It was the day before I was to leave the Settlement for the mission.
The elevator rose quickly and smoothly towards the top of the Central tower. I didn’t know why I’d been summoned.
I’d never been to the top before. The tower narrowed, but at its top was a wider floor like a flat disc. This was, (or so I’d heard) where the Administrators retreated when they wished to convene.
Civilians never came here.
It frightened me.
The doors slid open at the top. I took in the room. The wide, empty space was not unexpected. A core pillar rose through the center of the room, made of stainless steel, but it was unassuming. Around the edges, there were red chairs and couches, spaced generously. Several Administrators lounged on them, sipping wine or other beverages out of glass. Strangely, the couches were facing outwards.
The walls of the room were paneled in glass, but instead of being the usual one-way, the glass was covered by cloth screens. Windows. A faint daylight glow came from the edges. There were windows up here? That didn’t seem right. This was the 150th floor. It was the tallest building in the Settlement.
They were covered, and no one was looking out of them, at least for the moment. Perhaps nothing to see, after all. But I was seized by an intractable curiosity.
I could not give it any attention, for Dana Morris-Fletcher was walking towards me. Her business heels were almost hidden under the flared legs of her gray pantsuit.
“You’ve made it,” she said, and, “Thank you for coming,” which surprised me, but not unpleasantly. She wished me to perceive myself as an insider, at least, if not an equal.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve called you here,” said the woman. Her eyes skirted across me for a moment, and I remembered why they made me so uncomfortable— the intensity never abated for a second. “I have a couple of things to show you before you leave,” she said. “In the interest of preparedness.”
I nodded again, hadn’t I been shown enough already?
“I’m aware you’ve already received most of the mission briefing information,” she said, with an air of careful word choice. “There is, however, a certain… sensitivity…” I was grateful that she had turned away, and was now beckoning me to follow her. “Well, better to just show you. Come.”
She went to the core in the center of the room.
As she approached, a piece of the metal slid away, revealing a small, lighted compartment. Inside, there was a plant.
I could see its slender, green stem, curling up along a thin support rod. It coiled like a small, tender worm would grasp a branch. Its leaves were large and arrow-shaped.
I leaned in, despite myself.
“This is a real bean plant,” said Morris-Fletcher, “hatched from a bean sprout.”
My fingers crept forward.
I could hear the warning on her voice. “Look, but do not touch. The oils on your fingers will damage the leaves.”
I withdrew my hand quickly, but continued to fill my eyes. It was a lovely being. There was even a small pod on it, near the top of the stem.
“While under ordinary circumstances It would be considered unethical to keep a plant inside of the Settlement, this one is for demonstration purposes only. We need to understand what it is that we’re protecting. Don’t you agree, Alex?”
“Certainly,” I said, a bit startled.
However, my mind went to conservatory. I wondered if that had been a real place after all. I’d never seen it anywhere on the maps.
“Humans pollute everything. We maim, kill, and destroy. That is why we quarantine ourselves in the Settlement. We must protect Gaia from our evil at all costs.”
Gaia wasn’t precisely a god to us, since a god is a supernatural being. Gaia was nature itself. Gaia had no magical attributes, but could be understood purely by science and logic—or so it was said. I’d studied cell division, and the water cycle, and photosynthesis. I’d memorized chemical formulas for proteins.
In my mind, I had always pictured Gaia as a sort of tree. A tree like in pictures, but bigger and more living. I even harbored a secret fantasy that maybe when I was young I had seen Gaia in the form of that little tree.
“However,” said Morris-Fletcher. “For the greater good, it is not only possible, but in fact certain that you will be required to commit certain offenses against Gaia. I regret it, but it is inevitable, since you will be trespassing into her domain to stop other trespassers.”
I waited, puzzling. I wasn’t sure what she was getting at.
“It is time you knew.” Her words were spoken louder, the tension reaching a crescendo. “This is a closely-guarded secret, but at this point in our development, Gaia is nearly healed from her devastation. What you are about to see… may shock you.”
With her final words, the curtains began to rise, on slow, automated rollers. Light began to pour in, light of the sun, almost painfully white.
I squinted through my fingers, then took my hands away.
I saw green.
With the large windows open on all sides, the room had become open, airy, almost like we were flying over the world. I could see past the city, which looked like a gray mass of rooftops and fog, and out over the wall.
It was a sea of green. I couldn’t process the visual information, at first. Then I began to pick out, in the nearer distance, what I thought might be individual trees. The sky was blue and so, so big. In the distance were mountains.
I was overcome immediately with a sort of fear that I’d never experienced before. I fell down on my knees.
“Oh Earth,” I said. And it was.
Dana Morris-Fletcher allowed a small smile to steal across her lips. And strangely enough, I thought it was genuine.
“I never imagined…” I mumbled. “It’s so big. I didn’t realize how big it was. It’s so beautiful. It’s so much prettier than anything in this dirty old city.” Then I was immediately embarrassed, and a little frightened. I’d lost control of my tongue. That was potentially Detractive, and I had just said it in front of an Administrator, and not just any Administrator, but the Chief Executive of DYNTEC.
But she just sighed, wistfully. Her back was toward me as she looked out over the Earth. “I feel the same way. Do you see it? Pristine. Sacred. Holy. Untouched by the ugliness and evils of man.” There was a sincere emotion in her voice that was more cutting than any of her masks had been. “That is why we must keep it that way.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I just kept looking. I had never seen anything like this before and I felt as though I had to absorb it all now, in this minute, or I’d never see it again.
“Hence, our hands-off policy. Gaia is perfect. She has no sin or flaw. Humankind is the aberration. We are the bastard children of Gaia, the one animal capable of killing its mother. Our basest urge is to consume her until she is no more.
“It’s a sad fact of the human condition, we have no limits to our greed. No limits to expansion. We can’t resist the urge to rape the earth. In a darker age, all people used to do as the cultists do now. They bred uncontrollably and indiscriminately, spreading out over land until no place on the face of the Earth was untainted by their mark. Our species once had cities all over the entire planet. Now the Settlement is the only one—thank Gaia. The population of our species used to be over 8 billion. Now we are down to 15 million- all within the Settlement. But we can do better. We can. That’s why we’re always walling off parts of the Settlement that are no longer needed and returning them to the Earth.”
I had never in my life imagined that so many trees could exist, let alone be seen all at the same time.
“Here in the Settlement, we understand our own nature,” she continued. “If people knew about this—if they knew—they would want it all for themselves. It would ruin our centuries of progress. People would want to go out and ruin her all over again. They’d defile everything, put their dirty little fingers all over every leaf and tree. Can you imagine?”
She looked at me, and I looked back blankly, unable to imagine.
“It is only we, those few who are intelligent enough to rise above and subjugate our baser instincts, who are fit to make decisions about the future of human life. There is nothing good we can do for the Earth. Our every touch kills. If you love Gaia you must let her go.”
All I could think about was how I’d been told all my life that this didn’t exist. I hadn’t just been told the Earth was a barren wasteland. I’d been told that anyone who said otherwise was an evil, malicious Detractor.
In my heart, a small and suppressed, but real flame of anger was kindled against Dana Morris-Fletcher.