A broken planet's last surviving human city harbors a dark secret.
The snow began to fall on the 639,025th day of the Reclamation. Sil watched the ground disappear beneath a blanket of white, grateful for the warmth of the inside of the conveyor as it slid noiselessly south of the central city. At least, he knew the ground would appear white once he stepped outside again. From inside the conveyor, everything had a pink tint due to the color of the crystalline windows that allowed passengers to view the landscape. The ground itself was the same color, except for the times in winter where snowfall brought a welcome change.
The conveyor turned towards the west, moving now at an angle from the main grid of the city as it headed towards the fields on the edge of the Complex. All of the agriculture was done on the outskirts of the habitable spaces of the planet, separated by a meter-wide strip of gray from the desolated earth that lay beyond. It made Sil nervous sometimes, working to close to death itself, but the food for the entire Complex depended on the care and harvesting that he and the other farmers performed.
Though over five hundred years had passed since the Desolation Event had occurred, the large majority of the planet was still uninhabitable, even by the tiny crystalworkers that had developed something of a resistance to the poison running through the soil. It was these crystalworkers which had created the Complex. In the immediate aftermath of the planet-wide catastrophe, these small life forms began to form organized structures among themselves, realizing that when concentrated in a large mass they were capable of forming a successful barrier against the deadly toxins.
Over time, they began to create solid structures in the form of pink crystallizations that were resistant to attack by the planet below. The first growth was slow, as nutrients were scarce and they were unable to replicate quickly. The creation of something as intricate as the Complex required an additional source of food, which was provided conveniently by the remaining major survivor of the planet. The few humans remaining found their way to the crystal sheets forming above the deadly ground and used them as a refuge against the threat. Weak and dying, many of them did not survive more than a few days. When the first humans died and began to decay, their remains were absorbed by the crystalworkers on which they lived. With this new increase in nutrients, they rapidly advanced and began to form larger structures to shelter the humans. They also developed a way to clean the water and modified themselves to allow for the few remaining seeds that the people had carried with them to be grown.
Sil had always been fascinated by the restoration of his own people, and of the story of the original farmers whose bodies had carried the seeds into the ground. Farming was not a high profile profession; his parents had openly questioned his decision when he could have chosen something a bit more prestigious, but he couldn't resist it. The plants he worked with every day which grew the food that his people needed to survive and fed the animals which in turn provided further sustenance, the seeds he planted each spring to begin the cycle anew, were descended from the First Day.
Everything they had, from the structures that sheltered them, to the food they ate and water they drank was a result of that moment. Out of what had appeared to be the very end of life on their planet, a second chance for survival had arrived. For Sil, it was an honor beyond anything he could imagine to dedicate his life to ensure survival for his kind. And so, he boarded the conveyer every morning to travel to the fields.
When they reached the station at SW Outpost, Sil and the rest of the farmers left the train and walked across the platform to the main farmhouse. Once inside the large meeting room they waited for Kel, the field manager, to come and deliver the day's assignments. Most of the other farmhands broke into smaller groups to talk while they waited, but Sil waited in the back against the wall, watching everyone in the room.
Sil liked these moments. Even though he was surrounded by close to a thousand other humans, he felt alone and at peace. Sure, he had friends, and he enjoyed the company of others. When they reached the fields his team would be working together on the various tasks that Kel had assigned them for the day. And when they returned home for the night, he would be too exhausted to do more than wash the dirt off and go to sleep before the morning came again. So he relished these brief moments of solitude where he could just watch people enjoy each other's company. It was so they could have this life that he worked to provide their food.
Kel finally arrived and begin to call out the field assignments. The wide-shouldered man had a blunt face, and hands weathered from years spent working these same fields. The field manager was often someone who had done the work himself, and many of Sil's friends often suggested that he become field manager one day. He always favored them with something non-committal about how he would look into it, but he knew he would never be able to trade working with the plants themselves for a life in the farmhouse.
