The Digital Garden

Written for the Lainchan Spring Festival 2024

It was an odd sensation.

Hawthorne couldn't have described it even if he tried - his positronic brain simply lacked the words to do so. He felt... Floaty. Unreal. Cognizant and yet unthinking - running in a haze of half-remembered programming and subroutines. It took him a while to realize that he wasn't, for want of a better word, "active."

The sensations he felt were foreign and yet, oddly familiar, as though he recognized it in some instinctive part of his mental framework. Before his eyes he saw a vast, blue expanse, brushed with streaks of white, and it took him a few seconds to realize he was staring up at the sky. It wasn't the sky he knew, moody and perpetually slate-gray, the colour of an untuned holo-set, but Hawthorne knew, deep within his instincts, that it was the sky. Somehow, he felt, it was more "sky" than the sky he was familiar with.

A rush of air brushed against his cheeks and ruffled his hair, and Hawthorne knew it as a gust of wind, but it was unlike any wind he'd ever felt before. He knew the wind as a cold, miserable thing, but the wind he was feeling through his hair felt brisk, almost refreshing, a change of pace from the heat he'd noticed on his skin. It was a far cry from what he'd know heat to be. It wasn't stifling or destructive, but felt... Good on his skin. Like the gentle caress of soft linens. "Warm" would be the proper word for it, he realized.

The source of the warmth eluded Hawthorne for a few precious seconds, but before long, he felt his head slowly turning, an odd, but far from unpleasant brushing feeling underneath it, and he nearly had to close his eyes from the glare. A great, yellow-white ball of fire in the vibrant, blue sky pierced his eyes, and Hawthorne pulled his gaze away, the blazing, magnificent light still in his eyes. He knew what this was, he knew it in his very being that this was something he recognized, though he'd never seen it before in his life, and didn't know what it was called. It was something deep. Something instinctive telling him what he'd looked at, though, a flash of frustration shot up his neck, not knowing for the life of him the name to give that great ball of light.

That's when the gears in Hawthorne's head started to click, and he realized the reason he had been looking at the sky. He'd simply been laying down. Instinctively, he pushed himself up off his back, feeling the brushing softness beneath his hands, and found himself struck dumb at what he saw.

All around him was a wide, rolling verdant scene, hills covered in a strange, yet comfortingly familiar green, peppered with strange objects, bursts of colour, reds, yellows, whites, violets, mounted ontop of green stalks, all of it underneath that brilliant blue sky. Hawthorne just found himself completely awed at the sight. It was an utterly alien environment, yet it felt familiar, almost comforting in some strange way he couldn't explain. It was something instinctive in his mind. Somehow, he mused, it felt like he belonged.

Hawthorne couldn't say for certain how long he just sat there in the green, staring intensely at the scene before him, underneath that brilliant light and warm, comforting heat, punctuated by drifts of wind that ruffled up his hair and ruffled the green, causing the scenery itself and the strange, colourful things to sway gently in the breeze. He only really recognized that time had passed when he'd heard a familiar beeping noise, and opened his eyes to find himself staring up at the familiar ceiling of his apartment, the beeping noise in his ears telling him he was done recharging his batteries, and that it was time to get to work.

He found himself moving in an odd trance, unsure of what exactly it was he'd experienced. He found himself drifting towards the window, hands planted down on an empty table, just to see if it was real, but it wasn't. Hawthorne could only see the familiar sight of sprawling streets and titanic tower blocks out the window, bursts of neon light everywhere he looked, punctuated by the persistent, aggressive downpour cascading from the slate-gray sky.

He blinked, and rubbed his eyes. The scene of the city before him felt... Strangely unreal. He would have called all the neon and glimmer "colourful", and he would technically have been correct. There was a cascade of bright, colourful lights outside his window, but they suddenly felt very... False. That was the only word that came to mind. They felt less real than what he'd just seen...

Hawthorne found himself going through the motions of his morning routine, marching around his messy apartment looking for the briefcase, suit, and hat he'd always took with him to work, giving it little thought, the image of what he'd seen proving difficult to dispel from his mind. He'd dressed himself and combed his dark, messy hair in the mirror while being only halfway in reality, the only thing bringing him back to Earth was a glimpse of the three-pointed Ψ symbol edged into his forehead. The letter psi. The symbol of the thinking machines.

Similar to humans in many ways, different in most others, and visually quite similar - were it not for the psi in his forehead, Hawthorne would be effortlessly mistaken for human. It made him think for a bit. Was that strange sensation he'd experienced a part of his programming, or was it something more, something buried deep within the neutral networks of his positronic brain?

Hawthorne thought about it all morning, from his egress from the apartment building he lived in, to his walk to the train station, and all throughout his journey to work, staring distantly into the neon-lit cityscape outside the train window, his positronic mind still thinking about the verdant hills he'd seen.

It still occupied his mind as he stepped off the train and exited the station, raindrops battering off his umbrella as the thoughts bounced around his mind, as he walked to his workplace. It wasn't a hard building to miss. The Ministry of Knowledge was a titanic, trapezoidal superstructure the size of an entire city block, high enough that it's peak disappeared somewhere in the fog, constantly lit up with light behind its windows - even in the dead of night. Work here never truly stopped.

As Hawthorne walked up the stairs, he found himself reading off the building's slogan, embedded in a massive iron plate above the gigantic doors. It read, "THE ONLY GOOD." in harsh, block capitals, and he found his thoughts drifting momentarily from fields of green, thinking about his workplace instead. It was an impossibly vast bureau of bureaus, ostensibly dedicated to the mass accumulation and storage of all knowledge, but in practice, despite having been literally built for his job, Hawthorne couldn't say for certain exactly what it was they did here.

By the time he plugged into his terminal, somewhere in the labyrinth of offices on the 317th floor, he still didn't really have an answer to that question. What he seemed to do here was process, verify, and archive streams of raw factoids coming in through his dashboard.

