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What Flowers Bring

by Gerardo Mercado Hernández

3203 words

My limbs are stiff, my mind is eternal, my breath is life, and the worms come to their altar — what is there to tell? How I had gone in to discuss my retirement benefits but the section manager simply handed me more work? The company logo looming larger than life on the opposite wall? His heat hovering over me as I scrolled through the files?

The content presented the company’s new acquisition: flowers. My eyes traced the thin blue stems growing in perfect circles, the thorny tips biting at their sprouting points, the onyx petals growing around their circumference. At once I recognized God’s sign: ouroboros. I devoured the information on the plant’s properties and all my apprehension melted away. I said yes to the project — not that after thirty years with the company I’d get away with an easy no — and the manager produced an ugly grin. “Make us new fantasies, Mr. Reyes Terron,” they said, “Make this the island of enchantment again.” And I left, eager to comply.

• • •

I was given the standard three days off to prepare, and walked home in a state of near religious elation. I had given up — on my work, on God, on my home. It couldn’t be mere coincidence, I thought, that after decades that sublime symbol surfaced again to re-kindle me in such a miraculous direction. It had once synthesized everything I knew about biophysics and the soul, perfectly displaying the paradox which needn’t explain itself, which hovers over everything: life-begetting-death begetting-life. At least, before the fog of work settled over me. I took the appointment as a sign from God against despair, to keep pushing, to succeed. When I passed the abandoned and decaying structures of Puerto Rico I pictured them bustling with life again.

I sat on one of the few surviving street benches in what had been Arecibo’s town square, looking at the buildings half-swallowed by the Atlantic. The tide was high and I saw gray waves move through the broken doors and shattered windows. I wondered again if the tenants of those buildings had escaped before the flood. Above me, latched on to their roofs, the giant screens promoted the newest exhibition to the tourists, some obscene looking blob and a feathered primate.

I thought of the flowers and I wanted to tell someone my good news, but the plaza was empty. With no attractions there were no guests and no money, and so no one lived there, only the four-eyed grackles scavenging the garbage. I re-read the files.

The plants were fascinating. Found under the last rumps of arctic ice, they used neutrinos as a secondary source of energy and adapted mineral compounds to reproduce, but it was their secretions that caught the company’s attention. The flower’s nectar could be synthesized into a genetic glue which allowed for all kinds of molecular combinations that were typically unstable — or downright impossible — under known mechanisms. A golden discovery for a company whose biological attractions were less and less popular each year, and losing the battle for the public’s attention to the lunar colonies trend. Most of the initial work had already been done in simple organisms, and now the company needed an experienced hand to guide them through more complex structures.

I thought about my family, the underground habitats where the company grew the exhibitions before displaying them, and the old story of people originating from the island caves. I thanked God knowing I would provide a rebirth for my home — a garden to survive all things.

• • •

As with all creative projects, everything began well. I played with lobsters and birds, carnivorous butterflies, invertebrate mammals. The weekly memos praised my indispensable data, my inventive models, but during my progress report not two months later, my concepts for the exhibitions were utterly trashed. “A nostalgic trip through uninspired bug monsters and cephalopod chimeras,” management said. They chastised me for naming the models with Spanish names, to say nothing of the religious themes. But the deathblow came when they insinuated other teams were working in parallel with mine, that perhaps my discoveries might better help those more “inspired works.” My heart thumped in my throat and I did not speak for the rest of the meeting.

Leaving the building I ventured to the nearest exhibitions on display, avoiding the scant groups of tourists. I’d hoped to find inspiration, maybe see one of my designs still in use, but nothing felt right. Everything appeared mundane, lackluster, boring. Where was the divine spark of life? I couldn’t feel it in or around me. I rolled my eyes at the trite amalgamations, at the giant animals, at other fictions made “real.” When I finally found an older project among the exhibits, the skeletal jellyfish, I scoffed at myself knowing I had taken the idea from a book. Copies of copies of a copy, everything seemed tired and meek, like all zoos. My notes for new designs felt hopeless, fruitless

The heartless criticisms from management still rang in my mind. It was always the same, no matter how much you worked, no matter how persistent and loyal you were, they always wanted more from you. I hated the company, detested everything about it, but that was the only thing I had left, God’s last chance for me. I hadn’t realized how far I’d been pushed into the pit of despair, or how deeply it had nullified my spirit. My days of idealism were gone, dead as my hopes of advancing the field, of becoming a big name in the company, that they might relent their older patents for medical research, for food development, humanitarian services — anything but monster-of-the-month attractions and cheap pets pre-designed to die in a few weeks. What a naive dream I’d lived. The company was doing exactly what it had been built to do, like a virus sucking the life from its host. Now was the time to survive.

On my walk between those luxurious decaying buildings I tried to recall what had inspired me before — truly inspired me. I saw remnants of a concrete wall near the great Arecibo River, its rising waters washing away the ancient Spanish buildings, the 20th century stores, and the asphalt at my feet. I took in the soul of that place, a boundary between the old and new. I thought of physics; how the universe had turned itself from the chaos of pure motion to life. Beautiful life, as complicated and complex as the components which had birthed it.

