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Authors: D. K. Mok

The other tree

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THEOTHER   TREE

D. K. MOK

 

 

 

 

Spence City

© 2013 D.K. MokSale of the paperback edition of this book without its cover is unauthorized.

Spencer Hill Press

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. Contact: Spence City, an imprint of Spencer Hill Press, PO Box 247, Contoocook, NH 03229, USA

Please visit our website atwww.spencecity.com

First Edition: December 2013.D.K. MokThe Other Tree: a novel / by D.K. Mok – 1st ed.p. cm.Summary:A grad student and a disillusioned priest race a greedy mega-corporation in a search for the Biblical Tree of Life.

The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this fiction:Anna Sui, Baci, Botox, Chanel, Doctor Who, Elvis Presley, Frisbee, Guggenheim, Hello Kitty, Hummer, IKEA, Indiana Jones, Jacuzzi, Jeep, Kevlar, King James Bible, Klingon, Lego, Louis Vuitton, Mace, Prada, Star Trek, Star Wars, Swarovski crystal, Taser, Tetris, Viagra

Cover design by Lisa AmowitzInterior layout by Marie Romero

978-1-939392-72-5 (paperback)978-1-939392-73-2 (e-book)Printed in the United States of America

 

 

 

For my family

1

The problem with immortality isn’t the boredom. Or the loneliness. Or the having to pretend to be your own descendant every few decades. The problem with immortality is essentially one of supply and demand. Despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an actual supply, there is, and always has been, an insatiable demand.

It’s an ancient, almost irresistible drive—I want to live. And although the drive rarely goes away, the individual, almost invariably, does. So, scientists struggle to stop telomeres from shortening, they create pluripotent stem cells, and they dabble in the idea that travelling faster than the speed of light may actually reverse time, if you wanted to sit in a tiny, speeding capsule for eternity.

Nearly every culture has its immortality myths—the immortal gods of Greek legend, who then became the immortal gods of Roman legend, in one of the earliest examples of re-branding. But the stories that draw people in, the ones that plant a seed of hope and festering discontent, are the stories about those whobecomeimmortal: the vampires of Europe, the alchemists brewing the Elixir of Life, the explorers seeking the Fountain of Youth.

Even the more buttoned-up belief systems have a thing or two about human immortality. Go back a thousand years, five thousand, a hundred thousand, before countless generations begat countless more. Before the fire and brimstone, before the burning bushes and pillars of salt.

There was a garden.

Everyone remembers the tree that caused all the trouble—the one that led to the fall from Paradise—and all the subsequent finger-pointing. But sometimes, people forget…

There was another tree.

* * *

The Chief Executive Officer of SinaCorp thought often about immortality. Not in a whimsical, wishful, or desperate way. She regarded immortality in the same way that she studied staff turnover figures or scrutinised the practical obstacles to launching a satellite so massive it would draw small moons into helpless orbit. Mortality was indiscriminate. It waswasteful.

Marrick stood by the window, banks of scrolling view-screens reflected in the glass. From her executive aerie atop SinaCorp Tower, she could see Varria City sprawled below like découpage. Her expression was thoughtful as a barely visible earpiece streamed threads of news. The plate glass wall of her office sloped outwards, from polished floor to shadowed ceiling. It gave the impression that the room was some kind of observation bay, inspecting the world from on high.

“Hoyle, sir.”

The voice came from a speaker discreetly embedded in the polished, black desk. The table was impressively carved from a single block of exotically flecked stone, its surface covered with faintly disturbing reliefs. It was hard not to draw comparisons with an altar, although such talk was discouraged amongst the staff.

“Come in,” said Marrick.

The door slid open noiselessly, and Hoyle walked to his designated mark with the air of someone who lived his life on a flawlessly diligent autopilot. Hoyle looked to be in his late thirties, with an analytical expression and a countenance of dutifully repressed opinion.

“Eden Two have completed their training,” said Hoyle. “When would you like them deployed?”

Marrick didn’t turn from the window.

“Today.”

“Where would you like them to start?” Hoyle’s fingers hovered over a thin, silver pad, the screen glowing softly.

“Leader’s discretion,” said Marrick. “He’s had a long time to think through…past mistakes.”

“Sir,” nodded Hoyle, and the doors swished shut behind him.

Marrick watched as the sun set across the city, bathing the office in a dull red light.

This was going to be interesting.

* * *

“Outta the way! Watch it! Books on rampage!”

