Being a fictionalized account of a future where nothing grows for over twenty years and humanity, or at least the less than five percent that survived, subsists on manufactured foods in a secure colony at an undisclosed location.
It was mid-May, but nothing grew. The grass outside Otto’s kitchen window was as dreary, desiccated, and depressed as it had been in January, an ugly, brown matt that should have been bright green by now. The trees were still bare and wind-burned, stunted, skeletal things without a leaf to be seen and even the evergreens were weak and sallow, as if they were losing life by the hour. There was not a flower or the slightest hint of color anywhere in view, but still, a few intrepid insects wheeled around in increasingly desperate circles, seeking pollen that simply wasn’t there and might never be again. This year, the seasons had changed and the weather was increasingly warm, but the rebirth of spring simply didn’t come and no one knew why. The view was much the same throughout Otto’s neighborhood, his town, his state, his country, indeed the entire world. Plants had simply ceased to grow, whether naturally or even in a laboratory.
There were brighter minds than Otto working the problem, for it was indeed a problem unlike humanity had ever faced, one that would result in the deaths of billions and the extinction of uncounted animals, but so far no one had any answers. Some focused on how such a thing could have possibly occurred in the first place. Several ideas were put forward including an intentional attack by an unknown alien species engaging in biological warfare on a global scale with the goal of conquering the planet, but no aliens readily presented themselves. Others claimed it was proof we were living in a simulation and something had gone wrong with the code, but that was as far as they were able to surmise and the end result offered no answers either, the equivalent of living in a dream within a dream. There were more technical explanations as well, as many as could be imagined and as frequent as any debates over politics or religion that dominated the ages. A mysterious breakdown in chlorophyll across all plants, algae, and bacteria. A previously unheard of retrovirus that did much the same. An undetectable change in the atmosphere that blocked radiant energy from the sun.
Otto, however, had a different view. He’d long since convinced himself the entire universe could only be a giant mistake in the first place. Nothing so vast, cold, uncaring, chaotic, and destructive could be based on any kind of plan, or at least not one emanating from a rational mind. All of reality must therefore be a giant accident. This was just one more, and it was only his poor luck that he was living through it, rather than being born in another century. This view was not very optimistic to be sure, but did have the benefit of a certain detachment from the vicissitudes of life, as had always been his way. While others panicked, rioted, raged, killed each other in the streets over every scrap of food or for no reason except to exert some control over something, anything, he simply watched and did what was needed to survive, not that survival seemed likely for anyone. When the mob came for his house and his entire town was on fire, he had already removed everything he cared about and decamped to a cabin in an isolated corner of the woods. He remained out of sight just long enough to watch the flames lick the roof, the sparks leap to a nearby tree, and the grass itself go up in smoke, nodding to himself that this part of his life was over forever. Still, he could not bring himself to blame them. Most of the world was dying, and anyone could be next.
There remained a small number of people desperately seeking a solution, even as the destruction of Otto’s neighborhood played out on an international scale, sometimes with nuclear weapons. To these few, it didn’t matter why this tragedy had unfolded anymore than it did to Otto. Surviving it, more precisely allowing as many people and animals to survive it as possible, was all that was important. The problem was rather simple. Livestock required grain. The entire ecosystem, whether humanity’s farms or the natural world, was based on plants. Without them, everything would eventually starve. Rationing was essential, of course, but could only prolong the inevitable. At the onset, there was about enough grain for six months, not exactly an encouraging period, but enough to implement a three part strategy. First, all of the remaining grain reserves were confiscated and secured. Second, a small subset of animals was gathered and preserved in protected areas. Third, all available resources were directed to increasing the capacity to manufacture lab grown foods. Farming was no longer a possibility, but the technology existed to clone and cultivate artificial plants and animals.
