Chapter 2: Rebirth
Most of the party guests have probably uploaded their memories of my dress malfunction to the shared consciousness network by now, sending the event directly to the synapses of everyone in their social circle. It’s probably collected a few hundred “hugs” already. It will be shared and re-shared, and by tomorrow morning, it will be as though half the coders on the east coast were there to experience the whole fiasco first hand. I was wrong, humiliation of this proportion is fatal. Maybe they’ll all feel guilty and treat people with more compassion in the future. Probably not, but it’s a pleasing final thought to cling to.
The hum of the robotic arms pivoting around the greenhouse is oddly soothing. Each machine busies itself with its own tiny role – planting seeds, germinating, harvesting – completely oblivious to the larger ecosystem they serve. Sort of like me, in this family. I’m capable of more, but they’ll never see that.
The beehive is located on the southeast side to catch the first rays of sunlight. No one has ever approached it like this before, without full protective gear. I’m not as scared as I thought. The storm clouds gathering outside will have the bees all riled up. I let the wood chips smolder in the smoker a few minutes before pumping in a few puffs to calm the hive. I don’t want to be attacked by the whole colony; I just need to coax out one of the little monsters.
Okay, here we go, I can’t put this off any longer. I steady my hands and lift the lid on the hive. Bees can smell fear. Calm, sure movements, Tessa. There’s a moment of hesitation when I hear the buzzing sound fill the greenhouse, but the image of all those twisted laughing faces flits through my head, and I keep going. A half dozen bees flutter out. I slowly let the air out of my lungs. Keep those alarm pheromones holstered, my friends, no reason to get excited. It’s just your old pal Tessa. I carefully replace the lid and wait for one to land on me.
Approximately 19 stings per kilogram of body weight – that’s the amount of venom a nest of Africanized honey bees would have to deliver to be lethal (1094.51969047 stings in my case, and I beg you not do the math). For the Japanese giant hornet, it would take even less. Breed the two species together and splice in a few spider genes from the phoneutria fera (it’s Greek for murderess), and the number of stings goes down to one. Anaphylaxis, followed by cardiac arrest within two minutes. The other lab techs and I engineered them for the medicinal properties of their enzymes, not to act as a swarm of assassins; their lethal nature is just a nasty little byproduct.
It takes longer than I thought. What are they waiting for? Maybe it’s my perfume. Bees don’t like the smell of marigolds. I changed out of my dress and those awful shoes, but I forgot to scrub off the perfume.
A bee finally lands on my neck, sending shivers through my body. So much for staying calm. I bite my tongue to mute the scream, and the sound that follows is like a whimpering dog. Or what I image that would sound like, having never actually met a dog.
Tiny legs probe my skin, inching closer to my face. I clench my teeth as the bee creeps to my mouth. For some odd reason, a lullaby my nursery technician once sang to me whispers in my head:
Golden slumber kiss your eyes,
Smiles await you when you rise.
The bee crawls across my nose, its dark, lifeless eyes almost even with mine. Delicate grey wings fan my cheek.
Do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby.
My breath comes in short bursts, and my pulse has nearly doubled my resting heart rate. It knows my scent, there’s no escape now. I close my eyes as it wanders up my forehead.
Cares you know not,
While over you a watch I’ll keep.
I feel it tunnel through my hair and migrate down the back of my neck, yet still I feel no stinger. Why does it refuse to attack? It must be a queen. Queen bees don’t attack in defense of the colony, they only go after rival queens. Could be the rush of adrenaline talking, but it suddenly comes as a relief that I won’t be taking up space on some autopsy table.
About 15,000 to 1 – those are the odds the one bee I lured out of the entire hive would turn out to be the queen. Guess I have some unfinished business here in this skin. The queen bee starts down my spine, and I can no longer take it. I tug at my shirt, but she burrows deeper, staying just out of reach as I twist and claw at my skin. The next thing I see is a flash of grey metal. A robotic arm swings right at me. It picks up my heat signature and spins to avoid me, crashing into the beehive, sending the lid skittering across the floor.
There I stand, covered in the virgin queen’s scent, as a cluster of big-eyed drones lock onto it. An hour ago, I was surprised to have one suitor, now I have 100 charging straight at me.
The bees swaddle me in a cloud of gold and black. The buzzing in my ear rises to an unbearable pitch. I stumble into a tower of aeroponic herbs and fall backwards, shattering the glass panel behind me. Out of the greenhouse I stagger, over the edge of the rooftop terrace, waiting for the thirteen-story plummet to do what the queen bee could not.
Only I’m not falling – I’m sliding, through the tangle of vines that heat the walls. The Vitis vinifera are customized to rapidly twine themselves around trellises or columns or whatever else they can wrap their stems around. Two of the vines loop around my wrists, slowing my descent, but the ground is still approaching way too fast. There goes the eighth floor.
Seven, six, five.
I come to a dead stop, dangling four stories above the ground, the only difficulty is a second vine has snared my neck. I squirm and gasp like an infant wrapped in the very umbilical cord that gives it life. My jugular vein compresses, cutting off blood flow to my brain. With my fingers tucked between my throat and the vine, I pull downwards until the stem eases its grip enough for me to slip through.
The loose vine slides over my eyes. It’s probably better that way, so I don’t see how the fall ends. There goes the third floor, I think.
The two remaining vines constrict, stretching me back against the wall and hanging me there by my wrists.
