The snapper leaves looked like giant green tacos hanging from the vine, folding and unfolding in a languid breeze. All the plants were bigger on these low gravity worlds. You could have slept wrapped in a leaf.
‘Cut ‘em off at the stem,’ Dwight said, pointing at the fruit, each berry a bright globe a foot across. They looked as appetising as the toxic dirt from which they grew, blue fruit on an orange planet, a bright place that burned the eyes. ‘One in five of y’all pushes the trolleys, the rest fill ‘em with fruit. Full trolleys get emptied into the hopper. When the second hopper’s full y’all can have a rest and some water.’
Dwight’s eyes screwed up in something that fell short of cunning. ‘I catch any of you greasers slacking, you can forget about gettin’ paid.’
He handed out the tools, hooked knives blunt from long use and barrows with wheels that wobbled and stuck. No-one stopped to fix them. We knew that trap. You spent half an hour sharpening blades or tightening screws, then the farmer said that wasn’t what they hired you for. They got better tools, and you lost half an hour’s pay. Even at three bucks an hour, that wasn’t something our band of travelling labourers could afford. We’d traded our blankets for food in the spring, pushed past endurance by lean bellies and screaming children. Now winter was coming, soon the work would dry up, and we needed warmth and dried beans to see us through.
We set to work. The vines had sharp ridges and even my calloused palms were soon scraped raw from pushing them aside to reach the fruit. No matter which way I approached, one of those big damn leaves would flop down in my way, forcing me to move them. I asked Dwight if we could cut down the leaves. He snorted.
‘Damn plants are worth more than your planet-drifting ass. Don’t you cut shit without I say so, or you’ll be sorry.’
As the day wore on the leaves opened wider, unfurling soft pink tendrils and spines like long, dripping needles. We all tried to keep away from them, but after a lunch of grass-seed tacos and cheap re-pork we were sent into the heart of the snapper field, where the biggest fruits lay.
‘An’ there’s a bonus for the best fruit,’ Dwight declared with unconvincing bonhomie. How he’d judge who got the best I didn’t know. Probably the girl with the best tits and most compliant smile. But it got everyone going again, hooked knives flashing in the shadows beneath the stalks.
The leaves were real close now. They seemed to be sinking as they spread, forming a veined green wall all around us, until there was no way out of the field without pushing them aside. It was a relief to be sheltered from the sweltering sun, but the rustle of the creeping green made my hair stand on end.
I heard a sound like a branch snapping and a muffled scream. Spinning around, I saw little Evo’s trolley standing deserted. Next to it was a leaf, folded over on itself with lumps and bumps wriggling inside it. I ran. I could hear Evo’s indistinct cries of alarm as he tried to struggle out of the leaf. Blood dripped from its tip, then stopped as the plant closed up tight.
I raised my knife and tried to cut the leaf open, but I couldn’t get the cutting edge inside the hook against the broad surface of the leaf, and the tip was too blunt to break through the membrane.
Others came running as I yelled. Chiquita, her mind as sharp as her features, instantly took in what had happened. She turned and ran for help, but a leaf snapped shut around her as she brushed past.
The snap of closing leaves and screams of their victims rose all around me as the others rushed to help or fled for safety. The full leaves rose through the canopy, swollen green bodies swaying against the cloudless sky.
My heart was pounding. I wanted to run, to scream, but I forced myself to stay calm. I flattened against the ground and crawled between the stems, dodging the tendrils that curled out of the leaves, licking the ground as they searched for food. Whenever one came near I froze, hardly daring to breath in case I caught its attention. It was a couple hundred yards to the edge of the field, but getting there took the longest half hour of my life. Bad as it was hearing my friends’ screams, worse still was the gurgling that followed, as they disolved in the snappers’ digestive juices.
Dwight stood beyond the edge of the field, smoking a cheap cigarette and grinning to himself, a shotgun slung over his shoulder as he watched his crops getting fed. He didn’t see me crawl out from among the roots, covered as I was in dust. He didn’t even think to look for escapees, had clearly seen this a dozen times before and knew there was way out.
He knew wrong.
I crept around behind him, my footfalls masked by the horrible gurgling, a curved knife still in my hand. I grabbed his hair, yanked his head back and, in the moment before he could react, hooked the knife round his throat. It might have been blunt, but I was strong with anger and it was sharp enough for the job. I harvested one final fruit.
I found a lighter in Dwight’s pocket and an oil drum around back of his trailer. When I’d finished with them I ran, not looking back until dusk. When I finally turned I saw flames filling the snapper field, bright orange as the toxic ground. Burning as fiercely as my grief.
‘Day Labour’ was first published in AlienSkin back in 2010. It’s also one of the stories in my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, coming out on Monday – you can pre-order it for the Kindle now.
I’m writing this at 5.30om on Thursday, when I haven’t done my daily NaNo writing yet, but I’m pretty confident I will. I’m still a couple of days behind, but work is more under control and currently involves a couple of editing days, leaving my writing brain free for City of Blood and Steam, my NaNo novel. So maybe now’s the time to catch up.
It looks like I won’t be hitting the monstrous 200k writing all in that this month threatened. Editing days mean I won’t be writing quite so much on the freelance project, and I recycled an old story for today’s blog post. Still, we’re looking at over 150k in 30 days, including my 50k of NaNo, and I’m pretty much on track for that.