Liedecker Institute #21 – Dryads Part 1

This entry is part 9 of 13 in the series Liedecker Institute Volume 2: Student Life

Early spring in Virginia was a roll of the dice when it came to weather. It was bright outside, and warm enough for short sleeves, but the weather reports said there was a chance for snow that night.

Tammy Kaine watched said weather through the window of her biology classroom as Dr. Kingsbury called role. The view included the main drive, the wall surrounding the school, and the street beyond, mostly offices or modest store fronts.

Not a compelling scene, but better than Kingsbury’s classroom. Tammy was never an avid student of science like her brother, but she did like science classrooms. They often had interesting bits like lab equipment, taxidermied animals, or models used to demonstrate various scientific concepts.

Dr. Kingsbury believed all such things to be distractions from his lectures and the reading he assigned. If he was forced to use a visual aide, he’d call one up on the holographic display, dismissing it the moment it was no longer needed.

What little enjoyment she found in learning biology was systematically quashed by ‘Mister Scary Glasses’. He’d even shot down very early any attempts at discussion concerning descendants and their powers. According to him, they lacked the ‘grounding’ to fully appreciate the subject. Tammy felt that she had more than enough super powers to make it relevant.

The only thing of interest was the flower on her desk; white with red speckling wider than her hand. It smelled like bubblegum and her mother’s tomato sauce somehow – probably from genetic engineering, another subject Dr. Kingsbury deemed too interesting to be taught in his class.

The flowers had been the talk of breakfast that morning. Every girl had gotten one, and from the looks of it, every female staff member found one outside their office too. Each one came carefully wrapped in a wad of paper towels at the stem with a small bit of moist soil. Each one looked the same, but everyone seemed to smell something different.

Everyone was trying to guess who was behind it. Naturally, suspicion fell first to Phineas, but the alleged Casanova denied involvement. While he thought it was a good idea, he pointed out how strange it would be for him to leave people plants. No one could deny the subtle stalker vibe that would carry with it.

Phil also denied being part of it and no one at the breakfast table that morning could imagine Hightower giving flowers to any of the girls not in the ‘in’ crowd.

Kura noticed that Jacob wasn’t eating with Eddie, Maya, Rita and Joy as they had recently started doing, separate from Betty’s group. This was all the proof she needed to suggest it was him. And she further suggested that he really only wanted to give flowers to one girl, but was too shy and so gave them to everyone under the guise of it being White Day.

That was actually reasonable. For Valentine’s Kura introduced anyone that would listen to what she called her ancestors’ traditions, even though the ancestors in question were her mother and grandmother and their version of normal Japanese tradition were heavily modified. Even so, Kura led Tammy, Steampunk, Joy and an extremely reluctant Maya in making homemade chocolate to give to the boys in expectation that come March 14, the boys would reciprocate in kind.

Kura’s offering in particular was more or less inedible by anyone but Phineas, but the past month had seen Kura constantly reminding all the guys that even though her mother’s version of the holidays just involved chocolate, the real White Day saw guys buy gifts two to three times the worth of what they’d been given.

The major hole in her explanation was that White Day was a week away and even girls and staff members who gave no chocolate still got flowers. IF the mysterious sender was Jacob, why would he send flowers to…

“Jacob Richmond?”

Tammy looked up. Sure enough, Dr. Kingsbury was calling the name of the boy in question. When he had to repeat the name, she glanced around. He usually sat two rows over from her, one desk up. That desk was empty today.

“Hmm.” Somehow, Dr. Kingsbury managed to fit an entire paragraph of suspicion and disdain in such a tiny sound, not even a real word. “I’ll have to speak with Mr. Richmond after class. In the meantime, we shall begin.”

He started the holo-display and instead of anything visually compelling, he summoned a gigantic image of a page from their textbook. “Please get out your palmtops and refer to the primary test. This week begins our study of the part that specialized chemical production plays in the plant kingdom.

“Though largely immobile and lacking the thought processes of even the most simple animals, plants make up for this by being adept at the production and application of chemical compounds. Through these processes, they are capable of communication, warfare, even subterfuge and manipulation. Even the common tomato is capable of analyzing the saliva of a pest and deploying the proper attractant to bring predators of that pest to defend it…”

Tammy groaned quietly. Tomatoes summoning monsters to kill things for them was cool, but the fun was drained out of it by Kingsbury’s joyless delivery. Her mind started to drift back to the far more interesting mystery at hand. She could pull a better narrated documentary about the subject at hand off Quintillion later.