Exactly where the facts came from, he'd never been told, and today, of all days, he found himself not exactly concerned with it, his positronic mind still focused on the verdant field he'd seen, at once perturbed and oddly entranced, and it bounced around in his mind like a rubber ball, a burning, very distracting feeling somewhere in his power core, and soon enough Hawthorne realized he hadn't been paying attention to his work at all. As a matter of fact, he hadn't processed a single fact in an hour.

A realization crept up his metal spine like a spider made of glass, making his synthskin stand on end. He needed to tell someone. It felt like he was going to explode.

Hawthorne would get the opportunity soon enough. A short visit to the office oil cooler was all it took, and he'd noticed another colleague of his there, leaning against the wall, sipping from a plastic cup with a distant look in his eyes. An acquaintance of sorts. They'd spoken a few times on a project before, and Hawthorne could remember who he was after a few seconds. Ash was his name, and there was a bit of an odd look in his eyes, a flash of embarrassment shooting up his neck as he'd realized he'd been staring at his colleague with a restless look on his face.

"Yes?..." Ash said, and Hawthorne found himself clearing his throat. The man was another thinking machine, like him, with the letter psi etched into his forehead, and was built with sandy blond hair, as opposed to Hawthorne's dark brown, and his face was constructed to look a bit younger as well. "What is it?"

"Do you have a minute to talk?" Hawthorne asked.

"What about?"

"Something personal."

That certainly piqued his curiosity. The odd, almost annoyed look on Ash's face shifted, and Hawthorne could practically hear a lever go *THUNK!* as an expression of strange interest came on the other android's face. "How personal is it?"

Hawthorne found, after a few seconds of awkward silence, he didn't really know how to answer that question, and just decided to start talking instead. Every single detail about his experience, what he'd seen, how it felt, he laid bare - or, at least, he tried to. He wasn't built as a poet, and Hawthorne knew instinctively that he just outright lacked the knowledge to describe what he'd felt in accurate terms, but he tried the best he could.

He'd half-expected a mocking response or an accusation of lying or outright malfunction from his colleague, but by the time he was done explaining, Hawthorne found himself almost a bit shocked by the confused, yet strangely sympathetic look on Ash's face.

"You're serious?" His colleague asked, concern and earnestness on his tone.

Hawthorne found himself taking a deep breath - another instinctive gesture programmed into his systems - "Serious." He responded. There was a long, awkward pause in the air. "Do you think I'm malfunctioning?" Hawthorne found himself asking, and, immediately after, felt like an idiot for doing so.

"I..." Ash just tugged on his necktie. "I don't know. It's certainly a possibility, but..." There was another awkward silence between the two thinking machines. "I've never heard of anything like this happening before..."

"Mind if I interject?" Came a third voice, somewhere behind Hawthorne, and both androids turned over towards the doorway. A surprised look came onto Ash's face, and an anxious look onto Hawthorne's, as they saw a lady standing in the doorway, who, by the looks of things, had been eavesdropping on their conversation. She was dressed similarly to the two men, the only real difference switching out the slacks for a tube skirt that emphasized her hips, and her auburn hair was cut into an austere bob, but what had really caught Hawthorne's eye was what she didn't have. Her forehead was completely unadorned - she was a human.

"Go ahead..." Hawthorne found himself speaking without thinking, more surprised than anything else.

"It sounds like you had a dream." The human responded. 'Mari', by the nametag on the front of her blazer. Hawthorne found himself taken aback, an intrigued, but worried look on his face. He knew what dreams were. Ambitions, desires, wishes, the things you'd wanted to do with every fibre of your body, but what Mari said had sounded... Different.

"What do you mean by, 'dream?'" Hawthorne asked.

Mari raised an eyebrow. "Androids don't dream?"

"We have ambitions." Hawthorne replied.

"Not that sort of dream." The human shook her head. "Literal dreams. Like, when you go to bed at night. Or, I guess your charging stations."

That just confused both thinking machines. "That... Scene." Hawthorne mused. "It was a 'dream?' "

"Dreams are images and emotions you experience while asleep." Mari explained, which just made a shiver go up Hawthorne's spine. Androids didn't 'sleep' in the same way humans did. At most, they went into a low-power state in order to recharge their batteries for a few hours.

Until last night, Hawthorne would have described the experience as a 'lack of' experience. It was a 'nothing.' Everything except the most basic regulatory functions of his positronic brain were shut down to preserve power. The idea of having... 'images and emotions' in that state was a concerning one.

"Do you think it's a malfunction?" Hawthorne asked, and, to his surprise, Mari shook her head.

"I don't think so." She responded. "I think if you were malfunctioning, you'd be seeing something a lot more..." She put a finger to her temple. "Malfunctional. Your dream sounded coherent to me, but I don't know why an android would dream about flowers."

"Huh?" Both thinking machines responded in unison, and Mari looked surprised at that.

"You don't know what flowers are?"

Hawthorne just shot her a slightly irritated look. "Evidently not."

"Well, flowers are..." She needed to pause for a second to think of how to describe it to the metal men. "They're plants - living things - that grow in the soil and blossom in colour."

"Living things?" Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. "Like humans?"

"Yes and no." Mari explained. "They're alive, but they're nothing like a human. They're a lot simpler."

"I've never seen one before." Ash cut in, his face odd, yet at the same time curious.

"That's because they don't really grow in the city." Mari responded. "There's a few rich humans who keep them as curiosities, but that's about it..."

At that, Hawthorne felt a sudden burning sensation at the back of his throat, and, probably to the shock of poor Mari, began to hound the human with questions about his dream, and all the elements within it. Through his probing, he learned a few odd things.

The verdant green he'd sat on was called "grass", and it was a plant, like flowers, but a very different kind of plant. She also told him there were more kinds of plants than just flowers and grass - there were trees, ferns, and shrubs as well, but he hadn't seen any of those in his dream.

