I tucked my machete into my belt and jumped off the cliff, spreading my arms, the wingsuit expanding its flaps, catching my fall.  Below me stretched the Gardens of Eden, as we called them now, curated and cared for by strange robotic monstrosities which roamed the halls of the world’s largest greenhouse.  They didn’t appreciate visitors, being tasked with caring for specimens of the worlds plants, but they also lacked weapons, meaning that they relied on brute force to chase away unwanted visitors.

That isn’t to say they killed.  No, there’s never been a death because of those robots.  They’re creepy, and they’ll throw you back into the desert if you’re caught, out through their three ton front doors, but they won’t kill.

Tales tell of families of people that used to live inside the Gardens, hiding in the vents, but it’s been a long time since anybody’s done that.  I remember the ever-present cool touch of metal punctuated by human warmth, back when I was a child, but rats, raccoons, and snakes chased us out, their inexorable progress marked by the sharp echoes of metal scraping on metal.

Yes, now the only things that live there are robots, tending to the plants and to each other.  That isn’t to say that people have given up on taking from the Garden.  We steal fruits and nuts, mostly, taking what we can, and the robots seem to acquiesce to some amount of pilfering, though their motivations are ensuring control and balance, not providing for the people living outside their walls.

Indeed, on new year’s day they placed gift baskets for us, up on their roof, with oranges and lemons and grapefruit and limes from their citrus orchards.  I only wish it was that easy the rest of the time.

Today, for instance, is my day to collect, with a backpack and a parachute to hold my collectings.  They’ve blocked up most of the closer ventilation shafts, or posted guards where possible, but with a wingsuit and an early enough start to the day, I’ll be visiting the far edge of the Gardens, there and back before night stretches on too far.

My silhouette is nearly invisible from the ground, the grey of my attire blending with the sky as the sun just cracks up over the horizon.  There’s no reason why there should be any guards towards the far edge, so I don’t worry about them too much.  It’s as if the design of the Gardens was arranged with strategic pilfering in mind, the most plentiful and most useful plants closest to the cliffs, the more exotic plants out in the rocky desert proper.

I’m at a good angle, goggles keeping the strong wind out of my eyes, and I open my chute closer to the ground than is strictly safe, not wanting to wait longer than necessary to touch down.  It’s been less than a minute since I jumped, and I start pedaling my feet as I get close, landing and starting walking in one motion, moving to one of the larger air vents, marked with a spot of paint, matte, distinct from the sheen of the surrounding metal.

Glancing around, I crouch next to it, deciding I have a little time, and fold my parachute into a sleeve sewn over my stomach.  This makes leaving less painful if I get caught.  Usually.

I take out the machete and pry the cover off the air vent, propping it back into place as I slip inside.  It’s a tight fit.  As always.  But I’m small.  It happens when you don’t eat too frequently.  With the machete back in its sheath, I squirm, backwards, down the dark duct; hands trailing behind, working with small movements of my feet to scoot inward.  When the duct branches off to the right, I scoot backwards past it, then, carefully wriggling my arm down to my hip, detach my machete, bringing it up in front of me, and twisting my body around into the new passage, machete still held in front of me.

And now I face forwards. Worming forward, using the opposite movements I’d been employing, I scootch through to another vent, this one opening into somewhat larger passageways.  Passageways with fans.  Pushing the vent until it swings up, probably designed for emergency access, I climb from the squeeze and move into a crouch, reaching into my pocket for a small radio emitter once taken from a deactivated maintenance robot.  Switching it on, I move towards the first fan, a small green light shining above it in the dim metal cave.  The corners of the air ducts are imperfect, and light peeks in through them, but the sun is still rising, and I have to navigate through the fans near-blind.

Thankfully, the radio I switched on stops the blades temporarily, most useful for sneaking in or for routine maintenance, the latter of which I had no interest in.  The small green light blinked about 13 or 14 times before turning red, meaning the fan had spun down.  I feel my way towards the metal assembly and ease past the fan blades, repeating the process with the other fans.  Once past them, I switch the radio off again.  No need to be broadcasting signals out, even if they can’t necessarily pick them up.

