Welcome to the March 2023 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.
To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.
March marks the start of spring when gardens begin to bloom and seeds are planted, so enjoy Seedlings, a sweet science fiction story about chickens, little girls and gardening… IN SPACE! from my Shattered Empire space opera series.
So follow Holly and Ethan as they plant…
The rebel world of Pyrs spun through the black vastness of space, a cold rock orbiting a dying star.
Once, Pyrs had held deposits of rare minerals, gallium, germanium and indium, gold and platinum, even diamonds. So humans had come to the inhospitable world to harvest the precious minerals. And then, once they had taken every last grain of ore, every last raw diamond, every last nugget of gold from the ground, they went away again, leaving behind a gutted husk of a planet, crisscrossed by a warren of tunnels and mine shafts. And so Pyrs was just another dead rock hanging in space again. Until the Rebels came and made it their home.
The Rebels no more liked Pyrs than the miners had. It was simply too cold, too dark, too far from its own faltering sun, let alone the galactic core. However, the Rebels had even less choice about living on Pyrs than the miners. For if you had a death sentence on your head everywhere in the civilised galaxy, Pyrs was the only place left for you to run.
Holly di Marco, former mercenary and currently one of the two thousand five hundred and sixty Rebels on Pyrs, was currently headed for the lone bright spot on that cold, dark lump of rock. It was called the greenhouse, a dome of glass collecting the rays of Pyrs’ fading sun, bundled and amplified by a cunning arrangement of mirrors. This meant that the greenhouse was the only place on Pyrs that got a bit of daylight for six hours a day, about as much as other worlds received on a grey and cloudy day.
The miners had used the place for recreation, an oasis allowing them to soak up the meagre sunlight. The Rebels, not having the advantage of regular supply ships, had given the greenhouse over to food production. The yield wasn’t much, but anything that spiced up the monotony of all protein sludge all the time was more than welcome.
Born on a planet that was only marginally more hospitable than Pyrs, Holly did not have much use for the greenhouse. Plants, particularly in larger numbers, tended to make her nervous. That much green just wasn’t natural.
As it was, Holly had only one reason for visiting the greenhouse and that reason was Ethan Summerton. Lord Summerton, to be precise, for Ethan had inherited the title by default after the Empire had murdered his father and brothers along with the rest of his family, leaving Ethan the sole survivor of a once numerous clan.
Holly had saved his life, which meant that she was stuck with him now, by decree of Arthur Madden, leader of the Rebellion, himself. Apparently there was an old Earth saying which claimed that once you’d saved someone’s life, you were automatically responsible for that person until the end of their days. Personally, Holly thought it was all just a load of bunk, but her objections had been overruled. So for the time being, she was stuck with Ethan, Lord Summerton.
Not that she minded much. For someone who had been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, Ethan was surprisingly non-annoying. He didn’t even insist on being addressed by his title. On the contrary, he said that whenever someone called him “Lord Summerton”, he always had to turn around, expecting to find his father standing behind him. And since his late father — either heroically killed in the service of the Rebellion or cut down in the streets like the traitorous dog that he was, depending on which version you chose to believe — was something of a sore spot for Ethan, Holly refrained from doing anything that might trigger painful memories. For heaven knew, he sure had enough of those.
In spite of his high birth, Ethan had ended up in charge of the greenhouse. Though the assignment wasn’t a jab against his aristocratic background. It was simply the most suitable job for him, given the circumstances.
Ever since joining the Rebellion, Ethan had been eager for revenge and desperate for a mission, a job or just something to do. Holly certainly sympathised. Being cooped up on Pyrs was bad enough when you had a job and the prospect of getting off planet eventually. When you had nothing to do, it was infinitely worse.
However, Ethan was also badly traumatised — seeing your entire family slaughtered in front of your eyes will do that to you — and simply not ready for any kind of combat mission. Before sending him into battle, he first needed to heal.
But sitting around cooped up in his quarters and brooding wasn’t conductive to healing either, especially not since Ethan hardly ever slept and was plagued by nightmares, whenever he managed to catch some shut-eye. What he needed was something to do, a job to stop him feeling like dead weight and take his mind of his murdered family, at least for a little while.
