A World Full of Monsters

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Chapter 45
Renewal, Part 3

They have experts. They have a plan. And someone has a really stupid lawyer.


We may have gotten off to a slow start, but once things started moving they moved fast. We were working under a deadline and we knew it, because the cold weather that was keeping the tree-people semi-dormant – and therefore keeping the mayfly part of their makeup from doing its thing any faster – was also about to bury us and them in snow. And waiting for spring was out of the question, for a number of reasons.

Number one being our antennae-having tree person, Seth. You see, once I had a lab on-site to work in I was able to do an in-depth analysis of all the DNA samples, and Seth’s came out with just a bit more mayfly than the rest of them had. But if two-tenths of a percent had been able to bring out the antennae, what else had it done? He wasn’t responsive to stimuli like the others. Was Seth even still in there? And if he wasn’t, should we still try to repair his DNA and normalize his life-cycle? We could end up making the problem worse instead of fixing it…and worse could end up being really, really bad.

Our three specialists were in complete agreement. Joey had ended up getting us a husband-and-wife botanist team who had worked in Japan and a Master Arborist who had been constantly teetering between horrified and elated ever since he’d shown up on the site. “Being able to talk to our subjects is a dream come true for any arborist,” Mr. Garza admitted when we all sat down to discuss the problem at hand. “But this…this is a nightmare. You’ve seen this before?”

“This case was our first,” I told him. “Before that, we didn’t even know it could be done – and believe me, we were every bit as horrified as you that someone had gone there. I’ve personally been on one other case involving tree-modded humans, and that was a task-force case in Linyante where religious terrorists had forcibly modded most of a village when they refused to convert.”

He made a face. “I read about that. And wracked my brain trying to think of a way they could have been saved, I think everyone in my profession was. But that type of tree, in that sort of disturbed environment and then with independent movement added to the equation…I’m honestly amazed they lasted as long as they did. If you had a tree expert down there, I’m sure they told you that.”

“We did and he did,” I assured him. “The next time the river flooded it was going to kill them all regardless. Luckily these tree-people don’t have to worry about that.”

“Completely different situation,” he agreed. “With one unfortunate similarity: There is absolutely no way you can move these trees. Just off the information you’ve already given me I wouldn’t even recommend trying it. The initial tap root they put down, taking into account their accelerated growth, I would have estimated at the time to be between five and ten feet deep – erring toward ten since the upper root mat didn’t seem to have formed. Since they’ve been regrowing, it’s bound to be much longer than that now. We do have the ability to move even large trees safely now, we dig out the roots with pressurized air instead of shovels, but there’s always going to be some breakage and, if I’m understanding the changed physiology correctly, that could still cause massive bleeding.”

“It could,” Dr. Chang-Sylva agreed, and her husband nodded too. She was one of those women who use the messy bun they keep their hair up in to also keep their pencil close at hand, and right now she was tapping that pencil on the table. “But that’s the tree part, and it’s the Dioscorea batatas that Dr. Sylva and I are here for – and Dioscorea poses a whole different problem when it comes to rooting.”

“It’s entirely possible each of these trees has at least one tuber growing alongside the taproot,” Dr. Sylva said. “And that could be part of the problem with the one labeled ‘Seth’ – it may have regrown from the tuber, not the taproot.”

“He,” I corrected. “Those aren’t labels, Dr. Sylva, they were grave markers. So if Seth grew back from the tuber, that could be the cause of the genetic variation we’re seeing in him? Because in the initial tests done when these kids were first modded, he had the same percentage of mayfly that the rest of them did; now, he has two-tenths of a percent more.”

“That could be consistent with regrowing from a hybridized tuber,” he agreed. “Ginkgos can reproduce through clonal fragmentation, which would produce an exact copy of the parent, but tubers don’t work that way. You see that sometimes when home gardeners try to use store-bought potatoes for seed – the tubers they get aren’t always the same as the ones they planted.”

Ivor was frowning. “What could have caused Seth to re-grow in a different manner than the others?”

The three of them all looked at each other and then shared a shrug. “If Seth’s taproot had been damaged somehow, that could have done it,” Dr. Chang-Sylva said. “But if that is the case then that isn’t Seth anymore, it’s Seth’s offspring and it may or may not be gendered. Dioscorea is a much simpler plant than Ginkgo. Mr. Garza can confirm that.”

