A World Full of Monsters

Table of Contents

Chapter 9
Tree People

You know that saying about how all publicity is good publicity? Yeah, that’s bullshit. But even though most of the press we get is bad, it has done one good thing for us: It made us the first and only lab anyone thinks of when genomodding or anything to do with zipper theory comes up. Which is sometimes a good thing, because people know who we are and just accept us as experts in the field – we are – and so when they need to ask someone about something we’re the ones they want to ask. Which has been really good for our business…but not always so great in other ways.


It was a miserably hot, overly bright summer day and the lab’s air conditioner was working overtime. The specimen room was fine, of course – it’s fully climate controlled on its own separate system with a backup generator – but the rest of the building was sticky and miserable. Hana had relocated to the specimen room too so she wouldn’t overheat, Pete and Joey were out, and Dave and I were cranky and sticky and sniping at each other. I answered the phone when it rang with the bare minimum of politeness. “GenoMod Labs.” They wanted to speak to Dr. Darlene; I almost played along, then decided not to. “You mean Dr. Darling? You’ve got him, what can I do for you.”

That was when the babbling started. And it kept going for a good five minutes, and finally I found an opening and cut it off. “Okay, this person is where? And you’re sure it’s not a costume…oh, okay. Well, I’m not sure, to be honest – I didn’t think that was even possible, ma’am. Yes, I can do that…no, it’s no problem, we’re just an hour or so down the coast from you, I can be there this afternoon. Is she…violent?” I had to hold the phone away from my ear as a result of that squeal, and I saw Dave’s eyebrows go up. Once she’d stopped, I brought the phone back. “I’m sorry, that’s just a thing we have to ask, I didn’t mean to upset you…no, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. I’ll get one of my coworkers and we’ll be down there in about an hour…no! No, please don’t do that, at least not yet. Because we have to make sure it’s safe, ma’am – we don’t know what kind of transformation is going on there, and someone could hurt her if they try to interfere…yes, exactly. Let us come see what’s going on first, then you can let other people know…yes, because making sure she’s safe is the most important thing. Now if you could give me your address…one-one-six?” I speed-typed into the map app, zeroing in on the address she was giving me. “Okay, got it. My associate Dr. Montoya and I will be there in an hour give or take, depending on the traffic. Okay Kathy, just sit tight and don’t let anyone get close to her, we’ll be there soon.”

I disconnected and sent the map directions to my cell phone, then put my computer to sleep and stood up. “Shut down and come on, Dave, we’ve got something to go look at and the SUV has air conditioning.”

He was already shutting down. “What kind of mod is it this time?”

“Plant-modded human,” I threw over my shoulder, and grinned when he spluttered. I pulled a clean shirt out of the lab closet and changed, tossed another one to him. “Yeah, I didn’t know anyone could do that either. I’m also pretty sure nobody should have, let’s just hope they used a perennial and not an annual.”

He put the shirt back into the closet and picked a different one. “That was Pete’s, I don’t want his cooties. She was sure?”

“It’s her daughter. In their backyard, apparently taking root.”

“Hopefully they aren’t renting.” Dave had on his own clean shirt now, and he went to grab the travel laptop bag while I poked my head into the specimen room and told Hana we were going; she was playing a game online and just waved me off, so I texted Joey and Pete and then we were off.

The SUV has very nice air conditioning, and we were almost sorry that the traffic was so light we hit our destination in around forty-five minutes. We’d gone a little higher up in altitude, but it was still just stupid hot outside and getting out of the SUV was like stepping into an oven from a refrigerator. Kathy met us at the door; I got the feeling she’d been running from the front door to the back yard and back again ever since she’d called. She looked pretty much the same way she’d sounded on the phone, a middle-aged suburban mom type with the requisite short ash-blonde curls, brown slacks and matching patterned tunic blouse not flattering her slightly pudgy figure, and brown slip-on shoes with sensible short stacked heels. I’m not insulting her, really, but the suburban mom aesthetic they all seem to adhere to in these sorts of areas has always kind of creeped me out – it’s like they’re living in a different world than the rest of us. A weird, static world.

