Growing Pains

by Lawrence Conquest

In an unnamed city, beneath a starless sky, an old man sat and stared at the ground.  The earth before him was muddy and bare, its surface scarred from an unending succession of raking and turning.  No life bloomed within its border; neither weed nor flower broke through the mud.  Defeated, Mu Kung sighed and bowed his head.

And then he felt it.  A tremulous pulse, a distant heartbeat whispering deep within the bowels of the earth.  Could this be it?  Could life be returning to this barren land at last?  Kung pressed his ear to the muddy soil and listened.  But what he heard was not the sound of verdant life struggling to be born.

What he heard was the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps.

#

Tallen ran through the labyrinth of the abandoned undercity, his eyes frantically searching ahead for the darkest of turnings, the unlikeliest of paths.  Behind him the baying whoops and calls of his pursuers rebounded off of concrete and metal, the patter of chasing footsteps overlapping in an echoing tide that made their true numbers impossible to guess.

Blood pounding in his ears, his heart fit to burst, Tallen ran deeper into the derelict zone.  Objects flickered past his staring eyes: domicile, light, window, door.  He paused at the last.  Though encrusted with rust and partially blocked by fallen debris, there was enough leeway for him to gain entrance.  The boy paused upon the threshold, unsure if he really wanted to enter one of these abandoned sites.  Deserted by civilisation, who knew what may have taken up residence instead?

Torn between the desire to flee and the onset of physical exhaustion, Tallen was stopped short by the sudden realisation that the sounds of his pursuers were fading.  A trick?  Unlikely – the mob had been driven by blind adrenalin-fuelled hatred rather than calculating intelligence, the gangs which had reclaimed this wasteland as their own determined to keep their streets racially pure.  With only a cornered animal’s instinct to get off the street and under cover, Tallen forced open the door before him and crept inside.

The first thing to hit him was the smell.  The hot cloying stench of decay threatened to overpower him, and he gagged involuntarily.  The domicile was shrouded in darkness, but as his eyes grew used to the gloom Tallen began to make out the details of his surroundings.  A threadbare sofa, springs poking through material like upthrust metallic thorns, faced a defined absence on the opposite wall.  Striations of dust traced the ghostly outline of a long-departed television set as though it had been fixed in the unblinking gaze of a nuclear blast.

Ignoring the dilapidated staircase, Tallen moved gingerly across the filthy floorboards, past the sofa and towards a faint light that spilled in from an adjoining kitchen.

The scene inside was even more distraught than the living room.  A putrefying stench pushed against Tallen in hot sticky waves.  Exotic bacteriological cultures derived from abandoned foodstuffs had staged slow-motion escapes from their imprisoning packaging and now climbed the walls with a languid fungoid grace.  Across the floor relief maps of mould traced the outlines of an imaginary kingdom, whilst mountains of bundled newspapers sagged under the weight of their own rot.  In a cracked enamel sink against the wall a swarming mass of writhing black insects scurried over dirt-encrusted crockery, their tiny legs pitter-pattering against the glazed china with a sound like falling rain. A grime-covered window overlooked the sink, the weak light from beyond glittering off the chitinous backs of the multitude.

Trying to gauge his surroundings Tallen cupped his hands to the dirty glass and peered outside.  Expecting to see another clutter of abandoned living quarters he was surprised to see a small patch of open ground, a fifty meter square of muddy turf bordered by the backs of the surrounding buildings.  A few spotlights had been strung upon the walls of the surrounding structures, the buttery circles of light dressing the ground below as though it was a stage awaiting an actor’s entrance.

Tallen was about to move away from the window when he noticed movement from outside.

“You can come out now.”

A figure stepped out of the dark and into a circle of light, the craggy lines of his oriental features exaggerated by the downcast beam.  “There’s really no need to be alarmed, I mean you no harm.  Please, come into my garden.”

Garden? Tallen peered closer but could see only bare earth at the stranger’s feet.

“I have food.”