So Arthur Madden in his infinite wisdom had finally hit upon the long neglected greenhouse and turned it over to Ethan. For prior to suddenly finding himself an outlaw and a Rebel, Ethan had devoted his life to studying farming methods and cultivating plants and had even won a prize for breeding a new type of squash, whatever that might be. Apparently, he had originally turned to agriculture as a sort of “fuck you” to his illustrious ancestors and their long lineage of warriors.
“We also have a long family history of winemaking…” Ethan had once told Holly, “…and I prefer making wine to killing people.”
Not that Ethan ever got to grow any wine in the greenhouse — nice though that might be. No, it was mostly leafy greenish things and thick brownish roots and tubers that looked as awful as they tasted. Still, Ethan never seemed more at peace than when he was puttering about in the greenhouse, so Holly approved. For Ethan found little enough peace as it was.
Though there were also times in the long dark nights on Pyrs, when Ethan confessed to her that he felt useless, felt that he should contribute more to the cause, that he should go on combat or espionage missions like the other Rebels.
“Growing vegetables…” he said bitterly, “…isn’t nearly enough, when people, good people, are fighting and dying out there.”
Whenever he had one of those moments, Holly always assured him that vegetables were very important, even vital to the Rebellion. Not because she believed it, cause she didn’t. But Ethan needed to hear it and that was enough for Holly. Because she’d really come to like him by now.
Whenever the bulkhead door to the greenhouse cycled open, the first thing that hit Holly was the air, a couple of degrees warmer and several percents more humid than the rest of the base. The smell was next, since it turned out that plants quite literally grew in human shit. No wonder Holly had always been suspicious of greenery. Finally came the sniffles, which occasionally rose to the level of a fully blown sneezing attack, for it turned out that Holly wasn’t just suspicious of plants but actively allergic to many of them. Greens — you just couldn’t trust them.
Holly had barely managed to suppress the inevitable sneezing attack — for now — when she spotted a figure in a grey utility coverall hurrying towards her. Not Ethan. This was one of his assistants, an effusively polite fellow named Stuart.
“Miss di Marco…” Stuart sketched a bow which looked more silly than anything, considering he was wearing a utility coverall and mud-splattered work boots. “Lord Summerton has been looking for you.”
“Well, that’s helpful,” Holly said, “Cause I’ve been looking for him, too.”
Stuart bowed once more. “If you’ll follow me, Lord Summerton will be right with you.”
He bowed one final time and scurried off, presumably to fetch Ethan or rather Lord Summerton, as Stuart insisted on calling him. Ethan himself seemed more embarrassed than anything to be addressed as Lord Summerton and repeatedly asked Stuart to stop.
But Stuart didn’t care. His mother had taught him proper manners and brought him up to show respect to his betters, he said. Somehow, Stuart hadn’t quite gotten the hang of this whole democracy thing yet.
Still, odd as Stuart was, he and Ethan got along well, probably because they both hailed from the same planet, Caswallon, a farming world that had been home to the Summerton family since forever or at least since humanity had taken to the stars.
When the previous Lord Summerton, Ethan’s late father, discovered his conscience and decided to throw in his lot with the Rebellion, the Empire’s retaliation had been both swift and brutal. Not only had they slaughtered every member of the Summerton family they could get their hands on — no, once the Empire ran out of Summertons to avenge themselves on, they instead focussed their anger on the clan’s homeworld.
The Emperor wasted no time and put Caswallon under martial law and then let one of the more sadistic Imperial generals run riot. There were bombings from orbit, random arrests, disappearances, public executions and the like. The general, sadistic bastard that he was, even brought the good old practice of decimation back… in the most literal sense of the word.
As a result, any inhabitant of Caswallon who could get off planet, evading the increasingly strict controls at the only spaceport still in operation, did so. Not a whole lot of people managed to escape. Stuart was one of the few who did. And since he had nowhere else to go — any attempt to escape from the planet-sized prison that was Caswallon carried an automatic death sentence — he eventually made his way to the Rebellion where he met Ethan. They immediately hit it off, bonding over reminiscences of their lost homeworld and discussions of farming techniques. And if the thought ever occurred to Stuart that if only the elder Lord Summerton had minded his own business and kept away from the Rebellion, none of the horrors visited upon the planet of Caswallon would ever have happened, he kept it to himself.