Kathy was practically wringing her hands. “Oh thank goodness, Dr. Darlene, thank goodness you’re here!” Suburban mom types do not swear, not even a little bit. “I…she’s out in the back yard and I don’t know what to do and I’m afraid the neighbors…”

All suburban moms are afraid of the neighbors – even if the neighbors are their friends. “It’s okay, Kathy, we’ll go have a look,” I told her. “Just call me Danny, all right? And this is Dave. You said your daughter’s name is Jane?”

“Yes, it’s Janey. I don’t know what she did to herself, but I don’t like it! You can change her back, right?”

I made a face. “Let’s go see Janey and find out what happened,” I said. “Can she talk?”

A sniff. “She wanted her phone, I wouldn’t give it to her – she wants to take selfies, I just know it.”

“Well, that’s actually a good sign,” I assured her, and then we were at the back patio doors and I could see out into the yard. “Or maybe not. Dave…”

“Yeah, maybe not.” Dave had gone wide-eyed. “Um, Kathy…how old is Janey?”

“She just turned twenty. She’s home for the summer, she’s in college.”

“What’s she studying?”

“Environment…environmental studies? Something like that, it has something to do with recycling.” Dave and I looked at each other. “Is that important? Is this something she picked up from school?”

“No, she didn’t get this from school.” I took her to a kitchen chair and sat her down, sitting down across from her. “Kathy, do you know what genomodding is?”

“It’s the name of your company.”

“Well, yes, because that’s what we do. Genomods, or just ‘mods’, are body modifications done using a genotype-altering process. It’s sort of like getting a tattoo…just a lot more altering.”

“So someone did this to Janey? Why would they do that?!”

Oh, this was not going to be fun. “Because she asked them to, Kathy. Or she could have done it to herself with a kit – you get those on the black market, sort of like buying drugs.”

“Janey doesn’t do drugs!”

“That’s…that’s good. What I meant was, the only way for this to happen is if you go to someone who does genomodding for a living – the way tattoo artists do tattoos for a living – or else you go to some shady person and buy a do-it-yourself kit. Either way, it’s a substance that gets injected into you, they give you something that will let you sleep through the transformation, and then your body changes to have the characteristics of whatever you’d wanted to be modded with. Usually some kind of animal.”

She was starting to get it, I could tell. “But Janey…Janey is a tree.”

“Yes, and I don’t know how they did that – I didn’t even think it was possible. Our lab only works with animals, we don’t do mods on humans,” I told her. “And the reason we don’t do mods on humans…is because mods aren’t reversible yet.”

I did expect her to tear up; I didn’t expect her to get up, walk to the patio doors, walk through the patio doors into the yard, and then scream. Janey the plant’s reaction to that was pretty amusing, though, because it pretty obviously scared the shit out of her. Which was another good sign. I motioned to Dave to come with me and walked out into the yard, dodging trembling vines. “Hi Janey,” I said. “Can you talk?”

The main…trunk swayed a little. “Is she going to kill me?”

“We won’t let her,” Dave assured her. “Because that would be murder. She’s just upset right now because Dr. Darling had to explain to her what a mod was. I’m Dr. Montoya, we’re from a company called GenoMod and your mom called us to come figure out what was happening to you. So did you get this done by someone, or are you another DIYer?”

Leaves rustled. “We all decided this was a good way to get people to understand what they’re doing to the planet. We’re part of the planet now, we can tell them and they’ll have to listen!”

Oh crap. “So there’s more than one of you doing this right now?” She swayed a nod. “How many? Are you all in this area?”

Another sway. “There are five of us. This is the right thing to do!”

“I’m sure it seemed that way,” I told her. “And I really do hope you’re right. But Janey…do you know if your friends are in safe places?” Her eyes got wide, and the vines trembled more. “No, I need you not to freak out on me; your mom is doing enough of that for both of you right now. But we need to find out if your friends are safe right now, Janey. Where’s your phone?”

“Mom…mom wouldn’t give it to me, I dropped it and she took it away!”

“I’ll get it. Dave, see if you can find out how deep she’s rooted.” I walked back over to Kathy, who was frantically pawing through gardening tools in a little shed next to the patio. I pulled her away from them. “Kathy, if you use those on her you’ll kill her,” I said firmly, and gave her a little shake when she shook her head. “Kathy, think! She’s a plant on the outside and a human on the inside, if you cut those vines off she could bleed to death – we just don’t know how much of that is plant and how much is Janey right now. Now where is her phone? We’ve got to find out if her friends are all right, they’re all like this and you can’t be the only parent who’s reaching for the pruning shears.”