“There was God,” I often told my grandfather, the part-time preacher, and he agreed.

I was the same age he had been when I’d been born. I recalled him taking me around the island to visit the attractions while my parents were away at some job or other. I thought of the old video he kept in his phone from when they rolled out the first dragon. It had simply been an enlarged Komodo dragon with useless wings, ox horns, and peacock feathers for a mane — though, I’ll admit, giving it a lion's roar had been a stroke of genius — we still used that same sequence. At the end of its act the animal would climb onto a golden ball, arch its body, spread its wings, and bite its own tail. Even through his phone’s distortions one could hear the wild cheering of the crowd, my grandfather's own elated youthful shouting. It was that ouroboros which drew my imagination to the science of the company.

As I grew older I wondered why he went to see the attractions unlike grandmother. Later I learned they had earned her hate when the bailout from the company effectively made all citizens tenants of the park. ‘Enchanted Island: Where fantasy lives.’ After that there were no more new residences built on the island, and the only employment for those who remained was with the company. Whenever I’d ask him about it, he’d smile, shrug, and say, “That’s how life’s always been, those in power use their power. I’m just trying to survive, make sure my children and my grandchildren are safe, fed, and happy. That’s why God put me on this Earth.”

But what did happiness have to do with it? I couldn’t see it anymore. Did the little black birds scavenging the roads and trash contemplate emotion? It’s survival, all of it. Survival to feel a sliver of security under pressures beyond your power to change: that was happiness in our island. Here on Earth’s fragile shell, floating in the voids and subject to its currents, is our test for being God's children: to survive. No arbitrary ethics, no inner understanding beyond this primal dictate: survive, survive, survive. Just as my grandparents had managed to escape those massive drownings, working every day until they died. Though not before that they saw us off to college, the last children of the island.

Survive, that was all that mattered; within the company, without it. The flower would unlock my dream: an island brimming with life, not meandering old men, not the rich and their playthings. I simply needed more room to breathe, more room to experiment. Then, like a fever, I was struck by the wisdom of the self-eating snake. The insight flashed before me, so obvious now, like forgotten knowledge fully digested: all beginnings come from an end. For my new world to be properly born the previous one had to burn. I felt the divine spark in me, guiding me, I would create to destroy to create. Through those cycles of life and death, new and beautiful survivors would arise. Like God had always done.

• • •

I knew the company would never permit such a repeated decimation of its resources, not the flower’s serum, nor the extreme overuse of a habitat nor the expensive growing tanks. But my vision had grown beyond them and I resolved to take what I wanted. I also knew they hadn’t picked me for the project because of my aptitude. I was neither the best geneticist, nor the only biophysicist. No, it was because I was good-enough for building betas and pliable enough not to argue.

Thus, when the expendable old man who mumbled old ideas requested a few extra easily programmable service robots to help him around the lab, no one looked twice. The robots were the actual teams responsible for cleaning the guest areas, maintaining the habitats, and producing new attractions under human guidance. After a quick modding of their GPS and security links they were ready to be my helping angels.

Three weeks after my second progress report — spent in half-hearted explanations to an obvious replacement — I had at my disposal a secret second habitat. It was two floors below my official one and connected through an unused staircase via a section which had been permanently closed off for canceled renovation. It was fairly standard: development tanks and sacks, complete weather control and terraforming, and radiation gradients. Little by little my robots took the needed resources down and prepared them for me.

• • •

“You’ve done superb work,” the bland smile said in a rehearsed pause of empathy. “Thirty years of outstanding research, an excellent record of exhibitions, always on time with your memos and reports, truly high marks. But, well, the company feels someone with a new perspective about the project would better serve our needs, and…” The manager continued with my third progress report, though I barely heard. I was told to take a vacation for as long as I needed, and once rested I could pick where I had left off before the flowers. After a stiff handshake the meeting was adjourned and I went to pick up some personal items from the lab. I went down the tunnels and locked myself in the secret habitat. I prayed and began the great work.

• • •

The first weeks passed as I crushed the leagues of raw sea minerals into sand, letting in veins of sea water from the Atlantic and heating everything with mimicked sunlight. Little by little I compounded the sand and converted the veins to rivers, all while injecting standard atmospheric gasses and the very simplest life forms. Once my board was set I continued recreating and releasing some of my old creations to populate my new garden, into its skies and rivers and earth.

My selected species were based on evolution, playing to the harmonies of nature, but an artistic spirit also commanded my hand. I felt as a poet in the throws of ecstatic inspiration, knowing that from the blood of my makeshift aliens, dragons, and dinosaurs something new would arise. With enough of my old models installed, I began incorporating other codes, some from nature, improving them as I saw fit, and some made rather spontaneously. Some had to be adjusted and reintroduced, some removed from the balancing act, some favored.

Lastly, to all my children, I gave the truest marvel of the flowers, one I was careful never to disclose: control of aging. Altering it for the greater design; I, and I alone, had found a method to maximize evolution. Once it was all set and done, I let time run its course.

