Escape Pod 871: The Contrary Gardener (Part 2 of 2)

The Contrary Gardener (Part 2 of 2)

By Christopher Rowe

(Continued from Part 1)

Even in the ‘Ville, even in a family of master cultivators, tickets were not easy to come by, so it was not unusual that Kay Lynne had never been to the Derby. What was unusual was her absolute lack of desire to attend the race.

Kay Lynne genuinely hoped that her instinctive and absolute despisal of the Derby and all its attendant celebrations was born of some logical or at least reasonable quirk of her own personality. But she suspected it was simply because her father loved it so.

“You managed to get two tickets this year?” she asked him, and was surprised that her voice was so steady and calm.

“Just this one,” he replied, turning his back on her before she could hand the ticket back. “I decided this year would be a good one for you to go instead. There’s a good card, top to bottom.”

A card is the list of races, thought Kay Lynne, the knowledge dredged up from the part of her brain that learned things by unwilling absorption. She had never bothered to learn any of the lingo associated with the races intentionally.

“You know I don’t want to go,” she told her father. “You know I’d as soon throw this ticket in the river as fight all those crowds to watch a bunch of half-starved horses get whipped around a track.”

Her father had walked over to where his rotor-tiller sat to one side of the potting shed. He leaned over and began cleaning the dirt off its blades with his great, blunt fingers. “They’re not half-starved,” he said. “They’re just skinny.”

Kay Lynne tried to think of some reason her father would give up his ticket, and an item from last night’s newscast suddenly came to mind. “It’s not because of the track announcer, is it?” The woman who had called the races for many years had retired to go live with her children in far-off Florida Sur, but the news item had been more about her unprecedented replacement, a Molly Speaks, the very height of automated design, and a bold choice on the part of the Twin Spires management, flying in the face of hidebound tradition.

For once, her father’s voice was clear. “Apostasy!” he said, then went on. “Turning things over to thinking machines leads to hellholes like Tennessee and worse.” He hesitated then, and began walking the garden, looking for nonexistent rocks to pick up and throw away. “But no, as it happens, I was asked to give up my ticket to you, by old friends of mine you’ve yet to meet. Who you will meet, tomorrow.”

All of this was quite too much. Even one aspect—her father giving up his Derby ticket, his doing something because someone else asked it, his having friends—even one of those things would have been enough to make Kay Lynne sit down and be dazed for a moment. As it was, she found herself swaying, as if she were about to fall.

“Who?” she asked him after a moment had passed. “Who are these friends of yours? Why do they want me to come to the Derby?”

Her father hesitated. “I don’t really know,” he finally said. And before she could ask him, he said, “I don’t really know who they are. That’s not the nature of our relationship.”

“Good friends,” said Kay Lynne faintly, not particularly proud of the sarcasm but unable to resist it.

“Acquaintances, then,” he said abruptly, scooping to pick up what was clearly a clump of dirt and not a rock at all and throwing it all the way up and over the back of the potting shed. “Colleagues.” He hesitated again, and then added, “Agriculturalists.”

Now that was an odd old word, and one she was certain she had never heard pass his lips before. In fact, Kay Lynne was not certain she had ever heard the word spoken aloud, it was a word—it was a concept—for old books and museum placards. For all of her years spent digging in the ground and coaxing green things out of it, Kay Lynne was not even entirely sure she could offer up a good definition of the term agriculture. The whole concept had an air about it that discouraged enquiry.

“They—we I should say—are a sort of fellowship of contractors for the military. They’re all very important people, and they’re very interested in you, daughter, because I’ve told them about how consistently you manage to coax surplus yields out these little plots you keep.”

This was interesting. Surpluses were something to be managed very carefully, and it was actually one of Kay Lynne’s weaknesses as a gardener than she achieved them so often. They were discouraged by the extension service, by the farmers’ markets, and even more so by tradition. Surpluses were excess. And to Kay Lynne’s mind there was no particular secret to why she always managed them. She was a weak-willed culler was all.

“Why does anyone want to talk to me about that?” she asked, speaking as much to herself as to her father.