Holly found a wall to lean against and surveyed the garden. There were rows upon rows of plants, some of them mere bushels of leaves close to the ground, others larger shrubs. There even were a handful of tall and menacing tangles of leaves and what looked like tentacles. Other plots had only been planted recently and were still bare brown soil, dotted with the occasional sprout of green. And because the ground was not enough to hold all the crops, there were also pots of greenery hanging from the ceiling and set onto shelves along the walls and generally crammed onto every available surface.
A labyrinth of pipes snaked overhead, studded with nozzles that sprayed water onto the plants at pre-programmed intervals. Micro-drones buzzed about among the rows of greenery to pollinate the plants. Powerful spotlights were set around the perimeter to supplement the meagre light provided by Pyrs’ weak sun. And above it all loomed the glass dome of the greenhouse and the blackness of deep space beyond.
Chickens — ugly, noisy, feathery things — were scurrying between the neat rows of plants, picking at the ground. The chickens had been Stuart’s idea. Apparently, his family had been keeping chickens back on Caswallon and Stuart believed the eggs they produced would enrich the Rebel diet. Stuart’s family had been keeping pigs, too, but Ethan vetoed the pigs. Too big and too smelly, he said. Holly was inclined to agree. The chickens were about as much animal life as she could handle.
At the far end of the greenhouse, Stuart was talking to Ethan who was engaged in some cryptic task or other. The other assistant, a tall taciturn fellow named Mikhail, was carting buckets full of soil back and forth, again for some unfathomable reason. Ethan sometimes tried to explain to Holly just what they were doing in the greenhouse. Holly didn’t pretend to understand much of it, even though she usually grunted and nodded out of sheer politeness.
Together, Ethan, Stuart and Mikhail made up the entire full-time staff of the greenhouse. But they sometimes had helpers. Such as the three little boys, too young yet for serious work, who were diligently putting plants from smaller into larger pots.
Pyrs, it was generally agreed, was no place for children, and so the Rebels made very sure that there wouldn’t be any more children born here. Nonetheless, there were children on Pyrs, because some of the men and women who joined the Rebellion already had kids. And even if everybody agreed that though Pyrs was a horrible place for children to grow up, leaving them behind would be even worse, because the Empire had absolutely no scruples about killing children.
The Rebels did their best to accommodate and protect the few children on Pyrs, to arrange for schooling and supervision. But nonetheless, it was hard, for Pyrs was a dangerous world and truly no place for children. For starters, the Rebel base was cramped, so the children constantly got under foot. Plus, pretty much everything on Pyrs, every room, every vehicle, every piece of equipment, was actively dangerous to children, particularly children of the more nosy sort who simply had to touch everything and press every button they could find.
The greenhouse was actually one of the least dangerous places on Pyrs. Because while plants might make you sneeze, if you happened to be allergic to them, and the squeaky, noisy chickens might stink and hack at you with their beaks, none of them could actually kill you. Besides, children — just like plants — apparently required sunlight to grow. And so the greenhouse was the ideal place for the children of Pyrs to hang out, when they were not in school. As a result, there was always a handful of children, not always the same handful, hanging around at the greenhouse.
Holly had often told Ethan that he should just throw out the children, if they bothered him. Let the people whose job it was to supervise the kids actually do their job for once. However, Ethan claimed that the children were welcome, that he did not mind them. On the contrary, he even found little jobs for them to do, jobs like digging holes or potting plants. Or maybe it was simply that the smaller hands of children were better suited to certain tasks than the giant paws of Mikhail and the only slightly smaller ones of Stuart.
A commotion somewhere among the endless rows of green leafy things attracted Holly’s attention. A little girl, much too young for any sort of useful work, was stumbling through the plot on unsteady legs, chasing after the ubiquitous chickens. The chickens outran her easily, for the girl was barely able to walk, much less run. Nonetheless, she did not give up, apparently having decided that a chicken would be a fine catch indeed, though Holly had no idea what in the universe the kid wanted with such a screechy, feathery thing. But then, children were weird.
Holly leant back to watch the uneven chase, a smile on her face, though she did not quite know why. And then it happened. The race between child and chicken was decided once and for all, when the little girl stumbled and fell face first into the soft brown ground, flattening a bunch of delicate leafy greens in the process. The child immediately erupted into a wail of pain and frustration, while the chicken fluttered away in a blur of wings and feathers.
