Imagine 2200, Fix’s climate fiction contest, recognizes stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, imagining intersectional worlds of abundance, adaptation, reform, and hope. Read the 2022 collection here.
“I don’t understand why the bill’s so high.” Latoya rubbed the bridge between her eyes but kept her voice polite. “I just need to know why y’all be charging me more than the estimate.”
The girl said to hold, she’d get the robotics team lead.
Latoya leaned back in her chair. Out the window, the sun heated up her fields, solar arrays soaking in power for the farm while shading their signature crop, Camellia sinensis. The neat, green rows of tea bushes had grown thick over the years. The hedges were fat, with just enough room between for the picking bots. The spindly creatures harvested each leaf and bud at precisely the right time. They were key to every harvest, but especially this second flush — the first had been wiped out in March when the polar vortex came down to Mississippi for a visit.
She had only four harvest bots running, out of 10 in the fleet, and it wasn’t near enough. Two were out for repairs, the rest needing one thing or another. Aubree, the farm’s bot keeper, was laid up sick in the guest house. Everyone at the farm played an important role, but Latoya never appreciated that red-haired skinny white girl more than right now, as this oversized bill stared at her. Aubree could have fixed these before breakfast and without the extra parts.
The Seven Sisters Collective tea farm was having money issues, and hoping for better days was not a solid business strategy. Latoya knew that — so said her degrees in sustainable agriculture and business — but all the best practices in the world couldn’t outrun a changing climate, one virus after another, and plain bad luck.
“I heard you wanted to talk about the bill.” This young gentleman’s accent sounded like it got lost on the way to Jackson’s shiny new tech corridor. Latoya hoped there might still be room for negotiation.
There was that word again: hope. “I appreciate you helping us out with repairs,” she started, even though they’d been substantially delayed, messing with her whole plan. “You know our bot keeper is sick with the virus, that new one, the arbovirus.” Mosquitos were a hazard everywhere in the South, especially when they helped viruses cross over to humans.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” And he seemed to be. “It’s just those specialized tea pickers you’ve got out there need specialized actuators. We had to order those from Taiwan, and they’ve got a supply chain problem. Long story short, their price is double right now. We’re just passing that on, Ms. Comfort.”
“I see.” She kept her sigh tucked in her chest. “The bill says we’ve got 30 days to pay. I’ll need every one of those. Could we get our bots back before then? We need them to harvest the second flush.”
“I’ll have them sent straight out today. Should be there by tomorrow. And I’m sorry about your bot keeper. I hope she gets healed up soon.”
Latoya had that wish as well, and not because the farm would be sunk without her. Aubree wasn’t just a skilled bot keeper, she was family. They all were. Seven Sisters had more than seven folks — 13, for a few years now — and none had ever been sisters. Mama said it gave cover to families like theirs before they were legal. But now, they’d all sworn the oath, signed the documents, and pledged to care for one another, in sickness and in health, come hell or high water. The business was how they kept fed, body and soul, on top of the Basic Income everyone brought, thanks to the international billionaire tax making sure people didn’t starve while the rich built their fleets of yachts. In good years, Seven Sisters had a full cash reserve and sponsored climate refugees at the center down in New Orleans. In a great year, they could host — that’s how Lucía had come to the family. But the heat dome last year had burnt seven acres to a crisp, then the polar vortex killed the first flush this year, and now their bot keeper was down? Reserves were nearly empty. Latoya couldn’t afford to send bots out every time they needed repairs. Dang things broke all the time. Basic would keep them from starving, but it wouldn’t keep the farm alive. For that, they needed a good strong harvest to carry them through to third flush. Otherwise, they’d have to shut it all down for the first time since that first harvest 30 years ago.
Not gonna happen. Not on her watch.
Some things would have to change, and no one would like them.
Seven Sisters’ Tiny Tea House sat on the corner nearest the road, away from the main house but adjacent to a small row of tea bushes and the processing center. The whole farm met the mandates to be net-zero on carbon and make your own energy, but the tea house was quite the spectacle of green tech, from the passive solar design and geothermal heat pumps to the solar glass windows and rooftop windmills. Jasmine and Zoe had been buildin’ on the tea house for years, Jasmine with the vision, while Zoe was all about those kilowatts. They both ran the classes and tastings that brought substantial revenue to the farm year-round.
