Renewal, Part 4
The kids haven’t changed much. But some other things have.
The next day, we helped Jason – Mr. Garza, our Master Arborist – blow clear the roots on one side of each sapling, and then we packed the open space with hydrated gel balls. Which were hot pink, because he said that way they were easier to find later. Our tree people really didn’t think much of the compressed air, but they cheered right up when the first application of liquid fertilizer went into the gel ball packing.
Unfortunately, warming up the ground had already brought them halfway out of their winter semi-dormancy.
We prepped Seth the same as the others, but still got no reaction – although he did shudder slightly when Dave and Dr. Chang-Sylva helped the forensic tech get samples from his deeper roots and his tuber. Which he was quite obviously growing out of, he’d just grown up through the ring of the old trunk that had been his parent. I’d already let the detective on the case know that I’d help her break the news to Seth’s mother that her son had been murdered and explain what had happened after.
She’s divorced, and Mr. Knight had been her lawyer. The police didn’t think she’d had anything to do with it, though. Mainly because she’d been divorced six years before the mod incident and immediately after it she’d moved out of state. No contact with Mr. Knight that they could find. And Seth’s father had died in a car accident post-divorce and pre-tree mod, so he was out of the picture too. The police were still digging. They knew there had to be some kind of a connection there, it just wasn’t an obvious one. Because a successful lawyer who really obviously doesn’t know anything about getting his hands dirty does not just wake up one day and decide he’s going to go kill a random modded human with illegally-obtained chemicals he knows next to nothing about.
Snow was threatening to fall again when we injected the mod serum into the saplings’ tiny trunks, but Dave and Joey and Ivor and I all bundled up and stayed outside to monitor the process, one person under each tree-person’s insulating tarp, while Jason went from tarp to tarp so he could observe all of them as much as possible and Dr. Sylva and his wife stayed in the mobile lab with Pete, giving him input for the sims we were running for Seth. Larry and Jo-Jo and Officer Kelly – whose captain had ended up making him come pitch a tent – were keeping watch. The process started off slow, but after approximately ninety minutes things started to speed up. The saplings stretched taller, trunks thickening, and Jason topped everyone off with water and more liquid fertilizer. Vine branches stretched out too, writhing and shaking, and then they started whipping around and we all moved back as far as we could to avoid getting hit. The plugs Dave and Jason had made held safely and eventually sealed over as the slender trunks doubled and then tripled in diameter, adding new layers of outer bark-skin. I could see eyes forming, and ear-structures, and the ground was getting bumpy as the root mat that should have formed years ago spread out to provide support, pushing up hot pink gel balls through the soil and snow.
And that was when I had to leave Jordan’s tarp, ceding my place to Jason, while Pete took Ivor’s place with Amy, and we went back to the meeting tent to watch with Dr. Sylva and his wife from the monitors – Pete had attached cameras to the poles holding up the tarps so we could document the mod process. And so Ivor and I could continue to keep an eye on things once we had to get out of sight, of course. Our tree-people were going to be confused enough when their eyes opened, we didn’t need to compound that by having them see something they would have no visual frame of reference for.
Forty minutes later, Jordan stretched like a person just waking up and came into contact with the tarp. A vine-branch poked at it, and we could tell he was trying to figure out what it was and why it was on top of him. He opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and then poked at Jason and apparently asked who he was. Janey poked at Dave and then dragged him in for a hug – which was cute but still kind of scary to watch. Pete was holding the end of one of Amy’s vine-branches in his hands while he talked to her, and Joey ended up snapping back at a pissed-off Trey that maybe he would have rather just kept dying and coming back over and over again for the next thousand years or so. That was when Jordan lifted up one side of his tarp and told Trey to stop whining and suck it up, because nobody had ever said saving the planet would be easy. And then he went back to questioning Jason about what was in the fertilizer and how it was different from what his mom had been using.