Job assignment always seemed to take forever. Sil was sure that half the day was gone before Kel finally called out. "Crew 20, you're harvesting corn and carrots today. I need zones 27, 28, and 29 to be cleared by tonight."
Sil tried to keep his expression calm, but couldn't stop a small smile from creeping to his face. The Twenties were the zones along the border of the desolation zone, and Kel knew that Sil liked to work where he would be able to look out at the wastelands outside the Complex.
Sil wasn't sure what exactly fascinated him so much about the vast expanse of emptiness that lay beyond the border of their safe haven. Part of him felt that it was a small measure of defiance, daring the evil that lived in the ground to come and try to take the food from him.
Another part also felt that it was a solemn place. Most people living in the heart of the central city forgot about this place, and only the farmhands who worked these outer fields ever got to see it. The strip of gray that separated the fields from the decay was a sacrifice made by the crystalworkers that built their home. It was impossible for them to be completely immune to the effects of the toxicity of the earth, so those crystalworkers which lived along the edges of the Complex slowly died, and then were replaced by new crystalworkers, standing as a defense for the whole community.
Sil often wished he could express gratitude to the crystalworkers for everything they did for the humans, but they were not sentient creatures. They did what was necessary because there was no other way for them to survive. Without the Complex, there would not be enough humans to sustain the crystalworkers, and there would also be no way for them to resist the effects of the poisoned earth. Yet he knew that he would one day repay them with his life. His body would be absorbed and used to feed the Complex so that it could grow and protect the living.
So Sil and his 47 crewmates worked the land, harvesting the corn and carrots and depositing them in smaller open versions of the conveyor that carried them back to the farmhouse to be placed in the storage rooms. Most of what they took off the stalks or pulled from the ground was perfect and ready for consumption by anyone who wanted it. Occasionally there were a few pieces that had to be discarded because they had been infested by insects. More than just the humans had sought refuge among the growing Complex, and pests were still somewhat of a nuisance. Still, most of the food was acceptable for harvest, and the distance of the fields from the central city meant that most people never dealt with the insects.
During their break for lunch, Sil sat with a few of his friends in a shelter that was set up to provide some shelter and fresh water, as well as a place to store their belongings while they worked. The conversation was casual - most of the men talked about their plans for the upcoming winter festival, and which of the women they would like a chance to dance with. A few had brought instruments with them and played some music after they had finished eating to entertain the rest of the workers.
When their break was over, they got back into the smaller conveyors to return to the harvest. Before he could leave the shelter, a hand on Sil's shoulder stopped him short.
"I'd like a word with you Sil, if you have a minute."
Sil turned to see Bren standing behind him. A head taller and twice as wide, Bren had worked the longest in Crew 20 besides Sil himself. As a result, Sil considered Bren his closest friend among all the farmhands.
"What is it Bren?" Sil asked.
"I didn't want to mention this with the others around," the taller man said, "because I didn't want to frighten them." A worried frown grew on his face, then he added, "I'm more than a little worried myself."
Bren reached into the bag he held in his hand and pulled out an ear of corn. It looked just like any other they had harvested that day.
"Is there something wrong?" Sil asked.
Bren handed him the corn. "You tell me, Sil. I've never seen anything like it before."
Sil took the corn from his friend's hand and turned it over slowly, then nearly dropped it in surprise when he saw the blackened spot on the opposite side. Insects were something they were used to, even though they weren't often found in the crops they harvested. This was definitely something new, and not something good.
"What do we do now Sil?" asked Bren. "Should we mention this to Kel when we get back tonight?"
Sil thought for a moment before answering. It worried him to see something inexplicably damaging the crops; the field managers made sure nothing could possibly spoil before a crew rotated through to harvest it, and there was no reason he could think of for someone to have tampered with it.
"Bren, you've been out here almost as long as I have. I don't know what caused this, but since we've never seen it before, for the moment I'm going to assume we'll never see it again. If we do, we'll let Kel know. Until then I don't want to cause a panic. If word of this got back to the city..."
