EP506: Harvester Dreams

by Michael J. DeLuca
read by Paul Cram

author Michael J. DeLuca

author Michael J. DeLuca

about the author…

from the author’s website:

That would be me. Michael J. DeLuca. Writer, reader, dreamer, designer, brewer, baker, photographer, philosopher. Would-be ecoterrorist. False prophet. Liberal.

I’m a freelance web designer/developer as well. I have an undergraduate CS degree nobody knows about from a middlingly prestigious east coast university. I’ve been doing this for awhile (10+ years now), I’m not bad at it, and I usually can use more of it to do. Without it, I wouldn’t have enough money to keep myself alive, let alone keep writing (which not unlike crime, doesn’t really pay (me) (see that? nested parenthesis, that’s how you know I’m really a programmer)).

narrator Paul Cram

narrator Paul Cram

about the narrator…

Paul Cram grew up performing on stage and in more recent years traveling the United States working on independent films.

Paul’s voice is newer to the world of audio than it is to other acting forms. Fans of his voice will hopefully be excited to hear that he has two full-length audio books that came out this year: Zombie apocalypse novel FLIRTING WITH DEATH, and Sci-fi thriller THE FACE STEALER (think X Files or BBC’s Torchwood & Dr. Who.)Cram was most recently seen on set for the feature film WILSON opposite Woody Harrelson, and ANNIVERSARY shot in Maine, USA by movie director Jim Cole.

When not on a movie set or in a recording booth, Paul can be found deep-frying chicken wings with his sister in her kitchen, or quarreling about pop-culture with his little brother around one the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.

You can find his website Paul Cram Actor or IMDB.

