Tuesday, April 13, 2021

AtoZ Challenge - K is for Kelp

For the AtoZ Challenge, I will post an episode of flash fiction featuring an herb for the letter of the day for the month of April. The episodes are glimpses of a larger story. To read from the beginning:  ABCDEFGHIJ.

Sybil took Holly on another field trip to one of the unlabeled levels. This time Sybil showed her the lift connecting the levels. It was hidden and looked like a ventilation access panel. 

Holly spent a lot of time with her eyebrows drawn close together and she was glad the headache remedies appeared to be helping. Reality was no longer as simple as she believed it to be.

The smell when the portal to their destination opened could only be described as pungent. It seemed unpleasant and the corners of her mouth turned down when she exhaled. Were they visiting an unwashed lavatory?

She walked along a curved wall and discovered the murky color was actually a liquid shifting behind a transparent barrier. Her hand pressed on the cold surface as she leaned closer. Deep green shapes wavered between streams of bubbles.

“Kelp,” Sybil said. “Fucus vesiculosus to be exact. I provide quite a bit of it in dried form to the nutrition controllers for use as a supplement and umami flavor enhancer.”

“And it grows in water?” Holly asked.

“Salt water specifically. Earth was covered in bountiful oceans of salt water. Before the acidity levels were too much for the kelp to handle at least.”

She continued. “Now we need it to keep iodine levels up and protect thyroid function. It also contains high magnesium, calcium, potassium, and chromium, plus folate.”

While Sybil spoke, the whirring sound of machinery vibrated in the distance. Sybil’s expression hardened and she turned toward the enormous tank in time to see a large mechanical arm swinging down with a load of kelp dangling from it’s claw.

Sybil said, “I’m afraid it is time for us to go already. We will need some of this, though.” She reached out and gathered the slimy green-brown plants into a metal container and placed it inside her basket. Her wrinkles betrayed a deep concern and her steps were faster than usual.

They took the lift straight to the living level and appeared in a corridor that Holly never knew had a lift. She could hear the echoes of commotion and detect a strange scent she did not recognize, but it was as strong as the scent from the saltwater tanks. Her throat clenched a little and her eyes began to burn.

Three figures wearing the unmistakable dark orange uniform of the controllers stood blocking their way. The padded panels on their chests rose and fell with each tempered breath. Holly quickly pressed herself against the wall and planted her eyes on the floor, but Sybil continued to walk forward and nearly ran into the human barrier.

They reached out their arms to stop her, but a few quick phrases and the controllers stepped aside. Sybil motioned for her to follow and Holly reluctantly obeyed.

Before the medical controllers arrived, Holly and Sybil were able to wrap the worst burns with their fresh kelp. Holly was glad they would finally be allowed to leave the scene when one of the controllers stopped them.

He said, “One of the men over there says you are responsible for the accelerant that caused the fire to spread.”

Holly instinctively shook her head even though she had no clue what he was talking about. What kind of accelerant? She glanced toward the group of people who were involved in the fire.

“Responsible?” Sybil asked. Her voice was firm but innocent. “I provide no such thing.”

“No, but you know who does,” the controller said. 

“I know many people, but that does not make me responsible for what they do,” Sybil argued.

“You will need to come with us,” he said, “for questioning.”

Holly shook her head again.

Sybil quietly turned to her and handed over her basket. “They will need at least a week of herbal treatments for their respiration,” she said to Holly. Then she disappeared between the armored men, her figure dwarfed by theirs.

Monday, April 12, 2021

AtoZ Challenge - J is for Jasmine

 Sincerest apologies for the late publish! I have been so swamped and not been able to work on my challenge for over a week! I'm back to it, here we go!

For the AtoZ Challenge, I will post an episode of flash fiction featuring an herb for the letter of the day for the month of April. The episodes are glimpses of a larger story. To read from the beginning:  ABCDEFGH, I.

Holly could not even remember the names of the old man and woman they visited the week before. Sybil warned her before they left for their visit the old man died the previous night.

