A World Full of Monsters

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Chapter 48
Renewal, Part 6

Well, at least one thing hasn’t changed.

The next day, we were all firmly in getting-things-done mode. The kids were all stable, but we’d decided to give them some protection from winter until at least the following year so Dave was arranging for a greenhouse setup to replace the tarps. Pete was working on getting them either phones or some kind of internet-connected system they could use the same way, and Joey was talking to the Forest Service about the situation. Mrs. Mason was going to be flying in and meeting with Dave and I and the detective first thing the next morning, and the rest of the parents had been contacted the night before and were expected to show up at the site right after lunch.

The first ones to arrive were Trey’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Castillo, and Kathy Atwell was right behind them. I was in the mobile lab at the time, but I knew Kathy was there because I heard her raised voice before I even heard her car door close, so I left the test results I’d been going over with Ivor and shrugged into my coat to go rescue Dave. Before I could get there, though, Mrs. Castillo had already done it for me. “Shut up!” she snapped. “Just for once shut your stupid mouth! We have them back, that’s all that matters!”

“Tina.” Mr. Castillo put his arm around his wife. “I’m sorry, Dr. Montoya…”

“It’s fine,” Dave told him. “We know this is an emotional situation for everyone. Just like we told you last night, Mrs. Atwell, we weren’t able to fix this issue when the initial modding incident happened – the science literally didn’t exist. What we call the overmod process was only discovered a couple of years ago.”

“You let us think they were dead!”

“As far as we knew, they were,” I said. She did a very satisfying double-take, which I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed as much as I did. “We think it was the wildfire that triggered their regrowth cycle. And honestly, I never would have expected that they could grow back with all of their memories intact – it seems to have been pretty much like waking up from a long night’s sleep for all four of them.”

Mrs. Castillo’s eyes went wide – not that they hadn’t been already. “But…there are five of them. Five.”

“There still are, but the fifth tree-person is now Quinn, Seth Mason’s son.” A few fat white flakes drifted down, followed by a few more. “Come over here into the tent and I’ll explain.”

Kathy rather mulishly set her feet. “I want to see Janey.”

“Not until you calm down,” I told her. “I’ve seen what happens when a tree person gets over-excited, and that will not be allowed to happen here.”

“You said there weren’t any more of them!”

“Religious extremists did it to a village in Africa last year,” Mr. Castillo told her. “The victims all died.”

Which explains why he and his wife didn’t react to seeing me, of course – they’d been following the news. Kathy, not so much. “They could still come back, apparently.”

“No, those can’t.” I shook off the memory of toe-tipped roots tearing out of the ground, of fountains of sap-blood calling the alligators to come feed. “Those trees never had a chance.”

She wasn’t budging. “That’s what you said about Janey and the others!”

“It’s not the same situation. At all.” I took a deep breath. I could smell the fear and hurt, knew the anger was a cover. Partially, anyway. The other part was that Kathy was a control freak. “The tree-people in Linyante had been deliberately planted on the banks of a river that’s prone to flooding. The people who put them there intended for them to die.”

“You could have moved them, transplanted them! I’m going to have Janey moved…”

“No, you aren’t,” Dave countered firmly. “We already looked into that possibility, for safety reasons. They can’t be moved, it would kill them. Even with the advanced techniques they have now for moving trees, there would still be some root breakage and they would bleed to death.”

Kathy’s resolve wavered slightly. “Is that what happened to the ones in Africa?”