Which was why it pained Latoya, what she had to do.
The window-walls were dialed down, so she was quiet opening the door. Sure enough, they had a class going. Jasmine, her animated self up front while Zoe stayed to the side, ready to help. A dozen students were arrayed on couches and chairs, with the tasting room behind Jasmine, its shelves lined with teacups from around the world. The class must have just begun — the presentation’s title, Decolonizing Tea, beamed from each person’s tablet.
“We want you to deeply enjoy our hand-crafted teas.” Jasmine gestured in fluid movements with her long arms to the bins of teas. Zoe’s more compact, sturdy form floated around the room, checking on the tech. Both noted her presence by the door with a flicker of attention. “But at Seven Sisters, we believe that to enjoy tea, you have to understand the colonial history — not only to acknowledge the wrongs of the past but to understand how it flavors the present.” She splayed her dark brown fingers. “This very land used to be a plantation — not tea, but cotton — with 6,000 people enslaved in this county in 1860. The founder of the company, Ms. Angela Comfort, traces her lineage back to those enslaved peoples. Her grandfather acquired this land to reclaim it and honor the blood of his ancestors that tilled this soil. Of course, there were people here before the colonizers. The Choctaw lived here for at least 1,000 years before they were driven out of Mississippi in the 1830s, so this land also holds their sacred memory. In a moment, I’ll share a short video about the history of the tea trade — how tea grew wild and was cultivated in China for thousands of years until the British discovered it, contrived two Opium Wars to get hold of it, and eventually spread tea-growing to India, East Africa, and beyond. Thirty years ago, Seven Sisters planted the first Camellia sinensis shrub on this 300-acre parcel of land — and worked to rewild the rest, keeping with the WILD50 plan to rewild half the planet’s previously cultivated land — but before that, tea had never been grown here. However, the plantation system in Mississippi and throughout the South, as well as the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, were the models the British used for their tea-growing operations in India. The East India Company called these plantations “tea gardens,” but they were a brutal system of kidnapped and indentured labor.”
The mood of the class had grown noticeably grim, but Latoya was glad to see no one was shocked by this little overview. Occasionally, a fragile soul somehow escaped knowledge of the past — or, more likely, turned a blind eye to it — and told on themselves when they discovered tea had a past that existed beyond the color in their cup. But word got around, and that sort rarely showed up in their tea house anymore.
“With that,” Jasmine gave a smile that said she was proud they were taking this journey with her, “please watch this short video about the history of tea, war, and colonization.” Zoe activated it right on cue. Their routine was well polished. The simultaneous sound from the devices was enough to cover the conversation Latoya needed to have with them.
Jasmine quickly crossed the room to the door where Latoya had stayed put. “What’s up?” A small crease formed in her unlined brow. The young ones made Latoya feel all of her 50 years.
“Got the bill for the bots I sent out. It’s a lot. More than we can spend to get the rest fixed.”
“Is that bad? That seems bad.” Jasmine wrapped her arms in front of herself, tight.
Latoya waited until Zoe joined them. She slipped her hand through the crook of Jasmine’s bunched-up arms, tugging her to loosen up her worries. They were young, but they’d been together all 10 years they’d been part of the family.
“What’s happened? Is everyone OK?” Zoe asked.
“Everyone’s fine.” Which reminded Latoya of one way out of this. “How’s Aubree doing?” Zoe was on the schedule to care for their sick bot keeper.
Zoe’s pale skin had worry lines naturally, but now they went deeper. “She’s not eating again. Can’t keep it down. It’s gone on too long.”
Latoya knew what she meant. It was a month now, and most folks recovered after a couple weeks. Those who didn’t — whose systems were thrown out of whack by the virus’s assault — could be sick for years. And the business didn’t have years. It might not even last past this harvest if they couldn’t bring it in.
“She should go see that specialist.” Jasmine nodded agreement with herself.
“Will she?” Latoya directed that at Zoe.
Her face pinched up. “Maybe if she catches her wind? I’ll get her to call in, at least.”