Less than 5% of the world’s population would survive, but at least someone would. Otto himself was one of the lucky ones for a time. The last vestiges of an organized government, those who would build a new world upon the ashes of the old, found him at his cabin, alone and reasonably content to watch everything end from a distance. He offered no resistance when they came for him, merely said hello and asked if there was anything he could to help. He didn’t have much, but there was some jerky and dried fruit left from his small store of provisions, enough that perhaps they could chat for a few minutes over a fire. Otto didn’t know it at the time, but this was something like an old-fashioned job interview. In a world where most were crazed and all too happy to kill each other over a morsel of food, merely being polite, peaceful, and reasonable was a rare quality. Otto was asked to join them. He wasn’t sure if they would force him should he say no, but had nothing better to do for obvious reasons and assented immediately.
He’d never been a world traveler or one to go much beyond the bounds of his town, but still the landscape sweeping past beneath the helicopter was completely unrecognizable, as if the Earth had been suddenly switched out for Mars. One couldn’t appreciate what a world without spring truly meant until you saw it on this scale, and it was dominated by two words: Red and dead. Across miles and miles, as far as he could see in all directions, the land was barren, as if it had been drained of any and all color except that of fire. Once lush forests and grasslands were simply gone, reduced to dead trees that were swiftly decaying in the full heat of summer and would never bloom again so far as anyone knew. Cities and towns were empty, sometimes they simply were no more, craters or holes in the ground where once proud buildings used to be. Fires raged everywhere, some set by people, others from natural causes, but with no healthy greenery and little in the way of human action to slow the spread, there seemed nothing to prevent the entire world from burning to a single black cinder. Plumes of smoke, hot and heavy as the breath of some mad demon, filled the air, stinging the eyes and making it difficult to breathe.
Somehow, Otto managed to keep his composure, thinking only that it was far better to be in the helicopter rather than down where everyone was already dead or soon to be so. He had his new comrades and his new life, whatever that would prove to look like. They were not exactly a very ebullient or upbeat group, assigned to the grim task of saving what little of the world could be preserved, but they had a mission and that was enough or at least it would have to be. For this part, he was neither happy nor sad, enthusiastic or moribund when he learned he would spend his days for the foreseeable future attending a meager flock of animals on a natural preserve located in one of three colonies set up in the former United States. Most would have found the work boring and miserable with nothing to break the routine. The animals were arranged in small pens by type and sex. Primarily livestock, but also some from the wild, wolves and bears, and even a mountain lion. They did not seem particularly pleased with the situation either, but ate the slop Otto left for them every day without complaint and mated occasionally enough that the species under his care survived.
Otto himself lived in a similar small pen, a ten by ten box with a cot and a toilet, and he ate pretty much the same slop with some added seasonings to make it more palatable. The little entertainment was provided by a live show per month, and a video based news program that more or less said the same thing on repeat. Otherwise, there was little, if anything to tell one day from the next, or one year from the next except for the change in seasons, but this did not bother Otto much if at all. He was clothed, fed, and had something to care for, for perhaps the first time in his life. He wouldn’t have guessed it, but the animals were enough for him, giving him something that was lacking in his existence before the world had changed. He loved them and it was easy to believe some of them loved him in return. There were three moments that stood out beyond the happy drudgery of this existence, when the colony was attacked from the outside. The first was by far the worst, coming at the end of his first year. Humans still had access to serious weaponry then, and the guns and rockets had fired all through the day and the night, as if the plan was to burn the world once more.
The second was similar.
The third was pathetic as almost everyone outside was dead by that point.
The compound survived, if not prospering, eking out an existence of a kind. People had long since given up on trying to figure out what happened and instead merely coped with it as best they could. The machines grew their food. The humans and the animals ate it, and everyone seemed to be waiting for something better to happen, or maybe something at all to happen was a more accurate description, except for Otto. He grew more fulfilled with each passing year until one spring two decades on, he was inspecting his varied flock as he did everyday, but this time there was a green shoot at the edge of a pen, poking up from the muddy brown ground as bright as any miracle. At first, he thought it must have been a piece of trash or something strewn on the ground, but the next day there were two, and soon the mountains in the distance were almost blindingly green.
