Author: F. J. Bergmann

Only teenagers would work detasseling corn back in the late-twentieth, my grandmother had told me. Boys, or girls whom no one wanted as babysitters. But I was lucky to get any work at all, at my age. Unusually lucky if I lived another ten years to reach my grandmother’s seventy-three (but Juanita had only been fifty-seven …). And most fortunate of all that this step in the process of growing ever-more-improved maize hybrids, to feed gene-mod cattle whose meat only Shareholders could afford, was still more efficiently done by humans than machines.

The early June sun beat down furiously. I tried to keep the reflective parasol hat (128 China-US dollars, accrued to my wage deficit) tilted to cover my hands. Some of the age spots they bore were precancerous, the harried nursing assistant had said at the mandatory annual checkup (254 Chus per month for minimal medical coverage, with an age-adjusted annual increase). She had recommended gloves (39 Chus for the flimsy pairs carried by the company store) or sunscreen (45 Chus per 4-oz. tube of dubious ointment). The medication for my heart condition made anything beyond basic rations and a weekly shower unaffordable.

Whenever the temperature reached 50°C, Oversight imposed mandatory breaks—without pay. I moved along the rows of corn methodically, trying to maintain rhythm, listening for the whistle, half-hoping it would sound. I was trying to make do with a bottle of tap water and homemade electrolytes this week. Boiling did kill pathogens—except for prions—but the company-provided filters that were supposed to remove chemical contaminants were always off-brand, and suspect.

A wave of cold sweat and dizziness poured over me, and I tried not to stagger. Two warnings last week: another within this pay period would reduce my wage again, leaving no margin of safety. Last winter’s chicken flu would have killed me if Juanita hadn’t shared her rations and brought me hot drinks, and an extra blanket she wouldn’t tell me how she got. I’d promised her we’d grow old together, but her melanomas had already metastasized.

National boundaries were fictions, merely conveniences of taxability and legalistics. Corporations and their Shareholders held no allegiances and spanned continents, the world. Workers were hired, moved where needed, used, and used up. The labor force was the true melting pot, a hodgepodge of ethnicities and origins. Sometimes I thought that they deliberately mixed us and moved us frequently to keep us from organizing effectively—the incentives for transferring to new stations seemed disproportionate.

What did we look like to the crop-dusters spraying fields where the mirrored cones of our hats moved slowly through green leaves? To the luxury dirigibles passing overhead, floating toward the elite playgrounds of Las Vegas, New Manhattan, or Disney-Calgary, we must have been infinitesimal, only glittering sparks seen through a shimmer of heat—if their passengers even looked down. I remembered gazing up at night, at the stars, before the Flyover became permanently clouded with smog. My mouth was too dry to spit; the sweat that dripped from my nose vanished before it hit the blazing ground.

I trudged on through a nearly palpable inferno, my hands reaching up, my feet moving automatically from plant to plant. I felt that I was glowing, on fire, about to burst into flame. When the buzzing in my ears grew louder, at first I thought it was the break whistle, and then I was falling into a night sky darker than I’d seen it in years. I hoped there would be stars.