The Land of Dreams

Cass set the last feed bucket down and leaned against the paddock fence, idly tugging a soft clump of gray-green dream pig fur out of the wire. The sun was breaking free of the distant mountains just in time to be swallowed up by blossoming amber clouds. She frowned, twisting the wool around her fingers. Just another normal day on the farm. Morning chores were almost done, but she couldn’t seem to settle into her usual rhythm. Even her eyes felt gritty and irritated. She rubbed at them with a cleanish patch of her shirt sleeve.

“Sleepy? Her father hung his elbows over the top wire casually, missing her mood entirely.

“Yup.” Cass shrugged. Agreeing was easier than trying to explain the restlessness that had been tugging at her. They stood side by side and watched while a couple of yearling dream pigs mock-battled over the last few bits of slop. Their curved horns clashed, donkey-sized bodies smacking into each other. “Hey, Pop? You ever thought about expanding the farm?”

“Into what?” His gaze stayed fixed on the posturing dream pigs, but his tone was carefully neutral, putting her on her guard. It was the tone that meant he already knew where he stood on a topic.

“I dunno. Maybe a few more hands to help around here. More stock. We have the best dream pigs around. Who knows? Maybe we could even have farms on other planets someday.” Cass watched him hopefully, for the first time letting her daydream sneak out into real life. There was no telling what might happen if they tried to make things better.

“I like it the way it is. We can manage what we have as a family. Tulandra’s where the dream pigs came from and Tulandra’s where they should be raised. Other planets won’t suit as well.”

“But you don’t know that.” Cass wanted to clang him on the head with the feed bucket. He was always so single minded.

“Getting the off-world itch, Cassie?” He might as well have asked her if the farm and her family weren’t good enough for her anymore. She knew it was what he meant. Her parents had worried about her wanting to leave since she had mentioned looking at off-world farming techniques once when she was fifteen. It was worse now that the new spaceport was finished barely twenty miles from the farm. She hadn’t missed the fact they weren’t all that keen on her running errands out that way alone or lingering there for any length of time.

“It ain’t that. It’s just – what we do is special. We could use that to make a better life.”

“Sometimes, when things get too big, they stop being special. Gotta give something to get something. What’re you willing to give up to make this place bigger? Your home? Your family? Get a bunch of strangers in here and that’s what might happen.”

“It was just an idea.” Cass shrugged, trying to brush off his dismissal. She didn’t think it was fair to assume that making the farm a little bigger would ruin their lives. She should have known better. He never wanted to hear her thoughts about farm stuff. “Don’t you ever get tired of it, Pop?” Cass looked out at the building cloud bank. If she looked him in the eye, he’d know she wasn’t ready to let it go. Then he’d get stubborn back and that would be that. “One bad flood, a new pig-plague, economy crashes…any of that or a thousand other things and we’ve got nothing. Nothing.”

“You think I don’t know that, Cassie? We’ve been here three generations now.” He looked at her like he had when she was six years old and tying bows in the piglets’ fur. “Jimmy’s family settled here around about the same time. Look at them now – no land left after the Land Grant Agency decided they hadn’t made good enough use of what they’d been given. Now they’re all stuffed in a little place in town, living off of what I can afford to pay him.”

“All the more reason to make things better here.” Cass turned towards him.

“Better means a bigger investment. We take enough risks relying so much on the dream pigs for profit. No.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he shook his head. “Leave it alone, girl. We’re doing well enough right now. Be happy with that.” The all-weather comm hooked to his belt beeped and he turned away from her to answer it.

Cass clenched her jaw. Maybe she was wrong. It just galled her that he was willing to settle for ‘well enough’.

“C’mon, enough sulking.” Pop clapped her gently on the shoulder. “Jimmy needs help with Tika. Birthing’s not going smooth.”

Pop opened the barn door just enough to for them to slip inside. The scent of sweet hay and musky-clean animal made Cass sneeze. Twelve pens made a ring around the barn’s open center. Eight were occupied with dream pigs munching on their morning meal. They ranged in color from deep navy to pale rose. Across the way, Cass saw Jimmy kneeling in the bedding of the open birthing pen.