No one knew why, but the world was growing again, as strangely coming back to life as it had originally died. This was, of course, reason to rejoice. They had survived and could soon venture out into a new, fresh wilderness and populate the planet once more, but Otto, himself, wasn’t so sure. A part of him looked up on this future with something close to dread. Many of the animals would not need him anymore, returning to the wild where once they stalked and bred. It was unclear whether anyone would need him any more, ever again. It was almost impossible for Otto to admit this even to himself, but a part of him preferred the world without a spring, and he began to fear for the future for perhaps the first time in his entire life.
Strangely, he was not alone. After twenty years of living in tightly controlled squalor and eating manufactured food, no one was really sure what to do next, especially the children who had grown up in this world and knew nothing else. Could they really just open up the gates and let the animals go? Could they open up the gates and just go themselves? What would they find out there and was there any reason to believe it would be better than what they had inside? It seemed that curiosity and the urge to explore had died as readily as the plants, and many wanted to continue hiding in the colony, living entirely as they were, forever. This was true mentally as well as physically. Few wondered why the plants had come back, or if they might die again at some point. Were they living in a simulation that someone had fixed? Had the alien attack been called off for reasons they couldn’t explain?
Nobody knew and few cared.
One person, however, had something of a plan. This plan was not ambitious. It was not long term. It was not motivated by any desire to improve the human race or answer any of these questions. Instead, it could best be described as a hunger and the desire to satisfy it at last. After the grasslands had returned enough for the cows to graze and more foals than adults roamed the surrounding landscape, this man came to Otto and explained that he planned to slaughter one and cook it. At first, Otto didn’t know what to say. No one had done such a thing in over two decades. For all the protocols that managed life in the compound, some of which were so strict that the penalty for a violation was expulsion, there were none for what was supposed to happen next, as if no one in a position of power had thought about the future in the first place.
Otto pondered the man’s request for three days, most of which he spent watching the cows themselves. They seemed healthy and happy, munching up the grass with glee. The foals were strong and there would soon be many more. Slaughtering one couldn’t possibly hurt. That’s what people used to do, right? Kill an animal and eat it? It all seemed so foreign these years removed, as if eating actual meat and even real fruits and vegetables had all occurred in some strange dream, or happened in another life. Could they really do that, right now?
Otto didn’t know. He resolved to ask his superior for help, but she didn’t know either and they had to go further up the chain of command, all the way to the committee that ran the colony. At first, they didn’t know how to respond any better than anyone else, as if the man had asked whether he might vacation on the moon. This was a question they had never prepared to answer, never believing the world would return to normal again. Otto watched them debate for a while, and they too reasoned that there could be no harm in killing one of the cows. Now that the grasslands were back, they could feed and reproduce as they used to, and all would be well again. At the same time, it was not likely this man would be alone in making such a request. Sooner or later, they would have to kill more cows, then chickens, then pigs, and who knew what else.
Where would it end?
They knew the answer to this question, but still could not quite believe it. It had become impossible for them to imagine a world where people roamed free, living, eating, drinking, loving, and dying where they liked. The idea was too strange and too frightening to contemplate. What would become of their ordered little lives? Sure, they lived a subsistence existence on slop, but they lived and everything was finely, finely managed. Wasn’t that the most important thing? Perhaps, they could increase the food rations a little, maybe even consider growing some actual sugar and allowing chocolate back into the world, but anything further was a clear path to anarchy, or so the committee concluded after two days of debate.
They decided the animal could not be killed, and one more thing: The person who suggested it and Otto himself must be banished. The colony could not afford such radical ideas as eating actual meat. The man was a revolutionary for simply mentioning it, and Otto himself might well have been corrupted. After all, he didn’t merely report the man. He considered the idea and thought it worthwhile enough to ask his superior. The two must go, and so Otto was forced to forsake his happy life in the compound for the wilderness once more. He stepped through the gates into another world, one which was green in reality yet dark in his mind, but he did not look back. He pressed onward, finding a little place by a stream, where he could settle down and die of starvation. Otto being Otto, this did not bother him too much, though he missed his animals. Meanwhile, humanity at the colony died a more intellectual death, though they didn’t really know it at the time and it would be decades before anyone asked to eat a piece of meat again.