“Uh-oh, kid,” Holly thought, a sinking feeling in her stomach, “You’re in trouble now.”
The girl’s wail was loud enough that Ethan and Stuart stopped discussing whatever vitally important thing they were discussing and turned around to see what was going on. It didn’t take them long to spot the source of all that uproar, for the little girl was not just wailing louder than a life-support failure alarm, she was also trying to push herself back to her feet again and managed to crush even more plants as a result.
“Now you’re really in trouble,” Holly thought.
Stuart scowled and set off towards the girl, but Ethan held him back. So he was going to deal with this tiny threat to his precious plants himself. A few long-legged strides and he had reached the little girl, who was still trying and failing to get up. Ethan bent down and picked the child up. Holly averted her eyes. She did not want to see what came next.
She expected more crying, but to her infinite surprise the little girl quieted down. So Holly made herself look and saw that Ethan had crouched down beside the kid and was gently brushing dirt from her clothes. Tears were still streaming down her little dirty face, but at least she was no longer wailing. She was also standing on her own two feet again.
Blood was seeping from a gash on the little girl’s knee, so Ethan reached into a pocket of his coverall and produced a tissue to wipe the blood away. The kid made a face, as the disinfectant did its work, but she did not start wailing again.
“Yes, I know it stings,” Ethan said, “But if you blow on it, it stops hurting, just like magic.” To prove his point, he blew some air on the kid’s scraped knee. “See? It’s already better.”
It was all bullshit, of course, but then kids were naïve and believed pretty much anything. And so the little girl stopped crying, wiped her eyes with her little hands and flashed Ethan an uncertain smile.
Ethan picked the kid up and settled her onto his hip. “And now come on, sweetie. We don’t want to keep Holly waiting, do we?” He planted a kiss on the kid’s forehead.
Holly watched as the little girl nestled against him, her tears already forgotten. And as she watched Ethan with the kid, she couldn’t help but think that this was the way the universe ought to be. A universe where a child did not have to fear beatings and punishments for a simple mishap. A universe where she would not have to work as soon as she was old enough. A universe where someone dried her tears when she was crying. A universe without pain or terror.
Her eyes stung with stupid, silly tears. Angrily, Holly wiped them away. Damn those blasted plants!
Ethan — wouldn’t you know it? — caught her just as she wiped away the last of the silly tears that ran down her cheeks. Even worse, he noticed.
“Holly, I… — What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Holly said. She pulled a not very clean tissue from a pocket of her uniform and heartily blew her nose. “I’m just allergic to your bloody plants, that’s all.”
Ethan gave her a strange look. With his tousled brown hair, mud-splattered boots and equally shabby utility coverall, not to mention a snot-nosed kid on his arm, he didn’t look very lordly at all. A chunky ugly ring — the symbol of his lordship — dangled from a chain round his neck. He wore it that way, so the ring wouldn’t get in the way when he was working in the garden — and because it was way too big for him and kept slipping off his finger.
“Still, I’m glad you’re here…” Ethan said, “…cause there’s something I want to show you.”
Abruptly, he turned around and stalked off again, still carrying the little girl. Her head was resting against his shoulder. She looked straight at Holly and stuck out her tongue.
“Okay, now you’re really pushing your luck, kid,” Holly thought and went after Ethan, careful not to step on any of his precious plants. The greens had suffered enough for one day.
She didn’t know what Ethan wanted to show her, but she had her suspicions. For ever since Ethan had taken over the greenhouse, he tended to use Holly as a guinea pig for his latest produce, probably to see if it was fit for human consumption. To be honest, most of it ranked barely above protein sludge in terms of taste. Endless green leaves and root vegetables weren’t Holly’s idea of a good meal.
Still, feeding his plants to her seemed to make Ethan happy. And since he did not have a whole lot of reasons for being happy these days, Holly usually humoured him and ate his plants without spitting, choking or making a face, even if she sometimes wanted to.
Today’s crop seemed to be something really special (or really horrible), for they all gathered around to see what her reaction would be, Ethan, Stuart, Mikhail, even the three young boys who had been repotting plants.
