The sun had not even risen, and yet already the work bosses were gently awakening the harvesters with their batons. Pere was roused from his deep slumber by the shouts of the bosses and the grunts of his fellow pickers; but he remained motionless, gathering his energy. An almost casual blow from one of the bosses was his cue to open his eyes. He groaned concilatorily. The boss hammered him with the standard morning greeting.
“Get up! Heavy harvest today!”
There was usually a “heavy harvest” during the rainy season, of course; but the bosses always felt that this motivating comment stimulated work. So, subsequently, regardless of the night’s ripening of the Q’jall plants, each day (each boss, actually) promised a “heavy harvest.”
Pere rose from his grass tick and pulled on his jerkin. It reeked of Q’jall juices and sweat, but break day was four days away, so he tried to ignore the smell. A couple of the harvesters had already left for their morning meal; others were still struggling on their mats to resist gravity. Fortunately for the latter, the bosses had a blow or two to offer for added motivation. Pere’s back was beginning to cramp, and this only added to his hurry. He bolted out of the quarters and into the dawn.
Nearly one-third of the blue dwarf sun was above the horizon, and with its hazy glow came a flush of heat. The day was not even begun and already the temperature hovered around 110 degrees. Pere found the warmth pleasing, but then realized the high temperatures it forecasted. He was surprised at the dryness of the air and, looking up through the porch’s woven awning, saw only a few patchy cirrus clouds. This bothered him. Without the cooling rains, harvesting under the 160 degree sun at mid-day would be awful. He thanked Primar that his skin had purpled quickly this season.
He jogged across the dusty yard between the harvester’s quarters and the mess hall. His feet smarted initially, but he soon felt their tar glands ooze out enough of the sticky substance to cool them. As he burst past the mess hall’s hanging mat for a door, his nose was assailed with the scent of
charred flesh and mildew. Half of the plantation’s harvesters were seated at long wooden tables gorging themselves on what appeared to be a paste made of ground swervahs grain and fried strips of grastuh meat.
Pere understood their rush and hurried into the line of men waiting to be served. The food today seemed fairly good, but that was not what impelled him. It was what the master gave the harvesters after they arrived at the fields that he most wanted. The leaf. The line inched along, but eventually he would have it.
Pere waited impatiently and finally was given his food. He dropped into the nearest seat and began to gobble it. Within minutes, the tray lacked any trace of the “morning’s delight,” as the bosses put it. Pere leapt up and moved to drop his tray in the barrel of water at the door and get to the Q’jall fields.
When he arrived, panting, at the harvester’s stopping place the night before, Pere saw others already fighting for position in line to get their leaves and begin picking. The field master stood on the back of the huge Hover-carrier, the vehicle whose four Galactic ton bed the harvesters would have to try to fill. Beside the master sat an enticing pile of Q’jall leaves. Pere stared hungrily at the pile as he moved into line. He could almost taste the sour juice. He could feel the familiar tingles in his mouth….
His back broke his trance with a preliminary little jolt of spasming. Pere anxiously surveyed the line. Nearly all of his group of pickers had arrived; soon his torturous wait would end.
As if cued by Pere’s cravings, the master passed the top leaf to the first man in line. The man jammed it into his mouth and began chewing vigorously. The master struck the man with his energy prod, barking, “Not so fast, warth! If you collapse out there, don’t plan on getting back up!” The man obligingly began the accepted, bovine chewing taught by the masters. He was, however, already beginning to smile, and he seem to be moving jerkily as he shouldered his pick-sack and walked into the fields. One by one, each harvester was handed a leaf, and he would head for the fields chewing the precious plant.
At about half way through the stack of leaves, Pere stepped up to face the master and be given his leaf. The master started to hand it to him, but then stopped, much to Pere’s disappointment, and stared at him.
“Ah, yes…Pere,” said the tall, pressure-suited man. “I shouldn’t even give you this, what with all the extra leaf you ate yesterday!” Pere froze, terrified. He had thought that his pilfering had gone unnoticed. He cringed, apologetically, praying to Primar that he not be denied his leaf. “If I catch you stealing Q’jall today, I will see that you are cut off from future rations. You would not like that, would you, Pere?”
“No, field master,” Pere squeaked. His stomach and back tightened more, as if to emphasize his response.
“Then don’t do it, warth!” the master bellowed, tossing Pere’s leaf to the ground. Pere stooped down, retrieved it, and placed it in his mouth. The flood of sour juices nearly gagged him, but they quickly numbed his taste buds. He walked, chewing, into the huge waving field of Q’jall, and the near magical effects of the leaf began to come.