Students threw themselves onto the campus lawn as Chris and an overloaded trolley of books thundered through the main quadrangle. The cheap plastic wheels rattled alarmingly as she skidded the trolley around a kink in the path, spraying gravel onto the philosophy students.

“Sorry!” yelled Chris, her feet dragging helpless furrows behind the hurtling trolley. “Hey, don’t you have a book that’s, like, two weeks overdue? You’re not the only one studying Descar—”

Without warning, the barrelling trolley stopped dead. Chris slammed into the wooden handle, smacking onto the sliding pile of books and making a sound somewhere between a grunt and the noise a corpse would make if you punched it in the lungs.

As Chris unfolded herself, her gaze travelled up a pair of polished shoes, to the kind of suit you would use to advertise bespoke tailoring.Expensivebespoke tailoring. A man stood in the middle of the path, his hands gripping the front of the now-stationary trolley. Chris had the feeling that underneath the suit was a figure that could also advertise personal training services.Expensivepersonal training services.

The man pushed up a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, which Chris had the uneasy feeling he didn’t actually need.

“Sorry,” said the stranger. “I didn’t know if you were in distress, but everyone else seemed to be.”

“It’s all right,” wheezed Chris. She took a tentative breath, and her lungs reluctantly inflated. “We’ve asked the university to level that slope, but they say it’s heritage.”

Which was another way of saying they couldn’t afford it. There was an awful lot at the university which was “heritage.”

“You seem in a hurry,” said the man.

“I am. Thanks.” Chris tugged the trolley firmly.

There was a slightly unpleasant pause, and then he released the cart. He dropped his gaze briefly to the covered shelf beneath the cart before flicking Chris a smile.

“See you around,” he said.

Chris resisted the urge to adjust the canvas draped over the trolley shelf, watching him stroll away.

This was not the most unusual encounter Chris had experienced at the university, particularly since it involved neither togas, swarms of lemurs, nor large, rolling cheeses being chased by tearfully hysterical students. However, as Chris wheeled the trolley towards the central square, she couldn’t help feeling that something slightly peculiar had just happened.

* * *

Varria University certainly wasn’t a bad university. However, if it were a couch, it would be stained with age, leaking a little stuffing (but devotedly re-patched), and defensively described as “vintage” by the owners.

Chris acknowledged that it was only due to these institutional eccentricities that she had a job here, but on days like today it could be both infuriating and disheartening.

She passed beneath the sandstone archway and into the sporadically grassy central square. Technically, it was an irregular hexagon, since the university had sold a chunk of land to car-park developers; nonetheless, it was still affectionately known as The Square, with the great uprooted oak still lying on its side from the storm of ’84. A permanent line of jittery students snaked behind the red and white coffee cart in one corner, while anxious academics peered at the weatherworn notice boards lining the western wall.

There was an excited huddle of people around the notice boards now, dressed in an eclectic assortment of cardigans, lab coats, and clothes that would perhaps one day come back into fashion. Chris pushed the trolley resolutely in their direction, resisting the urge to speed up and let go. She had been told it was for reasons of tradition that notices were still posted in The Square, rather than discreetly placed on the university website, or even more discreetly messaged on a “need to know” basis. Chris suspected it had more to do with principles of bread, circuses, and academic bloodsport.

Looks flicked in Chris’s direction as she approached; some were gloating smiles and others were smirks of schadenfreude. They parted in a disorganised shuffle as she advanced.

The boards were of golden walnut, the corners rounded by decades of wind, rain, and the occasional Frisbee. Panels of glass were set into the front, covering a pitted corkboard pinned with News of Importance.

Chris’s gaze skimmed the heading:Varria University Research Grants Awarded.

A finely printed list rolled down the page, stating names, monetary amounts, and topics of research. Her eyes scanned the list, up and down and up again. She searched the corners of the page, squinting at the paper from an angle, in case they had tried to print without toner again.

“What on earth is a trolley of disorganised books doing here? Oh, Arlin. What a surprise.”

Ogden didn’t look surprised. In fact, he looked like he’d been standing by the notice boards all day, waiting for Chris to show up. Another hour and he’d probably have sunstroke.

“Ogden,” said Chris.

The other academics drew back. Scientists liked to throw words at each other, but occasionally they threw punches. And there were some very heavy books on that trolley.

Chris couldn’t believe that Ogden had won the Ellipso Rarities Grant again. Reading his proposal online, she had been certain that entire paragraphs had been plagiarised from Star Trek, and possibly Blake’s 7.

It was true that Ogden could have been a brilliant scientist. He had, however, made the discovery early in his career that if you threw the word “quantum” around with enough frequency, combined creatively with phrases like “negative space” and “imploding neutron antechinuses,” people would give you quantities of money and leave you alone.

