Whispers from a Seed
Outside was glaringly bright, but there was a little pocket of darkness under the rock. And, inside, a little seedling cowered.
Inexplicably, he longed to touch it: to caress its frail yellow shoot, not yet green – and perhaps never green. Light made things green. Light gave things colour.
He wondered why he knew that.
And he wondered why the seedling drew away from his touch.
'Bright,' it seemed to hiss. To him, or to the light, he didn't know. 'Too bright.'
He crawled to his knees. Sand dragged and dug and burned. He looked at himself. His tunic was in tatters and marred with sporadic lines of brown.
He wondered how he had gotten like that.
'Better.' And there seemed to be a sigh of relief as well.
He stared at the seedling. It had leaned a little towards him, towards the shade.
He was shielding it, he realised. The gap below the rock was so small, he could block much of the light by simply sitting there.
He hoped that wasn't his greatest accomplishment.
But he couldn't seem to remember having accomplished anything else.
'Flash! It was a Flash!'
She ran, pulling the heavy coat off her tunic underclothes as she did and barking orders to any standing person she passed. The Flash had come and gone and the coat had protected her, but now it was a nuisance: heavy and hot. She took it off but she carried it. It was too valuable to cast aside and have it stolen by looters before she returned.
And though it was rare to have another Flash so soon, if it did happen, she didn't want to be unprotected.
The heavy boots she kept though. They were uncomfortable, but amidst the dead animals and plants and the charred human flesh, it was a blessing in itself.
Most of them were scavengers. She checked their red – browned or blacked by now – faces, and the strips of cloth by which they covered them.
Her lips curled in disgust but she called for them to be picked up anyway.
Then she paused. She slowed.
She could see someone in a tunic like hers, but lacking the coat.
'Are you a fool?'
He turned away from the little seedling and heard it whine and draw back. It might have made him return to it, but the woman who had hailed him now seized his shoulder and held him there.
She wore a tunic much like his, he noticed. And carried something in her free hand.
He did not recognise it. Nor what had made her call him a fool.
Her scowl deepened. 'What is your station?'
He did not know what she meant.
She realised it and her hand released him. He sunk a little, then raised an arm to shield from the sudden glint.
Then his eyes widened and his back felt the rock. That glint came from a blade.
Either his brain was addled or he was a scavenger of the worst kind, she thought, as she drew her knife. It didn't matter which to her. He was nothing in the eyes of the Institute either way. And no council would hear the pleas of mercy of one who stole off the back of the freshly dead. Because the blood was brown, but brown enough to still be considered red, not black.
Dead from the Flash, no doubt. And he'd been close enough to its edge to come away with only scratches and shallow burns when lacking the proper protective gear.
But the man was a strange one. He inched away from her blade, yes, but either her eyes deceived her or he'd moved to cover the rock. Perhaps he hid something there. Unlikely it was valuable, but it would cost little to check after this obstacle was removed. The things scavengers stole were provided by the Institute in return for their work and there was little else the world had to offer. Except the Flashes and those were things she, and the other workers, could do without.
'Hold still,' she said irritably as the man tried to press himself against the stone. Then she blinked. The man was shifting a little again, allowing a little crack in the rock to be exposed to air and light again.
'Too dark!' He heard the whine and immediately shifted. It cleared his head. He was still tense, and the blade was still in the woman's hand, but at least now he wasn't blindly scampering back.
'Please – ' He began to croak, and then stopped. What, really, could he say?
'Spare you?' the woman said scornfully. 'You've answered no question of mine yet.'
The small seedling hissed, dissimilar to its hiss of relief before. It was an angry sort of hiss. An angry, powerless, hiss.
'I don't understand.' His head flickered to the rock, then the stern woman with the blade. 'I don't –'
' – don't understand.'
Scavengers rarely pled ignorance, and it was uncomfortable when they did. But scavenger or not, it didn't matter.
Protocol, she reminded herself. Act A, section 63: anyone incapable of identification is treated as a non-existent and is to be disposed of immediately.
She repeated it aloud. Left the exclusion clause because scavengers were desperate, dishonourable fools. They'd latch on to the exclusion clause, attempt to prove their utility, attempt to escape with their lives still intact – and, on occasion, one of the Institute paid with their life.
But the exclusion clause was still there, still law. As though the Institute was waiting for something, someone.
Act A, Section 63. He didn't know what that was, where it was from, but the words that followed could be summarised into a single question. A simple question – or it should have been a simple question, but he didn't know the answer. He couldn't recall. All he remembered was a bright flash and the rock he'd dragged himself towards and the little seedling that cowered under it, seeking shade.
'Seedling?' the woman repeated, stepping sideways to see through the mostly covered crack, to see the little green sprout that was there.
