Short story- The Plants

This is a short story that I wrote for a competition themed around the future. Comments and constructive criticisms welcomed. Enjoy!

 

I don’t know how it happened. The war started before I was born, and the official story was one of a ruthless enemy that killed without reason and must be defeated at all costs. Whispers of experiments turned loose, of terrible mistakes made by our own scientists and attempts at negotiation came later.

The war first touched me when I was six; my mum kissed my forehead and cried, my dad wrapped his arms around me and held on so tight I thought I might burst. They handed me over to one of the old AI’s, the ones that looked nearly human, and walked away.

The AI took me through doors the size of dragons and to a chamber, a bomb shelter of sorts, where I had to stay. There were thousands of us hiding in the custom-built cave. Walls of rock thicker than a mountain, and us children packed in like sardines and breathing recycled air.

It was the day our greatest piece of technology died, the day we began losing, but all I remember is that it was too hot in there and I could feel my skin beginning to scald. I was scared and I sobbed quietly at the edge of the enormous space for many hours. I did not understand why we must hide, or where my family were.

Later I found out that our enemies wrecked the central mind, the great computer that controlled more than eighty percent of all our systems. Literally tore it apart. I try to imagine it; three miles of solid nanotechnology ripped asunder, shattered crystals and diodes, hydrogen and glistening metals cracked by the tendrils of its destroyer. So confident were those that built its defence systems that there was no backup, and not even the military had separate controls.

At the time, what I knew was that the air stopped. The machines pumping our oxygen shut down. The temperature soared and bodies pressed in from every direction. People died around me, screaming and sweating as their bodies collapsed. I crawled over convulsing flesh to escape.

I was lucky to be a small child; I managed to squeeze out through the defunct ventilation system, struggling to breath and ripping my nails out as I fought to undo screws. I don’t know if anyone ever cleared those bodies away or if they were left to rot. I don’t know if anyone else escaped.

Around me, the land was vast and barren, artificial cities twisting in glass helixes and glittering like a dragonfly’s wing. It was the first time I had seen our illustrious cities, and they were glorious even as they toppled. From where I stood on the bare hill, I could see a green blur on the horizon; it was a soft colour, nothing like the world I’d been raised in. I didn’t know what it meant then.

There was anger of course; that place was meant to protect the children, to ensure that the war didn’t reach us. But who could have predicted that the central mind would be breached? Millions died that day, and the aftermath claimed millions more as cities collapsed into the ground, as electrical fires burned and nuclear stations shorted out and gave up.

We fought back. New computers were built, and each of our districts had an individual system. We ripped holes in the earth and built fires and constructed huge mechanics out of metal. The luckier people were shot off into space in the hope that maybe some of us would survive. I was conscripted.

My years in the army are a blur of hatred. Vigilance was drummed into us; everything must be sealed and disinfected. If in doubt, fire was the best bet. Our food was tasteless and dry, made from controlled bacteria that was carefully monitored for signs of sentience during its growth. I was taught to recognise symptoms of infection, to drive a plough the size of a hill that spat flames and planted salt in its wake, to kill a fellow soldier if the vines got hold of them and spare them the pain of slow death or, worse, infection by mind spores that could turn you against your own.

It was always my intention to protect; to guard my own kind against our semi-sentient adversary. To ensure that we had a future, however bleak that future might be.

I was far behind enemy lines, a forerunner in my gargantuan plough, when I found the people. They were living, peacefully, in the centre of the wilderness.

I had been told that our only chance was to keep the marauding green at bay, to destroy it. I had been lied to. These tiny collections of humans, the dregs of civilisation, were able to live in jungles unmolested while we suffered from illness, pain and an unwinnable war. A single blade of grass could spell death for an entire sector. I’d seen soldiers torn apart, seen roots and fungus take over a body from the inside. Ivy is the most dangerous.

I knew no-one would listen. They would say these people were slaves or traitors or that I had spores in my brain. But these people are our best chance of survival, not the sterilised space ships, the squeaking of our metal war crafts or the floating villages with their surfaces designed to repel plant forms.