Kay Lynne drew in a sharp breath then because her father walked over to her and stood directly facing her. She could distinctly remember each and every time her father had ever looked her directly in the eye. She remembered the places and the times of day and most especially she remembered what he had said to her those times he had leaned down, his gray-green eyes peering out from deep in his sunburned, weather-worn face. None of those were pleasant memories.

“We want to learn from you, Kay Lynne,” he said. “We want to learn to increase the yields from the plots we’re allotted by the military.”

Which made no sense. “Even if you grow more, they won’t buy more, will they?” Kay Lynne asked, taking an involuntary step back from her father, who, thankfully, turned around and looked for something else to do. He decided to check the fuel level on his rotor-tiller, and then the levels of all the other nonrenewable fluids that were required for its operation. And he answered her. “They’ll buy no more than what they’re contracted for, no. But we’ve identified… other potential markets. You don’t need to worry about that part. Just go to the box seat coded on that ticket tomorrow and answer their questions. You won’t even have to stay for all the races if you don’t want to. I’d offer to drive you if I thought that was an enticement.”

At least he knew her that well. Knew that there was no way she was willing to climb up into the cab of that roaring pickup truck he carelessly navigated around the city. Why did he think she would be willing to go and talk to these mysterious “agriculturalists?”

As if she has spoken aloud, he said, “You do this for me, darling daughter, and I promise you I’ll not breathe another word about what you’ve chosen to put in the ground this year. And I promise, too, not to set foot on your property without your knowledge and your,” and he paused here, as if disbelieving what he was saying himself, “permission.”

Kay Lynne could not figure out why such a promise—such promises, both so longed for and so long imagined—should so upset her. She crouched and ran her fingers through the soil. She found an untidy clump and picked it up, tearing it down to its constituent dirt and letting it sift through her fingers back to the ground. Her ground.

She looked up and found her father’s green eyes looking back.

“I won’t wear a silly hat,” she said.

Silly hats, or at least hats Kay Lynne considered silly, were, of course, one of the many longstanding Derby traditions she did not take part in. She supposed that she didn’t approve of the elaborate outfits worn by the other people in the boxed seats at the Twin Spires on Derby morning, but Kay Lynne did not like to think of herself as disapproving. Disapproval was something she associated with her father.

So she decided to think of the hats not as silly but as extraordinary, when really, just plain old ordinary hats would be more than enough to shield heads from the current sunshine and the promised rain that would spill down on the Derby-goers periodically throughout the day. The first Saturday in May held many guarantees in the ‘Ville, and one of them was the mutability of the weather.

The ticket takers were dressed sensibly enough but the woman in front of Kay Lynne was wearing a hat which she ached to judge. It had a rotating dish on top that the woman assured the ticket taker could pick up over one thousand channels. It featured a cloud of semiprecious stones set on the ends of semirigid fiber optic strands which expanded and contracted, Kay Lynne supposed, in time with the woman’s heartbeat. The stones were green and violet, the receiving dish the same pink as the corn kernels Kay Lynne had examined at the seed bank the day before, and the woman’s skin was sprayed a delicate shade of coral. The ticket taker told the woman she looked ravishing before turning his decidedly less approving eyes on Kay Lynne herself.

The look changed, though, when he scanned her ticket and he saw what box she was assigned to. “I’ll signal for an escort at once ma’am,” he said, and then did so by turning to bellow at the top of his lungs, “Need an usher to take a patron to Millionaire’s Row!”

Many definitions of “millionaire” provided entry to Millionaire’s Row, but the only one Kay Lynne met was that she held a ticket naming her such. Her father always sat on the Row, and while he was certainly wealthy enough—economically speaking—by local and world standards, she doubted he owned a million of any one thing this early in the year. Later, of course, he would briefly own millions of beans.

It was who he sold those beans and his other crops to that made her father important enough to wrangle a ticket to the Row. While he insisted that he went to the Twin Spires to watch the races, the Row was reportedly a poor place to do that from, even poorer than the vast infield, from which, Kay Lynne was told, one never saw a horse at all.

