Beneath an Emerald Sky

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Earth, 100 years after first contact with an alien race. They could have wiped us out, taken our resources for their own. Instead, they chose something different...

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Beneath an Emerald Sky

Submitted: March 05, 2011

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Submitted: March 05, 2011

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Beneath an Emerald Sky

Cuyler van Dyck

And I will raise up for them a plant of renown, and they shall be no more consumed with hunger in the land, neither bear the shame of the heathen any more. – Ezekiel 34:29

Sometimes it takes a stranger to see in our possessions the worth of what we take for granted. – Anonymous

The truck rocked back and forth, and as it did, the four figures seated within, or in the flatbed behind, rocked with it.

Sun and shade played on and off their faces, cast by the canopy of leaves extending from the plant-life about them, through which the truck was skillfully maneuvered. Dry, choked grass and brittle weeds broke like glass beneath its heavy tires, carpeting the ground between dark-green, half-meter-thick stalks. These spiked their way upwards up to four times the height of a grown man, and were dotted with small thick branches. Each branch supported beach-ball sized clumps of green-brown flowers, which were all covered in fine white crystals. Oddly-numbered leaf-points spiked outwards from the branches and the bases of the flowers, each one almost half a meter long, and they were thin enough to add a very subtle green tint to the sunlight which passed through them.

At that height, the smaller crystals from the flowers floated heavily in the air like pollen, the rest falling to lightly dust the grass. But there were still signs of life. Heavy, slow-moving beetles large enough to fill the palm of a man’s hand buzzed around the huge bundles, eating away any traces of dead or fallen plant matter, and scattering the powder as they bumped into them.

The air was heavy, humid, and pungent.

The pickup truck was heavily laden. On the back, a thick, telescoping metal pole was laid, retracted, so that its end rested on the top of the cabin, latched in place, pointing forward. Its other end was attached to a hinge mechanism at the back end of the truck. A large, bundled up tarp was weighted in place in the middle of the bed, and tanks attached to either side of the truck were marked GAS, and WATER. Other items tied down or latched into place in the flatbed were a small, box-like metallic object that resembled a microwave, a heavy-looking hard plastic briefcase, and several spray-cans with unremarkable labels.

After some time, the truck ground to a halt, and was maneuvered into position, with its back towards one stalk, which the two lithe figures who had hopped out of the flatbed were now approaching – a man and a woman. Each one had departed the truck-bed with an aerosol can in one hand, and once they had checked the small sign pinned to the front of the stalk, they circled the plant, spraying puffs of liquid into the air.

As if by magic, the beetles circling the plant buzzed off, vacating the area with lazy indignation. A halo of calm descended on the scene. The two people returned to the vehicle, one switching his can for the strange box, the other clambering back into the truck-bed.

Taking his cue, the driver of the vehicle reversed slowly, until the woman in the back tapped on the rear windshield to signal she was close enough. Producing a small multi-tool from her garments, she reached up and cut off a walnut-sized piece of the snowy flower nearest to her. Then she waited until the truck had moved forward again a few meters before allowing the man to help her down onto the crunching grass. The truck engine died, and the man and woman who had sat in the cabin joined them.

Once all four were sitting in a circle on the shade-dotted ground, the man who had unloaded the metal container from the truck laid it gently on the grass in front of them. Then, the woman who had cut the bud passed it to him carefully. The first man opened the container and placed the bud onto the dish within, and then tapped a button on the front of the box, causing it to purr softly. His job finished, the man leaned back. The woman who had been sitting in the passenger seat of the truck produced an elaborate, multi-chambered pipe and a torch-lighter from her clothes, and laid them both out next to the vibrating box.

Then they sat silently, waiting.

The first of them, the man in charge of the contraption, was slim and toned, and had a smooth bald head atop an angular, symmetrical face. He glanced from the buzzing box to the faces of each of his companions, judging their moods and smiling to himself.