“I took it away from her so she couldn’t…”

“I need that phone, Kathy! Her friends lives could depend on us finding them!”

A neighbor had come out, heavyset and looking more than a little suburban-stereotypical himself in a sweaty t-shirt and plaid cotton shorts.  “Hey, who are you? What are you doing to Kathy?!”

I glared at him and pointed; his eyes got wide. “I’m Dr. Darling, she called me for help when she found Janey like this. Can you come over here and help me…?”

“Jim,” Kathy volunteered.

“Jim,” I finished. “Because Janey and her friends all did this, and if we don’t find them fast someone is liable to kill one of them, because that,” I pointed again, “is scary looking.” He ran around the fence and came into the yard. “Kathy is panicking, Jim,” I told him. “She thought she could just cut the vines off.”

“You can’t?”

“Can you cut someone’s arm off?” He got between Kathy and the shed. “Perfect, thanks. Now Kathy, her phone?”

“It’s…it’s on the kitchen counter.”

I ran in and got it, seeing text messages blinking, and ran the phone back out to Janey, who immediately started texting people back. “Dave?”

“Not fully rooted so far as she can tell.” He made a face. “It was a DIY kit, and it was a custom – they didn’t request anything, the kit was given to them. As in, it was a group kit. They didn’t get it from Doc, she’s never heard of him, but she won’t say who it came from, either. And she has no idea what exactly was in there, but the leaf-identification thing I found online says part of it is definitely a tree.”

“Okay, that’s one good thing. Janey?” She glanced up. “Tell them not to root, Janey. You all may have to move somewhere else, I’m not sure you can stay here and you’re going to get really lonely without your own kind around. Are they all in this general area?”

“Yeah, everybody lives pretty close to here.” She texted – with vines, or rather fingervines. “Oh no, Jordan already rooted! He said his mom had a bunch of fertilizer down and it just happened!”

“Well, then I guess that means we’re all going to Jordan’s house. Think you can all walk there, or are we going to need help?”

More frantic texting, and then she vined me her phone and started carefully detaching herself from the yard; pulling up small roots, winding in vines. She took a step, wobbled, took two more and almost fell. Nope. I waved to Jim. “Tell me you have a truck, Jim!” Jim ran back to his house. “I think I love Jim,” I told Dave. “Janey, tell your friends to start walking or get rides to Jordan’s house as fast as possible, you probably only have so long before you have to root. Do you have any other friends with trucks?” She took the phone back and got on that, and I left Dave to help her make her way out of the yard to the truck and went back to Kathy. “Do you know her friend Jordan?”

“I…he lives a little way from here.” Instant outrage. “Was this his idea?! I told her about boys…”

“This was a group idea,” I cut her off. “And boys are the last thing you have to be worrying about right now, believe me.”

She didn’t believe me, of course, because she’s a suburban mom type and they’re constantly afraid their kids will have sex with each other because television. Or something, I never really understood it. “But why does she have to go to Jordan’s house, then?”

I got ready. “Because she needs to root somewhere, Kathy. And if she does it here, she’s going to be alone for the rest of her life. Janey and her friends need to be together, they’re all the same species now.”

“No, she can’t! She can’t go over there, she has to stay here! Janey, you stop walking and root right now young lady…”

I prayed to the suburban gods that she wouldn’t sue me later and grabbed her around the waist, hauling her bodily into the house, shoving her in the hall closet and then bracing a chair under the knob. “You’ll thank me for this later,” I lied, knowing that it was entirely possible she really did think it was best for her tree-daughter to spend her entire life isolated in their backyard with only her for company – because there were no boys there. And then I ran back out…and got knocked flying by a swinging vine. Apparently Janey could move faster if she was mad. “Janey, she’s fine, I just locked her in the closet! She’s panicking, she didn’t want to let you leave!”

“But…”

I tried to get up, and this time the vine pinned me down. By the throat, which I didn’t like very much and Dave didn’t either. “Janey, stop that!” he ordered, dodging the vine that tried to grab him too. “If you kill him, they’ll kill you – or worse, you’ll root here and be alone for the next couple hundred years. He didn’t hurt her!”

She was looming over me. “You didn’t hurt my mom?”