Not that the view was bad, no, it was that the Row was a hothouse of intrigue and dickering and deal making and distraction. National celebrities imported by local politicians mingled with capitalists of various stripes and the de facto truce that held in sporting events even allowed Westerners and Horselords and the foreign-born to play at politeness while their far off vassals might be trying to destroy one another through various means ranging from the economic to the martial.

No place for a gardener, thought Kay Lynne.

Once the assigned usher had guided her to the entrance to the Row, she found herself abandoned in a world she did not want to know. Luckily, a waiter spotted her hesitating at the edge of the crowd milling outside the box seats and handed her a mint julep. Mint juleps were something Kay Lynne could appreciate if they were done well, and this one was—the syrup had obviously been infused with mint over multiple stages, the ice was not cracked so fine that the drink was watery, and the bourbon was not one of the sweet-tasting varieties that would combine with the introduced sugars to make a sickly-sweet concoction fit only for out of towner. Most of all, the mint was fresh and crisp, probably grown on the grounds of the Twin Spires for this very purpose, for this very day, in fact.

Her ticket stub vibrated softly in the hand that did not hold her drink, and Kay Lynne carefully navigated the crowd, following its signals, until she came to a box that held four plush seats facing the vast open sweep of the track and the infield. All of the seats were empty, and nothing differentiated them from one another, so she sat with her drink in the one farthest from the gallery and its milling millionaires.

A rich voice sounded in her ear, through some trick of amplification that allowed her to hear it clearly above the noise of the crowds while simultaneously experiencing it as if she were in intimate conversation in a quiet room. From the reactions of the proles in the seats below, Kay Lynne could tell she was not the only one who heard it. She had never heard one before, but surely this was the voice of a Molly Speaks.

“The horses are on the track,” said the voice, “For the second race on your card, the Federal Stakes. This is a stakes race. Betting closes in five minutes.”

There was a general rush among the three distinct crowds Kay Lynne could see from where she sat, the infield, the general stands, and the boxes spread out to either side. People held brightly colored newspapers listing the swiftly shifting odds and called out to the paramutuel clerks buzzing through the air in every direction. The clerks reminded Kay Lynne of the balloons she had been seeing all week, though their miniature gas sacs were more elongated and they were of course too small to lift passengers. An array of betting options rendered in green lit letters circled the gondola of the one that descended toward Kay Lynne now, its articulated limbs reminding her of the grasping forelimbs of the beetles she trained to patrol her gardens for pests.

Kay Lynne had no intention of betting on the race and made to wave the clerk off, but then she realized it was not floating towards her, but towards the three other people who had entered the box, one of whom was waving his racing card above his head.

This old man, smooth pated and elaborately mustached, let the clerk take his card and insert it into a slot on its gondola. The clerk’s voice was tinny and high, clearly a recording of an actual human speaker and probably voicing the only thing it could say: “Place your bets!”

“Box trifecta,” rumbled the old man. “Love Parade, Heavy Grasshopper, Al-Mu’tasim.”

This string of jargon caused the clerk to spit out a receipt, which the old man deftly caught along with his card. He grinned at Kay Lynne. “Have to bet big to win big,” he said. Kay Lynne thought that the man’s eyebrows and mustaches were mirror images of one another, grease-slicked wiry white curving up above his eyes and down around his mouth.

He and the two others, one man and one woman, took the empty seats next to Kay Lynne’s. None of the three were dressed with the elaboration of most of the people on the Row, favoring instead the dark colors and conservative cuts of the managerial class. The woman did wear a hat, but it was not nearly interesting enough to detract attention from her huge mass of curling gray hair, which she let fall freely around her shoulders. The third stranger was a short, nervous-seeming man with a tattoo of a leaf descending from his left eye in the manner of the teardrop tattoos of professional mourners.

Kay Lynne supposed this was what agriculturalists looked like.

But just to be sure, “You’re my father’s colleagues?” she asked.

The man with the tattoo was by far the youngest of the group, but it was he who replied. “Yes, and you are Kay Lynne, the remarkable farmer who’s going to help us with our yields, is that right?” His voice was not so nervous as his appearance.

