“You reap what you sow.”
When he said it, initially, I felt at a loss. I had nothing to say back to him. I was for one thing, buried up to my neck into the dry earth, in full view of the homesteads at the edge of the town. I could see his plot of land clearly, its richness of colour, the crammed, brimming orchard, the thick raspberry bush and red dotted foliage of the tomato crop. It was a September bloom fit for feeding twenty people and there was I, stuck up to my chin in the ground, tasting dust with dry lips.
I hadn’t even stolen those potatoes from his soil filled tin bathtubs. I knew the consequences well enough. Theft of food from your neighbour was the worst crime to commit. We all had our allocated rations of seeds in January and that was our lot for the year; if you starved you starved, if you thrived you’d know you were safe until the next cycle. It was all about your skills as a gardener, perhaps the only skills of relevance in a dustbowl world stripped of any real biodiversity. The big rule was, you didn’t share your yield with anyone who was not living on your plot. It was like some unnatural law of selection. The winners, the survivors – they were worth a further investment of seeds, they were more likely to keep another generation limping on.
Stephen Miller stood with a straight, triumphant posture alongside the town’s enforcer robot, smirking at me. It was the custom for the victim of the crime to be the last person for the criminal to see before leaving them in their engineered predicament. Even before this incident I had never liked him, his constant put downs and dismissive judging of other gardens, he thought he was a big deal in this small town, but what would that matter in the end? We lived in hell.
I remembered his constant rambling about extinct creatures, stories he found from old government files on SearchBack.
He had often meandered over to my fence, leaned over it quite intrusively, and without invitation imparted his learnings about the world we had lost. His voice was always lofty and full of self-importance. He was a hard man to warm to. Last month I had endured one of his rambles as I toiled on my harvest. He had said that there were once these little creatures called wasps and all the males began to starve at the end of summer, so they would become more aggressive in their hunt for food. It never once escaped me that he was eyeing up the few successes in my sketchy patch, looking down his large beak-like nose to survey the pickings.
A thought came to me as I peered up at him, catching the essence of his eyes.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” I croaked through a hoarse throat. “You set me up somehow.” I had to squint as the sun was burning into my peripheral view.
“You talk some shit, boy,” he said, his eyes flicking momentarily with guilt to the black imposing robot next to him. “You’re a thief, and soon you’ll be just the thing for my limes in April. It’ll bring ‘em up a treat.”
The punishment for stealing your neigbour’s harvest was always the same, buried up to your neck and abandoned. The community would wander by the protruding heads in the ground, stare at the them, sometimes with genuine pity, but none would be allowed to talk to the sorrowful souls or help them in any way, as it was law that if they did, they would suffer the same fate. It took a long while but eventually a body turned to fertiliser and when it was judged degraded enough, it was dug out with the bones and gifted to the victim. The enforcer scooped up the sludge into a sack and handed it over – perfect for plant growth, and of course, justice served on a plate.
I pieced together the incident that had brought me to this moment. My garden had pretty much failed. My storm protection was threadbare and then one night when the winds were wild, it collapsed, and that was it, a thousand delicate stems crushed under the weight of a tatty canopy. I wasn’t sure if I could see myself through till January’s National Seed Ration Day.
Last year, I had watched with horror as hordes of unwashed folk turned up on the big day, crawling to the distribution truck parked in the town centre. They were emaciated, barely moving bones with skin, with hollowed cheeks and red rimmed eyes. I swore I would do my best to survive the year until the next distribution ceremony but there were always elements beyond your control and that storm and my old canopy, well – shit happens. When you lost your crop, you simply lost everything, it was a death sentence, it was starvation under the sun.
Stephen Miller resided two plots down the road from me. He was broad shouldered, had raised veins in his arms and was hairy, very hairy, with a thick beard and bushy eyebrows. I thought of him as a beast in disguise as a man. Everyone would stop and glare at his garden with envy. He was always checking and double checking the nanobot swarms, paranoid and insistent that full pollination occurred without a hitch. He was hardly ever indoors at all, impervious to weather, mooching about outside at all times of the day and night. He was an obsessive and most folk found him loathsome, his character traits often the brunt of jokes around the solar firepit.
Looking up at his stature, barely able to move my neck, I remembered something despite my defeat and discomfort.
“My tarp, in the storm. Where it connected with one of the support poles, I noticed it had a clean slash mark through it. I never made much of it at the time, but that tarp, when it tears, it tears in an uneven way, not in a clean slit like that. Was that your handy work?”
Miller shuffled as if irritated and then knelt down on one knee. He loomed over me and bending his back low, he drew in close to my face, so a little spittle sprayed on my forehead as he whispered through ragged, yellowed teeth.
“I put those potatoes in yer shed too, for the enforcer to find… I needed the fertiliser ya’see. This year is goin’ to be a bumper crop. I’ll make sure of that now.”
I felt a deep rage and kept my eyes fixed on his.
He smiled but it was only to last a moment. He had made a grave miscalculation.
“Confession recorded…You are under arrest.”
The colour drained from Miller’s ruddy cheeks. He had mistakenly presumed the enforcer robot could not hear him with his lowered voice.
A stubby tranquiliser dart fired from the arm of the robot, spiking into Miller’s neck.
“Nooo… No, you heard me wrong, see…I was just sayin…” protested Miller, now standing and stumbling roughly in the direction of his far off plot, unable to comprehend he had made such a basic error of such magnitude. I could feel his anguish as he paused, wavering to stare at the treasure that was his garden produce.
“You are under arrest for false testament and garden sabotage,” explained the robot in a civil but firm human male voice.
As Miller collapsed in a heap in the dust, the robot turned to me and released from a compartment in its metal body a black cloud of nanobots. They hovered for a second as if receiving instructions and then zipped down to swirl in a perfect circle around my head. They were like dust with direction. Within seconds I could feel them burrowing, displacing dirt and inch by inch releasing me from my fate. I closed my eyes in relief and decided I needed to ask the robot a question. I wanted to savour the answer, enjoy the flavour of vengeance in my mouth.
“Enforcer, what is the punishment for garden sabotage?”
The robot had stalked over to the half-conscious hulk of Miller sprawled out in the dirt and grabbed his ankle in a metal claw. It would need to drag him to a holding cell in town to process his crime and judgement. It turned to me before moving on, as if it owed me the courtesy of a reply for the injustice against me.
“Garden sabotage, the crime is forfeiture of garden. Miller’s plot is now yours to keep, with immediate effect.”
My arms were now free, caked in a million particles from the dead ground. I could hardly feel the blood moving in them but somehow managed to use my elbows to leverage myself from the tight hole.
“…You reap what you sow, Miller,” I shouted at him as the robot hauled him away in a dust cloud. “You reap what you sow!”