Tallen pushed open the back door and hunched down on the back step.
The old man was physically frail, but an inner strength seemed to glow in his eyes.  The stranger reached into one of the many pockets lining his bulky earth-stained overalls and pulled out a half-eaten packet of biscuits.

“Here.  Eat.” he called, tossing the food across.

The biscuits were soggy, but Tallen munched greedily, his eyes never leaving the other figure.

“Why are you here – are you running from someone?  The puritans?  I must admit it’s strange to see a white face these days.  My name is Kung, and this is my garden.”

The man held out his arm, as if to shake hands, and Tallen studiously ignored it.

“I came here many years ago, as part of the great expansion.  I had another garden once, far away – but that’s all gone now.  Gone, all gone.  My wife – ”

Tallen blinked.  For a moment the old man had seemed transformed, his muddy overalls replaced by brightly coloured robes.  The bare earth at the old man’s feet seemed to blossom into verdant life, whilst the sky above was a vivid purple bruise.  He rubbed at his eyes, and the vision was gone.

Kung hesitated, dragging distractedly at the earth with a wooden rake.  “Another time, another life.  You’re too young to remember of course, most people are, but a few of us still remember the old lands.”
Kung looked up from the bare earth and gazed about at the mould-covered walls.  “But no matter how far we travel, we can never outrun ourselves.  If I were a Christian I could believe this to be Hell.”

The old man’s hands continued to listlessly drag the rake through the soil, but his mind was elsewhere.

#

“Mr – ?”

“Kung.  I believe I have an appointment.”

The secretary gestured towards a row of plastic seats, turned her face away and tapped rhythmically at her worktop.  The desk-embedded computer screen cast a flickering lightshow across her surgically sculpted features. Kung stood motionless, looming silently over the seated girl in an effort to speed up this process by remaining within the periphery of her vision.  Action through inaction.  He chuckled to himself.

Around him the lobby seethed with the comings and goings of bureaucrats, a gentle susurration of meaningless politics drifting like muzak from their idiot holes.  Kung did his best to ignore them, but they irked him so; this grand order of termites constructing ever-expanding layers of regulations, an artificial hive of self-serving parasites infecting the body politic.  Even here.  So much for new beginnings.

They looked at home in this extravagant building: built above the ruins of the original colony the exterior of the Hub resembled a sprawling spider squatting over its prey, the architecture symbolic of the leeching away of resources from the former metropolis by this new generation of businessmen and plutocrats.  Concentric elevator tubes radiated from the Hub’s central body, and having sufficiently wearied the receptionist of his presence Kung soon found himself ascending in one of these spider-leg lifts.  He gazed out over the city as he ascended: habitation lights of the corporate serfs warmed the underbelly of the Hub, whilst further out isolated fires pierced the lonely murk of the under-city, the dispossessed still struggling to survive in the wreckage of a crashed space age dream.  Above all the sky lay as a dark and starless shroud.

The elevator tube deposited Kung onto a mezzanine bustling with faceless functionaries, one of whom led him impatiently towards an unmarked door.

“Enter!”

Readying himself for some vast opulent palace, Kung was a little disheartened to see just how spartan the Office of Interior Parkland was.  As he gazed about him he began to suspect that the Office itself had never existed outside of a page-header before today, and had been hastily cobbled together for his visit out of the nearest available broom-cupboard.  The fact seemed borne out by the industrial tins of paint and bales of wire that nestled incongruously amongst the bulging files and data disks on the wall-mounted shelves.  Behind a polished mahogany desk a small frog-like man sat hunched behind a laptop, his batrachian features ill at ease with the expensively tailored suit that clothed him.  He did not look up as Kung entered.

“Mr Kung,” the nameless official droned with all the passionless monotone of an overly rehearsed speech, “thank you for coming here today, I’m sure you have a busy schedule.  Time is in rather short supply, so with your permission we’ll get right down to business.  As I’m sure you are well aware the demand for building space is at an all time high, and with the current economic situation our investors feel that the needs of the economy must by necessity outweigh the needs of our ecological heritage.  As such, the parkland must go.”