Latoya nodded, but they couldn’t count on Aubree having a miraculous recovery. She should have had Aubree apprentice someone, but she was so young — not even 25, yet with that gift for bot care — and Latoya thought they had time. But she supposed bad luck was just time being ugly.
She drew in a breath. “Well, the two harvest bots I sent out for repair will be back tomorrow. But we can’t afford to fix the others, and the ones we have won’t keep up with the harvest.” The picking window was short for each flush — seven days, 10 at the outside — and if you picked too late, the quality dropped. They all knew it.
Jasmine looked stricken but kept quiet.
Zoe said it instead. “You mean we need to do the picking ourselves.”
“Afraid so.” It was brutal work — meticulous, out in the sun, backbreaking enough that Latoya felt her knees protesting already, and they had done nothing but walk to the tea house. “If everyone pitches in and does the best they can, we might salvage enough of the harvest to get the bots fixed before third flush.”
“You sure we can’t get them fixed now?” Jasmine’s grimace had taken over her whole body.
“Even if we had the money — which we don’t — we can’t get the parts in time. The tea’s ripening faster than expected.”
“Probably a knock-on effect of the polar vortex wiping out the first one.” Zoe had just finished her studies in agriculture.
Latoya nodded. Timing the harvest was always tricky, but the climate crazies made it worse. “With all of us who’re able to work the fields, we can salvage some of it.”
“What about the tastings?” Jasmine was still sorting it out.
“We’ll have to reschedule.” Zoe squeezed Jasmine’s arm, reassuring, but Latoya felt the support and appreciated it.
“Finish up this one,” Latoya said, “then meet us out there.”
The end-of-video music was playing, so Jasmine hustled back to the front while Zoe drifted to the side of the class.
Jasmine gathered everyone’s attention with her smile, but Latoya could see the tightness. “Now that you understand the history of tea, we’re going to work on decolonizing your cup. All tea comes from the same plant — the differences come in the precise timing of the harvest.” She shot a quick look at Latoya, who was waiting so she could depart without disturbing the class. “Commercial teas,” Jasmine continued, “in line with their colonial past, harvest at an industrial scale, indiscriminately chopping up the whole lot, often blending to restore any flavor at all. Their teas are homogenized, branded, and made shelf-stable. The legacy of colonialism flattens tea into a commodity. Whereas, at tea farms like Seven Sisters, we handpick and process each leaf, resulting in a superior flavor you can taste. At our farm, we use bot labor for all our home-grown teas, and we make sure all our imported teas are likewise fair-trade. Now, if you’ll follow me to the tasting area…”
Latoya used the cover of that shuffling to step out. Just then, a message came through. It was Pushti, their at-large tea buyer. She was due back any day now from her South American tea-buying trip.
I will remote in for the family meeting tonight, but heads up: I have a possible new member! Refugee. Brazilian drought. Tell you more tonight! We’re boarding the boat now.
Pushti also sent her itinerary: traveling by light-sail, a light-duty wind-solar-sail hybrid that traveled faster than the wind-only cargo ships. Departing Cuba, arriving in New Orleans in three days, then she’d be home. With another mouth to feed. Lord, Pushti always brought the strays. Her good heart drew in the desperate like she was selling salvation in a teacup. Seven Sisters did what they could to support refugees — that was part of their founding and purpose — except they didn’t have the money right now to host. And Pushti wanted this one to join the family!
There was no room for that.
Latoya sighed. Time to pay Mama a visit.
Angela Comfort was deeply invested in her handheld word game, such that Latoya considered coming back later. But later, she’d be out in the fields, and this needed discussing. Angela was the founder, along with Eleanor, but she was too gone with her mind to be troubling with family matters.
Latoya knocked on the open door. “Mama?”
Mama rumbled frustration and waved her in. “I ain’t never seen a word try so hard not to be figured out.” She sat in the big blue chair by the window, with a view of her fields of tea.
“Is that how it is?” Latoya perched on the cedar chest by Mama’s bed. Her 80-year-old mother’s mind was still razor-sharp — she kept up with advances in climatology and agriculture, knowledge grown out of her love of tea and this property she’d inherited. It lay at the same latitude as the birthplace of tea in China, and the hot and humid weather — although erratic and increasingly pesky — was similar to Assam, India, where some of the finest black tea was grown. The world had nearly stopped putting carbon in the air, but it would take a while yet to pull it back down. Meanwhile, the sins of the past kept taking their toll.
