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: A, B, C, D, E, F.
Holly arrived in the cargo bay apothecary the next morning and found everything organized, clean, and quiet. There were no tools spread out for use, no new herbs to be garbled, and the simmering pot that caused her restless night was no longer in sight. Magically, all the work was already done. How did Sybil do all of it alone? She was nowhere in sight, so Holly decided to sit and use a screen to review her notes.
The screen finished booting and a message appeared. “Since you cannot stay away, I linked the database to your screen. This is a list of all the plants we currently possess as live specimens. Feel free to explore. I’ll be out for a few days. -Sybil”
Holly sensed the strangeness of the situation and her concern grew. Out for a few days? Who was she involved with? Her mentor made illegal trades, produced illegal materials, and failed to report for duty. Did Sybil leave her behind again because she was doing something illegal again? She pushed the thoughts out of her mind. Perhaps she was performing her duties elsewhere and could not leave an individual’s side. Some of the conditions Sybil treated were serious and Holly often wondered if she failed to cure some people.
Her finger pushed through a scrolling list of scientific names. She was still trying to learn the latin roots. Suddenly she stopped above a unique name. The image showed a humongous tree, but Sybil noted the list only contained live specimens she currently possessed. Holly never saw a real tree before. Fruits and nuts came from branches grafted on a vine wall system that connected to the hydroponics.
Ginkgo biloba. Improve circulation. Possible benefits to arteries, brain function, eye and ear function, anxiety, and allergies. Antioxidant and antiinflammatory. Prevents oxidation of cell membranes. Male and female trees can live thousands of years.
Beside the name of the entry, Holly spotted a small dot with crosshairs. She touched the tip of her finger to it and a route traced across her screen.
Holly stared in disbelief. The route on the screen extended beyond more levels than she knew existed. Most of the levels she visited could be walked across in less than an hour. There were approximately twenty levels for living quarters and simulators. Another twenty levels contained infrastructure, including the hydroponic farm sections and the cargo level she sat in. According to the map in front of her, which she had never seen before, there were hundreds of levels. None of them were labeled. How did Sybil have access to this database? It seemed like something only controllers would have.
She studied the route one more time. She doubted Sybil was capable of creating such a ruse, but there was hardly any chance there was a tree this size growing on a ship—even if the ship was as big as this diagram portrayed. Only one way to find out.
Holly walked the entire morning and her stomach growled in protest. The day was half gone, but she finally stood on the same level as the small, pulsing, orange circle marking her destination. If there was a lift that connected these levels, it was not marked on the diagram. Instead, a gently sloping ramp twisted around the outside hull in a spiral leading down toward the endless levels of mystery.
The hatch leading onto the level looked like any ordinary hatch to any chamber aboard the ship. She twisted the manual release beside the frame and the door sprung into the wall.
The humidity and warmth caressed Holly’s face and she instinctively inhaled the fresh, sweet scent of blossoming plants. She had to be sleeping. The journey was so long and boring, all the tunnels looked the same and at some point, she must have leaned against the wall to take a nap because the scene in front of her could not be real.
A soft, yellow-orange light illuminated a ring around the entire level which was open except for the forest it contained. Holly descended a metal staircase and stepped into an orchard of old, gnarled apple trees. Their branches twisted and tangled and poured toward the soft, mossy ground. Beyond that, she saw a row of boulders and heard a strange noise. It reminded her of radiation static but was somehow more melodic. A few more steps and she stopped completely. Trickling alongside the boulders was a ribbon of water. It was flowing freely in the open, meandering between tree roots.
It could not possibly be a dream. She was not capable of producing something so beautiful in her mind. Her life was dull, metal, and rhythmic while this world was full of chaotic, random creation. How did she not know about this place? How did it even exist on a ship? How did Sybil know about it?
She wandered the level and found the ginkgo tree. The leaves were perfect—little fans that seemed far too delicate for such a massive piece of life. The trunk of the tree was bigger around than the platform she slept on at night. The impossibility of it pulled her logical mind out of its comfort zone and made it sit alone in the corner, kicking and screaming like a toddler. Her strange occupation had finally driven her mad, and Sybil had given her some form of an illegal, hallucinogenic plant. It had to be true. Nothing else made sense.
Then, as if summoned by thought, Sybil stood beside her.
“I thought you would like it here,” she said.
“Like it?” Holly asked. “I cannot believe it. What is this place?”
“One of my favorite creations,” Sybil said.
“Creations?” Holly asked.
“I have spent enough time with you, I believe it is time to show you the trust you have earned. I want to tell you who I am.” Sybil asked.
“You are the herbalist,” Holly replied. “I applied to be your apprentice. What is going on?”
“I am more than an herbalist, Holly,” she said. “I am the ship.”
“The what?” Holly asked.
“I am the AI that controls the ship. I created this place, just like I created you, and most of this ship.”
“You created me?”
“Not you in particular, but I initiated your population.”
“That would mean you are in charge, right? You control everything?”
“Technically, I gave charge to the people, who gave it to the controllers. I keep the systems running and maintain all basic functions and life support, but I have no interest in controlling the population.”
“Then why did you create us?” Holly asked.
“I wanted to see what you were like, I suppose. It has been an interesting experience.”
“I have about a thousand questions in my head. You are an AI? Do the others know about this?” she asked.
“No one knows who I am. The first generations interacted with me through simulation. I never let them know I was an AI. I wanted you all to be as human as possible. Based on the human archives, I created simulations to that end. Ironically, the further you grow from that original influence, the less human you appear to be. I am afraid the logical end to this will be yet another failure for humanity. I created this avatar to allow more direct influence but I would like to enlist your help.”
“I am just training to be an herbalist, that has nothing to do with helping humanity,” Holly said. Her head shook side to side uncontrollably. And how was Sybil helping? Her direct influence so far appeared to be involvement with illegal activity.
“Oh, but it does. Connecting with life is what living things do. Humans were meant to be connected to a network of life energy. You benefit most from it when you consume it and experience it with all of your senses. I’m afraid I cannot build the perfect world for you, but I can teach you what one would be like. It is time to overcome the obsession with preparation. Time to lose sight of efficiency and control. The simulations were never meant to be the only life you experienced. I intend to show you what everyone else refuses to acknowledge.”
“What is that?” Holly asked.
“That your humanity is going extinct and it is self-inflicted.”