The reason the sky in his dream was blue was because the sky was blue on a clear day, which never happened in the city anymore. The white streaks on it were what clouds looked like when it wasn't rainy. The great, radiant ball of light and heat in the sky was The Sun, and it was what, behind the rain clouds, turned night to day, and day to night again by its absence.

The biggest question on Hawthorne's mind, however, was why he just sat there, watching flowers and grass sway in the breeze. It puzzled Mari, and it especially puzzled Ash, and Hawthorne himself was puzzled even more by the answer the human eventually gave him.

"Maybe you just liked it?" She said, and it would ring in his head all day at work, all afternoon on the train, and all night in his apartment, until, finally, he turned in for the night, plugging himself into his charging station and entering low-power mode, wondering if he would have that strange dream again.

It was a long time before Hawthorne recognized that strange feeling again. The unreality of it all, the strange weightlessness of it all, and the brilliant, blue sky before his eyes.

He gasped, pushing himself up in shock, and finding himself infront of that same scene again, suddenly needing to breathe in deeply. The air. He'd realized. The air here feels different. Sweet, almost. It felt sweet, especially in comparison to the stagnant, acrid air of the city, and it felt... Real, in some strange way he struggled to describe.

It was the same scene as last night. A verdant, rolling hillscape of idyllic, green grass, swaying gently in the breeze that ruffled up his hair. There were flowers poking out from the grass every which way Hawthorne looked, a dazzling rainbow of blooms all stretching out towards the sun, sticking out from the green in a rainbow of colours, and an odd feeling crawled up Hawthorne's spine as the realization hit him. Everything was alive. All of it. The grass and the flowers were all living things, life in every direction Hawthorne could look. Life everywhere... But himself.

He was a thinking machine. He was reminded of that every time he looked in the mirror. He hadn't ever felt out of place in the city, and he'd quickly realized why. The city was like him. It was a machine. It wasn't alive, in the way humans were or the way flowers were. It was given movement and light and action by the ingenuity of mankind, but it was not alive. It was... Difficult to reconcile, and even in a dream, Hawthorne still found that strange, programmed instinct to tug at his collar impossible to ignore.

The brilliant blue sky, the sun gently caressing his synthskin, the wind blowing through his hair, the rolling hills and all the flowers stretching out towards the sky, all of it was... Strangely comforting, but he couldn't shake the feeling of... Not belonging. The android felt like the odd one out in this strange place, and it was making him restless.

Although Hawthorne somehow knew that restless feeling wasn't the only reason he chose to stand up, and start walking, it was certainly a part of it. In a way, he also felt quite curious, and it suddenly occurred to him that he should find out what else lay in his dream. The android stepped down from where he'd been sitting, and walked carefully down the hill, diligent to not crush any of the blossoms with his shoes, and found himself wandering aimlessly throughout his odd, life-filled dream, staring wistfully at the flowers as he passed, and trying to suppress that awful feeling of not belonging.

Soon enough, Hawthorne came down the slope of a large hill and found, at the bottom, a sudden change in the scenery. The rolling hills gave way to flat, significantly less flowery fields, and soon enough that gave way as well to sand and a massive, flowing body of water infront of him, reminiscent of the city's canals, yet... Different. Certainly more visually appealing - the canals were a persistent murky colour, while the flowing water here seemed to reflect the colour of the brilliant sky overhead, and was pure enough that, in the shallower places, he could see the sand beneath. At the opposite side of the water, the world was completely different, dominated by massive, towering things of bark and leaves, and Hawthorne's eyes went wide in surprise when he recognized them from what Mari had said - those were trees, and they completely shadowed the opposite side of the rough, flowing water.

At first, Hawthorne found himself conflicted, unable to figure out what to do, but then soon enough, he found himself instinctively sitting down by the water, taking in a deep breath of the crisp, wet air coming off it as it flowed, and just sitting there, watching it all, momentarily forgetting his restlessness and feelings of not belonging here, and watching the water flow, and the trees on the other side sway gently in the breeze.

The android momentarily lost track of time, and couldn't say for certain how long he'd spent there at the edge of the water, but soon enough, something caught his eye. In the treeline, obscured by the shadows, Hawthorne could see a figure, and his eyes flashed wide in alertness. Someone had been watching him.

More to the point, he'd realized, a restless, but curious look coming onto his face, someone else was in this dream, too. Urgency in his motion and listlessness in his eyes, Hawthorne quickly stood up, but just as he was about to call out, he'd heard a familiar beeping in his ears, and realized that he was reaching towards the ceiling of his apartment.

That restless, listless feeling didn't fade with the passage of the day, and the concerns of his work fell a distant second to the burning question on his mind. Who was that? The figure was human - or, humanoid, at any rate - but the android was unable to get a good look before being forcefully ejected from his dream.

All throughout the day, it weighed heavily on his mind. The fields filled with life, the rushing water, the brilliant, blue sky, and the figure in the shadows. He didn't even try paying attention to his work, and neither did he find any opportunity to confide with his colleagues at what any of it meant - somehow, he feared, they wouldn't know either.

That restlessness Hawthorne felt burning inside his systems hadn't faded by the end of the day, and the android found himself both unwilling, and entirely unable to go home with a question like that weighing on his mind. So, when he descended from the stairs of the Ministry of Knowledge, the android found himself walking in the opposite direction of the train station, and letting his positronic mind run rampant thinking about his dreams.

Compared to the sprawl of the city, the rolling, verdant landscape of his dreams was like night and day. The clear, blue sky was at first alien, and almost uncomfortable, but now Hawthorne found himself wanting nothing more than to see it, and feel the gentle caress of the warm sun on his synthskin. Right now, all he could feel was the battering down of rain on his umbrella, and for whatever reason, it always seemed to rain in the city, and on the rare occasions it wasn't rainy, it was merely gloomy instead.

