21 – The Grove and the Grave
Stef stared at him. ‘Lol. Wut.’
‘I’d appreciate some help,’ he said, ‘since you don’t seem too bothered by corpses.’ Thick rubber gloves appeared on his hands. ‘But take precautions first.’
‘What precisely are we–’ She waved her hands in front of her. ‘Wait. Wait. Wait. This is a training scenario, right? To prepare us for regular work, right?’
She required gloves that matched the ones he’d required. ‘Do you routinely play with dead bodies? Isn’t that a tech’s job? Or a medical recruit or something?’
‘Ding, ding, ding, the newbie wins a prize.’
He knelt beside the body. ‘So if you can just-’ He looked up. ‘You want a prize, don’t you?’
She knelt beside him, took a couple of photos of the body, then started to brush away the leaves. ‘Maybe,’ she said with a pout. ‘You said I get a prize, so I want a prize.’
‘Give me your hands.’
She brushed her right hand against her leg, then held it palm-up beside him. He held his hand above hers, then a small green bouncy ball dropped onto her glove.
‘There,’ he said with a wink.
She closed her hand on the ball, smiled, then stuffed it into her pocket.
‘Now help me with this. You’re right, in an ideal situation, we’d be getting help, but circumstances aren’t always ideal. Sometimes it’s a blackout zone, so communication is hard, or the area is still active and you can’t bring in a CSI recruit.’ He helped her to brush away the rest of the leaves to reveal the body. ‘Sometimes a sim is about being true to life. Sometimes it’s about learning how to think or how to act.’
She took a couple more photos of the exposed body, then several more as he cut the body’s shirt open with a short, sharp knife. ‘What I think we’re dealing with,’ he said, ‘is a nymph starting their own grove.’ He paused as he held the knife over the corpse’s stomach. ‘Try not to breathe, this part is probably going to be gross.’
He ran the knife smoothly across the exposed belly.
For a moment, nothing happened.
A thin line of black welled up in the cut, rot, ooze, the remains of–
The stomach twitched.
‘Oh my fucking god.’
Zombie. Zombie. Zombie. Zombie.
The stomach twitched again, and something pressed against the surface from the inside.
She held up her hands in case the corpse’s guts sprang out of the body and attacked. ‘What in the fuck is going on?’
Curt cut a line, perpendicular to the first. ‘Get a torch; give me some light.’
She hesitated, then required a torch and shone it at the impromptu, amateur autopsy.
Curt grabbed one corner of the cut and pulled on it. The dead skin lifted easily, moving and undulating with whatever was pushing on it from the inside. The goo-covered flesh rolled, then began to inflate, a sick mockery of a balloon.
She pressed the back of her spare hand to her nose as the smell finally hit. ‘It’s going to explode. It’s going to explode.’
‘Keep the light on it, but back away.’
It was a bit of a struggle to keep the light steady as she stood, but managed it after a moment.
‘Mind your eyes,’ he said. He lifted his left hand up and shielded his face as he half-turned away, then brought the knife down on the gooey flesh balloon.
Through the gaps in her fingers, she watched as a sapling shot up and out of the corpse’s stomach, splattering the area with goo and gore.
First two rows might get wet.
She let out an all-too-squeaky noise as a chunk of corpse gore landed on her shoulder.
‘Ew, ew, ew!’ she slapped it away, glad of the rubber gloves.
Curt laughed as he stood, shook his head, and pulled goo from his hair. ‘Yeah, this was a bit gross.’ He shook his hands, touched his head again, and his hair and uniform became spick-and-span again.
‘Teach me the magic, please,’ she said, looking at her messy self.
‘Refresh uniform, refresh skin, refresh hair.’
‘Oooh, a personal F5!’
She did the requirements and watched as her uniform became new again.
The sapling was continuing the grow, but far more slowly – still quickly enough to see the branches growing thicker, and the tiny leaves unfurling on each tip.
‘We’ve got to find the rest.’