I heard my name about the same time Dave waved at me on the monitor, so I left the tent and walked over there; me cutting across the circle made the other three stop mid-sentence in shock. Janey looked a lot like she had the last time I’d seen her alive, just a little bit smaller and smoother. “Hi Janey.”
A vine-branch grabbed my arm – gently – and pulled me in front of her, turning me this way and that. I let her look, although I did twitch my tail out of the way and that made her laugh. “You’re adorable!”
She’s a fucking tree and she just came back from the dead, so I accepted that and didn’t smack Dave for laughing. “Thank you.”
She hugged me the way she’d hugged Dave, which was weird and just a little bit scary because holy shit even little tree people are pretty strong, and then she pushed me back again. “My mom?”
“We were waiting to tell her until we were sure you were all the way back and the mayfly DNA was out of your system,” I said. “Getting her hopes up and then having something go wrong would have been cruel.”
The bark over one blue eye wrinkled, the tree equivalent of her cocking a skeptical eyebrow. “And you thought she’d try to stop you?”
“That too,” I agreed. “We already had the releases you guys had signed the first time, though, and you’re all adults, so we didn’t need parental permission to try to save you. Are you feeling okay? We didn’t have any way to make the overmod process easier on you.”
She made a face. “It hurt, but I don’t feel sick like I did last time. What are those pink things? Are they biodegradable?”
“They aren’t supposed to be!” Jason called over. “They’re reusable. Once you guys don’t need them anymore, I can gather them up and dry them back out until I need them again.”
“That’s Mr. Garza, he’s the tree expert who’s been helping us figure out how to save you,” I told her. “The gel balls swell up to hold water and then release it slowly, they’re for keeping roots hydrated safely without letting things get wet enough to cause problems. You guys each went through about six gallons of water during the process, it would have turned the ground underneath you into frozen mud.”
“It’s winter.” She squinted out at the landscape. “Oh wow, it’s snowing.”
“It’s been doing a lot of that lately,” Dave said. “I know you don’t like the plastic, but we need to leave it in place for at least a little while longer until we’re sure you guys are stable, okay?”
“Okay, as long as you promise to recycle it.” He nodded and so did I, so she stopped poking at the tarp. “So what now?”
“Now, once we’re sure you guys are okay, we have to try to help Seth’s son.” Her eyes widened. “This is probably an announcement we need to make to all of you at once.” I ducked back out and went from tree-person to tree-person, letting them know we had to talk about something important, and then I stood in the middle of the circle and tried not to shiver, waving Officer Kelly over to join me. “This is Officer Kelly, you guys might remember him being here before,” I said. “He’s out here now with the rest of us because there have been some problems since we found out you were regrowing.”
“My captain sent me out here to help GenoMod make sure you guys stayed safe,” Kelly announced. “We’re glad you guys are back, but there was apparently at least one person who didn’t think that should happen. We have our detective on the case, she’ll probably be up here eventually to talk to all of you about Seth Mason, because we haven’t been able to figure out why someone would want to go to a lot of trouble to make sure he stayed dead.” That got some reactions, and he nodded grimly. “I know. We’re pretty pissed off about it ourselves. You may be tree people, but California has a citizens’ rights law now so what that person did was commit murder.”
“Because you guys are part cinnamon vine yam, though,” I picked up for him, “that didn’t quite work out the way whoever it was wanted it to. They did manage to kill Seth’s root with poison, but his tuber was untouched and his offspring grew from that tuber. He’s in the same spot Seth was because he grew up through the ring of his father’s trunk.”
“Where did all the other trees go?” Trey wanted to know.
“A wildfire went through the area last year,” Kelly told him. “Burned up about ten thousand acres, did a lot of damage. They traced it to a lightning strike, though, it wasn’t caused by humans.”
Officer Kelly is a man who knows how to read his audience. “The fire is what seems to have triggered your regrowth cycle,” I continued. “We had no idea you could come back until Jordan’s dad called us and said he thought you had, and then we ran right up here.”
Amy waved a vine-branch. “Citizens’ rights?”