She’d seen him birth hundreds of dream pigs. Even as a scrawny kid just starting working as a farmhand, he’d had a gift for getting piglets to take their first breaths. He’d been good enough that Pop had forgiven him for talking too much about his schooling in crop rotation and animal psych. Jimmy wasn’t nearly so scrawny now and he thought longer before he talked, but his hands were still the best at gently starting piglets in the world.

“Heya, nerd,” she greeted him, shyly bumping his shoulder with her knee before hurrying to wash her hands. He nodded a greeting, eyes on the pen monitor.

Tika’s heart-rate and temperature were above normal, even for a sow in labor. She lay on her side, ribs rising and falling rapidly. Cass chewed her lower lip, not liking what she saw one bit. They usually gave birth standing.

Tika’s belly rippled and she groaned. When the contraction had passed, she raised her wedge-shaped head, whistling a breathy greeting. Cass whistled back, settling into the fresh bedding and twining her fingers into the dream pig’s indigo curls. Tika looked up into her eyes for long moment before the sow’s gaze turned inwards and her muscles tensed again.

“How’s it look?” Pop’s voice said he already knew the answer.

“Not good. If she’s got one stuck, we’re gonna need the vet here,” Jimmy answered.

Pop frowned. “Doc Taylor’s transport threw a tread yesterday. Doubt it’s fixed yet. I might have to go collect him.”

“Miss Cassie and I can manage. We’ll keep her steady ‘til you get back.” Cass felt her face flush. Even as worried as she was about Tika, Jimmy’s trust in her ability made her cheeks color. He wasn’t exactly an intergalactic celebrity-quality beauty, but his eyes crinkled in a way that made her turn a bit silly. Cass wouldn’t say she hadn’t been noticing that he listened intently to her opinions, not to mention how his muscles rippled when he hauled hay around.

Pop thought a minute then gave a nod and headed for the barn door. It shut behind him with an echoing click. Cass sat stroking Tika’s curls and glancing up at Jimmy every so often. Usually they chatted their way through work, but the silence between them stretched. They both knew they were getting past the point where a good outcome was likely. Cass dug her hands more deeply into Tika’s fur. There had to be something they could do.

“Have you tried walking her?” Cass blurted out. She was sure he had. It would have been one of the first things he tried.

“Yeah. She won’t get up and your old man didn’t want to shove her around much more.” Jimmy gave her a worried looked that clearly said he didn’t like this any more than she did.

“Let’s try again. It can’t hurt any more than leaving her laying until Pop gets back with Doc Taylor.” She tried to keep her expression firm as he glanced over at her, but her insides were twisting. It would be all too easy to hurt Tika or the unborn piglets. He didn’t look at all convinced. “Please, Jimmy. She might do it for me.”

Unexpectedly, Jimmy chuckled. “All right, Missy. I ain’t gonna tell you ‘no’ with that look on your face. We’ll give it another go.” She smiled back at him. Pop never would’ve given her the chance, but Jimmy slipped Tika’s halter over her nose and tossed Cass the lead line. “Your show, Boss. How do you want to do this?”

Cass grabbed a spare towel from the birthing kit. Heaving up on Tika’s shoulder, she wedged it underneath the dream pig’s bulky body. “Grab it from the other side, will you?” With Jimmy holding the other end, Cass pulled the towel snug around Tika’s barrel-like ribcage, making sure it was clear of the sow’s straining belly. “We’ll use it like a sling. If we can get her front up, she might be able to do the rest. Ready?”

Jimmy nodded. “One. Two. Three.” Cass pulled, straining to lift several hundred pounds of animal off the ground. She gasped as her shoulder muscles began to burn. Tika groaned, writhing briefly before settling back on her side.

“It ain’t working.” Jimmy grunted from the other side. “We have to let her down. We’ll hurt her.”

“No!” Cass pulled harder, rocking her weight into the sow’s shoulder. She felt the dream pig shift. “C’mon Tika. Move!”

All at once, Tika thrashed, forelegs windmilling and finally catching ground. Jimmy jumped out of the way, narrowly avoiding the sow’s cloven hooves. The three of them stood staring at each other for a moment, panting and surprised, before Tika began to kneel again. Cass grabbed the lead line and tugged her forward. With a sigh, the sow took a few slow steps. Cass kept her going, walking in a steady circle at the barn’s center.