"Yeah," said Bren, "you're probably right. This worries me though Sil." His eyes strayed towards the dead strip of gray at the border of the field. "What if something is getting through to our fields from outside?"
Sil spared a momentary glance for the wasteland beyond the Complex, and then he looked back at his friend.
"Whatever is out there, it will find a challenge waiting if it ever tries to hurt us again. We've worked too hard for this to let it fall apart again." He clapped a hand on Bren's shoulder. "Let's get back to the harvest before the rest of the crew really does worry."
Despite the fact that he had told his friend not to worry about it, the dark spot on the ear of corn worried Sil more than he dared to admit to anyone else. This sort of thing just did not happen in the Complex. They were supposed to be safe, and they were constantly assured by the king that everything was going to stay that way. If something from the outside was finding a way to corrupt their food, the royal family must not know about it or they would have done something about it by now.
It was a surprise to Sil when the call came to return to the farmhouse and take the conveyor back to the city. Darkness had fallen without his being aware of it, and his thoughts about the corn made him wary of what might be hidden. He didn't like this feeling. The Complex was the only refuge that humanity had, and Sil had always felt safe there. Now he wasn't so sure that everything was as it should be, and it made it hard for him to follow his usual routine once he got home.
Still, there was nothing to do about it unless they saw it again, or if someone else in their crew or any other did. He felt a little guilty that they had decided not to tell anyone. Anyone else who had found food damaged in such a way would have told their field manager immediately. They might not be as discrete however, and he was sure it was right to avoid having panic spread through the city. He moved through his evening routine by memory more than through active participation, and soon enough he was ready for bed. His exhaustion from the day's work was no different despite the strange events that had happened at lunch, and he readily fell asleep almost as soon as he lay down.
His dreams, however, were not at all what he expected.
The central city of the Complex was a wild display of crystal towers rising hundreds of feet above the ground. Though the main avenues through the city were mostly right angles to one another, the towers and spires themselves often took strange angles as they rose into the sky.
At the top of the tallest and most central point in the city, Her Royal Highness, The Most Holy Princess Adra sin Denovar stood looking out over the waist-high wall at the world far below. Much like the rest of the Complex was the embodiment of safety for all of the people on Arindrya, this place was her sanctuary, her place to escape from who she was for a time. Or at least, who she had to be.
As the eldest child and only daughter of the royal family, it was her responsibility to be trained to follow her father as the future Queen and ruler of the Complex. Though the sprawling city and its surrounding fields were well-managed and largely self-sufficient, the people still required organization to keep things running smoothly. Someone had to be able to understand the needs of the entire community, and be able to resolve any disputes or conflicts that arose.
Unfortunately for her, King Pel believed that the best way for his young daughter to learn the skills of civic administration was to sit in a smaller throne next to his in the main court and listen to him. It made most days exceptionally boring, save for the few breaks for food or rest such as these. She had eaten as little as possible and as fast as she possibly could so she could spend as much time up on the tower as she could.
"Excuse me, Your Majesty," said a soft voice from behind her. "I believe it is time we returned to court."
Tyren, head of her personal guard, was waiting at the top of the stairs that led back into the upper halls of the palace. The rest of the guardsmen were in the hallway below, which was a serious violation of protocol. During times of official duty such as this, they were required to remain within six feet of her at all times. There were some advantages to having your guard led by a close friend, and that included the ability to gain some momentary privacy even when it wasn't strictly allowed.
Sadly, her time alone was at its end, and she resumed her regal bearing before turning to walk to the entry.
"Lead the way, Captain," she commanded. She disliked using formality with Tyren, but it was necessary to keep up appearances even when no one was around. Her father often warned her about the damage that could be done to their authority when someone unexpected was watching.
Tyren turned to lead her back down the stairs, and the remaining six guards closed in behind her in a circle as they made their way down the hallway to the grand staircase. The largest of all the stairways in the palace, both in terms of width and number of stairs, it spiraled down the center tower until it reached the grand hall in the entrance of the palace. From there one could take the west corridor to the dining hall and kitchens, enter the gardens to the north, or take the east corridor to the throne room.