Ethan was happily blathering on about how his attempts to cultivate some plant or other had finally paid off and born fruit — yes, fruit. Holly nodded politely, though she didn’t really listen. Idly, she wondered whether Ethan was aware that all of his blabbering about plants and crops was lost on her, for they all looked the same to her, far too leafy and far too green.
“Could we get to the point, please?” she finally interrupted, because if she hadn’t, Ethan would still have been holding forth about his latest cultivation success a couple of standard hours later, “Cause the big boss wants to see us and I for one don’t want to keep him waiting.”
As if to emphasise Holly’s point, the little girl on Ethan’s arm yawned heartily.
“Arthur Madden wants to see us?” Ethan repeated, “What about?”
“I have no idea. Maybe he’s got a mission for us or maybe he just wants to compliment you on managing to grow… well, whatever it is you’re trying to show me.”
“Actually…” Ethan scratched his head. “…I didn’t tell him what I was trying to do. We didn’t want to tell anybody until we could be sure it worked.”
“Then it probably is a mission,” Holly said. She knew how eager Ethan was to finally do something for the Rebellion, something other than growing plants, that was. “But if you want to find out, I’d suggest you get a move on. Now.”
The perpetually subservient Stuart blanched at her bluntness, though Ethan didn’t. But then, he rarely got offended, unless Holly said something really shocking. Which, to her infinite shame, she sometimes did just to rile him up, if only because he was kind of cute, when he began to blush and stammer. And amusements were few on Pyrs.
“All right, so…” Ethan was about to finally feed her whatever edible plant he wanted to try out on her, only to realise that his hands were full because he was still holding the little girl. “Could you take her for a moment?”
Holly did not want to take the kid. She didn’t understand children, didn’t like them, didn’t know what to do with them. But before Holly could protest or as much as say no, Ethan had already dumped the kid in her arms.
Holly halfway expected the little girl to start wailing at once — that was what children did, wasn’t it? — but to her infinite surprise she didn’t. Instead, the little girl wrapped her little arms around Holly’s neck and settled herself against her shoulder, perfectly content. She was surprisingly heavy, too, for such a little thing.
Ethan, meanwhile, bent down to pluck something from one of his plants. This particular specimen didn’t look like much, just a small plant with green leaves and unremarkable white blossoms, barely twenty centimetres tall. There were certainly more impressive plants to be found in the greenhouse.
Ethan rummaged between the leaves of the plant until he found what he had been looking for. Then he straightened and held out his hand to Holly.
“Look. Isn’t this wonderful?”
The thing in his hand was most definitely not wonderful. It was a small bulb, bright red with small dark spots and what appeared to be tiny hairs. It looked like some kind of malign tumour or maybe the reproductive gland of an unknown alien species. And Holly most certainly didn’t want to put this thing into her mouth.
“Oh, of course…” Ethan blushed, which was rather sweet to be honest. “…I should wash it first. Sorry, I forget these things sometimes.”
And then he was off to wash his precious fruit. Unfortunately, it didn’t look any more appetising, when he returned.
Holly eyed the strange red fruit warily. “Are you sure this thing is edible?”
“Oh yes, it’s ripe, in case you’re wondering,” Ethan replied, “Now come on, try it. You’ll love it, I promise.”
Holly sincerely doubted that. But since he was so insistent, she allowed him to pop the thing into her mouth, privately vowing that she’d kill him, if he managed to poison her.
The fruit was sweet and sour, soft and tart, succulent and full of crispy bits all at the same time, a riot of flavour exploding in her mouth.
They all looked at her expectantly. “And?”
“Not bad”, Holly said, munching down the last of the fruit, “Not bad at all.” She smiled. “Best damn thing you’ve managed to produce so far.”
Ethan smiled back, inordinately pleased. “See, I told you you’d love it.”
“So what is it?”
“Uhm, a strawberry. Couldn’t you tell? I mean, it’s a bit small, but…”
Strawberry. Holly knew the term. But up to now, she’d always assumed it was a euphemism for sweet and pink and bland.
“Ah, so that’s what they’re supposed to taste like,” she said, “Explains a lot, actually.”
Ethan bent down to his row of plants again and produced a second fruit, a little smaller and paler than the first.
“I’ve got one more,” he announced, “So who wants to try it?”
“Me, me, me,” the young boys yelled seemingly all at once. Stuart looked as if he would have like to yell “Me” as well, but had barely managed to control himself. Mikhail was stoic as ever.