The dense, tightly packed city streets and titanic buildings and roads and walkways overhead felt claustrophobic and stifling compared to the open hills, and that was before factoring in the press of bodies and mob of voices, each one indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd.

The city as a whole felt drab and dull, and even with the glimmer and shine of neon and argon every which way, signs and screens and displays of all sorts, in every colour, in every variety enticing people to spend and buy, yet it all felt less colourful than the field of flowers Hawthorne had seen in his dream. It was an odd, wistful feeling of longing that came over him like an acrid smoke. He'd felt... Deprived, almost. Deprived of something he'd never even known he'd needed until two nights ago.

The restless android wandered the city for hours, going from street to street, back alley to back alley, as the sky overhead went from gray to dark, and the city went from bright to absolutely dazzling, a haze of stark white and neon pinks, purples, and blues that he'd once had little opinion on, but now felt stifling and harsh. Hawthorne rested his back up against the concrete wall of a neon-lit alleyway, just watching the people go by with a terrible longing clear on his face, and tiredness in his gaze. He wanted to go home, and was about to do so, when he'd noticed something out of the corner of his eye.

One of the signs, a glimmering neon signal in a sea of neon, stood out among the crowd. Two days ago, Hawthorne wouldn't have known what to look for, but now it stuck out like a blown fuse. Hanging over one of the doors was a sign that read "Buddy Florist", and the android wouldn't have given it a second thought had he not noticed the symbol right above it. It was heavily stylized, but Hawthorne recognized it immediately. It was a rendition in purple light, of a flower with five petals, and he found himself dashing into the shop like an android possessed.

A bell rang as he entered the shop door, and Hawthorne found himself stunned at what lay before his eyes, his joints locking up and his power core buzzing underneath his chest. The store was everything he'd been hoping to see - row upon row of flowers, in every colour, of every shape, in earthenware, glass, and even a few metallic pots, kept under odd, ultraviolet lamps, and a persistently misty atmosphere. The android just found himself struck dumb, staring at it all, taking everything in, unsure of what to do or say until he heard a pair of footsteps behind him, and a voice saying-

"Now, that's a sight for sore eyes..."

"Hm?" Hawthorne slowly turned around to face the man behind him. Another human, his forehead unadorned by the sign of the thinking machines, but covered in wrinkles, with a neatly trimmed white beard and thinning white hair. The man looked old and worn down, but oddly, Hawthorne mused, rather pleasant for it. Or, that may just have been the wistful smile on his face.

"I've seen a lot of people come by, but I don't think I've ever seen an android walk into my shop before..."

The feeling of unbelonging shot up Hawthorne's psyche again, and the android could feel the *tick-tick-tick* of his internals, an uncomfortable expression coming onto his face. "I don't think I would have..." He admitted, letting the words trail off just a bit.

"Well," The old man just shot him an endearing smile. "You let me know if I can help you find anything, alright?"

Hawthorne just found himself wandering through the small, but densely packed florist's shop, losing track of time, a familiar, comforting feeling coming over him, like what he'd felt in his dreams, only slightly tarred by that... Something at the back of his mind, ticking away like a metronome, the gears in his positronic head telling him he didn't belong in a place like this, and it was difficult to shake entirely.

He took in a deep breath of the misty air - another odd instinct programmed into his mind, and found it smelled... Bizarrely sweet, but... A small smile came onto the android's lips. It was far from unpleasant. In fact... Hawthorne just found himself laughing a bit. He quite liked it.

"Excuse me..." The android found himself wandering towards the shop's counter, a sudden burning question on his mind. The owner turned away from his terminal with an expectant look on his face. "Mister..."

"Cerris." the old man introduced himself.

"Well, I've been wondering..." Hawthorne let that hang in the air for a moment. "Exactly what do people buy flowers for?"

"Usually decorations." The owner explained. "Sometimes it's as an expression, a gift, or a message..." A slightly wily smile coming onto his face. "Why, did you have somebody in mind?"

"No, no..." Hawthorne just laughed a bit, an ever-so-slightly embarrassed look coming onto the android's face for reasons he couldn't quite deduce. "But... Well..." He just tugged at his necktie. "Decorations?"

"Yes, decorations." Cerris replied, and the two of them turned around, to look at all the flowers of display, a field of soft colours and shapes under gleaming, ultraviolet light. "A bit of a different sort of decoration."

"They're alive." Hawthorne found himself answering, and Cerris looked pleasantly surprised at that.

"Yes, alive." He responded. "A lot like us..."

"Not like me."

"No, I'd say a bit more like you than you'd care to admit, son." The old man replied, and the android looked surprised at that. "Flowers are a transient thing. They grow, they change, they need care, and they don't stick around forever, but there's another generation growing in their place. Plants and machines are quite different, but not so different."

Hawthorne found his eyes momentarily drifting towards the shop's windows, out towards the rain and neon covered alleyway of the city outside, and all the people walking by. "Too different to belong with eachother?" The android asked.

"I don't think so." The shopkeeper responded. "After all..." He shot Hawthorne a knowing smile. "You didn't just come in here for some idle conversation, didn't you?"

"Well..." The android just reflexively adjusted his necktie again. "I mean..."

"Hm?" The old man just raised an eyebrow, and the android took a deep sigh, letting the silence hang in the misty air between them for a few moments, wondering if he should speak of his dreams, hesitating for a moment, wondering if he was truly malfunctioning, wondering if he should just say nothing and leave the store, to forget about all of this madness, and leave that dream behind him, but he just looked all around the store, at all the flowers, all the ferns and plants, and realized that he couldn't, and, without thinking, the android just started talking.

