“You know my name?”
“Indeed, I do.”
“But I don’t know yours.”
She had light brown hair done up beneath her cap and green eyes. Her face was pale like the patch of moonflowers he’d seen beneath the sycamore trees.
“Do you want to know my name?” The girl extended her hand and they shook. She had a warm, firm grip. Donny felt the film of dirt on her palm. If she were human, an organic human, at least, she’d be about 19 or 20. She’d have a job, some kind of ongoing romance, maybe a capsule apartment like his in one of the megablocks. She’d have certain goals for what she’d do once she took the off-world qualifying exam and left the dark poisoned world behind.
But Donny figured she’d never been anything but a pretty girl of about 19 or 20. She didn’t have big dreams because synthetics produced on Earth were meant to serve a purpose planet-side and were therefore forbidden to leave. Every now and then, one of them tried to sneak into a freight container bound for a low-orbit docking platform and got caught or died from hypothermia.
“What version are you?”
She wiped her hand on her smock and sighed. “Version four, I think. Is it that obvious?”
“Just a lucky guess.” It felt strange returning her smile. Donny supposed he’d grown used to ignoring Friendly’s constant grin. But he wondered whether patrolling the lonesome empty spaces of the Shung Building, those sad group meetings, and the constant fear that the code would catch him off-guard had weaned the smiles out of him. When was the last time he’d felt kindness or humor? Graciela said she found him interesting, funny even. But she had no idea.
“So. What was it? Facial biometrics when I came in?”
“Bacteriological phenotype recognition, actually. When you walked through the lilac-nasturtiums.”
Donny tried to recall what the lilac-nasturtiums might have looked like.
She laughed at the look on his face. “The little orange flowers with the dark centers.”
“I don’t remember them.”
“That’s part of their charm.”
He nodded. “So you’ve been aware of me since I entered.”
“I’m the Cultivator.” She turned and pointed at the little wooden shed. “I live there. I’m aware of everything—in the gardens, not cosmically speaking.”
“That was a joke. I think you told a joke.” Then he felt bad because it sounded condescending, which wasn’t how he felt. How did he feel? He wasn’t sure. Unsettled, perhaps. Like he wanted to keep talking to this pale girl who knew everything and smiled and winked at him and told jokes. But then he thought of the iron stair, the moths fluttering around the light globes, the rippling spiderwebs.
“Humor is a sign of intelligence.” She stuck her trowel into the dirt and handed him a fat purple eggplant. Donny turned it over. It was heavy, flawless.
“What is the nature and purpose of the gardens?” A control question. Synthetics tasked with particular jobs had to answer, even if they didn’t want to.
She frowned, as if the question hurt her somehow, then recited: “Griffith Gardens is an architectonic botanical printing facility and public attraction. All organic materia that enters is sampled from intake nodes in the ceiling. Internucleotide telemetry is calculated based on an index of over one-billion phosphate groups compiled on 27 October 2042 by Doctors Shoda Yokoyama and Suhaila Habib of Biomedizinische Ingenieurproduktion, GmbH. The purpose of Griffith Gardens is to curate aspects of Earth’s historical genetic diversity.” She shook her head as if snapping out of a trance and pressed her lips into a thin line. “You didn’t have to do that. And my name is Mera.”
She took the eggplant back, cradling it like a child, and some of her former smile returned. “Apology accepted, Donny. Please only ask control questions if absolutely necessary. In most cases, I am allowed to provide information without being compelled, especially to a donor.”
“So now I’m—”
“Yes.” Her grin came back brighter than ever, as if she were about to shake his hand and congratulate him on a job well done. “Your DNA is now part of the gardens, too.”
“How is that legal?”
“It’s not illegal.” Mera took his hand and led him toward the shed. “It’s wonderful.”
In gardens that were more than gardens, the shed was destined to be something more than just a shed. The interior was awash in the pallid light of a ball-sized globe hovering near the roof’s peak. Fanged pruning saws lined the walls along with shovels, garden stakes, hanging sacks of chemical fertilizer labeled RISQUE BIOLOGIQUE, a green HDPE soil hypodermic, two meters of coiled garden hose; inverted bouquets of dried posies, impatiens, camellias, foxgloves suspended from hooks around the edge of the ceiling; and a wheelbarrow of potting soil in which three perfect eggplants had been rested as if it were a crib.
Mera raked her thin fingers through the wheelbarrow dirt, making a slight furrow. She placed the eggplant from the garden beside the others and sighed. “There,” she said and patted the fruit.
“What are you going to do with that?”
She turned back towards him, smirked, cocked her head to the side. “I’m responsible for this, Donny. All of this. I’m the Cultivator. What am I not going to do with it!”
“Right.” He nodded at the eggplants dreaming their small purple dreams. And the spell of the place, of Mera, the beautiful, improbable garden Cultivator, faltered. The sheer weirdness of the moment—standing in a half-lit garden shed with a synthetic girl who told jokes about the cosmos and treated eggplants like babies—bloomed in his mind like the electric blue hydrangeas he’d passed with their tiny hyperoptic lights.