The woman to his left, who had cut the bud, had a petite figure which had been hammered into a lean, subtly-muscled silhouette. Green eyes stood out against a lightly-tanned face, and heavy auburn hair fell in pony-tail waves over one shoulder. She gazed at the lightly-rusted metal that whispered before her, and once in a while met the eyes of one of her friends. When she did, they smiled the smiles of two people who were sharing similar thoughts.

To her left, sat a second man, with short brown hair and a muscular build, who had been driving the vehicle. He sat cross-legged, like his companions, and tapped his fingers on his knees to a strange rhythm being born in his mind. His eyes were fixed on the glass view-port on the front of the murmuring metal box.

The last figure brushed shoulder-length black hair behind her ear and licked her lips. She had a solid, yet curvaceous body, with slender, athletic limbs. She outlined the intricate patterns on the pipe with eyes so dark that it was impossible to tell where the pupil ended and the iris began. She smiled as the rhythm her companion played on his knees and the low buzz of the box sang together in her mind.

All four wore faded green or brown cargo shorts, and both men were shirtless. In this languid humidity, anything else was irregular. Both women wore darkly colored bandeaus, which were what received the most visual attention from the men when the dry-box was not active.

There was a single beep. All four looked at each other and shared smiles.

The woman who had cut the bud removed it carefully from the dry-box and demonstrated its readiness by squeezing it gently, producing a satisfying crunch. She passed it to the woman who now held the pipe, and eight eyes watched as she packed it into the waiting bowl with slender fingers.

It was her honorable duty to smoke the first hit, and she closed her eyes appreciatively as she felt the vacuum-dryness of smooth smoke spread through her insides. One by one, the others followed suit, the perfectly-cut bud making two laps around the circle before it was reduced to ash.

Every hit was exquisite. The elaborate design of the pipe spread smoke through separate chambers, where different materials and substances through which it passed filtered out tar and excess heat before the toke hit home. And with every hit that they smoked, they savored and sampled, judging the quality of the flower with years of experience. There passed between them a comfortable silence, as each one sat reverently, concentrating on the plant’s effect.

Lara tossed her black hair over her shoulder, and put the empty pipe down on the grass with the other hand. She leaned back and laid down, heaving a contented sigh as a pleasant numbness spread through her body.

To her left, Den ran his hands over his bald head, gazing up into the canopy, watching the bud-bugs buzz in slow curves among the serrated leaves.

Across from him, his brother Lor was enjoying the view of Lara’s under-cleavage through the bottom of her bandeau as she arched her back lazily.

Tera followed his gaze and smiled when she saw what he was looking at. Then she enjoyed the view herself, running her hand over her pony-tail wistfully.

A few minutes passed. Then Den looked around, expectation barely showing on his face. The others recognized his body language, and Tera and Lor turned their heads towards him. Sensing the change in atmosphere, Lara opened her eyes and sat up.

Den spoke, with a deep, slightly muffled voice and a slowed, clear diction that suggested that he spoke rarely and decisively. “What’s the verdict?”

His three companions nodded.

“Yeah?”, he asked, looking for confirmation.

“Yeah.”

“Yes.”

“Definitely.”

He gave one final nod, and the four stood up, Lara taking the pipe, and he, the dry-box. They returned them to their places, and then all four lined up for a drink out of the tank on the side of the truck, each one gulping the sweet liquid down and refilling their cup once afterwards.

When they had slaked their thirsts, all four maneuvered the tarp out of the truck. When it was unfurled, it became apparent that it was a large ring, with a split so that it could be laid around the stalk they had selected. Lor returned to the driver’s seat and backed the truck up onto the tarp, about a foot from the stalk. Once Den had unlatched the metal pole from the top of the cabin, Lor exited and returned to the group. Den then uncoiled a long rope and threaded it through a pulley at the top of the pole, and then to a sliding piece of metal at its base.

Tera now flipped a small switch at the bottom of the metal pole, and slowly, emitting a low whirr of protest, it started to extend and move, groaning, towards a vertical position.