All of it started coming out. The strange dreams, the strange, serene place, the clear blue skies and warm caress of the sun, the flowers swaying gently in the wind, the flowing body of water - which, he would learn was called a 'river', the trees covering the other side - something called a 'forest', and, finally, the strange figure, concealed in the shadows of the treeline. The old man just listened intently throughout, occasionally nodding or asking him to clarify something, and by the time Hawthorne's story was over, Cerris had a strangely contemplative look on his face, and the first question he'd asked Hawthorne was, "Are you sure this was a dream?"

The android found himself taken aback by that question, a confused, almost agitated expression on his face. "Huh?"

"Well, I don't really know for sure, but I've spoken to a few androids on the topic, and when they're on battery-saver mode, they don't really... 'dream.' "

There was a long, uncomfortable pause. "So do you think this was something else?"

"It has to have been." The old man explained. "Dreams usually don't make as much sense as what you've experienced, and..." Cerris stroked his beard, an intense look coming onto his face. "Call it a hunch, but something about your 'dream' sounds familiar, and I don't know why..."

Hawthorne just stood there, an uncomfortable expression on his face, and a *tick-tick-tick* thumping in the back of his metal head.

That night, Hawthorne found himself both nervous, and anxious to power down for the night. He had to admit, he'd enjoyed the serene, flower-covered dreamscape he'd found himself in, but the words of the old man in the flower shop kept ringing in his mind. What if it wasn't a dream? What if it was something else?

When the android saw a flash of blue, felt that familiar, weighty, unreal feeling, felt the gentle embrace of the sun on his synthskin, he wasted little time. With great care, but great urgency, he pulled himself up off the grass and sprinted down the hill, careful not to tread on any flowers, but sparing little time, nervousness burning up inside him like his power core was overloading, the *tick, tick, tick* sensation in the back of his head impossible to ignore.

He wasn't malfunctioning. He was sure of it, but if this wasn't a dream... The question kept bouncing around his head like a rubber ball. Then what was it?

The hilly, flower-covered dreamscape, now becoming quite familiar to him, soon gave way to the flat plains he'd found last night, and soon enough, Hawthorne found his way to the river he'd sat and watched, his mechanical eyes focused on the other side, looking towards the forest, trying to find the figure he'd seen last night. If anyone knew what this was, the android reasoned, that person - whoever it was - would know.

Repeating the gesture of last night, the android sat down at the riverbank, taking a deep breath of the cool, misty air coming off the water, feeling the caress of the sun on his skin, the wind in his hair, the distant chirping of some odd creature, and he began to feel at ease, that distant feeling of unbelonging, like he was polluting this place with his mechanical presence felt... Diminished.

Once again, Hawthorne briefly lost track of time, but snapped back into focus when his eyes caught a flash of movement in the treeline, and, running on pure instinct the android shot back up, an almost manic look on his face, and desperate to not wake up before he could speak. In between the trees, cloaked in shadows, Hawthorne could see the figure once again, watching him, and the android couldn't help but wonder why.

"Hey!" Hawthorne called out, reaching out towards the figure, but, to his surprise, the figure just dashed to the right, weaving in between the trees, and getting further away from him. His mind froze up, but his body acted on instinct, and ran down the bank of the river after the figure, keeping it in his mechanical eyes as it went through the trees, desperate for an answer, as all the while, Hawthorne could see the figure bobbing in and out of the trees, waving an arm, beckoning him closer.

The android had a million questions running through his positronic mind, but he found none of them mattered as he stepped onto the bridge and ran across it with great urgency, the girl from the other side mirroring the gesture as well, and in the centre, the two met, and Hawthorne's mind completely blanked out as she rushed into him, wrapping both arms around his metallic torso, laughing and smiling and making the poor android lock up in shock.

"I didn't think I'd ever meet you!" The girl said, finally letting go of the utterly nonplussed android and leaving him standing there with a blank expression on his face, not entirely sure what to think. The girl was... Odd, to say the least. She had a youthful face, an exuberant expression, and long, dark hair intertwined with vines and flowers, and wore a long, flowing dress, coloured same vibrant blue as the sky overhead, and wore an expectant, excited smile on her face, and Hawthorne found himself with a million more questions wracking his positronic mind, with one eventually sticking out above all the others and escaping his lips.

"Who are you?"

That just made the girl let loose a joyous, amused laugh, as warm and bright as the sun overhead, and an odd feeling crept up on Hawthorne - it was something about this girl, something about her that he couldn't explain. It was similar to that serene, calm feeling of watching the flowers sway gently in the wind, but starkly different.

It felt fiery, hot, like the sun above, and something about her was making him a bit antsy. "I'm Viola!" She finally responded, and, his brain freezing up, Hawthorne just found himself laughing a bit as well.

"What is this place, Viola?" Hawthorne asked as the two of them turned over towards the side of the bridge, watching the water flow beneath them, the field of flowers on one side, and the forest on the other, the caress of the sun overhead, the wind blowing their hair, and loosening the question that had been on Hawthorne's mind since the first time he'd dreamt of flowers.

"This is my garden." She introduced the dreamscape, extending an arm out towards the flowers. "Or, well, part of it." Viola turned back towards him, a sincere, warm expression on her face. "Do you like it?"

It took a long time, and a while of staring out into the river, watching the water go by, before Hawthorne could find the response. "I do." He eventually said. "It's... Comforting."

That seemed to make Viola quite happy, judging by the massive, sunny smile on her face. "I'm... Glad you like it!" She responded, laughing a bit, though, her laughter began to trail off a bit, and Hawthorne felt as though he could detect a hint of something melancholer underneath, as she stared off into the distance. "I was worried."

Hawthorne raised an eyebrow. "Worried about what?"

"Worried you wouldn't like it."

There was a long pause between them, punctuated by the blowing of the wind, and the chirping of insects somewhere far off. "Did you bring me here?" Hawthorne finally asked.