“I had no idea the library had a delivery service now,” said Ogden. “Wait, don’t tell me you’re here for the notice board?”

Ogden did not do pantomime well. He was the kind of person who started laughing at the punchline before he finished telling the joke. If he was laughing, everyone else should just assume it was funny.

Just walk away, Chris told herself.

It was always undignified when academics got into a scuffle—lots of hair-pulling and broken spectacles. Chris grabbed the handle of the trolley and turned away.

“After all, these are the grants for scientific research, not the creative arts,” continued Ogden.

There was a chorus of uncertain snickers.

Chris stopped, her heel grinding sharply in the gravel as she turned to face Ogden.

“Everyone here is here for the notice board,” said Chris. “Everyone here has pulled all-nighter after all-nighter, sweated blood over a proposal, and waited agonising months to see that board today. Everyone here pours their hearts and minds into the study of something that someone, at some time, has told them was a waste of space. Everyone here has starved, has slaved, has worked as an attack-dog mannequin, to pursue something they believe in. Everyone here, Ogden, except you.”

Chris fixed Ogden with a look of disdain.

“Yet I’m the one with the grant,” said Ogden.

* * *

The trolley felt much heavier when being pushed uphill, and Chris tried to tell herself that the crushing weight was gravity, rather than disappointment. She had been working at Varria University for four years now, since graduation. She was far too old to be shelving books and substitute teaching. Then again, it wasn’t age that was the problem. She was far tooambitiousto be shelving books and substitute teaching.

There werethingsshe wanted to do, discoveries to be made, questions to be answered, revelations to share with the world. However, Ogden was right about one thing—she would be stuck in application hell forever unless something dramatic happened.

“Chris!” A scruffy student with multidirectional hair loped across the quadrangle.

Chris continued pushing the trolley as the student fell into irregular step beside her.

“Not now, Tyler,” said Chris.

“My hamster’s sick.”

“Take it to a vet.”

“I will, but that stuff you gave me last time—” Tyler rummaged in his pockets. “I can give you something. I found these really cool plants.”

Tyler proffered a handful of moist, wilted leaves.

“Those are geraniums,” said Chris.

Tyler looked momentarily crestfallen, then pulled out another handful of stems.

“I found these at a mate’s house—” said Tyler hopefully.

“You’ll get expelled for having those on campus,” said Chris flatly, wheeling the trolley towards the library loading ramp.

“Chris…”

Chris sighed and glanced around the empty bay. She quickly crouched beside the trolley and reached into the covered lower half, rummaging around with a soft clinking noise. After a moment, Chris pulled out two thin, scarlet leaves and stuffed them into Tyler’s shirt pocket.

“Stop overfeeding it,” said Chris.

“But she always looks so hun—”

“Stop. Overfeeding. It. Or next time, I’ll give you something that’ll make it explode.”

Tyler nodded furiously, then jogged away with a wave.

“Thanks, Chris!”

This is my life, thought Chris as she trundled the trolley back into the library. Writing failed proposals and saving hamsters from lethal indigestion.

The afternoon passed in a sagging blur. Her brain felt like pudding as she shelved the trolley of books written by people who had obviously submitted successful grant applications. As evening drifted on, students filtered away to pub crawls and late-night cram sessions. Chris finally wheeled the empty trolley into the lift, punching the cracked button for the basement.

The basement level was where the old books used to be kept. Not the old, rare books, hand-bound in palomino leather with engraved name plates. These were the old books that no one ever borrowed, leaving generations of librarians wondering why their predecessors thought they would need a book on knitting plush medieval siege weapons.

Eventually, even these old books had been moved after the seeping damp and the millipedes had started causing problems. No one knew how the millipedes got down here, but everyone was too afraid to have it investigated. That was how horror movies started.

Chris wheeled the trolley down the sticky linoleum corridor, fluorescent rods flickering on the low ceiling. She stopped at a door. Her door.

There was a handwritten paper sign stuck to the bloated wood:Miscellaneous Academic.

The sign covered the original door plate, which read:Bio-Hazardous Lab Waste. Do Not Eat.

At least she had an office. It was a cramped, windowless, bare brick room, but she had managed to wire it up with several large flood lamps, which made all the difference.

The tiny room was brimming with potted plants, cuttings, grafts, bowls of seeds, and dried, hanging specimens. Jars, half-filled with water, covered several shelves, bristling with assorted leaves and stems. Along one wall, a creeping vine with star-shaped berries was making a break for freedom towards a low vent. In a corner, a startlingly large bush had burst into multicoloured flowers. Books and papers poked out from between leaves and under clay pots, and the room smelled of damp earth.