For now, she wondered where Jacob was.

***

He felt bad about it. Or rather he knew that he should feel bad about it, would feel bad about it under normal circumstances. And yet he slipped the package into his jacket anyway.

There was no way it wasn’t obvious what he was doing by now. The jacket was light and was deforming with each new object stuffed in there. Any minute now, one of the employees would notice him and things would get really bad.

He would have paid for it, he really would have. But his allowance didn’t amount to much and the discount card the school provided didn’t apply here. That, and there was just so much that he needed. Needed. There was no alternative such as not getting these vital supplies.

Never mind that he didn’t know what half of it was. He was going by instinct and sense of smell.

A confusing, heady feeling filled him and his mind started reeling. What the hell was he thinking? Stealing was wrong no matter the reason. His father would be so disappointed in him. He was in Mayfield to become a better person and this was most certainly not the way to achieve that goal.

Reflexively, he bought his right wrist up to his face. He didn’t remember when that became a reflex, but somehow, he knew it would make him feel better. There was a flower threaded through the button hole of his sleeve. It smelled like no flower he was aware of; like home and comfort.

His anxiety melted. His resolve redoubled. No. This what the right thing to do. This cause was more important than keeping his ethical stand against theft. He had enough for now, he should go back.

There was a reason he was ‘shopping’ at King Mart’s garden center: it was open to the air. With a thought, he tapped into he hovered into the air and straight up. Maybe, if he was lucky, the employees wouldn’t notice.

***

Betty made her way up the hall in her usual way; cradled in a throne of her own hair as thick braids of the same propelled her forward, pushing off the carpeted floor or grappling fixtures. Annette didn’t want her flower, so now Betty had two now, threaded into her hair on either side of her face. The scent of new leather and salt air wafted from them, making her smile.

It was lunch time. Normally, she’d be smiling because she was taking the girls to lunch somewhere new, exciting, or expensive, and because Hightower was taking her somewhere expensive (she didn’t care if it was new or exciting; for her the amount spent on her was a gauge of his affection just like it was for her parents).

But she’d broken off her plans to go to a bistro she’d just discovered on the shores of Lake Standish. Something more pressing was on her mind and had been nagging her all morning.

She turned a corner to find Maya Blumberg hurrying in the opposite direction, eyes glued to her palmtop. The girl didn’t even have time to notice before a shovel made of Betty’s tresses shoved her roughly aside.

“Out of the way, stick-girl.”

“S-sorry.” Maya muttered. Betty’s smile widened. She was so happy that Maya was part of the school now. The other kids didn’t know their place in the social hierarchy and caused inconvenience at every turn. The shy new girl knew not to fight it and to try and avoid being the object of Betty’s wrath as much as Kura and Tammy seemed to purposefully invite it.

Reaching her room, she quickly retrieved her palmtop; her real palmtop. She wasn’t about to waste the battery life of her four thousand dollar machine on school work. She just synched important contacts with her slightly less costly school device while she kept things like her payment applications on the real one.

And she was going to need those because she had shopping to do.

***

Jada was also glad it was lunch time and also rushed to her room (though she didn’t pause to abuse Maya). She had a lot of questions that needed answering and it gnawed at her through three classes before she finally had some free time to explore.

Steampunk was in their room when she came in, sitting on her bed with her legs tucked beneath her body.

That was unexpected. The blonde usually moved from period to period unerringly unless one of the other students went out of their way to side track her. Also unusual was the expression on her face. Or rather the presence of any expression on her face. Steampunk was normally neutral.

Now, she looked like she was taking a vital test, only to discover it was in a language she didn’t know and also trying to bite her.

“Are… you alright?” Jada asked.

“I do not know.” Steampunk said, far away.

Jada sat down at her desk and took the flower out of her purse, setting it down in front of her. She noticed that Steampunk was clutching her own flower, delicately but firmly, in both hands. “How can you not know if you’re okay?”

Steampunk stared blankly across the room. “Something is wrong. With how I think.” She said haltingly. “However, I have previously ascertained that my baseline thought processes are already abnormal for a person of my stage of mental development. Therefore, I am not certain if something being wrong now constitutes a degradation or an improvement.”

It took a few seconds for Jada to translate that. Steampunk normally acted a little off and though Jada never noticed, she was aware of that fact. Now she was feeling strange and didn’t know if that was good or bad.