“I’ll be damned.” Jimmy leaned back against the pen gate, grinning at her. “I think you just saved that pig’s life, Cassie.”

Cass beamed back, taking Tika on another circuit of the barn. Halfway around, the sow stopped, a quizzical expression on her long face. Cass started to pull on the lead again, but paused when she realized Tika wasn’t trying to lie down again. “Jimmy! It worked! Jimmy! I see a nose!”

He was already coming with a fresh towel.

Five hours and six piglets later, the barn was dim and still. Dr. Taylor had looked over the new arrivals and Pop and Jimmy had gone to see him out. Cass sat with Tika’s head in her lap, watching the new litter nurse. Six was a good number. Not so many that Tika would need help feeding them, but enough to pay the bills when the time came to sell them off-world.

Cass’ eyelids were getting heavy. She knew she should go back inside. Sleeping in the barn wasn’t a good idea. Jimmy was always on about the pheromone that dream pigs secreted, but for as long as she could remember, she’d known that people sleeping near them experienced deep, intensely realistic dreams.

Both of her parents had made sure she knew how risky it was to sleep in the barn. The longer a person was exposed to the dream pigs, the stronger the reaction was. Every now and then they got the story back about a person who’d actually gone and believed what they dreamed. Jimmy said that was also why people were willing to cough up so much hard-earned cash for them. Pop was crystal-clear when he said he’d give anyone he found dozing in the barn a talking-to.

Talking-to or not, it didn’t seem right to disturb Tika after she had worked so hard. Besides, Pop didn’t know everything. She’d close her eyes a bit and then get up and get back to work. A minute or two couldn’t hurt.

Her hair fell in elaborately arranged curls down her back. The diamond flakes artfully dusted over her designer dress glittered in the candlelight. Music played softly as a few couples moved in time on the dance floor. One of the up-and-coming entertainment celebrities waved to her. She nodded politely back before turning the other way. It had been a long day. She wasn’t up for another inane conversation with someone who was after her sponsorship.

Cass smiled as Jimmy returned with drinks and a sparkle in his eye. “I made us a new connection.” He handed her the drink and settled into the chair next to her. His back was straight and his suit perfect. He had come a long way from muddy boots and shoveling manure. “Those men over there are from Silta. More than that, they practically own Silta. The whole damned planet, Cassandra. And they want to meet you to talk about starting a dream pig farming complex. We can charge them anything we want and they’ll pay it happily.”

“Put it on my calendar.” Cass waved her hand, feigning casualness that she didn’t feel. A contract with Silta would solidify her position in this part of the galaxy. It might even give her a base to start shipping dream pigs out to more distant systems. The old family farm would keep growing, keep making money.
Jimmy looked taken-aback for a moment before he burst out laughing, eyes crinkling. “You almost had me there. As if you aren’t dying to run over and work out all the details right this minute!”
“Of course I am! Just don’t tell them that. Better they think we’re taking our time with it.” Cass laughed with him. She never would have guessed that she had a head for business. It was a shame her father hadn’t lived to see his little farm become a galactic phenomenon. He might have realized how much a little bit of risk could do – how much she could do.

“Up you get, Missy,” Jimmy was leaning over the side of Tika’s pen. He looked so different from his dream-self that she barely recognized him. Cass blinked, trying to get her bearings. The dream had been so vivid. Not a surprise given where she’d fallen asleep, but disconcerting just the same.

Jimmy held out his hand. Cass eased out from under Tika and took it. She tried to picture him in the three-piece suit from her dream. In the light of day, she couldn’t imagine him all fancied up. Jimmy heaved her to her feet and she stepped out of the pen. He was watching her with a worry-line between his eyebrows.

“What?” Cass brushed a tuft of fur off the front of her coveralls and picked some bedding out of her braid.

“You know better than to fall asleep out here. You’re not a kid anymore, Cass.” She glared at him. She knew that. Hadn’t she just proved it with Tika?

“You looking to try to escape school work by going a bit crazy?”

“I didn’t mean to.” Cass frowned. He wasn’t even ten years older than she was. Old enough to be different from the boys at school, which occasionally made her a bit too nervous and giggly, but why was he suddenly treating her like a kid? “Relax, Jimmy. A nap or two won’t drive me loopy. We sell the pigs as pets all the time. None of our clients are any crazier than they started out.”