Harnessing all the torque in my body, I hurl myself forward. The tendrils release me, and a second later, I’m swinging upside down. I rip the vine from my eyes and see another one roped around my ankles above. With the little energy I have left, I bend upwards and wrap both hands around the last vine. I tear at the thick branch until my palms bleed, but it refuses to let go.
I release the vine and let myself sway. You don’t appreciate even circulation until your blood gets shuffled around. A few seconds ago, my brain wasn’t getting enough, now it has way too much. My sight has dimmed, but I think I see a figure approaching. He passes in and out of view as I drift back and forth, but it looks like he carries a pinch. I can hear the electromagnetic compression bending the energy in his hand into a blade of hot white plasma. He sweeps it high above me, and I crash to the ground.
A hand reaches down and pulls me to my feet. Now that the world is right-side up again, I recognize him as a garden technician.
“Were the festivities not to your liking?” he asks.
I gaze at the wall for a moment, a little hurt that the flora of the estate conspired to keep me from spoiling their lawn. Even they won’t have me. The severed vine brushes my foot as it snakes back to the main branch.
“Don’t you worry,” the gardener tells me. “Their generation was bread to be resilient. It’ll find its way.”
The party shows no signs of slowing down. The dancers on stage assemble themselves into the shape of our family crest: an ornamental tear catcher. One cluster forms the shape of an eye. The performers in blue dance their way out of the eye, into the vase below meant to catch the tears. When a Tearcatcher dies, mourners fill glass bottles with tears and lay them beside the fallen. A high number of bottles in the tomb signifies a family member of great status.
I stare through the window at all my sisters and brothers. Atherton, he’s like gravity, pulling in everything around him. Dominque smooths her hair and stares at herself in the mirror, as if the reflection had somehow changed in the last two minutes. Desiree piles into her mouth meat cubes cultured from the tissue of a famous actor who stars in the week’s most-viewed film. Her G-13 DNA won’t let an ounce of it turn to fat. And there’s Darien, dancing with Tristan. That didn’t take long. Would any of them fill a tear catcher for me?
I’ve been delaying it for the last hour, but there’s no getting around it – I’ll have to go back in through the main doors. I’ve considered all other points of entry, but despite its palace-like appearance, Tearcatcher manor is an impenetrable fortress. You can’t see it, but the whole compound is wrapped in an energy field that paralyzes any living creature trying to enter or exit without permission.
Walk right back into the party like nothing at all happened, that’s what I have to do. Be the good sister. I’ll keep treading across these eggshells, because what other choice do I really have? Safety assurance will scold me for an hour or two. They’ll lecture me on the dangers of leaving the compound without an escort. And warn me about all the unsavory types out there who would love to get their hands on a girl carrying Tearcatcher DNA. We’ve been modified to shed fewer skin cells than first drafts, but even a single strand of hair or drop of blood is worth a great many credits to a black-market gene dealer or a rival coder family.
The only way I haven’t been discovered by a safety patrol already is by hiding in the corridors of the garden. It’s quite beautiful, too bad more people don’t get to see it. It was designed along an east-to-west solar pattern. The sun rises on the Admiral’s Court, throwing its first light on statues honoring the CEOs of the past. Then it hits the Field of Progeny, lighting up custom-designed trees that commemorate each new generation of Tearcatchers. Next, it finds the presidential suite, giving Atherton his morning wakeup call. Finally, the sun sets at the end of the Hall of Rivers, a gravity-mocking labyrinth of canals that bend at impossible angles, loop upside down, and flow up walls.
I wander back into the garden and pluck an apple from one of the orchard trees. One last indulgence before the humiliation of going back inside. The apple is the perfect shade of red, the one most pleasing to the largest number of consumers. A nutrient-dense genetic marvel that will never brown or get attacked by pests or lose its pleasing aroma. I take a bite, but the taste is too familiar, too precise. I let it fall to the grass, leaving it exposed to the garden insects. Sorry, my friend.
The sound of a low-voltage current fills the air. I follow the noise to the driveway, but it’s too dark to see anything. What happened to all the lights? The sound amplifies, and the picture gets clearer the closer I get. The windows of the safety assurance booth up front are draped in black sheets. Only the sheets are moving. Flying. And buzzing. And, oh no, the bees must have followed me right out the window.
The guards trapped inside the booth pound the glass and wave glow sticks to scare them off, but it’s pointless. Two downed surveillance drones send sparks across the driveway, showering light in all directions. What I see at the front entrance is an image unlike any I’ve seen before – the massive gates to Tearcatcher manor stand ajar. Beyond it, a few dozen bees crash into the invisible barrier, sending ripples across the energy field, before falling to the ground in lifeless clusters.
The dozens turn into hundreds. Hundreds into thousands as attack pheromones flood the air. They charge straight into the energy field, one wave after the next dropping to the ground. The ripples multiply, like a pond under a heavy rain, slowly giving shape to the barrier. There’s a couple of loud pops, and the bees start slipping through the energy field in small pockets.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Now the bees are zipping right through, out into the night. They must have overwhelmed the power cell. The buzzing sound fades and it’s entirely quiet, but the guards are still cowering in the booth, their hands planted over their ears.
There’s nothing standing between me and the great big world outside. I wanted to leave my old life behind. I wanted to bury Tessa Tearcatcher. Now is my chance.
I glance over my shoulder and take one last look at the house of Tearcatcher. All I have to do is walk right through the front doors, out into the unknown void beyond.
So that’s what I do.
I don’t belong here. Perhaps a kinder world awaits.