No one knew it could happen. Until it did.
I was working on our huge joint paper when the phone rang, and the man on the other end was not anyone I’d thought I was ever going to hear from again. “Wait, Mr. Eames, slow down. What do you mean ‘they came back’?” He slowed down enough to get out a few more details, and I winced. What he was talking about shouldn’t be possible, he just had to be wrong about what he was seeing. But at the same time…this was his son we were talking about, the same son we hadn’t been able to save. Giving the poor guy some concrete reassurance was the least we could do. “You’re out there now? Okay, hang on for just a minute. I’m going to check with our pilot, see how fast we can get out there.”
That got everyone else’s attention. “Mod emergency?” Dave wanted to know.
“Maybe. Pete, can you land on a concrete house pad, used to be a three-bedroom ranch? The debris was all cleared off, it’s just a concrete slab now.”
“Yeah, that would be plenty big enough. Where are we going?”
“About 70 miles north of here. It’s Jordan Eames’s father on the line, he thinks the kids are regrowing on the site.”
“But didn’t the wildfires go through that area last year…wait, of course they did, that’s why it’s a slab instead of a house.” He was already out of his chair and heading for the door. “Skies are clear, we can be in the air in ten.”
Dave ran a hand through his hair. “Holy shit. Do you think they came back…all the way?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find out, though.” I unmuted the phone. “Mr. Eames, we’ll be en route in ten minutes, we should be there in less than an hour. Are the trees just standing there, are they moving…”
I heard him swallow before he admitted that he thought he’d seen one of them move but he couldn’t be sure. He was afraid to get close. “Just sit tight, we’re coming. I’m going to go get my kit ready, so I’ll hand you over to Dr. Montoya now. Give him any other details you have, he’ll relay them to me.”
Dave took the phone. “Hi Mr. Eames, this is Dr. Montoya…yes, the other scientist who came out on the initial call with Dr. Darling. No, but they’ll be on their way just as soon as they can get the helicopter warmed up. I don’t suppose you keep up with the news much, do you? Or read Time? Dr. Darling was on the cover of Time last year, the apocalypse issue…yes, the one standing on the wall, that was him. Yes…no, I just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t be startled when he got there. Now, tell me exactly what you’ve observed so far so we’ll have the clearest picture of the situation possible…”
I got moving again, needing to grab my traveling lab setup and a coat warm enough for October in the mountains. I think it probably says something that I forgot to warn the poor guy that I look a little different now than I did the last time he saw me.
The skies were clear and there was hardly any wind, so Pete and I actually made it to the site in about half an hour and were met by Mr. Eames, who’d been waiting in his truck. He was upset, neither of us could blame him. A few years ago, his son had been one of a group of idealistic college students who’d been convinced by a visiting professor that they could serve the planet best by become tree people – someone no one at the time had even known could be done – but a flaw in the mod serum they’d used had reduced their lifespan from a thousand years or more to just over eight days. And then just last year, one of California’s massive wildfires had torn through that same area, burning down houses as well as trees. Pretty much everything was just gone, including the circle of corpse-trunks which had been all that remained of Jordan Eames and his friends. And now, sticking up out of the snow in that same spot, were five saplings standing in that same circle. They were only around two feet high, their brown bark still smooth and a few withered bronze-gold leaves still clinging here and there to spindly young vine-branches. Some of which were visibly reaching toward their nearest neighbor. Were they trying to join ‘hands’ again, the way they had before? Or were they just spreading out to soak up more sun, the way any plant would do?
I stepped into the circle, and almost immediately a sharp, acrid scent went up from the nearest sapling and was quickly echoed by the others. I sneezed, and Mr. Eames gave me an odd look, scent reflecting a slight, probably reflexive contempt. He was a tough, outdoorsman type of guy, I remembered, and apparently losing the beard and some weight hadn’t changed that. “Are you allergic now?”
I shook my head. “That scent they’re putting off, it’s a chemical warning to potential predators like me: Go away, I’m not good to eat.”