Adra couldn't help letting her eyes wander to the doors on the north side of the room. She longed to wander the deep woods that grew behind the gardens and spend some time reading beside the small creek that flowed there. As if he knew what she was thinking, and he very likely did, Tyren walked them around the south end of the room. He probably thought she would try and run for the doors and escape her guards. If the embarrassment to her father wouldn't have been so great, she quite possibly would have tried, but the last thing the king needed was to have anyone see his daughter tackled to the ground by her own personal guards.
Instead she resisted the urge to flee and followed Tyren down the long corridor and through the intricately patterned lattice doors to the throne room. The king and queen were already seated on the dais at the back of the room, and her mother Serah favored her with a quick smile from her seat to the king's left. The chair on his right was for Adra, which some considered a strange place for a princess to be. King Pel sin Denovar had many advisors as well as his brother Paz who was the head of the militia, and the Serah herself who were possibly more deserving of the seat. Pel believed that the future queen was more deserving, and no one argued with him on matters where he had the highest authority, so Adra took her place at her father's right hand.
After she had settled into her seat, Tyren led her guard off to join the rest of the armed soldiers along the wall behind the dais. After the master-at-arms called the court to attention again, her father resumed the morning's discussion of the fair use of space by the vendors in the markets. It was dreadfully tedious work, and Adra had heard it's like many times before. Things weren't likely to be any different this time around. The farmers would say that the tailors were taking up the space they needed to offer a full variety of the freshest crops, and the tailors would counter that the blacksmiths had moved to close to them and they had to move into the farmers' space to protect their cloth from accidentally catching fire from a stray spark. They would argue in circles over who was right, and in the end the king would reassign them in even spaces and send them off to happily work in the markets until it started again in a few weeks.
Adra wasn't sure she would ever be ready for this. It wasn't the life she wanted for herself. Almost anything would be better than being stuck inside listening to meaningless arguments that you would just settle with a wave of your hand. She didn't see the skill involved in having people accept your opinion without question. She wanted more from life, something to challenge her. More than anything, she resented the fact that her path had been chosen for her from the moment her mother had chosen Pel as her mate. From that moment on, their first child was destined to become the future ruler of the Complex.
One day that would be her first child's destiny as well. Whomever she chose from among the many suitors she would have would be her king, and they would give rise to the next generation of royalty. It seemed unfair to place that burden on a child that wasn't even born yet. What if this wasn't the life they wanted?
The sharp crack of the master-at-arms' staff on the crystal floor snapped her back from her own thoughts. Court was over for the day, and she felt her cheeks redden slightly with embarrassment at having lost her focus on the proceedings. If her parents had noticed she would surely hear about it after dinner that evening. The guards filed in around them and they moved as a single procession down the east corridor and up one flight of the grand staircase to the floor where their private residence was.
Once she reached her room, Adra couldn't help letting out a deep sigh of relief. Now that she was in her private quarters she could truly relax and be herself. There was no one to impress when they were alone, and while she was still very respectful towards her parents, they were much more gentle and unreserved when they didn't have to appear as royalty to the rest of the Complex.
The handmaidens were very careful as they helped her undress from her formal robes. Court fashion wasn't entirely unpleasant, but it was designed to remind you to keep your posture and attitude as regal as possible, so it was in many ways very restrictive. Sometimes Adra thought she understood all too well how it felt to be tied up in a sack.
After she had finished changing and washing her face, she made her way to the family dining room. While it was similar in many ways to the larger hall for royal events, it was much more informal and it was directly connected to the kitchen where her mother and brothers were putting the final ingredients together for their meal. She was grateful that it wasn't her turn to help with the meal this evening. Breakfast had been her responsibility that morning with her father, which she had enjoyed quite a bit.
Most people in the Complex would be surprised to know that anyone in the royal family knew how to cook for themselves, and possibly scandalized to learn that the king and queen often cooked for the whole family. In fact, they were quite capable of doing almost everything that other people did on a daily basis. When they were in their own home they lived much like the rest of the great city did, with the notable exception of having quite a bit of help and access to just about anything they wanted.