The vent on the far side of the fan passageway is shut, meaning that the greenhouse outtake went through this passage before releasing the moist air from the interior out to the sun-dried sands.  I check the vent and see it has the same swinging mechanism as the last and swing it up, replacing my machete at my belt before hurrying into the semi-humid channel.  It’s between the sizes of the first and the second, so I can look over my shoulder somewhat as I enter, lowering the vent back, carefully, with my foot.

I don’t know how fast humidity can escape, but I do know that leaving it open would most certainly attract the attention of one of the denizens.  Now the duct Ts, with the dawn light drifting in from numerous vents.  I, making sure to be quiet, crawl forward to the first vent.

Just my luck, one of the robots is watering across the room.  It looks like a scarecrow of sorts, one of the ones that stand in the drying fields at the top of the cliff, a thin body with two arms, one sprinkling water on the plants, the other acting as a counterbalance, keeping its base firmly under it.  As it finishes each cluster of plants, the base splits into two legs with wide half-moon feet.  There are no concrete paths, so its feet are designed not to sink into the dirt.  All of its inner workings are covered only as much as necessary, with solid plastic curves protecting the plants from its gnashing gears.

It’s watering wildflowers, moving slowly but surely, navigating so that its counterbalance arm doesn’t swing into the saplings that have started growing in between the little bursts of yellow and pink.

I back from the slats and continue along the duct, taking glances out the vents, looking for an unoccupied section of greenhouse, as well as for the fan-like spread of ginger leaves.

After all, I came all the way up here to dig up some roots; I want ginger and ginseng primarily, but anything that looks familiar will do in a pinch.  Most of the spices are kept in this general area of the Gardens because they’re ground seedpods and other reproductive necessities, the distance from the cliffs, making them harder to gather.  This also means that they’re more expensive, and, if I get a ginger root, for example, I might be able to trade it for enough to feed me for a couple weeks.

That’s part of why I’m here.  The other part is that our storehouse was raided and the leaders of the village asked for somebody to help replenish what was lost.  That could help feed me for a month.  If I succeed.

So I crawl around the vents, passing many rooms.  There are rooms full of ferns, with trees stretching up to the ceiling and blocking most of the light, and one of these rooms has a robot that mimics a tree, dripping water from its furthest branches.  Another room has a smaller mushroom-like robot touching flowers gently with wide feelers stained yellow from the pollen.  Having seen one from up close, I can say that each feeler has dozens of what appear to be insects molded into the metal, the legs snagging the pollen.

Robots in other areas also pollinate the flowers manually, but probably the most interesting time I’ve seen them was when hiding out in the desert during a night raid, when robots hanging from the ceiling, barely lit by moon, used their asymmetrical wings to fly, lopsided, from cactus to cactus, slurping up the nectar in their flowers, brushing pollen from place to place with their bushy, wiry chests.  Each was similar, but none of them were quite the same.

Something about bugs must disturb the robots, but they seem to know that bugs have evolved perfectly to counterpoint plants.  The robots mimic insects, but I can’t think of a single time when I’ve seen an actual insect inside the Gardens.

Moving onward through the ducts, I eventually find what looks like ginger.  It looks like there might be ginseng inside as well, but it’s hard to tell without getting a good look.  I scan the room, looking for any robots that might be lurking in the corners, but I don’t see anything.

I push the vent up some, peeking out, and then more, not seeing anything straight below me.  I whistle, softly, just enough to catch the attention of a robot that might be hiding beneath the cover of the leaves.  It’s not so much that I want it to know I’m here as much as I want to know if it’s there.

There’s no movement.  Pushing the vent all the way up until it doesn’t swing down again, I pull the front of my body out of the duct, keeping a grip on the edge of the duct.  My back is bent upwards, and I take another quick scan before I spin around, back to the room, and let my back end slide out, my knees and hands on the edge of the duct.

Tucking in, I squeeze my feet past the edge and let them fall.  Now I dangle from the duct, and, glancing down to check my landing spot, I drop, bending my legs when I hit to try to soften the blow.  Landing in a crouch, I look around again.  Nothing.  Good.

