“I found a diamond!” The young woman beside me cheers and lifts the jagged rock high. She’s soon surrounded by others as young as her, all marveling over the precious gem.
I snort and turn to Gavin, who has the same expression as I do. We share a fond shake of the head as we continue along, not paying any attention to the growing crowd of volunteers. Gavin has been working beside me for forty-some years, and we know not to bother with the young volunteers sent from the home colonies. They’ll stay for their mandatory few months and go back with a pocket full of smuggled gems and a community service stamp on their IDs to go towards an eventual retirement.
Gavin and I are probably completely covered for our retirements at this point, but we’re still working, and we will be working until our hands can’t lift our shovels. We’ve been doing this so long that we know that the diamonds and gems on Gavel are worth nothing compared to the dirt they’re found in.
Youths come to volunteer on Gavel for riches and rewards. They find dimly-lit tunnels that are really just large holes supported by glass outlines with tiny, uncomfortable living quarters and outdated hover carts that send minerals to the sorters on the planet’s surface (or, what’s left of it.)
Gavel has been a mining planet since I was young; the dense outer layer making it impossible for vegetation to grow and for any real ozone layer to be developed. It was supposed to be written off and avoided until the scans detailing the planet’s core came in. As it turned out, Gavel was extremely rich in minerals and precious stones, so a faux-zone was shipped over and assembled within the year.
I heard about Gavel when I was young, and never really gave it a thought, aside from homework until there was a huge parasite that invaded my home planet, Orchard, leeching the nutrients from the soil and leaving our crops desolate. Even after the parasite had been killed off, it was tough to make ends meet without a good place to grow plants. A soil shipment from Gavel was sent in and kickstarted the rebirth of my home planet. I promised myself that I would go to Gavel and work there. According to the few letters I’ve gotten, Orchard is almost back to the productivity level from before the famine.
Gavin, on the other hand, was born on Gavel planet and has been working since he was little, be it working on the more worn down carts when he was little, looking after the mechanical sorters and preparing minerals for shipping when he was a teen, and now getting the materials from the source. He’s never been anywhere else, never even seen pictures.
Once, in the blur of the morning as we waited for the all-important coffee to be made Gavin asked me about my home planet.
“What are trees like?” It was the first thing he’d said to me since we’d met.
I thought for a moment. It had been so long that the memory of trees felt distant.
“They look a little bit like the tunnels and sorting system,” I decided, “The trunk of the tree is like a smaller tunnel, except it’s rough like gravel, but brown like the dirt. The leaves are like the sorting stations; spread out above the trunk. They’re a little bit textured like the cracked tunnel walls.”
He didn’t look like he understood, but his eyes were greedy for more.
“You shouldn’t bother with the heavy stones,” he offered, as payment for my description, “you’ll just tire yourself out and they’re not as important anyway.”
“But someone has to get them.”
“Yeah, the volunteers.” He jutted his chin at the miserable-looking crowd of inexperienced diggers that had recently joined us. “It doesn’t matter if they burn out, since they’ll be gone soon. They think the rocks are more important regardless; they don’t know about the dirt.”
I remember biting down my retort. And you do? This man had never worked any fields; how was he supposed to know anything about dirt?
And Gavin didn’t know anything about how to use dirt, but he knew about which dirt was considered more valuable and which was better off avoided until later. With his advice, I quickly became a very rich woman, though I still haven’t used any of that wealth.
A bell sounds as the cart Gavin and I finished starts moving up. It speeds along, a rocket compared to the heavy carts of the volunteers, the machinery overwhelmed by the weights of the enormous stones. It’s time for lunch.
We all file into one of the enormous elevators connected to the tunnel’s walls, everyone pressing uncomfortably together until we reach the station.
In the cafeteria, Gavin and I eat in silence, hands held atop the table, the cool of his ring pressing into my skin and vice-versa. A crowd of volunteers pass our table and we share a look of amusement as one of them approaches us, a novel but not uncommon occurrence. It’s the diamond girl.
“Hi, I’m Betty.” She slides in across from us and waves.
“Lucinda. I heard you had quite the find today. Congratulations”
She blushes and shrugs the complement away. “It’s not that big a deal; my friends have already found a bunch of stuff already.”
“A word of advice,” I lean in a bit, “make sure you don’t take too much. It doesn’t matter whether you take a gem here and there, but if you take enough, it messes up the average and the sorting machines send a message up to management and there’s an investigation; it’s a whole ordeal.” I shake my head, remembering last time one of the volunteers got greedy. We’d been working so long that management knew not to check us, but the racket the younger volunteers got up to when their gems were confiscated was just awful.
“I guess you two have plenty of diamonds and stuff, huh?”
“I’d say we have a fair share.” Every year on our anniversary, Gavin manages to surprise me with another heart-shaped stone. Not a jewel; it’s really something that wouldn’t seem out of place on a dirt road, but I’m always captivated by them.
“Yeah? You have something right now?” There’s an interesting twinkle in her eye and I almost feel bad for my answer.
“Just a handful of dirt, I’m afraid.”
Betty, bless her, laughs. “Yeah, I get that. I’m practically covered in dirt at this point. I always feel like I need a shower.”
“You get used to it.” I give her a sympathetic smile and rise. “Terribly sorry, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m an old woman and my bladder isn’t what it used to be.” I peck Gavin on the cheek and head in the direction of our room.
Once in our room, I lock the door and head off in the direction of our bed. I might not know where Gavin hides things, but the same goes for him; in the past six months, he’s never found the clay bowl I tucked under our bed and slowly filled with dirt, a handful a week. It’s the most important dirt, the kind that was used to revive my home. It’s taken a lot of work, but it’ll all be worth it to see the look on Gavin’s face.
Next week, my little sister, who’s a captain on her own cargo vessel will be stopping to pick up a shipment of iron. While her crew fills the ship, she will make a beeline for my quarters, where she will plant the carefully-concealed sapling into the large bowl of dirt I’ve cultivated.
When Gavin and I return from work, it will be sitting on our coffee table, right on time for an anniversary surprise.
Gavin has given me a life of rocks and shovels and dirt. It’s only fair that I repay him with a tree.