Ethan looked from one to the other. Finally, his gaze settled on the little girl on Holly’s arm.
“Emma. She’s the youngest, so she gets to go first.”
There was a bit of grumbling among the boys, but amazingly they all seemed to accept Ethan’s reasoning that the youngest kid got first dibs on the fruit.
Meanwhile, the little girl — Emma — obediently opened her mouth and let Ethan pop the strawberry inside. She munched and chewed and red juice dripped from her mouth. “Hmm,” she finally said. Then she wiped her mouth with her hands and her hands on Holly’s shirt and exclaimed, “More!”
“Sorry, sweetheart, but that was all we had.” Ethan fondly patted the little girl’s head and turned to the three young boys. He smiled apologetically. “You’ve got first dibs on the next crop, promise. And a Summerton always keeps true to his word.”
The boys nodded solemnly. Apparently, they had already absorbed the long list of things that Summertons did or did not do. Hanging out with Ethan would do that to you.
“Uh, Comrade Ethan…” Mikhail began. Everyone turned to him, if only because it was so rare that he said anything at all. Never mind his irritating habit of addressing everyone as “comrade”, which was apparently how things were done on his homeworld.
“…you forgot the crisps.”
“Oh, of course.” Ethan turned to Holly again. “We’ve been trying out a new process for preparing root vegetables,” he explained, “It was Mikhail’s idea. On his homeworld, they chop up root vegetables and fry them in large open pans…”
As if on cue, Mikhail produced a bag of something and offered it to Holly. Inside the bag, were dry chips, ranging in colour from pale yellow to dark red. Whatever the stuff was, it didn’t even look remotely edible. If anything, it looked as if Mikhail had scratched the insulation off the walls in his quarters and bagged it.
“They’re really quite good,” Ethan said, while Mikhail gave her an expectant look.
Holly looked at the flakes and decided that — polite or not — she really couldn’t bring herself to eat even one. Besides, she figured she’d already done her duty for the day, playing guinea pig for Ethan’s latest agronomic breakthrough.
“Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough experimentation for one day.” She flashed Mikhail an apologetic smile. “Another time, okay?”
If Mikhail was disappointed, he gave no indication of it. He simply nodded and went back to whatever he had been doing before Holly arrived. But then, Mikhail’s face never gave much indication of anything.
“But you must try the crisps,” one of the young boys who’d taken to hanging around the greenhouse insisted.
“Yes, try, try, try,” the other boys chanted.
Because it looked as if the boys were either about to start a riot or burst into tears, both of which would be equally unpleasant, Holly finally gave in. Besides, how much worse than protein sludge and nutri-cakes could it possibly taste?
So she reached into Mikhail’s bag and retrieved one of the chips. It was pale yellow and reminded Holly of those cheap and nasty, dry-as-wall-plaster protein cakes she’d had as rations while working security for a crime syndicate on the planet Kagawa. Those had been pretty bad and yet she’d survived, so how much worse could this stuff be? So she braced herself, closed her eyes and put the chip into her mouth.
The thing was crunchy, slightly salty and slightly earthy, and not at all bad. Probably great for deep space rations, except that the crumbs and the grease — and Holly’s fingers were stained with both — might cause electronics trouble.
Holly opened her eyes and found that everybody was looking at her expectantly.
“Not bad,” Holly said, still munching on her crisp, “Actually…” She wiped her grease and crumb stained hands on her pants. “…this is pretty good.” She turned to Mikhail. “Well done.”
Mikhail beamed. “Thank you, Comrade.”
“Mostly we used potatoes, for traditional reasons…” Ethan explained.
“Gimme,” the little girl on Holly’s arm crowed suddenly, startling Holly so much she almost dropped the kid.
She threw an imploring glance at Ethan, but he was still busily explaining how the crisps were made.
“…though we also tried parsnips, turnips, carrots and…”
“Gimme,” the little girl repeated, more insistently.
“…beetroot — Uhm, I think she wants a crisp,” Ethan pointed out.
Holly looked at Emma who nodded emphatically. And since no one else was volunteering, she reached into Mikhail’s bag again, retrieved yet another crisp and held it out for the little girl, who promptly snatched it and managed to slobber all over Holly’s fingers in the process.
