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Science Fiction Contemporary Fiction

SYSTEM REBOOTING...

The woman blinked away the fog of torpor and looked past the AI’s display to examine the lantern-lit face hovering over her. Green eyes scrutinized her under dark eyebrows. The man’s face was all hard lines, even his short black hair looked straight and sharp. He didn’t look like a soldier, but carried a large rifle slung across his back. His jacket and gloves were so worn and faded that she wasn’t sure what their original color had been - some dark Earth tone, like everything he wore save the red scarf wrapped around his neck and chin. 

He pulled the scarf down and a puff of air was visible as he spoke. “You alive?” 

“Yes,” she replied. 

The man straightened and turned to yell into the darkness of the warehouse, “Got a live one!” Someone acknowledged him from far away, but he had already turned back to her. “I’m Jack. Your name?” 

“Olivia.”

SYSTEM REBOOT COMPLETE

Olivia pushed herself up with one arm and peered at the closest pod. “Are the rest dead?” The lamp strapped to Jack’s hip was only bright enough so that she could see shadows of debris and wreckage. 

“Most,” he replied. 

Olivia allowed him to help her out of the pod. The grey and blue pants of her uniform had gathered dust, but otherwise she was in much the same condition she had been in when she had last been put under. “That’s bad luck,” she said as she pulled her hair back.

Jack led her through the rubble as he spoke. “Maybe you just have good luck.” He nudged a container open with a boot, but found it empty and moved on. The inside of the warehouse was so decimated that Olivia could only orient herself thanks to the memory of her AI navigator. Their footsteps echoed, and a rat skittered quickly away from the lamplight. 

“You should kill me,” Olivia told the man. 

He halted, then slid one boot back so he could twist around to face her. His mouth was hidden beneath the red scarf, and his brow was furrowed. They listened to the other men rummage through the remnants of the laboratory’s broken glass as they searched for valuables. Sea green eyes bored into her. “No.” He whirled around with a quick step and continued the way he had been going. “Off yourself if you need to.” 

Olivia’s eyes scanned the ground. “I can’t. The AI prevents it.” 

She saw a flash of green as he glanced at her again, but Jack did not reply. 

***

PERIMETER SECURE

Olivia tore her gaze away from the window of their makeshift shelter. This planet was no longer a place she recognized, and the memories of lush trees on the hill outside overlapped nauseatingly with the desolate tundra that had replaced it.

“How big were the buildings?” one of the younger men broke her of her reverie. He stared up at Olivia with wonder as he tore off another piece of jerky and popped it into his mouth. 

“Tall. Like hundreds of buildings stacked on top of one another,” she replied. One of the first things she had noticed when she left the warehouse was the lack of towers and skyscrapers, and she had said as much. The lab was underground, or else it would have fallen long ago like all the rest, they explained. Everything Olivia had once found familiar was the stuff of myth now. 

“Amazing,” the young man said through a mouthful of jerky. His eyes sparkled. “It must have been perfect, back then.” 

Jack had been seated on the floor to fix one of the men’s boots, but now he tossed it at him. “Make yourself useful instead of interrogating her. We need firewood.” The two younger men jumped up, eager to set out and finish their task before sunset. Olivia watched them out the window, then scanned the barren horizon. 

PERIMETER SECURE

She winced away from the alert, and forced herself to sit on the dirt floor near the center of their shack. Jack loosened his red scarf and pulled out the little carving knife he was using to whittle away at some branches. He rested his back against the wall and gathered a fresh branch for the work. “You were a soldier then?” When Olivia only gave a sharp nod in reply, he asked, “What you gonna do now? Be a mercenary?” He raised a skeptical eyebrow at the suggestion. 

Olivia looked down at her unkempt nails. “I went to sleep at seventeen. They woke me up for seven wars. I know how to do two things; sleep, and be a soldier.” 

The knife hesitated, and she saw a flash of green as he regarded her. Jack took a breath and dug the knife into the wood again, carefully shaving away the outer skin. “There’s more to life than that.” 

She wondered if there had been a building here, and had to keep herself from asking the AI to bring up her memory of the location.  “Not for me,” she said, “I am as useless in this time as I was in my own.” The rhythm of the knife did not break, rasping as it stripped away bits of bark.

Unexpectedly, once he was done with his work, he gathered the strips of bark into a few small cloth bags, handling them like precious morsels. His eyes turned up at the corner when he saw that Olivia was watching. “For later,” he said with a wink. 

***

Olivia admitted that she would never have found the town without her guides. The community was small, and all of their structures were underground. As she stepped through the tunnel into Jack’s residence, she knew at once that it had been some home’s basement in a neighborhood that no longer stood. He’d hung old tapestries and rugs on the brick walls in an attempt to warm the place, and they clashed with the mismatched table, chairs, and bed in such a way that she almost expected it to smell of something cozy, like hot cocoa. 