I shook my head. “I…wouldn’t. She’s…just scared.”

The vine let go. “A hundred years?”

“A couple hundred, possibly,” Dave corrected. “Trees live a long, long time, Janey. That’s why we’re trying to keep you and your friends from rooting somewhere alone.” He gave me a hand up. “Come on, we’ve got to get moving. We don’t want your roots to dry out, you could get sick. And we might need to use Jim’s truck for some of your friends.”

That got her moving again, and we helped her into the bed of Jim’s truck and told her to hang on tight. Dave boosted me into the middle and climbed in beside me. “Give Jim directions, Janey!” he called out the window, and then we were off.

Jordan’s house was a little farther out into the bigger lots, the kind people buy because they want to live in a neighborhood but still be able to look out a window and see woods. We helped Janey off the truck and she made tracks to the back of the house where we could just see another tree-person waving from near the back of the lot. “Thank god they’ve got room,” I said, rubbing my throat. “And he’s way out away from the house, too.”

“Yeah.” Dave was shooting me concerned looks. “Did she hurt you?”

I shook my head; they were just bruises. “She was just scared, like her mom was.” More trucks were pulling up, and I waved and pointed. “Back there, guys! And make sure to space yourselves out a little, you’ll need room to grow!” I dodged swinging vines and met up with one of the drivers. “Who are we missing? Do you know?”

She looked around. “Amy’s not here. I’ll go get her!” She hesitated, though, watching her transformed friends wade across the yard. “I…will they go back to normal?”

“This is normal for them now, I’m afraid.” Her hand went to her mouth. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen now, sweetheart, but we can’t chance one of them rooting somewhere alone. Trees can live for a long, long time.” That got me an armful of crying college student. Crap. “Want me to come with you to get Amy?”

She did, so I went – and another truck followed us, just in case we needed help or I was a pervert or something, I guess. Amy had gotten bogged down trying to cross a ditch, but we managed to pull her out before she really started to root and hauled her back to Jordan’s – in fact, we drove right into the yard and the others pulled her off and made a spot for her. From the sound she made, she’d started rooting almost immediately and the soil there was really good. Or at least I hoped that was what the noise had meant, anyway. Dave had sent Jim back to the house to get Kathy, and he’d called the cops because it was kind of a given that someone official needed to know what was going on now that the first crisis point had passed.

The police already had a cruiser out because someone had called in a 911 on walking trees, which the dispatcher had of course written off as bullshit. I felt bad for the cop when he got his first good look at them all. “What the hell…”

“It was a DIY mod kit,” I told him, and he just blinked at me. “Genomodding? Like the Central Park wolfman or the raptors in Arizona?”

“Those were real?”

Fuck. “Call someone,” I told him. “I don’t suppose you know what college these kids were all going to, do you? Their environmental science professor might know about this.”

He went to call and find out, and Dave raised an eyebrow at me. “You think it was a professor.”

“Who gave them the idea? Maybe. It seems like too much of a coincidence that Janey’s an environmental science major and a couple of the other kids are too. Think Kathy’s going to press assault charges?”

“Hopefully we can talk her out of it – or she’ll just forget when she gets here and sees all of them.”

“Janey’s mom?” It was my Amy-finder, she’d said her name was Chantelle. “What did you do?”

“She was panicking, she tried to stop Janey from leaving to come here,” I said. “I locked her in a closet in her house.”

Chantelle tried to hold the giggle in with her hand, but it didn’t work very well; she patted my shoulder. “You’re so screwed.”

“You don’t think she’ll see reason?” Dave wanted to know. She shook her head. “Well shit. And she’s the one who called us out here, too.”

“She was?” The cop was back. I nodded. “You’re Dr. Darling?”

I nodded. “From GenoMod, yeah. Kathy called us when she found Janey in their back yard turning into a tree. I’m not sure who told her to call us, though.”

He pulled my hand away from my throat, frowning. “Did she do that?”

“No, Janey did – she was scared because her mom was scared, I’m not pressing charges.”

“I’m okay with that.” He slapped me on the shoulder. “We did get someone at the phone company to confirm that you guys were called by the girl’s mother, and of course there’s that,” he waved at the circle of vine-twining, texting, picture-taking trees, “so I don’t think we’re going to have any problems. Why was it important to move so fast?”