There’s so much more than this, thought Chris, as she parked the trolley against the far wall and unloaded pots and jars from the covered tray.

The things she could show them, the things she could change, if only the fools would realise that “quantum” was just a word, and that antechinuses rarely, if ever, imploded. If they wanted imploding antechinuses,shecould give them imploding antech—

Chris turned around and froze mid-reach. She hadn’t heard the door open, let alone close. Standing in her office was the spectacled man from the quadrangle.

“Nice office,” he said.

He pushed aside a hanging frond as he stepped over to the desk between them. It was a very small step.

“They said I could use the trolley,” said Chris.

The man looked vaguely like an auditor. No, he looked like someone wearing the hollowed-out skin of an auditor. He was wearing a tie, but Chris had the uncomfortable impression that it was only so he could use it to strangle people. She shook the thought from her head.

“Do you like it here?” he asked casually, glancing around at the dripping foliage.

A spider started crawling across the desk, then gently expired halfway across.

“It’s…fine,” said Chris.

The man looked around, quietly reassessing his definition of “fine.”

“I’d like to make you an offer,” he said.

“Can I refuse?” Chris glanced at the durian she kept under the desk.

“If you want to stay here for the rest of your life.”

Chris didn’t particularly believe in serendipity, but she did believe in hidden cameras and cruel humour.

“Go on,” she said carefully.

The man took a smooth step around the desk. Chris noted with some unease that he moved with controlled precision, as though every movement were lining up the next four.

“I work for a company with a large pharmaceutical research and development division,” he said. “We’re about to commence a research expedition to investigate the potential medical properties of an extremely rare plant. We’re looking for someone with significant botanical experience to join our team for an immediate start. The remuneration is excellent, and you will be credited third on the initial journal paper.”

And the million-dollar question.

“Why me?” asked Chris.

The man’s expression didn’t waver.

“I understand you’re a qualified cryptobotanist,” he said.

Chris returned the gaze, edged with razor wire.

“Most people don’t think it’s a real qualification.”

“I know better.”

Chris studied his calm, businesslike demeanour.

“What’s the plant?” said Chris.

“The Tree of Life. Genesis. Chapter Two. Verse Nine.”

The man was straight-faced, his grey eyes steady.

Something in Chris snapped, like a broken spring in a watch wound too tight. A sad smile. A closing door. A phone call. The smell of damp earth. Silence.

“Who do you work for?” Chris’s voice was like a blade being drawn.

“A thirty-percent down payment can be deposited into—”

“Who do you work for.” It was less of a question now.

“The expedition is being funded by SinaCor—”

“Get out.”

The vehemence behind those words could have levelled a small fishing village. Chris’s eyes blazed as she stepped forward.

The man fixed Chris with a faintly reproachful expression, then reached into his jacket. Chris grabbed the durian from under her desk and braced to hurl it. She had a pretty good arm from hefting textbooks, and at point-blank range a durian could do a hell of a lot of damage.

He withdrew his hand slowly from his jacket, holding a slim business card between two fingers. He slid the card delicately onto the desk, beside the dead spider.

“If you change your mind.” He paused at the door. “I’m sorry about your father.”

Chris’s heart skipped several beats.

“What do you mean?”

There was a brief, theatrical pause.

“Oops,” said the man.

The door closed softly.

2

“And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

- Genesis, Chapter Two, Verse Nine

Softly glowing laptop screens lit the room, and shadowy objects glinted on the floor. Several figures occupied indistinct surfaces, although one may have been in a hammock. The man entered the room, discarding his wire-rimmed glasses and pulling off his tie with a grimace.

“No joy?” said a lanky man with blond hair.

“It’s not important,” said the man, shrugging off his jacket to reveal a shoulder holster.

“You owe me twenty,” said the lanky man to a woman studying a laptop screen.

She ignored him.

“I told you not to go, Docker,” continued the lanky man. “You creep people out. So does Roman.”

The woman looked up, her red irises catching the light.

“It’s a congenital disorder, Stace,” she said flatly.

Stace shrugged. “So, do we just go?”

Docker glanced towards a shadowy figure leaning against a wall.

“Almost,” said Docker.

* * *

Chris pounded her fist on the flaky front door, her heart racing, stomach trying to crawl somewhere it wasn’t supposed to go. She felt as though she’d leapt from a cliff, hanging in that awful moment just before you started to fall.