The king was seated at the head of the table when Adra entered the room. She wouldn't have blamed anyone for not being able to recognize him in this casual setting. She sometimes had trouble seeing him as her father and not the king herself. They spent so much time as a family being presented as the leaders of the Complex that they sometimes found it difficult to put that all aside and just be a family.
Despite her parents' constant insistence on perfection when they were in view of the public, they also maintained that these private family moments were equally as important to them. A good ruler remembered that thought they had the great fortune to be honored members of society, but they were still human beings like any other. Circumstance made them appear to be more special or deserving than the rest, but they couldn't be allowed to forget that the survival of the entire Complex depended on the combined efforts of all. Without their fellow humans, any member of the royal family would not be able to survive.
And so they washed and cooked and cleaned together as a family. They spent time playing games and reading, both indoors and in their private garden. Adra wished they could close off the larger garden and woods downstairs for their own use sometimes, but that was a place open to all, meant to show that the royal family was not so exclusive as to deny such beauty to everyone.
Their evening meal passed much as it always did. Her brothers spent most of the time talking about what they did that day, which usually involved a lot of playing at swords or riding horses. Being younger princes absolved them of much of the duty and responsibility that passed to Adra as the oldest. Occasionally her father would ask her a question about her observations during the court sessions, or ask her mother what she thought on certain matters of state.
Adra noticed her father seemed more reserved than normal tonight. She searched through her memories of the day, trying to find anything in the details of the court that would give anyone cause for concern. While she may drift off into her own thoughts, she always made sure she heard every word and noticed every detail of what happened, since her father would be very upset if he asked her later and she couldn't discuss it with him.
As far as she could tell, nothing was out of place. The day had been mostly filled with mundane settlements between arguing factions of one guild or another, a few petitions for help from some struggling families, but nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly nothing that should have him so preoccupied. The only other possibility was that he had heard something unsettling during a meeting with his advisors. That was unfortunate for her, since the details were not to be shared with anyone outside of those meetings. Even in the privacy of their own home, it would be inappropriate for her to ask her father to share what was said. If it was for her to know, he would invite her to join him when the meetings took place. He had not yet decided it was time for her to know that much about the Complex, and reminded her to stem her curiosity and focus on the matters of the general court.
Adra thought there might still be a way to see if she might be able to get him to let something slip. Her father was usually too smart for that, and he was a very perceptive man, but if she asked the questions just right he may share something he didn't intend to.
"I'm not sure how you do it father," she said.
"What do you mean, Adra?"
"The merchants from the market, it seems like they do nothing but fight. It's a wonder that anything ever gets sold at all with how much time they spend arguing over space."
The king's expression softened at that, and a small smile came to his face. "I wonder that myself sometimes. They certainly do enjoy hearing themselves talk." His eyebrows drew down and creased his forehead in worry before he added, "I suppose they have enough to worry about without having to deal with each other stealing spaces."
Adra fought hard to keep a smile off her face. She didn't want her father to stop now that he had let on there was something wrong. "Is there trouble in the fields? I hope the farmhands aren't causing any trouble."
Her father's expression changed ever so slightly. It wasn't that it had hardened, but the easy-going manner he had in private had been replaced with the seriousness of the king.
"You've learned more than I have realized, Adra," he said giving her a look of appraisal that always made her feel uncomfortable. "I suppose I should be proud of you for learning to be so observant, but I am going to ask you to let this go."
"But if something is wrong, shouldn't I know..."
The crack of her father's hand slapping the table cut her off. "I will decide when you are ready to know everything!" he said sharply. He took a deep breath and smoothed most of the anger off his face before continuing. "I am sorry for losing my temper, Adra, but this is one thing you must not push me on. There are some things that are not safe for everyone to know."
"I'm not 'everyone', I'm your daughter and the future Queen."