“They were starting to root – Jordan apparently already had,” Dave explained, and then elaborated when he didn’t get it. “They were all in their own yards, Officer…and trees can live a really, really long time.” That time he got it, and he winced. “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” the officer agreed. He nodded to us both. “Let me handle it, boys. Just don’t engage with her when she gets here and everything will be fine.”

“Okay.” So we waited and a few minutes later Jim was back with Kathy, who immediately jumped out and started screeching. “Officer, arrest him, he assaulted me! I want him in jail…”

“Okay,” the officer told her. He pulled out his little book, pretended to look at something. “You’ll have to wait, though, because I’m not sure how we’re gonna take your daughter in.” He pointed at me, and her eyes widened. “He can file assault charges against her, too.”

“The bruises aren’t that dark, are they?” I asked Dave, who nodded. “Well shit, Hana’s going to freak when we get home.”

“So is everyone else,” he informed me. He raised an eyebrow at Kathy. “Well?”

She still looked pissed, but part of that could have just been embarrassment. “You won’t press charges if I don’t?”

“That’s what I got them to agree to,” the cop told her, completely deadpan; crap but he was good at this. “I’d let it go, Mrs. Adams, really I would. You called him in to help, and he probably saved your daughter’s life – your part of the edition is built on top of an old dump, remember? Trees don’t always last too long over there.”

“She’s…” She seemed to forget about us, taking a few steps toward the trees, and then she stopped, looking lost. “I don’t…I don’t know what to do.”

“Let them settle in, give everyone time to calm down, then go visit,” Dave suggested. “Just think of it as her moving out on her own…with some roommates.”

She turned around again and looked at us like she’d never seen us before. “Do you know who did it?”

“We didn’t even know it could be done,” I reminded her gently. “But we’ll try to find out, because this,” I indicated the trees, “this was very, very wrong of someone. Those kids could have died, or worse.”

Kathy winced. “They all seem to be fine right now,” Dave pointed out. “Hopefully they had a plan for keeping their cell phone bills paid, though.” He turned his attention back to the officer. “If any of them had remnants from the kit they used, we’ll need some samples,” he told him. “We had to do this in Arizona too: We can either use a local research lab here to analyze things, or someone official can come back to our lab with us to maintain the chain of accountability on the samples.”

He raised an eyebrow. “We can’t test them in our labs?”

I shook my head. “Your labs wouldn’t know what they were looking for, unfortunately, and the crime lab probably wouldn’t have the right equipment – a mass spec will only show them a few chemical traces and what looks like degraded biomatter.”

“I’ll call it in and find out what they want us to do,” he said. “You boys want to come wait down at the station?”

“We can do that,” I said. “We’ll go get our SUV and follow you when you go back. First, though,” I indicated the trees again, “what can be done to make sure they stay protected? Because there’s no way to tell how much is tree and how much is human until we can analyze the mod serum from their kit.”

The cop got on his phone to figure that out, and Chantelle’s phone buzzed. She looked, grinned, and showed me. “They changed their profile pictures on Facebook.”

Of course they had.

 

The local department really didn’t want to go into the city with us – they were short-handed and even shorter-budgeted, it would have made a bigger dent than they could afford – but after we showed the crime lab what we were doing they arranged for us to use a better-equipped lab at the college and Dave and I set up and went to work. We had remnants from three kits to work with, so first we saved some samples in vacuum sealed tubes just in case they were needed down the road, and then we started testing a sample of the remnant from each kit separately. After she verified that we knew what we were doing the lab supervisor got out of our way and just hung around in case we needed anything, and she kept the students out of the area too.

The first thing we verified was that this kit hadn’t been made by the same person who’d mixed up the kits found in Arizona. Different chemicals, different mixing process it looked like, and after a lot of back and forth on the phone to our lab and the state lab and the crime lab, we finally decided it had either come from China or Hong Kong. They were also chemicals which could pretty much only be bought in bulk, pointing to a more factory-like setup rather than a small, private lab – or to a private lab with big plans and a lot of money, but either idea was equally horrifying.

