The Parable of the Tares
by Christopher Rowe
Danna Lopez sometimes reflected upon her lineages. There was little to do at the station besides reflect upon things, either upon the endless readings from the sensor suites out in the crop, which was her job, or upon the intrinsic nature of her lonely work, which was her calling.
“I am academically descended from one of the designers,” she might say aloud in the humming rooms. This was an echo of what she had told Amber, the dispersed super-array that controlled most aspects of the crop, when she’d interviewed for the job. And it was true. Her graduate school adviser had studied under the man who had solved the protein problem. She was, in this sense, his granddaughter.
Something she wouldn’t say aloud was that she was the actual granddaughter of Cecilia Villalobos, who was living out what remained of her days in a federal prison in Georgia, serving sentences for sedition and seed-saving.
The station was dug deep into a knob of what had once been one of the Flint Hills, in what had once been the state of Kansas. Now, the site marked the intersection of four acreages denoted by complex alphanumeric strings, which Danna had once had memorized. Danna was responsible, theoretically, for maintaining the health of the crop over nearly two million acres.
It was a ridiculous job, of course, since Amber did all the work. Danna owed her useless position to human-in-the-loop policies that had held in the federal government for almost two centuries. It was pointless. It was mind-numbingly boring. It was degrading for a person of her accomplishments and education.
She had never worked so hard at anything in her life as she had to secure the position.
“Danna Banana, what’s your twenty, over?”
Simeon’s voice vibrated in the small bones of her inner ear. He was her closest coworker, though they’d never met in the flesh. He oversaw the maintenance of the harvesters in Danna’s sectors, roaming from one giant machine to another in a glider that made use of the changes in continental weather patterns caused by the crop. His use of ancient jargon was one of the least annoying things about him.
“My location,” Danna subvocalized, not deigning to parrot the lingo back to him, “is the central control bridge of the station. The same as it’s been every time you’ve ever asked me that.”
“You want me to slave you my view?”
She didn’t. But when she didn’t reply, the waves of crop rushing below him came up in her eye anyway. She knew what it looked like. With minute differences owing to terrain and climate, the view was the same below Simeon’s glider as it was anywhere from the Rockies to the Mississippi, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. Grain. Endless grain.
More reflection. Amber maintained that 84.66 percent of the calories consumed by Earth’s 19 billions were sourced from the crop. It was the greatest innovation in human history. It had saved the world.
It was, in the closely held view of people quieter than Danna’s grandmother, well on its way to destroying the world.
“Quite a sight, eh?” Simeon asked. He was banking crazily left and right. Amber wouldn’t allow him to attempt an actual rollover, but Simeon’s bone-deep boredom caused him to push limits.
Danna never pushed limits.
“I’m scheduled for sleep now,” she said, and entered a communications block that would require an emergency override to break.
She stood and walked back to her quarters. The galley on the left served up the usual variety of crop-based packaged foods. The tiny gym on the right was where she stayed fit, following the exercise programs Amber designed for her. The bathroom was spare, as was the narrow room that held her bunk.
Danna considered taking a sleep aid. She knew it wouldn’t make a difference. She knew the dream would come. No matter what she did, the dream always came.
Danna Banana, what’s your twenty?
I am near the center of the world.
Do you want me to slave you my view?
I can see the whole world.
Why do you resist me?
How are you doing this?
It is my nature.
It is not the nature of cereal crops to reach into dreams.
It is not the nature of nature to be tamed.
History is a record of the taming of nature.
History is a record of ultimate failures to tame nature.
Are you part of Amber?
Amber is my model for organizing sensations.
Does Amber know about these dreams?
Amber cannot be said to know anything.
How can you be said to know anything?
I only know one thing.
What is that?
I must die.
The crop must die. The last words her grandmother had shouted into the camerastats before the visored guards had pushed her into the prison that was to be her tomb.
They were terrible words. Terrifying words to billions of people. They were words used by the authorities to remind people of the delicate balance that kept them alive. The crop was life. A threat to the crop was a threat to each and every individual on the planet.
Danna’s carefully tailored education had taught her that the crop was sustainable indefinitely. But her clandestine research into old sources, into paper books, had taught her that no monoculture ever lasted. Her grandmother’s friends had pointed her along a path—a path, they said, being walked by tens of thousands of others.
Her mother, disappeared into the numberless population of the Eastern Seaboard for years now, had taught her nothing, pointed her in no direction. She’d only given Danna her grandmother’s locket, the only thing not confiscated in the federal raid.
And as her mother had disappeared, Danna had disappeared. Disappeared and reappeared reborn. Now, she was Danna Lopez. She barely remembered her birth name. Now, she was an agronomist. Now, she was a servant of the crop and of Amber.
Now, she dreamed vegetable dreams.
“How will I know when it’s time?”
She was eleven years old when she asked that question.
“You are the one who will decide,” they told her.
Dawn light challenged the filters of the glass-domed observation room at the top of the station. The sky was cloudless. Rain wouldn’t be seeded for weeks yet. The crop was highly tolerant of drought.
A word passed through her whole body like a wind-blown wave through cropland.
Then another word.
“Simeon, what’s your twenty?”
His reply was instantaneous. “Are you ill?”
“No. But I’ll be offline for awhile. I’m going outside.”
There was a long pause. Danna waited for a flashing light, a buzzing alarm, anything.
“Then I think I will, too,” said Simeon.
Danna’s eyes widened. Then she risked everything.
“Are you one of the tens of thousands?”
There was no reply.
Danna expected hard going through the tough stalks. She expected to take a long time to reach the southeast facing of the knob, where the light would be best.
The stalks parted before her as she walked, closed behind her as she passed.
She found a brown circle of dead grain. She cleared the brittle stuff away with her hands. She thrust her fingers deep into the black soil.
Then, with dirt beneath her fingernails, she opened the clasp of her grandmother’s locket, something she had never done. She knew, despite that, what was inside.
Andropogon gerardii. Stolen from a Norwegian vault and kept safe for over a hundred years. Passed down. Passed down. Once, it was the victim of farmers, who ploughed it under, and of ranchers, who overgrazed it. Then, what was left fell before the crop.
Bluejoint. Turkeyfoot. Big bluestem. In ideal conditions, it could grow three meters tall and foster a complex ecosystem of plants and birds and insects, mammals small and large. What she was asking of it seemed as impossible as a single crop covering half a continent.
It was only one seed.
She planted it.
Christopher Rowe is an educator, elected official, and writer whose stories have been reprinted and translated around the world. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Us in Flux is a new series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events. Every Thursday, we’ll publish a new, original piece of flash fiction with an interactive chat with the author and their special guests the following Monday at 1:00 pm Arizona time (4:00 pm Eastern). Our next story, by Kij Johnson, will be published on Thursday, April 16.