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The Sounds of Autumn

The advert said:

Seasonal workers required for the Martian iron tree harvest.
Temporary work permits and visas available at all Martian consulates
Free transport to and from Mars will be provided to all successful applicants

“We should do that,” said Peter. “It could be a nice little earner for us.”

“No,” said David. “I did it once a few years ago, before I met you. It’s bloody hard work. The money is good, I’ll give you that, but it’s all a bit too exhausting for me.”

“Oh go on,” said Peter, “it’ll be fun.”

“Certainly not,” insisted David. “And no it won’t.”

Peter blew him a kiss, picked up his phone and started poking at it. “I’ll fill in the application forms for both of us,” he said, “and we’ll take it from there.” The best way to deal with David’s stubbornness was, he knew, to present him with a fait accompli. When David had no way of wriggling out of something, he usually just gave up and went along for the ride.

* * * *

The journey to Mars was uneventful though the somewhat spartan accommodation made David remark, rather gloomily, that if this was an omen then things were bound to get worse once they arrived. “Life was pretty primitive last time I went to Mars,” he said. “I doubt if it’s changed very much since then.”

Peter remained optimistic. “We’re on an adventure,” he said. “We’re going to faraway places with strange sounding names. We’ll have a great time.”

“Don’t forget the hard work we’ll have to put in when we get there,” David reminded him.

Sometimes, Peter thought to himself, David had rather too much of a one track mind. He shrugged and stared at the starfield displayed in the screen that was set into the wall (he refused to call it a bulkhead) of their cabin. “I think that little red dot might be Mars,” he said.

“No it isn’t,” said David, “and even if it is we won’t get there for ages yet. Come back to bed and let’s make the most of the time we have. Once we start harvesting neither of us is going to be very interested in extra-curricular activities.”

Somewhat surprised at this evidence that, for the moment, David had at least two tracks travelling through his mind, Peter did as he was told.

* * * *

The transport ship was met at the Port Lowell spaceport by a representative from the iron tree farmers cooperative. As the workers filed off the ship their papers were examined and they were directed to a fleet of flat-bed trucks that would take them out to the iron tree plantations. Outside the spaceport, the trucks passed through residential suburbs that merged into shopping complexes. Then they drove through more residential areas which gradually faded into vast paddocks where the iron trees grew.

“Port Lowell has grown a lot bigger and a lot more cosmopolitan since the last time I saw it,” said David. “Maybe life will be a bit easier than it used to be as well.”

As they left the city behind, the ride became very bumpy and dusty but nevertheless Peter found the novelty of what he was experiencing quite thrilling. “Look how close the horizon is,” he said to David, “and how pink everything is.”

“That’s because Mars is a small, red planet,” said David, “and everything’s covered in the dust that blows in non-stop from the deserts. So what other colour could things be? Blue, perhaps? Or maybe purple?”

“You take all the romance out of life,” said Peter. The truck suddenly made a sharp turn to the right, leaving the main road behind. It drove along a bumpy dirt track and Peter was forced to hang on tightly to stop himself from falling off. The truck trundled along for a little while before stopping at what was obviously a work camp. Peter could see a dozen or so rather crudely built huts. Presumably this was where they would be living for the duration of the harvest season. Peter, David and the rest of the workers on their truck climbed off and stretched their legs. Peter stared around. Iron trees loomed in the distance, a huge swathe of them stretching from horizon to horizon, thinning out slightly as they approached the work camp. That was an awful lot of iron trees, he thought and he began to suspect that David might have been right when he warned about the amount of work they were facing.

“All right, gather round,” called a supervisor and the workers all turned to face him. “You’ll be here for about four months in total,” he told them. “Once summer turns into autumn the leaves on the iron trees start to go rusty and they fall to the ground. Your job is to go into the forest, gather up all the fallen leaves and bring them back here where they will be loaded into trucks and carried off to the factory for smelting. The iron that these trees produce in their leaves is our major export, so your job here is absolutely vital to the Martian economy. These leaves are the reason why the Martian settlements have grown so large so quickly. Nothing is more important than successfully harvesting them.

“You will all be well paid for your efforts and you’ll be going home at the end of your employment with quite a lot of money in your pocket. But believe me,” he gave them an evil grin, “you’ll have earned every cent of it!”

“Why do the leaves have to be gathered by hand” someone asked. “Why not do it by machine?”

“The trees grow very close together,” said the supervisor. “You simply can’t get heavy machinery into the forest, not without destroying a lot of trees and if we do that we’ll soon start losing money. As they stand, the iron trees are a sustainable crop, providing us with ninety percent pure metal ore year in and year out for the foreseeable future. We’d be foolish to jeopardise that by thinning out the crop. So that’s why we need people who aren’t afraid of hard work to harvest the leaves every year.”

Peter noticed several people nodding in agreement at this. “That makes sense,” he said to David who just shrugged.

“Make yourselves at home in the huts,” said the supervisor. “We’ll start collecting the leaves after breakfast tomorrow morning.”

The crowd broke up and headed towards the huts. Naturally, Peter and David were sharing a room. Peter was rather surprised and pleased to find that their room was quite a step up from the spartan accommodation they had suffered with on the ship. The rough exterior of the huts had suggested that the inside would be quite primitive as well, but it wasn’t. The beds were spacious and comfortable and each room had its own en suite facilities. There was a fast WiFi access point for their phones and a multitude of streaming services available on the large screen television that dominated one wall of the room. “I could very quickly get accustomed to living like this,” said Peter.

“It’s a lot more luxurious and comfortable than I was expecting,” said David, “If they’ve upgraded the workers quarters to this high standard the Martian economy must have really flourished since I was here before. But I still think that after a day spent harvesting leaves you’ll be far too tired to make any great use of the facilities.”

“Maybe,” said Peter, “but it’s nice to have the opportunity.” He turned on the television and selected an inane comedy programme. Soon he was giggling helplessly. David shook his head in disgust and went to bed.

* * * *

The next day Peter began to realise that David had not exaggerated at all when he complained about the work they had ahead of them. After breakfast they assembled in the compound where they were issued with a magnetic grapple for picking up the leaves. They had to dump their leaves into a pack that they slung around their shoulders and when the pack was full they carried it to the edge of the forest and emptied into one of the trucks that were waiting for them. Then they carried their empty pack back into the forest and did it all over again and again and again…

And as they worked, all the time a steady rain of leaves fell from the trees. No sooner had Peter cleared an area of the forest floor than it filled up again. The leaves made a dull thud if they landed on bare ground and a loud clang if they landed on top of other leaves. Often they landed on the workers themselves and it wasn’t long before everyone was covered in cuts and bruises. “Why don’t they issue us with protective clothing?” he asked rhetorically, but nobody paid any attention to him.

Peter was astonished at how heavy the leaves were, though in retrospect he shouldn’t really have found it surprising. The leaves were ninety percent pure iron ore after all and iron is not noted for its lightness! His arms and shoulders were soon aching with fatigue. He walked back and forth between the forest and the trucks so many times that his legs soon began to feel like inflexible lumps of lead. Raising and lowering them was almost more than he could manage. As David had predicted, by the end of the day, all he wanted to do was sleep. He began to wonder if he and David would be able to survive four more months of this unremitting labour. But it was far too late to back out now. Like David before him when Peter had first raised the idea of taking part in the iron tree harvest, he no longer had any choice.

“I’m starting to hate autumn,” said Peter. “It’s too damn painful too damn noisy and too damn exhausting.”

“Told you so,” said David smugly.

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