He smiled again. "That you are. Adra, I don't want you to think I don't trust you; you know me better than that. For now, however, this will have to stay between myself and my council. If it becomes a real problem, I promise I will tell you. Now go and help clean up. I've asked Valan to help you in my place tonight while I finish a few things."
She had more to ask, but she knew that tone in her father's voice as it was the same tone he used to send people away after he had made a judgment. Their conversation was over for tonight, and it wasn't likely to come up again anytime soon. He was hiding something, she just knew it. Life as the royal family ended when they were in their private quarters. If it was important enough to return to work on after dinner then it was more serious than he was admitting to her.
There was nothing for it but to return to the dining room and help her younger brother clear the table and wash the dishes. She wasn't surprised to find Valan in a sour mood when she entered the room. He never liked chores as it was, and these were added on top of what he had already done that day. If it hadn't been their father's place that he was taking he would be openly complaining about it. As it was he very nearly broke several plates and bowls as he stacked them to carry to the kitchen.
"I would be more careful if I were you Valan," she said as she joined him and started collecting the glasses and utensils. "If you break anything you'll have mother upset with you as well."
He glared at her from across the table. "It's probably your fault that father's in such a bad mood Adra. Did he catch you daydreaming in court again?"
"I was not daydreaming!" She looked around to see if either of their parents had heard her shout at him. She really would be in trouble then. "There are many important things that a princess has to think about when she is performing her royal duties."
Valan snorted. "I don't think you've ever thought about anything important when you're sitting next to father in the grand hall. I know you wish you could be somewhere else."
"It's so easy for you," she said. "You get to spend the whole day playing and doing whatever fun things you want."
"You come and try sparring with Uncle Paz or Major Kel sometime," Valan shot back, "that is, if you want to be sore and bruised for the rest of the day. You'd need an extra cushion on that tiny throne of yours if you spent a day in the practice yard with us."
Adra very nearly threw the glass in her hand at his head. "It's not easy sitting there having to memorize every detail of every moment that passes in the court Valan. I'd gladly trade a few scrapes and bruises for the pain."
"Well, if I could ever get Tyren away from you for a moment I would sneak down with you and let you try a round with me. Though I suspect I'd have a better chance of cracking one of these crystal walls than prying him off his guard duty."
Adra frowned at him. "You know Tyren takes his responsibility seriously. My safety is very important to the Complex."
"Maybe if they let you come learn how to use a sword they wouldn't have to treat you like a fragile little vase."
Her frustration finally boiled over. "Oh that's it!" she yelled, jumping across the table to tackle her brother to the ground. She didn't even manage to get a decent punch in by the time her father and Vyn had arrived to pull them off of each other. Once they were apart the boys went off to their rooms while Adra was sent in the sitting room to talk to her mother about the proper way to behave like a lady.
She shut the door to her own room harder than was necessary, and she was worried that her father would come and talk to her again about the kind of behavior that was expected from a young lady. Fortunately he hadn't heard the noise, and she settled into her bed and tried to fall asleep. It was hard to relax when the evening's events kept playing in her head. Something was wrong in the fields on the edges of the Complex; something that worried her father and his advisors, but wasn't enough of a problem to mention to anyone else.
It was irritating to know that there was important information that they kept from her. In many ways she agreed with her father that she wasn't ready for the full responsibility of being Queen yet. In fact, she hoped it was many decades still before she would have to worry about being the ruler of the Complex. She was definitely in no hurry to find a husband. There were plenty of handsome men who were on the official list of suitors for her, and she was even what most would consider very good friends with a few of them, but she didn't imagine any of them being what she wanted in a king.
Adra realized that wasn't very fair. She thought her father was the perfect king, and her expectations of what her husband should be reflected her image of him. King Pel sin Denovar always knew what was best, and never made a mistake. Even her small success at getting him to reveal what was troubling him was balanced by how quickly he had noticed what she was trying. She wanted very much to make him proud, to be the queen he believed she could be. As she finally drifted off to sleep, her last conscious thought was that she wished she believed in herself as much as her father did.