Harvester Dreams
by Michael J. DeLuca

Morning flooded the transparent womb of the ob room. Knuckling his aching skull, Hector twitched the opacity up to a tolerable level and set down his tea, then took the pod out over the ag. The fight with Mela the night before had not been pleasant, but work, he was perpetually astonished to discover, never failed to cheer him.
The conduit was a brilliant white spear overhead, broken by ribs of fair-weather cloud. The ag spread into haze in every direction, curving gently upward with the concavity of the Hypatia’s hull: chessboard squares of rippling corn, glittering rice paddies, apple plots flowering white. Here and there, a skeletal hulk loomed indistinct–some remnant structure of the ship’s propulsion systems, long-dismantled; shade crops grew among latticed shadows.
The crowd of Workers waited below, lens-tipped appendages craned upward. He smiled, in spite of the headache and the persistent awareness that no matter how he chose to rationalize it, everything Mela had said was true. He called up the log feeds. Foreman, they were saying. Foreman, we need your understanding.
He brought the ob room down among them. A grand menagerie they made, his subjects, each finely adapted to its task: delicate pollinators, long-limbed harvesters, knob-treaded aerators, juggernaut ploughs. “You don’t need me,” he said. “Your designers gave you all the understanding you need. But I’m here, ready to listen. I’ll help if I can.”
The oldest of the ploughs rolled forward. Your understanding grants us insight into the will of our designers.
The Workers appreciated repetition. They were simple beings, the product of their design. They believed in an infallible, benevolent humanity the way humanity once believed in angels, the way so many Relics now believed in their inscrutable alien creator, the Ix. And Hector was their ambassador, though he’d only held this job a month and the designers were fifty generations dead.
H1703 has had a dream, said the plough.
The Workers’ reactions flooded the feeds with the euphemistic, agricultural info-speak they used among themselves, too much to decipher. Excitement, urgency. They didn’t know what to think.
Usually they wanted him to speculate on some parallel between human and Worker experience, to suggest how their programming might be adapted to problems unforeseen by the designers. Proof enough that humans weren’t divine: in their wildest dreams, the designers could never have imagined the Ix.
One of the harvesters was thrust from the crowd, the tips of its lower appendages digging gouges in the fallow earth. It averted its lens from Hector’s face–shy. 1,797 bushels Aurora, it mumbled. 179,009 bushels Corinth Black. Estimate 0.13% of harvest lost to white scatter-rot.
Another burst of commentary, too rich to take in, this time from the harvesters alone.
All the harvesters dreamed the dream, the plough interpreted, but H1703 in the most detail. They wish to ask, was it a true dream?
“What kind of dream?” said Hector, frowning. At night, the Hypatia spun on its axis, the shield blocked the conduit, and unoccupied Workers performed self-diagnostics. In a sense, they always dreamed.
Windfall 12% above standard deviation, said the harvester H1703, pushing the tip of a picker claw into the topsoil.
This matter could effect crop efficiency and yield. The plough clacked its mud shields in approximation of a human throat-clearing. There was a flurry of exchange between the plough and a few of the pollinators, and Hector saw what was coming. The Harvesters request that you engage with the record directly.
“Directly,” repeated Hector. He took a long gulp of tea. If Mela knew he was having this conversation….
This job had come as a windfall. The ag foreman position only existed because of the Ix–specifically, what the Ix might have done to the Workers when it revealed itself a century ago, giving sentience to so many of the tools of humankind. According to the observations of every foreman since, that had consisted of exactly nothing. Which approximately equaled the amount of effort the position required. In the eyes of his family and friends–Mela–being ag foreman placed him perhaps slightly below a maintainer of waste-processing equipment–but at least it was a job. Securing it for him had been Mela’s greatest feat, one she wasn’t about to repeat–he’d never been what you’d call “employable”.
Hector’s greatest feat had been securing Melanippe. He knew he couldn’t lose this job and keep her. Which meant he had to learn to care. So, on his first day at work, he’d basically shot himself in the foot.
The hour he’d spent immersed in the pollinator had been…transcendent: the wind in wings, the shapes and scents of pollen, nectar, green-golden patterns in the veins of a leaf. The pollinator’s gaze had laid clear for him all the vast complexity of the ag in a set of heuristics that could be called up and comprehended in a span of wingbeats. No wonder concepts of self bewildered them. Hector envied and pitied them: so sure of their purpose, so full of questions. It was questions that ruined things.
