The Bradford Creek Exchange
Love at first sting (A Giant Leap Story)
Author's note: The Bradford Creek Exchange is set on the colonization spacecraft The Giant Leap, introduced in Space Diner Proposal and referenced in Alien Honeymoon, Big Earth Journals, and Space Maestro. You are invited to acquaint yourself with the craft and some of the characters by reading those stories here on Vocal:
The Bradford Creek Exchange
Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Faircloth sat on a hummock and gazed upward at the pear tree she sat under with her new friend and host. She closed her eyes momentarily as though listening to the hum of bees flitting from one delicate white flower to the next. "It's all so beautiful. I'm really glad I joined this exchange program."
"I like it here," eighteen-year-old Ethan Leary said without looking up from his lunch.
"How many blossoms do you think are on this tree?"
"67,442." He cast a sideways glance at the green-eyed brunette to his left.
"No." A sly grin teased at the corner of his mouth.
Cassandra narrowed her eyes and scrunched her nose. "Oh, you're one of those, are you?"
"I can tell. You're a teaser." A few white flower petals fluttered to the ground around her, and she took a bite of her apple. "Do you want my sandwich? I'm not real hungry after that big breakfast your mom fixed."
"Ayt?" Cassandra shook her head. "What's that mean?"
"It means a'aight. Okay, for you, I guess I should say alright." Ethan accepted the sandwich and added, "I guess sometimes I talk the way my grandfather did. I spent a lot of time with him before he passed. He was from North Carolina, back on Earth."
"One of my grandfathers was from northern Montana, along the Canadian border. But I don't think I talk the way people did there. I really don't know."
Cassandra explored the area with her eyes, finally settling on watching the sandy-bottomed creek below them. "I think I just saw a fish."
Ethan watched her cautiously, appreciating her profile and the way her long, straight hair flowed over her shoulder. Most girls mystified him. This one intrigued him. Perhaps it was just the novelty that she came from a distant pyramodule.
"Do you do a lot of exchanges?"
She turned a smile toward him. "I've done a few."
"Which did you like best?"
"The industrial sector in the Pennohio pyramodule was interesting, but it was loud. I don't think I'm cut out to be a metal worker."
"They have some agriculture there, too," said Ethan. "At least, that's what my school texts said. Mainly corn and chicken and hogs, I think. But we have some industry here in Southlands, too."
"I didn't get to see that part of Pennohio, just the foundry where they process ore they mine from the captured asteroid. It's practically a mountain, or what I imagine how a mountain would be. I also spent some time up on the flight deck, but my math isn't good enough to join the navigation team. The student liaison there suggested I do something secretarial or go into food services, but I don't want to do that."
Ethan raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. "Those are the ones you didn't like. Which of your exchanges did you like?"
"So far, I like it better here, with all the growing things."
"Do you think you'd want to come back after you finish your courses?" Ethan asked. "Or maybe stay and complete them here?" He tried to exude a nonchalant attitude, but he knew his hopeful tone had already betrayed him.
Cassandra creased her lower lip with her teeth. "You know we just met a couple days ago, right? And you're asking me to stay?"
Ethan ducked his head and brushed invisible crumbs off his pants. "Yeah. I already like you."
"Don't you have a girlfriend?"
"Me? Here? No, all the girls here want to go to the flight deck, join the orchestra, or get into one of the theater groups. Anything more exciting than watching trees grow."
"I like trees."
Rocking to a standing position, Ethan proffered a hand to help Cassandra up. "I still have some chores to do, even though I'm showing you around. Want to see the hives? I need to make sure the bears haven't torn them apart again."
Cassandra's eyes widened. "You have bears here? I didn't know anyone released wild bears on The Giant Leap."
Ethan grinned, and Cassandra glared at him with mock ferocity.
"I guess I should be telling you about the Southlands pyramodule," he said as they walked, "to make your exchange visit worthwhile. It's called Southlands because it was patterned after the states of Georgia and North and South Carolina. The aquifer here is lined with Georgia clay, and the Carolinas donated most of the soil." Ethan gestured at the flowering trees surrounding them. "These Bradford pear trees between the creek and the road are ornamental, but we grow pears, peaches, and pecans like they do in Georgia. And over that way, several farms specialize in fibers, like cotton, flax, and hemp."
"Wow, that's a lot of hives," said Cassandra, pointing at twenty large white wooden boxes, most with yellow and green markings on them.
"We have hundreds more. Those are just for this section. I'd get some honeycomb out for you to try, but I didn't bring my smoker. Maybe tomorrow—"
"Ow!" Cassandra lurched and flailed as several bees buzzed close around her.
"Don't swat at them," Ethan said. "That'll just make them—"
"Ow! Ow! They're stinging me!"
"Yep, one just stung me, too. Once one of the guards stings, it lets out a pheromone that alerts the others that you're a bad person and you need to be stung more."
"I'm not a bad person! Ow!"
"I meant intruder. They don't like your perfume, or something." Ethan grabbed her hand and pulled. "Come on, run, don't just stand around here."
Cassandra wrenched her hand free to run with him, waving her arms and yowling. They ran twenty meters together then trotted another twenty, where she abruptly collapsed to the ground. She landed heavily on her side and lay on the turf, moaning.
"What happened? Are you okay?"
"I twisted my ankle," she whimpered. "And the places they stung me—they're burning!"
"Yeah, the stings stay in and keep injecting venom. Let me get them out for you." Ethan pulled out his pocket knife and flipped it open. "Where?"
Cassandra pointed to her temple first, then indicated several places on her arms, and Ethan knelt beside her, carefully flicking out each embedded sting.
"Thank you," she said. "They really hurt. And my ankle really hurts. And—ow, ow, ow—there's another one! My neck—" She pulled back her long hair and revealed her creamy neck.
Ethan captured the bee sting between his blade and thumb and dropped it in the grass. He leaned close as though looking for more and placed a kiss next to the welt.
Cassandra jumped. "What was that? Did you just kiss me?"
"I, um, no. Well, yes, but it was a medicinal kiss. Don't they kiss things to make them better where you come from?"
She cast an uncertain expression at him. "For little kids, they do." Their eyes met for a moment, and she pointed at her temple. "This one still hurts. Do this one, too?"
Ethan kissed her a second time and then asked, "You can breathe, right? You're not having any trouble?"
"I can breathe."
"That's a good sign. You're probably not allergic."
"What would happen if I were allergic?"
"You could die, then we'd have to find another exchange student to host."
"Find another—" Cassandra huffed good-naturedly. "Well, geez, I wouldn't want to make you go through that."
Ethan helped Cassandra to her feet, and she stood gingerly.
"I don't think I can walk."
"Climb on," Ethan said, hunching in front of her.
Ethan's mother greeted them on the Learys’ porch. "What happened here?"
"She twisted her ankle trying to run away from bees."
"Good heavens, girl. Let's get some medicine on those stings. You look like a lumpy red potato." Mrs. Leary disappeared into the residence.
"Oh, no," said Cassandra.
Ethan lowered her gently to the porch. As he guided her into one of the chairs, he leaned in close and murmured, "Don't worry about it. I like potatoes." Then he kissed her temple.