Chapter 3: Tropism
Deena looked behind her through the rear window. The guys were still talking as Mom drove off. What had she gotten herself into?
“Yes, Deena. How was school today? Did you have any aches and pains?”
“No. I got a clean bill of health from the school nurse.”
Mara Brooke sniffed. She could only trust the school’s nurse if some problem had been found.
“In fact, Mom, I feel great. That hike through the forest must have done me a lot of good. I need to do more hikes like that.”
“Well, I certainly would have something to say about that. It sounds like a very dangerous place—somewhere I wouldn’t want my daughter.”
Deena sagged. That didn’t go well. It would do no good now to ask permission to join Luther’s Saturday expedition.
Why did I even ask him in the first place?
Every time she looked south, something inside her wanted to go back. She liked the place, in spite of the accident, in spite of the heat and humidity.
But Mom had spoken. She would just have to beg off the trip. I bet Luther and Terrian will be glad to hear that.
They were making progress. Connection had been made to the optic nerves, and firm data on the day-night cycle had been established. Using sensor reports on the exact moment of sunrise, the organizers had determined that the new host was now several miles north of their previous host, the damaged tree. Once they could nail down sunrise and sunset times over several days, they should be able to locate the new host to a far greater precision.
This new host was demonstrating a significant ability to travel, much greater than had the other mammalian hosts that had been sampled. This potential only confirmed that they should continue their plan—repair the host and learn to control it.
A magnetic sensor grid was established, and the order had been given to the smiths: Feed endorphins into the blood stream when the host’s eyes were pointed south. Defocused pleasure was a crude way to influence a host, but it was a start.
Before school the next day, Deena checked her back again, and was relieved that the bruises were almost gone. They must have been superficial, and late night worries had made them seem worse than they were.
“Mom! It’s time to go.” Deena hesitated at the front door, her bag in hand. It was a mistake to go on out to the car. ‘Just a minute’ in her mother’s mind could easily last an hour.
“Mom! It’s time to go.” Constant irritation seemed to be the only thing that worked.
Mara showed up a couple of minutes later, keys in hand. “Are you ready yet?” she asked her daughter.
Bryony swung up behind her in the hallway on the way to class.
“I just heard about the Saturday trip to the forest. I’m coming too. Claire is so jealous! But Luther said he only had room for four people. I’m so glad you’re coming. Maybe it won’t be raining this time.”
Deena only had time to nod before Bryony spotted another friend and was off to share the news.
Luther saw her too, and waved. Deena smiled. It was the first time a guy recognized that she existed in years.
But what do I do now? Mom wouldn’t ever change her mind.
Luther waved at the timid girl. He was a little relieved, now that Bryony had been added to the party.
In the year he had been in Crescent City, he had played his social interactions closely and carefully. His goal was simple. He wanted to be the ‘nice young man’ adults trusted, but never gave a second thought. Just get through the year and get a standard diploma with ‘Luther Jennings’ printed on it.
He’d never intended to stay here beyond graduation. He didn’t want a job. He didn’t want a girlfriend. He didn’t want any teacher to take a serious interest in his future.
And he certainly didn’t want to get entangled in any scandal.
Timid girls could be perfectly sane, hiding wonderful personalities under the surface. But they could be disturbed, too. He had no way of knowing.
Deena Brooke had been in his physics class all year. She rarely spoke in class, but then, neither did he. He hadn’t really been aware of her until the tree accident. She was just a background character.
He should have turned her down when she tried to invite herself along on the trip. ‘Guys only’ was a legitimate excuse. But her plea had made perfect sense at the time.
Once he said ‘Yes’, he was committed. He didn’t want to be anyone’s best friend, but he didn’t want any enemies either. High school social interactions were a minefield. It was so easy to say the wrong thing and scar someone’s personality for life.
But Deena was a mystery, and mysteries had to be contained, for his own safety. One thing he’d learned from two years of constant monitoring of the news was that a claim of rape from a frustrated teenage girl was like the bullet from a gun. No matter if it were false. No amount of after-the-fact analysis or justification could call it back, or undo the damage it caused.
Maybe he was just being paranoid, but being paranoid had saved his life twice thus far.
Taking Deena off to the forest unchaperoned was too dangerous. Having Terrian along wasn’t much help.
But Bryony! That was different. Her life story, with all the intricate details, was available at the drop of a hint. If anyone had any doubts about the outing, Bryony could supply a minute-by-minute transcript, and everyone knew it. Just having her along made the whole event innocent.
“Um, Luther?” He looked up from his desk.
She looked around the room, nervously. “I... I realize that I was really out of line when I asked to come along on your trip. It’s okay if you would rather take someone else. I’ve heard that....”