“It is,” our Master Arborist agreed. “The others retained their same genders?”

“They did.” I compared my two sets of test data, old and new. “Actually, it looks like the sapling growing in Seth’s spot did retain Seth’s gender…but that’s going to lead us to a different issue, because he’s still genetically close enough to the others for reproduction to be a possibility. Even with the corrective mod.”

“Risking passing on the increased mayfly percentage,” Dave said, nodding. “So we don’t have a choice, we have to do a repair mod on him too. Different formulation?”

I considered it. “We’ll do Seth separately,” I finally said. “We’ll have to run his as a completely different mod process, and before we can even formulate it I’ll need a baseline on the new species mix for the others.” I raised one ear and an eyebrow. “So now the question is what would be the best way to get the mod serum into them? Because they have roots and a growth-promoting water transport system similar to a regular tree, but their internal circulatory system is part tree and part human and part we have no idea why it’s working at all.” I handed over copies of the ultrasound scans we’d done of the slender new trunks, along with computer-generated line diagrams of the scans which had been tentatively labeled. “Honestly, in our opinion it’s a miracle this mod produced viable creatures in the first place.”

“Possibly not as much of one as you might think,” Dr. Sylva said, grimacing at the diagram. “Nearly two decades ago researchers concluded that some plants and trees have a circulatory system more closely adherent to Murray’s Law than the commonly accepted pipe model.”

“Murray’s Law says that animal circulatory systems are structured to be as efficient as possible – the most benefit using the least amount of resources,” Joey explained. “The original McCulloh-Sperry study linking Murray’s Law to trees was followed by some theoretical work by Callot and Josa postulating that there might be more than one missing link.”

“Not just animal to human, but plant to animal.” Ivor was nodding. “I have read their work. They are…honestly, to call their ideas theoretical is being generous. But evolutionary biology was in something of a slump that year.” Dr. Sylva’s scent spiked, and Ivor cocked an eyebrow. “Doctor, it is true. The idea that such an evolutionary connection may have existed is not new, and the science does not rule out such a possibility, but Callot’s work made leaps which defied all logic.”

“It did,” Joey confirmed. “And all the attention it got set back serious research in that area by a considerable margin – Callot was god’s gift to the anti-evolutionists. Even in marine biology, where we actually have living, thriving specimens of plantlike animals and a considerable fossil record showing how they evolved, just mentioning a possible evolutionary connection to land animals triggers dozens of rebuttals all hinged on the repudiation of Callot’s work.”

Dr. Sylva’s scent settled back down. “So you think it’s possible?”

“I know it’s possible,” Joey said. “My wife has a pressurized aquarium at the research station with a colony of sponges in it, I’ve helped her with the habitat maintenance on multiple occasions. They don’t like the orange powder used to coat off-brand cheese puffs.”

“I’m still trying to isolate exactly which part of the substance it is that they’re rejecting,” Dave put in. “Their reaction to it is immediate but it doesn’t harm them, so it could have significant applications in aquaculture.”

Translation: Joey had forgotten to wash his hands one day before putting food in the tank, and Dave was bored that week. Someday Dave is going to be on stage accepting a Nobel Prize and trying not to make it sound like groundbreaking science is an accident that just happens to him sometimes. “Anyway, evolutionary theory aside,” I said. “We need to know where to put the mod serum, and how to get it there without hurting the tree people. Preferably without stressing them too much either, because without the option of sedation the accelerated transformation is going to be stressful enough.”

Dr. Chang-Sylva considered that. “It can’t be done without acceleration?”

Ivor shook his head. “In a human or an animal it could be, if you were correcting for something which  would not be life-threatening if changed slowly over time. In these human-tree híbridos, however, a slow change would almost certainly kill them. So perhaps the question should be: How can we do this to best minimize the stress on their systems, and what must be done to support them through the transformative process?”

“What would you do with a mammalian subject?” Mr. Garza wanted to know.

“For a major modification, intravenous fluids with a shot of vitamin concentrate,” I told him. “So how do we safely do that for a tree?”

He smiled. “Liquid fertilizer and gel beads. We’ll need a specially-formulated fertilizer, though. I can work out the right mix for the tree part, but we’ll have to balance that out with what the vine part and the human part need.”

“I’m already working on the human part,” Dave said. “The original fertilizer on-site was a little too rich, I think we should aim for something closer to neutral.”