Not again, thought Chris.I can’t… Not again…

A chain rattled, and the door opened to reveal a man in his fifties with a permanently sceptical expression.

“Dad!” Chris pushed inside. “Are you okay? Why aren’t you answering your phone?”

“It’s Wednesday,” said Mr. Arlin.

“You don’t answer your phone on Wednesdays?”

“You don’t visit on Wednesdays. I probably had my phone off.”

Chris felt tears of relief pricking at her eyes.

“I just finished baking a custard,” said Mr. Arlin. “Take your shoes off.”

Chris followed him into the small kitchen, the comforting smell of sweet baked goods filling the air. Framed sketches of small reptiles and frogs hung on the yellow-papered walls.

“Dad, is everything okay?”

“Sure,” said Mr. Arlin. “You could do something about the cat next door, though. Got any plants that eat cats?”

“Let me get that.”

Chris gently took the baking tin from the oven. Words ran circles through her head, repeatedly bypassing her mouth.

“Dad. Are you… Areyouokay?”

Mr. Arlin opened the kitchen cupboard, taking out two white china plates. The silence stretched a little too long, and Chris suddenly knew, in that heart-stopping moment just before he answered—

“Doctor Phisbe said maybe there’s something up with my lungs,” he mumbled.

Mr. Arlin rummaged through the kitchen drawer for clean forks, and his mumbling decreased further in volume.

“Maybe some kind of cancer.”

Chris stood perfectly still as the world turned nauseatingly wobbly, and then sank slowly in on itself like a deflating soufflé. There was a sense of floating unreality as the room seemed to burst into swarms of brightly coloured goldfish, bubbling through the air.

“I was waiting for the right time…” said Mr. Arlin.

The imaginary fish all went belly-up. Chris swayed, putting down the baked custard. Mr. Arlin steered Chris gently towards the living room, guiding her to the couch.

“At least it’s not Ebola,” said Mr. Arlin.

Chris’s brain got a foothold as it slid towards deranged grief, and it started climbing.

“There’s medication, they have—”

“Chris, it’s—”

“I’ll find a way,” said Chris. “I can find a way—”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Mr. Arlin, a faint edge in his voice. “New treatments take generations to develop. It takes decades, and sometimes centuries, of scientists building on the work of the scientists before them. Your mother never understood that.”

Desperation spilled through Chris as she gripped her father’s hands. Mr. Arlin’s bravado bent a little.

“Just come for dinner more often.”

* * *

She cried that night, all night, for the first time in years. Her throat throbbed raw and her chest panged with every breath, as though she’d been hit by an elephant driving an eighteen-wheeler. Every memory of happiness seemed to evaporate, overwhelmed by the terrible sense of being finally, utterly alone.

The next day was pale and washed out, like a day that lacked the conviction to be real. Everything was too bright and too brittle, seeming to have shape and colour but no substance. Chris’s dreams had been full of ornately patterned snakes coiled around dark, twisted trees. Bright red apples rolled through carpeted corridors, while breezes blew through sunlit halls.

Yesterday’s drama at the notice boards seemed incomprehensibly insignificant.Everythingseemed insignificant. The pain had boiled everything into a numb morass, and there was a certain soothing quality to letting her body carry out mindless tasks while her brain remained catatonic.

Therefore, it was with some surprise that Chris found herself standing in front of a grey laminate door, slotted with the nameplateReligious Guidance – Miscellaneous Christian. She stared blankly at the door for some time before she realised it was open. Inside the small office, a slim blond man in his mid-twenties sat behind a spartan desk, studiously ignoring her. Chris found this mildly insulting, particularly as the man was a wearing a clerical collar.

Chris had never been particularly religious, and personal experience had left her disinclined to believe in miracles. To Chris, religion was something that just floated around, like airborne bacteria—you didn’t really think about it, but there was probably some stuck to you, anyway.

“Are you the campus priest?” she found herself saying.

The young man didn’t look up from his magazine.

“If you’re here to tip over the altar, you should have gotten here before the grad celebrations started,” he said.

Chris glanced around the monochromatic office. The room was bare, aside from a small rack of faded leaflets and a shelf of assorted Bibles, including a Theatrical Bible for Mimes.

“Actually, I just had some ques—” Chris began.

Without looking up, the young man flicked out a plain business card. It was printed simply with the words “Christian FAQ” and a website address.

“The online FAQ covers the usual things, like ‘Will my dog go to Heaven?’” he said, still not looking up from his reading.

“Dodogs go to Heaven?”

“Read the FAQ.”

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