"I..." Viola just awkwardly laughed. "I don't really know myself. I think I might have, but..."

"But what?"

"But if I did..." A look of concern came onto her face. "I don't really know how. I don't know how you, of all people, came here."

"Is this a dream?"

"It's like a dream."

A small, wry smile came onto Hawthorne's face. "So, it's not, then?" He said, and that just made Viola start laughing again, though he could feel a small touch of melancholer escaping her.

"I hope you're not mad." She said.

"Why would I be mad?"

"Because I dragged you here." The girl with flowers in her hair responded. "Because I dragged you into my garden without really knowing why or how."

"I don't mind."

A light glimmered in her eyes, and Viola looked like she perked up immediately, a reassured, warm smile on her face. "You mean it?"

"It's nice here." Hawthorne elaborated. "I feel... At ease. It's something I didn't even know I needed to feel until now."

"You mean it?"

A warm smile came onto Hawthorne's face. "I mean it." He replied. "But I'm still..."

"Confused?" Viola completed his sentence, and the two of them just laughed.

"Very confused." He clarified.

"That makes two of us, I guess." She responded, a warm smile coming onto her face, as the wind blew her flower-strewn hair about. "Maybe we should..."

"Should what?"

"Maybe you should come and find me." Viola clarified. "It might answer some of your questions."

""Haven't I already?" Hawthorne joked, and Viola just smiled and rolled her eyes."

"I meant, in the world."

"Where are you?" Hawthorne asked, and Viola said nothing, but merely reached out towards him, and touched the android on the forehead, her finger pressing into the Psi symbol, and Hawthorne's eyes shot open, and he launched himself off his charging station, nearly colliding with the wall, and found himself at the window of his apartment, breathing in deeply, a glazed, intense look in his mechanical eyes, his power core buzzing in his chest like he was going to explode, and a *tick, tick, tick* in his head, so oppressive it was impossible to ignore.

The android stared out into the city, out his bedroom window, into the gloom, into the neon, into the rain, as the city gradually woke up, and knew two things. One, that he wasn't going to punch into work today, and two, he knew where Viola was.

"I'd remembered why your story sounded so familiar." Cerris said, as Hawthorne pried open the door. It was just one of many nondescript doors, in one of the city's many alleyways. Unmarked, of interest to nobody, and it would likely have stayed that way had Viola never touched his mind, and had he never rushed to the florist's shop first thing in the morning to ask for the old man's assistance. "The name of that girl jogged my memory."

"What was..." *CLANG!* went the door as Hawthorne's shoe impacted it. To onlookers, the android mused, they must have looked ridiculous - an android in a suit and an old man breaking into a place nobody heard of or cared about. "It about her name?" Hawthorne asked, delivering one final kick to the hinges, all of his anxiousness and urgency and horsepower behind it, knocking the door out of its frame and exposing, perhaps for the first time in years, the stairwell that lay beyond to the light of the city.

"I know the name - Viola." Cerris explained, as the two of them headed inside the austere, metal-plated maintenance tunnel and looked down, into the stairwell, and even with the old man's flashlight, and the high-beams coming out of the android's eyes, a cursory glance revealed dozens and dozens of levels of stairs, descending inexorably into the bowels of the city below, with no end in sight. "An associate, from back when I was a boy." He continued. "She'd wanted to cover the whole world in flowers, and one day, disappeared into the depths of the city, and nobody's seen hide or hair of her since. Plus, that dream of yours..."

The old man trailed off, and produced an worn-looking photograph from his pocket, the colours faded and the edges torn and ragged, but when Hawthorne saw it, his eyes went wide, and the android needed to summon every ounce of self-control to avoid seizing it from the old man's hands. It was the very mirror image of his dreamscape - a vast, rolling hillside, covered in flowers, beneath a brilliant blue sky, and almost instantly, Hawthorne asked, great urgency and mania on his tone, to know where Cerris had gotten it.

"Its from an old picture book my parents owned." The old man responded. This photo's old. It's older than the city, it's older than androids, and it's older than me. I don't know why Viola would make a dream like that, but I think..." He pressed the photograph into the android's metal hands. "You should hang onto it."

"Thank you."

The old man just flashed a wry smile. "It's no skin off my back, so don't worry. Now," he gestured towards the staircase. "Lets' find out where Viola's hiding."

Hawthorne couldn't help but smile at that, as the two of them began heading down the stairwell, into the chthonian depths of the city, leaving the surface world, and all its glittery neon behind them, descending into the dark labyrinths below.

"So..." Cerris broke the silence between them, as they descended further and further down the stairs, into whatever lay beyond. "How do you know where you're going."

"I just do."

The old man just shot him a slightly funny look. "How did you learn it, then?"

"I don't know how to explain it." Hawthorne responded. "In the dream, she touched my forehead, and I woke up, and I knew where she was."

"She just touched you?..." Cerris replied, stroking his beard for a few moments, before asking, "Did she download the directions onto your brain, then?"

There was another long, awkward pause between the two of them, as they kept on going further and further down, before Hawthorne asked. "Is Viola a..."

"A human? Yes, she is." Cerris replied. "Or, possibly, 'was.' I'll admit, I'm as in the dark as you are. I don't know how the Viola in your dreams relates to the Viola I knew, but I think they're different."

"How do you know?"

"Just a gut feeling..."

The two of them descended further and further down into the twisted labyrinth of steel and concrete, into that place long forgotten by both man and machine. Soon, they came to a level Hawthorne swore was where they should stop, and went through a door into a long-disused maintenance tunnel, the concrete walls chipped and worn down by the passage of time, the paint long peeled from the walls, and the floor covered in debris. There was no sound down here, but the persistent *drip, drip, drip* of something far, far off, the *clomp, clomp, clomp* of two pairs of shoes, and, the *tick, tick, tick* of the android's systems.

"Here." The android suddenly stopped in the middle of the hall, and the old man just gave him an odd look. "It's through here."