“Yam’s aren’t very picky, neutral will work for that part too,” Dr. Chang-Sylva said. “And the gel beads will be the best method for hydration, because both of the plants involved do better in well-drained soil. If we excavate on one side and pack the roots with hydrated beads, then stick in a hydration sensor and cover everything back up, I’d think that would do it.”

Her husband was looking at the diagram, and he took her pencil out of her hand to trace something; her scent reflected annoyance, his said he knew she was and didn’t care. “Not here,” he said, tapping the pencil on a particular spot. “That seems to be the juncture between the systems, so it would look like the logical place, but we don’t dare risk making an opening anywhere near that area. It would just be inviting rot or fungi or biopredation.”

“If that’s the best spot, we can plug a hole,” Mr. Garza disagreed. “Permanently, even. I repair holes in trees all the time. They eventually grow over the plug, and that seals the hole.”

“But this tree has internal organs…”

“Just like humans do, I know. But the hole we’ll need to plug isn’t going to be in the more human part, it’ll be in the more treelike part.”

Dr. Sylva sighed. “I suppose it could work, but only if we can be certain the plug substance itself wouldn’t cause problems.”

“I can make certain of that,” Dave told him. “Mr. Garza, do you buy the plugs pre-made or do you make your own?”

“I make my own – it’s mostly wood pulp mixed with silica and some tree-safe pesticide, and then I seal the outside of the filled hole with expanding tree-repair foam that I trim and paint to match the surrounding bark. Some people fill the entire hole with that foam, but I feel like my way makes a better, more flexible plug. Not to mention, expanding foam…well, it expands until something stops it. It’s important that this plug stays in the heartwood layer and doesn’t go anywhere else.”

Dr. Sylva snorted. “Whether you use expanding foam or not, you’re still basically pointing a bullet at the tree-person’s internal organs.”

“Not at all.” Mr. Garza smelled slightly annoyed, but he didn’t let it show. “I think maybe you misunderstand what I mean by a plug. And if I understand correctly, the hole we’re talking about is going to be about the size of a needle, right? And only about half a centimeter long?”

“Right,” Dave agreed. “A few millimeters wide, tops. Mod serum is pretty viscous, so most of the time we use an 18 or a 20 gauge needle. We may have to go just a bit bigger for this application, but this is still going to be a hole we make with a needle and fill with a needle, and we’ll probably need a magnifying lens to accurately apply the outer seal. If we even need one, because the accelerated growth may end up sealing the hole for us.”

Dr. Sylva’s scent said he would have liked to continue arguing, but he didn’t – possibly because annoying Dave was not the same thing as doing it to Mr. Garza or his own wife. We went over the rest of the issues, made a list of supplies we’d need to get, and then the meeting broke up. Mr. Garza went into our mobile lab to get to work with Dave, but the other two weren’t invited to join them and I could tell Dr. Sylva had started complaining at his wife about that the minute their rental car pulled out onto the road. Pete chuckled and patted my shoulder. “I’ve always wondered how a guy like that stays married. She smelled like she wanted to yank that pencil back and stab him with it.”

“I wouldn’t have stopped her,” Joey said. “Well, maybe if she’d gone for him a second time.”

“Yeah, we would have to have stopped her the second time.” I looked over at the trees, which now had circles three feet in diameter cleared around each of them, and little paths through the snow leading to each one. “I wish we could wait until spring.”

“We all do. But we cannot.” Ivor dropped an arm over my shoulders. “We have found all of the family members?”

Pete nodded. “Ready to call as soon as we’re sure what we need to tell them. Jordan’s dad said we may have a problem getting Amy’s grandma out here, though. She’s in a nursing home.”

“For medical reasons, or just because she didn’t have anywhere else to go?”

“Nowhere else to go. She just needed help with everyday activities because of her arthritis, but senior living was too expensive. Oh, and apparently her doctor doesn’t believe in tree people.”

I smiled. Even if I didn’t end up having good news to pass on to Amy’s grandmother, it looked like I’d still be able to do something nice for her. “I can handle that.”

 

The next day we were busy, busy, busy. There was more lab work to be done, supplies to be gotten, and weird problems to be solved – we were going to have to warm up the trees, and the ground around their roots, but we had to do it without cooking them or damaging the finer roots in the root mat just below the surface. The solution ended up being plastic sheeting made into clear ‘tents’ over each tree, with a small heater like the one I’d been using in Pete’s tent under each one. It looked weird as hell, but it was working so that was really all that mattered.