“I’ll get it in a minute.” Mama set the handheld on her spindle-legged table.
“I’m not sayin’ you won’t.”
Mama waggled her fingers, summoning her to speak her mind.
“I’m asking everyone to pitch in to help with the harvest.” Latoya kept her informed on the finances, so that didn’t need explaining.
“I ain’t much to look at, but I’m good for about half an hour.”
Latoya’s smile broke wide. “I’m not here for that.”
“Good, because that’s a lie. I’ll watch y’all from the tea house.”
Latoya chuckled a little, then got down to business. “I’ve got nine able bodies, including me and Olivia.” Who was likewise feeling all of her 50-ish years. “It won’t be enough, not for all 13 acres.”
“Thirteen?” Mama’s brow wrinkled up. “We’ve got 20.”
Latoya softened her voice. “The heat dome took them last summer. Remember?” It about killed her mama when it happened. An acre of tea bushes was wildly expensive to start and took five years to produce a harvest. In the beginning, Mama had sweated for every single one. Replacing those scorched bushes this spring had drained their reserves. It was an investment in the future, but it was a gamble, too. One that hurt them now, plus the future was never promised.
Mama scowled. “Then what’d you come to see me about?”
“Pushti’s bringing home another stray. Wants them to join the family.”
Mama brightened. “Who is it?”
“Refugee from the Brazilian drought. That’s all I know.” Latoya waited, but her mama just nodded to herself and kept that smile. “Mama, we can’t afford it. Not right now.”
She whipped her sharp brown-eyed gaze to Latoya’s face. “Can’t afford it? You weren’t old enough to remember when things got in the negatives, baby girl. Don’t tell me about poor. Whoever this refugee is, they’re coming from a lot worse than we have.”
“I know, but…” She hated arguing the practical side, but someone had to. “New Orleans can take them. They’ll get Basic and all the rest. The center can support them through the transition. Maybe we’ll be on our feet by then.” Although Latoya couldn’t see how. This refugee wouldn’t help with the harvest. They were usually a mess when they arrived and needed care, not to be thrown into the blistering sun to work the fields. Mama wouldn’t stand for that, and neither would she.
Mama had narrowed her eyes like she thought Latoya had been out in the sun too long already. “What do you think I founded this family for?”
“I know —”
“Then you know that we help who we can, when we can. And I’ve never seen that be convenient at the time.”
“This is different.”
“Is it?” The challenge in her mother’s eyes was quickly eroding her resolve.
Latoya sighed. “Pushti will be at the meeting tonight. We can put it to everyone then.”
“Pushti thinks this one could be family.” She said it like that settled the matter.
Maybe it did. Her mother and Pushti, put together, were a Category 4 storm making landfall: you could batten down or get out, but the storm would have its way in the end.
Latoya nodded but without conceding. She’d think more on it, which was what Mama usually forced her to do. “I’ll come get you tonight.”
“Make sure you do.” Then she reached for her handheld and scowled.
The word game could take the brunt for a while.
Lord, the heat. And it was only June.
Latoya’s hat shaded her hands as she picked. They’d all been toiling an hour, spread out, working their way down the rows, filling their mesh bags. It was an endless repetition of counting three leaves down and plucking the ones just old and dry enough to withstand the withering and rolling required to produce a fine black tea. This flush — if they could harvest it — would produce Seven Sisters’ signature Night Queen tea. The terroir — the land’s unique combination of acidic soil, topography, and climate — combined with a perfectly-timed harvest and their hand-crafted processing would create a cup that could soothe the most weary soul. And with enough kick to wake it up to live a whole and vibrant life.
Latoya rolled her shoulder, working away the ache and switching hands. She felt the gaze of her ancestors, disappointed she was in the fields, never mind she owned these crops, the whole family did. Just one harvest, she promised the ghosts, as if it could be any different. It was clear this was untenable. The labor was harsh, and they simply couldn’t harvest it all. The math didn’t add up. It mocked her even as she counted down the stem, 1-2-3-pluck, and kept movin’ on.