“Mod science has come a long way in the last few years. There are a lot more modded humans now, the states had to figure out what to do about that. It’s not a human rights issue, because people like you guys and I and Hana…well, we’re not human. So far eight states have passed citizens’ rights laws…”
“Nine,” Pete chimed in. “The Ohio legislature flipped this morning – for the same reason California did, near as anyone can tell. Sports,” he informed the curious tree-people. “Chicago has had a good team for a few years running now, they’ve been mopping the floor with everyone else. So when they decided to get progressive and pass the country’s first citizens’ rights law…well, everyone whose nose they’ve been rubbing in it decided losing to Chicago again was out of the question.”
The tree-people all looked at each other. “So you’re saying,” Jordan said slowly, “that the only reason people like us are getting civil rights…is because of football?”
“If that’s what works, I’ll take it,” I told him. “The mayor of Chicago being a dick about the Bears beating the Chargers was how I got my driver’s license updated. Unfortunately the federal government isn’t that easy to sway, so our rights are entirely state-based right now.”
“Some of them, not all. But the United Nations did rule that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially Article 1 and Article 6, does apply to modded humans and not just current ones.” Something they had very quietly taken care of after officially adding GenoMod to Task Force 27, for obvious reasons, and had doubled down on hard after the incident in Linyante. “Since you’re rooted here, though, California law is the only one you have to worry about on a personal level.” A waft of barely noticeable scent-communication touched the cold air with a slightly acrid edge. “I didn’t say you shouldn’t be concerned about it, just that you don’t need to worry about it.” A different scent, questioning, and I nodded. “Dr. Vargas and I can pick up on your scent, yes – the same way you can pick up on all of ours. Don’t you remember me taking everyone around to introduce them that way when we first got up here?”
The little swaying motion that was apparently a nod went around the circle. “Dr. Vargas is the one that smells like you?”
“He’s a villeluvu just like me, yes – and we’re married, so I know our scents intermingle a lot.”
“Who’s the sweet one?” That came from Janey. “He was here first, with you, but he’s not here now.”
Officer Kelly did his best, but he wasn’t able to keep from laughing. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “It’s just…he’s a great guy, but ‘the sweet one’ is not the way I’d expect someone to describe him.”
“I think you’re talking about Mr. Jolivet, Janey,” I told her, not able to keep from smiling myself. “He’s a security specialist – and yes, his natural scent is on the sweet side. I can go get him in a minute so you can say hello. First, though, we need to talk about Seth’s son some more. I can’t pick up anything from him scent-wise, can you guys tell anything about what’s going on with him? Is he acknowledging your scent-communications in any way, do you think he’s aware of you, is there any way you can tell if he has consciousness?”
Trey lashed a vine-branch. “What if he doesn’t?”
I rolled my eyes. “Then we’ll know that tree-person offspring grown from the tuber may be more tree and less human – or could be the other way around – because apparently hybrids that grow from tubers can be weird that way. We’re still going to use the mod process on him, Trey, we have to. He inherited more mayfly than all of you have, he has antennae. Which means once he hits maturity his lifespan could be just a few days, or even less than that. And he could pass that trait on to your offspring, because in spite of the genetic variation he’s still the same species as the rest of you.”
“Offspring? We’re going to have children?!”
Jason joined Officer Kelly and I in the center of the circle. “You and Amy will eventually bear fruit, yes,” he explained to Janey. “But that might not be for years. And all of you might also eventually be able to produce shoots from your root mats, and those shoots would grow into exact copies of you.”
“Clones,” Joey clarified. “It’s called clonal fragmentation, some of the simpler animals can do it too. You’re not mature enough for that either, though.”
“That’s true, on the tree-maturity scale you’re all still children,” Jason agreed. “A few hours ago you were infants, if that helps any.”
A lot of scent-communication went on. I couldn’t understand most of it – I mean, they’re trees and I’m not – but it was fascinating to smell. And then Amy, who had originally rooted beside Seth, waved her vine-branch again. “Seth’s son isn’t responding to us,” she said. “He sort of does, but more like the way the other trees did before, not the way we talk to each other. He’s aware…but it’s like he doesn’t know why?”