    She had never seen death or experienced it. She knew what it was, obviously, but no one she ever knew died. Maybe there was a kid who stopped coming to basic lessons, and maybe it was because he died, but she wasn’t sure. She also was not sure what the point of the visit was if he was already dead.

    They entered the same chamber as before and the old man was missing. The entire platform was empty; it had been completely stripped. The woman looked even more frail than before. Her eyes were puffy and swollen and her whole body shook when she moved.

    Holly tried to concentrate on the new white flowers they used to prepare for the visit. Jasminum officianle, jasmine, a mild sedative Sybil added to a simple green tea. She pre-steeped the tea to reduce the caffeine and added lemon.

    Sybil poured hot water over the tea containing the tiny, delicate, white blossoms. While the tea drew, she dropped oil made with the same flowers into the palm of her hand and pulled her fingers through the old woman’s hair.

    The gesture surprised Holly. She was only beginning to see the subtle hints Sybil really was an AI. Why was she so loving toward people?

    The old woman closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. Her shaking ceased and small tears slipped from under her lashes. Emotion was an interesting thing. It was something children did, but they were taught early to control and overcome it. It was also something Holly fought against and never seemed to be fully free from.

    Watching the old woman slowly release her own emotional pain reawakened Holly’s. She thought about the fact that such a delicate woman lived outside the system, outside the care of the controllers, and was left to die. Now her partner was dead. What would happen to her? Would she still want to keep living?

    While she pondered this, she looked around the small chamber and for the first time noticed the walls were covered in stunning images. Shapes and tones blended and crisscrossed and tapestries hung with thousands of tiny stitches. The abstract patterns and slight variances in texture reminded her of a field of plants.

    “What are these?” she blurted.

    Sybil looked up at her and the old woman slowly opened her eyes. 

    “My art,” she said.

    “You created these? What is art?” Holly asked.

    “An expression of humanity,” Sybil said.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

AtoZ Challenge - I is for Idaeus

For the AtoZ Challenge, I will post an episode of flash fiction featuring an herb for the letter of the day for the month of April. The episodes are glimpses of a larger story. To read from the beginning:  ABCDEFG, H.

“There are two variants of this Rubus, idaeus and strigosus. Rubus idaeus is the red raspberry that was most widely cultivated, but the other was actually more potent,” Sybil said.
    “I’ve tasted raspberry flavoring before, but never seen the berries,” Holly said.
    “They are best eaten quickly and fresh, which is the exact opposite of the methods used by nutrition control,” Sybil said.
    Holly knew this to be true, but why was it true?
    “I didn’t even know the leaves were valuable,” she said.
    “Highly valuable,” Sybil replied. “I provide it for everyone but in particular for women, even during pregnancy. It contains high concentrations of iron and calcium, which most women need more of, and is astringent, so it can ease their cycle. The fragarine is good for healthy pelvic muscles, too.”
    “Speaking of pregnancy, how were the first generations created?” Holly asked. She had been trying not to bring up their conversation in the forest, but the truth was weighing on her.
    “Mechanic fertilization inside an amniotic tank,” she said.
    “Why?” Holly asked. “What happened to the others? Who made the ship?”
    “Humans made the ship but did not have time to build the infrastructure to sustain life. They left me to do that. I was supposed to find a new place for you to live, and assist the rebirth of civilization. But after reviewing your history, the earliest centuries of a new society are often the most destructive. It seemed best to allow you to work out those tendencies on a ship that I could repair instead of on another planet you could destroy.”
    “The forest level is a test?” Holly asked.
    “Actually, I started with plants. I learned everything I could about them first. What do you imagine would happen to the forest if I allowed everyone to see it?”
    The image awakened Holly’s defensive instincts. She considered the worst outcomes:  thousands of feet trampling the moss, hands scattering the beautiful river rocks, fruit being ripped from the branches before fully ripened, and the papery leaves torn from the ginkgo tree one by one. It brought her back to the guilt she felt regarding her position. If everyone took from the fields as they pleased, and used water to prepare decoctions, the waste would be unimaginable. She possessed a truly special gift of freedom to explore and learn through her senses and as a singular person, the destruction was minuscule and insignificant. Was her freedom sustainable for the entire population?
    Fear emerged deep inside Holly. Her behavior since being with Sybil was not just bordering on criminal, it was criminal. She was in violation of conservation controls. She did not participate in simulation programs for colony preparation and even had break days. She was officially “out-of-control.”
    Any thought of reporting Sybil for shining or dementia vanished when she realized her own guilt.
    One more thought circled in her mind. Sybil said, “...another planet to destroy.” Holly was possibly in the presence of the only recorded history of the human race prior to their ship. The weirdest part was Sybil seemed to think knowledge about plants was the most important thing Holly needed to learn.

