Ignorance is bliss for farmers on a remote base controlled by the mysterious Keepers.
|The wooden fence tilted where two posts had been gnawed at the base. The repair job would have to wait until tomorrow, but I had a stockpile of lumber, and I could borrow the tools from Larch next door.
Daisy reached over the fence and tried to pet one of the old ewes called Fuzzball. Her grey woollen gown was ripped at the sleeves. That would need to be fixed as well.
“Don't let the sheep escape, father,” she said. She had the same small voice as her mother, and the same mousy brown hair.
I hadn't told her that we would have to slaughter Fuzzball. I hadn't told her a lot of things.
In many ways, the sheep in the paddock had it no better than us. The only difference was that we knew we were being farmed.
I looked up at the black starry sky. The twin orange suns were approaching the horizon, forming colourful patterns on the dome above. It would become dark soon.
Green hills rolled around us for mile after mile, speckled with farmhouses and barns, all linked to the little-used stone roadway. I spotted the grey ship descending outside the dome for its weekly visit. It was the only ship that ever visited us.
“Come on, Daisy,” I said. “We'd better go home.”
She said goodbye to the sheep.
I saw Larch wave from far across the fields. He was a bull of a man, broad and tall. Like me he'd been farming all his life, but I'd never developed the muscles he did. I gave a quick wave then walked back towards our house alongside the sprouting potato field, making sure that Daisy followed me.
“Is Reed coming back soon?” she asked.
I wished she would stop asking about her brother, but she wasn't ready to hear the truth.
“He's been sent to Urth. It's a long way away.” That was a lie. All the adults knew what being sent to Urth meant.
Rose said that Reed was unlucky, but I suspected he had been taken because he was fat.
I tried not to think about it. Keeping busy with the farm and the endless chores helped me to forget.
Inside, Ash lay on the sofa playing a video game. His dark eyes gazed blankly. His spiky hair was askew. His face was a mask of misery, but his fingers danced across the buttons of the controller.
“Hi Ash,” I said. “We'll need to have the screen soon. It's nearly time for the Broadcast.”
“Yeah,” he grunted. I watched the game on the screen for a short while. I remembered playing the same one when I was young, it was called Farmer Man. The player had to plant crops and then gather them up. It was dull and repetitive, but if you stuck at it there were moments of satisfaction that almost made it feel worthwhile.
“Have you met any girls you like yet?” I asked. He had barely spoken to me in days.
“No,” he said defiantly. In a couple of years he would have to find someone. Those who didn't pair up at age sixteen would be sent to Urth. He still didn't show much interest in the idea, and I didn't want to scare him.
“Do you miss your brothers?” I asked. He had lost Reed and Woody in one year - although Woody had only moved a few miles away.
He didn't reply. I suspected that he knew the truth about what happened to Reed, but he hadn't heard it from me.
Of all those I had lost, it was my older brother Moss that I missed the most. He had been twenty when he was sent to Urth for making an illegal drink. I had no idea what it was. He told me that he was brewing a drink that would make people happy - the next week he was taken. The Keepers were always watching us.
Once Moss and I had walked all the way to the dome's edge and touched the thick transparent wall that stretched high above us. The burnt and barren rocky landscape outside was so bleak it made our prison of green fields feel cosy in comparison. In the distance I thought I could see the tip of another dome, but Moss said it must be only a hill.
“Woody will visit this week,” I said to Ash. “He and his wife have a son. You'll be pleased to see them again, won't you?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled. He switched off the video game and lay in silent gloom.
I worried about Ash. He seemed to be at peace but at times he would scowl menacingly. Once when he was young he had smashed the video screen with a spade. The next day a robot had arrived unexpectedly with a brand new screen and taken away the old one. He never did anything like it again, but since then I often noticed the quiet storm boiling inside him.
In the kitchen, Rose was peeling potatoes and chanting to herself. “God save us. God protect us all,” she repeated. The prayer seemed to calm her.
Her hair showed streaks of grey. Her eyes were sunken and tired, as if years of worry had given her two black eyes.