Jasmine’s voice broke the quiet with high exuberance. “Natsu mo chikadzuku hachijūhachiya.” It was a Japanese tea-picking song from one of her classes. The tune was sing-songy, and Latoya remembered the lyrics as something like Eighty-eight nights, summer is drawing near.
Raelynn, their resident musical talent who normally worked in tea processing, joined in. “No ni mo yama ni mo wakaba ga shigeru.” Young leaves grow thick in the fields and the mountains.
They all knew it, and it quickly spread. Look over there, my friend, the many lovely women come, in hats and crimson sashes, work to pick the tea. Lucía, the youngest in the family, still in school studying environmental systems, swayed as she sang. Kinsley, who’d taken a spot next to Olivia, holding both their bags, nudged the older woman to sing. Latoya was sure there was something between them, even if Olivia pretended not to know it. Ivy, their marketing guru, lifted her non-picking hand to wave with the song. Emery, who took care of every little thing, a fix-it person for all except bots, bumped hips with Ivy and did a swaying dance. Latoya just listened, round after round. There was magic in the music, the pains of labor easing.
When Mama and Eleanor arrived with trays of iced tea, the singing quickly faded. They all rushed to bring in their meager haul and claim the drinks. The glasses were wet with condensation and blessedly cool on her forehead and cheeks before slaking her thirst.
While the others drank and rested, Latoya gathered the bags, brought them to the processing house, and dumped the leaves out to begin the withering process. Two trays’ worth. Bots could harvest 10 times as much in an hour. But there was nothing to do about it except drink down her tea and go back out.
Maybe sing this time, and hope for better days.
Every body was weary, the ache of the harvest being rubbed from feet and kneaded from shoulders. The tea house stank of their collective sweat, each member of her family draped on a chair or sprawled on a table, waiting until it was meeting time.
The only one missing was Aubree: Zoe said she’d gotten an appointment with the specialist for tomorrow, so that was progress.
Normal times, Latoya would’ve canceled and let them crawl to their beds, but they all wanted to hear about Pushti’s stray, none seeming concerned about the finances: that was her job. Her place in the family was to free the rest from worry about making ends meet. That was how she fulfilled the vow: to care for one another, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, until this bond is legally dissolved by a court of the state of Mississippi. But she’d failed to anticipate the worst. She couldn’t control the climate or supply chains in Taiwan, but she could plan ahead, keep reserves. Yet she’d given in to Mama’s desire to replant those devastated acres, so she’d see them in full harvest once more, before the actual worst could happen and she passed on. Lord willing, not any time soon, but time could be ugly that way. Latoya had bet on good weather and a healthy bot keeper. She thought they’d had a cushion. But sometimes, the world piles one thing on top of another and flattens you.
Jasmine was pulling down the screen, so they could all see Pushti when she called in. Emery rolled off the table and took a seat. Kinsley stopped rubbing Olivia’s shoulders and sat right in her chair. The rest straightened up, and Mama interrupted her long-winded story, regaling Eleanor with the exploits she could no longer remember, to turn an expectant look to Latoya.
She supposed it was her job to start the meeting, too.
All eyes were on her as she stepped up to the screen. “I know y’all are excited. Just keep in mind what we’ve had to do today, and why.” She saw a few winces, but mostly the brightness on their faces was undimmed. And she loved every one of them, so it wasn’t like she wanted that damper. “And there’s the small matter of Aubree taking up the guest room while she’s recovering.” Lord, please let her recover. “I don’t like the idea of putting someone in her room in the big house — I don’t want her to feel like we’ve moved on.” That gathered frowns.
Kinsley spoke up. “Pushti’s stray could have my room.” She peeked at Olivia. “I could move into Olivia’s room. Just temporarily.”
Latoya bit both her lips, but the absolute dead silence in the tea house spoke louder than anything. She wasn’t the only one who’d noticed a little something going on.
Only Olivia seemed surprised. “Um. Sure. OK.”
Held breaths released. Emery was fixin’ to burst, trying to keep that laugh trapped in her chest.
Well, heck. Now Latoya was hoping the Gosh, there’s only one bed scenario would actually happen. Which made not a bit of sense. But heart matters rarely did.