“Partially. One of them ripping himself out of the riverbank started it…and the alligators finished it when they smelled the blood-sap in the water.” She started to stubborn up again, the Castillos’ scents were spiking and so was Dave’s, and as ashamed as I am to say it, I lost my temper. “You want to see what I saw out there, Kathy, is that what it will take to convince you? Because there is video. I was standing right beside the man who was filming it while we ran for our fucking lives because some of the alligators were big enough to capsize our boat.” A clawed handpaw landed on my shoulder, reassurance and home settling over me like a blanket, and I sighed, doing my best to let it go; weirdly, being able to read Kathy’s scent was making it harder for me to deal with her, not easier. And using some of Wu’s pixie dust before today’s meet-up hadn’t been an option, because our tactless tree-children would have been able to pick it up from my scent – Larry says it makes me smell like I’ve been chewing tutti-frutti bubble gum. “I understand that you’re upset, and I understand why – we all do. But you’re not getting anywhere near Janey or the others when you’re reacting like this. I know you wouldn’t mean to hurt them, but you could cause them to hurt themselves if you get Janey too worked up, because they are all really protective of each other. So please, come into the tent, let Dr. Montoya and I explain everything while you calm down, and then you can go visit with Janey all you want.”

She was staring open-mouthed at Ivor. “Oh my god, there are two of you.”

Maybe she only watches local news. “This is my husband, Dr. Vargas – he’s a geneticist, just like me.”

“Only much larger,” Ivor tacked on with a smile. He offered his handpaw to Trey’s parents, who both took it, but he didn’t offer it to Kathy – not just because he was mad. Honestly, Rick had advised all of us to have as little physical contact with lawsuit-happy Kathy as we possibly could, and that if we did have any it needed to be fully on camera. “Please, this way. The tent is heated, as are the temporary shelters we erected over your son and the others.”

“The snow could hurt them?”

I shook my head. “The cold makes them sleepy, sends them into a mostly dormant state – perfectly normal for the plant part of their makeup, and not all that unusual for the mammal part either. We’re going to keep them warm and sheltered this winter so we can monitor their progress, and then let them ease back into the natural rhythm of the seasons when they’re ready.” Kathy’s scent spiked, and I pinched the bridge of my nose. She was giving me a headache. “In theory we could keep them in a permanent climate-controlled habitat, but it might not be the best thing for them and they’ve all said they don’t want that anyway. They only agreed to leave the tarps on because we promised we’d recycle them later.” I heard an engine, and my ears went up; Kathy reacted again, because she’s wound just that tight. “That must be Mrs. Eames. Dr. Vargas and I can wait out here for her if the rest of you want to get out of the snow.”

“It’s not that bad, we can wait,” Mrs. Castillo said immediately. “I haven’t seen Maggie since before the wildfire came through.” And she didn’t want to be alone with Kathy, apparently. She made a show of looking around. “It looks so strange without all the trees and things now.”

“The environment is reviving,” Dave assured her. “We had some tree- and plant-experts out to help us, and they did a general site survey. In another ten years this area will look pretty much like it did before, just without all the houses.”

That got Mr. Castillo back into it. “Do you think they’ll rebuild? We keep hearing about developers and things taking an interest.”

Dave shrugged. “We heard that too, but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it. And if there ends up being an EPA investigation because of that old dump Mrs. Atwell’s part of the edition was built over, no developer in their right mind is going to touch this place.”

Nobody’s scent spiked, so none of them had apparently known anything about that. Mrs. Eames pulled in and parked, then just sat there for a minute looking around before getting out of her car. She was still looking around as she walked over to us, her scent a weird mix of sadness and anger and…frustration? “It looks so different, so…bare.” She accepted a hug from Mrs. Castillo, but absently, like she was only doing it because it was expected of her. She ignored Kathy. And then she looked around again, scent becoming slightly acrid. “I suppose Jordan’s father isn’t coming today?”

My ears went up in surprise; so did Ivor’s. We traded a look and some scent-communication with Dave, who was visibly baffled too. “He was here yesterday, Mrs. Eames. He knows he can’t come back today.”

More acrid scent. “Because I’m here.”

Okay, something wasn’t right. “Yes, because the restraining order says he can’t have any contact with you.”

“That again.” She sighed. “There is no restraining order. It’s all a lie because he doesn’t want to face me.”

We all traded looks again. “Mrs. Eames, there most certainly is a restraining order.” She wasn’t buying it. “Our lawyer confirmed it – he said to not even let your ex-husband pass you on the road coming out here.”