All that glitters is not synthetic. Donny smiled at the thought, a new adage in a world defined by synthesis and hybridity, where nothing is ever all one thing or pure or simple or natural in the old-world sense of the term. Not even Mera, who seemed to be studying his expression with a mix of cheerful curiosity and . . . something else. He felt an overwhelming urge to tell her about the chip in his brain. Instead, he looked down at the the dirt floor and the subcrete trapdoor set with an iron ring.
“That’s where I live,” Mera said. “My capsule.” With the index finger of her left hand, she hooked the iron ring and pulled, revealing not a trapdoor but a solid meter-square block of subcrete gridded with ancient rebar. She lifted it out of the square hole as easily as if it were paper and set it down beside her. Then she noticed the look on his face and laughed. “I’m strong.”
“I guess you are.”
“Would you like some tea?” Mera dropped into the hole without waiting for an answer.
Of course he’d like some tea. What else did one do after putting eggplants to sleep in a wheelbarrow crib and lifting enormous subcrete blocks with a finger? Donny didn’t jump after her. He climbed down the short ladder that had been made from bent rebar, his palms orange with rust when he got to the bottom.
But it wasn’t a capsule at all. At least, it bore no resemblance to any megablock apartment capsule he’d ever seen. The room was oblong, felt cold and dank like a sub-basement, but the walls were hard-packed earth, machine-smooth. Roots grew out of the ceiling. Long cream-yellow flowers in bloom clustered across the floor. The little pathways that had formed around the clusters reminded Donny of the twisting subcrete walks in the garden above. And he wondered if the designer who’d made the lonesome iron bridge, the light globes, the ever-evolving genetic soup of the flora and fauna had made this space as well—mechanically replicating the motif of the garden above as if this were a shoe-box diorama, perfectly to scale, and Mera was tasked with maintaining its fidelity.
She’d slipped off her red knit cap and her hair down over her shoulders. A small kerosene lamp on a stool cast flickering shadows of Mera and the flowers over the walls.
“No floating lights down here?”
“No.” In the center of the room, she was a dark silhouette amid the still blooms as if she’d grown up with them. Maybe she had. “These flowers need an extra amount of darkness. The lamp is the only light source that won’t damage them.”
He walked towards her, letting his fingertips brush the open petals, breathing in the perfume. “This is . . . I feel . . . strange.”
Mera moved farther in until she was a shadow among shadows at the other end of the room. But her soft voice was clear. “Is it strange, Donny? The gardens have been around for 78 years. How long have you been around?”
The kerosene flame disappeared and the room went dark.
“I don’t remember. I have a chip—”
“In your brain. I know.”
Donny felt her arm around his shoulders. Mera had found her way back to him in total darkness without making a sound. They walked forward together.
“How could you know?”
“The gardens are connected to the municipal database. Your genetic fingerprint is how the LAPD knows who you are, where you work, how to locate you. Legal bio-cybernetic implants are included in your file.”
He felt the hard aluminum edge of a cot press against his shins. Mera turned him around and helped him sit. Donny could sense an unnatural chill radiating through the dirt wall at his back. And the faintest vibration there—an enormous machine far away, yet powerful enough to make itself felt through meters of compressed earth.
“Then it is legal.”
He felt her warm lips on his forehead. “It is. It was.”
“And you know . . . about me.”
“Yes.” Mera held his face, kissed his jaw, his cheeks, his lips. “I know about you.”
“I need to—I don’t remember.” Donny struggled to form the words. She was beautiful—synthetic, yes, but it felt like being with Graciela. Mera’s voice was soft, her touch gentle. Yet she’d straddled him and was holding his wrists against the cold dirt wall. His mind felt tangled. Was it the code asserting itself? Donny felt a wave of fear. Where had he put his pills?
“The flowers are beautiful, aren’t they?”
“I can’t see them.”
“But they can see you, Donny Stilton” she whispered. Then she kissed him again, tightened her thighs against his hips, laced her fingers into his, sending trickles of dirt onto his arms.
Something in him was trying wake up, to initialize—a control structure, the Damocles Algorithm, possibly a neurochemical anomaly formed from neodymium leaks in the chip’s housing. He had to find his pills. But Mera’s hold on his wrists was solid, immovable.
“You need to . . . I need . . . ”
“They’re called gladiolus tristis, commonly referred to as Midnight Gladiolus. And twice a year, they’re lethal.”
She kissed him again. “Don’t worry. Right now they’ll just make you sleepy.”
And the code drifted back into the darkness of his mind. Somewhere, out there, it was still trying to activate, to run its processes in the monotonous one-pointed logic of a machine whose sole purpose was to kill its user.
Donny’s mind drifted after it.
< Read Ch. 8 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IL >
< Read Ch. 6 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IH >