Den hopped off the truck-bed holding the hard plastic case, which could evidently be seen to be heavy by the way he carrying it. He held it up and the women gently opened it, removing two halves of a large metal ring that was lined on one side with razor-sharp blades. Each half had a metal rod on one side, which each of the women carefully socketed into the sliding piece at the base of the extended metal pole. Each semicircle fit against the base of the stalk, with the blades pointing upwards, forming a solid ring of metal around the bottom of the plant.

All four gathered together at one side of the truck observing their handiwork. Den made a quick inspection of the set-up, and then nodded.

The group smiled and prepared themselves for their next task. They all grabbed hold of the loose end of the rope, tightly and deliberately.

Den looked around the three faces, and got three nods of readiness. Then he counted down from three, finishing with an ululating battle-cry as he pulled as hard as he could, joined by the others, all adding their own cheers to the cause. As they did, the sliding piece of the pole shot upwards, the bladed ring attached to it rocketing, slicing through branch after branch, sending huge pieces of the plant crashing to the ground in explosions of crystal dust.

As the tree fell apart above them, the four whooped and crowed as they pulled, and when the slider hit the top of the pole with a jolt, they caught their breaths, laughing as they lowered it back to earth amid the downpour.

A sudden stillness stole the air. A smoke-grenade of dust obscured the scene.

His eyes closed, Lor silently counted down the seconds until it would clear. His hand searched in the mist beyond the darkness of his eyelids, and found reaching fingers. They grasped each other tightly, and he knew the familiar hand to be Lara’s. Lor smiled. He could feel the excitement and adrenaline rushing through both their bodies, as if he could share her emotions.

Their racing hearts matched paces.

As one, they carefully opened their eyes. The dust was starting to settle, and so were their heartbeats.

Lor met eyes with Lara, and they exchanged smiles before they both looked away to find their companions.

They were caught in a passionate embrace, lips locked, tongues teasing. Tera was grinding her hips against Den’s shorts, and his hands were on her buttocks, squeezing politely. Lor and Lara exchanged amused glances before Lara gave a theatric cough.

Den and Tera slowly opened their eyes, and as their lips parted they extended into wide grins.

“Oh, hi.” Den said. Tera giggled.

Lor raised an eyebrow in mock disbelief. “Again?”

Tera hummed a satisfied moan, and said “Always.”

They looked about them. The mist was almost all gone, fallen to the dry grass as if inside a snow-globe. The beetles were gathered around the spot now, hanging just out of reach of the repellant spray, circling like vultures.

The ring of tarp was piled high all around with great beach-balls of flower, among the heaps of leaf and branch debris. The fallen dust now topped the bud-bunches like snow, and it coated fine dew onto the grass.

The four quickly disassembled the ring and pole, and returned it to its compact state as Lor moved the truck forward. They had to remove the larger clusters of leaf-litter from the truck bed, tossing them onto the tarp. Then each one pulled a pair of goggles from their pocket and put them on.

Many Ringers put on their goggles before felling the branches. This allowed them to begin the cleanup as soon as the cutting ‘ring’ was back down. But Den’s crew preserved the old ways, and they savored the tradition of basking in the dust before they started working again, as well as the tradition of smoking the produce before harvesting it. The Cutters of the Northern region, for instance, farmed smaller, lower-quality plants, which were simply inspected by eye and then chopped down to be loaded on a truck for transport with several others. They sold much more, but for far less, and their cut of the harvest was significantly less upon shipping out.

Den’s team may harvest a plant only once a week, but it was top-quality stuff, and they had never found themselves wanting in the off-season. Some teams even had percentages so large that they could sell some of it. The Entertainment Section, although much smaller, were always on the lookout for good bud.

Now that the cutting and the mechanics were out of the way, Den assisted his team in separating all of the buds from the other detritus. The bunches were loaded into bags – the tarp allowing them to add a large percentage of the fallen powder to the mix – and placed in the truck, underneath the now reclined and retracted metal pole.