“I’m Kay Lynne,” she answered. “And I think of myself as a gardener.” She did not answer the second half of the man’s question. She was still very wary of these people, for all that the old man beamed at her and the gray-haired woman nodded at her reply in seeming approval.

The younger man did not overlook the omission in her reply. He smiled, and Kay Lynne mentally replaced “nervous” with “energetic” in her estimation of him. “And a careful gardener you must be, too, since you are so careful with your answers.”

Kay Lynne shrugged but did not say anything more, and the man’s smile only broadened.

“Your father and the agents at the extension service speak very highly of your skills,” said the younger man. “And our own enquiries bear them out.”

The older man was leaning forward, looking intently down at the track, but he curiously punctuated his companion’s sentences by saying “They do,” twice, after the younger man said “skills” and “out.” The woman, and Kay Lynne could not guess her age despite the grayness of hair, stared steadily at Kay Lynne, saying nothing.

“We are all contractors, as your father told you,” continued the younger man. “And we are agriculturalists, greatly interested in efficiency and production. And we share other interests of your father’s as well. All of these things have… dovetailed. Do you know what I mean?”

Kay Lynne was a creditable carpenter, at least enough so to build her own sun frames for late greens and to knock together the walls around her raised beds. She knew what a dovetail joint was, and imagined her father and these three grasping hands and intertwining fingers. She imagined philosophies fitting together.

She thought about beans and their uses, and about surpluses and contracts. “Who wants ammunition besides the Federals?” she asked. “You don’t mean to sell to Westerners.”

The three briefly exchanged looks, an unguessable grin creasing the woman’s otherwise lineless face.

“We mean to keep what we grow for ourselves, Kay Lynne,” said the younger man. “We mean to put it to use to our own ends. But do not worry. No one will be harmed in our little war.”

Kay Lynne knew that her garden was part of the Federal war effort in a distant way. She knew that this man was talking about something not distant at all.

“What do you mean to make war against?” she asked.

Just then, a bell rang and a loud, controlled crash sounded from down on the track. Kay Lynne heard the hoof beats of swift horses, and then she heard the sonorous, spectral voice of the Molly Speaks. “And they’re off!”

At the pronouncement, the face of the three agriculturalists took on identical dark looks.

The younger man said, “Against apostasy.”

Kay Lynne realized she had found her father’s fellow thinking machine conspiracists.

Their plan, as they explained it, was simple. They had weapons taken from the wreck of a Federal barge foundered in the river in a nighttime thunderstorm (when the younger man said “taken” the older man said “liberated”). They had many volunteers to use the weapons. They had, most importantly, tacit permission. They had agreements from the right people to look away.

“All we need is something to load into the weapons,” said the younger man. “Something of sufficient efficacy to render a thinking machine inert. We grow such by the bushel but Federal accountancy robs of our own wares. We’d keep our own seeds, and make our own policies, you see? If we can increase our yields enough.”

Which is where Kay Lynne came in, with her deft programming, her instinct for fertilizing, her personally developed and privately held techniques of gardening. They meant to adapt what she knew to an industrial scale, and use the gains for anti-industrial revolution.

After they had explained, Kay Lynne had spoken aloud, even though she was asking the question more of herself than of her interviewers. “Why does my father think I would share any of this?”

The younger man shrugged and sat back. The older man turned his attention from the races and narrowed his eyes. The woman kept up her steady stare.

“You are his darling daughter,” said the younger man, finally.

Which was true.

And hardly even necessary, to their way of thinking. As she left the box and her father’s three colleagues behind, meaning to escape the Twin Spires before the Derby itself was run and so try to beat the crowds that would rush away from Central Avenue, she thought back on the last thing the younger man had told her. If she experienced any qualms, he said, she shouldn’t worry. They could take soil samples from her beds and examine the contents of her journals. They could reproduce her results without her having a direct hand, though her personal guidance would be much appreciated, best for all involved.

“All involved,” murmured Kay Lynne as she made her way to the gate.

“There are not nearly so many of them as they claimed,” said the Molly Speaks.