"Through where, now?" Cerris asked, and Hawthorne showed him as he planted his palm down on a section of concrete that, at a glance, looked no different from any of the others save for a small lick of white paint, and the old man looked surprised when a hand-sized section of it pressed back into the wall, and, with a loud noise of stone grinding on stone, a massive panel of the wall beside them slide back, and into the floor, revealing a secret passage, another staircase descending even further down into the earth, and a wily smile on Hawthorne's face.

The two of them went through the secret passageway, the door sliding closed behind them, kicking up dust where they went, the air musty and heavy, as though this place had been sealed for decades, but there was a far-off droning noise from ahead, somewhere off into the distance, the sound of machinery, the hum of computer equipment, the flow of liquid, and Hawthorne found himself picking up the pace, descending quicker and further down the hidden staircase into the depths of the Earth.

Finally, he and Cerris found themselves face to face with a set of heavy blast doors, made of reinforced metal and covered in dust - by the looks of things, they hadn't been opened for decades - possibly hadn't ever been opened since they were installed, and for the first time since he began his journey, Hawthorne found himself stunned and unsure of what to do.

The door was much too sturdy to break down in the same way as he had done on the city streets, and his mind went blank - he didn't know of any more secret switches to press, or any codes to input - and there was nothing to input on the door itself, even if he did.

Just when he was starting to wonder if he'd been misguided, however, the door slowly slid open infront of him, with a grinding of gears and a *PSSH!* of hydraulics, the massive metal blast door slowly slid open, and a great bloom of light began to flow forth into the hall, and both him and Cerris were struck dumb at what they saw, eyes wide, and mouth agape.

The two of them stared into what Cerris called a "massive biodome complex." A massive, hemispherical chamber, the ceiling painted blue in facsimile of the sky, and adorned with ultraviolet lamps, substituting for the sun. On the ground, Hawthorne couldn't believe his eyes, but he saw a vast, rolling range of grassy hills, terminating in a pool of water in the centre, and absolutely all of it was covered in a rainbow of flowers, an entire spectrum of colour - reds, blues, yellows, whites, purples and violets.

The android just found himself awed, and, for just a moment, he was sure that he was still dreaming. Yet, the distant hum of machinery, and the *tick, tick, tick* feeling of his systems told him that this was quite real. Not a word escaped his lips, and, in a trance, he stepped forward, into the garden, even more careful than before to not tread on any blossoms - this time, they were real - and they were more real than anything he'd ever seen in his life.

"Do you know what this place is?" Cerris asked, trailing quickly behind the android, an odd, but very intrigued look on his face.

"I think this is her garden." Hawthorne replied. "The real one."

"Do you like it?" Viola asked, and both men paused in their tracks, a look of shock on Hawthorne's face and a surprised expression on Cerris', and the both of them turned to see a girl standing by the pool of water in the centre, dressed in the same sky-blue dress, with the same vines and flowers tied into her hair that Hawthorne had seen in his dream, and the same warm, sunny smile on her lips.

"It's..." The android took in a deep breath of the air, of this place that had never been seen by man or machine before, yet clearly, had been quite alive - more alive than anything he'd seen before in his life. There were flowers everywhere, and Hawthorne had to wonder just how many generations of flowers had lived and bloomed in this dome, in the bowels of the Earth, with no one to see their beauty, until now. "It's stunning, but..."

Viola just raised an eyebrow. "But what?"

"But this just raises even more questions." Hawthorne responded. "For one... Well..." The android couldn't explain, even on thinking about it as to why he stepped towards her and tried to place a hand on her shoulder. Maybe it was another odd, programmed instinct, or maybe, he just knew, deep down, and that may have been why he wasn't shocked when his hand passed right through her shoulder, and a guilty look came onto Viola's face. "What are you?"

"I don't really know for sure." Viola admitted. "What you're seeing is a projection. I've been able to do that in the garden, but I haven't been able to leave it..." Her speech trailed off a bit, and a distant, uncertain look came onto her face. "I don't even know what I would do if I could..."

Cerris just raised an eyebrow at that. "Fill the world with flowers?" He asked, and Viola just laughed, her voice filled with a strange, wistful longing.

"That sounds beautiful." She replied. "I don't know for sure if I could even do that, though."

"What's stopping you?" Hawthorne asked, and Viola just took a deep breath.

"I don't know." She replied. "I don't even know what I am. I don't even know for sure why I'm here. I'm sorry to have..." She just laughed a bit. "Led you on, Hawthorne-" The android's eyes flashed wide, and he wondered how she even knew his name. "But I don't know how I got into your mind, either. I'm..." Her projection mimicked taking a deep breath. "Sorry."

"Sorry for what?"

"Breaking into your mind." She replied. "Dragging you all the way down here, and not even having anything to tell you."

"Were you lonely?" Cerris asked, and the projection just nodded.

"I had my garden, and all the flowers." Viola said. "I took care of them, watered them, gave them light and nutrients, planted and replanted them, and I guess I..." She just laughed bitterly. "I guess I got a bit too wrapped up in everything to really think about why. When I found you..." She smiled, sun still shining through the cracks, but by and large, her expression looked guilty, even remorseful. "It made me think - really think, for the first time about what I was, and..." Viola just laughed again. "I guess I just put myself ahead of you, and used your mind. So... I'm sorry." She said. "I'll stop."

"I don't want you to." Came a voice, and Hawthorne looked shocked as he realized it was his own. "I never really knew I was missing before you started making me dream of flowers, but..." The android turned away, towards the garden, towards all the flowers, all the buds and blossoms and petals blooming, the colour popping out against the grass - an enclave of life, cloistered away, deep below the city. "Now I don't want it to leave. I never really knew how much I..." He took in a deep breath. "Needed this. It's comforting."

"You mean it?"