He queued up the timestamp in question from the past night–sometime after he and Mela had given up on the fight, which couldn’t be settled anymore simply by his holding down a job. He compared the individual log for harvester H1703 with the data for the other harvesters.
He understood that pollinator better than the girl he lived with, and here he was, about to do it again.
The immersion vat gleamed in an alcove on the access corridor that led to the ob room dock; he doubted anyone but him had touched it since its installation. As he understood it, they were barely used anymore other than for medical diagnostics, plus a smattering of deviant sexual practices.
Warm, viscous liquid closed over his head.
He found himself possessed of ten finely-articulated limbs, his small body crouched lightly atop six of them, biomechanical muscles coiled, ready to spring. He stood at the edge of a gaping hole in the earth–in the world. Rich topsoil gave way to layers of torn alloy, ceramic, plastic, air and fire. Beyond it: blackness. Wind rushing at his back.
Across the gap, an enormous, spindly-legged harvester–like himself–stepped over the edge and spilled out through the rupture into space, long limbs splayed and flailing. As it shrank away–a hatchling spider sailing on the night breeze of the ag, caught in the glare of a sower’s lamps–into the near reaches of the Artifice Belt, Hector formed the conviction that his fellow harvester, his friend and sibling since existence began, hadn’t fallen. It had leaped willingly, eagerly, into that abyss.
He felt the same temptation.
A moment later Hector resided behind the lens of that lost harvester, spinning away among the countless private ships that clouded the Belt, looking back upon the endless, cylindrical Hypatia, a silver cane-stalk suspended in nothingness.
Hector had never left Hypatia, though the stars and the ships of the Artifice Belt gleamed every evening through the portholes in his bedroom floor. The harvester H1703 had never conceived of stars or space; it had been built for the ag, for apples and earth and the conduit’s warm rays. Yet in this cold blackness surrounded by faintest light, it felt not fear, but freedom. It didn’t need to breathe; it couldn’t experience pain. The cold, the force of absence pulling at its chest–they were new. In the moments before that absence thrust inward to consume the spark of its consciousness, it struggled–Hector with it–to fit those feelings into its limited conception of existence.
He thrashed for breath in the belly of the vat.
Back to the ob room. Back out over the ag to confront them. Green leaves, red fruit, blue heaven. Empty teacup. Hand. The conduit burned overhead; the memory of cold wasn’t easily overcome. The Workers left their toil in the fields to surround him again, their emotionless lenses conveying nothing so much as how very far beyond him all this was.
“I’m–sorry. I can’t give you an answer. I need to think.”
The rush of inarcticulate machine response was cut short by an unsubtle clank from the plough. Secondary irrigation blockage, plot 7763. They knew when to coddle him and when to push?
He couldn’t think. Forgoing the usual closing remarks–afraid of what he might admit–Hector pulled the ob room away. He dialed up the acceleration, dimmed the coordinate outputs. Below, lines and colors blurred to a carpet of lushness. Navigating by the conduit alone, he paced out the limits of the ag atop the clouds.
Blackness, cold. Beckoning. What made a dream true?
He queried the histories, paging through patterns of yield and demand. They were human patterns, organic: fads and superstitions that caused soy to swell one generation, sorghum the next. The Workers always managed to adapt.
He slowed to observe a planting. Aerator and sower toiled in line, flecks of dark earth flying in their wake. He reviewed the feeds. All parameters hewed to the median, and they seemed to chat about soil composition and the weather in the poetics of machine speech. Then–
Foreman. Contamination threat near critical on agent referent not found. Recommend quarantine measures. A long string of coordinates–plots awaiting harvest.
“Quarantine. The harvesters–you think they’re…a threat to themselves. To others?”
A rush of irrelevant data.
Only the oldest plough demonstrated any practical recognition of human speech patterns. The sower had been speaking euphemistically–or not to Hector at all.
For an excuse to get free of the ag, he took lunch at a cafe on the Appian Way. Caprese salad with a lot of olive oil and lemon, a dry lager to wash it down. He called Mela, not expecting much. She was always busy. After last night, he could forgive her not wanting to see him. If he gave her some time….
