Zera and the Green Man: Chapter 32

Lily pressed the button next to the door in the clean room, and the entrance to the laboratory slid open. The huge room was bathed in a gray glow of dim lights. Rows and rows of white laboratory tables covered with microscopes stood empty.

“Down there,” pointed Lily, “to the elevator.”

In contrast to the lab, the light in the elevator shone bright white. Lily pushed the button for the roof and they stood, silent, while the elevator rose. A surveillance camera jutted out a few inches in one corner of the ceiling, but the power light was off. James must have taken care of that, Zera thought. She saw James’ face, hair and hands had changed to a steel color matching the elevator walls. She looked away; he reminded her of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

The door opened and the voice chip in the elevator’s computer announced in a masculine voice, “Greenhouse. Authorized personnel only.”

Lily asked James, “No alarms are going to go off when we step out, are they?”

“No. Everything’s cool.”

The greenhouse was dim and glowing green. Plants surrounded them, all the way to the top of the multi-pyramidal ceiling. Zera saw James’s head and hands were now green, but not only green. He, like the lights, was giving off a glow.

She flinched. James noticed and said, “Oh yeah, I get all bioluminescent, glow-in-the-dark too, just like the cuttlefish!”

Even the inside of his mouth.

Lily flipped on light switches and the greenhouse filled with noise, as if a thousand beasts had awakened. Odd barnyard sounds echoed from a corner; Zera heard something that sounded like snorting. It’s a jungle. More than plants . . . animals too.

Lily looked around in disgust and nodded to Bear. Microphone in hand, she stood in front of the camera. Bear began filming. “We are in the greenhouse of Void Chemical Corporation’s Research and Development Facility,” Lily said, looking straight into the lens and gesturing with one arm. “We’re here to show you some of the products Void Corporation is in the process of perfecting.”

Theodore stood back, still, pale, and wordless while Zera took in the surroundings.

Here it is, she thought. This is what they meant. All of THIS. A wave of nausea went through her. She hoped she wouldn’t become physically ill like her uncle.

Lily motioned to Bear and they strode to a table in the corner.

“Here we have milk-choco-cane prototypes,” said Lily, “the combination cacao tree/sugar cane/cow plants that they’re developing in hopes of making ‘instant’ chocolate and mountains of money.”

The camera panned along rows of two-foot high, cane-like plants. Some of the plants’ leaves and stems had white and black coloration, some looked almost furred, but most were just plain green. All were freaks. Interspersed on narrow stems, fat green pods, where the cocoa beans normally grew, hugged the cane. The pods were green, but — they moved. From some came a faint, bawling sound. Tiny green calves wiggled under the skin of green. The noises they made created a soft, lowing din, muffled cries of “Maw . . . maw . . . maw . . .”

“Now this batch is obviously rejects; after all, who wants a field of bawling plants? The little guys are still showing their mammalian genetic material, and we can’t have that, can we, Void Corporation?” said Lily. “It can take years to get it all worked out. Meanwhile, there are thousands of failures like these. Failed experiments destined to be tossed into a landfill.”

Zera wished she could cover her ears and her nose. The air stank from the soil, a chocolate-manure stench. She felt the calves’ hunger and longing. How could they do this? Create life, and then just kill them off? For chocolate? Zera wondered if she’d ever be able to eat her favorite sweet again.

Lily continued, “You see, everything must be perfect before it goes out to the consumer, perfectly hidden, that is. All wrapped up in neat packaging and tied up with a pretty bow. Otherwise people might find these products morally questionable. Void can’t have that, can they? They want our reality altered and sanitized.

“Now stop crying, babies,” she said to the plants. “Even though there’s no mother’s milk for you, you’ll soon be out of your misery. You’re just a step in Void’s process.

“But I digress.” Lily faced the camera again. “This, my friends, is only the beginning of the freak-show here at Void Chemical Corporation’s Research and Development facility. We’ll take you on a short tour, here in the greenhouse, where the work is out in the open, at least to the employees — who are all, by the way, under contracts of secrecy. Then we’ll descend into Void’s top-secret research nursery, hidden in this building’s underbelly. What you will see there will shock, sicken, and, hopefully, enlighten you.”

Through her disgust and the growing sick feeling that came with her psychic connection with the plants around her, Zera admired the way Lily seemed so self-assured in front of the camera.

Lily walked to the next area. It contained a group of Christmas trees, a few dozen glowing, table-sized trees with hundreds of tiny yellow lights. The group followed her. Pretty, thought Zera. For a moment she was dazzled by the creations. I wonder how they made these?