The second but only slightly more reassuring thing we found out was that the base tree used in the mod was Ginkgo biloba, which is one of the hardier trees you can plant but which can potentially live hundreds if not thousands of years. A little more digging got us the vine they’d hybridized the mix with, Dioscorea polystachya, a Cinnamon Vine yam. Which told us that the requirements for the mod had been highly specific: longevity, disease- and insect-resistance, the capacity to produce food and/or medicine, an attractive appearance and pleasant scent, and the ability to talk and teach. They’d commissioned a New Age ecological fairy tale creature. There was something else in the mix too, a trace so small we were having trouble figuring out what it was, and so Dave devoted himself to that while I went back and forth with Pete and Joey about what kind of development was likely to happen in the species and whether or not mating – yes, mating, because ginkgo trees have males and females just like people do – was going to result in fully sentient, growing tree-people or just increasingly less sentient hybrid trees.

There’s a reason nobody legitimate has ever tried this with plants, you know.

I was adding some speculation about that to the report we were putting together when Dave suddenly said the one word nobody wanted to hear. “Shit.”

I looked over at him, and he’d gone a pale grayish-green color that had me almost knocking over the stool I’d been sitting on to get to him. “Dave, what…” He pointed at the screen where the results of the last set of tests he’d run were displayed. I scanned down them, seeing insect and then some cross-matching and then finally a conclusive species match…and bile rose up in my throat. “Jesus Christ…you’re sure? It can’t be…”

Dave swallowed. “It checks out through all three samples. It’s…” he swallowed again. “It’s too small to be a deliberate inclusion, it was…it almost has to be cross-contamination.”

The lab supervisor had noticed something going on by this time and made tracks over to us. “What is it, what did you find?”

Dave shut his eyes and shook his head; I squeezed his shoulder. “They must be making this stuff in a factory sort of environment, the people with the lab background pull together the order and then they pass it down the line to a lower-skilled worker ant to do the mixing. And that person…must not have cleaned their containers and tools between batches, because this batch has cross-contamination in it.” I looked her in the eye. “There’s just enough to possibly have an effect. It’s…it’s mayfly.”

“But they…” I nodded, and she went as green as Dave. “Oh my god.”

I squeezed Dave’s shoulder harder. “Run it again…”

“I already did.”

Well, that was it, then. I went back to my phone and told the guys we had one more: Prosopistoma trispinum, 8.3 percent, on top.

I heard Pete type that in…and then on the other end of the line there was only silence.

 

We finished up the report, cleaned up our mess in the lab and thanked Judy, the lab supervisor, for helping us; Dave even told her that if she ever went looking for another job we’d be happy to give her a reference and to stop by the lab the next time she was in the city. She hugged us both so tightly it almost hurt. She knew where we were headed.

A copy of our report went to the crime lab along with the remaining samples, and another copy went to the police department for their files. They gave us a police escort back to Jordan’s house in woodland suburbia, and Pete and Joey met us there. They had more reports – projections, mainly, and enough copies to go around. To the police…and to the parents. The police had called in all the parents who weren’t already there, all of the kids’ friends were there, and everyone was milling around nervously. I nodded to Dave, and he headed off across the yard to the tree-people with Joey while Pete stayed with me to talk to the friends and family about what was going on. About what was potentially going to go on in the near future.

8.3 percent. It had been just enough to turn the ecological fairy tale into a nightmare.

I took a deep breath and started with the better news – because none of this news was good. “The kit your kids used came from China,” I told them. “Between us and the crime lab we were able to trace the chemicals back there, and one of the biologicals they…used was native to that country as well. It’s a black-market mod factory, and the international authorities are already hunting them down.” Someone opened their mouth to question that, and I held up a hand. “We’ve worked with governments all over the world, we called some people and they got the ball rolling. You have my word – because I have theirs – that these guys will be caught and shut down with extreme prejudice. Nobody anywhere wants to see this kind of thing go on, because the black market guys are sloppy and careless.” I saw one or two of them pale, having realized that was a hint; I plowed forward. “I am not going to beat around the bush, this is bad. The person who commissioned this mod was trying to create a race of sentient tree beings that would be around to guide and help humanity for hundreds if not thousands of years – that’s actually a quote, because the police picked that person up early this morning as he was trying to board a plane, and he’s been charged with everything they could get to stick. He wasn’t one of the professors at the college,” I told them. “He was a guest lecturer, he’d come in to take part in a special summer session, and I personally think he’s a disgrace to the scientific community in general and to environmental science specifically. That’s beside the point, though. He convinced these kids that this was a good idea, handed over one of the group kits he’d ordered…” Gasps. I nodded. “Yes, he was going to do it again – repeatedly, in fact. He’s an idiot with armchair dreams of ecological utopia, and sadly the harm he’s caused in pursuit of that ideal was caused in ignorance. We explained to him what he did, and they have him on suicide watch now because he just can’t deal with it.”