She watched as a long branch extended towards her, and grew a flower in front of her face. The motion of the flower was delicate, something that would have been beautiful if it hadn’t been the result of an exploding corpse. ‘Rest?’ she echoed.
He beckoned her, and they started down a thin path between the trees. ‘Okay, so I’m going to throw a lot of information at you. Let me get through the basics, then you can ask questions, okay?’
‘Go for it.’
‘There’s a few ways that nymphs can procreate,’ he said. ‘There’s what we can call the normal way – human-style sex – to create a single life. It’s usually half-breeds that go for this method. They can use fairy fruit like everyone else – again, usually a single birth. Plant nymphs like we’re dealing with here can do it, well, plant style, releasing seeds and whatever into the air. Under usual circumstances, this just results in regular plants.’
‘And then there’s this?’ she asked, jerking a thumb over her shoulder, back towards the corpse and its tree.
‘Pop quiz, what did I call it?’
‘Grove,’ she said promptly.
‘Good job, Padawan.’ He lifted a low-hanging branch and indicated for her to pass under it. ‘They can be great, you know. Like…hippie communes or something, a bunch of nymphs getting together to create dozens of kids together. Those are groves done right – a group can create more kids because they can rely on each other, use each other’s strength, utilise each other’s magic. You follow?’
‘So our problem is that we’re dealing with murderous hippies?’
‘Yeah. But there’s other ways to do it. With humans, usually. Like the body back there. They can use–’ Curt made a face. ‘I don’t want to say life energy, because you’ll probably start babbling about mana or something. Nymphs can drain the life out of a person, leave them weak or dead, then break down the organs and recycle them too.’
‘Well, if we’re talking about life energy and magic, then my brain goes to materia and–’
He sighed and shook his head. ‘Newbie, please.’
She zipped her lips and threw away the key.
‘Plants take energy out of the environment. They’re plants; that’s what they do. Nymphs extend that to people as well as soil. It’s part of the reason having sex with a nymph is such a draining experience.’
She pressed a hand to the side of her head, a grimace settling onto her face. ‘Gah.’
‘Good,’ he added, turning to grin, ‘but draining.’ His grin faded as he took in her expression. ‘Bad topic?’
She intertwined her hands. ‘Sex is all…squishy and-’ She threaded her fingers together, then slapped her palms. ‘Icky and- May as well be something that happens on Jupiter when it comes to my worldview. I know it happens, but I don’t care to know or talk about it, if possible.’
He ticked off a two-fingered salute. ‘Duly noted.’ He waved her on, indicating she should catch up. ‘Where there’s one body, there’s going to be more, so keep an eye out.’
‘I always thought that phrase was kind of gross.’
‘For a sapling to be able to shoot like that,’ he said, ‘it’s been gestating for a few days at least. Maybe up to a week.’
She thought about the rigor, and numbers whirled. ‘But–’ She stared at the ground, wondering if she’d ever be able to look at trees the same way again. ‘But–’
‘Yeah.’ Curt pushed a branch out of the way and let her pass. ‘He would have been alive for a couple of days like that.’
‘At least chest bursters kill you pretty quickly,’ she said. ‘This is just sick.’
‘There are some really beautiful things in the world,’ he said, ‘but this is the other side of that. I’ve watched nymphs dance and bring an entire park to life. There’s a beauty in that power, in that precision, in being able to summon something as thick as an oak, or as small as a flower. It’s a good way to feel utterly fucking humbled.’
‘Is that, like, performance art or something?’
He nodded. ‘Live nymph performers are pretty common – water’s the most common in clubs and restaurants, but outdoor events bring in the plants. You’ve got a shop opening? You hire a team of performers to provide petals as natural confetti, that kind of thing.’
She looked back down the thin path towards where the body was. ‘Question,’ she said. ‘Why was he by himself?’
Curt sat on a log – hopefully one without a body hiding on the other side. ‘Tell me your thought process.’
She pinched her nose and tried to force scraps of thought together. ‘He was by himself. I don’t know how groves operate, but couldn’t it have been a random murder by a nymph? What makes you think it’s a grove?’
‘Good questions,’ he said. ‘And questions you should ask every time you come across something like this. Take every crime scene as a new situation. Things aren’t always what they seem.’
She crossed her arms. ‘So what do you know that I don’t?’
He smiled, slid off the log, and crouched to the ground. ‘See this path we’ve been following?’ A trowel appeared in his hand, and he carefully scooped away the loose earth above it. Buried in the rich, dark soil was a root thicker than her arm. ‘I saw this, even before the sapling grew. Always look for what doesn’t fit. Look around, we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere, there’s no reason for there to be a path worn into the ground. But if there’s nymphs drawing everything out of the environment, that can disturb the top layer enough to make it look like a path.’ He shook his head back and forth as if debating to say something. ‘It’s also a little bit of a trap, humans see a path, they’re going to follow it, and our murderous hippies get some extra nutrients.’
‘And here I was thinking I’d avoided becoming Soylent.’
‘Except we know what we’re walking into.’
He touched the root, and it shifted like a lazy elephant’s trunk. ‘The body we saw was a sentinel, there’s always a few. Depends on the size of the grove, of course, but they at least try to have four, for the four winds. When the sapling grows, they…come online, I guess you’d say, and then the grove can perceive things, and get warnings of dangers to their commune.’
‘Same with the root, I’d imagine,’ she said. ‘I’m guessing you shouldn’t be poking it.’
‘Definitely not, but I’ve given up on getting a good score today, you need the show-and-tell more than you need Mags to give you a good score on your first sim.’
‘So in the real world, we don’t poke it?’
He stood and brushed his hands against his pants. ‘Let’s call that a rule. Don’t poke anything until you ask my permission.’
‘What if it’s fluffy?’
‘Especially if it’s fluffy,’ he said.
She looked down at the slowly pulsing root. ‘Do you need to report this?’
He nodded and tapped his headset. ‘O’Connor here. We’re heading south. It’s a grove.’ Pause. ‘Okay.’ Pause. ‘Okay.’ He looked at her. ‘God, he’s a dick.’ He tapped his headset again. ‘Red?’ Pause. ‘Four? That can’t be good. Yeah– Wait.’ He turned. ‘You should be– Yeah, I see you.’ He pointed, and Stef saw the tall recruit moving up another path towards them.
‘Come on, Newbie. He’ll catch up.’
She nodded, and they continued to follow the root path – at several points, it was so close to the surface that the ground almost seemed like it was breathing.
‘Wait,’ she said, then wondered why she’d said it.
She waved a hand and closed her eyes. She’d noticed something, or barely noticed something. Intuition, or thin slicing or something. Something was wrong.
What’s out of place?
She pressed her hands to her hips and tried to stand as still as possible. With her eyes closed, she could focus on a couple of senses first. Something had grabbed her attention, even if it had been as light as a feather. And-
She lifted her left foot and ran it along the ground in a wide arc – the ground felt normal – or as normal as the rest of the path had felt. There was no shake, nothing but the weird breathing-pulsing-whatever of the root beneath them.
And there were no noises out of place – in the distance, a kookaburra laughed, and closer a crow cawed. Regular, bushy sounds. As normal as it had been since the start of the sim.
She took in a deep sniff of air, and alarm bells rang.
Dead things and rotting compost and churned earth. Fresh cut grass and pepper. Sweet berries and sea salt. All smells just on the very edge of her nose, whispers on the wind, enough to intrigue without actually being where the conscious brain could pick up on them.
‘The air smells wrong,’ she said, then opened her eyes. ‘I don’t know the outdoors very well, but I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to smell like this.’
Curt stepped up to her and handed her a gas mask. ‘Thanks. I didn’t notice. They can put toxins into the air, or hallucinatory pollen.’ He slipped a mask over his own face. ‘This will filter most things, even if this were a real situation, I wouldn’t feel the need to change into full biohazard gear.’
‘Cause you have to have to balance mobility with safety?’
‘Exactly, actually. Watch your step, and keep up.’