“More,” Emma insisted, so Holly fed her another. And another.
“They would taste even better, if we had paprika…” Mikhail said, completely oblivious to his rapidly dwindling supply of crisps, “…and chilli pepper. Maybe we could grow some.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Ethan exclaimed, “Growing herbs and spices would greatly improve the taste of our food in general…”
Holly felt another endless discussion of plant cultivation coming on, so she quickly interrupted them. “Uhm, sorry, but the big boss is waiting for us.”
“Of course. Sorry, Mikhail, but it seems I have a meeting. Let’s continue this when I get back.”
Mikhail nodded solemnly. “Of course, Comrade Ethan.”
“Let’s go,” Holly said, but then she remembered the little girl who was still nestled against her shoulder. She couldn’t possibly take the child to a briefing. But on the other hand, she wasn’t sure what else to do with her either. “Uhm, what about her?”
“Just put her down,” Ethan said, “She’s better now, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
Emma emitted a sound that might have been a “yes”.
“And she’ll be safe here, with Stuart and Mikhail and the boys. Maybe Mikhail even has some more crisps for you.”
So Holly cautiously set Emma back onto the ground and got a surprise, for before she could let go, the little girl suddenly slung her arms around Holly’s neck and planted a slobbering, strawberry-juice and salt dripping kiss on her mouth. Then Emma spotted a chicken and took off after it, whooping with glee.
When Holly straightened up again, she found Ethan smiling at her. “I think she likes you.”
“Which just goes to show that children are dumb,” Holly said and strutted off, not waiting to see if Ethan was following.
It was a long walk from the greenhouse back to the command centre. Ethan and Holly spent most of that long walk talking. Or rather, Ethan was talking, nattering on about plants and cultivation methods and soil quality and a dozen other things, while Holly nodded politely at appropriate intervals and pretended to listen, though truth to be told, she had mostly tuned out. Plants and their cultivation were a lot more interesting to Ethan than they would ever be to her.
Absentmindedly, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve, still wondering what had possessed that little girl to kiss her. Kids didn’t normally like Holly. They were afraid of her and with good reason, too. And the feeling was mutual.
“Thank you,” she said abruptly, cutting off Ethan in the middle of some doubtlessly fascinating lecture about fertilising agents, “Thank you for being so kind to the little girl.”
Ethan blinked, as if surprised by the sudden interruption. Probably not used to being interrupted, considering that Mikhail never talked and Stuart worshipped every word that fell from his mouth.
“Emma? She doesn’t talk much — apparently whatever the Empire did to her home and her family was really bad. But otherwise she’s a real sweetheart. You simply have to love her.”
“You could have punished her,” Holly pointed out.
“Punished her?” Ethan blinked, as if he didn’t quite follow. “Emma? What in the universe for?”
“She damaged your plants,” Holly said, “And you could have punished her for that. But you didn’t. And I wanted to thank you for that.”
Ethan turned on her, eyes blazing with barely suppressed fury, and Holly instinctively shrank back. She’d always known Ethan had a temper. She’d seen him angry, even furious before, had seen him beat some other guy to a pulp until the guards dragged him away. But until today, his anger had never been directed at her.
“You think I’d beat a child? A small child?”
Holly shrugged, willing herself to remain calm in the face of his freak-out. “You could have. Nobody would’ve said anything.”
“She’s a child.”
“And she chased your chickens around and damaged your plants,” Holly said calmly, “You’ve put a lot of work into cultivating those plants and the kid just crushed them because she was careless. You had every right to hit her.”
“It was just lettuce,” Ethan exclaimed, “Okay, batavia lettuce, which is kind of hard to come by, but just lettuce nonetheless. And Emma is a child. A living breathing human child. How… how can you even think I’d ever hurt a child over something as trivial as lettuce?”
He was still outraged, as angry as Holly had ever seen him. Worse, she didn’t even know why. After all, the little girl — Emma — was the one who’d done something wrong, had landed face first in a bed of prized baba-whatever lettuce, not she. All Holly had done was thank Ethan for not punishing the kid, for Emma — dumb as all children were — hadn’t.
“We could have eaten the lettuce,” she pointed out, as calmly as she could, “We can’t eat the kid.”