“They’ve got only one pig each, like the law says, not a whole herd of them. Before you know it, you’ll start thinking they’re telling you the future. Just look at old Benji down the other side of the spaceport. The other day he was down at the bar sayin’ that harmony lilies will fly in space and bloom all over the galaxy. And he’s only got a small herd.”

Cass snorted in amused disbelief, as Jimmy had no-doubt planned. Harmony lilies were a pretty sort of weed. Mum had talked about growing them in the garden but the insects they attracted drove the pigs to distraction. “All right, all right. It won’t happen again. Now move. I’ve got to get the yearlings under shelter before this storm breaks.” She could feel Jimmy watching her as she went.

Cass put the littlest piglet on the scale. Yet again, the diagnostics couldn’t find anything in particular wrong with him besides mild dehydration and somewhat delayed development. He hadn’t put on weight like his siblings and was growing increasingly listless. She knew the feeling. For the last few weeks, she’d been so busy taking care of the litter that she’d had no time to think about her dream.

The piglet shivered again. Cass couldn’t resist. She picked him up, wrapping the little violet ball of fuzz in a thick towel and cradling him to her chest. She had been on the farm her whole life – more than long enough to know that not every baby animal made it to adulthood, even with the costly high tech gadgets. Cass hated it every time.

Pop already had given up on him, but she wasn’t ready to let it go. Pop might be one of the most respected farmers in the area, but she was tired of him having the only say on how things were. Sometimes a little extra was all it took. It couldn’t be that dangerous if she brought the piglet in. A strong dream was nothing compared to a piglet’s life. One handed, she pulled a bottle of nutrient formula out of the warming tray.

Cass checked her watch. It was late. Her parents had been asleep for hours. She could sneak him into the house. She’d be in trouble if they found out. She could almost hear Jimmy’s voice, telling her that Pop would be mad as a stuck boar and no one in their right mind would want that. But then he might also say that a life was worth it.

She paused outside the door, re-tucking the towel around her small charge. “Okay, buddy, now’s the part where you have to hush. You give us away and it’ll be right back out to the barn for you and talking-to for me.” He cooed and wiggled. Not exactly reassuring. Cass waited a moment for him to settle and then tiptoed as quick as she could to her room. Her father’s snores echoed down the hallway even after she shut the door carefully behind her.

Cass settled the piglet on her narrow bed, mounding up the blankets so he wouldn’t fall off the edge. “Stage One complete, pal. One night in and then I’ll sneak you out early enough to keep us from getting caught.”

The piglet nosed his way out of the towel, but didn’t explore further. Her heart sank. Usually they were crawling everywhere at this age. Clad in clean pajamas, she climbed onto the bed. She propped herself up on the pillow and tucked him into the crook of her arm. She offered him a bottle, feeling an untoward surge of hope when he latched onto the nipple.

“You need a name.” Naming him was a bad idea. It would just make it worse. But he was hers. Maybe if he lived, Pop would be willing to trust her like Jimmy did. “How about Lios? It’ll give you something to aspire to anyway.” She grinned. Jamie Lios, superstar singer/songwriter extraordinaire, knew all about taking risks and living the glitzy life. He was tall, gorgeous, and had a voice that turned her heart over… The idea of naming a sickly, squeaking, dream piglet after him was ridiculous enough to tickle her fancy.

Lios smacked his lips and burped. He had finished most of the bottle. Cass set her alarm to wake her in an hour and tucked it under her pillow. “Night, Lios. Get better, huh? That’s an order, midget.” She tucked the blanket around them both, threading her fingers gently into his violet curls and enjoying the hope that disobeying the rules gave her. She fell asleep to the feel of his tiny heartbeat trembling against her fingertips.

Cass stumbled back into her tiny cubicle of an apartment exhausted and smelling strongly of alcohol. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. If one more drunken spacer spilled his drink on her… she didn’t know what she would do. Quitting wasn’t an option. The bills weren’t exactly going to pay themselves.