Her arms spread wide, Lily indicated the trees. “These look nice, don’t they? Might even be ready for next Christmas, but the ‘Yule Fly’ tree project has a few kinks in it as well.” Bear adjusted the lens for a close-up, and Zera, standing next to him, saw through the flatscreen viewfinder the source of the lights — fireflies. On all of the branches were the glowing firefly tails, but the problem was that other parts of the insects’ bodies were there too. Some lights had partial bodies attached; some even had heads with wiggling antennae. None had just the glowing tails of the insect. Zera looked at her uncle, standing next to James. His expression was blank.

Lily offered a grim smile. “Sometimes things look pretty and they seem cool — but when you look a little closer you get the whole story. This stuff can be cleaned up eventually, but the fact is that underneath, it is what it is. A monstrosity.” She walked down rows of plants, to tall trees growing in immense water-nutrient tanks. The trees, some scrawny and some already more than ten feet tall, were struggling to grow, right before their eyes.

“They call these ‘moaks.’ Aren’t they special?” Lily feigned appreciation for them, smiling into the camera lens. “A combination of mice and oak trees. A Void concoction for fast-growing trees to make fast-furniture, fast-homes, and other fast stuff. What they’ve discovered, though, is that supplying these trees with enough nutrients to match their fantastic growth rates is difficult. As you can see, they’ve been unable to feed this one successfully and the top is dying out.”

Bear focused the camera on a tree. At the bottom, the bark wriggled with thousands of long gray tails. The tails twitched and moved like long worms. Farther up the tree the tails moved more slowly, and at the top, they hung motionless. The foliage was a deathly yellow and brown. The stench was horrible. Suddenly nauseated, Zera steadied herself by grabbing a table. No one noticed.

“Everything has a price,” Lily said. “There are never easy solutions. And apparently it takes modern man too much time to find solutions to keep both our planet and our souls healthy. But I am relieved that they’ve ‘finally gotten the squeaks out of this one.’” No one laughed. Lily shook her head. “That’s one of the in-jokes at the lab here at Void. They have narrowed it down to just the tails!”

Lily headed to the far end of the greenhouse, and Bear, James, and Zera followed. Zera’s stomach bothered her more every minute. Theodore lagged behind them all, paler than he was in the bathroom. Zera glanced at him periodically, but her uncle was in his own world, eyes downcast.

“Now for the walatoes. The walrus/tomato combination that Void is developing in attempt to grow tomatoes in the Arctic. We just can’t get enough tomatoes, can we?” She stopped and turned to face the camera again. “Here they are. Lovely, aren’t they?”

Table upon table was filled with what looked like tomato plants. Some of the red, super-large fruits sported walrus tusks, nostrils and whiskers.

“There are endless combinations possible. And look, some do not even have obvious walrus features. It looks like they’re getting closer here.”

The camera scanned a three-foot-tall plant, and Lily plucked a firm, ripe, normal-looking tomato hanging above one with walrus whiskers. As she picked it, the nostrils on a tomato next to it snorted, blowing tomato seeds on her. Another tomato, one closer to her with tiny tusks, lurched forward, feebly trying to jab her arm.

“Yum, nothing like a fresh, vine-ripened tomato,” she said, wiping the seed-covered back of her hand on her jeans. “But I don’t think I’ll bite; what about you?” She held the tomato out to the camera and as the camera focused in, the tomato pulsated, as if it were going through its death throes. Lily set the tomato down and made her way toward the noisiest part of the greenhouse.

I’ll never look at tomatoes the same way again either thought Zera angrily, the walatoes’ rage carrying into her own emotions. While she had known about burg-fries, and other products, actually seeing these plants “in development” was a night and day difference. No one had said anything, but she was sure she was as flushed as Theodore was pale. She now felt hot, as if she had a fever. The Green Man and Woman are right. It has gone too far.

“Now I’d like to introduce a human experimentation, which is illegal, but, here at Void, they seem to be able to do what they want. James Dubson, a Green Guerilla who has been working undercover at Void Corporation.”

Zera glanced at her uncle, who was grayer than the mouse tails on the dying moaks. He knows, she thought, her heart heavy. She remembered the nightmare, the nightmare they shared. He finally understands. The insight didn’t make her feel any better, but she didn’t feel like puking anymore. For the first time since they arrived she understood. She saw the entire picture, what it all meant. Zera heard the creations’ voices and felt their longing to be what they were supposed to be. It was as if billions years of biology, adaptation, and struggle was a train derailed. At least now the world would know.

James moved to stand beside Lily, his face, hair, and eyes glowing a mottled green-white from trying to blend in with his surroundings and his lab coat.

