Chloe glanced again at the handsome man who was lingering at a sculpture. The sculpture was a caryatid, a column shaped like a woman, in this case, a celestial being. He gazed up at the stone carving of the heavily robed Herald of the Gods. The Herald too seemed to gaze down at him. She pointed up to the heavens with a hand that held a scroll, the scroll upon which was written the spell that brought the world into being. Her other arm bent gracefully behind her head. The sculptor had captured the moment just before the herald unrolled the scroll and read the spell. The moment when she stretched after a long journey from the center of creation to its outer edge, where the gods had deigned the mortal world should be placed. The moment before she spoke the spell and the world bloomed into existence.
The Herald had been one of fourteen columns that supported the roof of a great temple in the ancient world. Now, she was the centerpiece of the permanent “Ancient Nature” exhibit of the city’s natural history museum.
A gang of schoolkids nearby marveled at a holographic image in a glass case—a virtual kangaroo—as if it were the real thing. Chloe glanced between the kids and the sculpture of the Herald, specifically at the giant orb that sat behind the Herald’s head. It was meant to represent the black star, the home of the gods. And generations ago, when the column was first brought to the museum, it represented the Earth to many. But Chloe scoffed at what it reminded her of now, the bubble in which they all lived. She immediately scolded herself. Those kids would never be able to see a real kangaroo, or even a sheep, or a pigeon, or a cat, or a dog. Aside from the insects, there were no real animals left on the planet.
People would not have been left either, if not for the most adaptable organ that nature ever produced in an animal, the human brain.
Chloe rubbed a hand over her bare forearm, remembering that she too was a benefactor of that organ. She would not be alive if it were not for the fruits of human ingenuity.
But did that same ingenuity cause the extinction of all the world’s other animals? Even now, over a hundred years after the last great extinction, the debate still raged. Chloe too had never seen a kangaroo. She too could not fathom that there were once birds soaring in flocks overhead on any random Tuesday. And once, she had felt as sorry for herself as she now felt for those children, that the closest she could get to having a pet was to watch archived videos of children from centuries past, frolicking with their pets. At the same time, it seemed so dangerous, to have a real animal in one’s home. Chloe had a canine unit, Fozz. He was warm and cuddly. He panted and whined, begged for treats, and he even mildly disobeyed her on occasion. But in the end, he was completely under her control.
There would be real animals again, someday, likely within her lifetime. She had plans to visit the zoo once it finally opened after the hundredth false start. Cloning was still such a tricky procedure that it might as well be called chance. But she couldn’t quite imagine what it would be like if Fozz were a real animal. She was just as afraid as many were at the prospect that cloning might someday produce animals that could once again live among them. People could be dangerous. People could be unpredictable. But people were familiar. Animals, on the other hand…
There had to be some that were still alive in the wild, just as so many had survived previous extinction events. Maybe they were small, so small they evaded the scouting drones that made their rounds through the still-damaged parts of the globe, surveying for areas that were ready for reintegration.
Chloe snapped herself out of her musing. She absently rubbed her elbow and glanced again at the man. He checked his watch, put his hand in his pocket, and strolled away from the Herald, casting his gaze around the suite as if wondering where to go next. He seemed to be there alone. No kids. No partner. She decided to approach him.
She was still walking slowly toward him when she heard a sudden scream. She turned toward the sound and saw a boy bursting into a fit of giggles as his friend wiggled a rubber snake at him. A nearby docent left her station by the entrance to the suite to remind the children that horseplay was only allowed in the designated areas.
Chloe turned back toward the man, who was also turning away from the commotion as he quickly moved toward a window. She saw him take his cellular from his pocket and set it on the windowsill. He turned around and surveyed the suite as if looking for someone. He was near the entrance to the suite. Many people were coming and going. So his gaze passed right over her even though she was still walking toward him.
