I rise before dawn, the moon still bright enough to light the way. The air is cool as I breathe in the scents borne on the breeze. Sweet pine resin, one of the substances I am here to collect, along with meadowsweet, fennel and lavender, the herbs required by the healer. Some are hardy and easy to find, thriving in the open. Others hide in the shadows, growing near the stream, shielded from the heat of the coming day by the overhanging canopy.
Damp soil releases deep, rich aromas. The sweet scent of old leaves, their colours, once vibrant, now muted as the fungi sets about its work. As I move deeper into the wood, the breeze whispers and gently twists my hair around her long slender fingers. I can’t quite catch what she says as she eddies around me, but I detect an urgency in her tone, even as she fades away.
There is a stillness here and I decide to sit awhile, eyes closed. This is where I belong.
Julia is having trouble with her hazmat suit. Not again, she sighs.
“Here, let me help,” the familiar voice of her work partner, Manny.
“It’s ok, I think I’ve managed it now,” she replies as she wrestles the thing into submission.
They make their way through the sanitation cubicle, as they do every day. The cocktail of chemicals coats their suits before they enter the sterile growing area where the food for the city is grown. She and Manny monitor the growing medium, checking the balance of nutrients and adjusting them for optimum production. The plants have never seen real soil, nor experienced real sunlight, growing as they do in a totally artificial environment.
“I’m thinking of going for a drink later,” Manny says. He glances sidelong at Julia, hesitating as he plucks up courage, “Would you like to join me?”
Julia pauses from their task and ponders for a moment. It is the first time she has encountered anything other than work-related conversations. Then, coming to a decision, she replies,
“Actually, that would be really nice.”
“That’s great,” he says, smiling with relief. “I thought The Phoenix would be a good choice, you can view the sunset from there.”
You are, therefore I am
I sit, eyes closed and plunge my hands into the soil. I sense the myriad creatures living, thriving, dying, adding to the rich texture of the precious soil. I feel my nerve endings trace the mycelia to the hyphae that translates matter to food, a communicator between the mineral and plant worlds.
I am transported from the root tips of the ancient oak, a rare survivor who must have witnessed the catastrophe, through her vascular tissue to the uppermost leaves just as the sun breaks past the horizon and bathes me in its pink glow and I am exhaled. I am an atom in a vast ocean. A singular energy pulsing through all things, the quickening blood of a lizard as it suns itself, the keen eye of the buzzard studying each blade of grass as it searches for food, a silhouette high in the endless blue.
I am all time and space, endless and infinite. I am Anam Cara.
The Phoenix is based on the idea of an old English country pub, all wooden floors and exposed beams, in stark contrast to the clean lines of the living and working spaces. Discreet cameras record every conversation, so well camouflaged they go unnoticed.
“I think Funtech would be a great place to work,” Julia says, looking around at the detail involved in recreating an authentic atmosphere, “It must be great sourcing all these relics.”
“Most of this stuff was salvaged after the fires,” Manny explains, “but we must hurry now.” Taking her hand, he leads her through to the lounge bar where a floor to ceiling window overlooks the hemp fields and the desert beyond. The whole room is bathed in the golden glow of late afternoon, adding a warmth to every surface, even through the protective tint of the glass.
Manny notices how the radiance of the sun picks out the highlights of Julia’s long auburn hair, normally hidden under the hood of her hazmat suit.
Julia has never seen such a vista or such a huge expanse of sky and stares with wonder as the sky turns from gold to peach, then plum and finally, with a final shot of brilliant white, the sun disappears below the horizon to leave a deep indigo in its wake. She feels an inexplicable sense of joy and profound loss. She hasn’t felt these emotions since childhood, before training started.
Manny turns and smiles, understanding her sudden epiphany. Julia catches his eye and looks down shyly. She notices that he is still holding her hand.
Psyche tou kosmou
I return to the boy’s body and accustom myself to the limitations it places upon me.
I awake as if from a deep slumber and puzzle at my soil-covered hands. I notice the cracked nails, the calluses on my palms. I notice that my body is sturdy, with muscles developed from a life of hard work.
I stand up, my newly heightened senses make me dizzy and I place my hand on the tree to steady myself, only to jump as her energy pulses through me and the sound of a thousand tiny lives under her rough skin, oblivious of the world of giants, chatter in my mind.
