Off Day – Part 1

Note: Off Day is original fiction by TGDaily’s CB Droege.

Part 1 of 5

When the jumper appeared over the horizon, Otis was in his garden, a small red fruit in his hand.  A worn reed basket hung from his other arm, with four of the fruits already in it.  He stopped and stared at the thing.  He had seen jumpers pass over before, but this one was headed directly for him.  After a few moments he looked up to the beacon on top of the two-story house.  Still smashed.  Still off the grid.  As the jumper touched down a few meters from his vegetable patch, blowing the dry soil up in puffs around it. He could smell the death of the soil as he looked around for more vehicles.  Nothing but rocks and dust all the way to the horizon in every direction, just like every day.  

This clean, shiny jumper was an intruder, an invasion.  It sat crouched on his sand, facing him, waiting for him to make a move, or maybe for the dust to settle around it, before it attacked.  The opaque wind-screen offered up no clues, no personality, no indication of purpose.  Otis glanced at his roof again. No light or faint buzz.  Those had ended thirty years ago when he had climbed up on the roof, and smashed the beacon with a wrench.  He finally placed the plant in the basket, and set the basket down. He needed to harvest the remainder of this crop before nightfall, but there was not much, and it was only noon.  He had time.

By the time the door of the jumper opened, Otis had moved over to his front paved walk, and removed his hat to let the slight breeze blow over his bare scalp.  He closed his eyes against the dust, and scratched at his grey, tufted beard while he listened to the jumper power down and the hydraulic hiss of the opening door.  A moment passed before he heard a voice, “Otis Collier?” He found himself surprised at the sound of the voice; there was something different about it, something wrong in the timbre.  He opened his eyes to see the speaker.  Of course: a woman.  He felt silly then.  Had it really been so long since he’d heard a woman’s voice that he didn’t recognize one anymore? 

“Mr.  Collier?” She was clearly an official of some-kind.  Her clothes were very similar to professional attire he’d seen as a young-man: The vest was cut tighter to her waist, and the blouse was a brighter pattern of colors, but styles hadn’t changed much in thirty years.  Her hair was pulled back severely, although one rust-colored lock had escaped and fallen into her face.  Her expression was one of worried curiosity.  He tried a smile, and it only seemed to deepen her worry.  She raised her hand to the nearly invisible visor on the side of her face, and then looked around.  Otis could barely make out that her eyes were flicking back and forth, as she read something on the tiny screen in front of her left eye.  She spotted the beacon on the roof, and frowned, a flick of her finger indicating that she’d made some adjustment to the document appearing on her visor.

“Please,” Otis’s voice cracked when he spoke, not from lack of use, as he spoke to his plants every day, “Call me Otis.”

Relieved, the woman pushed the stray lock behind her ear, and flashed a professional smile.  “I’m Jade Oliver of the Office of Off-world Affairs.” She stepped forward, and extended a hand to him.  

He moved to take it, but stopped himself short, “You’ll excuse me, Miss Oliver, if I don’t take your hand; I’ve been working in the garden.” He gestured behind him to the half-harvested crops.

She nodded, and let her hand drop to her side.  Her eyes followed his gesture, and she saw the rows of stalks and leaves.  There had once been a fence around the property, and the remnants of the posts could still be seen along the edges of the garden, but no one had maintained the barrier since before there were still rabbits and deer to protect the garden from, “What do you grow here?”

He looked out over his garden, as if he needed to remind himself, “Mostly Soy, of course, but I indulge myself with some strawberries and tomatoes,” He gestured to the fruit in the basket on the ground next to the house, “Would you like to try one?”

She made a sour face, and for a moment Otis could see the little girl behind her features, “Too bitter for my palette, I’m afraid.  Thank you for offering.”

Otis shrugged.  “If you didn’t come all this way to try my strawberries, Miss Oliver…”

“Yes, of course,” she continued to stare at the basket of fruit while she spoke.  The stray lock of hair fell back into her face, “Mr.  Collier… Otis, do you know what tomorrow is?”

He laughed and put his hat back on.  “Of course I know, miss.  It’s marked out in red on my calendar.  I’d wager I’ve been preparing for Off Day since before you were born.”

He expected this to annoy her – he had unconsciously calculated it to do so, but she only continued to stare at the basket.  “So, you’re ready to go then?”

“I’m ready, Miss Oliver, but not to go anywhere.  I’ve lived in this house all my life, as did my father and grandfather.  I’m not leaving this place.”

“I’ve been ordered to take you back to the office in my jumper,” she said, gesturing to the small craft behind her. “No one is allowed to stay. The last ship leaves in the morning, and the last of the envi plants will be shut down. Nothing will remain living on this planet for long after.”

Look for Part 2 tomorrow. In the interim, check here for more fiction on TGDaily. 

Off Day © 2012 CB Droege; Illustration © 2012 Catherine Lehman