“James,” Lily said, “was in an illegal experiment, an attempt to create human skin coloration that serves as a camouflage. He participated in Void Corporation’s JVS, Juvenile Volunteer Scientist program. This program is in partnership with, I hope unwittingly, state and local governments. Young people in trouble with the law, mostly kids in foster care, have the option of repaying their debt to society by volunteering for Void Corporation, participating in a ‘work camp program,’ doing clean-up work in the facilities and on the grounds, things like that. Well, James was in the program last year and after he completed the program and turned eighteen years old, he was contacted by Void Corporation. They asked if he’d be willing to participate in a secret experiment. James got a little more than he bargained for.” She turned to James. “Did they give you any warning that this,” Lily gestured to James’ face and hands, “could happen?”

“No way,” said James. “I was working at Burger Depot, and they called me, said I could be in this awesome experiment and they’d pay me some pretty good money. They said the effects would be temporary. That it’d be the coolest thing ever, that I’d be almost invisible.

“When it kept up,” said James, pointing to his head, “they told me not to worry, that they’d come up with something to fix it.”

“And have they, James?”

“The scientist who worked with me said that the genetic material has fused in a way they didn’t expect.” James looked down shyly, then back at the camera. He took off his lab coat and sat it on a table. He was wearing a black and white striped short-sleeved shirt underneath and as the coat came off his skin began to get mottled again, with darker spots — spots that changed to black and white stripes.

Zera’s throat felt as if it were closing. I can’t believe this.

“They used the genes of a cuttlefish,” said James. “They’re these tentacled creatures of the sea, related to octopus and squid that are experts in camouflage. I’m able to control it, somewhat, but if I get excited or anxious, I change. What’s even worse is now, I’ve found I sometimes have these accidents . . .” James look embarrassed but his face retained the shimmering black and white stripes.

“Go on.” Lily gave James a reassuring look.

“Octopus and squid, you know, if they get scared, well, they have this black ink they squirt. Now, if something really startles me . . .  I squirt black ink out my . . .”

Zera stared in disbelief. Poor James! She glanced at her uncle and his face was now not only ashen, but had sweat beads all over it. He looks like he might be sick again.

“And we don’t know how the skin spray they used on you, that you absorbed into your body, might have altered you in other ways?”

“It’s been only six weeks, so, no, they don’t know.” James rubbed his arms. “Void’s offering me a lot of money to go to a new lab in South America while they try to figure out how to fix it. They don’t want this getting out.”

“And you were the only one in the experiment?”

“The only one I know of. I think I was the first. That’s what they told me anyway.”

“I’m sorry, James.” Lily addressed the camera. “James contacted us because he wanted people to know. He’s been taking a big risk, joining the Green Guerrillas, going undercover. You’re a good man, James.” At this point, Lily’s voice broke.

Bear paused the camera, moved his head away from the viewfinder. “Are you okay, Lil?”

Lily shook it off, cleared her throat. “Keep shooting.”

James, black and white stripes now covering his exposed skin, looked directly into the camera. “I would give my life to stop what is being done here. This technology is just beyond stupid. It’s evil.”

“Well, there you have it,” Lily said. She had regained control of her emotions, but the anger and sarcasm that had animated her earlier was gone. She now looked depleted. “A brief tour of the greenhouse, as I promised,” she said softly. “Now we’re going downstairs, where you’ll see something even worse, if you can imagine, than what’s going on here.”

Bear turned off the camera. “On to the lab.”

They headed for the elevator.

“We don’t have much time,” Lily said, looking at her watch. She sighed deeply. “This is so much harder than I thought it would be.”

“Do you hear that?” asked Bear.

“Hear what? I can’t even hear myself think, with the racket in here,” Lily said.

Zera couldn’t wait to leave. It’s a madhouse.

James’s head jerked skyward, towards the roof of the glass greenhouse. “It’s a chopper!”

Zera’s heart jumped. Is it the police? Her uncle was staring upward, his forehead creased in worry.

They hurried to the elevator. Lily pressed the button and turned off the greenhouse lights. The plant-animals quieted.

“Over there!” exclaimed James, pointing.

As the elevator door opened, a search light sliced through the sky and into the greenhouse. There were flashes of green, the momentary shimmer of the plants, and for a second, Zera’s companions and herself, fully illuminated.

Lily stared into the light, defiant. “Let’s get out of here! Move it, quick!”

They piled into the elevator. Zera watched the light, still slanted on the five of them as the helicopter hovered. The door closed. “Going down,” said the elevator’s masculine voice and a shiver traveled through Zera’s spine. Down . . . to what? Nothing good can come out of what is happening now.

“When we get downstairs, we have to go fast. We have to finish,” said Lily.

The doors opened and they ran, with Lily in the lead, through the lab, back to the clean room. As that door closed behind them, a flash of white light shone through a transom above the outside door. An exploding sound, another white flash, and a rumble came from the helicopter landing area.

“They must be attacking Drew!” Bear’s voice boomed from next to the mirror-door leading to the underground laboratory.

Lily’s jaw clenched. “We have to finish. Let’s go!”

