Liedecker Institute #22 – Dryads Part 2

This entry is part 10 of 13 in the series Liedecker Institute Volume 2: Student Life

Jacob and Lily patted down earth, covering over the nauseating mix of ground meat and plant food that now covered the seed.

This was no longer the hollow between the roots of a dead oak. It was something special, something to be revered. Hallowed ground. Moss began to grow again over the mound. Against its natural inclinations, it developed inch long, navy blue thorns that rose in spikes all across the mound even as the two humans retreated.

Shrubs grew up around the mound, calycanthus with broad, waxy leaves that opened light brown flowers to release a bubblegum scent. They screened the mound off from both sight and scent and the stand of them was supplemented by brambles that weaved themselves between.

Within minutes, the defenses for the growing seed were complete. Within the mound, the creature watched with a thousand senses as the two teens stood staring, not comprehending what they were helping her do. Beings such as she rarely did such things, preferring to move their spirit from plant to plant. But none of her natural predators lived on this world and that made her bold.

She wouldn’t have to hide and only hope to survive here. Her she could thrive and feed her ambitions. Here she could rule. But the seed would take time to grow and bloom and there was immediate need to find out all she could. Reaching up into the calycanthus, she subtly altered the chemical markers in their scent.

Jacob wavered uncertainly, but after a time, stepped forward and tentatively extended his arm into the shrubs.

The brambles moved with her will, raking his skin and attempting to burrow into his flesh. She needed to connect to the nerves, but the process put him in agony, more agony than her light touch on his mind could overcome.

Jacob screamed and ripped his arm out of the shrub, stumbling back until he tripped over a root and landed on his back. He cradled his bleeding arm and stared up at the shrub and panting. Vague memories returned to him.

“This isn’t right…” He mumbled. “I wouldn’t steal. Never. So… so…”

As he tried to puzzle out what he was remembering, Betty moved forward on the entity’s prompting.

Only her parents, her doctor, and a select few of her teachers at the Academy and the Institute knew that her ‘hair’ wasn’t. Hair was essentially dead cells. What grew out of her scalp was huge number of complex organs, thirty times thicker than a human hair and more akin to an insect’s antennae. It was capable of muscular action, pigment changes based on her mood, and came complete with nerves.

Betty reached out with a few strands, making direct contact with the thorns without needing to allow them to bore into her body. Once the connections were made, she heard the voice of her new mistress for the first time.

Jacob got himself up into a sitting position in time to watch her eyes widen. “Betty? Are you okay? Look, something’s wrong here. The flower, that bush… I think they did something to me, made me do things I know I wouldn’t. We need to get out of here and warn everyone about—“

Before he could finish, a coil of Betty’s hair slapped him, hard enough to lay him out on the ground. He tried to get up, but was slowed by his injured arm. Another tress grabbed his ankle and dragged him to her, lifting him so more could wrap his arms and legs, leaving him immobilized.

He tested his strength against Betty’s hair, but it did no good; there was too much of it. That didn’t keep him from struggling as she pushed him closer to the calycanthus flowers.

“Betty, stop!” He shouted. “It messing with your head.

Her finger touched his lips lightly and he found her face uncomfortably close to his. “Shh. Shh.” She whispered to him. “She needs us. We can move around, but she can’t; not yet.”

“Then she can ask instead of just taking us over.” He argued. Betty was using her own strength to push his head toward the flowers, and he was strong enough to resist her.

“You don’t understand.” Betty said, stretching the words out casually. “She isn’t from this world. This is how she does things. This is how she’ll do things here. You and I get to be the first to help her.”

Being squeezed by her hair was starting to take the fight out of Jacob. His head was dipping dangerously close to the sweet smelling mind control agents. “Help her do what?” He managed to ask as he got a whiff of it.

“To cement her rule.” Betty said matter-of-factly as the fog started to descend over his mind again.

***

“Evil flowers.” It was hard for Jada to tell if Arkose was glaring at her or not because here eyes were just smooth, featureless orbs set in her head and that made it hard to see just how much she was narrowing her eyes. As usual, Arkose was spending lunch in the common room, watching television and doing homework, as she didn’t need to eat.

“Did Kura put you up to this.”

“No!” said Jada, exasperated. “This is real. And I never said they were evil, just strange. They’re putting out this bizarre set of chemical signals and I think they’re messing with Steampunk’s brain.”

Steampunk stood off the one side, flower still in hand. At the mention of her name, she nodded stoically. Now that she was aware of her perplexed expression, she was doing her best to hide it.

“Uh-huh.” Arkose said skeptically, “And what’s that supposed to do?”

“I don’t know!” said Jada, “I think it’s not just Steampunk but everyone. The difference with her is that she’s partly immune or something—she noticed there was something wrong even though she can’t quite shake it off.”

Arkose leaned back on the couch, which, despite being reinforced, groaned under the weight of her rock body, and folded her arms. “And you aren’t affected because…”

Jada ground her teeth. She shouldn’t have to take this from a underclassman. Before her powers manifested, she’d dreamed of the same high school experience her older cousin enjoyed and always told her about. Included in that was some measure of respect for upperclassmen from the freshmen. This wasn’t the case here. She wondered if it was actually the case anywhere.

“Hello, my power is all about interpreting plant communication? For everyone else, this stuff is subliminal, but for me, it’s shouting it out through a loudspeaker… only I don’t know the language.” She spoke again quickly to cut off the next question, “And you’re immune because you’re made of rock. You don’t have the chemo-receptors that would let this work on you.”

Arkose sighed. All in all, she just wanted to be left alone, but now she was getting curious. She cursed herself for that. “Fine. What do you want me to do about it?”