She had given up looking for a better job. It was the same thing over and over again – she just didn’t have the qualifications for anything other than slinging drinks at the spaceport bar, picking up trash, or heaving baggage for cut-rate cargo liners. She’d tried them all. At least serving drinks there wasn’t as much possibility of being crushed under a pallet or catching some weird trans-galactic disease.

Her old monitor beeped with an incoming message. Cass sat down on the bed and ran a hand through her short hair to straighten it. She’d stopped wearing it long years ago. It was too much trouble. She pressed to button to accept the call without looking at the ID. This late there was only one person it could be.

“Heya, Jimmy!” She put on the sunny smile she used to get good tips as the video feed popped up. Her stomach did a little flip-flop that she worked hard to ignore. He looked tan and tired, but under it he seemed content. He had almost totally taken over running the farm as her parents had gotten older. Since she had left. It suited him.

“Evenin’.” He frowned and Cass smiled harder. She knew he would run straight back to her father as soon as the conversation was over and tell him all about how she had seemed.

“Mum and Pop okay?” She didn’t know why he paid for intergalactic calls, but he phoned every other month or so. The conversation was always pretty much the same. Abruptly, Cass didn’t want to deal with it. She was beat and work started again early.

“Yeah. The folks are fine.” His slow drawl annoyed her. It sounded so… backwater.

“What do you want, Jimmy?” Cass cut through whatever he had been about to add.

He blinked, strong face crumbling a little. “Was just gonna ask if you’re coming home soon. Your parents miss you.” The hurt in his eyes ate at her. All he had ever wanted to do was work on the damn farm, make the pigs happy and the crops grow. He probably even wanted a wife like Mum who puttered around with gardens and sewing and raising kids. It pissed her off that he didn’t want more. Well, he could have the farm and all of its rules. At least here she wasn’t stuck doing the same thing every day, seeing the same faces, never being allowed to have an opinion.

“No.” Cass felt the smile slide off of her face. She didn’t want to have this argument again.

“Just a visit. You wouldn’t have to stay. Just let us see that you’re okay. In person.” Jimmy’s voice was pleading.

“I’m fine.” Cass shook her head. She had snuck away from Tulandra seven years ago. She hadn’t been able to take it anymore – the insecurity, the unending, backbreaking labor, the isolation, the rules about who she could be and what she could do. She had taken her meager savings and hopped the first outgoing ship without telling anyone she was leaving. It had taken Jimmy months to track her down. She hadn’t been back to Tulandra since leaving and had no intention of doing so now. Not that she had any way to scrape together enough money in the first place. That life was a long, long way away. “Drop it, Jimmy.”

“Why are you so damned stubborn? You got no life there. Whatever you thought you were gonna do out in the big, wide universe didn’t work. You look like hell and keep getting less and less like you. Give it up, Cassie. Come home to the people who love you. There’s good stuff for you to do here. We need y—”

She hit the disconnect button hard enough to shake the monitor. He didn’t understand. She couldn’t go back. She was nothing there. Cass threw herself back on the bed and buried her face in the single, flat pillow. Tears soaked into the thin fabric as his words sank in. There was too much truth in them for her to stomach. How was it that after trying so hard for so long she was nothing here too?

Cass startled awake with her alarm buzzing in her ear. Her cheeks were damp and her nose clogged. She didn’t want to go and be nothing. She didn’t want to stay and be nothing. Were those really the only choices for her?

Something tickled at her toes and she almost kicked out at it before her sleep-fogged brain caught up. Lios blinked up at her from the bottom of the bed. He trilled happily when she moved, smacking his lips and toddling over her knees toward the empty formula bottle.

Cass set him on the floor as she hurried to get dressed. The dream lingered heavily in the pit of her stomach. She told herself it was no more real than any other dream. There was nothing that said it would end like that if she left home. She wouldn’t go without telling her parents anyway. They would worry. Jimmy would worry. But if she did decide to go, there was a good chance they would try to stop her.

A noise from the floor distracted her. Lios had spied her bedroom slipper and was giving a threatening series of hoots, his curls bristling. Cass laughed, clapping a hand over her mouth to stifle the noise. She shook her head, grinning as his antics chased away the hopelessness the dream had brought. Her parents would be up soon. Time to get him back to his mother.

The green and purple mountains were barely visible in the pre-dawn light as Cass crept across the yard with Lios under her jacket. The domed barn was a dim, hulking shape in the gloom. She pulled open the door and ducked inside, breathing a sigh of relief as she shut it behind her.