“No, that’s not right,” she insisted. “I never filed a restraining order! People keep saying that, I suppose because Jamie keeps telling them that, but it’s not true!” She gave me an unfriendly look. “And why are you a dog now?”

That one caught me so much by surprise that I thought my eyebrows were going to shoot right off the top of my head. “We are villeluvu, more closely related to wolves than dogs,” Ivor told her politely, scent saying he was amused. “Canis villeluvu albus, to be specific. Did your lawyer perhaps file the order for you? He has been here several times, he was most insistent on making certain the terms of your divorce regarding the sale and use of this land were being closely followed.”

Her mouth opened and closed a few times before anything came out, and her cheeks flushed; her scent was saying she’d just realized how rude she was being. “Mr. Knight was out here?”

“More than once,” I told her. “As to where he is now…okay, for this we all really do need to go sit down. No,” I said when her mouth and Kathy’s both started to open again. “No, this is actually something you all need to know about before you talk to the kids – we were going to have to have a talk with you before you talked with them regardless, so let’s go get that out of the way.”

Once everyone was settled into the camp chairs that were strung around the table, Dave and I dove right in with the condensed version of what had been going on at the property since we’d been called in to check on the regrown saplings. “As soon as we knew everything was okay, we contacted all of you,” Dave finished up. “Mrs. Simpson was here yesterday, because Dr. Darling had to go into town to convince her doctor that mod science was real and her granddaughter really was a tree-person. And Mrs. Mason won’t be here until tomorrow, because she’s flying in from out of state and the detective over Seth’s case is picking her up.”

Kathy’s scent was – thankfully – more confused than belligerent now. “Are you sure Seth is dead? The others…”

“We’re sure,” I said. “The poison burned out Seth’s taproot, all that’s left of it is rotted biomatter. The others’ taproots were still intact, and that’s how they grew back.”

“So they can all produce…offspring?” Mrs. Castillo wanted to know.

“They can,” Dave told her. “In multiple ways. Ginkgo trees have males and females, just like humans do, so Janey and Amy will eventually produce fruit with seeds. All five of them can also grow tubers which can grow into offspring as well. Or they could send out shoots that would grow into new trees which would be genetically identical to them.”

For some reason, that made Mr. Castillo’s scent spike with sick dismay. “So it’s just like the man the government sent to talk to us said, they could eventually spread out and become a problem.”

We’d been expecting that to come up – there was no way he hadn’t made the rounds of all the parents. Dave opened up the picture on his phone and handed it over. “You mean this government agent?” The phone got passed around, and every single one of them nodded. “Yes and no. Can they produce offspring and spread out? Yes. Is it a problem? Only if someone has a problem with modded humans in the first place.”

Kathy was smelling stubborn and sick all at once. “But he said they were a threat to humanity, and we should be glad they’d died on their own because if they hadn’t the government would have had to destroy them.”

That inhuman bastard. “That was a lie,” I told her. “The agent who spoke to all of you was a rogue agent, acting without authority. He’s gone now, and their project has been disbanded.”

“Gone…as in dead?” she almost squeaked.

“Um, no, he’s not dead,” Dave said.  “Not exactly, anyway. Someone he…double-crossed got hold of him, he’s permanently brain-damaged and living in a special facility.”

A suspicious look. “Did you do it?”

That got another semi-violent reaction from Mrs. Castillo. “Kathy!”

“They do things! The newspapers say so!”

I sighed and reached over to pat Mrs. Castillo’s hand with my handpaw – an action that had the added benefit of absolutely horrifying Kathy, because it gave her a much closer look at my claws. “Mrs. Castillo, it’s okay. We’ve been accused of worse, believe me. And no, Mrs. Atwell, the only thing we did to him was try to fix as much of the mess his kidnapper made as we could.”

“We couldn’t give the agent back his mind, but we did what we could to mitigate the physical issues so he’d be more comfortable,” Dave said, anger lending an edge to his voice that made her eyes widen…but scent-wise and posture-wise, she still wasn’t budging. “Okay, they’re your nightmares.” He handed her his phone again. “Swipe right and then right again – that’s the before and after.”