Suddenly, he rushed out of the suite. Chloe stopped. She sighed and let him go. He must have been with someone after all. The museum would close in half an hour. He probably had dinner plans or something. She squinted at the windowsill before which he’d been standing and frowned when she saw that his cellular was still there. He’d forgotten it in his rush to leave.
She walked up to the windowsill and smelled the lingering scent of a musky cologne. She sneezed. It was too much cologne. She decided that she could at least do a good deed for the handsome stranger. She picked up the cell, and turned to look for a docent, so she could be directed to their “lost and found.” But then, she spotted him returning to the suite from the smaller entrance on the opposite wall. He strode up to the central sculpture again, glancing up at the Herald.
Chloe walked slowly toward him, feeling her face turn hot, imagining it to be some furious shade of red. Annoyed with her ridiculous reflex, she reminded herself that she was just returning his cell.
“I think you’ll need this,” she said as she stepped toward him.
He turned to her, his brow slightly creased in confusion. When his gaze dropped to her outstretched hand and fell upon the cellular, his eyes widened.
The cell began to vibrate. She heard a click from above them. The man suddenly grasped her arms with his hands and swung her away and down.
Chloe stumbled and fell back hard on her bottom and elbow. She grunted and gasped in pain as before her and above her, something burst from the statue of the Herald of the Gods.
In multiple bursts, vines sprouted in all directions. They crawled over the Herald and stretched toward the other exhibits. They were already climbing the walls. People had started screaming and running as soon as they heard the crack of the “seed.”
Chloe glanced around. She rose and held a hand to her aching tailbone. The seed cast out layer upon layer of squirming, twining, climbing vines. The entire suite would soon be covered. She spotted the man, ushering some kids out of a quickly closing entrance to the suite. A curtain of vines already blocked the entry, but it was still thin enough to be pushed out of the way.
She had to catch up to him. Identify him for the authorities. He was one of them. Those eco-radicals who believed that it was human hands that caused the catastrophe that killed all their fellow animals, by taking too much of their territory, by tipping the natural balance. Those eco-radicals who believed that human hands should restore the balance, by restoring that territory. That device that the man had planted on the statue of the Herald was a terraform bomb.
By the end of the day, there would be no “Ancient Nature” exhibit. There might no longer be a museum. A place that according to the eco-radicals, “pathetically tries to remember what was destroyed.” Paintings of animals. Taxidermied heads and bodies.
She’d dropped the man’s phone. She picked it up. She would turn it in to the authorities. She ran toward an alternate exit, already treading on a vine-covered floor. It was a super-vine, capable of growing to hundreds of times its original size in a matter of moments, without a continuous supply of sunlight or nutrients. That was because all the nourishment it needed for the first bursts of growth were contained in the seed. Chloe had always wanted to see one grow in person, but not like this. Super-seeds were used for planned eco-restoration. They weren’t meant for violent vandalism and destruction.
She glanced back and saw that the man had spotted her and was running toward her. She reached the entrance. It was covered in a thick wall of vines. She tried to push through, but even as she pushed, more strands grew. If she just forced her body through, she would get trapped.
“It’s blocked,” the man said. Everyone else had escaped the suite by then. The only sound Chloe heard was the crackling sound of the super-vine still growing, and the cracking and shattering of glass as the weight of the super-vine pressed on the windows.
She backed away from the blocked entrance, and from the man.
It was strange. His features looked so sinister now. That severe jaw. That sharp nose. Those jittery eyes.
“Hurry, before the main entrance is blocked too,” he said, stepping toward her. “And give me that phone.”
Chloe gripped the phone harder. “It’s evidence.”
“You want them to think you were involved?”
She started walking sideways toward the main entrance. She was prepared to be trapped in there with him, if it meant that she could keep him there for the authorities. A spike of fear pierced her gut at the thought.
The man followed her steps, but was careful to keep his distance.
“We shouldn’t be here, you know,” he said. “Check the phone. There’s a timer. It would have gone off about fifteen minutes after doors closed, even the docents and guards would have been clear of this suite.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying? No one was meant to get hurt. But it’s got a proximity trigger. It went off early because you brought it to me.”