I considered the future, the forms it might take. This planet has made it abundantly clear that humans are not needed, are not wanted. I stalled my plough and watched through the monitor as they gathered, silent, and stared back at me; at the glistening alloy of the machine that I drove, as huge as a whale.

Their skin was mottled; green and brown and purple, and they faded in and out of sight like ghosts. Buildings disguised as part of the landscape came into slow focus; houses hanging like seeds from branches, cobweb walkways connecting tree to tree.

No move was made towards me, nor did they flee. Children ran about, naked and screeching in that unselfconscious manner that children have. It was the children that decided me; they were free, as children should be, not buried in some still breathing tomb. I turned the engine back on.

My plough hummed in anticipation. I reversed slowly, moving away from their still staring eyes until they were out of sight and then turning about. I drove straight back the way that I came, following my own path of tossed soil and destruction.

That is how I came to be here; driving a plough straight into the command base with the colossal laser fully engaged and spitting fire like a hell-beast. The buildings aren’t designed to withstand this kind of attack; threats shouldn’t get this close, and it’s not human technology that they’re worried about.

If I knock out the base here, the entire ploughing operation on this front will have to cease, at least for a year or so. I think of the humans I saw, their strange quiet faces and basic tools. Survival. They are doing better than our remote settlements and militarised fumigation schemes. Our superiors keep the statistics hidden, but there are rumours on the frontline; diseases that sweep down on the wind or creep from the ground, of entire settlements dying in a single night and of crippling sterility.

My machine shudders as it bites into the central unit. Panicked voices scream on my radio, and I know they are scanning me for infection. They won’t find anything. I feel compelled to say something.

“There are people. Living in the forests! There are people!”

A pause, then silence crackles around me. I doubt they’ve listened. I drive onward. Steam gushes out as I slice through ventilation and purifying systems. Behind me the earth is churned and filled with salt, barren. I am cutting through science labs, through planning rooms and quarantine zones.

It’s hot here in the cockpit. They can’t disable my controls, but they have shut down the atmosphere regulator. I nearly laugh; to die of suffocation after all these years seems like a bad joke. On my monitor I watch evacuation pods twirl into the sky like dandelions. There are dark spots across my vision.

Another year or so. I can give those people another few years and that is all. I swore to protect our future, and I tell myself that’s what I’m doing. I keep my hands on the trackpad and lean forward, sweat dripping across my face despite my enhanced resistance. If people can live. If people can live in tandem with the colossal sentience of plants, then this is worth it.

In my mind, my hands scrabble their way through a tattered shaft. I can feel the life wheezing out of me with each shortened breath. For a moment I feel earth on my hands. I wonder what it is to stand on soil with bare feet and be unafraid. I am there, back on that hill. I can see distant movement in the cities, full of flowers and leaves and people.

A cataclysmic groan fills my ears as my vehicle grinds to a halt; a glacier slowing. The city is so clear in my mind, a paradise of metal and flora. I know that it was never like this, that the plants struck before those towering citadels were built.

The quiet, dark faces of those wild people flicker in my mind; they have a future. In my mind I run toward the city as the command unit burns.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jumpingfromcliffs
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 12:54:06

    I really like the writing in this piece. If I’m brutally honest, the actual story-line reminds me a little too much of Terminator-meets-William Gibson-meets-BladeRunner-meets-Star Wars. Not that that’s a bad thing as such πŸ™‚ The quality of the writing and the way you use language pulled me out of that. You create a deeply engrossing atmosphere.

    Reply

    • Meredith
      Sep 03, 2012 @ 21:20:58

      Brutal honesty is of the good πŸ™‚ If people sugarcoat stuff then I’m never going to get better.
      I agree that it does have that feel to it (although if I’m reminding people of William Gibson then at least I’m headed the right way). Short stories are a reasonably new medium for me so I’m still figuring them out, but I really enjoyed writing this one. It was also fun because usually I’m much more of a fantasy writing person. I greatly appreciate the comment.

      Reply

  2. Will
    Sep 19, 2012 @ 19:38:33

    Hi, I loved reading it. You are an amazing story teller. πŸ™‚

    Reply

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