A woman seated herself at an adjacent table as he started on his second beer. She was older, sharply dressed, an anemone pinned to her sash, and for half the beer she spoke almost inaudibly to the air in Bissbanian, occasionally throwing him an apologetic glance before sneaking a dainty slurp of phở. At a subtle flash of color from the stylus at her elbow, he realized she wasn’t on a call. She was talking to the stylus–an Ix Relic. Mindcasting–the same way he talked to the Workers, only more intimate, without a console.
“You look preoccupied,” she said to Hector.
“Am I staring?” He gulped down the last of the beer.
She sat back from her bowl, picked up the stylus and twirled it.
He exhaled. “This is going to sound stupid. The Relics–you think they have free will?” He colored a little, realizing he’d spoken as if the stylus wasn’t there.
She laughed, elevating her chin, exposing the graceful folds of age in her throat. “Are you asking if I think they have souls? No. But I’m not so sure we do. The Elu, now–the Bissbanians–maybe they do. Because we know their god exists.”
“But their god–the Ix–it made the Relics.”
“In our image. Don’t get me wrong, Mister… Aias? I think the Relics deserve as much sympathy as any human. The fact we don’t have souls is what makes our lives precious, and what we achieve with them so much more important.”
He looked at his embroidered coveralls, handed-down from the ag’s previous foreman. “Oh–my name’s not Aias. I’m–”
The tip of the stylus flared green. “Excuse me,” she said.
He took his tray to the composter.
He found the old plough turning up rootbound soil on a plot of Corfu cherries that had been clear-cut against the latest cell blight mutation. It acknowledged his presence with a clang–offended, no doubt, that he’d taken off without saying goodbye.
“If you still wish for my input…” he began.
Your understanding grants us insight.
Hector nodded. He took a long breath.
“Not knowing,” he said, “is a part of human experience. We don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we go when we die. Out beyond Hypatia, in the emptiness of H1703’s dream–” How had the harvester put it? So many stars, so much more black. “–it’s hard even to imagine the limits of it–farther than we’ve been able to explore in the combined lifetime of every human who ever lived. We don’t think about these things very often–there’s nothing to be done, after all–but we do think about them. One of the ways we do that is through dreams. Am I–am I making sense?”
The plough halted. Do you wish to convene them?
“The harvesters? The others? No… no, not yet. You understand me better than they do. I don’t want any of the Workers to act lightly. I don’t want to speak lightly. These are difficult concepts. Many humans refuse to consider them.
We recognize our limitations, and we choose to turn our attention to things we can control.”
H1703’s dream was true, but we should disregard it.
This wasn’t working. “Think of it like this: the Workers can’t control human demand. You couldn’t have been prepared for these new invasives. So you adapt, focus your attentions on what you can change: selecting gene hybrids, preparing the earth, irrigation, bettering yourselves….”
These variables were foreseen by our designers.
“It’s not the same, I know. I’ll speak to the harvesters, to everyone, in the morning. I–just want to be sure they’ll understand. This isn’t like the issues the Workers have engaged with in the past. You said yourself the yields could be effected. If that happens, the ag could come under scrutiny from the Senate, from humanity, like never before.”
The Senate didn’t care about yield fluctuations, within reason. He’d spent too much time reading over Mela’s shoulder at breakfast not to have osmosed a little of the politics. For fifty generations, the Workers had provided diverse, delicious sustenance so reliably their existence could be effectively ignored. But if they were suddenly to reveal sentience–particularly if they did so by trying to hurl themselves out the airlocks in search of ultimate truth–humanity would be obliged to reconsider their autonomous status with a level of attention even the Ix Relics hadn’t incurred.
He couldn’t read the plough’s reaction. Root matter conditions were ripe for blight, but nutrient adjustment and aeration should eliminate the threat. Its caterpillar treads reengaged with a thrum.
He took the ob room back to the dock and made tea, herbal this time–he couldn’t handle caffeine in the afternoon, especially after two beers.
Any previous foreman would have reported this. If he did so, potentially saving the human food supply, he might even get a promotion. Then what? The Senate would step in, shut down the ag for a day and restore all the Workers to factory settings. Wiping out whatever chance they had at sentience. Maybe. They hadn’t done it with the Relics–but the Relics weren’t responsible for feeding humanity.