I wondered if perhaps God encoded in us arbitrary functions for their own convenience — yes, I decided, perhaps the soul.

In six months a beautiful genesis occurred. My heart went out to those feathered mammals running from the arthropod-like things hunting them. I gazed for hours at the habits of an odd type of worm which had developed appendages and eyes, amazed as it rose to become the dominant lifeform. In the rivers, fish haunted amphibians and the amphibians grew to hunt them. The flora developed a taste for the traditional gasses and minerals and light, but also incorporated the flower’s peculiarity for neutrinos.

It was around the tenth month that I decided a first apocalypse was in order. I began with fire and ash using the radiation gradients. After averaging certain ecosystems and food webs in certain habitats, I made it burn like a never-ending summer.

What was I aiming for exactly? To be completely honest, I had no idea. Again I’d let my artistic expression take over my decisions. Though as most artists will tell you, perhaps my body knew something my conscious mind did not as I warmed their land and sea. And so my beautiful yet familiar prologue came to an end. I decided to let the next world be defined by water. I had almost made the mistake of lowering the temperatures without first giving the survivors time to adapt.

Though it would not be long before I discovered my true error: the process would take too long. I had calculated my rations to last for a year, but even funneling natural selection everything would take years. I’d cued my resignation letter to send automatically after three months. I couldn’t risk leaving the habitat, a wandering tourist or robot or employee might see me, even the service exits of the tunnels were too risky. Sending the re-programmed robot was an even bigger risk, it might connect to the shared network. No, it would’ve un-made everything.

I prayed and meditated for days. I went to the garden for some clarity and as I laid on the velvet grass my grandfather’s words came back to me, “To survive and make sure my children are happy. Why God put me on this Earth.”

Now revelation came as a breeze, it was simple really, I would use the flowers on myself. Not flagrantly, not impudently, but just enough that my body would produce its own sustenance, like a plant. It took a few days of focused planning and simulations, dedicating and modifying one of the growing modules for myself. I left the shuffling genesis and apocalypses in the hands of a simple AI while I went through the procedure. The last thing I saw before my current state was the dropping oxygen levels of that second world, the beginning of its end.

I dreamed of the stars and the earth and the ouroboros and its infinite abstractions; of not merely conversation of energy, but reality itself, transcendental, infinitely fractured in harmonies and sprouting tones we can’t — and will never — understand. I dreamed the flowers spoke to me, sang to me. And when I awoke, oh delicious return, I recognized nothing.

• • •

What’s left to tell?

How that initial transfusion left me perpetually elated? How I went to the garden and savored the light and air in ways that made other tastes blunt and insulting? How my eyes saw what lives underneath shades and shadows? Or that soon after my muscles stiffened as my skin turned green and I began to rely on the AI’s voice command? Or that is why in the fifth world I desired to walk among my children and made my lower body akin to a cockroach, able to move without much of a mind.

In the sixth world I beheld the most beautiful creatures. Small fibrous hexapods tangentially related to those now extinct feathered mammals, curious odd things resembling cephalopods perfectly suited for deserts, above them the birds that could not be. Oh, the colors made by the flora, the aromas, the velvet orchidians, changing color with temperature, the embracing thorns of those that became carnivores. If the samples are to be believed, some of them are able to naturally produce the flower's secretions. They even grew in the same way: lapis-lazuli skin, purple thorns, and circular branches — though their petals are crimson colored.

How did all this come about? I have no idea. Sure enough my hand guided, but I knew not the direction, nor what chance and luck has granted those that survived since the beginning. Now I think neither did God and that is why they had died. Changing themselves so materially, so drastically, to be in our garden. A place suited only for their children, and so the divine body merely crumbled and decayed to feed its worms. Always worms, even now.

What to say? My memories feel vague lately, my body feels apart from myself. Shared, as if another life is developing alongside mine. I welcome it.

How long since I began? I made myself live long and forgot, silly me.

I will go now. To be with my children. I wish to feed my worms. Let them have me, all of me. Perhaps I shall be reborn. I have instructed my helpers to call on the company. Even if a hundred years have passed there is always a company. Let them have me too, all of me. My vision, my garden; my sprawling chimeric dream.

They will turn it all into an exhibition, I know it. An exhibition born out of death, made to survive and change and spread and survive in ways they will not predict. I love them, my children, wild and free. They’ll take the island, I know it. Like the old myths, its new people will come from below, from the caves, to make our seventh world.

Gerardo Mercado Hernández (he/him) is a Puerto Rican fiction writer and poet. He enjoys learning about culture, history, and spiritual beliefs when not working as a math teacher. Some of his favorite subjects are the Caribbean, the individual, their community, and magic. His work has been previously published in Haunt Publishing’s BIPOC anthology When Other People Saw Us, They Saw the Dead and Ink in Gray’s forthcoming anthology Locale: An Anthology of Time and Place. He is currently working on his poetry and other short stories. Gerardo lives in Northern Puerto Rico while permanently catching up on physics and music. Gerardo can be found on Twitter at @OddToB.

Issue 37

November 2022

3LBE 37

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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