe the offending light as it blinks gold against the velvet darkness. Her bedroom at home has a north-facing window, so she hasn’t witnessed this before.
“That’s not a star,” I tell her. “That’s a departure craft.”
“Dapocha craft?” she asks. “What does that mean?”
Her father has not had this conversation with her yet. I asked him about it en route to the hotel for the ceremony while she slept in his lap. “Does she know?” He’d shaken his head. “Will you tell her?” He’d pretended not to hear me. I’m surprised he still hasn’t told her anything, given the circumstances.
I should’ve used the other name; I should’ve just said, ‘Oh, that’s a veg craft, bringing us fresh carrots!’ It wouldn’t even have been a lie. But my slip of the tongue feels fated. I reach out and stroke a strand of my nefie’s silky hair away from her face.
“Departure,” I say slowly. “To ‘depart’ means to leave.”
“So, what is a departure craft?” she asks.
“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine first,” I say. “What did you have for dinner?”
She giggles at the apparent randomness of the enquiry. I’ve always been her silliest tantie. This is why she loves me.
“I had a protein steak and a salad,” she replies, smiling.
“Sounds delicious,” I say. “What was in the salad?”
“Lettuce and carrots and turnips, with a sweet dressing,” she says. “I like turnips.”
“Turnips are wonderful,” I agree. “Such a bright colour and a strong flavour. Do you know where turnips come from?”
“Yes!” says my nefie, eager to show off her knowledge. “All vegetables come from the skyfarm.”
She knows about the skyfarm, of course. It’s a fertile satellite, orbiting us, covered in geometric farmlands from pole to pole. Unoccupied, fully automated. We grow the protein locally, but we don’t have the space for vegetables these days, so we’ve moved that operation off-world. Children learn about the skyfarm and the veg crafts at the same time. It’s only later that they learn the other names.
‘Eat your beans, child, or you’ll be banished to the skyfarm and have to live all on your own in a beanfield forever!’ It was a threat my mother used to make. I’d laugh because I knew she wasn’t serious, but I’d also have nightmares in which I was alone, forever, with nothing to eat but beans. Lately, that nightmare has been a little different: I’m not alone in a beanfield—I’m buried in one.
On a sunny day when the sky is clear, the skyfarm is just visible, a winking bright spot in the blue, and I think of my mother every time I see it.
“That’s right,” I say to my nefie. “And do you know how the vegetables get to us from the skyfarm?”
“The veg crafts bring them.” Her eyes flick again to the dome window and then back to me. “Is a departure craft like a veg craft?”
“Yes!” I say. “They’re the same thing. Departure craft is the grown-up name for a veg craft.”
“But…” she says, eyes narrowed now, “departure means leaving. Isn’t that what you said? The vegetables aren’t leaving; they’re coming in.”
“Very clever,” I say. “Very good observation. You’re right.”
“So why are they called departure crafts?”
Ah, the moment has arrived. She’s not going to let it go.
The naming of things is important, and I’ve always been frustrated at the naming of those crafts. It’s a legacy problem. They got their name long ago before they had multiple functions. We weren’t as efficient back then. We didn’t recycle. The departure crafts themselves were single-use disposable crafts, lightweight and flammable. They only ever left back then, never returned. They’d hit the atmosphere and burn up in seconds, and that was all they needed to do. That was before the skyfarm. We were already short on space by then, the oceans having claimed enormous swathes of fertile land, but we were trying hard to nurture vegetables in the sun-starved gaps between the towers.
My nefie is staring at me, waiting. How many times has this conversation played out between other elders and children?
“We each are given the same amount of time here,” I say. “It’s a long time, plenty of time, more time than any of our ancestors had. If they were lucky, they had half as long as we do, and they waned towards the end of their time. They suffered sickness and pain. Dependency, sterility, confusion. We live our time in good health, with strong bodies and clear minds, right until the end.”
My nefie watches me, not yet comprehending. She doesn’t understand all the words, exactly, but she expects to understand how each piece of information is relevant before the conversation is over. She’s a smart girl, and she knows how to listen, how to gather threads and weave them together—how to reach a conclusion that has value.