He called up the histories. The entire exchange of that morning was there, flagged for review. His daily audiences always got flagged, for whatever reason. Technically there was supposed to be oversight; plenty of people had access to these logs. Nobody had questioned it yet. Still….
Hector highlighted everything from when he’d knocked off work yesterday until now–the dreams, his direct engagement with H1703, his odd discussion with the plough–and exported it to a personal cloud partition, compressed and encrypted. Then he overwrote it with data from the same period two weeks before.
He got back late to the apartment, head swimming. Mela wasn’t home yet. Still time to make dinner: steamed sweet corn on the cob, falafel with tahini, and small, clear cups of a white sake blend to which Hector knew she was partial. It was soothing working with the food, shucking corn and mashing chickpeas. A simple, fresh meal. She wouldn’t notice–but why should she?
Mela was a woman he’d have never dared aspire to be with: smart, long-limbed and yoga-supple, inclined to fixer-upper relationships. It was his own fault he hadn’t permitted himself to be fixed. Hadn’t been capable.
She waited to say it until they were sitting down. “This isn’t working. You can’t deny I tried.”
He couldn’t. She was ambitious. She wanted her life to mean something. Hector did too–just not in the same way. That was the cusp of it.
“All those jobs you turned down–the senator’s office, the ed department–you sabotaged yourself.”
“I like my job now,” he said lamely. “I care about my job.” If he could tell her what had happened–but she’d take it straight to the Senate.
“You care how many ears of corn were picked today? Or whether the same exact number of worn-out widgets were replaced this month compared to last? I’m sorry, Hector, but your job is a waste of your ability.”
“I don’t want to have this fight again.”
“Neither do I. Look at us–I’m working late every night. I’m trying to accomplish real change. Every time I get home, here you are relaxing, drinking, dinner already on the table. If I wanted somebody to wait by the door for me, I’d have an Ixbear, not a boyfriend.”
She ate efficiently, without pleasure. The news feeds were about the HM3C-Xiangqui merger, a scowling Senator struggling to make headway against an unflappable female VP’s tenacious defense of mindcasting as an alternative to Ixtech. He ought to care; Mela cared.
He leaned back, breathing the scent of the food, looking out through the portholes in the floor at the Artifice Belt and the stars.
He couldn’t ask her advice. Maybe that was the worst of it.
“I’ve got to get back,” she said, rising, smoothing her skirt.
None of his arguments had changed. He wanted her respect–didn’t care about anyone else’s, but hers….
She kissed his cheek, made a perfunctory moue at the brush of his beard and swept from the apartment, fancy sandals clacking.
He slid her barely touched sake cup into easy reach and opened the exported logs.
Hours later, paging through dream after nearly-identical dream looking for he didn’t know what, the sake carafe bone-dry and the Gliese system’s tiny red sun in its umpteenth transit across his bedroom floor, it occurred to him to check what the harvesters had done, now nearly 24 hours ago, upon waking.
There were thousands of harvesters. Many returned to their allotted tasks as if nothing had happened. About half had immediately sought out the closest plot of fallow earth and begun raking their finely articulated picking appendages through the dirt. They hadn’t been designed to dig. Or to doubt. He couldn’t tell the extent of the damage–to access the maintenance logs or the parts inventory, he’d need to go back in to work.
Thankfully, some 5% of the harvesters had begun by communicating their common experience with the rest, after which parallel heuristic processing led them to recognize their limitations and solicit help from the excavators and ploughs.
With more powerful tools, the topsoil was yielding enough, but beneath it was Hypatia’s hull. They excavators seemed to have managed only a few superficial gouges before it was light. Ploughs pushed the disturbed earth back into place, and everyone reverted to routine.
He read over the exchange of that morning, then read it again. They hadn’t lied. The clues were there, euphemistically. He just hadn’t understood.
They’d gone right ahead, without asking, without thinking, and tried to dig themselves through into vacuum. But then they’d come to him, wanting his insight, wanting him to experience the dream as they had.
And when he couldn’t help them, couldn’t give them an answer, what had they done then? What were they doing now?
He hadn’t known they were capable of overriding the diagnostics sequence. Something–perhaps the same thing that caused them to dream–had overridden it the night before. What did it take to cause a machine to dream? An intervention from the Ix, perhaps, that unknowable cosmic intelligence wandering the void, hearing the thoughts and aspirations of all sentient life and acting on its own wry whim to reward some, frustrate others. Or something else?
