Sun Amongst Smoke
Mira’s boots pounded on the crowded street, her lithe form slipping between baffled onlookers.
Drones swooped down from above, sirens blaring and spotlights sweeping back and forth. Mira kept a few steps ahead of them and clutched the stolen ration packs against her chest. Two decades of living on the streets had made her fast.
The drones were faster. Their sirens grew louder with each second. The skyscrapers rose all around her, creating a cavernous prison. Synthetic lights turned from a cheerful, sunny yellow to stark red as the security systems tried to track her.
Mira turned a corner and ran as hard as she could, eyes open for her goal. She was in an old portion of the city, from back before the planning had become so rigid, and she found a small corridor between old, crumbling buildings.
Mira scrambled into the alley, holding her bounty tight. An exhaust vent blew fetid smoke into the narrow space, and she sprinted toward the swirling vapor. The acrid scent threatened to overwhelm her lungs, but she pressed on.
Red lights flashed from the screens on the walls. The authorities were still searching, the whole area on alert. Just a little longer. She risked a glance over her shoulder. No drones in sight. Mira fumbled her respirator over her face. It was a shoddy model, but it would keep her conscious.
Mira dove into the smoke, lying face down on the grate and counting. Ten seconds. Her head swam and her respirator struggled to filter the toxins from the air. Twenty. A whirring sound went by overhead. The drones. Thirty seconds. Her lungs burned. Screamed.
Forty seconds. The red lights faded, replaced by the usual advertisements blaring across every surface.
Forty seconds from breaking line of sight. That was how long the drones hunted for a minor offense like stealing food. One minute for a violent assault. Two minutes for a murder. Stay hidden for that long and they’d be re-tasked to deal with more pressing matters.
Mira rolled out of the cloud, ripping the respirator from her face and sucking down the relatively clean air in the now quiet alley.
Neon lights flickered from every surface, showing luxuries beyond anything she could ever hope to purchase. Apartments in the sky advertised to those who couldn’t glimpse it through the forest of buildings and clouds of smog.
She pushed herself onto her elbows, tucking the respirator into a belt-pouch. The flashing digital displays cycled through advertisements, the colors shifting and rippling in a mind-numbing sequence. It paused for a moment, emitting a searing white light. Mira froze, her gaze drawn to a splash of color on the ground.
In a crack in the pavement, a pale stalk grew from a patch of sparse foliage. The leaves were jagged, almost thorny, as long as her second finger. The whole thing was only a hand-span high and capped with a brilliant yellow bloom. A flower. Mira had never seen a real one. Pictures and videos of the glamorous rooftop gardens, sure. Historical videos from before the city had engulfed everything, of course. But never something real.
Mira shook herself, sure that inhaling the exhaust had messed with her head, was making her hallucinate. No. The little bloom stayed put. Bright. Perfect. Alien.
She dropped the food and reached out a trembling hand. The tips of Mira’s fingers froze mere centimeters from the plant. Will I hurt it? She withdrew her hand, content to stare.
Far above her hover cars sped, and outside the alley, the foot traffic continued at a steady pace. Life in the city continued uninterrupted, even by the minor miracle she witnessed.
The yellow blossom vanished in a noxious blare of canary as the advertisements shifted. A golden sun rained light down from the screen, bathing her little patch of concrete.
Mira blinked, extending her hand again. What does it feel like? Her fingers brushed the bloom for a moment. The fuzz beneath her fingers was soft. Softer than the best blanket she’d ever had. Softer than a barely remembered touch from her mother.
The urge to pluck it from the ground surged through her, and her hand slipped down to pinch the stalk between two fingers. No. Her heart was pounding in her chest. This wasn’t right. Plants needed to stay in the ground to survive, didn’t they?
Selfish. That’s what she was being. Here was a taste of the luxuries flashing by on the screens above her head, and she wanted to rip it from the ground to keep all for herself. Until it died. Nothing but a memory.
If she left it here though, it would still die. The city would claim it like it claimed so many other things. Drones would repair the cracks, leaving only hastily patched concrete behind.
The ration packs lay beneath her body as well. She needed them. But she wanted that flower.
Mira touched the prickly leaves around the base of the stalk. Roots. Plants had roots.
They needed to stay buried or they’d die, but that would happen anyway if she left it here.
It would grow in water, she decided. And less water for her was worth this little piece of green, wasn’t it?
Her hand slipped beneath the leaves, and she pulled as gently as she could. The leaves didn’t rip. Neither did the stalk.
She pulled a little harder. Increasing the pressure bit by bit. Something gave. She held her breath so her hands wouldn’t shake, and pried the plant from the ground. Little bits of dirt and broken concrete clung to white roots
Mira rose on trembling knees, tucking the flower into her shabby jacket, keeping it close to her heart. She took measured steps back toward the street, joining the throng of people.
The ration packs remained discarded on the alley floor. She could always steal more, and the flower called for gentle treatment. Mira needed the food for survival. She needed the flower to live.
About the author:
Alfred Smith is a rowing coach and father from Pittsburgh, PA trying to spin writing into a full time career. When he’s not on the water or writing, he’s attempting to figure out what the most dangerous thing in the room is (before his daughter can get there first).