“Well…” Jada fidgeted in her seat, wanting to investigate the strangeness of the flower, but not wanting to abandon her roommate in a time of need. “What is it you feel? Do you… like someone?” Instantly, she knew that was stated in a way that Steampunk would misinterpret. “I mean ‘are you attracted to someone emotionally?’” Steampunk shook her head. “Are you sick?” Another head shake. “Angry? Sad?” She hesitated on the last one but shook her head to both.

“Can you try and describe it?”

Steampunk thought on it, then nodded slowly. “I… feel the desire to do things that are unnecessary for my education or socialization. Things that make no logical sense. The feeling is faint, but I am aware of it. For example: I do not need this.” She lifted the flower slightly. “If I put it away, I would free up my hands for other tasks. However, I feel that I do not want to.”

Jada frowned. The flowers were what had been bothering her all day. Plants were, by biological fiat, her ‘thing’. She knew a lot about them; in some cases, more than science did yet. But the presents left to all the girls weren’t like anything she knew.

They survived, cut off from their root systems but didn’t have the necessary structures to thrive in the soil they cam wrapped in. Nonetheless, they did continue to live and function. And communicate. Jada could sense the chemical communication between plants and ‘talk back’ by returning the same.

The new plants communicated constantly, not just in response to stimuli like others. Usually when that happened, it was a byproduct of Jada herself being present and ‘talking’ with it. The problem was that the flowers weren’t talking to Jada.

But what if…

“Steampunk,” She got up cautiously and reached for the flower in her hands. “Can I…”

“No!” Steampunk scrambled back, shouting with more feeling than Jada had ever heard from her.

Jada backed away, hands raised to show she meant no harm. “Sorry. I just wanted to see something.”

“You can’t have it!” shouted Steampunk.

“Right. Sorry. That was wrong of me.” Retreating to her chair, she laid her hand down on her own flower and concentrated.

It was as strange biologically as it was behaviorally. She could tell from experience that what looked like a stamen and pistil weren’t made for producing pollen. But where was the point of a flower with no pollen? Delving deeper, she had her answer. Though she couldn’t tell what, she was aware that they were made to produce other chemicals. Lots of other chemicals.

Suppressing a shiver, she worked her powers on it, shutting down the chemical production there and in the leaves. The communication stopped. So did the pleasant smell of fresh cut grass, rain and lemons. That had been the bait, something to encourage exposure to whatever the plant was putting out.

Jada looked over at Steampunk. She didn’t know a lot about the other girl, but she did know that her body temperature was extreme. Possibly so extreme that whatever the flowers were putting out broke down too quickly to full affect her.

Quickly, she thought about other students at the school that might be resistant or immune to it. There aren’t many.

And every female in the school had one of those things, just pumping chemicals into their brains. That would include authority figures like Ms. Brant and Ms. Carrol.

That meant that she might just be alone and she had to touch the flowers to change them. Judging from Steampunk’s reaction, that wasn’t going to happen either. She had to find out who was doing it and why.

She took out her palmtop and called up the student directory. There were tow other students she felt might likewise be immune to the flowers. She selected the first and most likely and started to text. “Hey Steampunk?” She asked casually. “How would you like to go to lunch?”

***

The oak tree was dead. It was hard to tell; it looked as if it just hadn’t yet managed to start leafing with the coming of spring. But it would never put out leaves again. Now it was a corpse, providing food and shelter for something else entirely.

Its roots had grown into an oddly regular shape; a shallow, ovoid bowl filled with soft moss and ferns. A thick, green and purple vine ran up its trunk, strangling what was left of it before running down into the bowl. At the very tip of the vine grew a nut like no other. It was acorn shaped, except the ‘cap’ was smooth and segmented like the body of an insect. The whole thing was a glossy, dark brown with a rainbow sheen that only became visible in bright light.

Flowers like the ones making the rounds at the Liedecker Institute lined the bowl, filling the space with a cloyingly sweet scent.

Jacob was on his knees in the bowl, digging a pit into the earth with a stolen gardening spade. His jacket was off and to the side, piled high with plant food, fertilizer spikes and pest killer.

Betty sat on the edge. Beside her were items too bulky or hard to steal for Jacob: a bag of wood mulch and twenty pounds of ground beef.

To Be Continued…

Series Navigation<< Liedecker Institute #20 – Fun and Games Part 3Liedecker Institute #22 – Dryads Part 2 >>

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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