He took a step closer, sniffing. “It smells like cinnamon on green leaves.”
“To you, yeah – to me it smells like burnt electrical wires.” Which meant they could pick up my scent…but plants can do a lot of things. I went down to one knee in front of the sapling that was standing where Jordan had accidentally rooted in a pile of his mother’s garden fertilizer, and the warning scent intensified. I sneezed again, but scent-projected reassurance back at him.
The fear-warning became overlaid with something like confusion. So I slowly reached out my handpaw and brushed the back of one claw against one of his vine-branches. “Hi, Jordan. Are you in there?”
Confusion segued into something approaching cautious relief, and the vine-branch moved – stiffly, it was cold – so that the tip could wrap around my claw.
I went around the circle, making contact with each sapling, and all but one of them responded to me; that one, however, had a couple of fine projections coming out of its trunk that I was afraid might be not-so-arboreal antennae, so that particular tree was going to have to be considered separately. I went back to the helicopter to get my kit, waving Mr. Eames to follow me so we could all discuss what needed to happen next. “The fire must have triggered a regrowth by burning off the dead wood,” I explained to the upset, now somewhat angry man. “Mr. Eames, we wouldn’t have dared to do something like that intentionally the first time they ‘died’, there was just no telling what the result would have been. Back then…”
“It was only a few years ago!”
“And multiple, rapid advances in mod science ago,” I told him, and although a little bit of resentment spiked the man did calm back down. “When this originally happened, there was no way to correct mistakes in a mod. Now there is. And now we’ve also dealt with more tree mods, so we have more of a baseline to compare these guys’ development to. My guess is their eyes are probably present but not ready to open yet – think like a newborn kitten or a puppy. Not sure if they can actually hear me, either, or if it’s all just happening at scent-level right now, we’re going to have to run some tests to find out how their growth cycle is progressing.”
“But won’t they just die again? Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, burn them out or something so this won’t keep happening?”
The words I’d expected, but the scent that came with them… “Mr. Eames, did someone already talk to you about this?”
Ooh, a little bit of shame, a little more defiance. “Some government guy came around after they died – quite a while after. He said we needed to watch the area, mow down any new growth we saw, maybe use poison to burn the ground so nothing would grow there. He said we couldn’t let ‘something like this’ spread.”
I felt a spike of pure rage. He kind of jumped when I growled, though, so I forced my tail back down and my ears back up. “We know who that probably was,” Pete explained; he was just as enraged as me, of course, but his doesn’t show nearly as much. “They were a little pocket department that fell off the government radar, caused a lot of trouble.” That was one way to put it, I guess. “Let me pull up some photos, see if we can identify which agent it was who talked to you.” He pulled out his tablet and started tapping – this is Pete, he’s never not connected to the network – and a couple of minutes later he turned the tablet around. “These are the guys from Project Chaney. Do any of them look like the asshole who came to talk to you?”
A little whiff of pleasure/agreement wafted over the anger. “He was that.” He looked, then tapped one photo, which enlarged for him. “This one. This is the slimy bastard who came out here.”
Pete’s scent spiked with rage/satisfaction, which stood my ears up. “No…”
“Yep, same slimy bastard. He must have been their excuse for a hatchet man.” I shivered in spite of myself, and he patted my shoulder before taking control of the tablet back. “Well Mr. Eames, the good news is that you’ll never see that man again unless you want to go visit him at the zoo to gloat.” He pulled up different pictures, and the other man’s eyes went wide. “They’d been playing footsie with a guy who was well on his way to becoming a real live supervillain, and they made the mistake of pissing him off.”
“What…” He was horrified, but still kind of satisfied in a guilty way. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah, that’s what we said.” He enlarged a different picture. “The authorities called us in when they found him, and we used the new overmod process to make his body fit what was left of his brain a little better. He’s a permanent resident in the Columbus Zoo’s mod section now, they just tell everyone he’s a ‘mutant mole’.”
