The Gardeners, they called us. We were the only ones they trusted to take care of Eden, and I was one of the lucky few to make it all the way here. The application process had been grueling, but now, as I sat in the middle of a crowded train, I couldn’t help but smile. Being a Gardener was the highest level of work: guaranteed riches, guaranteed insurance, and the best medical care Earth had to offer.
So long as you keep Eden alive. That phrase had been ingrained in my head by my superiors, over and over and over. At all costs. The words hung over my head, a guillotine blade waiting to strike. And in the deepest moments of quiet, I could swear that the device they’d implanted in my head was whispering it too. I looked around. With the amount of people on this train… how many of them had it? Could they hear it too? The mixed looks of impassiveness and fear didn’t answer my questions.
As I tried to shift around, the voice above broke the silence. “Now approaching: Eden.” We exited the dark tunnel, and the train was filled with sunlight. Many of us squinted and looked away; sunlight was a luxury from where we were from, but here, it felt like a necessity. My eyes adjusted quickly, and what I saw blew me away.
It was a sea of green, pierced by the vibrant colors of fruits and the waters running through the fields. Many were already working below us, and the bright Sun shied them away from staring at our train for too long. I saw it all for a moment, before dark walls blocked my view once more. “Final stop: Station Eden. Step away from the opening doors,” the announcer said. I put my hand on the window, the thumb they’d painted green when I first stepped on leaving a mark on the glass. “Soon,” I whispered, before the crowds filing through the doors pulled me away.
We stood in a line now, long enough that I couldn’t see what was happening in front. I sighed. I’d had enough lining up already when I was applying. Maybe bureaucracy was the biggest evil all along. We managed to kill nature, but we hadn’t found a better way of lining up? It moved quickly, however, and in no time at all, I was nearing the front.
“Hands, please,” the guard at the head was saying. Each person would raise both their hands to chest level, and, seemingly at random, the guard would put them in one of two holding areas. The one on the left, however, was quickly getting overcrowded, while the one on the right held only 3 or 4 people inside. I was four people away from the guard when I realized; the selection wasn’t at random. Everyone had a painted thumb, but I’d only ever seen 2 colors: the black of the people ahead of me, and the green on mine. The guard quickly sent the ones with black paint to the left area, meaning that-
“Hands, please.” Too late. The guard was already waiting in front of me. “Hands?” he repeated. I shakily brought up my hands, and he smiled when he saw the green on my right hand. “This way, please,” he finished, signaling me to the almost empty area. I walked to a corner of the pen, and quickly sat down, shaking. Why separate us? What does the paint mean? Why are we so little here? The device in my head whispered its answer to me: Keep. Eden. Alive. At all costs.
Soon enough, the whole line was finished. From the crowded train the guards had managed to find the 20 of us with green paint. The rest? All were crammed into the opposite area, and led away by armed guards. They disappeared around the corner, and I saw them no more.
“Gardeners!” A voice interrupted my thoughts. A young, bubbly woman, skin darkened by the sunlight, was calling us. “Welcome, welcome, to Eden! I am Cassandra, head of this fine garden, and now, responsible for all of your first years here!” She paused, as if waiting for applause. When none came, she continued: “Now, before we begin, all of you were implanted with your devices, correct?” We all nodded in agreement. “Good! Of course, to be safe, you won’t mind if we test it, do you?” Before we could reply, she pressed a button, and all went black.
Panicking, I immediately stumbled around, looking for something to hang on too. I bumped into quite a few on the way to the corner I’d come from, and I could tell they were all stumbling around like me. Right as I grabbed onto a post, I heard another button press, and my vision came back, clear as day. Some of us, like me, had managed to hold on to the fence surrounding us, but most were on the floor, caressing bruised heads and arms from bumping each other.
“Well then,” Cassandra began. “Looks like it’s working perfectly! If you all will follow me, I have your assignments here. Simply come when I call your name and we’ll guide you to your work. Remember Gardeners, we have one job, and one job only.”
“Keep. Eden. Alive. At all costs.” The words came out of all our mouths instantly, without us willing it. I slapped my hands over my mouth, but no more came out.
Cassandra smiled. “Perfect. Let’s go!”
Hours later, I was sweating under the harsh sunlight. I had been assigned to a group of freshly planted seeds, and given a heavy bag of fertilizer. My partner, meanwhile, was holding a watering can, and guiding me through the rows. He would water, I would shovel fertilizer on it, we’d continue. Water. Fertilizer. Water. Fertilizer. Water. Fertilizer.
“The pattern grows on you, you know,” my partner said out of the blue. He was a veteran of almost 5 years, or so Cassandra had said. “When you’ve been doing this for as long as me, well, it honestly gets really boring. But what we do’s important. World’s relying on us.” I nodded, too tired to say anything. “Came here from the Philippines awhile back, you know.” I nodded again. “How about you? What’s your story?” I opened my mouth to answer, but was distracted by the flashing in my vision.
LOW BATTERY. LOW BATTERY. LOW BATTERY. It was accompanied by the device practically shouting the words in my ear. I dropped the fertilizer in surprise.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s just flashing a low battery warning.” I answered.
“Oh, that’s normal! Let me get you to a technician.”
“Sure, let me just- AH!” The yelp came out before I could stop it. I felt the device shut off, and with it, a splitting headache. I fell to the ground, hands on my head, my vision going black once more. In a few more seconds, I began drifting to unconsciousness. I fought back, opening my eyes wide, and the sights shook me back awake.