I sneak over to what I thought was ginseng.  Looks like not.  The leaves are oblong, but they don’t have any sawtooth on the edge, instead they’re just smooth.  Better not chance it.  The ginger looks right, though.  Long smooth leaves.  I pull out my machete and use its flat edge to dig some dirt near the base of one of the ginger plants.  Root looks right.  Like a reed doll that’s hardened and grown too many limbs.

I dig the whole root out and cut off the greenery, swinging my backpack off and depositing the unburied treasure into it.  After digging up two or three more roots, I have plenty of space in my backpack, but start zipping it up anyways.  Greed is not rewarded in the Gardens of Eden.

A door opens as the zipper hits home, and I move lower, hiding beneath the leafy greens, slipping my arms into the straps of my backpack.

There’s a robot in here with me.  Not good news.  I wonder if I’ve already overstayed my welcome.  If I was even welcome to begin with.  I peek up through the leaves.  It’s a shambling mass of gears and rods, vaguely resembling a mountain in overall shape.  Its lack of specialization means it’s probably less useful for tending to plants and more useful for moving dirt.  Dirt and intruders.

It’s unusual, considering the amount of ginger growing in this room, that’d it’d be on the short list for extra protection.  Perhaps it’s the other inhabitant of the room, the almost-ginseng, that’s precious.  Either way, this was not good timing.

I try to stay still, looking through the cracks in the leaves to keep an eye on the mountain.  It stays still, but something brushes my hand.  There’s a root next to it, some strange one I don’t know the name of, smooth and fleshy.

I chance some movement to move my head closer, but it’s still just as strange to me.  Moving my hand slowly, I use two fingers to start to pick it up.  I just lift it off the ground when something snaps shut around my wrist.  A robot unburies itself, my hand in its jaws, making high pitched squeals.

It vaguely resembles a beetle, but its head unhinges from the front of its body and moves up, to the top of the creature.  The mountain sounds, low and long, a confirmation, and the beetle starts skittering towards it, pulling me along with it in a very uncomfortable half-stumble.  I reach the mountain, it grabs me, and the beetle runs back on tiny legs to fix the hole it made in the ground.

I see now that the mountain’s feet were too big, liable to trample the delicate plants if it tried to catch me itself.  Its hands, strong and deft, hold my arm, and it pulls me along as a parent would lead a child.  Into side passageways we go, passing numerous robots as we navigate the facility, a maze of small paths.  The mountain is almost too big for the passages, and we have to stop to let other robots past.

We walk for at least an hour, and I start to think about the people waiting for me.  It’s getting towards noon now, and I expected to have at least started back.  After all, despite the short trip down, it easily takes most of the day to hike back up the cliffs.

If I’m missing, it’ll take them until near nightfall to even worry.  By that time, they’ll have to either chance a night time rescue, or wait until the next morning to set out and find me.

It’s not like I’ve never been caught before, but it’s always a pain, and usually I have somebody going along with me to report back or to help me get back.

As I said, the robots don’t kill, but they’re not nice enough to forgo punishment altogether.  That is likely where I’m headed presently.  I expect it’ll be painful enough to keep me away for a week or two.

I drag my feet some, trying to resist at least a little bit, and the mountain picks me up, placing me on its back.  At least I don’t have to walk, I suppose.

In time, I realize that the mountain has led me in a giant loop, probably just wasting my time.  Still, it continues on.

Late afternoon it finally stops in front of a door, opens it, and drops me inside, on a chair, sitting in an otherwise empty room.

A tall, thin, elegant robot steps into the room.  The Mistress of Pain, we call it.  It looks almost human, but only in silhouette.  It recognizes me, as I was in a similar room not five months ago.  Bringing its sculpted “face” up close to mine, it shakes its head in artificial disapproval, wagging one of its numerous fingers in my face.

The other arm stretches back, and, without any noticeable shift in its body, it punches me, hard, in the gut.  The parachute I packed mitigates it somewhat, but not enough to make it inconsequential.  The Mistress of Pain beats the breath out of me, over and over again, until my stomach starts coloring from bruises upon bruises.

When it finishes, it grabs me by my arm, pulls me, much more forcefully than the mountain, through the halls to the front doors, crushes my forearm somewhat in its grip, and tosses me into the desert.

I still have the ginger, but I’m not in much shape to move.  Instead, I watch the sun set, the darkness coating the sky.