The low angle of the sunlight cutting through smog and grit, dust and debris, painted the sky in the many hues of a nuclear explosion, and the rays that fell on her face warmed her flesh and made her think about the days before the Accident. Dry, crusted ground cracked beneath her feet as she made her way down the rows of grapes and inspected every one, smelling their leaves and their fruits, and inhaling the sweet fragrance deep within her lungs and holding it there like a cherished secret. She scanned the horizon. In the distance, the faint, undulating towers of the city obscured by heat and vapor and steam stuck up from the otherwise bland and empty expanse.
There is nothing left here, she thought, as she felt the scrape of a dead grapevine reaching out toward her ankle.
There is nothing.
She still continued her work, as she had been taught to do by her father, and as he had been taught to do by his, and so on, going many generations back before the Accident, when her family name rang out and everyone knew the fine, succulent pleasures of her vineyards and the fruits of the family labors.
She imagined she would always be here, watching the world die as the temperatures rose and the rivers dried and the tree limbs snapped with dry coughing sounds in the gentlest of breezes.
That morning, the man from the Bureau came, and promised her the ability to grow the grapes again. Real ones.
Grapes that didn’t taste like the husks of a sour apple ground into a slimy paste.
In the colonies, you can do whatever you want, he said.
She showed him the door with a smile and a wave and a bag of wrinkled, miniscule fruits that would, she felt certain, be deposited in the nearest trashcan, if not thrown by the side of her pathway in a careless pile.
As long as they left her alone.
No rain that summer, either.
And none the year after that.
But she kept up her work, as she had been taught to do.
The next time the Bureau came, they attempted to administer tests—not for the first time—and she demurred.
Not for the first time.
She detected the cold and callous disregard in the company men as they sat at her table, and she felt her anxiety increasing every time the tall one shifted the weight of his forearms and the table rocked to one side. The fake flowers in the crystal vase teetered with the rocking of the table, and she could focus on nothing else.
Please come with us. You are needed out there.
You are needed.
But she didn’t accept their offer, despite the obvious advantages of living in the spinship societies and the great sprawl of planetary domes that littered every other world in the system. She thought about it—about leaving—but she could not imagine herself working anywhere else but here.
Her knees began to give out, and she heard the whine of her joints every time she bent over to inspect the crispy leaves of the vineyards that begged for…anything. That begged for water or air, or something that wouldn’t poison them slowly.
She cursed her keepers. Who so carelessly meddled where they shouldn’t have.
She cursed her kind, who accepted it.
The final time the Bureau men came to her property, they brought a small group of large men, all wearing decontamination suits and carrying implements like cattle prods. They offered the same. A trip to the system reaches. A view of actual grass. A job in an actual vineyard.
You made the best wine in this entire valley, they implored. And your name was celebrated. Do you not want that?
But she shook her head.
I want this, she said. I want this valley, and this vineyard.
But there is nothing here.
Yes, she said, turning a cold eye toward the men who looked down at her in a half circle, with their cattle prods resting on their forearms, You left nothing unscathed.
The next time the Bureau went to the vineyards to convince, to implore her, to remove her by force if need be, they found her dead. A shriveled up old woman with a blanket—ratty and full of holes and covered in the same thick layer of dust that covered everything else in the tiny abode—and a bottle of wine, corked, sitting beside her.
The two men looked at each other, looked at the wine, looked at each other. Said nothing. The sun cut in through the windows and it had been a generation since drapes were necessary. Not a soul lived in the entire valley. Not even a deer. Not ever a rabbit.
He remembered what she had said the last time: You left nothing unscathed.
They walked to the window and looked at the dead vineyards and the abandoned city in the distance shimmered as the sun hit the panes of glass that still remained intact. After a minute, one of the Bureau men turned to the other, and removed his helmet, letting out a long exhalation of air from the breathing tubes that hissed and sent the dusty of the house eddying in motes.
She knew, didn’t she? he asked his compatriot.
The humans knew, he responded. Some of them. There’s only so much we can do, right? Can’t fool them all.
You got it. Should we take it?
The two looked at the bottle of wine and the faded label read in clear letters that seemed untouched by the passage of time, reflecting the afternoon sunlight that barged into the room and danced about among the dust, crystal glasses, vases, picture frames, ceramic statues of miniature humans.
We should. We should take it all. Study it.
Yes. There is much to learn about these beings. Much to be done.
Written By Kane