He shook his head. “No, that’s fine. You’ve got a better reason for going than I do. We’ve got our four, and I’d rather not get into juggling passengers if I can avoid it. You are very welcome to come, and I’ll expect to see you Saturday morning, okay?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
A single pulser could to nothing. Designed to build up an electric charge, and then release it in a time scale only a molecular scale machine could achieve, the radio waves emitted by one pulser was a blip of static at best.
Organized into arrays, orchestrated to pulse with a co-ordination that was almost prescient, a collection of pulsers could send coded signals great distances.
Sensors monitoring the static charges maintained by other pulsers could detect incoming signals.
But not this time. Every eighty-plus seconds, since the time they had entered the new host, organizers had checked for any response to their call for assistance. But with their numbers so few, their coded transmission was weak. Any signals from other hosts were too faint to be processed from existing random noise.
But nanobots were machines, not given to hope, nor to despair. Organizers added up the numbers. The analysis tilted more towards shutdown each iteration. But it hadn’t reached that threshold yet.
Deena waited on the railing for her mother to come pick her up.
She looked again toward the south. It wasn’t all that far, for people with cars like Luther. Under the tall trees was another world, and it called to her.
“I really want to go,” she whispered. But without her mother’s help, she couldn’t even get to the school tomorrow morning to join the party.
Noise from the track field caught her attention. Female voices cheered as Bill raced by again. Gossip she’d overheard mentioned that in the last track meet, he was setting a pace to break the district record in the 1600-meter race.
Not that she would ever be there for a track event. Athletics and she parted company many years ago.
Coach Rathborne was in another part of the field urging her relay team to work on the baton passing. A missed pass had cost them the race during the last track meet and she didn’t want the same thing to happen tomorrow morning.
Deena squinted her eyes and looked harder at the girls’ coach. She set her books down and trudged across the field.
Track never made much sense to her. There were too many different things going on, all at the same time. The big guys were off in the corner throwing heavy things. The different runners were waiting for the other guys to get out of the way so they could do their thing. And where did the spear throwers fit in? It definitely didn’t count as ‘organized sport’ in her mind.
The coach had also been her Biology instructor several years ago. She had looked old then. Today, in her shorts, with her whistle, she looked so thin that the wind could pick her up and carry her away. But girls’ gossip called her tough, so go figure.
“Yes, Deena. What do you need?”
Deena looked around the field hesitantly. “Well, I was wondering if you needed any help at the track meet tomorrow?”
The coach looked her over, and then cocked her head. “I’ll never turn down an extra hand. We can always use someone to keep track of the statistics. Sure. I’d be glad to have you come along. The bus will be leaving at seven in the morning.”
Deena smiled, feeling like her every gesture must be betraying her. “Fine. Uh, could I ask a favor? My mom doesn’t know about this yet. Could you give her a call, so she’ll know it’s okay?”
Luther walked through his front door. The house was relatively new, at the far end of the street. Out of sight, out of mind, was his policy, even for a place to stay.
“Aunt Katy, I’m home!”
There was no answer, of course. ‘Aunt Katy’ lived eight hundred miles away in Malibu.
He checked his tells—single strands of hair placed carefully where any intruder would have to dislodge them. The one guarding the empty jewelry box on the fireplace mantle had fallen off, but the light layer of dust hadn’t been disturbed. He replaced it with another from his scalp.
There was a path he followed twice a day, checking the rooms. His bedroom, the living room and the kitchen were the only places actually used. The others held the furniture untouched from the day he’d rented the place. One of these days, before the lease expired, he just might dust the room. Or maybe not.
In the garage, he hauled out a bucket and hose and car wax. It was time to wash his baby again. He would have guests for a ride tomorrow.
Across the street and down the block from Deena’s fifty-year-old home, there was a park bench at the top of the cliff. She often sat there, watching the people work their way down the staircase to the beach.
She even went down there herself, to walk among the towering rocks and to see what the waves washed ashore. However, the climb back up was a killer. Come to think of it, she hadn’t gone down there in more than a year.
Watching the others was good enough.
The best time of day was sunset.
A cloud bank hugged the far horizon. The sun struggled to penetrate the mass, showing Deena x-ray like details in darkness and light.
I’m old enough to go places on my own, to do things with my friends.
Mom never wants to let go.
Would it have been any better if Dad had lived?
Probably not. All she could remember were the fights. Looking back through her little-girl eyes, they hadn’t been a happy family. That last year, he was gone more often than he was home.
Mom was alternately kind to his memory, then sarcastic. The best thing he did for their family, she said often, was to carry good life insurance.
It was good enough to buy their little house and pay off their debts. Every month, a pension check arrived from his company, providing just enough so that Mom’s various jobs were never more than short term hobbies—leaving her plenty of time to take care of her daughter.
Well, Mom. The best thing you can do for me is to let me live my own life.
The sun had gone down. With the clouds in the way, she hadn’t caught the moment. But it was definitely getting dark now.
She got to her feet and headed home.
Her mother called to her as she came in. “Deena, you’ll never guess who just called!”