Verity walked towards the changing rooms, hoping she didn’t look cagey, hoping no one would notice the slight bulge in her tool belt. She took deep breaths, calmed by the familiar fertilizer smell.
She paused at the end of the row and checked the night-time settings. Water cycle set, fungicide spray programmed for 5am, lights for 6am. All looked good.
She finished her check, humming like Granddad had taught her. At the end of the row, she called, “Nighty-night, leafies.” Grandad always said that talking to your plants made them grow happier. She’d never believed a word of it, but she missed him, so she sang and chatted with her plants as she worked.
Steam billowed in the changing room, hot showers fogging the air. Verity peeled off her skin-tight uniform and dropped it into the laundry chute. She’d get a fresh one tomorrow. Heart in her throat, she squatted and unpacked her tool belt, placed each tool into the small autoclave at the bottom of her locker. She looked around, making sure no one was paying attention. Everyone was tired, dealing with their own uniforms, and tool belts, and life shit. But still. She had three potatoes. She slid them into her rucksack, hanging just above the sterilizing machine.
She thought about Beau growing like a weed, about Mama giving him her dinner yesterday, saying she wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t the first time. Verity worked for one of the country’s biggest vertical farms, an exclusive cornucopia. Not that they got any. She breathed through the rising scream. It was so totally screwed.
It had been a risk, using the tool belt. But it was the only bit of uniform that wasn’t skin-tight, designed for easier sterilization between uses. Designed so staff couldn’t hide anything. Nothing comes in. Nothing goes out.
The high-rise food farms were paranoid about viruses and bacteria. Also, that staff would steal their product, run off with carrots or strawberries worth a week’s wages, do the investors out of their hard-earned. The high-rise animal farmers actually had to live on-site for months at a time to make sure they didn’t bring any diseases in or carry any little piglets out. At least Verity had been assigned to crops.
The pay was lousy, but it was better than the slow death of unemployment benefits. They called it benefits, but Verity couldn’t see any. Better to work if you could. Better than getting just enough money to choose between heating and eating. Like Ma’s sister. She’d chosen to eat. They’d found her last winter under a pile of blankets, cold to the touch. Verity still held Ma while she cried sometimes.
Head down, heart hammering, she walked out of the building, screwing her face up against the blast of sound from the protests across the road. People who used to work in the vertical farm were waving banners and chanting, ex-staff who had tried to unionize and been fired on the spot. Plenty of cheap labor to replace them.
Verity’s salary and Ma’s just stretched to covering housing and medical, after the cost of Beau’s schooling. They got food from the slop shop. She couldn’t afford to get fired. They were banking everything on Beau making it.
She looked away as a few people were pulled, yelling, towards a police vehicle. It crossed her mind that they’d probably get a free meal in custody. Lucky them.
“This is totally amazing, Veri. Thank you!”
She smiled at Beau, at his beaming face, his joyously overfilled cheeks. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“You’re not the mother here,” Ma smiled, taut skin creasing, softening. “And you,” she pointed at her son. “Don’t talk with your mouth full!”
The laughter at dinner was full. Hearty.
“Maybe we could grow some of these? Like Granddad said he used to?”
“Psh. He also used to say they grew things outside. In the earth. In the actual ground,” Verity laughed. “No worries about zoonotic disease, even.”
Even as a child, she’d struggled to imagine the world he’d described. Empty, frighteningly underdeveloped. She only knew the Outer Manchester Countryside Estates, the high walled section of a continuous city-island.
“Yeah, fair. That’s totally bonkers. Can I have some more?”
Harvest day was usually Verity’s favorite. But today she trudged behind the pickerbot, sorting spuds, pulling out imperfect ones for biological testing and incineration. The rest would be tagged and sent to supermarket shelves for other people. Not Countryside Estate people.
She was desperate to pocket some, even the bad ones. All she wanted was to see Beau well-fed, not dragging his feet to school, or struggling to stay awake in the evenings. But the potatoes were weighed as they were lifted. She’d have to wait for the next batch. At least they were growing fast, pumped full of growth hormone and nutrients.
They were nearly at the end of the row when she spotted it. A perfect potato, just one, accidentally left in the growing trench.
She should leave it. She should notify the pickerbot. She should. But it would mean everything to Beau. Stomach fluttering, Verity grabbed it, bent down, and slipped it into her tool belt, hoping it looked like she was adding it to the rejects bucket.
The bot snapped around, and emitted a loud hoot. Verity’s heart leapt, and she gasped.
“Verity Green. You are in violation of company protocol 14-2b, attempted property theft, as specified in the employee handbook.”
Two men appeared at the end of her row. She turned to see two more at the other end. Seriously? Four men for a potato was overkill, the thought cut through Verity’s panic. She backed into the stack behind her, wondering if she could wiggle through, make a break for it.
“There is no point running,” the bot said. “You will be collected, interrogated, and reassigned.”
“Reassigned?” Maybe she’d been wrong about the rumors she’d heard about stealing from the company. Maybe…
“Yes. To compost production.”
This story first appeared in Scifi Shorts, July 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Emma Burnett is a researcher and writer. She has had stories in Radon, Utopia Magazine, MetaStellar, Milk Candy Review, Elegant Literature, The Stygian Lepus, Roi Fainéant, The Sunlight Press, Rejection Letters, and more. You can find her @slashnburnett, @slashnburnett.bsky.social or emmaburnett.uk.