I’d been out checking the temperature under the tents when I saw a familiar car pull up. I ducked out of sight, watching. Mr. Knight went behind the car, getting into the trunk, and then came around the front again carrying a jug of something and started making fast tracks for the circle of tented saplings. No gun that I could see, just the jug…which looked like it had warning labels on it. Son of a bitch. I popped out of hiding. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

He actually tried to run for it, and when I intercepted him he tried to go around me. Unfortunately for him, I can move considerably faster than an average human, especially when that average human is wearing dress shoes in the snow. He didn’t even get close to the trees before I’d slapped the jug out of his hand and cut him off again, showing him my teeth this time in hopes that he would be scared enough to back off or possibly pee on himself.

He didn’t, but surprise did make him hesitate and by that time everyone else was also outside. He started to rant like a fucking cartoon villain when Jo-Jo grabbed hold of him and Larry pulled out handcuffs. “I will sue each and every one of you! I’m going to own your companies by the time I get done with you in court. And then I’m going to have this entire place bulldozed!”

I caught his eye. “You could, but they’ll grow back. Those tap roots are already thirty feet down, Mr. Knight.”

“Poison will work!”

Dave was already shooing people away from the fallen jug; I noticed he hadn’t picked it up out of the snow, or even touched it. “Yeah, this one would have. Who the hell gave you this? No, you know what? Never mind, don’t answer that – the investigation will find them.”

“Investigation…”

“The one I’m about to call out a hazmat team to get started on,” Dave told him, moving so he could look the man in the eye. He was more than pissed. “Methyl viologen dichloride is a restricted-use substance for a reason, Mr. Knight: It’s deadly, and not just to plants. I already know you didn’t buy it yourself, you couldn’t have. So somebody got it for you, and that somebody is going to jail.”

“You could be joining them,” I added. “Or did you forget that California has a citizens’ rights law? So what you were about to try was attempted murder…for what, exactly? Because I’m really confused here. What makes a successful lawyer throw it all away to kill modded humans? Or was it maybe just one particular modded human you were after?”

The spike in his scent was saying ‘oh shit’, but the rest of him just sneered. “You’re not anyone who has authority over me, I’m not speaking with you. Now let me go!”

Jo-Jo rolled his eyes. “No. It’s correct that you can’t be forced to speak to anyone, Mr. Knight. But there is an official posted notice right over there which says no unauthorized people are allowed on the site. You have seen the sign and had it pointed out and explained to you each and every time you’ve showed up here since Dr. Montoya purchased this property, you have even had an on-duty police officer confirm that the notice is enforceable. And Mr. Connors and I are both licensed licensed security officers, and we absolutely do have the authority to detain you until the police arrive to take you into custody. Especially since you just admitted you were here to commit murder.”

“It’s a fucking tree!”

I rolled my eyes; just one tree-person, then. “And you’re a fucking idiot. Doesn’t mean I can kill you with impunity.”

I thought Joey was going to hurt himself trying not to laugh. “Where should we put him, guys? We can’t keep him in the lab, there’s not room.”

“It’s too cold to leave him outside,” Jo-Jo said. “We’ll put him in the back seat of his car for the time being, he’ll be safe and warm enough there.” He gave Mr. Knight a look. “Unless you have more toxic chemicals in your trunk, of course.” The man just glared at him, and this time he rolled his eyes. “Larry, you and Dr. Montoya should probably check the trunk.”

Dave nodded and he and Larry went over there; they were back two minutes later and Dave was absolutely fuming. “Do you have any idea what would have happened to you if those chemicals had combined?” he snapped, and the lawyer’s eyes went wide. “Congratulations, you’re the luckiest wannabe killer on earth today – only the one bottle tipped over, and I’m guessing the fumes weren’t enough to do more than maybe give you a headache. Still, we can’t put you in your car knowing the fumes are there. Whose back seat isn’t full of crap he could hurt himself with?”

“The rental is clean, we can put him there,” Ivor said. “I paid for the extra insurance.”

He probably also inspected it himself before he signed the rental agency’s checklist. You thought I was kidding about him and cars? I wasn’t. “Sounds good,” I said. “That way if he does any damage, we’ll have proof it was him.” Knight looked startled by that, and I barked a laugh. “Holy shit, you really don’t know anything about us, do you? We have covering our own asses down to a science, Mr. Knight – because we’re used to people much smarter and more desperate than you trying to accuse us of things we didn’t do.”