“I guess this is all my fault then,” Chloe said.
The man’s chest and shoulders rose as he took what appeared to be a deep and controlled breath. “Yes, actually. If you’d minded your own business, neither of us would be here right now.”
Chloe stopped walking. “If I’d minded my own business, you wouldn’t have been trapped and caught here.”
His frown suddenly melted away. She caught a flash of fear, maybe worry, in his eyes. He stepped toward her.
When he’d tossed her earlier, she hadn’t been prepared. She was prepared now. If he thought she was a thorn in his side before, she would show him just how hard and sharp and deep a thorn she could really be. She felt a rippling just under her skin.
He suddenly stopped, his eyes widening. He gulped as he put his hand in his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He brought his hand out of his pocket and tossed something at her face.
She couldn’t react in time. She blinked and cried out as her eyes and face began to prickle. She smelled that musky cologne again and sneezed.
The next thing she knew, Chloe was opening her eyes as someone spoke to her, a woman, asking her questions about her name, what day it was, and what happened. Before her, Chloe saw a chaos of first responders and their vehicles amid museum-goers. It was just starting to grow dark and the flashing lights were the brightest lights in the area. The museum was dark. She was sitting up against a wall with two paramedics kneeling on either side of her.
“This is a new one,” one of the paramedics said. “Usually it’s on the back of the hand.” He had a gloved hand on her right shoulder.
Still dazed, Chloe turned her head to look at what he was seeing.
“What…” she mumbled, unable to say more. Her muscles felt nervous and tired at the same time.
But the paramedic answered. “It’s a tattoo of a lily.”
His partner tilted her head toward Chloe. “It looks fresh. We assume you didn’t get this?”
Chloe said nothing. She just wanted to sit and breathe.
“You’ll be just fine, miss,” the first paramedic told her, as a police detective approached. He placed a hand upon her own. “You’ll be safe.”
As Chloe listened, the police officer explained what had happened. They had found her lying unconscious against the building.
The tattoo on her arm looked like the one that a particular group of eco-radicals often marked potential recruits with.
Chloe had heard about this on the news. If someone donated to an organization that performed eco-restoration and preservation, or volunteered for such organizations, or was awarded multiple quarterly conservation awards by utility companies on multiple occasions, then that person might wake up one day to find a tattoo on the back of her hand. It was some kind of temporary mark, made of biodegradable ink, likely received when the unsuspecting person shook hands with someone over the previous few days, someone who used both hands, one to shake, and one to leave that mark on the back of the potential recruit’s hands.
A few days after the tattoo appeared, the potential recruit would receive a message with instructions on how to contact the organization if one was ready to join.
Many people tried to help catch the eco-radicals by providing the link to the authorities. Police officers had attempted to go undercover to infiltrate the eco-radicals. The tactics worked with other eco-radical groups. But not this particular one.
At any given time, a third of the population was marked with those tattoos. Various flowers that no longer grew in the wild.
Chloe went home after giving her statement, and letting the police forensic team collect swabs of her face for traces of whatever the man had used to knock her out. They hadn’t found any phone on her. The man—the eco-radical—had taken it.
Fozz greeted her as she entered, wagging his tail and looking up at her with glistening expectant eyes. She smiled and ruffled his head. But she didn’t have the energy to give him much more attention that night. She pressed the hibernate button behind one ear. As he wound down, he walked over to his floor bed, curled up and went to sleep for the night.
She sighed and went to her bathroom mirror. She turned to see the tattoo on her right arm, just under her shoulder. She dipped a paper towel in alcohol and dabbed the tattoo. She knew it wouldn’t work, but it was worth a try. Her skin prickled and rippled in reaction to the alcohol.
She took a shower to wash off the day. When she came out, she saw that there were several messages on her cell from friends. And a few missed calls from her mother. She called her mother back, and responded to the messages. News had broken of the attack on the museum. And those who’d known she was going that day had tried to reach her after they’d heard.
