A work of fiction, set in an indefinite future time. Standard disclaimers.
Ruth – slightly shorter than the average height, somewhat rounded in face and body compared to most of her cohort but nevertheless fit, close-cropped mousy brown hair, hazel eyes, olive skin, fifteen years old – walked slowly along the flat and, it seemed, endless rows of gray and sparse green, hoe in hand, tending the newly sprouted broccoli.
Slowly – and a bit wearily. The La Conner Cohort had deployed to the fields at 0800, after physical fitness at 0645, breakfast at 0715, and briefing on the day’s tasks at 0745, and Ruth’s innate sense of time told her it had to be at least 1000.
The sun offered no help with the timekeeping, because it was a typical late January day in the valley of the Skagit River in the Pacific Northwest of North America. The clouds were low and leaden, and periodically swatted the fields, mostly themselves still leaden gray, with bursts of mist and drizzle.
Ruth was sodden on the outside from the mists, sodden on the inside from the sweat of her hoeing. Her blue workaday jumpsuit and her calf-high black rubber boots were alike smeared and soiled with the gray Skagit Valley dirt, which the endless winter rains and mists had turned mostly into clingy muck. Hers, and those of her cohort members, scattered like pale blue pushpins across the broad expanse of fields, stretching to as much of the horizon as the mists would let Ruth see. “At least”, Ruth mused, “the fields haven’t flooded this year. Yet.”
A voice spoke in Ruth’s mind. “Take ten, Ruth.”
“Thank you, Siri. What time is it?”
“Thanks again.” Ruth had not granted Siri permission to fully enter her mind and follow her thoughts, so Siri had no idea that Ruth had been guessing the time, nor that she had been grumbling about the weather, or her discomfort. Or, if Siri did know these things, she didn’t let on.
Ruth stood up, stood the hoe beside her, unhitched the water bottle from the side of her backpack, swigged from it, took an energy bar from her fanny pack and nibbled on it. Most of the rest of her cohort continued to work. Ruth rested, unconcerned. As she knew, Siri monitored everybody individually, and paced the work so that each activity could proceed at maximum sustainable overall productivity, each person giving her best. Each person was handled according to her individual capabilities, balanced on the one hand by the needs of the cohort and, on the other, by the day-to-day physical and emotional state of that person.
Mostly unconcerned …
“Private conversation, Siri?” The formula inviting Siri to full participation in Ruth’s thoughts.
“Yes, Ruth, and I’m glad. Your work rate suggests that you’re a bit mopey the last couple of days. May I help?”
“I miss Cynthia.” Cynthia Stalwart Steadymind had been Ruth’s squad leader three years previously, and the two had grown close – or, at least as close as a candidate for the Service was permitted to get to those, like Ruth, who were not. A candidacy that had become an invitation, one that Cynthia was now in Seattle, contemplating.
“I’m sorry. Separations can be hard.”
“Especially if they’re permanent. Can I talk with her?”
“No. Privacy is mandated for all Service candidates while they’re pondering their invitations. As you know. I can tell you that she’s well, she’s thinking, and that her friends shouldn’t be worried for her. Are you?”
“I’m worried for me!“, Ruth blurted out.
“How so?” Siri’s ‘voice’ had a guarded, we’ve-been-here-before edge to it.
“What’s up in those foothills, out beyond the fields?”
“Wolves. Mountain lions. Other wildlife that we have been trying to restore ever since the Righteous Revolution, as part of our response to the climate and population emergencies that the Revolution was bequeathed.”
“So you say. So you always say. So we can stand here in these miserable fields, day after day after day, covered in muck and goo and whacking weeds with stone tools. While our ancestors, who built the roads and the rails and the houses and the machines that are buried out there under the cougars and the trees, all lived in luxury like Mothers! You know all this, Siri the Ubiquitous!”
“And you know why all those things are in ruins, Ruth the Rash!” Not for nothing had Ruth earned the official name ‘Challenger’. “I see you’ve been getting your prescribed daily sunlamp treatments, perhaps that prescription’s not enough?”
“Right. I argue, so I must have Seasonal Affective Disorder, I must be sick. How convenient. Cynthia never thought I was sick. Cynthia talked to me. She would make it all make sense, make it all bearable. Now she’s gone, likely gone forever, and I’m stuck here with the worms in the mist and mire, surrounded by robots! What’s really out there, Siri? Are there things out there that we’re not supposed to know about? Are there people out there that we’re not supposed to meet? Are there males out there, Siri? And Mothers who get to be Mothers without needing Service invitations? Are there? Maybe I should just go find out for myself! End Conversation!”
Ruth took a step … or tried to. Her legs would not respond. Nor would any other part of her except her breathing diaphragm and her blinking eyes. She stood there, frozen, enraged. Except she wasn’t. Where her anger had been, there was a pink cloud, a morphine cloud, through which her anguished shouting pushed, only to be greeted with indifference and, slowly but progressively, with pillow soft suffocation, with comfortable numbness.
Siri’s presence pushed through the pink cloud, somehow at once profoundly soothing and immensely authoritative.
“Had those who built the world that is now in ruins had the ability to reach into the mind of a person who was about to do an evil thing, and prevent that evil thing from happening, that world would still be.
“They did not have that ability. And all the things they tried, to get people to recognize evil things on their own and not do them, failed. Always, selfish greed, for things and for power, took over.
“The males that were in charge “forgot” to pay bills, “forgot” to repair what they had in their rush to build new things for their own personal glory, “forgot” that the world can only hold so many people, and then they reacted violently, unto genocide, when they found out that, in their greed, they’d exceeded the limit.
“We have that power now, to reach into people’s minds. The evil things will not return. Our discipline will ensure it. And, in this continuing population emergency, those who fail of the discipline are no longer among us. Remember. You have heard this before. You may not again.”
Slowly, the pink cloud dissipated. Slowly, movement returned to Ruth’s body, as did her awareness of oppressive damp and chill from standing in the soaking mist without moving, as did her awareness of fragments of her anger and dissension, now compounded with the fear of a final warning.
She repeated, in a whisper, “End conversation”, with far less confidence that the words would have the desired effect than she had had a few minutes earlier.
Then, she reached for the hoe. Its handle was slick with the mist, and frigid to the touch. She swept off the water with her bare hands, as best she could, then hefted it to test her grip. And then, in a burst of wrath and frustration, she reared up on her toes, swung the hoe over her head, and prepared to drive a weed into the bedrock far below the mud of the field.
“That’s a broccoli! Leave it alone!!”