“Like a baby, sort of,” Trey put in. “But a baby that’s…okay, this is gonna sound terrible, but like a retarded baby.”
“The non-terrible term is developmentally disabled,” I told him. “But in a way…well, I don’t want to say that’s a good thing, but it could mean Seth’s son can be taught, that with help he might be able to attain something closer to your level of functioning.”
“You mean we could teach him to be a tree-person, instead of just a tree?”
“We’ll cross our fingers, Jordan.”
And we did, starting the mod process on Seth’s son an hour later while the rest of the tree-people alternated arguing about what they should name him and talking tree-related things with Jason. Our two botanists came out for a little while too, but Jordan and Janey decided almost immediately that they didn’t like Dr. Sylva so he didn’t get a whole lot out of them; Dr. Chang-Sylva, on the other hand, was getting fawned over so much that I thought her husband was going to stroke out from sheer frustration. Dave finally pulled the guy over closer to me and quietly gave him what-for. “The annoyed, woman-how-dare-you scent you’re projecting is setting them off,” he said. “I have no desire to get in the middle of whatever marital problems you’re having, but a tree-person may not share that sentiment since you’re practically screaming every thought at them.”
“I can smell you too,” I chimed in to keep him from questioning how Dave knew that. “But even if I couldn’t, your body language is telegraphing it pretty clearly. Not just your feelings about her, but also your feelings about Mr. Garza. Luckily he’s got enough professionalism to cover both of you. Now are you going to be able to control yourself around your soon-to-be ex-wife, or do you need to go hang out in the mobile lab while she finishes up here?”
Scent spike. “Anne wouldn’t divorce me. Without me…”
“I would hit you, but I don’t want to get in trouble with Officer Kelly,” Amy said abruptly. “Trey is right, you’re a dick.”
I thought I was going to hurt myself holding that laugh in, just because of the look on his face. “Amy, that’s not nice,” I told her. “You shouldn’t try to get in the middle of other people’s relationships, it never ends well.”
The bark over one brown eye wrinkled up. “What if he’s hurting her?”
“He’s not,” I said. “Not physically, anyway. He’s jealous of her professionally, it happens sometimes when people in the same specialty get together.”
Amy made a sniffing noise. “You and Ivor don’t have that problem.”
“Because our relationship is as much biological as it is emotional,” I explained. “We can’t have that problem. Humans aren’t so lucky.” Dr. Sylva had gone from offended to open-mouthed shock, and I cocked an eyebrow at him. “You can’t tell me you hadn’t noticed Ivor and I weren’t human.”
He recovered himself. “No, I just…are you actually superior to us?”
“No,” I said. Holy shit but this man is really hung up on evolution of species. “Non-evolutionary biology doesn’t classify things that way – that would be like saying a cheetah is superior to you because it can sprint really fast and climb trees. The cheetah is only superior if you’re trying to sprint or climb a tree, the rest of the time you’re both just regular animals specialized for your own environments.”
“But someone made you.”
Aaand now we’re edging toward genetic manipulation to produce a master race, lovely. “And I am specialized to suit the purpose I was made for,” I told him. “Not to mention, there are only two villeluvu on earth and they’re both male and, thankfully, both gay. We weren’t created to compete with humans as a species.”
He tried for snooty again, scent saying he thought I was lying. “Then what were you created for?”
And I smiled. Ivor and I had talked about this, and we’d finally figured it out – we’d figured out what Doc in his own crazy way was trying so desperately to do. “To save humans as a species.”
Dr. Sylva went back to the mobile lab. And stayed there. And Dave and I went back to monitoring Seth’s son and trying to explain to Amy and Trey why interfering in other people’s relationships is a bad idea, even if you can smell what’s wrong with them. Although I’m pretty sure I heard Janey ask Dr. Chang-Sylva why she was still married to someone who didn’t respect her achievements as a woman in science…