She turned on the news and found the story, hoping there were developments. She caught the middle of an interview with the spokesperson for Trillium, the region’s major eco-restoration organization.
“Exactly. A few of the people in today’s attack were severely injured. Just because there were no deaths doesn’t mean these acts should be ignored. Those who go about supporting an ideal in a criminal way only do a further disservice to the cause they believe in. This isn’t the way. And frankly, it undermines what I and my organization and others like it have been successfully doing for years. And it undermines us as much as our opposition.”
“What do you think they’re trying to accomplish?” the interview asked.
“The hell if I know.”
“How do you respond to those who say that you and your organization are a front for this criminal organization? That you are secretly funding them, and perhaps are even the ones who are in charge? I mean they’re calling themselves Neotrillium after all.”
“How do I respond? See my previous statement. More damage done means eventually I and my organization will lose all legitimacy and funding. Does that seem wise?”
“Some would argue that you only need to stay in business long enough to see your ultimate plan through.”
“And what would that be?”
“I don’t know, Doctor. But maybe you can tell us.”
“I could, if the rumors were true. But I’m afraid I’m not that newsworthy. Boring stories about people planting trees and studying environmental imbalances for decades isn’t salacious enough to make the papers.”
Chloe shook her head and raised a glass to the representative of Trillium.
Her cell buzzed again. She answered it absently. “Mom, I’m going to bed now. I’ll call you first thing in the morning. I prom—“
“You’re the one, aren’t you?” The voice was not her mother. But it took a moment for Chloe to realize that it was familiar. “You’re the one we’ve been searching for.”
It was him.
She didn’t bother asking him how he’d gotten her number. They had their ways. They knew where she lived. She had lied to her mother and told her that the police were keeping an eye on her place that night. She wasn’t worried. But her mother had been.
“Can we meet?” the man said.
Chloe hesitated. “Sure, let me just call the detective who gave me his number earlier.”
“I won’t hurt you.”
“The last time I saw you, you pretty much threw sand in my face. No deal.” She activated the program that the police had installed on her phone. They hadn’t had much luck using it to trace any communications, but they always had to try.
“That’s fair. But you know I could just come to your front door.”
“That sounds like a threat.” She pressed another button, the one that would summon the police to her place.
“It sounds like one, but it isn’t one.” He paused. “Between the two of us, who is the greater threat?”
Chloe’s gaze roved around her apartment. She moved to the kitchen and considered the knife block. “You are,” she said.
“Do you know what we’re really trying to do?”
“Right now? You’re either trying to recruit me or…silence me.”
“Silence you?” He laughed. “Do you have something on us? On me? You don’t even know my name.”
“Do you know mine?”
“Of course I do, Chloe.”
Chloe froze. Her chest seemed to seize up. She knew they would have her name and all the ways to contact her. But it was one of those things. Half the people she knew had a story about finding a tattoo on their hand one morning and ignoring the recruitment messages until the tattoo vanished a week later. That’s how it was supposed to be.
She wasn’t supposed to receive a call. She wasn’t supposed to actually hear a criminal say her name. A slew of new suspicions rose in her mind. Was he even a member of any organization? Or was he just a lone criminal?
As if in answer, she heard a click and a new voice spoke.
“Stop scaring her and tell her your name, dummy.” It was a female voice. She sounded young.
“She’s not going to believe you,” the man said. “I can spoof a fake voice.”
“I have to try something. You’re botching it big time. We’re losing her. We probably already lost her. We’ve lost you, haven’t we Chloe?”
Chloe said nothing. But her chest relaxed a bit and she took a silent breath.
“Well, if we’ve lost you, we’ve lost you,” the man said. “I’ll take the heat for that. And I’ll make sure—“
“We’ll make sure,” the female voice said.
“Yes, we’ll make sure that you’re not bothered again.”
Chloe’s skin prickled. No, she thought, I’ll make sure of that.