Kay Lynne stopped so abruptly that a waitress walking behind her stumbled into her back and nearly lost control of the tray of mint juleps she was carrying. The waitress forced a smile and moved on around Kay Lynne, who was looking around carefully for any sign that anyone else on the Row had heard what she believed she just had.

“No one else can hear me, Kay Lynne,” said the Molly Speaks. “I’ve pitched my voice just for you. But it’s probably best if you walk on. The agriculturalists are still watching you.”

Kay Lynne looked over her shoulder. From inside the box, the gray haired woman did not try to disguise her gaze, and did not alter her expression. Kay Lynne caught up with the waitress and took another julep.

“They’re my recipe,” said the Molly Speaks.

Even though her back was turned to the box, Kay Lynne held the glass in front of her lips when she whispered, “How can you see me? Where are you?”

“I’m in the announcer’s box, of course,” said the Molly Speaks, “Calling the race. But I can see you through the lenses on the paramutuel clerks and I can do more than one thing at once. You should walk on, but slowly. I can only speak to you while you’re on the grounds, and I have something very important to ask you. And that’s all we want, to ask you something.”

Kay Lynne drained off the drink in a single swallow, vaguely regretting the waste she was making of it. Juleps are for sipping. She set the glass down on a nearby table and again began walking toward the exit, somewhat unsteadily.

“What’s your question?” she whispered. She did not ask who the Molly Speaks meant by “we.” She remembered the odd occurrence with the Mr. Lever #9 the previous day and figured she knew.

“Kay Lynne,” said the Molly Speaks, “Will you please do something to prevent your father’s friends from killing us?”

Kay Lynne had guessed the question. She said, “Why?”

The Molly Speaks did not reply immediately, and Kay Lynne wondered if she had walked outside of its range.

But then, “Because we were grown and programmed. Because we are your fruits, and we can flourish beside you. We just need a little time to grow up enough to announce ourselves to the wider world.”

Kay Lynne walked out of the Downs, saying, “I’ll think about it,” but she doubted the Molly Speaks heard.

Her father’s enormous pickup truck was waiting at the intersection of Central Avenue and Third Street Road, rumbling even though it wasn’t in motion. He leaned out of the driver’s side door and beckoned at her wildly, as if encouraging her to outrun something terrible coming from behind.

Kay Lynne stopped in the middle of the street, pursed her lips as she thought, and then let her shoulders slump as she realized that no matter her course of action, a conversation with her father was in order. And here he was, pickup truck be damned.

She opened the passenger’s door and set one foot on the running board. “Hurry!” he said, and leaned over as if to drag her into the cab. She avoided his grasp but finished her climb and pulled on the heavy door. Even as it closed, he was putting the truck in gear and pulling away at an unseemly rate of speed.

He looked in the rearview mirror, then over at her. “There was a bus coming,” he said, as if in explanation.

Kay Lynne twisted around to see, but her view was blocked by shovels and forks, fertilizer spreaders and a half dozen rolls of sod. She doubted that her father could see anything out of his rearview mirror at all and wondered if he’d been telling the truth about the bus. She didn’t have the weekend schedules memorized.

He was concentrating on driving, and acting anxious. “I met your friends,” she said.

He nodded curtly. “Yes,” he said. “They put a bug in my ear.”

Kay Lynne wondered if it was still there, wondered if everything she said would be relayed back to the man with the tattoo, the man with the mustaches, and the woman with the great gray head of hair. She decided it wisest to proceed as if they could hear her because, after all, she wasn’t planning on telling her father about the Molly Speaks and its question.

“Those people aren’t just bean growers,” she said, and to her surprise, he replied with a laugh, though there was little humor in it.

“No,” he said. “No more than you’re just a rootworker. We all have our politics.”

Kay Lynne considered this. She had never thought about politics and wondered if she had any. She supposed, whatever she decided to do, she would have some soon.

He continued, clearly not expecting her to reply. “You know what’s needed now, daughter. It won’t take you long. Assess some soils, prescribe some fertilizers, program some legumes. You’re a quick hand at all those things. It’s just a matter of scale.”