Mr. Knight didn’t have a response to that, but his scent said he knew he was in a lot more trouble than he’d bargained for.

 

Jo-Jo called Dispatch as soon as the lawyer was secured, and they sent three police officers out – one of whom was Officer Kelly – a hazmat team from the fire department to collect Mr. Knight’s illicit chemicals, and a tow truck to get his car. Dave had already gone out with his own protective equipment and set the jug of poison back upright so it wouldn’t keep leaking onto the ground, not to mention marking a no-go barrier around it, so the hazmat technician who evaluated the scene set his guys to work on the car’s trunk while he and Dave discussed the area of the spill and what they should do about it. They ended up digging out about a cubic foot of soil and snow and packing it all into an orange plastic bag with a hazard symbol on it, but the technician told Officer Kelly that was mostly a precaution. “It’s paraquat, it’s just an herbicide,” he explained once the police car carrying Mr. Knight off to jail was gone. “It’ll kill a human, but only if the human ingests it. Still, though, your suspect shouldn’t have had it, and I’m going to make sure whatever pest control service sold it to him under the table loses their license – and if they also sold him the Turf King shit he had in his trunk they’ll be in real trouble, because that one is banned in this state no matter what license you have.”

“Turf King…”

“Contains a non-selective herbicide called prometon,” Dave elaborated. “You use it to sterilize the ground so nothing can grow. That in combination with the methyl viologen dichloride – the paraquat – would in all likelihood have killed the sapling, kept it from growing back…and then gradually killed at least the saplings nearest to the intended victim too, because there’s no way they don’t have intertwined roots after all this time.” He made a face. “Crap, that might actually explain what happened to Seth. He regrew differently than the others, and the experts we had out here said that could only have happened if something had damaged his taproot.”

The technician’s eyebrows went all the way up and so did Officer Kelly’s. “You think…”

Dave held up a hand. “I only suspect at this point, and I’m not sure I can prove it regardless. But it’s possible someone might have already tried to kill Seth once before. If they’d poured herbicide down into what was left of his original trunk, before the wildfire came through…well, it’s a possible and at least somewhat likely explanation for his current condition.”

“Our tests on Seth showed that he has point-two percent more mayfly DNA in his makeup than the other tree people,” I said. “He has antennae. He’s non-responsive. The botanists said that could be consistent with him having regrown from a tuber, which would make him Seth’s offspring.”

“And you aren’t sure you can prove it because…”

“Because the fire would have burned all the evidence up,” the technician told him. “And then Mother Nature scattered its ashes. We might get lucky with a sample from the roots, if we could hit one deep enough to not have been cooked.”

“We can try,” Dave agreed. “We’ll have to uncover the roots on one side anyway, we can try for a sample then.”

“Why not now?” Officer Kelly wanted to know.

“The arborist we’re working with is bringing out a special compressed-air tool for uncovering the roots without breakage,” I said. “We can’t take the chance that an accidentally severed root could cause the tree person to bleed out.” They both got funny looks on their faces. “These are tree people,” I reminded them. “They only look like a tree on the outside. Inside, not so much.”

Officer Kelly swallowed. “I…should have remembered that, yeah. When is the special equipment coming?”

“Tomorrow,” Dave told him. “We’re warming up the ground right now in preparation. Want us to give you a call once we’re ready to start?”

“If I’m not already up here, sure,” he said. “The chief’s about ready to order me to pitch a tent with the rest of you until everything calms down. But either way, we’ll have someone come up with an evidence collection kit, that way it’ll be official.”

And admissible in court, of course. Because if they found chemical traces and that sapling did turn out to be Seth’s offspring instead of Seth…someone had already committed murder.

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4 Comments

  1. Toby

    And the mystery deepens. Thrilled to see another part, I had to reread the original chapter again to see if I had forgotten Seth being mentioned… :p

    • lol, I have to go back and re-read a LOT lately, to make sure the science stays consistent – have to do a lot more research, too. And Seth was mentioned in the previous chapters, he just hadn’t been referred to by name at that point.

      I do not know if I’m going to be able to wrap this one up in Part 4, but if I can’t it will end with Part 5.

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