Whether or not that girl’s voice was fake, it had served to banish some of her fear.
“Do you know what we’re trying to do, Chloe?” the man asked. “What we’re really trying to do?”
“Based on your actions? You’re trying to throw the planet back into the stone ages.”
“We’re trying to do the same thing that Trillium does, only more efficiently.”
Efficiently? Chloe frowned. “Building takes time.”
He was silent for a few beats.
“True, but sometimes it takes so long that it never gets done at all.”
“Do you really think that what you’re doing is building? It’s not as if you set the bomb off in some abandoned warehouse.”
“It wasn’t a bomb.”
“You ruined a museum.”
“What did that museum do for anyone? Those kids could see a hologram of an animal in their own homes. What’s the difference?”
“Holograms? You destroyed actual artifacts, fossils.”
“Nothing is destroyed. It’s all still there under the vines.”
“What do you want? I’m not interested in joining you.”
He was silent for a few breaths. Chloe heard the distant sound of sirens.
“We don’t want you to join us,” he said. “We want you to…” He sighed. “I’d rather do this in person.”
“You want me to what?” Chloe felt her left hand curl into a fist.
“We want you to lead us.”
“We know who you are. We know about the accident and the treatment that saved you, and the side effects. We know you purchase large quantities of an epidermal cosmetic that helps you to hide the evidence of those side effects. We know that you moved to this region a decade ago with your mother. And we know you just want to live a quiet life.”
By the time he finished speaking, all of Chloe’s fear had dissipated. But it was being replaced by something else, something she had to put a stop to, anger.
“You’re…evidence that we are capable of doing something beautiful with science and nature,” the man said.
Chloe breathed in a slow breath. “So was that museum. Are you planning to do to me what you did to it?”
“It’s a building. Everything in that building was dead, inanimate. Now it’s a living thing. You’re already a living thing. An extraordinary living thing.”
He hadn’t revealed enough for her to tell what he actually knew.
Even if he did, she couldn’t quite count on her own hazy memory of events to confirm anything.
She’d had severe burns over most of her body. There was a group doing research into chloroplast patches or grafts in an attempt to test whether human beings could photosynthesize, convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into food in the form of sugar, the way plants could. Burn victims we’re ideal candidates. But with other proven therapies available, many were reluctant to volunteer. Chloe had been too hurt to make any decisions for herself. Her mother was the person she’d designated. The research group had government approval and the funding to cover all of Chloe’s medical bills, if she allowed them to perform the procedure on her. Her mother gave permission.
Over the course of many years, they studied her as she lay still in a special hospital bed, in a special unit designed just for her. The burns should have made her more subject to infection. Exposure to sunlight might have caused skin cancer in her already damaged skin. Even if the photosynthesis worked, it might not be useful to human beings who, unlike her, would not stay put in one place and couldn’t afford to expose enough skin for the process to be worthwhile.
She underwent several rounds of grafts over the course of the first year, drifting in and out of consciousness. Even when she did wake, she wasn’t completely lucid. But the procedures worked. Carbon dioxide and sunlight went in. Glucose and oxygen came out. Her body used the glucose as food, and her skin “exhaled” the oxygen, which her lungs then inhaled.
Her condition was monitored by internal and external bioethics committees and experts. There were a few other patients in the trial, in different regions. And her mother had given permission. Yet the situation felt inherently unethical. And what was learned may never be directly applicable to waking, walking human beings.
Chloe lay in that unit for years, a living laboratory.
After the first year, Chloe was able to stay mostly awake, but still was not mobile. Several changes and improvements were made to her grafts. An array of “leaves” were grafted onto her skin, which vastly increased the surface area. They lifted up and down like soft scales. Her own body began to adapt, her own cells commandeering photosynthesis by producing their own chloroplasts.
They found aphids on her one time. A plant fungus another time. The fungus didn’t seem to be hurting her. It might have been some kind of symbiotic relationship. But they got rid of it anyway, in case it contaminated their research.