“All right,” she said to cover the twitters. “So maybe we have room. Temporarily. I’m just saying —” A tone indicated Pushti was calling in. Latoya wagged a finger. “All y’all keep it cool. We vote on this as a family, same as always.” Then she waved at the screen to let Pushti’s call through.
Her shining face was a welcome sight, despite the drama. She’d been gone nearly four months, scouting the best teas, working with vendors, making sure their suppliers kept to the best fair-trade practices.
“Hello, Sisters!” Pushti waved with both hands and then threw kisses, which everyone returned, the usual silliness. Latoya rolled her eyes and worked her way to Mama and Eleanor, but she had a smile for Pushti, like everyone else. “You got my message, yeah?” Pushti blazed on. “I told Marta to wait in the hall until I call her. She knows the family decides this, not me. If it were up to me, she’d go straight to bunking in the big house —”
“Tell us about her!” Jasmine cut in.
“Right! Her name’s Marta Oliveira. Speaks three languages — Portuguese, of course, but also Spanish and English. Refugee, like I said, from the Brazilian drought. I didn’t say this in the message, but you know that heat event on the news last month? It took her husband. And the rest of her family. The power went out, they were caught, no way to get to somewhere cool. Half her town went that way, it was terrible. Marta couldn’t face staying, with all her family gone. Too much, too hard. She and the baby were in the city —”
“Wait, there’s a baby?” Mama’s voice cut her off, even from the back.
“Hi, Mama Angela!” Pushti waved weakly.
“How old is this child?” Mama stood, and that didn’t portend well, but Latoya couldn’t tell for whom.
Pushti grimaced. “Baby Zaira is 18 months. Cute as a button, and not any trouble. I’ve never seen a baby so sweet —”
“Well, that changes things.” Mama had all their attention now, and Pushti knew better than to offer anything more. “We all know the good work the New Orleans refugee center does every day. Top-quality organization. I’m not saying a thing against them. But we also know it’s making the best of a bad business. And it’s no place for a baby and her mama when they’ve been through it and lost not just their home but everyone they had. A refugee center is not a family.” Mama’s gaze met each one of them, eye to eye, but when she got to Latoya, she knew it was decided.
“But we are,” Latoya said. “And our family has room.”
Mama nodded sharply and sat.
“Yes!” Pushti said softly from the screen.
Latoya stood. It was done, but it should be asked anyway. “Unless anyone thinks we should do different?”
Smiles all around but buttoned lips. No objections.
Not even from her.
“Marta!” Pushti had gone off-camera. A few whispers later, she returned with a young brown-skinned woman and her truly adorable child, who was busy chewing her fist. The baby saw them and then buried her face in her mama’s long brown hair.
“Thank you so much!” Marta seemed near tears. “You and Pushti have been incredibly kind. It means so much to have a place to start over. And I can’t wait to earn my way into your family, to repay you for giving me this chance.”
“You won’t need to earn anything,” Latoya said. “You’ve got that little one to care for.”
Marta blinked quickly. “But I want to. Pushti said —” She cut herself off, dashing a look to Pushti…
…who was all smiles as she leaned closer to the screen. “Marta’s a bot keeper.”
What? Latoya would have throttled Pushti if she weren’t on a boat in the Gulf. “You could have mentioned that,” she sputtered before she could stop herself.
Mama’s smile was beyond self-satisfied as she stood again. “Time to celebrate. Jasmine, bring out that special Pu’er tea from Yunnan Province. I want to toast our new family-members-to-be.”
Jasmine scrambled, Pushti whispered something to Marta, who seemed to calm, and Latoya settled back in her chair, relief loosening all the tension that had held her upright for the last month, ever since Aubree took sick and things went dark. Hope was no kind of business strategy, but it kept you moving through hard times, waiting on better ones. And family — your chosen ones, your vow, and your love for each other — was what carried you through.
Maybe better days had just shown up.
Read more from Imagine 2200:
Susan Kaye Quinn (she/her) is an environmental engineer turned science-fiction writer currently residing in Pittsburgh and dreaming of a better future through her hopepunk climate fiction. Her self-published novels have been optioned for virtual reality, translated into German and French, and featured in several anthologies.
Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor (she/her) is a 32-year-old illustrator from Bogotá, Colombia.