“Our ancestors would die naturally, to make way for new souls,” I tell her, “but we don’t die like they did. We stay vital. So, when our time is up, instead of dying, the departure crafts collect us. They leave with us. They depart. That’s why they have that name.”
“Where do they take us?”
“They take us to the resting place, which is another name for the skyfarm.”
My nefie blinks, weaving, weaving.
“But nobody lives on the skyfarm,” she says.
“That’s true,” I say. “Nobody lives on the skyfarm. The departure crafts don’t take us there to live. When they collect us, we lie down on comfortable beds inside, sealed off in a bubble, and we fall into a deep sleep—so deep that our souls leave our bodies and our bodies can be turned into a different form of energy, and the crafts transfer this energy to the skyfarm, and the skyfarm uses it to grow our food.”
“Energy?” says my nefie.
“Yes,” I say. “Our energy, our lifespark. It never leaves the cycle of existence; it just takes on new jobs. Instead of operating a body, it grows the food, and then living bodies eat the food, and then one day those bodies will be used to grow more food, and so on.”
“So when you go to the skyfarm, you can become a carrot?” she asks, with a tentative grin.
I can’t help but grin back. “I suppose you could say that.”
“But…” she says, “but isn’t it better to be a person than to be a carrot?”
I laugh, and she laughs too, imagining, no doubt, an anthropomorphic root vegetable with tumbling green hair and a goofy grin, like a character in one of the illustrated books her father reads to her.
“I don’t know, my nefie,” I say, “but that’s the cycle. We all have our turn in a body, and we all have our turn as a carrot.”
She laughs again. “What if I want to be a turnip?”
“Then I hope, when it’s your turn, that you get to be a turnip instead,” I say. “Personally, I’d like to be a green bean.”
This she finds hilarious, and her mirth prickles the corners of my eyes.
“How many years until I can be a turnip?” she asks me, not yet ready to relinquish this joke that connects us, that keeps me here at her bedside when she should be asleep. I’m sure her father has told her The Number before, but to such a small child, two hundred might as well be infinity.
“Many years,” I tell her. “One hundred and ninety-five years. A very, very long time.”
She seems in awe of this, her turnip dreams now so remote as to be irrelevant. I hope she won’t ask me what I know she’s going to ask next.
“How many years do you have, tantie?”
Her words are followed by a wide yawn, and she shifts beneath the bedcovers, still gazing at me but clearly fighting to keep her eyes open now, despite the distracting light outside the window.
Her father pokes his head into the room.
“It’s time to sleep now.” He smiles at her. His eyes shift to me, and his lip trembles. “Sister…”
I nod. “Sleep, my nefie,” I say, standing. “The craft will be out of sight soon enough.”
She is too young to attend this evening’s ceremony, so she doesn’t know the meaning of my visit to her bedside. I consider sharing some final piece of advice—a profound parting gift to linger after I’m gone—but then she’d have enough threads, and I don’t want her weaving all of them together right now. I’d prefer her to have a good night’s sleep and dream about happy vegetables in the sunshine.
The departure craft’s light is so close now, it’s dipping behind the nearest towers, throwing them into silhouette against the sky. People will be gathering at the landing bay, ready to offload the flash-frozen food, machine-harvested and vacuum-packed. Once the food has been taken away, the craft will be empty, ready for its outgoing cargo.
My nefie is asleep before I leave the room, and I slip my arm around my brother’s back as we walk out together. He throws me an anxious smile. He thinks I need comforting, but I don’t. This is the way things are, and I’ve had plenty of time to come to terms with that. Two hundred years, in fact.
“What are you thinking?” he asks me, lacing his fingers through mine. His hand is clammy and trembling, and my heart aches for him. He’s more than a century younger than I am, and he’s never said goodbye to anyone close to him before.
I smile and squeeze his hand. “I’m thinking about beans.”
Want to read the rest of the stories in this collection? The full collection of stories, Charon’s Song, is available for download! Get your free copy here and feel free to share the link with your friends who’d enjoy some science fiction, fantasy and horror short reads.