The headache Jada felt coming on subsided. “Right now? We don’t know much of anything. Just keep your eyes open and tell me if you notice anyone acting…” ‘Weird’ wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary at the Liedecker Institute. Eccentricity seemed to be a secondary ability in a lot of the students. “… out of character.”

Rustling leaves heralded the arrival of the second person Jada called before he even reached the end of the hall. “Oh, and don’t mention anything to Phineas before I’m sure he’s not affected.

“He’s involved?” Arkose complained.

“I had to pick people I thought would be immune. He’s the best bet besides you.”

Phineas came in a moment later, waving casually. “Hey, sorry I’m late, but Kura was… Hey.” The second ‘hey’ was more drawn out and, after a fashion, flirty. And it was aimed at Steampunk. After convincing her to dance at the Christmas Party, he got it in his head that she might like him under her blank veneer. It didn’t seem to matter to him that a chair could have asked her to dance and she would have followed along.

“Phineas Micheals.” Steampunk greeted in her usual no-nonsense manner.

The plant-boy’s orange, ember-like eyes flared briefly, an expression Jada was scared to guess at. “So what’s going on that’s important enough for me to miss lunch?”

Jada regarded him carefully. Was he acting any differently than normal. “How are you feeling today?”

He shrugged. “Okay, I guess. A little nauseous– which I’m not used to anymore. My stomach’s going all flip-flop, but I don’t have one anymore to be doing it.”

“Any idea why?”

“The smell. The janitor must have switched what they clean this place with. Smells like something died in a vat of that stuff you rub on your chest when you get a cold.”

Jada ignored where his eyes strayed when saying that last part. “How long has it been going on?”

“Since this morning. It stunk so bad it woke me up even. I was going to complain to Miss Carroll– if you can ever catch her in her office.”

“Steampunk?” Jada asked, gently.

The other girl met her eyes. They were strange eyes. Look into someone else’s eyes and you got the feeling that you understood something about them. Looking into Steampunk’s and you only got the impression that she was learning entire databases of information about you.

Unable to hold the gaze for long, Jada just gestured to Phineas. “Let him smell your flower.”

“He might… damage it?” Steampunk looked as if she wasn’t sure where those words were coming from.

“No, he won’t.” Jada coaxed. “Just trust me.”

With all the care of someone handling a precious and fragile antique, Steampunk did as asked, bringing the flower near to Phineas’s face. It was only there for a fraction of a second before he recoiled from it, gagging.

“Yeah, that it!” He choked, covering his face with his hand. “It’s the flowers? Aren’t flowers supposed to smell nice?”

“Not all of them.” Steampunk said, unprompted. “Several species have evolved to smell like carrion in order to attract flies.”

“And now I’m glad I’m missing lunch.” Phineas muttered.

Her theory confirmed, Jada felt more confident in what she was thinking. “There’s a good reason for me calling you, Xylem. Basically, every girl in school got them and like you said, the scent is all over the school now, even though most people don’t notice it.

“But here’s the thing: that smell is a chemical this plant is putting out and if I can judge by what it’s doing with Steampunk, it messes with your brain chemistry. Only you, me and Arkose are immune as far as I know.”

Phineas pursed what passed for his lips. “So we’re talking about what, a new drug? Someone’s trying to get us hooked?”

“I don’t know what it is.” Jada admitted. “But I think it’s worse. Those flowers are talking to each other and someone made sure they got passed along.”

Arkose shifted on the couch, eliciting another groan from it. “I think we all know that there’s a lot of bastards trying to get at us here.”

“I can buy that.” agreed Phineas. “Mind altering plants is just mad scientist enough for the guys in the market for kidnapped super teens. But what? We know something’s up but can’t do anything about it?”

“Not until we figure out who’s doing it and what it is it’s doing.” Jada sighed.

“Any who else isn’t affected.” Arkose added. “You could have missed someone.”

Jada nodded. “Right. So here’s the deal; if you see something strange going on, text the others. Until then, I have one more lead to follow.”

“What’s that?” Arkose settled back into her seat.

“Who, actually.” Jada smiled at Steampunk. “And I mean literally follow. She’s been having an urge to go somewhere and maybe it’s toward the person behind this.”

***

Elsewhere in the school, a scalpel carefully slit open the stem of one of the flowers. It had been delivered to the door of Mrs. Brant, who was away on some business for the school or Descendant’s Rights Worldwide.

Capturing it had been serendipity; a moment of scientific curiosity. But close examination of the petals, reproductive structures, and just one whiff of what he knew to be an expensive perfume from an unprocessed flower convinced the one who had taken it that there was something more.

So now, taking advantage of one of the lab classrooms, they were able to dissect it through the safety of a glove box with chemical analysis equipment.

“What I should be looking at here in this magnification,” they spoke into a small recorder set up on the box, “is cellulose fibers. What I’m seeing are distinct fluid filled nodules, connected by white, translucent filaments that seem to act in the same manner as nerves. Stimulating one with the probe causes the nodules to shunt or reabsorb fluid. It’s possible that this organism is capable of locomotion. Combined with my earlier spectrum analysis on the residue present on the pistil and stamen and I believe I can confirm that this is an Unknown Source Entity.

“I know my assignment is to observe, report, and sample if possible from the student population, but I intend to put that on hold until I’m able to determine the origins of this creature.”

A gloved hand clicked off the recorder. “No need to tell them what the compound actually does. I’m sure I can find much better uses for it without their oversight.”

To Be Continued…

Series Navigation<< Liedecker Institute #21 – Dryads Part 1Liedecker Institute #23 – Dryads Part 3 >>

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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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