Though Holly had no doubt that somebody somewhere had done just that, consumed children for nutrition. Nonetheless, eating children was wrong, deeply and thoroughly wrong. Nobody had the right to eat children, not while there was still protein sludge and probably not even when there wasn’t.
“She’s dead weight, useless, too young for any sort of work. You don’t have to put up with her or the other kids hanging round the greenhouse…” Come to think of it, Holly had told him, repeatedly, that he should just throw the kids out, that no one would say anything or mind. “…and you certainly don’t have to tolerate her crushing your valuable lettuce.”
“She’s a child,” Ethan repeated for the third time, as if he was not just unwilling but unable to comprehend her point, “Children are precious, a gift, a privilege.”
“Not where I come from,” Holly said quietly, not looking at him.
“Then it must be a horrible place…” Ethan said, wrapped in his invisible cloak of righteousness as always, “…if they don’t value their own children.”
“It was,” Holly said, eyes fixed on her combat boots and the steel floors of Pyrs.
She felt Ethan’s hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“For being a self-righteous prick?” Holly asked, still not looking at him.
“That, too,” he admitted, “I shouldn’t have lashed out at you. Not you of all people.” He took a deep breath. “But most of all, I’m sorry that you were hurt by people who should’ve taken care of you, when you were a kid…”
“Nobody hurt me,” Holly snapped, harsher than she had intended and harsher than Ethan deserved, “At least no worse than many others.”
“I’m still sorry…” Ethan insisted, “…that you had to grow up in such a horrible place.”
Now Holly did look at him. “Whatever for? It’s hardly your fault, isn’t it?”
“No, but… I just think no one should have to grow up that way, that’s all.”
He was right, Holly thought. No one should have to grow up like she had.
“Especially not you,” Ethan continued, absurdly touching in his earnestness, “You deserved better.”
“Yes,” Holly said, “I guess I did. But some things can’t be helped.” She injected some cheerfulness she didn’t feel into her voice, all because she couldn’t stand that sad puppy-dog look on Ethan’s face anymore. “And besides, that’s all in the past. I’m better now.”
Ethan gave her a doubtful smile that suggested her faux cheeriness hadn’t quite worked as well as intended. “You sure?”
“Not really,” Holly admitted, if only because she found she couldn’t lie to him, “But I can’t let my past drag me down. And besides I’m not the only person in the galaxy who grew up in a horrible place.”
Holly reached out and put a finger, still stained with grease and salt, on his lips to shut him up.
“Pyrs is a pretty awful place to grow up as well. It’s dark and it’s dangerous and it’s depressing and children really, really shouldn’t live here…”
She took her finger away, because she felt rather silly. Besides, she had his full attention now.
“…but they do, cause some things just can’t be changed. But you…”
She looked him straight in the eye, took his hand in hers, squeezed it.
“…you’re making this horrible place a little less horrible for those kids in the greenhouse. That’s a great thing, probably the greatest thing you can do for the Rebellion.”
Ethan shook his head. “It’s not. Anybody would’ve done the same.”
“No, anybody wouldn’t have done the same. Most people would’ve punished the girl or at least yelled at her. But not you. No, you took her in your arms and comforted her when she was crying, which is pretty fucking damn rare…”
Holly looked at him and saw him in a different light for the first time, not as a clueless if well-meaning aristocrat whose life experience was light years from hers, nor as a mission that had been thrust upon her against her will, an annoying tag-along she just couldn’t get rid of, but as a genuinely good person, a man she was proud to call friend.
“…and I just wanted to thank you for that, cause I don’t think anybody else here does.”
“And now let’s go and see Arthur Madden before he sends out a search party. Or worse Alanna Greyskull.” Holly shuddered at the thought of the much feared deputy leader of the Rebellion.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ethan countered, “Commander Greyskull is always perfectly civil to me.”
“Yeah, cause you keep addressing her as Commander Greyskull,” Holly replied, giving him a jab to the shoulder.
Ethan grinned at her, their disagreement already forgotten. “Well, it works, doesn’t it?”
Not the end…
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.
Because the Commander obviously has The Power!!!
This is very sweet.
Although I feel for Holly, since I too am allergic to lots of plants. Including strawberries. ?
Glad you liked it.
Alanna Greyskull (spelled the British way, rather than like the famous castle) clearly has the power and is a very impressive woman. She appears in person in two of the stories in the series.