The world glistened in the dark, wet with moisture from the breath of a thousand plants cooled at night. A faint odor, similar to maple syrup, drifted through the air. The grass swayed with a slight breeze as the stars glimmered between gray strips of clouds. A tall tree stood in the middle of the meadow, its leaves whispering papery secrets to the wind.
Angie rocked and swayed before the tree in the dim starlight as though in the middle of some ceremony. She sang, the sound flowing just above the whispers of the grass and trees, quiet, but intense. Angie’s wordless, pure tones harmonized with the wind and the voices of the forest and the tree shivered in response. Another tone filled the air as the tree picked up the song, responding to Angie’s voice as tiny silver hairs running throughout the bark turned against the wind, vibrating like violin strings.
The sound came sweet and eerie. It ebbed and flowed with the wind’s soft touch. Angela stopped singing and stood silent, transfixed by the tree’s music. As the music swelled, a soft light illuminated the meadow in pale blue.
The light came from the tree, leaking out of bark and leaves and pulsing in time with the music. The glow spread from the thick trunk and climbed, revealing the great height of this tree. It resembled an aspen, but towered much higher than any aspen grows. The leaves flip-flopped in the breeze, flashing silver and blue in the supple light. The song grew louder, wavering with the combined sound of over a thousand vibrations.
When it ceased, the light dimmed, leaving the meadow in lonely darkness. Angela stood still, letting the night fall around her like a curtain.
She jumped. “Holy buck teats, James, you scared the crap out of me!”
“Yeah…well if you don’t want to make a noise— hey!”
Angie smacked him in the chest with her palm. “I should’ve never taught you that trick.”
James laughed and rubbed his chest. “Well, I’m sure I would’ve figured it out eventually without you. That was amazing by the way. I’ve never seen anything like it, which is getting harder to say more and more each day now.”
Angie smiled, her white teeth visible in the dim starlight. She waved a hand and the moon slipped into view, larger than it would in real life. The moon’s light felt harsh after the soft blue glow of the tree. “Thank you, James. This is my special project. That’s why I wanted to see you, though I wasn’t expecting you to sneak in on me.” She smacked him again, softer. “It’s time you started your own special project.”
“Ah…like your tree here or Mike’s Daytha cat-goat thing. I was wondering about that.”
“Exactly. You’ve managed to do very well with the triceratops, stegosaurus, and with the,” she took a breath, preparing herself for the word, “the pachycephalosaurus.”
James grinned. “Someone’s been practicing their pronunciation.” He ducked a third swing at him. “Sorry, but, really, I’m super impressed.”
“Yeah, let’s see you name half the plants in this room, prehistoric genetics expert.”
He glanced around and shook his head while she continued.
“Right, I didn’t think so. Like I said, you’ve done well and now they’d like to see what you can do outside the box…but still inside the BOCS. Argh. You know what I mean.”
James frowned. “Isn’t it all outside the box? I mean it’s all guesswork. I’ve managed to create something genetically similar to what we think a triceratops would look like. The bone structure is about right and the muscles are close, but the skin is all what I felt like throwing on there. It has scales and spots and a coppery beak thing. I don’t know what a real triceratops looks like. I can’t guarantee that the genetics all match up with how the real thing would’ve been.”
Angela frowned back. “No, you can’t, but your guess is still closer to the real thing than any clay model or artist’s sketch. That’s something. And every new genetic code you input helps us understand more, do more, reach for more. We may be curing cancer or Alzheimer’s with your best guess. Anyhow, you always manage to run me off topic. Your special project— ”
“Flying monkeys or pink dancing efalumps?” James winked at her.
“Don’t make me hit you again. I will. Remember for a second that I’m your boss here!” She tried to sound professional, but she couldn’t stop smiling. “There are only two rules with your special project. It has to be something completely new, does not and never has existed in nature, and it has to be near perfect.”
“Near perfect, how?”
“Your special project needs to live longer, resist disease, and reject infection…all around be a better species than any currently living, including us. It should be super viable to say the least.”
“Why?” James squinted up at the tree.
“Let’s see…a pharmaceutical company might be a little interested in the genetics that fight disease, James. Seriously, do you think before you talk?”
“Most of the time, no.”
“At least you’re honest. I think they get better results this way, unlocking our creativity, rather than just working on individual genes that could possibly help with diseases. They get dozens in one go.”
She looked up at her tree as well; a spiral of genetic code flowing around the room as she thought about it. “I’m just glad I got to work on this. It’s almost a part of me now.” She walked over and ran a hand along the trunk. Once again, the tree shivered, this time in pleasure, like a happy puppy.
“I can see that. You look part tree sometimes. All stoic and fluid grace.” He ducked again as a stick flew over his head.
“Are you kidding? You just dodged a holo-stick.”
He laughed. “Habit.”
“So a lot of sticks have been thrown at you over the years? I should’ve guessed.”
“You have no idea. So, I can do anything I want within those two rules?”
“So a dragon wouldn’t be asking too much?”
“Nope, though I think it makes you more than a major nerd.”
“Who isn’t in this place?”
This time a stick struck him square in the face, exploding in a shower of light without him feeling more than a slight tickle of touch, like a string blown across his nose. James smiled back at her as the light drifted, like glitter, to the ground. He bent and reached for a stick of his own. “Just remember that you started it.”
He picked up a small stick and then screamed in pain. He dropped the stick and clutched his leg. Angie gasped as all pleasure from the stolen moment vanished. Dark blood showed black in the moonlight as it leaked between his fingers and painted the holo-cargo pants he wore.
Angie ran to his side, banishing everything from the room with a wave and calling up full lights. She looked at the huge gash in his leg, bone showing white between cut muscles, and looked up at him in shock. “What did you do?”