Despite the dryness of the previous night and morning, there was a good harvest on the plants after all. The plants were covered with large, dark red leaves and fluffy yellow flowers. The masters panted only the flowers and the darkest of the leaves. These were the most valuable off-world. Although Pere knew that purchasers of the Q’jall rarely chewed the stuff like the harvesters, he was not certain of how the powerful drug was ingested. He had heard rumors that off-worlders stuck patches soaked in some extract of the plant on their skin, but he would never try that. Pickers were warned to wear gloves when working, and he could only assume that was to avoid skin contact with the juice. This, actually, he knew was the reason, because once a friend of his had died from picking all day without gloves on. How his friend had lost them, he could only guess.
Pere began to pick his row of Q’jall, pondering the nature of the plant, just as his leaf began to say hello to him. He chewed and chewed, picking flowers and choice leaves as he went. Soon, he realized he was speeding up his motions. Typical. He picked faster and faster, pausing only to drink from his water bottle. His hands started to blur, but he knew his speed had peaked. He had been a harvester for many years; he knew his pace. The leaf could be thanked for the blur, which was slowly getting longer and longer. Within an hour after starting, he was an eighth or so of the way through his row and he could see the complete path his hands took from plant to bag and back to plant.
The sun was bearing down hard now, and the temperature had risen to about 120. Pere, however, was oblivious to the heat… and to the building clouds. He had become a picking machine; his actions were lightning quick and sure. He had fallen into rhythm and his mind began to float on the Q’jall. He thought of his parents.
They died in the wars over this planet between the Atatians and the Rumares. They had wanted to leave the planet and were saving up to do so when the wars broke out. Pere remembered the looks of terror on their faces as the Atatians, garbed in their strange pressure suits and armed with concussion rifles, marched into his home village, pulverizing its inhabitant’s bodies with their brutal blasts. Pere brushed the chilling image aside as he glanced at an ulooloo bird flying overhead. He saw it as a spacer streaking to some distant galaxy with his leaves. He hated the ulooloo. The leaves he picked were his, damn it! Those warths off-world should come down here and pick their own, if they wanted it so bad! He reached out and plucked a deep red, almost purple, leaf and, looking hurriedly around, defiantly stuffed it into his mouth to join the gummy leaf already there.
He began picking again, gnawing on the new leaf. He swallowed frequently, impatient for the next rush. He was not kept waiting long. The field seemed to swim about him in the wind. The sky darkened as clouds built, yet Pere saw everything become brighter. The blood color of the leaves seemed to leap off of them and the yellow flowers all developed faces. The faces regarded him, grinning sardonically.
“So, think you can handle more, huh, warth?” one of the faces asked.
“I did yesterday,” Pere replied obstinately.
“Oh, right! Weren’t you the one that field master Domery was yelling at about that? My brothers,” the flower said to the other faces, “perhaps we should call field master Domery and tell him.”
“N-no! Please!” Pere begged, but the flowers had already begun hailing Domery. They alternated between yelling for the master to come and jeering accusations at him. He snatched them off the plant in an effort to silence them. Their dying screams echoed in his head.
“Great Primar, but you’re a brute!”
Pere looked to the voice’s origin, but saw only a mouse, seated at the base of a Q’jall stalk knitting three-toed socks. It looked at him pityingly.
“I’m supposed to,” Pere responded, but the mouse said nothing; it just kept knitting. “Damned fool mouse,” he muttered and resumed picking. The flowers had quit yelling and simply cowered, frightened. Pere laughed to himself as he viciously plucked them. “This’ll teach you to try to get me in trouble. You’re mine for the taking,” he said venomously. As he reached out to pluck the next leaf, he noticed something wrong with his glove. He distractedly picked a couple of flowers, then looked down at the glove’s palm in which they lay. He realized that it had lost the look of grastuh hide and now resembled steely pressure suit gloves. Puzzled, he glanced at the flowers’ now cadaverous faces. They resembled… no, they were his mother and father’s faces.
Horrified, Pere stuffed the buds into his sack. When he withdrew his hand, his glove was its normal, brown, stained self. The flowers on the plants had resumed their normal appearances as well.
“Strong Q’jall,” Pere muttered to himself. His hands began their streaking ministrations once more.
As quickly as the sun crossed the sky, Pere moved along his row. The building clouds had threatened to break earlier, but now, with two hours until dusk, were firmly blanketing the sky. Around mid-day, Pere had decided to curb a slight hunger with a small portion of Q’jall. Now, as the wind picked up and shook the plants to life, he could feel a building oppression in the air. The Q’jall’s waltz seemed to sway towards him, threatening to absorb him into their midst. Then, the plants relaxed their assault on Pere and began to bow, rhythmically, towards the sun. Pere ceased trying to pick the now frantic plants and turned to face the object of their supplication. The sun’s glow through the clouds seemed to grow in size, and the winds from it swelled further.
