by Michael Haynes
Martha watches out the window as she cleans the dishes. It’s half past moonset. Craig will be coming home soon.
She hears the young ones, the twins, arguing as they play in the back room. It’s the bickering kind of arguing, not the harsher kind that escalates into shoves and kicks. She lets it go, thinking of the times she and her sister Stacy fought as children. Thinking, too, that it’s been over a year since she and Stacy talked. Communicating between the colonies and home isn’t cheap.
Craig is coming down the path towards their homestead. His shoulders are hunched, his suit is coated in grime. But when he comes through the door, he has a smile for her.
“You’re a fine sight to come home to, Martha,” he says as he peels off the safety suit and stashes it away.
She takes his plate of dinner out of the oven, sets it on their table, and smiles back at him. She doesn’t ask how his day was. She knows the answer.
Before Craig sits to eat he hands her a small pile of round metal discs, each stamped with the sigil of the colonial government. She slides these chits into their storage cylinder, nearly filling it up. Then she puts it beside its two completely-filled siblings. More than half the year gone, and not even three cylinders full…
“Not much, is it?” he asks, as if aware of her thoughts.
“That one’s almost full now.”
He grunts. “We should’ve saved more some other years. Kept some in reserve.”
“No sense worrying on what we should’ve, Craig. We’ll get by. We always do.”
They still recognize the old holidays, even though the cycle of growth and death and rebirth that those celebrations marked is meaningless in the colony. Every day is like all the others, gray and tan and red. It’s Halloween time and Cara, oldest of the four children, wants to go to the other end of the colony for the little carnival they have over there.
“Not this year,” Martha tells her after glancing at the row of cylinders, four full and the fifth just barely started. “We can’t spare the chits. You got to go two years ago.”
“It’s been three years!”
Two years, three years… Martha can’t recall for certain.
“I hate living here,” Cara says.
“Maybe you can go to the carnival next year, Cara.”
Cara scowls, starts to walk away.
“Hold on,” Martha says. “Help me fix dinner.”
She pulls out the boxes containing the week’s food rations, tries not to focus on the colonial sigil emblazoned on their sides which makes her think again about how few chits they have. She shows her daughter how to peel the vegetables, the quickest way to chop them up for the stew. How to knead the dough for the bread so it will rise right and make the loaves the entire Bittner family enjoys.
Cara’s only paying half a mind to the work. “Can I go do my homework?” she asks before they are finished.
“When we’re done,” Martha says. “Now, pay attention. You can’t put these in the oven too soon…”
Martha waits several minutes while the connection establishes. Finally she hears the activation tones. One… two… three… they hum in her ear. She sets a timer for ten minutes, the longest she can justify staying on the line for this, her Christmas present to herself.
“Hello,” Harold, her brother-in-law answers.
“It’s Martha. Is Stacy there?” The seconds tick by until she’ll hear his answer. She prays the answer is yes. She can’t afford a second call.
“Oh, sure, Martha! Give me just a minute to get her.”
“Hey, sister!” Stacy comes on the line. “How’s life on the big rock?”
“Oh, you know. The kids are growing fast. Cara’s almost sixteen now. Tommy’s nine and the twins will be starting school next year.”
“Sixteen? Oh, you have got to be kidding me! Is she driving the boys crazy yet?”
Martha smiles. “Yes, Stacy. Just like you used to.”
They both laugh. Martha asks how Stacy’s family is doing. She watches the timer all the while. Seven minutes… Eight.
“Well, I can’t really hang on much longer here, Stace. You know how it is. Everything costs.”
“Oh, tell me about it, sister. And you with four kids! I think we have it bad with one.”
“So, let everyone know we say hi from up here, okay?”
“I’ll do that.” Stacy pauses a moment. “I’ve heard some people say things are getting rough out there. But the newsvids are all ‘great energy resources’ this and ‘phenomenal scientific advances’ that. Are you guys really doing fine?”
“The Bittners will get by, like we always do,” Martha said. “But I’ve really got to run. Remember to tell everyone I said hi?”
“Sure, I’ll do that.”
“I love you, Stacy.”
“Love you, too, Martha.”
New Year’s Day. That’s what it’s called on the calendar. But everyone here calls it Reckoning Day. Martha set her alarm for five in the morning. When she wakes up, she’s alone in bed. She utters a quiet curse and hurries to the kitchen. Craig is sitting at the table, drinking a cup of synthcoffee.
“Morning,” he says. Like it’s not the middle of the night. Like it’s just another day.
“Morning,” Martha answers. She pours her own cup and sits down.
Neither of them says anything for a few minutes.
“I’ll take the cylinders out this morning,” Craig eventually says.
She shakes her head. “That’s no good and you know it. I can’t work the mines like you do. Any job I found wouldn’t get us even half what you earn. You take the cylinders out and it’s just going to make it worse next year.”
He doesn’t look at her. She knows he has to see the logic in this.
Martha finishes her cup of synthcoffee, stands up and takes down the five filled cylinders. The half-full one she leaves behind. It’s not a bad start for next Reckoning Day.
“It’s early,” Craig says. “You’ve still got a few hours.”
“No. I’m going to get going now, before it gets any later. Fix the kids a nice breakfast this morning.”
She reaches down and embraces Craig. He wants to stand up, but she holds him down, kisses the top of his head.
Martha goes out the door, walks slowly down the road towards the colony’s central square. The Reckoners are already set up, a few tables, pairs of officials in dark uniforms behind them. A black rover is parked off to the side.
None of the other colonists are here yet. Martha steps up to the table labeled “Last Names A-G.”
“Name?” one of the two women across the table asks.
The second woman scrolls through data on a ‘pad, pulls up their record. “Bittner family, Quadrant Three, Lot 274?”
“Census is six,” the second Reckoner says.
Martha nods again and places the five cylinders on the table.
The first woman looks at them, then up to Martha.
“There are five cylinders here, ma’am. Do you need to go back and get the sixth?”
Martha’s mouth is dry. She can’t speak, so she just shakes her head.
The Reckoner’s eyes hold Martha’s for a moment, then she looks away. She checks the five cylinders, confirms they are properly filled.
“Five cylinders for the Bittner family,” she says. Her fellow officer makes a notation on the ‘pad. “Step aside to the rover, ma’am. They’ll take care of you there.”
Martha walks around the tables on wobbly legs, heading towards the tall, muscular officers by the rover. As she does, she hears the second Reckoner’s voice saying: “Bittner family, census adjusted to five.”