Interest peaked, and a touch of cautious hope. “Overmod process?”
“Overmod process,” I told him, smoothing the rest of my fur back out. “It’s how we’re going to fix the kids’ life-cycle issue, Mr. Eames. Plant-based mods can’t be reversed, but I should be able to overwrite the mayfly DNA and give them back the lifespan they were intended to have.” A spike of dismay. Oh no. “What?”
He looked almost sick. “My wife…in the divorce, they said I had to sell the house and land and give her half of whatever was left after the mortgage had been paid off. It’s in the paperwork, they even put it in writing that I couldn’t keep the place and just give her the money.”
I looked at Pete. Pete looked at me. “So either we buy it, or we move them?”
“We buy it, then we see if it’s possible to move them,” I countered, trying not to think about toe-tipped roots ripping out of a riverbank in Linyante. “We can always resell it later.”
“I’ll call Dave.” He climbed back up into the pilot’s seat and put on his headset. “Hey Dave, guess what? You’re about to buy some upstate property with emerging tree-human mods on it. Yeah…yeah, they are, but his ex’s lawyer put it in the paperwork that he had to sell the land. The plan is to buy the land and then see if we can relocate them. Yeah…no, because my name is really unique and Danny’s infamous, that’s why; there are probably a few hundred Montoyas in this county alone, not to mention L.A. Yeah…yeah, exactly. Mr. Eames, contact info for your realtor? Oh, and how much were you asking? Dr. Montoya will have to get a cashier’s check before he comes up here.”
Mr. Eames looked a little blindsided by how fast that had just happened. “Wait, you…”
“Dr. Montoya will buy the land, then we can take our time figuring out the best way to relocate the kids,” I told him. “If they can be relocated, I’ll have to get a tree expert up here to check their root structure first. If not, we’ll make it a preserve or something – our lawyer can figure that part out.”
He slowly reached into his coat and pulled out his wallet, fumbling around inside it until he found a card, which he handed over to Pete. “That’s the asshole agency the court put over the sale after the wildfire came through. They’ve been trying to shop it out to developers, something about turning this area into the new Vail.”
“You heard that, Dave?” Pete asked. “Yeah, if they try to play hardball, get Rick involved – don’t mention the tree-people unless Rick says you should, for all we know this is why they insisted on the land being sold. Because Mole Boy had been up here spreading his usual sunshine, Dave, he tried to tell them to clear the area and poison the soil. Of course I showed him the pictures, and he was suitably impressed by what karma looked like that year.” He snapped a picture of the business card. “Okay, sending you the realtor info now, call them and then call me back.”
I was already on the phone myself, letting the rest of the team know what was going on: Ivor was out in San Francisco with Joey, helping with the selkie relocation and doing the annual genetic-stability check on their offspring. It is so nice not to be the only geneticist in the company now, I’m telling you. “No, because you just bought an island,” I told Joey when he sarcastically asked if he was going to be buying fire-sale land too. He and Angela had arranged for the selkie colony’s new larger and safer home to be grant-land under Fish and Wildlife, but they hadn’t been able to get the grant to encompass the nearest exploitable land mass so they’d just bought it themselves. They were considering putting a house on it. “I need a botanist-slash-arborist who specializes in Asian plants, Joey. Or one of each, I don’t care as long as they can work together and don’t hate mods. We have four at least semi-sentient tree people up here, and one that’s non-responsive and appears to be growing antennae. No, the fire took out this entire neighborhood, no structures standing. Yeah, as soon as Dave is the new owner we can bring in an RV or a portable building…no, I don’t think he should use that as a bargaining chip unless Rick says he should. The property sale was compelled in Mr. Eames’s divorce settlement, that might be part of the reason. I’m not ruling it out, we still don’t know where the rest of those guys went. Yeah…yeah, I’m going to pull out my kit and get some samples, but first I’m going to call Mike and see what we can arrange for site security…”
Pete waved that off. “Already on it.”