This presented a problem, however. There was no longer room in the truck-bed for anybody to sit.

Once they were all ready to leave, and a carpet of white-dusted leaves and branches were all that remained of the debris scattered about the base of the bare stalk, the four stood in a circle.

Den looked around, grinning. “Bug-duty?”

They reluctantly agreed. In a simple game that had been passed down through generations, they divided into pairs, holding out their fists and counting to three, each shaping their hand into one of three symbols on the third count.

Den held out his first two fingers, and was defeated by Lor’s victorious clenched fist. Lara’s opened hand, extended palm-down, beat Tera’s fist. The two victors smiled and returned their goggles to their pockets, calling out friendly jeers to Den and Tera as they climbed safely into the cabin of the truck. The losers clambered up to the top of the cabin. They donned their goggles, and then each one held tightly onto the crossbar at the top of the metal pole between them. Den banged his fist on the top of the cabin, and Lor started driving.

Den and Tera faced forwards on the top of the truck They laughed and bumped fists, getting hyped up in preparation for the thrill to come. Meanwhile, Lor and Lara exchanged flirting words, and then Lara licked her lips and bent down, tossing her long black hair over one shoulder and unbuttoning Lor’s shorts.

Promiscuous sex had been socially acceptable, indeed, very normal, for as long as most people could remember. Had Den and Tera not been so preoccupied with dodging branches and low-flying beetles that they’d noticed the indecency taking place beneath them, they would have been envious, rather than offended. Sex was the number-one past-time in this world, and the limits of monogamy were applied only to feelings of love and breeding rights.

Den whooped in excitement as he narrowly missed a low-hanging branch. He chanced a glance at Tera, who was bouncing lightly up and down with the truck, a childish grin on her face. After allowing himself to get an eyeful of her jiggling breasts, Den quickly returned his gaze to the road, careful not to lose focus.

He’d always enjoyed a good bug-ride before the processing started. It drained the excess energy out of a person, leaving their mind calm, relaxed, and focused. They would pass the pipe again before starting, as even the most mundane, repetitive activity could be made interesting by smoking bud first.

Once they’d meticulously separated the good parts of the bud from unwanted sticks or seeds, the team would put it in the dry-room, where a low oven would bake it to crispy perfection as thick smoke infused it with the secret combination of flavors that gave their bud its reputation. After a day in the dry-room the bud would be vacuum-packed and taken to the nearest commerce building, from where it would be transported to the nearest shipping center, and then to the region spaceport to be moved off-world.

The team’s involvement in the process ended upon delivery to the commerce building, a mall-sized construction where humans of all trades walked among the lumbering, tentacled members of the Hadrian Civilization. There, a Hadrian inspector would test the bud’s quality before weighing the cargo and giving the team their cut.

It had traditionally been the men’s job to deliver the product. In the old days, when Hadrian communications technology had been inferior, and they had used humans to test the bud, prices were almost always fiercely disputed. It had become more and more important to have a large, intimidating man present when the fists started to fly. Den and Lor had upheld this tradition, not just for the possibility of a fight, but because they would stop by the cantina afterwards and have a few mugs with their friends from the alcohol section, who would always give them a case of the month’s best brew in exchange for a few handfuls of bud.

When the two had said their goodbyes and picked up their food and supplies for the week, tipping an apathetic nod to the familiar Hadrian behind the counter, they would enjoy a slightly erratic drive home with their generous bowling-ball sized percentage. And then, the team would have virtually nothing to do for days but get drunk, have sex, and pass the pipe round and round.

Den dodged a bud-bug, and smiled.

The world had never felt so good… for anybody.

Not long after the truck had rumbled off into the distance, the repellant’s effect wore off and the bud-bugs returned. They gathered in buzzing scores around the base of the now-bare stalk, anxious to get at the fallen leaf-litter which now coated the dry ground like the broken pottery of a lost civilization, now free game for all.