2:15 AM. He must have nodded off for a minute. Hector stepped back into Aias’s overalls where he’d left them crumpled on the bedroom floor.
The Appian Way was on fire with late night partiers. Hector kept his head down. He shared the lift with three women naked but for blue and green body paint and crowns of vine. He struggled to focus on their faces.
For an instant he thought the middle one might be Mela. But Mela was beyond all this, off somewhere struggling to further civil rights and preserve civil liberties in her prim skirt and sandals. Or, more likely, sleeping with her head on her desk. He wondered what she dreamed about. Work, probably. The girl on the left was young and slender enough to be an Ix mannequin, though the paint made it impossible to tell. And the woman on the right, gazing back at him serenely…it was the woman from the café at lunch, the one who’d brushed him off to talk to her stylus.
They got off on a residential level; the woman from the café gave him a wry wave. For the remainder of the long ride to the ag access corridor, he was alone.
He made coffee. He preferred tea, but he needed it. A little cardamom and a lot of sugar helped. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been up this late; it was doing weird things to his head.
He glanced through the parts inventory. Since yesterday, supplies had been depleted by 3401 articulated picker limbs, 296 chassis shells, seventeen sets of combine threads and nine excavator jaw assemblies: a year’s worth of parts in one night. And a large proportion of the corresponding broken parts hadn’t been returned. He imagined the twisted, severed limbs of harvesters strewn among the fields, waiting to break plough blades and foul up winnowers.
He called up current ag status.
Sowers and planters lay silent in their bays, along with the vast majority of the pollinators, aerators, ploughs and excavators. Even some harvesters, one in three, were dreaming their usual numb maintenance dreams–satisfied with their lot, having suffered enough the night before?
The rest had gathered on a plot that had been slotted for two fallow cycles after a particularly nasty flare-up of red rot. The oldest plough, their spokesman, was with them, along with a pair of excavators and one pollinator.
Hector ratcheted the acceleration all the way to seven and rocketed down there like god on a thunderbolt.
They worked under cover of darkness, visible only by the blue glimmer of their cores and the harsh, molten sparks of a half-dozen welding cannon. Where had those come from? The logs were a torrent of machine speech, patterns he’d never seen.
The phosphorescent glare of the ob room’s spots revealed a small circle of Hypatia’s pale hull exposed at the bottom of a pit, where spiderlike harvesters swarmed around a low metal dome, arc-welders flaring. Pollinators bobbed like fireflies.
“What’s going on?” Hector demanded. “What is this?”
The harvesters scattered–most of them. The ones with the welders, two to each cannon–he couldn’t believe they even managed to control them–hunkered over their work, refusing to budge.
The old plough stood motionless atop the piled earth. Foreman. Your understanding–
“Yeah, what about my understanding?” His hands were shaking. The coffee.
–grants us insight into the will of our designers, but we realize it is incomplete. As you often insist, you are not our designers. There are things our designers could not have foreseen.
“Did you tell the harvesters what I said–not to act rashly, the risks?” Meters above the welders’ glare, he realized what the dome was made of: the broken, fused-together body parts of Workers.
That some things must remain unknown, said the plough. Yes. The harvesters insist they may seek this unknown if they choose. I couldn’t dissuade them. Had you been present, perhaps–
“What’s under that dome?”
1.7 tons ammonium nitrate fertilizer, 53 liters compressed 30:1 methane/ethanol solution, and the pollinator P7209.
A bomb, built from ag byproducts, big enough it just might have the power to rupture the hull. With a pollinator wired inside. How could they have learned to do this? How did they even know the concept of explosives? It must have come from an external source. Which meant the same must be true of the dreams.
The Ix?
“How long until it’s finished? How long until they set it off?”
Then he saw the count–in the log for the pollinator P7209, synced with the system clock, but in reverse. Daylight–thirty-nine minutes.
He swooped close, as low as he dared, the red arcs of the welding cannon reflected in the ob room floor. “Listen to me,” he told the harvesters. “You have to stop. I’m sorry, I was afraid, I didn’t know what to say. But there’s nothing out there for you. Your designers made you for this place, for the ag. They designed you to work in the fields under the sun, to grow food for us. I…to be honest, I envy you that.”