The sunlight above filtered down on a garden of… red. A metallic smell filled the air, reminiscent of knee scrapes and open wounds, of injured lips and broken noses.
Blood. It was everywhere, flowing through the soil like a dancer through a crowd. I traced a stream as it waltzed through the stalks, as if teasing the plants with its liquid, before finally being absorbed into the soil below. I watched it flow through the leaves, a macabre tango of green and red now tinting the plant’s veins. My arm called me back to reality, and I lifted it from the ground, seeing the blood-encrusted soil sticking to my arms. I heard my partner drop his watering can to the ground, and I watched the mixture of water and blood flow from the top, the pale pink capturing me in its elegance.
I retched, and turned away, ready to vomit. In the distance, I saw the fertilizer bag I’d dropped, its contents now leaking too. And what I had thought to be a tough lump of soil, one I was trying to break with a shovel… now stared back at me. The eyes were lifeless, the nose and cheeks broken by my repeated swings, and the mouth still caught in a final shout of defiance. I vomited on the ground, and collapsed, unconsciousness finally winning over in my head. As my eyes closed, my partner crouched near me, their voice a nonexistent sound in my head’s barrage of noise. By his feet, I noticed one last thing laying on the ground innocently.
A thumb, colored pitch black.
I woke up on a sofa, in the middle of a bright white room. Across from me, Cassandra and another man were at a desk, reading from a computer. I shifted, and they immediately noticed I was awake.
“Good morning!” Cassandra said brightly. “You were out for quite a while, you know! Missed a whole day of work. But that’s okay, malfunctions happen!”
“Malfunctions?” I said softly.
“Malfunctions.” The man at the desk said, and both of them joined me at my side. “I’m Matt. I’m the technician around here. Looks like you accidentally got a bad device,” he continued, pulling out a small chip. I recognized it as the one they put in my head a long time ago. “Didn’t warn you of a low battery quick enough, and took a while to knock you out. Usually comes with age. But we’ve replaced it, and now you’re as good as new!”
“Blood.” I said suddenly.
Matt and Cassandra looked at each other. “Blood?” Cassandra asked innocently.
“Blood. So much blood,” the memories were flooding back in. “You killed them.”
“Not me, personally, but-”
“The fertilizer. I saw it. Head. Screaming. Black thumb.” They went silent at that, until Cassandra grabbed my shoulder.
“Let’s go for a walk.” It wasn’t a request. It was an order. I stood up with her, and we left Matt’s office. Right outside, in the hallway, was a massive window, overlooking Eden below. She stopped me there, and we watched the Gardeners work in the sea of green.
“Why do we do all this?” Cassandra began.
“Murderers.” I whispered back. Her grip tightened on my shoulder.
“We do this, because we have to. Nature outside of these walls is dead. It’s a myth. A fairytale. Kids will learn of trees as they do dragons. We are humanity’s final hope.”
“That doesn’t mean you can kill everyone.”
“Everyone?” She laughed. “If I wanted everyone dead, I’d burn this place down. No, child. We kill the unwanted. The outcasts. The pariahs. If they do not fit into this world, well, I will grind them down until they do.” She gestured to the plants below. “Do you not agree that this is the best ending for them? Can you not see the paradise I’ve built?”
“Built on the corpses of many.”
“The corpses of few,” she corrected, “to save the many. You’re a Gardener now. This is part of the job. No matter what choice you make.” she let go of my shoulder, leaving a bruise behind, “I’ll make sure you end up down there. One way or another.”
She walked away now, leaving me staring down, alone with my thoughts. Or I thought I was, until a new voice intruded in. It burrowed in my head, urging me to listen to it, overriding all my other thoughts. And as I wept, overlooking the beautiful gardens below, it forced open my mouth, the words jumping out in between sobs.
“Keep. Eden. Alive. At all costs.”
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Great story! I'd love to see this story expanded. I'm curious what he does, where he goes. Do they still see the bodies if the implant is working correctly? Did the black thumbs also volunteer? Intriguing. And by the way may I also say this point: "No matter what choice you make.” she let go of my shoulder, leaving a bruise behind, “I’ll make sure you end up down there. One way or another.” Those lines are so well chosen. The bruise on the shoulder really adds to the menacing air. Well done!
Hi! Thank you so much for your kind words and your feedback, it really means a lot :D To answer your questions: 1. Ideally, no, most Gardeners should never be able to see the bodies. There are a number of failsafes for the implants when they start shutting down (i.e. knocking the person out), but they happened to fail for the protagonist, which led to them figuring out the truth. 2. I was thinking of the black thumbs more as this world's version of "population control," so made up of mostly people they could consider "useless" and taken wi...
Woah. It feels like I've just been to Eden and back. And this short story has the potential to be fleshed out (pardon the pun) into a novella. If you do have any idea of building up on it, please do let me know because I want to read it
Thank you so much! Don't worry, if this ever somehow becomes a novella or a novel, I'm coming straight back to these comments as soon as I can :D
A wonderful and thought provoking piece. Exceptional!
That means a lot, thank you so much!
Great story! You manage to build the suspense up at a good pace, with a nicely chilling ending!
Thank you! Those were aspects of the story I struggled with, and I'm glad to know it worked out!
Bro this was cool.
Thanks so much!
Thanks! Glad you liked it!
And I'm glad I read it!
That could be a wonderful idea for a novel!
That's a big compliment, thanks so much!