One time, her skin grew tiny thorns, covered in a secretion that caused irritation. There was a new researcher on the team. Someone Chloe took an instant dislike to for no particular reason. The rest of the team believed she’d grown those thorns by reflex to protect herself from him.
Her body produced a plant infrastructure that kept fluids constantly moving without the need for physical movement and the micro-pumping through valves that happened when humans moved. The researchers believed that was how she was able to avoid bedsores.
Then, one day, she was ready to get out of bed.
It took even more time, for her atrophied muscles to regain their tone and strength. But the more she moved, and the more she behaved as a human, the less her body behaved as a plant. After some time, she stopped photosynthesizing.
Chloe lost almost seven years of her life lying in a hospital bed recovering from burns that should have killed her. In the end, she was grateful, but she also wanted to do something with the life that the researchers had saved. And just lying in a lab photosynthesizing was not that something.
But that too was the part of the project, monitoring patients after their return to normal life. Aside from patches of green skin that she felt the need to cover with make-up, and the occasional plant-like reaction to stress, Chloe was able to live that normal life. She was able to enjoy the everyday glories of eating chocolate cake, getting a strike at bowling, and giving a tear-jerker speech at a friend’s wedding. And she was able to enjoy the freedom granted to her by anonymity.
In her old region, her story—if not her name—was known by most. But where she lived now, she was just an ordinary citizen. And that’s what she would continue to be.
“It’s not a recruiting tool,” the man said, disrupting her reverie. “The tattoo. It’s a search tool.”
Chloe blinked, recalling herself to the present conversation. She listened.
“If it finds the right person, the person with the right biochemistry, it won’t fade after a week.”
He’s bluffing, Chloe thought. Don’t respond.
“I believe you when you say you disapprove of how we do things. That’s why you’re still talking to me. You’re trying to plant a seed. I see it. A seed of doubt. A seed of thought. You know how you can grow that seed, not just in me but in others in our organization?”
Chloe gave a silent sigh.
“You can lead us,” he said. “Guide us.”
There was a knock at her door.
“The police are here,” Chloe said.
“Please think about it,” the man said. “As a sign of good faith, I’ll give you my name. It’s Liam.”
“Sounds fake,” she said, as a quip, and as soon as she said it, she realized that his name was basically the last four letters of Neotrillium. So…definitely fake.
The police knocked again and called her name this time.
“Assuming you’re a decent person at the core,” Chloe said. “You and your friend both, I hope you come to your senses someday soon.” She hung up.
After she explained what had happened, one of the two officers who’d come to her door searched outside her building, while the other questioned her. It was rare that potential recruits received a phone call.
“You must be of special interest to them,” the officer questioning her said. She informed Chloe that the detective Chloe had met earlier that day was also on his way.
The officer glimpsed the hibernating canine. “He doesn’t have any guard-dog features, does he?” She raised her brows already guessing the answer. Fozz was a small dog.
“Companionship only,” Chloe said. She wrapped her hands around her elbows.
The officer peered at her. “It’s normal to be shaken.” She reached out as if to place a comforting hand on her arm.
Chloe stepped back and pulled her arms away.
The officer too took a step back. “Okay, my mistake. We’ll stay here tonight. You can sleep. You can stay up. Your choice. And in the morning, we’ll figure out some kind of long-term surveillance to keep you safe.”
“And my mother.”
The office nodded. “Yes, you and your family.”
“Thank you, Officer.” She glanced down at her arms, then up at the officer again. “I’m—sorry.”
The officer shook her head. “Don’t be.”
Chloe went to her bathroom to wash away the microscopic droplets of dew that had formed on her skin. She would put on a long-sleeved shirt, just in case one of the officers accidentally touched her. She had to do a better job of controlling her anger. She’d come a long way from prickly thorns. She didn’t want to risk doing any permanent damage. As she washed, she turned to examine the tattoo on her shoulder.
I won’t join them, she thought. But how else can I stop them?
And she stood there for a while, wondering.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel