A short story.
"There was something about the tomato plant that just wasn't right."
There was something about the tomato plant that just wasn’t right.
Rachel Louise squinted in the bright morning light streaming through the greenhouse’s three hundred UV-resistant glass panes, feeding the community’s fruits and vegetables with nourishing filtered sunlight.
Could it be? she wondered. Surely none of the neighborhood’s members would bring such a danger, a threat, a monstrosity like the ones that had nearly destroyed the world, into their greenhouse. Perhaps it was unintentional, a mistake, an old package of seed that the owner hadn’t known was one of them; perhaps she was just being oversensitive; perhaps somebody was willing to break the rules and threaten them all just for a little extra food.
The tray set into the cement frame said Henry David, the man who lived in the home next to hers. Henry had always been a recluse; he’d even built part of his own house from scrap and salvaged materials, proud of the effort and time he’d put into it, of the few dollars he’d saved through his scavenging. Few people - including Rachel - actually liked Henry, but everybody tolerated his eccentricity, his fierce independence, his dislike for group activities, his opposition to paying community taxes or even taking his turn in the community greenhouse. He made it well known that he had his own plants growing all over his house, and his small back-yard was planted in wheat, one of the few old varieties that could withstand the intense solar radiation escaping through the just-now-healing ozone layer. And, Rachel knew, there were the rumors about Henry, that he’d been one of the experimental ones, and his aging face for a man only in his thirties fed the speculation. Rachel caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection of a greenhouse windowpane, her wavy black hair, sharp nose, dark eyes, the appearance of an age she was sure none suspected. She shivered, and shrugged off the thought.
Back to the plants. What to do? The one she’d noticed was the first to fruit, but she could tell there were at least a dozen in Henry’s tray that had germinated. Making a quick decision, she pulled a paper harvest bag from under the trays, gently removed the smallest of Henry’s plants with a small ball of soil around its roots, and carefully put it into the bag, folding the top in a way to not crush the leaves.
The familiar smells of the lab and attached classrooms at Loch Highland College reminded Rachel of the school in Rhode Island where she’d first studied, before her face began to give away her secret. She’d moved to suburban Atlanta, thinking she could start a new life where nobody remembered what she’d looked like five or ten years earlier, and had found a comfortable niche in the Loch Highland community. Like most of America’s formerly automobile-dependent suburbs, Loch Highland had connected itself to the spiderweb network of lightweight electric commuter rail systems that crisscrossed cities as well as the nation. The transition, when the oil first began to run low around 2015, had been surprisingly smooth; the automobile companies simply shifted into mass-transit, and a new and booming growth industry sprang up, ripping out asphalt and concrete streets and replacing them with bike paths, sidewalks, and small-scale electric rail lines.
The door to the empty lab opened and a large blonde woman in her fifties - about the same age as Rachel appeared - entered, carrying a small clipboard with a built-in DataPad.
“You’re the woman with the plant?” she said, her tone friendly.
“Yes,” Rachel said. “I’m so glad you could see me on such short notice. My name is Rachel Louise.”
“I’m Doctor Joansdotter,” the woman said, smiling and bowing from the waist slightly. Rachel bowed in reply; it was such a sensible way to avoid the transmission of germs, even though the epidemic of 2026 was now only a distant memory. Dr. Joansdotter continued, “Your note said something about a GM organism?”
Rachel pointed to the small brown bag on the counter next to her. “I’ve been wondering if I’m just paranoid. You know all the hysteria after the Terminator gene jumped wild, all the crops and weeds they had to burn to stop it.” She glanced at the bag, remembering the stories of the worldwide food crises which had happened a decade before her birth. It must have been a terrifying time for those who lived through it, and even worse for the billions in the Third World who depended on food exports from America, Canada, and Australia…and starved when the crops failed. “Anyway, I found a few of these tomato plants growing in our community garden, and a couple have already flowered and one even started to fruit, so maybe it’s even too late, but I just had to know…”
Dr. Joansdotter walked over to the counter and opened the bag, reaching in and carefully lifting out the small plant, cradling the tiny dirt- and root-ball in her right hand. “It looks pretty normal,” she said. “What caused your concern?”
“The fruit. The first plant started fruiting, and the sun was really bright this morning, and I could sort of see through the fruit. And I didn’t see any seeds. Usually they’re pretty conspicuous, the little shadows inside the fruit.”
“Did you bring a fruit with you?”
“It’s not my plant and I didn’t want anybody to think I was filching fruit. I’ve had greenhouse duty for the past week, and that’s when this plant came up, so I figured it would be least conspicuous to just bring it in. You can test it, can’t you?”
“Actually, I could have worked from a leaf fragment. DNA testing really only requires a few cells. But we’ll add a bit of moisture to the soil to keep the roots healthy, and if everything’s ok you can put the plant back where it was and nobody will be the wiser.”
Rachel exhaled, realizing she’d been holding tension in her stomach throughout the day, since she’d dug up the plant, made the appointment, and taken the transit to the college. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Well, let’s see what you have here,” Dr. Joansdotter said, turning on a faucet in the sink next to the counter to get a light sprinkling of water, which she dripped onto the plant and its roots. After placing the newly-moistened plant back into the bag, she opened a drawer and removed a tweezers and scissors from an auto-sterilizer. She reached the tweezers into the top of the bag and grabbed a leaf-tip, clipping it off with a deft motion with the scissors. Rachel watched as the botanist put the leaf fragment into a beaker, added a liquid which Rachel assumed was to wash it of any stray fragments of protein that may carry foreign DNA, and then removed it again from the beaker and placed it onto a glass plate that resembled a microscope slide. She place this into a machine about two feet square with a complex LCD panel along one side, closed the door to the machine, then pressed a few places on the panel. The machine made a series of soft noises, presumably mashing and breaking down the cellular structure of the leaf to free the DNA within its cells. The panel showed a series of chemical words and numbers that brought a vague and dreaded memory to Rachel, a déjà vu as if from some other lifetime, and Dr. Joansdotter pushed some more places on the panel in response to the initial data.
“Here’s the basic sequence,” the woman said, pointing to the first few lines on the screen. It’s actually a summary: the true sequence would fill this room with letters representing adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. But it’s a sequence in the database already, so we have it.” She frowned. “This should have been destroyed forty years ago.”
“What is it?” Rachel said.
“What you’d guessed. It’s a fruit that was genetically engineered to produce sterile offspring. Back when corporations were allowed to own the rights to foods and keep them from humans, this was one of the early ones developed. This plant will only produce fruits containing fertile seeds if you add a particular chemical to the soil, another compound that the plants creator had patented. These types of plants were what led to the food riots that first started in Pakistan and then spread worldwide as subsistence farmers discovered they could no longer save part of their seed for the next year but had to mortgage virtually everything they owned to keep buying seed and activating chemicals from the agribiz companies. It nearly ended our civilization.” She regarded the small bag on the counter with a grim expression. “It was called Red Fecundity 267, a life-form invented by AgriEmpire Industries before the United Nations shut them down. The seeds must be at least thirty years old, unless somebody has a stock of the activating chemical and is secretly growing them, which would make no sense at all.” She looked at Rachel and lifted one eyebrow. “Where on Earth did it come from?”
The meeting was held in the Loch Highland community room, where many of the people got together for community dinners. About forty of the neighborhood’s two hundred homeowners had shown up for the hastily called gathering, and they sat in the traditional circle of chairs around a circle of tables. A wooden tray with Henry’s tomato plants in it sat on the floor in the middle of the circle, and he eyed it warily from his seat by the door. A thin, graying, balding man with a nearly-white beard, he wore a threadbare brown tweed jacket he’d probably owned for most of his life, and perhaps had originally bought at one of the clothing recycling shops that could be found in every neighborhood across America. Rachel watched him watch the plants, wondering how he’d react, what he’d say, what possible explanation he could have for bringing a pollinating Terminator plant into their community greenhouse.
When everybody was seated and the small talk over, Penelope Marysdotter, the community’s chief, opened the meeting by tapping her staff on the smooth pine floor. “I called this meeting,” she said, glancing around the circle to pull in everybody’s attention, “when Rachel Louise dropped by my home this afternoon with some very distressing news.” There was a general shifting of people’s seats in their chairs, a few curious glances in Rachel’s direction. “She found these plants,” Penelope continued, “in our community greenhouse, and they put us all at risk. I’ll let her tell you about them.”
Rachel took a deep breath, her heart racing, her stomach knotted and tight. Henry was glaring at her, and she looked down at the plants to avoid his stare.
“I found these plants,” Rachel said, “in the community greenhouse. They’re from old Terminator seeds.”
Several people around the room gasped, and Sam Koski, the community’s woodworker, said, “Whose are they?”
“Henry’s,” Rachel said, looking up at him, waiting now for him to speak in his own defense.
Henry David hunched forward in his chair, his leather-patched elbows resting on the pine-plank table. “This is really no big deal,” he said. “I’ve been planting these things for years and there’s never been a problem.”
“No problem!” said the community’s lawyer, Bob Olens, his voice chocking with rage. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time that pollen got out in the wild? Don’t you care about the food supply for this community?”
Henry shrugged. “It’s just a few plants. I grow them in my house. I must have forgotten which was which when I put in my seeds for the community greenhouse.”
“This is insane!” Bob Olens shouted. “You’re taking all of our lives in your hands. The entire community. The entire state of Georgia, if this thing got out. These are banned organisms, Henry!”
“I got ’em real cheap about thirty years ago,” Henry said, his tone matter-of-fact, as if that was enough of an explanation. “Got about twenty cases, been growing ’em ever since. They was cloned, originally; they’re all identical.”
Sarah Jackson, who’d help build and ran the community’s fuel-cell power plant and windmills, tapped her knuckles on the table in front of her, then said, “Henry, don’t you remember the famines? I mean we were lucky here in America, but even in the year 2000 over 50,000 people a day were dying worldwide of hunger. Even way back then, half the world’s population was malnourished. And then the three big gene jumps nearly destroyed the world’s food supply, and the world decided enough was enough. Now every community grows its own food, just like we all generate our own power. We realized that centralization only served the rich, and created great poverty and danger for most of humanity. No more big utilities, no more big industries, no more situations like three companies controlling more than half the planet’s food, as we had at the turn of the century. So we’re responsible, here, for ourselves. We have to keep our food supply clean and intact. If your plant spread its sterility gene to other plants, we’d have to go begging to other communities for food. And if word got out that we’d been infected with the Terminator gene, we’d be pariahs. How could you do that?”
He shrugged. “Just saving some money, I guess. It didn’t seem so bad. They’s probably lots of folks doing the same.”
Bob Olens growled, “Back when we had jails, this is what they were for.”
“That’s enough,” Penelope Marysdotter said, asserting her responsibility as community chief. She tapped her staff on the floor three times, and everybody looked at her. “We don’t have prisons anymore because we’ve woken up to the fact that human nature is essentially good. When people go astray, it’s not the community’s job to dispose of them in the trashcan of a jail, but to help bring them back into balance, to restore harmony to the community. Come on, Bob, you know that’s how humanity lived for a hundred thousand years before people went insane and began hoarding wealth and building prisons for the poor.”
“Sometimes I think we should go back to it,” Bob muttered.
“Ever the lawyer,” Sarah said, and everybody laughed, breaking the tension.
“The fact is,” Penelope continued, “that it’s our responsibility to look out for our own. Henry’s a member of our community, and we have to deal with his behavior, not dump him off on some paid human trash collector like the old-time police.”
“I ain’t trash,” Henry said, now sulking. “And I ain’t done nothing all that bad. They’s worse than me here in this room.”
“Let’s not change the subject, Henry,” Penelope said. “How much of this seed do you still have?”
He shrugged. “Couple pounds, probably. And some of the activator.”
“So you’ve been growing the plants and activating them to produce new seeds?” Rachel Louise said.
“Sometimes,” he said. “But who’re you to complain about freak life forms?”
Rachel felt her breath catch in her throat. She stared at Henry and he stared back, a triumphant glitter in his eyes. How could he know?
Penelope interjected, “Henry, we’re not going off subject here. You have to destroy those seeds. Will you agree to that?”
He turned his glare to her. “Will you give me other seeds?”
Penelope looked around the room. “Will everybody chip in some?”
There was general agreement and nodding of heads, except for Sam, who still seemed to think Henry should get the stock or whipping post.
“I’ll personally promise you that whatever seed you have and destroy, we’ll replace in equal quantity with our older, non-hybrid and non-modified seeds.”
“But I think,” Sam broke in, “that we need more restitution than just that from Henry. He’s put us all at risk here.”
Please don’t go any further, Rachel thought. Leave it be, let this be the end.
“Sam, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Henry said, his voice bitter. “I worked on the Human Genome Project. I was in the middle of it all. I know the dangers, and they’re damn minimal. If I’d kept those things in my house like I’ve been doing for the past twenty years, there’d be no problem.”
That’s it, Rachel thought. That’s how he knows. She saw Henry look at her, and before she could look down she saw him wink. Was it a threat, or did it mean he’d keep her secret?
Sam said, “I think Henry should be doing some sort of community service for us all. Put him to work in the greenhouse, at least, so the punishment fits the crime.”
“No,” said Rachel. “We don’t talk about crime and punishment any more. We talk about imbalance and balance, about disharmony and harmony. Henry threw the community out of balance, and now we’ve all come together to restore that balance. It’s how the tribes of Europe worked before the Romans and the Catholics conquered them. It’s how the Iroquois and the Shoshone and the Hopi worked before we tried to crush their cultures. It’s how the Aboriginals of Australia, and the San of South Africa worked for fifty thousand years. It’s a way of life that honors all people, that respects the dignity of all humans, that works.”
“All humans,” Henry said, and the words whipped Rachel.
“All life,” said Rachel, then lost her words.
Valerie Winkler, the community doctor, said, “Henry, what are you trying to say? I’m confused by your tone that implies you’re saying more than you’re saying.”
Henry looked around the room, and Rachel was glad everybody was looking at him because she knew her own ears and cheeks were probably bright red. “How old do you think I am?” he said to Valerie.
She shrugged. “Fifty? Sixty?”
“Born around 1990 or 2000, you think?”
“Yeah, I’d guess,” Valerie said. “What of it?”
“I was born in 2023,” he said. “I’m twenty seven years old.”
A gasp ran around the room.
“When they finally got cloning down, you remember, there was that company got shut down for trying to bring back the dead? Only they hadn’t figured out the problem with the telomers, the ends of the genes that control how fast you age. But they didn’t give a damn, and they sent their gravediggers out there to get some high-profile DNA, thinking it would be their ticket to riches.” He laughed, a bitter bark, and looked at his own gnarled hands. “It was their ticket to doom, when the Great Religious Riots began and the building was burned and their executives and scientists were hunted down and crucified.”
“The last inquisition,” Penelope said softly, horror in her voice.
“Yeah, that was it,” Henry said. “And I was one of their creations, which is why I’m aging faster than a ripe banana in the hot sun. But I’m still a human, and I still deserve some respect, and I just tell you that so you’ll all know that I do know something about this genetic engineering business, and that’s why I kept those seeds. I felt like they were me. Made the same way. Virgin birth. Split from a germ cell. No mother or father.” He looked at his hands again, and Rachel held her breath. “That’s all I have to say,” he concluded. “I’ll destroy them, and I apologize. I’m sorry for the freaks they are, and,” he glanced up at Rachel, “for the freak I am.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, leaning across two people to touch Henry’s hand with his own. “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry I was so hard on you.”
“Don’t need no pity,” Henry said, his voice again the crusty, defiant old curmudgeon. “Just let’s get on with things and put this behind us.”
“I agree,” said Penelope, tapping her staff again to pull the room back to silence. She glanced around at the women in the room, the only ones who could officially vote on matters that may effect future generations. “Are we in agreement on this issue?” she said. Women’s heads nodded all around the room. “Rachel Louise?” she said, looking at Rachel.
“Yes, it’s fine with me,” Rachel said, her hands trembling.
Penelope stared at her for a long moment, but apparently decided her distress was from having been responsible for outing Henry. She nodded her head and said, “Meeting closed.”
As they walked along the trail back to their homes, Louise caught up with Henry, who’d managed to snarl away every other person who’d tried to speak with him or walk with him.
“What do you want?” he said, his eyes on the footpath.
“You knew for most of your life, didn’t you?” she said.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “I’m surprised you didn’t.”
“I only learned a few years ago,” she said. “A doctor outed me in Rhode Island, so I moved here.”
He nodded, as if it were an old story in which he had little interest.
“But you knew about me, too,” she said. “How was that?”
“I got the records,” he said. “Not everything was destroyed. A little logic and deduction was all it took.”
“Then you know my germ line?”
His voice softened. “Yes.”
“And yours?” she said.
“That was the first I learned.”
“Do you mind my asking?” she said.
“Which one?” he said.
“Both, I guess, if you’re willing to tell me about yourself. If not, I’d at least like to know about me.”
He stopped along the trail and stepped a few feet back on the grass, until he’d backed into a gnarled old oak tree. She followed him, to get out of the scattered flow of occasional pedestrians. A squirrel in the tree made a chittering noise, and a crow cawed from nearby. She could smell the small man-made lake that was the community water supply.
He stared at the exposed roots of the tree and chuckled. “They had to dig pretty far back to get me, go for the old grave, pry out bone marrow, what little was left. But they thought the name would give them status, make people forget they were playing god. You were more recent, and they figured your name would make them seem more environmentally conscious.”
“And we were?”
“You ever wonder why I always lived alone, hate to pay taxes, keep those long and boring journals? Or why you’re so drawn to the lake, the life in it, and the plants in the greenhouse?”
Rachel sighed, wondering now if she wanted to know. Maybe she should just walk away. Think about it. Maybe later. Maybe forget it altogether. Neither of them would live another ten years in any case.
“You wonder?” he repeated.
“I guess,” she said, her heart racing, thinking that if she ran away right now maybe she wouldn’t hear his next words. But her feet wouldn’t move. A beam of sunlight penciled down between the leaves of the tree and lit the side of his face.
“I was Thoreau,” he said simply. “You were Carson.”