Instead, it smelled like cold earth and tea, bark and something faintly minty. There were more of his little satchels hanging all over the place, and although their fabric varied, they were more or less similar in size to the ones she had seen him scraping bark into. “What are they?” She held out her hand to touch a burlap one near her hip. 

“Took you a while to get curious,” he replied. When she turned, Olivia saw that he had removed his outer jacket and was smiling at her as he draped it over a chair. “Tea. If you want to stay here, you can help me with it.” 

She imagined a zen little teahouse, the sole structure in the apocalyptic tundra, and this gruff man serving people bits of bark in porcelain cups. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth at the picture of that immortal teahouse, the last bastion of high society refusing to be left behind. “Alright.”

***

THREE GRAMS CELADON TEA

Olivia handed the sample over to an old woman, one of many customers who came by once a week for bags of tea and conversation. The AI had come in handy when it came to sorting tea, measuring it, and calculating inventory, so she no longer had to ask which samples to hand out. Whatever stock they had most of, she gave away. 

The old woman’s mouth worked, and a nearly toothless grin lit up her face as Olivia told her what the sample was. “Growing celadon now is he? Very good, very good. He had better keep up with that garden, then! I’ll be back in a week!” Her knobby hands stuffed it in the bag with the others, and Olivia watched her hobble through the doorway of Jack’s house and out into the dim corridor. 

She looked over the remaining sacks she had prepared based on others’ requests. No one came on a set schedule, although they all claimed they would return promptly in one week’s time, and rarely even brought anything to give in return. Jack did not seem to mind either of these things.

TWO ORDERS REMAIN FOR PICKUP WITHIN APPROX. THREE DAYS; PACKED

She turned the herbs they had hung on the walls to dry, checking the leaves for mold or tiny pests. Olivia made her way around the room, paying special care to check the ones farther from the fireplace at the back, until she was satisfied that all the plants were in good shape. 

PERIMETER SECURE

Her boots slid easily onto her feet without tying or untying. There was no point in going through the extra work of tightening the laces if she was only going to garden, not to combat. The loose leather brushed against her calves as she trod down the hall in the direction of the “farm”. Jack was not the only one who used the vast basement “farm” for planting and growing, and each plot of land was staked out with crude markers. Jack’s herbs were surrounded by tree branches covered in faded red paint. Olivia’s boots tapped down on the stones that marked a safe place to tread, and Jack turned to regard her with his sea green eyes as she approached.

He hefted himself to his feet and held out the red scarf in his hand. There was a pile of elongated little leaves in the center, and she pinched the fresh herbs with two fingers to bring them to her face. The smell was a strong cooking herb, she thought, but Olivia couldn’t place it. Pleased, Jack tied the scarf carefully to make sure the leaves would not escape before letting it fall around his neck again. “Rosemary,” he said. “Ever had it before?”

She tasted the crushed leaves, savoring their bitterness on her tongue as he watched. “No.” Many of the herbs Jack grew were familiar to Olivia, but she wondered now if she had ever properly bothered to taste anything she had consumed before. Jack always studied her with the focus of a scientist after he handed her a new herb, and she wondered what he expected to find in her visage. 

Olivia peered at the other plants in the garden and found that she could name most of them by sight, without the assistance of her AI. “What’s that,” she asked as she stepped toward an unfamiliar little bush. 

“Don’t taste that one, I only grow it for the medics,” Jack said. He paused and studied her, then went on. “It brings a kind death when there is no other way to stop suffering.”

Olivia ran her eyes over the smooth leaves and bright orange stems of the plant, then straightened to face the man. “You could have stopped my suffering with a cup of tea, those months ago?” She folded her arms over her chest. 

Green eyes glared down at her, and Jack only raised an eyebrow. “You’re glad I didn’t.” He pushed past her, picking up the bag of fresh herbs he’d just selected. “Come on.” He bit the words off and drew his mouth into a line. 

She followed him down the path until they came to the edge of the growth, then slid her hand through the crook of his elbow and drew up beside him. His head swiveled toward her at the unfamiliar gesture, and Jack’s green eyes widened when he saw the woman smiling up from his side. “You’re right,” she said, “I’m glad you didn’t.”

A smile pulled at his lips, and they walked back home together through the underground corridors of the desolate tundra to make tea.

May 16, 2021 22:51

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1 comment

Gracie Farrar
19:09 May 19, 2021

I really enjoyed this story! I liked how you revealed along the way what was happening in the world (with awesome detail), and I really liked Olivia and Jack as characters, especially their relationship with each other. Thanks for the great read!

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