As I walk back to the settlement I notice the shimmering air as the particles heat in the morning sun. I see each speck of dust dancing in the breeze. Every insect, vividly iridescent in the clear light. I’m seeing things in slow motion, the movement of birds’ wings, the floating dandelion papus. I am seeing the world with new eyes and I now know what I must do.
Julia is an ‘urbanite’ working for Foodtech along with Manny and several hundred others, tending the food crops in huge temperature controlled greenhouses. She’s new to this section having worked previously for Agrotech, suppliers of the nutrient rich suspension in which the plants grow. The policy is to move workers around so they remain stimulated by fresh surroundings.
The city in which Julia lives is modelled on the Ecomodern ideal and a utilitarian model was developed and implemented during the final cataclysmic period known as the Anthropocene, the time where humankind finally realised that the path it had chosen was leading to extinction. The idea, based on economics and technology, was to remove the human species from any interaction with nature, allowing the natural world to recover, whilst at the same time developing the technological innovations necessary to continue living in the way humanity had become accustomed to. All cities are autonomous with a youthful population, most of the older generations having succumbed to The Virus.
But it was years before this dream and the technology on which it was based became a reality. And the toll on life and the planet was incalculable.
The history lessons, however, teach a different version.
“Bran!” A voice interrupts my reverie, “do you have those plants?”
Mary, a biologist, has applied her knowledge to traditional herbal remedies, a useful supplement to the precious medical supplies still available.
I turn towards her, noticing the fleeting shadow of grief that unites us all, beneath the brusque greeting.
“Here.” I pass her the basket full of leaves and roots, suddenly captivated by the textures and subtle differences in tone. Why had I never noticed before?
The brutalist edifice we call home was once a government office. Originally the hub of centralised power, it now hums with life. The portraits of dignitaries and monarchs have been painted over with images of animals and flowers. The officials have been replaced by a community, individual expertise contributing to the whole. The stark concrete has softened with age as have the once bright murals, painted when we first arrived.
Fake plastic trees
The citizens live orderly lives, grateful for the peace after so many years of horror and chaos. Those unable to conform to societal norms are treated with compassion in care facilities run by Psychtech, the benign public face of Pharmatech. The worrying trend, though, which the algorithms can’t seem to solve, are the rising cases of suicide.
Julia and Manny are early, so they stroll down to where they have arranged to meet Manny’s friends. The park is a beautiful area of trees and birdsong where the grass is always green, the sun always shines and the sky is a perfect blue.
As they sit beneath a weeping willow tree, watching the coy carp swimming about lazily in the clear water, Manny turns to Julia,
“There’s something I want to show you before the rest get here. You need to make sure you look like you’re just continuing our conversation though, no surprised looks or gestures, just keep smiling and responding normally, ok?”
Julia manages to rearrange her countenance to show an expression of mild interest.
“The reason we meet in the park is that it’s more difficult to monitor what we say, the background noises of birdsong and children playing interfere with the mics,” Manny is looking and pointing out various things as if having a normal conversation about their surroundings, “but they can still watch us.”
Manny leans forward as if to kiss her and whispers, “Nothing is as it seems.” And then he does kiss her, gently, on the cheek. “You woke up the other evening when you saw the sunset, I saw your fleeting expression before the training kicked in.” He continues, “Have you noticed how perfect everything is?” The temperature, not too hot or too cool? The pure gold of the fish, so bright you can almost see your reflection? Look closely at the tree, the bark of the trunk,” he pauses, “It’s plastic. The whole park is a construct, designed to dupe us into believing we still have a connection with nature. There are no birds here, just sound recordings,” he says, sadly, “we have been cut off from reality.”
The split happened during the beginning of the end of the world. Most of the survivors were seduced by the idea of being able to continue as if nothing had changed. Big shiny Tech appeared to be the answer to their prayers.
Many, though, were suspicious of the perfect future being promoted and eschewed the implied message that ‘ethical consumerism’ was the way forward. They already had a system in place, observing natural patterns, learning from the traditions of indigenous peoples. And although only loosely connected, these quiet, gentle communities worked. But dreams of a better lifestyle, the shameless promotion of the glossy new salvation, totally overshadowed this alternative.
And humanity is so easily beguiled.
Bran looks around at the gathering crowd nervously, takes a deep breath and starts.