“Cassandra.” She jumped at the sound of Pop’s voice. Her stomach plummeted from where it had been just starting to recover from the dream. Pop was standing by Tika’s pen, flashlight in hand.

“I couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d get started on the chores.” She stammered the words too quickly. It sounded way too much like an excuse.

She heard him sigh in the dark, as if he was too tired to be angry at her. “All my life on this farm and you think I don’t know pig-dreams when I have them, girl?”

“He’s sickly. I thought it would help. And it has. He’s better today. We can’t afford to lose the money.” She already knew this was going to end with her in trouble.

“Put him back in the pen, Cass.” Pop’s voice rumbled. “Losing one piglet won’t break us, but spend too much time with them and they might just break you. As long as you live here, they’re livestock, not pets. You’ve been warned more than once. You’re nineteen. I shouldn’t be telling you again.”

Cass hit the light switch with more force than necessary. Her eyes stung in the sudden bright glow. She stalked towards the pen, pulling the fussing piglet out from under her coat. His curls were ruffled, but he did look a lot more active. Her jaw clenched and she shot her father a defiant look. If he was going to be like this, maybe she didn’t want to live here anymore.

“You’re done with this litter. Jimmy will take over caring for them.” His voice was matter-of-fact, but she could hear the steel in it.

“But, Pop!” It was unfair. She’d taken great care of them. Not that Jimmy wouldn’t, but they were hers.

“No.” He pointed towards the door.

“I know what I’m doing. I’m not a kid anymore!” Cass kept her voice down, but the nearest dream pigs stirred anyway.

“Then get your head out of the clouds. This ain’t a game, Cassandra.”

“I know it’s not. I saved Tika and the litter, didn’t I?” Her voice shook. “You’re not the only one who has ideas.”

“A few lucky chances don’t make you an expert.” Pop folded his arms across his chest. “Now get back to the house. We’re done talking about this.”

There was nothing left to say. Feeling defeated, Cass left the barn. He never listened and he never would.

Cass stowed her bag next to her in the hayloft. Dream or no dream, she was leaving the farm. It wasn’t just the fight with her father. She felt like she’d been trying to get away for years. She couldn’t imagine herself as a farmer’s wife, chasing stock, birthing piglets, and programming the household machinery – keeping things going and wondering if ends could be made to meet each month. Always wondering when the next disaster was coming to ruin them.

Her father was up in the top field, mending fences. He’d made it clear he didn’t want her help. Jimmy was down at the spaceport getting a part for the tractor. Pop had made sure she didn’t go along on that errand either. Was he trying to keep her away from Jimmy now too?

She rolled over onto her stomach, pieces of hay poking here and there. She would leave tonight. She couldn’t ask Jimmy to take her to the spaceport – he still had to work for Pop. All three moons would be in the sky before midnight. They would provide enough light and, if she took her bike, she could be there before dawn. After that, a cheap ship to anywhere would do. She’d figure it out, even if the dream of what might happen had scared her a bit. Cass set her jaw firmly. That just wasn’t her.

The late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows. Most of the dream pigs were outside, but Tika and her litter were still in their pen. Lios was tussling whole-heartedly with his siblings. The night in the house had made all the difference. She would miss them terribly when she went, Lios in particular. Him being alive let her know that she could do things right, even if she felt sick when she thought about her plans. Cass shut her eyes, the warmth and quiet making her drowsy.

The shuttle docked with barely a bump. Annie squealed with delight, clapping her chubby hands and bouncing as much as the straps holding her in her seat would allow. Cass smiled at her daughter, packing away snacks and toys as the flight attendant relayed the usual information about disembarking and gate changes.

Jimmy unhooked Annie, settling her expertly on his hip. “C’mon, little miss. Your grandparents are waiting to meet you.” Cass’s smile became a grin as Annie grabbed two big handfuls of her father’s hair and pulled.

“Easy there!” Jimmy leaned back, trying to escape her reach.

“Hold still.” Cass stood on tiptoe and laughingly disentangled Annie’s fingers. “She’s going to be stronger than you in no time.” Annie had spent most of her short life on shuttles. The trip back to Tulandra had been a long one. Cass was glad the lower gravity didn’t seem to have affected her development. The doctor had assured them it was safe, but she had worried a bit anyway.