Quite suddenly then, the sun blinked out, the winds died, and an inch of rain dropped. Pere mimicked the Q’jall in squatting to the ground beneath the heavens’ aquatic onslaught. He cowered in fear for several moments before the memory of his task found its way back into his consciousness
Pere rose to a half-stand and resumed his methodical pickings. He went but a few meters down his row before he stumbled over something and fell into the thickening mud. He pushed himself up onto his elbows and peered back, nearly blinded by water, to regard what tripped him. It appeared to be a large purple foot. Not large, but colossal, in fact. As his gaze traced up the purple leg connected to the foot, his vision blurred for a moment. Then, a hazy ray of sunlight found a hole in the blanketing clouds, and his eyes snapped back into precise focus. He realized to what the Q’jall were bowing. He found himself regarding Primar.
The towering figure had to be Primar, so regal was his bearing, so mightily he stood gazing down at the smaller Rumare. Pere could only stare back, dumbfounded. The Q’jall, now, so ruled his psyche that he no longer acknowledged its presence. For him, he was now seeing his god. He quickly responded by dropping flat to the ground. He bowed, fearing to meet Primar’s stare.
“Why do you grovel before me so?” Pere nearly swooned. The High One spoke to him! Him! A lowly harvester. “Well…?”
“I…I fear your visit forebodes ill omen, High Primar,” Pere responded.
“When has the presence of Primar forecast thus? I am of your people. I come for you.”
“No…not to take me away!” Pere shook with fear and felt a frosty hand grip his stomach.
“Not FOR you; in your favor, Pere. I have been here for your people, our people, for eons. I have seen our planet’s plight. I know your suffering, I feel it. It should end.”
“Will you destroy the Atatians?”
“Feel you not the emptiness about you?” Pere noticed that, despite the rain and wind, the fields seemed remarkably still. He rose to his full height to look over the Q’jall. He saw no one. No Atatians or harvesters.
“Have you sent them away?” Pere felt his face flush with joy. His heart raced in excitement. He, for the first time in so many years, felt the burden of laboring for the Atatians lifted. He had almost forgotten, or grown to accept, the harshness of his conditions until, in retrospect, he now viewed their basic cruelty from the lofty height of freedom. The Rumare were once again a free people. The full weight of this realization buoyed Pere’s emotions even higher. He began to shout praises to Primar as the smiling god faded from view.
The Q’jall then, predictably, dropped Pere. He was asleep before he hit the ground.
A pain. A pain… in his side. That is what pulled Pere from the depths of the dreamworld. In his dreams, he roamed the fields, talking and dancing with other Rumare. He felt elated and content. Even though he knew it was a dream, he was assured—by Primar himself, no less!—that his dream life was a reflection of his long forgotten, but newly regained, way of life. He eagerly awaited the next day, but was content with the sleep. That is why the pain in his side was such a bother. More than a bother, now, for the next pulse from the master’s energy prod was of a far greater voltage. Pere convulsed upward into a nearly seated position, arms flailing about for purchase and eyes bugging.
Over Pere stood field master Domery and three lesser bosses. Domery glared down at him.
“Well, now, Pere… You seem to have fallen asleep,” the master’s hollow, echoing voice stated from within his pressure suit. “Have you any particular explanation for your slumber, warth? Up too late last night?”
“N… no, uh, field master,” Pere groggily stuttered. “Uh, I mean ‘yes,’ field master.” Pere waited for the inevitable.
“LIES! ALL LIES!” the field master screamed, fogging his helmet’s visor. “You’ve been in the Q’jall, eating stock! Holper,” he beckoned one of the waiting bosses, “He is to be restricted from any more leaf and kept in the watched fields. If there are any more transgressions…,” and here Domery savored Pere’s anxiety before continuing, “…have him dig himself a grave and kill him.” With a flourish, Domery spun on his heels and stepped onto his Hoverboard. The boss named Holper manacled Pere and began leading him out of the fields as Domery soared away.
Pere was put into an individual cell not even large enough in which to lie flat. He was told, as Holper turned the latch to his door, to expect no evening meal as further punishment. He could, however, look forward to “morning’s delight” before beginning work in the guarded fields. Oh, and without any Q’jall. As the light in the hall switched off, Pere slumped into a ball in the corner—and center—of his room and waited for the back pains to come. If he was lucky, they would wait until morning.