“Fear is a strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience.” -- Terry Pratchett Small Gods
The new crop was the strangest I’d ever seen. Vine-like and fast growing, but with no apparent fruit or other nutritional attributes. Shaliman and I never quite knew what we’d see each cycle. That was up to the ag techs. We just kept our heads down and did what they said, sweating in the mammoth growgrids.
Hunger will do that.
I’d been in college, studying to be a climatologist, when the collapse came. Everyone could point a finger, spread the blame, call for blood, but not much else mattered when grocery store shelves emptied and stayed that way.
Everything became about food: who had it, who could get it, who could grow it.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fine words, but they don’t fill your belly, so it didn’t take long for feudalism to bury democracy. Though our new overlords were not landowners, they were ag tech monopolies like CropCorp. They produced the seed and regulated where, how and who could grow it.
Sure, in the early days of the collapse, lots of us tried to grow our own grains, fruits and vegetables, and some even thought livestock was still a viable food source. It never panned out. Conditions had changed too much. Environmentally, economically, politically. And, ultimately, socially.
We accepted our lot. Thralls to CropCorp and the other global ag fiefdoms. Life, even much diminished, clings to the margins.
Which is why we worked the growgrids, scaling and servicing the towering scaffolds latticed with pipes and conduits recirculating the hydroponic nutrients that fed ever-changing crops. Within the vast polycarbonate panes, it was steamy, strenuous and often perilous work.
Shaliman fell from the highest deck last week. Her eyes never closed, even as the response team converged and took her away. That was our lot: planted, plucked, ultimately replaced. Haunted by the specter of starvation, we always blinked first. Still, our servitude in the growgrids gave us a chance to hang on to the slimmest of margins, the rockiest of times, grasping for greener pastures though there were none left on earth.
Strange soil indeed.
High on the growgrids where the viny new crop had stretched higher than any crop before, Shaliman’s replacement, Witnez, who pointed it out to me. “You seen anything like this before?”
Witnez was standing on his tiptoes examining something sleek and black weaving through the thick mat of viny creepers that formed our newest and strangest of crops. I was a bit taller and stretched to take a closer look. The critter looked like a dung beetle carved from obsidian. Sharply faceted, its black carapace absorbed light as it inched through the creepers while sharp mandibles punched methodically into the vines at regular intervals.
I picked it off the vine and it immediately sunk its mandibles into my thumb. I yelped, dropping the thing which scurried along the catwalk and burrowed back into the thick green mat. I looked at my thumb where two precise holes were welling blood.
In the days to come, the ag techs released hundreds more of the obsidian bots into the growgrids to inject specially modified phytohormones into the vines. And quickly, succulent-looking fruit formed. Whatever they were feeding this new crop, it was responding.
And strangely, I was too. Ever since that first bot had “bit” me, I’d begun to feel stronger, sharper, less fearful. One morning near the place Shaliman had fallen, as we paired up to climb the growgrids, Witnez said plainly, “What’s changed?”
I shrugged, but I thought I knew. Witnez waited. Finally, I pinched a bot off the viny mat. For a moment we watched its legs whirl and sharp mandibles bob. Then I placed it in my palm and let it scrabble up my arm, injecting me every few inches until I couldn’t take it anymore and flicked it off my bicep.
Unrattled, Witnez looked from my pained eyes to the towering scaffolds of green that were both providence and prison. Beyond our closed system were other closed systems. Witnez grabbed a bot from the vine. It bit into him.
Soon, we climbed together, knowing that only storms can turn doves into dragons, worms into warriors, seedlings into sequoias. Bit by bit.