They walked down the aisle and out into the spaceport. It had grown almost unbelievably in the time Cass had been gone. It was hard to believe it had been ten years. College had gone by in a blur and she had jumped straight into the job with the Farm Research Bureau afterwards.

Reconnecting with Jimmy had been a surprise. They had spent years talking across the galaxy, but after so long he had seemed more like an imaginary friend than a real person. At least until he had come for an extended visit to see about getting a patent for their strain of dream pig. She grinned. Turned out a nine year age gap wasn’t such a big deal after all. Her parents had been at the wedding via webcam. To her relief, Jimmy had never once mentioned returning to the farm he loved.

She had been the one to bring it up once they’d known Annie was on the way. After a few bureaucratic tussles, Cass had gotten the FRB to let her relocate her work to Tulandra. She wanted Annie to grow up without the constant bustle and pressure of the larger worlds. There would be time enough in her daughter’s life for that and Cass wouldn’t keep her from it when the time came.

The doors opened and Cass breathed deeply. The air was rich with the end-of-summer smells of cut hay and damp earth. Across the road, her parents were waving. Cass wrapped her free arm around Jimmy’s waist and hugged him tightly. They were finally home.

The barn door opened, bringing Cass out of her dream. She peeked over the edge. Relief flooded through her as she watched her father cross the room. She wasn’t ready to face Jimmy after all of that. It was just plain awkward that it was so easy to think of him as ideal husband material. She got up and climbed down from the loft. Pop had his back to her, washing his hands in the deep sink.

“Pop.” She was surprised at how calm her voice sounded. Her hands were trembling. “I want to leave the farm.” Her dream gave her last minute inspiration. She knew what she wanted. “I want to go study at a university. One of the ones on Pollin.”

He finished washing his hands in silence. Cass waited, knowing he must have heard her. At long last, he turned around. She met his eyes, squaring her shoulders and fighting the tears that were welling up. As they stared at each other, his shoulders slumped. The tears got away from her, running down her cheeks of their own accord. She crossed the distance between them and threw her arms around him. “Not forever. I promise. I just have to go for a bit and see other things.”

“Okay, Cassie. Okay.” His strong arms came up around her. “But you get to tell your Mum.”

At that, the tears came on even stronger. He was going to let her go and the he’d let her come back.

The transport was packed and her ticket bought. “Pop, c’mon! I’m gonna miss the shuttle!” Cass’s stomach was fluttering with nervous excitement. Her mother was already in the driver’s seat, having wasted no time telling all of the neighbors that her girl had gotten accepted at a fancy university. Cass leaned out the window, searching the yard for her father.

“Calm down, Cassie. There’s plenty of time. He’s just got to go get something.” She caught Mum’s smile in the rearview mirror. “Now don’t forget, Jimmy’s cousin, Anna, will be meeting you when you get to Pollin Station. She says you can stay with her as long as you need.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. I have her picture and her number.” She and Jimmy had already said goodbye. It hadn’t exactly been the stuff of romance vids. He’d pulled her ponytail and told her to punch any guy who looked cross-eyed at her. She’d hit him for practice’s sake, though not too hard.

Pop finally came out of the barn with a travel crate. Cass rolled her eyes in exasperation. She should have known he would take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Tika’s litter was ready to go to their new homes. Obviously he had scheduled one to leave today too.

He put the crate in the back and settled into the passenger seat. They started off down the road. Cass twisted in her seat and peeked into the crate. Lios whistled at her. Her heart sank. Even though she was leaving, she had hoped he would stay at the farm. “Where’s he going?” she asked quietly.

“With you.” Pop answered in a gruff voice. “You’ll need company out there. Already called the university. They let you have one pet.”

“Oh.” Cass settled back into the seat, her grin threatening to split her cheeks. She reached back and stuck her fingers through the slats. Warm breath huffed against her skin and Lios trilled softly. Her special midget was going with her. In the distance the spaceport was visible, growing clearer by the mile. She shivered in excitement. All of her dreams began there.

Kate O’Connor’s short fiction has also appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra eMag, and Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3.

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