Overseer Keldor, the man in charge of administrative duties and Hadrian relations in city 1-12, clutched his traditional wooden pipe tightly in his hand and gazed at a large oil-painting occupying one wall of his 150th-storey office suite.

At seventy-five years, he was still a good four decades from the crematorium, and he stood tall and proud despite his evident age. His hair was white and thin, combed backwards from his receding hairline. His face contained surprisingly few wrinkles, and small, bright brown eyes glowed energetically through drooped lids as he surveyed the painting.

Faded and scarred, it depicted a sprawling cityscape, spread out before the viewer, seen from the top of a skyscraper. A healthy sunlight shone on the scene from behind white clouds, and despite the thin wisps of smog that glided between the tallest buildings, the city looked alive, and young.

Keldor brought his pipe up to his mouth and thumbed a button on the side. A flame emerged from a small opening at the end of the bowl farthest from his face, and he sucked it gently through the crumbling of green and brown in the pipe. The bud crackled pleasantly as it burned, as if it was enjoying its fiery demise.

He finished his toke, and gave a polite cough as the unfiltered smoke toasted the back of his throat. This pipe had been hand-made during the early days of the Hadrian occupation, and contained none of the modifications which had become standard today. But then, he was one of the few old enough to even remember those days.

It had been around three hundred years since humanity had first achieved space travel. There had been little progress since then. Most people had lost all hope of finding other intelligent life in the galaxy, and then, one day they’d got their wish.

Apparently, the Hadrians had discovered a probe we’d sent out almost a century earlier, and had followed its trail to find us, the first strange, intelligent life-form they’d ever encountered. The Hadrian fleet had arrived in its entirety in just a few hours. Several enormous cruisers had appeared first, followed by a capitol ship that had dwarfed them all.

There had been a lot of deliberation, on both sides. The Hadrians had been just as unprepared for the confusion of first contact as we had. Humanity had reacted, hurriedly mobilizing troops in case a preemptive strike had become apparently necessary. The Hadrians just sat there, unsure of what to make of us, who ‘strived for peace’ while preparing for war. Many have since called our reaction brash, or indeed, typically human. The Hadrians had attempted diplomacy, or whatever diplomacy could be achieved with humanity’s limited capacity for interspecies communication. But we’d engaged in too much empty posturing, our fear driving us to make demands, even threats. At some point the Hadrians had simply become tired of our bullshit and called our bluffs.

The human race had been effectively reduced to a quarter of its population overnight. nine-billion lives, ended in one controlled swoop. The Hadrians had then separated the species, spreading us evenly across every remaining city in the world. It had made us easier to control, and to keep alive, although nobody had known then why they wouldn’t just wipe us out altogether.

For the first several, turbulent months, they had made changes to our species that helped us in the Darwinian sense. They’d killed off the sick, the weak, the old. They had set up compulsory exercise and training rituals. They’d given us just enough freedom to for us to prey on each other. The first generation born after the Hadrians had set up breeding programs had been the strongest, fiercest humans the world had seen in several ages.

And then, the Hadrians had discovered something of value, something they’d found that made this tiny, over-used planet of some worth: A little plant called Cannabis.

The Hadrians were an exploratory people, specializing in trade. Over the past seven thousand years, they had slowly expanded outwards from their home-world, which was roughly five-thousand light-years from Sol. Every time they found a planet that could support life, they would find the resources of greatest value to them and set up trade-routes to other planets they had colonized. Their goal was to make life on each of their planets as luxurious and utopian as the cave-cities of their home-world, and for that, they needed every planet to have the same resources.

But Earth had been different. They could have annihilated the entire human race and colonized the planet for themselves, farming Cannabis for their trade fleets. But they had judged us correctly from the very beginning. Easily-pleased, primitive-minded animals. We sat on our speck of galactic navel-lint, fooling ourselves into thinking that we were the culmination of Earth’s chain of evolution. They had put us in our places. A lifetime of servitude for a lifetime’s supply of every self-indulgence we could ever want. Why kill us off when our labor and loyalties could be bought so easily?