He realised he'd been talking out loud and he followed her movement: her body, but not her eyes. The knife was the dangerous thing, after all. Eyes couldn't kill, couldn't crush. But the grip on the knife changed. No longer threatening. Just cautious.
And he looked up at her eyes and found them wide with astonishment.
A seedling. A real seedling, growing under the rock and, somehow, it had survived the Flash as well, becoming only yellowed as the result. 'How is this possible?' she whispered, awed. Then she frowned. The only seedlings she knew of grew in laboratories in the Institute and they grew until they were brown or grey and had little left to offer before being placed outside.
But no scavenger had made it that far inside. No scavenger could make it that far inside. She'd only been a few times herself and still she was stopped before the glasshouse where her deepest guard post was – not close enough to touch, and certainly not close enough to snatch a seedling and get all the way outside.
A63 exclusion clause, she repeats to herself, word for word from the constitution. If said unidentified person possesses and extraordinary trait or is found in the possession of an extraordinary item, he or she is to be detained in basement D block until further investigation.
She didn't fancy being the first person in a decade to properly execute the exclusion clause.
'Don't go,' the seedling whispered, suddenly.
He glanced its way, brows furrowing before snapping back. The woman wasn't paying attention to him though. She was mouthing something to herself and frowning, as though toying with a duty she disliked.
And he'd adjusted his seat so the rock wasn't digging into his spine but rather supporting him.
'I'm not going anywhere,' he said, confused – and aloud. The woman's head snapped to meet his eyes, then stared at the seedling. He looked as well. It had curled closer to him again.
'I said nothing,' the woman said flatly. Her eyes were guarded again, and her grip on the blade had tightened. It made him want to curl away but there was the rock, and the seedling.
'Don't go,' the seedling begged again.
'It said it doesn't want me to go,' he told the woman, gesturing, but still guarded.
'The seedling?' she asked. The seedling doesn't want him to go?
Addled brains, she decided. Plants were not living, intelligent beings. They could not talk. More concerning would be if he'd ascribed a gender to it but he had not – not yet at least.
Sighing, she put the knife away. Instantly, the man relaxed. 'Can you tell me your identification number?' she tried.
The man paused, stared at her, then shook his head.
He shook his head again.
She couldn't think of anything else to ask. Anything else that mattered. He wasn't acting like a scavenger. He might not be a scavenger. Or he might be one of them, caught in the Flash and damaged. But Act C which dealt with damaged personnel, amongst other things, was overruled by Act A.
And the seedling came under Act D.
The woman was silent again. It seemed she'd exhausted her questions, or her ability to ask when he had no answer to give to her. But if she hadn't appeared, hadn't asked, he wondered if he would have cared to know. He was more curious about the seedling.
'Speaker stays,' sighed the seedling. It sounded almost content.
He slipped a few fingers under the rock. The seedling arched, its yellow head brushing against the fingertips. It tickled, so he smiled and laughed like a baby whose feet were stroked. The woman's face became almost pitying as she watched the two of them.
He reminded her of a child right then. A young child who couldn't speak, who could take joy from even the simplest things. She had no children of her own, and little contact with them once she'd advanced that phase herself, but still he reminded her of a child. Even if he did, inexplicably, wear the same tunic as she. Even if he claimed to converse with a seedling that shouldn't even be found outside.
Maybe that was what made her turn away. She would gain nothing, after all, from hauling the pair in on the exclusion clause except facing scavenging or correction if something went wrong. But he'd become too pitiable to terminate. So she would leave. Pretend it was a strange dream, this abnormality, and continue with the damage report after the Flash she'd come out here to do.
'Goodbye,' the man offered her.
She paused, then offered her own farewell before walking off. It was a reflex, she supposed. Or that child-like laugh.
The woman left and he relaxed completely. He shuffled around so he faced the rock instead of away from it. 'So…' Then he paused. What should he do now?
He remembered the questions that woman had asked. Identification. Number. Name.
Name sounded nicer than those other two. 'Do you have a name?'
'No name,' said the seedling. 'Just like you.' It paused, then: 'Too bright,' it complained.
The woman had barely returned to base before another Flash occurred. Behind the glass she was safe from all but the bright light it produced and she was left with her eyes streaming as alarms blared around her.
It didn't matter, anyway. They'd just come back from a damage report and needed to write it up. It would be another team assigned to this Flash and another still to take up the guard afterward, and they'd have an easier job of it since so little time had passed. Flashes were like that: nuisances, unpredictable, and the reports that followed them routine.
Idly, as she blinked and the dull brown and grey of the outdoors came back into view, she wondered how many oddities they left out of those reports: how many dream like encounters, how many secrets they buried with other ineffectual memories instead.
And how many more secrets existed outside, in that world constantly razed with Flashes.