Kathy didn’t make it to the second swipe, because the first one made her scream and Mrs. Eames took the phone away from her before she could drop it. She gave the picture a hard look, swiped, then nodded and swiped back before handing the phone to Mrs. Castillo. “I recognize that, it’s some kind of mole.”

Mr. Castillo leaned in to look with his wife. “Holy Mary Mother of God.”

“Yeah, it was…well, when the authorities found him they called us to come take a look, and we knew we couldn’t leave him like that – there wasn’t a facility on earth that could have taken him,” Dave explained. “Using the overmod process made his body suit his remaining brain-function better, and allowed him to be cared for in a zoo environment. The animal behaviorists there say he’s content and healthy and doesn’t exhibit any undue stress behaviors.”

“That’s…that’s good, I guess.” Mrs. Castillo handed his phone back. “And the rest of his people?”

“Disbanded with extreme prejudice by the government,” I told her. “According to what we know, it was basically a tiny little project that was supposedly shut down, but the higher-ups lost track of them so they just kept going without any oversight. In other words: The actions of the agent who came up here were unsanctioned. The U.S. government couldn’t care less about a handful of tree people living in the mountains in Northern California. Their current strategy for dealing with modded humans is just not to deal with them at all.”

“Which means if someone ever comes around and tries to feed you a line like that again,” Dave added, “get away from them and call the police.”

Mr. Castillo swallowed. “What if they come here instead?”

“We’re working on that,” I assured him. “After the incident with Mr. Knight, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into how best to keep the kids safe. Dr. Cristal spent most of the morning talking to the Forest Service, in fact, to see if they’d be interested in putting a ranger station up here to keep an eye on this area. They’re supposed to get back to us.”

“The station would be on-site, I’d rent them the land for a dollar a year or something – retaining ownership will let me keep an extra layer of control over the situation just in case anything ever comes up.” Dave stood up. “Okay, everyone knows what’s what now, so let’s go see the kids.”

Ivor and I stood up too. “I’m going to go call the station,” I said, nodding to Mrs. Eames. “They had an abuse-of-authority issue crop up at the courthouse a few days ago, the restraining order you say you didn’t file might be connected to that.”

She froze. “Mr. Knight?”

“No idea. The police will sort it out.” She nodded, but she was lagging a bit in following the others and her scent said…oh, of course she’d be worried about that. Because Jordan also thought she’d filed a particularly nasty restraining order against his dad. I considered for a second, then caught up with her and took her arm. “Okay, first things first. Let’s not keep Jordan waiting, he already knows you’re here.”

Ivor fell into step on her other side, and together we walked her over to Jordan. Who lifted up his tarp as soon as we got close, twisting around so he could see her, reaching out a vine-branch. “Mom, what’s the matter? Why are you scared?”

Tree scents spiked all around the circle. “She thinks you’re going to be mad at her, Jordan,” I told him, giving her a little nudge to get her within his reach. “She says she didn’t file a restraining order against your dad, she thought he was lying about it all this time because he didn’t want to talk to her.”

“Mr. Knight?” I nodded – there’s no point in hedging with someone who can smell the truth. “If he comes up here again, can I kill him? It’s not like they can put me in jail.”

Ivor raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a road you wish to go down?”

His scent was noncommittal, I kept mine that way too, and after a few seconds Jordan sighed. “No. Well, I wish I could, but…holy shit, Dad would come up here and burn me down himself. And he’d be right to do it, too.” He considered his mother, then pulled her into a very gentle hug. “Okay, it looks like we’ve got some stuff to talk about, Mom. Things have…changed, and not just with me…”

He let the tarp fall again, and we started walking back to the mobile lab. I put my arm around Ivor’s waist, leaning into him. Home. “We should probably stop calling Jordan a kid, huh?”

He chuckled, his arm going around my shoulders. “It will be difficult not to, but we should try.” He leaned over, not quite nuzzling my ear so he could whisper, “That woman who is Janey’s mother, I have never before seen anyone like her.”

I had to laugh. “Lucky you.”

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