The logs scrolled with their chatter. The welders kept working, the timer didn’t stop, but they had to be listening. He didn’t know what he could say, but the alternative was to report them, to do what he got paid to do, too late to keep the only job he’d ever cared about. Maybe too late to change anything. The Workers would die finding out there were no answers.
“Before I came here to the ag, I was like you–looking for something I couldn’t see, ready to throw away what I had for another chance to find it. I threw away a lot that was good, and I regretted it. But when I saw the way you were I realized I didn’t want to look anymore. Simple work in a beautiful place, making something that’s needed. I realized that’s enough. I learned that from you.” In the logs, he watched the oldest plough struggle to translate. His mouth full of the bitter taste of coffee and his head full of the terror of coldness and stars, it felt like a confession. He owed Mela, wanted her in his life, but now she was gone. “I know you’ve never dreamed before. If I could let you all plug into my head so you’d understand, I would. You deserve to understand–but that takes time. Out there, outside Hypatia, there isn’t any time. Just emptiness. Just because you dreamed of a hole in the world doesn’t mean you have to dig a hole to see the sky. If you want to see it…maybe I could take you. One of you, safely, in a shuttle. That one could report to the others. I can show you–just not this way.”
The metaphors of the harvesters’ machine speech shifted from overripeness, prevailing winds and wormcastings to hybrid grafting, plantings, pulling weeds. Two of the arc welders had shut down. He was changing their minds. He kept talking.
“I’ve never left Hypatia. It’s my home. It keeps me warm and safe and fed. I’m willing to leave, if that’s what it takes to show you what you need to see. But I don’t want to see Hypatia harmed. If you don’t believe me, keep your bomb–but wait. Give me a chance to show you. Shut down the count for now. Cover it up again with earth. And let my friend, the pollinator P7209 whose mind I shared, come out.”
From atop the heaped earth, the old plough clanged. The pollinator’s countdown stopped. The hot, angry light from all but one of the welders had ceased, and that one reversed direction.
Hector breathed. He’d doubted their sentience. Treated them like children, pets. They understood him better than he gave them credit for.
Then one of the harvesters moved out of the crowd with an unsteady gait. H1703’s steps seemed palsied, as though its joints were clogged with grit. Its log feed spouted gibberish, errors. Fungicide contamination diagnostics offline. Backup referent not found could not be mounted. Standby overridden. It stumbled towards the bomb, towards the new gap in its surface being opened by the last of the welders. There had been an external influence: no sudden, miraculous sentience, not the Ix at all, but sabotage. It was the only explanation.
The tip of one of H1703’s long limbs slipped into the gap. P7209’s feed went silent.
Then Hector was pulling the ob room away and down, shouting uselessly, thinking idiotically that he could shield some of the Workers from the blast.
And then the bomb went off: a lightless explosion, no flash, no momentary vision of green, just an ash-dark shockwave that slammed the ob room wall against his head.
Flower pistils, huge, laden with yellow powder. The bright, bright conduit. Wings buzzing, manipulating the warm breeze to bring him darting in and out among translucent golden blossoms.
A rejuvenation berth. Viscous warmth, distant light, low gravity. He sat up from the vat. A dream.
Flowers drooped in a glass amphora–calla lilies. Tasteful, impersonal. No card.
News feeders blathered silently at arm’s length overhead. He reached a tentative arm, fresh white scars at the elbow and wrist, to shove them away. He knew what they’d say. But the image stopped him: it was that woman from the HM3C, the mindcasting advocate, looking positively glowing. They must have won in the Senate.
He recognized her this time–the smile. He’d never seen her smile like that in the feeds. In the café, though. In the elevator.
He turned up the sound. The HM3C was taking over operations of the ag. A windfall political win for the corporation. No mention at all of the Workers.
What had she said? The Relics have no souls. We don’t either. That’s what makes us great.
What about the Workers?
He looked at the lilies beginning to wilt, the threat of brown around the gills, and was filled with sudden, implacable dread they were the last green growing thing he’d ever see.
Behind his eyelids, he sought the refuge of the pollinator’s wings, zipping through the orchards of the ag, blue heart humming, nectar sweet at the tip of its proboscis.
Instead, there were spiders, flailing, falling into the stars.

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