Daisy crouched by Rose's feet pulling at her long tattered green dress. She turned to me and asked, “Will God save us?”
“Yes,” I said without thinking. We had this conversation every day. What else could I say? I didn't believe in God. What kind of God would create a world like this?
Rose had an answer for that, of course. She had an answer for everything. We had argued almost daily during our first few years together, until we decided that it didn't matter that we disagreed. We never spoke about religion now, and our relationship was better for it.
“How was your day?” I asked Rose.
“God save us, God protect us,” she muttered. I put my arms around her wide frame and she became quiet.
I had never loved her. If I had been able to choose, I would have married Lily, but Lily chose another. Luckily Rose had still not been picked and we were able to get hitched at sixteen like everyone else.
Marrying Rose had saved my life. Lily had been barren and was sent to Urth aged twenty-two, with her husband following not long after.
Although I never loved Rose, she was an essential part of my life. We had raised six children together – three of them now grown up and left home. Only Reed had been lost to the Keepers.
In the living room, Daisy sat next to Ash and was trying to cheer him up by singing a song about sheep. He told her to be quiet.
I switched on the video screen and we waited for the Broadcast. It began at 18:00 sharp. Rose hurried in and sat down, whispering to herself.
“Here are the citizens who have been chosen,” said the voice. “If your name appears, a car will be sent to your house to pick you up. Please make yourself ready for departure.”
The list of names appeared in alphabetical order alongside a picture of each person. The first name was Cedar Black.
We breathed a sigh of relief. Having a surname beginning with A had its advantages – we could quickly see we were safe for another week.
I scanned the remainder of the list and the last name caught my eye – Larch Wheatman. His hair looked grey in the picture, it must have been taken very recently.
A terrified shout punctured the stillness outside. Rose and Daisy looked at me with wide eyes.
“Poor Larch!” I said. “I'll go and see how he is. Stay here!” I didn't want Daisy to see what would happen to him. Or any of them, for that matter.
Outside, I watched the silhouette of Larch racing across the darkening fields. He wasn't the type to go quietly. A great four legged machine galloped after and caught him easily. It pinned him down and appeared to punch him in the head. The last I saw of him was the robot carrying his huge lifeless body back to the waiting car.
I had heard people say that it was better not to resist – you couldn't win anyway. We all believed that if you went along willingly, then the Keepers would show mercy and get it over with quickly, like we did with our sheep. If you struggled, they could make it agony for you. Nobody knew if that was true, but it made sense.
The memory of Reed's last moments came to me then. It had only been a half-year ago. I had walked with him to the car outside our house. I told him to stay calm and do as he was told. His fat face sobbed helplessly as I bid him goodbye. I hoped I gave him some comfort on his final voyage. What else could I do? I had never had to do that before, and I hoped I never would again.
I returned to the house.
Rose sat on the couch watching an episode of Happy Families. Daisy and Ash curled up on either side of her. The show was about three farming families who lived in the same village and the minor drama of their everyday lives. It was a repeat, of course. They were always repeats. Rose must have seen the entire series at least ten times now. She had stopped chanting, at least.
“How was Larch?” she asked, her eyes not leaving the screen.
“He went willingly in the end,” I said.
Ash began to shiver and shake. “They're going to eat him!” he yelled, suddenly crying and storming out of the room.
Daisy looked up at me, her eyes pleading. “That's not true, is it, father?”
“No. He was sent to Urth,” I said and forced a smile.
I hoped Daisy believed me. I couldn't remember when I had learned about the Keepers. It seemed like I had always known, even before the lesson on the final day of school where it was explained to us. For a few short years I must have been happily unaware of the terrible existence we all lived.
Daisy was our last child. In a few years Rose and I would be taken too, maybe sooner. There was no way to know when your name would be called.
My thoughts went to Fuzzball, of all things. I decided that I would wait a few weeks before I slaughtered her. Daisy didn't need any more shocks. She deserved a break. We all did.