Friday, April 9, 2021

AtoZ Challenge - H is for Horsetail

For the AtoZ Challenge, I will post an episode of flash fiction featuring an herb for the letter of the day for the month of April. The episodes are glimpses of a larger story. To read from the beginning:  ABCDEF, G.

Holly woke each day with the thought of reporting Sybil’s mental state to the controllers. Her illegal activities were motivation enough, but her claim to be the ship’s AI made matters more complex. Perhaps she was mentally ill. It happened sometimes, especially with old age. A better course of action would be to learn as much as she could so when Sybil did finally leave her position, Holly could still help people with minor conditions and preventative health.
    The two women walked slowly through the corridors of the living quarters. Holly was finally going to meet some of the individuals with chronic conditions Sybil taught her about. Another problem with age, especially considering the inactive life of simulation training and the sometimes variable gravity, was bone weakness. Sybil prepared several calcium-rich herbs in her basket and a fascinating herb called horsetail. 
    “Equisetum arvense,” Sybil said. She walked a few steps ahead of Holly, clutching the handle of her basket close to her side. “A very ancient plant, one of the oldest from the original human planet. It carries so much silica it could polish these floors. But that also makes it good for absorbing calcium and keeping arteries clear. I brought along some of the dandelion, too, to replace the potassium that might be lost using the horsetail. We will have to keep an eye on their kidneys, too, but you will see why we take the risk shortly.”
    She stopped in front of a chamber door and tapped her knuckle against the frame. After a moment, the door slid to the side and a frail, older woman stood in front of them. She smiled at Sybil and shifted her eyes for a moment to examine Holly.
    “My apprentice,” Sybil said. “I am showing her your mate’s condition today. I brought your greens for the week, too.”
    She held the basket out for the woman to take and stepped through. Holly stood in the corner by the hatch and watched Sybil slide her knotted hands over the old man’s body. He was propped on the platform with several cushions and blankets and appeared perfectly comfortable, but it was clear he was suffering.
    Holly did not ask any questions and stayed out of the way except when Sybil asked her to boil water or bring her a vial. When they left the chamber, she could not hold it in any longer.
    “Why are we helping them? They need serious help. Can’t the medic controllers care for them?” she asked.

    “No, they have been left for die-off,” Sybil said. 

    “For What?” Holly stopped in her stride, forcing Sybil to turn around.

    “They allow those who are too weak, who are a drain on the system to die off—not to waste resources on them. That is why I do what I do. To keep them around, to add diversity and history to the population.”

    “You are saying the controllers stop helping people who are suffering?” Holly asked.

    “No, I am saying the controllers stop helping people who want to keep suffering.”

    “Who wants to keep suffering?” Holly was having trouble controlling her voice.

    “Suffering is part of life,” Sybil said. Her voice always remained calm and even. “If you want to stop the suffering, you have to stop the life. The controllers consider these individuals to be done with their life and resources will no longer be allotted to keep them comfortable. But I have found, these individuals are in fact closest to their humanity in these last moments, and I want to preserve who they are. I learn from them and they are grateful for the extra time.”

    The old couple did seem grateful, but Holly still struggled with accepting Sybil’s version of reality. Was it true? Was this fate waiting for all those individuals who did their duty and followed the rules?

    “What do they do all day? Since they do not report to simulation,” Holly asked.

    “They act human.”