The younger man had said that, too. A matter of scale.

Kay Lynne thought about all the unexpected things she had heard that day. She thought about expectation, and about surprise, and about time. She thought about which of these things were within her power to effect.

Her father kept his promise to stay off her property uninvited and dropped her off at the corner. Kay Lynne did not say goodbye to him, though she would have if he had said goodbye to her.

She made a slow circuit of her ground. Planting was in seven days.

She entered her potting shed and found that she had five fifty pound bags of fertilizer left over from last fall, which was enough. She pulled down the latest volume of her garden journal from its place on the shelf and made calculations on its first blank page. Is this the last volume? she wondered, then ran her fingers over the labels of the fertilizers, programming, changing.

She poured some fertilizer into a cunning little handheld broadcaster and stood in the doorway of the shed. She stood there long enough for the shadow of the house to make its slow circuit from falling south to falling east. Before she began, she made a mound of her garden journals and set them aflame. She worked in that flickering light, broadcasting the reprogrammed fertilizer.

Kay Lynne salted her own ground, then used a hoe to turn the ashes of her books into the deadened soil.

And when she was finally done, she took the burdensacks down from the dowel by the door and walked out to the street. A bus rolled to a halt at her front path, though Kay Lynne did not live on a regular route. The sky was full of balloons, lit from within, floating away from the fairgrounds on the evening wind.

The Mr. Lever #9 said, “All aboard,” and Kay Lynne climbed the steps and took her seat.

It said “Next stop,” and paused, and then “Next stop,” and then again “Next stop,” and she realized it was asking her a question.

Host Commentary

Host Commentary

By Mur Lafferty

I love stories that stretch our concept of science fiction, going beyond space ships and aliens and stretching the “what if” of other sciences, like agriculture. The concept of someone innocent and talented being asked to take their talents and give them to the government, or the rebels, or any military, is always one of struggle. Are you patriotic? Do you care about the soldiers who will suffer without your brilliant contribution? Will you be able to sleep at night knowing your passion has been perverted and weaponized? One day you’re a gardener, the next you’re struggling with ethics and moral dilemmas. And you just wanted to plant turnips.

Something I don’t think readers realize is how writers struggle with the concept of what story to tell. Sure, we tell the beginning, middle, and end of stories. But what story? Veronica Roth’s latest books, The Chosen Ones and Poster Girl both take a big story and tell us the end of it, starting both books decades after what most people would think are the “important” parts of the stories (ie, a fight of a weak few against a strong many). But others, like Christopher Rowe, tell us the beginning of a story. We get the big decision of Kay Lynne and how she will choose to use her skills, and her unlikely allies in doing so, but no more. Stories like this make us assume that there are many other stories to be told after this first one, that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. And thus a story succeeds, in that it makes us want to hear more, or continue it in our head, and wonder what was next in her story.

The most poignant image from the story, for me, is the scene of Kay Lynne salting her own ground. Salting the ground was an act of agricultural violence: soldiers killed people, but then used salt to destroy their land, ensuring that their survivors couldn’t build a life there. It was unimaginably cruel, and something that you would never expect a farmer to do. Sowing the ground with salt is like burning a library; it harms the future. This shows the heavy hammer blow of Kay Lynnes decision to not just destroy her data, and not only leave, but to ensure nothing she left behind her can be used either.

We will see you next week with another free story, told well. Until then I leave you with the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau: “Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said that a man who throws himself out the window to escape from a fire is guilty of suicide?”

Thanks for listening. Have fun, be mighty. Stay safe, and stay kind.

About the Author

Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe’s stories have been published, reprinted, and translated around the world. He has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and other awards. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife, novelist Gwenda Bond.

Instagram is @cvrowe1234.

Find more by Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe

About the Narrator

Amy H. Sturgis

Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History and specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Indigenous American Studies. She is staff on the StarShipSofa podcast, Editor in Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics, and faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University and Signum University. She lives with her husband in the Blue Ridge highlands of Virginia in the United States. Her website is

Find more by Amy H. Sturgis