“Okay, Pete beat me to that part. Yeah…yeah…okay, thanks Joey, talk to you in a bit.” I disconnected and tucked the phone back into my coat pocket, returning my attention to the still-shocked Mr. Eames. “You’re still the owner of the property on paper, right?” He nodded. “Do we have permission to take samples?”
“Sure.” He swallowed. “Site security?”
I nodded. “Just to be safe. They’re still saplings, it would be easy for someone to hurt them by accident.” Which wasn’t actually what I was worried about, but no need to make the poor guy paranoid. We could be paranoid for him, we were used to it. “I would say we should contact the other families, but it might be better to wait until we have more information for them – like whether these tree-people are regrowth or descendants, for starters, and whether they’re going to come back to full sentience or stay at a lower level.”
He let himself be distracted. “So that might not be Jordan?”
“It might, or it might be Jordan’s offspring, his children or grandchildren. I’ll have to run a genetic analysis to be able to tell.”
“My ex-wife’s name is on the deed too, do we have to tell her now?”
His scent was saying so many things, all of them painful. “No, at least not until we have something to tell her. One owner’s permission is enough since we’re not removing anything from the site, or doing any damage to it. When the time comes, I’ll explain it to her.”
“That…would probably be for the best, yeah.” He looked and smelled defeated when he said it. “I’m not supposed to contact her directly anyway.”
Ouch. “We’ll handle it,” I assured him, mentally crossing my fingers in the hope that her lawyer was just regular evil and not government-sponsored evil – or worse, one of the anti-mod fanatics. “The one I’m really worried about telling is Janey’s mom, to be honest. She is not going to take this new development well.”
“No, probably not. She tried to sue the university, you know.”
Of course she had.
I took my time getting the samples, and then Dave called back to say he was meeting the realtor on-site in two hours to look over the property so Pete and I packed up and flew back home and then Pete flew Dave back out. Having a prospective buyer show up in a private helicopter apparently impressed the hell out of the realtor, not to mention activating his greed-circuit, because he didn’t even put up a fuss about Dave wanting to close the deal immediately. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Dave had told him he wanted to close immediately because this was a ‘hot area’ and he didn’t want to miss out on getting the lot he wanted if he was called out of the country on business unexpectedly. So once he’d walked around the property a little bit and asked some questions, he confirmed that he wanted to buy it, the realtor called Mr. Eames to come down to his office and sign paperwork, and Dave handed over a cashier’s check for the full asking price which all three of them said the guy practically drooled on.
They said that over the phone, because I was already in the SUV driving back out to the site, the back seat full of equipment and some of Pete’s camping gear; Jo-Jo was following behind me in one of Elite’s semi-armored vehicles. All but one of the samples had tested out as an exact match to the original tree-people, so we absolutely could not take the chance that the sudden flurry of activity around the site – not to mention the sudden sale of the land – might have tipped off someone who had bad intentions. Mike had already called the local authorities to let them know there was going to be an armed guard on-site, and Jo-Jo was supposed to call them himself to check in once we got there.
The police officer who showed up after he called in, thankfully, was one of the ones who’d been there at the initial modding incident. “I don’t usually work this end of the county anymore, but they didn’t want to send someone who didn’t have first-hand experience with what had happened up here,” he explained after checking our I.D.s and Jo-Jo’s concealed-carry permit. “Are you expecting trouble from the previous owner?”
“No, Mr. Eames is the one who called us to come check the site,” I told him. “When he said there were saplings growing and he thought he’d seen one of them move, we came right out. And when he told us that one of the government agents from Project Chaney had been out here trying to get him to clear the site and poison the ground…well, we’re not sure if the saplings can be safely moved or not, so buying the land was our best option for keeping them safe while we study the situation.”
He stiffened, scent sharpening with alarm. “Government agents?”