So they had organized humanity, dividing it into sections. The majority was dedicated to farming Cannabis, or the genetically modified versions of Cannabis that were becoming more and more impressive every time the Hadrian scientists could upgrade them.

There was a section for breeding; the choicest, healthiest specimens of humanity selected by Hadrian officials to help the species get back on the road towards evolution. Along with some subtle genetic engineering, it had worked. The average life expectancy nowadays was in the mid-nineties, and sickness and disability were both very uncommon.

The Entertainment Section was in charge of producing art of all sorts, both for the rest of the human race to enjoy, and for the Hadrians, who had surprisingly developed tastes in music and visual art, and who had found the film industry to be absolutely fascinating, especially the early space-age stuff kept in archives across the planet. Even literature, once the Hadrians had learned how to interpret our written language and appreciate the subtleties of our metaphor and imagery, had piqued their interests.

The Alcohol Section was in charge of adding its concoctions to the vast majority of Hadrian spirits and ales that inevitably found their way back through the trade network to interested parties on Earth.

And the list went on. If one ignored the fact that humanity had become a race of slaves, these were truly glorious times.

Overseer Keldor took another toke of his pipe and turned around to walk to his desk, where he washed away the dryness in his mouth with a long draught of strong beer, brewed in the mountains near City 3-16. Then he cast a last glance at the painting before walking over to the adjacent wall, which was entirely made of glass, with a small pheromone-releaser on the outside to discourage birds from encountering a painful obstacle.

His vantage point was reminiscent of the perspective in the oil-painting. But the city he saw was very different from the cloud-skimmed peaks of shining skyscrapers depicted therein.

From his office on the one-hundred-and-fiftieth floor, the tallest building in the province by far, Overseer Keldor gazed bleakly at a city baking under a lazy sun, a stifling yellow-green tint perverting the atmosphere as the distant rumbling of Hadrian transports from the nearby space-port sang a sad song with the restless whispering of the wind. Trucks and the occasional Hadrian skimmer shifted noiselessly through the streets far below, between the Hadrian-built habitat-blocks that filled in the spaces between the separate Sections’ Headquarters. Pigeon-hawks soared on drifting air-currents, looking for bud-bugs to pluck from among the myriad of smaller Cannabis varieties growing in roof-gardens below.

He felt like he was God in Heaven, gazing down upon the twitching figure of his creation, whom he had lost all hope in and left to die.

And aside from the quiet lament of the wind, heaven was quieter than the grave.

From searching through countless archives and examining audio clips and films, Keldor knew the sounds of traffic, and sirens, and all the other sounds that a city should make. He imagined for a moment that he could hear those noises drifting up to him from the pale streets below, but the silence of the city crept into his very soul and forced his heart a few steps lower into darkness.

Humanity had had its chance. They had blown it. It was generally agreed nowadays that, had the Hadrians not shown up, over a century ago, humanity would have simply kept deteriorating, becoming a bloated, twitching pile of stupidity, self-deceit and sickliness, doomed to suffocate under its own stale mass. But Keldor had always wondered. What if a century of slavery had been enough for salvation? The Hadrians had given them their humanity and their planet both back to them, reborn. Through breeding and engineering, humanity was at its most powerful, strong enough to live as nature intended.

Perhaps, now, they were ready to make their own way…

Overseer Keldor blinked and fingered the contents of his pipe thoughtfully. Making a judgment, he clicked on the flame and sucked smoky perfection into his lungs before tapping the ashes into a glass tray and placing the pipe down on the redwood desk.

He returned to look out the window, and heaved a sigh of true emotional emptiness.

It had taken another civilization entirely to help humanity stand up on its feet again. Now, humanity just had to hope that at some point they would consider our debt repaid.


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