James pulled up the “Are You Clean?” sign next to the door to reveal the keypad. “Do it, Ted,” directed Lily.

Theodore moved to the panel, his face gray and sweaty. “It’s Demeter 911.” He punched in letters and numbers, and then put his hand into the recessed opening. The door stayed shut.

Come on, Uncle Theodore, Zera pleaded silently, Come on!

“Damn,” Lily said. “Maybe you punched it in wrong!”

An outside explosion shook the building. Lily looked as if her knees were buckling and Theodore grabbed her arm. “Are you okay?”

“Let go of me!” Her face white, she punched in the code again. She grabbed Theodore’s hand and pressed it again on the pad.

The door opened.

“What about the cases?” asked Theodore, gesturing to the cart piled with them.

“There’s no time!” Lily said. “Go!”

The five of them sped down the long corridor lit by emergency lights, descending into the near darkness. There were no small, flying cameras following them this time. As Theodore ran, he gasped to Lily, “You’re not taking any weapons to defend yourself? Isn’t that what’s in the cases?”

“No Theodore, it was something for the plants,” Lily said, “to make them sleep — a permanent sleep.” She nodded toward the camera Bear carried as they ran down the corridor. “This is the only weapon we have. The only one we’ve ever used. Everything we’re doing is posting directly online. No matter what happens, they’re not going to get away with what they’re doing. Not anymore.”

At the door, Theodore hurriedly punched in the password, correctly this time, and the door opened, revealing the bright-as-daylight interior of the laboratory.

Zera sucked in her breath. Hideous forms, grotesque combinations of man’s organs and plant life, filled the room. The Green Guerrillas had prepared, hardened themselves as best as they could for this moment, but she didn’t have that luxury. Zera saw her uncle’s guilt-stricken gaze. Zera found, to her amazement, that these sights didn’t frighten her, but she was heartsick. The heart-tree, the lung-tree . . . the medical machines whirring, hearts beating, lungs breathing, the contradictory smells of rich, teeming-with-life dirt and sterile bleach, and the perfumed stench of these plants’ blossoms. The plants spoke to her in soundless words, pleading, begging, for release.

“Come on, Bear,” Lily said to her cameraman, who now looked as if he, too, were experiencing some serious queasiness.

Bear took a deep breath, and blew it out through pursed lips. “Ready,” he said. He pointed the camera at Lily.

“We’re in the laboratory,” Lily’s words came rapid-fire. “Void’s trying to get into the building now. Here is where we show you the ultimate in god-playing.”

Lily turned to the row of trellised vines next to the door, the human eye-vines.  “Finally, all boundaries have been crossed. In our brave new world, body parts are commodities. ‘Products’ which will, no doubt, go to those with the deep pockets to pay for them. I shudder to think of where we go from here. We need to ask ourselves, is this really what we want? Is this human advancement?”

Dozens of eye-clusters stared blindly, un-activated by a human brain. There were no eyelids, just a thin, clear covering, like the skin on grapes. Brown, green, blue, hazel, and shades in-between stared immobile as Lily hurried down the row. Zera shuddered. She wondered — where did the human genes come from to make these? Void employees? What would it be like, seeing your own eyes stare back at you, from a plant?

As Lily moved toward the lung trees, Zera couldn’t hear what she said anymore. Shrieks pierced her consciousness. Human fruit-hearts, veins pulsating with plant sap; lung trees, their fruits breathing in and out; trees with livers dangling pendulously. Silent to all except Zera. She heard the fast, thundering beating of the hearts, the shallow, quick, and terrified breathing, the psychic screams of protest, both human and vegetable. There was no doubt; they could feel. They are in torment. She longed to help them, to do something to ease their misery.

Lily rushed to another planting tank, gesticulating wildly, her mouth moving fast as Bear filmed.  But Zera’s ears were full . . . .

On trellises climbed vines with thick stems and giant leaves. Above them nets held fruit resembling bowling balls made of human hair. What’s next? flashed through Zera’s mind, brains? The medical machines’ lights blinked wildly as paper printouts rolled out. The printouts are showing their distress.

The shrieks, the thunderous beats of the fruit-hearts, the eerie breaths faded, all at once. All sound faded, as if Zera had gone underwater. She saw Lily mouthing words, eyes darting towards the door.

The door slid open.

<–Chapter 31 | Chapter 33 –>

Published via US Represented by consent of the publisher:

Published by Greenwoman Publishing, LLC
P. O. Box 6587, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80934-6587, U.S.A.

First published in the United States of America
Copyright © Sandra Knauf, 2013
All rights reserved

ISBN: 978-0-9897056-0-8 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9897056-1-5 (ebook)

Cover drawing by Paul Spielman.
Cover photography by CanStockPhoto 11569383
Cover and interior design by Zora Knauf.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or living-dead, is entirely coincidental.