“Specifically the same agent who tried to kill Dr. Darling and Ms. Kim a few years ago,” Jo-Jo said. “He’s locked up now, but we never were able to track down the other agents who were known to be with the project. And aside from that, there are also fanatics running around who think modded humans pose a threat to society just by existing, not to mention the million-dollar pelt bounty that’s still out on Dr. Darling and now on his husband, Dr. Vargas.”
“Crap, we hadn’t heard about that – the bounty, not the wedding. Congratulations, by the way.”
He meant it, that was nice. “Thanks. We’re going to call in a tree expert and run some more tests, and once we know exactly what’s going on we’ll contact the rest of the kids’ parents. I am a little concerned about the possible reaction from Mrs. Eames or her lawyer when she finds out what’s going on, though. Mr. Eames said the sale of the property was mandated in the divorce, and he isn’t allowed to have any direct contact with his wife. We couldn’t be sure how much of that situation was just regular ugly divorce stuff and how much might have been initiated by outside interference.”
“Does the realtor know that Mr. Eames called you guys, or that your lab is connected to the purchase of the property?” I shook my head, and he considered for a second. “My advice would be to tell as few people as possible,” he finally said. “I’ll check when I get back to the station, see if there was a reason for a restraining order to have been filed, but it’s possible her lawyer just didn’t want them talking to each other.”
It smelled like maybe he knew who the lawyer was and didn’t like them very much, so I nodded. “We don’t want to get involved with that. The safety of the kids is our priority – and they were all over eighteen when the initial incident happened, so our lawyer has already said that the original testing permissions we had from each of them are still valid.”
“Good,” he said. “Their safety is our priority too – and so is yours while you’re up here, so if you guys see or hear anything, call for backup.”
Apparently GenoMod’s reputation has gotten around more than I’d thought – he said ‘call for backup’ not ‘call for help’. We assured him that we’d call if anyone not on our team showed up looking to cause trouble, and he took some pictures of the circle of saplings and left. Jo-Jo and I moved the two vehicles to block access to the saplings from the road, set up perimeter alarms around the area, and then quickly put up our tents behind the vehicle-wall too. Quickly because it was starting to snow, which at this elevation and at this time of year we’d pretty much expected to happen. Night started to fall about half an hour later, we ate dinner in the ATV and then decided to call it a night. I started up the little heater I’d brought along and got comfortable with my sleeping bag and blankets, but when I got out my phone to call Ivor I saw that the dot indicator from Pete’s security app was blinking between orange and red. Shit. I dug myself out of my warm little nest again and went back out, taking a good look – and smell – around. It was still too cold for insects and the post-wildfire regrowth hadn’t yet reached the point where hardier animals and birds would be returning to the area in significant numbers, so everything was dead silent. Jo-Jo had apparently heard me come out, because he was already halfway out of his own tent. “Nature calling?”
“Villeluvu don’t shit in the woods,” I reminded him. “We drive to the nearest convenience store, use their bathroom, and then buy some Skittles and maybe a donut. No, the security app on my phone is flashing back and forth between orange and red.”
“Shit.” He pulled out his phone and checked. “I’m still green, but there’s a blue ping from the nearest tower…” The phone vibrated slightly. “Okay, and there comes orange.” He turned off his phone, and I did the same. “They must have been checking to see who was out here. So either somebody caught on, or it’s just a really improbable coincidence. Let’s check the sat phone and then call it in.”
The sat phone setup is in Elite’s ATV, so we both got in and Jo-Jo checked it. That signal was still showing as secure and encrypted, so he warmed it up and called headquarters. “This is Jo-Jo out at the new property in San Luis County,” he said as soon as someone picked up. “We’d just zipped things up for the night when Danny’s app started blinking red. Whoever it is hit mine a couple of minutes later, after pinging the nearest tower to see if I was here…yeah, we shut them both off, didn’t see the sense in helping someone get a geo-lock on us. I doubt anyone’s out here yet, and we’ve got the perimeter alarms set…yeah, and it just snowed some more, so no tracks to follow. I’ll check in again at dawn, but someone might want to warn ‘Frisco tonight that we turned off the phones for security reasons, don’t want anyone out there to panic. Okay…yeah, yeah, we will. Jo-Jo out.” He went through the process of shutting the system back down again, shaking his head. “Hopefully it’s just TMZ.”