“We have spent many years helping Gaia to heal. Many small settlements like ours are working towards the same goal, and one day the webs of life we are creating will connect,” He pauses, “but I have been shown a new way, a radical one where our dream of unity with nature can happen right now.”
Bran scans the faces of the crowd to try and gauge the response, most show curiosity, some trepidation and only a few appear fearful so he continues, eyes closed, with an attempt to describe his encounter. He tries but fails to describe the intensity of his joyous awakening.
He is starting to feel discouraged by his inability to communicate the magnitude of his early morning encounter and searches deep inside for help. Suddenly, as if in response, the light contained within him bursts out. Lightning crawlers emanate from his fingertips touching each person, gently stroking away the fear and filling them with wonder. This unity, this sense of wholeness is what humanity has been longing for.
Things fall apart
Julia, Manny and three others sit in a circle, enjoying a picnic. For all intents and purposes, to casual passersby and cameras alike, a group of friends relaxing, laughing and chatting as they share their meal on a warm Saturday afternoon.
“Something is seriously wrong. The fish are dying and we can’t work out why.” Anita, a marine biologist, works for Maritech, one of the largest fish farms supplying the city with food. The byproducts are converted into the medium used to grow the greenhouse crops. “It may be that the solar panels are creating too much shade, but I think it’s psychological.”
Julia recognises Anita from her days in the nutrient supply department,
“You mean they might be suicidal?” She finds it hard to hide her disbelief, but manages a smile.
“I do, I mean it’s all very well taking the decision to uncouple, but animals can’t thrive this way.”
David, a nurse working for Psychtech, looks up from his plate of selected goodies, “it’s not just the fish, we’ve had a record number of admissions lately, ‘unspecified malaise’ apparently, but that’s just code for attempted suicide,” he pauses, “maybe uncoupling is harming us too.”
“What can we do?” whispers the fifth member of the group. Beatriz is an art therapist who works in the same complex as David, often dealing with the same patients, “I’ve noticed an increase in numbers too.”
They sit silently, mulling over the implications of their conversation. It appears things are not as perfect as they had believed.
The great reconnect
Anam Cara, the soul friend, courses through the community tapping into energy previously beyond her reach. With increased vigour, she races through all matter, like electricity, to the next village and then the next, gathering the energy of the inhabitants, gaining momentum with each connection until all is now a part of a joyous whole. What would have taken generations has been achieved in a matter of minutes. But she is in need of more energy in order to mend her world. She needs the fire inherent in all humankind. She needs their strength in order to accomplish the healing.
The energy-that-was-Bran reaches out to the structure known as the city, he/they shudder as a billion tiny echoes fade and die. The translucent nano-bots that make up the skin of the city swirl around the perceived threat, creating an impenetrable barrier, antibodies protecting against a viral invader.
Getting back to the garden
The city, built from recycled waste, is contained within a ‘skin’, a barrier between the lives within and the exterior world. The designers of this utopia had worked diligently to achieve the ultimate goal of uncoupling and had succeeded beyond all expectations. But nature will find a way to overcome even the most hostile situation. She always does.
In the city, people notice a glow through the nano-bot skin different from the normal ‘daylight’ they are familiar with. With an unaccustomed tingle of anticipation, Julia and Manny grab each other’s hands and run.
Anita notices the fish suddenly becoming more active and seem to be organising themselves into shoals like their forebears. Now they are purposefully heading for the sluice gates that open and close to refresh the water. Anita knows that somehow she must override the computerised system and allow the fish to succeed in their bid for freedom. But how? She’s a biologist, not a computer technician. But maybe, just maybe she could wedge something in the mechanism, stop the gates from closing. It would be unexpected, attacking the physical rather than technological system, but it could work.
This point, this tidal change is all that is needed. Each droplet of water has become charged with energy. The fish leap to freedom and the force of nature succeeds in breaching the walls.
Anita walks nonchalantly through the control room. If anybody asks, she has no idea how that huge piece of driftwood wedged itself in the sluice gates. As she passes the computers in the control room, she runs her fingers gently across the terminals. Delicate pulses of energy connect to the central server and from there links to every device in the city. And then, like fungal spores, the energy spreads from the cloud to all computers controlling all the cities. It leaps from keyboard to fingertips, from fingertips to every individual, coursing through bodies, electrifying the sterile atmosphere with life and embracing humanity with joy.