“Me?” He grunted. “I was just walking here. Something up and bit me!”
Angela waved a hand and the simulated cargo pants reverted to the white simsuit. She could find no cut, but the blood looked real enough. It pooled on the floor in sharp contrast with the bright, glittery surface. She clamped her hand down hard on the wettest part of the simsuit. “Impossible.”
“Except, we make the impossible possible here daily, didn’t you know?” He coughed a laugh and Angie rolled her eyes at his attempt to sound less scared than he was.
“Nope, not funny at all. I never am. Oh well, off to the medical center again. They’re going to start calling me a regular. But you’re going to have to let go of my leg.” He tried to stand, reaching a hand out so she could help him up.
Angie glowered at him and he froze in the awkward pose, like an upside down one handed push-up, her hands still wrapped around his thigh. “Don’t you dare, James! You sit back down. They’ll come to us.” She pulled him to the ground. “Computer: Medical Unit to BOCS now!”
“Yes, Dr. Reed, Medical Unit responding.” The voice sounded so calm and reassuring that both James and Angie wanted to throw something at it, but there was nothing to throw in the empty white room as the pool of red continued to grow.
Angie woke with sweat pouring in miniature rivers down her forehead, neck, and chest. Her heart raced in her chest. She took in the cool blue light filtered through the false windows as her instincts informed her she wasn’t in her room. She was lying on a hospital bed. Oh. I was waiting for word on James and I must’ve fallen asleep.
No, little speck, you are mine. The voice rumbled through her, not so much in words as with a sense of ownership, superiority, and loathing that her mind translated into words she could understand. I will extinguish your painful life.
What? Fear gripped her. Am I dreaming?
She tried to roll over and leave the bed, but her body refused to move. She felt a huge weight on her chest, pushing her down, smothering her. No matter how hard she tried to move, nothing worked.
Not that easy to escape me, tiny spark.
She fought against the weight with all her strength as her heart pounded inside her head. The blue light narrowed and moved farther away, her vision clouding. Darkness closed in. She had a moment of clarity, knowing she was about to pass out, and pushed with all she had left. The weight lifted, the voice no longer thundering through her head.
She hadn’t had any waking dreams since her childhood. It left her cold, her teeth chattered and her legs shook as she stood. That was freakier than I remember them being. She shook off the spooky feeling, calmed herself, and headed off to see James.
Angie felt much better as she stepped into James’ room, the warmth of his presence banishing the chill. He sat up when he saw her. He’d been poking at his leg and wincing, the hospital gown pulled up rather high to give him access to the stitches. Angie tried hard to focus on his eyes.
He smiled and poked again, wincing once more. “Look. Good as new. You get a chance to talk to the big bosses yet?”
“No, I fell asleep in the next room over. I sat down on the bed to wait while they cleaned you up and I don’t remember falling asleep.” She looked over her shoulder and frowned at the doorway as though it had betrayed her somehow.
“Most of us don’t remember falling asleep. It just happens. You’ve only been gone about twenty minutes, though, so it wasn’t much of a nap really. I like a couple hours myself.” James shifted in his bed and grabbed something from the dresser. “I have something to show you before you report anything anyhow.” He lifted the white simsuit. A blood stain ran all along the right leg, darkening to a reddish brown as oxidation took over. He shoved the whole thing closer to her. “You see it?”
“What am I supposed to see?”
“There’s no cut.” He pointed to the center of the stain. “I didn’t run into anything sharp. No cut, no tear, nothing. Whatever did this to my leg,” he poked at the stitches again and winced once more, “was inside the suit or it was the suit. The doctors didn’t find anything inside when they stripped it off me.”
James cleared his throat and looked away. He seemed to realize he was discussing being naked and he tugged his gown down over his thigh.
Angie pretended not to notice his attempt at modesty. “Yeah, I saw that in the room, but I’d hoped I was seeing things.”
James ran his hand over the browning stain. “The suit recreates sensations, pressure, and touch. Could it recreate the sensation of say a knife edge? Or what felt like a very large hatchet being swung by an even larger man?”
Angie looked at the suit closer and frowned. “They have so many safeguards. I’ve heard that they had a few kinks to work out early on. People feeling things that weren’t there, feathers instead of grass, stuff like that, but no one has ever been cut, stabbed, or even pin pricked before.”
She put down the suit and looked at James. “This is your fault. You’ve only been here like a week and you’re already striving to outdo everyone.” Her hand was on his. “I’ll make sure the report includes the possibility of the simsuit malfunctioning and we’ll figure this all out.” Her fingers squeezed his hand. “How you doing anyway?”
James stared at their hands as he answered. “Oh I’m good. Never better really. It’s just a small, shallow cut. You can ignore what they tell you about the hundred some odd stitches and the chunk of bone they had to remove.”
“Oh, practically nothing then?”
“Uh huh, just a scratch.”
“In that case, you can quit making up excuses to hold my hand.”
“I’m your boss, James, that’s all. And don’t go stabbing yourself anymore. I didn’t like it.” She pulled away from him, giving his hand one last squeeze before dropping it.
He coughed, bringing his now empty hand to his mouth. “Yes, Ma’am. No more excuses and no more stabbing. I’ll work on both of those, starting tomorrow.” He smiled and winked.
Angie sighed, “Now, back to work.”
James looked shocked. “I was joking. You really want me back in there with the imaginary razors, knives, and axes flying around my head?”
She shook her head. “No one’s going in the BOCS for today, possibly longer, till we clear up what happened here. But there’s plenty of work to be done outside the BOCS, now isn’t there? You have your special project to get started. You can use the holo-desk in your room in the meantime. It’s not the same, but it’ll do for now. Me, I have a report to write.”