“Hopefully the government never figures out a way to get TMZ to work for them,” I countered. “TMZ is faster and more ruthless than they are.”
He chuckled. “True. Thank goodness they’re only in it for the money and the thrill of the chase, huh?” He swiped fog off the windshield and his side window. “Everything still looks quiet, but I’m going to put another proximity alarm out by the road, just in case – on low, so if someone does drive up here we’ll know we know before they do.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’m pretty sure we’ll hear them coming regardless, though.” I wiped off my own window. “Snow’s starting to come down thicker.”
“Yeah.” We both got out, he locked everything back up to be just shy of impenetrable, and then I kept watch while he set the new alarm up, camouflaging it so that it wouldn’t be too obvious. And then I went back into my nice warm tent and my nice warm bed and went to sleep. It was really unlikely that anyone would be coming out here in the middle of a cold, snowy night.
The sound of a vehicle’s engine woke me up. I checked my watch – it was just past midnight – then rolled out of my tent. The snow had stopped, leaving behind a pristine blanket of white fluff over everything, and I could see lights coming. Jo-Jo was already out too, presumably after remotely turning off the alarm, and he checked his gun before moving into position in front of the vehicles. I stayed behind them, because I’m not stupid and it would be really easy for someone to say they mistook me for a wolf in the dark. And we waited. Whoever it was, they were coming in slowly, probably following GPS. The vehicle came into sight, it looked like a Jeep, and a second later Jo-Jo’s scent said he’d recognized whoever it was and he waved. I came out to join him, saw the driver’s silhouette and yipped, waving myself and then hurrying over as soon as the Jeep was parked by the SUV. “Did something else happen, Ivor?”
He got out and stretched, smelling tired but relieved. “No, but we did not want to take a chance, with only two people on the site. All of the phones were affected within a half-hour period, including the main phone at the lab.”
“Well crap.” Jo-Jo shook his head. “Roads were clear?”
“I did not see anyone. And no sign of helicopters, either, or encampments other than our own.”
Did I ever mention that Ivor spent some time in the military? Yeah – service is mandatory in Russia, he put in 18 months before he started college and then did some reserve duty too. Which is apparently kind of unusual for someone who’s planning to go into the sciences, because picking a career path that ends in a PhD is a get-out-of-draft-free ticket over there. Ivor says that putting in your time almost guarantees you a university spot, though, and he’d looked at it more as paying his dues than anything else, but that training has paid off pretty well for him over the years. Especially this past year. “That’s good,” Jo-Jo was saying. “Although I’d have been really surprised if they had someone in position out here already.”
I snorted. “Yeah, if they’d been actively watching the area before this, I doubt any of the saplings would have still been here.” I pulled Ivor’s bag out of the Jeep, then led him around the SUV with an arm around his waist, my tail curling around his. Jo-Jo was getting back into the ATV, most likely to let headquarters know Ivor was here. “See you at dawn.”
“No doubt. Hopefully we won’t wake up to a foot of snow.”
Ivor and I went into Pete’s tent, and I reset the little heater to a lower temperature and started redistributing my sleeping bag and pile of blankets to accommodate two people. Ivor chuckled. “You expected to be cold, I see.”
“Well, I was sleeping alone.” He pulled off his boots and shed a few layers, and then we settled in, turned out the light, and I curled up against his chest with an absolutely involuntary sigh of contentment. It’s not just pretty words when he says that when we’re together, we’re home; when his arms and his scent are surrounding me, I’m as much at home as I’ve ever been in my entire life, no matter where we are. Our tails intertwined again, and we were both asleep within minutes.