The official continued his speech, and Kung was dimly aware of talk of nu-tech bio-domes, self-sufficient air processing factories, virtual environments preserving the historical landscapes, a job well done and a healthy redundancy for all, but he was barely taking any of it in.  All he could think of was his glorious parkland, the carefully transplanted and cultivated flora, all of it gone – forever.  He remembered the garden in Tung Hua, before the diasporas, the sun bathing the flowers in its golden light, lilting birdsong filling the warm air.  He remembered Wang’s gentle laughter caressing him like running water, the gentle kisses of flower blossom against his face as they lay together beneath the peach trees.

Slowly he became aware that the official had finished talking.  Kung readied to respond with a defence of his own, but before he could even begin there was a brief click from the laptop and the hologram opposite winked out of existence.  They hadn’t even bothered to send someone to tell him in the flesh.  There was literally no one to argue with.

#

“And so here I am.  I try my best, but the city is against me.  Year after year the domiciles ate up the parkland, until this garden is now all that’s left.  Water is no problem, but deprived of sunlight down here, well – the plants just won’t grow.  I try but -” Kung glanced up into the gloom at the underside of the Hub.

“All I have left now is this.”  Wang reached into his pocket and held a small round object aloft.  “P’an-t’ao.  A gift from my beloved.  Do you know what P’an-t’ao means?  Immortality.”  Wang laughed dryly, opened his hand and let the peach stone fall to the ground.  “Poor Wang, where are you now?”

Kung brightened from his reverie.  “Still, it is good that you are here my young friend.  Perhaps I need a little cross fertilisation to make the P’an-t’ao grow strong in this foreign soil.  A mix of the old and new.  You are a native of this land, are you not?  Perhaps you could – ”
Kung looked up, but he was alone.  An empty biscuit wrapper lay discarded on the doorstep, sole evidence to the boy’s silent passing.

#

Five hours later Kung reached out a withered hand and touched the sky.  He brushed his fingers against its rough surface, surprised by how unconvincing it looked up close.

He was hunched under a supporting strut on the Hub’s exterior, one foot supported in a tangle of electricity cables, two hundred metres above solid ground.  He remembered when the artificial sky had gone up, a cost-cutting exercise in controlling the elements, another admission of defeat from the new investors.  From below it appeared seamless, but Kung remembered the construction crews piecing it together, and sure enough the telltale cracks of the interlocking plates were visible up close.  Kung carefully removed a metal ruler from his overall pocket and began to patiently lever a panel loose.  After some determined effort the panel slid back upon its hinges, and Kung gasped in triumph.

A beam of sunlight stabbed through the hole in the sky and illuminated the ground below.  Kung knew that the beam would only penetrate at the correct angle for a few hours every day, but he hoped it would be enough.  His artificial lights were just not strong enough; his plants needed real sunlight to grow. He shielded his eyes against the glare, and peered through the hole in the sky at the shining dots spinning in the darkness of space.  He wondered if one of those distant lights was the Earth, and smiled at the thought, but he had no real way of knowing.  Kung considered the garden below, and realised his earlier words to the boy had been wrong – in this alien land what the P’an-t’ao really needed was a taste of home, and as for Kung himself, well – what did he have left to lose?  Kung loosened his legs from the cables, and prepared to let go of his handhold.

As Mu Kung fell towards the ground, he faced the shining stars above, and smiled.

#

Kung would have been pleasantly surprised at just how much growth could be achieved with the aid of a little sunlight and nutrient.  And a human body can make a nourishing source of fertilizer.  Tallen was the first to find it, but that summer children from all over the city came to sit in the shade of the peach tree and see the colourful flowers that blossomed amongst its roots.

Flowers arranged in a bed that, when observed from above, could be seen to have grown from the soil in the recognisable outline of a spread-eagled human body.

The End