Hawthorne just, once again, tried to put a hand on Viola's shoulder, and they both laughed when it fell through. In the end, the android just ended up holding it in the air where her shoulder would have been, and said, "Yes." A smile coming onto his face. "Everything you've done down here, all of it you've been doing, it's all so... Beautiful. The most beautiful thing about it is... They both turned back towards the field of flowers. "It's all alive. It's a living beauty, and I didn't know how much I needed it before now. The city above is so..." He paused. "Drab. All of the concrete and steel, and glass, and neon, and all of it's covered in paint and coloured light and it still doesn't feel as... Real as this."

"I..." Viola laughed, and though she had a smile on her face, somehow, Hawthorne felt, the look in her eyes looked like she was about to cry. "I'm so happy..."

"I'm happy too." Hawthorne found a smile coming onto his face. "I've discovered something I didn't know I can't live without."

Though, Hawthorne didn't find out why he, of all people, started having these strange dreams, and even Viola didn't know why he, of all minds, she could link up with, but somehow, both of them felt like his was 'right', and Hawthorne ended up leaving the biodome with a satisfied smile on his face.

Viola told him to come down to visit whenever he'd like, though, Cerris suggested that perhaps the both of them should keep it a secret - at least, until the world had more flowers to go around. The systems Viola controlled didn't seem to need any assistance in caring for her garden or maintaining the biodome itself, so, with the promise to come to her aid if they were needed, the both of them left, and the heavy blast doors closed behind them, cloistering the garden beneath the city away one more time, though, Hawthorne had a feeling that he and Cerris would be far from the only visitors to the garden.

The very first thing the android did when he was back on the city streets, after carefully putting the door he'd kicked in back on its hinges, was return to the flower shop and buy a flower of his own. Cerris had been reluctant to take the android's money, but he'd insisted. The thinking machine had settled on a bunch of daffodils, their white-coloured petals looking like a constellation of stars, and the clerk had made sure he'd gotten an earful on properly caring for it.

By the time the android had returned to his apartment, it was already late in the evening, and late into the night by the time he'd finished setting up the ultraviolet lamp, and by the time it was done, he'd sat down on his charging station with a satisfied smile on his face.

The daffodils sat in an earthenware pot on the table by the window, the flash of pure white and yellow a sharp contrast to the stark austerity of the rest of his apartment, and, for the first time since he'd began dreaming of flowers, Hawthorne felt satisfied, and he felt a strange sensation inside of his systems. A *tick tick tick* in his circuits, but it was far from an unwelcome one. It felt almost cathartic, and wondrous to know, to see, to feel something alive, and growing in his apartment for the first time.

"Do you really think it could work?" Viola asked.

Hawthorne turned towards her, a curious look on his face. "Would what work?"

"Filling the whole world with flowers."

The android just found himself pleasantly laughing at that. "Maybe." He replied. "It might take a long time to do, though..."

There was a long pause as the two of them just sat together, in the grass, underneath the brilliant blue sky and the gentle caress of the sun, feeling the wind blow through their hair, watching the grass and the flowers gently sway, watching the clouds slowly move, and turning, occasionally, towards eachother to talk.

"Why'd you bring it up?" Hawthorne asked, and Viola laughed, and a small smile came on his face. Just hearing that laugh, just seeing the smile on her face, watching the wind blow through her hair, watching the sun play off her face. It was an odd sensation.

"Your friend asked me about it, remember?" Viola replied. Odd. That was the word to describe what he was feeling. It was like the feeling of peace and serenity he felt watching the flowers, but utterly unlike it. Watching the flowers made him feel restful. Watching Viola made him feel restless. The flowers cooled him down, and Viola heated him up. Neither feeling was bad - far from it, but Hawthorne felt like he understood the flowers, but... He caught a glimpse of the smile on Viola's face, and felt a pulse in his power core. "Ever since then..." She continued. "I've been thinking about it. It sounds nice, if a bit..."


"I was going to say, 'crazy', but that works too." She replied. "Do you have any idea how to do that?"

"Plant a bunch of flowers everywhere?" Hawthorne just shrugged his shoulders.

"I was thinking a few trees, too." Viola added. "But do you think there's even enough room for flowers and trees up there in the city?"

"I think so." Hawthorne replied, suddenly pausing as Viola drew closer, laying down on his shoulder, his brain suddenly shorting out and his power core picking up in intensity as she did. An odd look came onto Hawthorne's face, and Viola picked up on it, the flower-haired girl's expression momentarily turning concerned.

"Is something wrong?"

"Nothing." Hawthorne found himself saying without thinking. "Nothing's wrong." Viola went back to laying down on him, and Hawthorne took in a deep breath. This was an unfamiliar, blazing, stifling, cloying feeling she was giving him... A smile came onto his face. It was something he liked. He liked the flowers, and he was liking Viola's presence, too.

"I think there's room for flowers in the city." Hawthorne finished his thought. "More than just 'room', actually."

"What do you mean?"

"I think..." Hawthorne took a deep breath, as a gust of wind blew through the hills, swaying the flowers and ruffling up his and Viola's hair, and an odd, but pleased expression crossed his face. "I think the city needs flowers, even if everyone in it doesn't really think about it..."


Thanks for reading this! For a while, I've been wanting to try writing some one-off shorter stories, since I usually write much longer, novel-sized stuff that is part of a series, and this was a nice opportunity to do that.

The theme for this web festival was "nature", and the host generally left it intentionally open-ended as to what exactly that meant. I'd originally thought of doing a shorter-form blog post, but it ended up turning into an entire story - mostly because I couldn't really come up with a good nature idea to write a blog post about. Although this story is part of the blog for now, if/when I end up writing more short stories in the future, I'll probably move it to its own section of the site.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this, and if you're interested in more, check out some of the other entries in the web festival, or just check out some of the other sites in the Lainchan webring.