A heavyset man with dark hair and a lumberjack’s beard frowned; I’d met him the day before, he was Jordan’s father. “We’re supposed to feel sorry for him?”

I snorted. “No – we certainly don’t, and neither do the police. But I did want you to know that this wasn’t deliberate on his part – in fact, it wasn’t even deliberate on the part of the black-market mod factory that made the kit.” I indicated the papers Pete had handed out. “I know this doesn’t mean anything to you right now, so I’m going to walk you through what the test results mean. Genomodding is done by percentages. You start with your subject, and then you decide how much of a change you want – what percentage of the subject’s traits you want to change. And then you set up your process to only change the subject that much and no more. If you’re going for a more complex change, like this one was, you work out one percentage mod and then work out a second percentage for your second mod. With me so far?”

“There are three on here, not two,” Kathy pointed out. “The third one is really small?”

“8.3 percent,” I confirmed. “The first one was a ginkgo tree, the second one was a cinnamon vine, a yam plant…but that third one was cross-contamination because someone in the factory was being sloppy and didn’t clean up their equipment between batches. The third percentage is mayfly.” Some of them quite obviously did not know the significance of that; a few, like Amy’s grandmother, more than obviously did. “When we found that, we were hoping the percentage was too small to do anything,” I said quickly. “I mean, it wasn’t enough to give any of them mayfly features like wings or antennae. And since it was mixed with the ginkgo, which is a tree that can theoretically live for millenia, we’d hoped that the…other well-known characteristic of mayflies wouldn’t have much of an impact. In the end, though, it did. We don’t know how long they’re going to live…but we don’t think it will be all that long. The three most likely scenarios are spelled out in the paperwork we just gave you, and the best case is a year, tops.”

Jordan’s dad had paged through the papers to find that, and I knew when he spotted the worst case. “Wait, this says…”

“If it’s that one, they’re already dying.”

Chantelle checked her phone. “Mike posted a status update a little while ago, said he felt sick and yelled at people about polluting the water. He said they were all feeling kind of off…”

“I’m really hoping he’s right about the reason, Chantelle,” I told her. “But I don’t think he is.”

I didn’t think that because I’d just seen Dave come out of the yard; he went straight to the SUV and collapsed in the passenger seat, hiding his face in his hands. Joey saw me looking and shook his head, mouthing the words ‘worst case’. It was like being doused with ice water, and I swallowed. “I think…maybe you should all go talk to them. Now.”

Kathy turned and ran for the trees; so did a few other people. Jordan’s dad had made a move toward Amy’s grandmother, but she came over to us. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for being here, and helping us.”

She moved to hug me, and I let her. “I wish…”

“We all do…but wishes are for fairy tales. In real life, the best we can do is the best we can do.”

She gave Pete a hug too, and then she turned and walked very slowly across the yard to the trees. She wasn’t crying; we both were, and so was the cop. We watched her go, watched the trees swaying and using their branch-vines to hug people, and then Pete took my arm and we went back to the SUV. The cop trotted after us, swiping at his eyes. “Are you going to stay until…”

“No.” I shook my head. “We have all the samples we need. Their time now should be for their friends and families – and it could be days, even a week.”

Joey had come up beside us. “Let us know when…it’s over,” he said, and handed the cop one of our cards. “We don’t dare come back out here for the funerals – the press might follow us, and these people don’t need that – but we definitely want to send flowers.” He forced a small smile. “Hana will be really upset if she can’t, she’s been talking to all of them online since day before yesterday.”

“I’ll call you,” he promised. We shook hands all around, and then Joey steered me over to his car and Pete took charge of the SUV; Dave and I had been working in the university’s lab for a couple of days without much sleep, neither one of us were fit to drive home. In fact, I fell asleep some ten minutes down the road, right in the middle of talking to Joey, and dreamed of trees gracefully swaying in a field while they took pictures of each other for their Facebook pages. But they were all rotting, and their viney branches were made of human bones.

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