Why the Tree-bug? Tardi asks. He doesn't get any promising answers. And apparently the only hope for him is a woman who has already proved untrustworthy ...
“Why did you come here, Tree-man?” Cele said.
Would she ask if she had the monster visiting her? “Anything you know about this disease.” He squished needles in his mangy hair. “Do you know it?”
“I know of it,” she said. “Never knew what it would do to humans if spread like fertiliser up and down the countryside.”
“Need a cure. Not just for me either.”
He said it all again, in case she hadn’t taken it in. “There are hundreds back home. They’re being called new-trees and they have their human souls still in them. Only a couple of us walking and talking. Partials.”
“An off-world bio-agent brought in by one of the Huddle to help them convert our air into something they can breathe,” she said.
That was a scrap of info and no use to him at all apart from tickling his interest. No mention of a cure. “What’s the other thing I have in me?” Tardi said. “That one allows the monster to invade my mind? I caught it from some silver-barbed coral?”
He couldn’t make out her expression. Fear?
“The Huddle hides me from the Engineer,” she said. “That’s what he once was. They protect me despite the terrible thing I did to them.”
She seemed to go into a fugue of whys and wherefores. “Maybe they still expect to revenge themselves on me. Or maybe they are saving me from him to be able to get Ushen returned to them.”
Everything about the Huddle interested him but he couldn’t yet show that in his behaviour. He’d have to try and remember what she said and get her back to his problems as if he cared nothing about hers. “I don’t quite understand. The Huddle protects you from the infection, or from the invasion? How?”
“The infection is in the silver that he manufactures, that the Huddle now need to stay alive. In my opinion, he forces the stuff onto them to keep them caught.”
“He knew me the minute I was flung against Joe Loreno’s coral,” Tardi said. “He knows my friend Poul. He knows a bunch of Stormies, Trinnet among them.”
“But he’s not that good at seeing the stuff happening right under his nose. He’s trusted the Huddle for so long.”
“How does it work when you and Callum both have a sheen all through you?”
“I did that to hide us in plain sight. The Huddle is a bunch of beings. Hopefully the Engineer will think we’re bits of that group.”
“What else do you know?” he said. She was paler now, not so rosy-cheeked, though that could be the basement cold.
“Whatever he snares, stays snared. Thousands of years,” she said.
“And knowing that, you’ve been spreading it. Joany Appleseed, my informant said. Casting it into the landscape.”
“Here’s the clinic,” she said. “Would you like us to sample some of your cells? To see what we can see?” She fanned out a half dozen swabs.
What would be the use? The bastard was in him, therefore the silver was in him. “The tree thing then. Can I get rid of that?”
“Why would you want to? I used it to enable the cetacean people to breathe in water.”
“What fish do?” Tardi said. “I’m a land animal.”
“Earth-evolved fish. The other world’s species that live in water evolved a vegetative symbiosis to help them make oxygen.”
“Joe Loreno stole his sample from here. Or maybe it spilled and he mopped up. Whatever.”
“You can’t blame me for everything,” she said.
“What about that fish that you had here a while, the size of a mattress? I saw you feeding it, courtesy of the Great Bastard himself which is what the Stormies call him. By the time the mattress got down to Byron Bay it was a carpet-sized fish. Must have had a great feed on the way. Sharks, dolphins and Earth-evolved whales would all do, I expect. It has the biggest maw.” He had to tell her it all despite that she was now paper-pale.
“He doesn’t even have to do the reformatting of Earth himself, you’re doing it for him,” he said.
“I’m spreading the stuff to save the Earth, to stop things dying. We rediscovered a species of krill the day Joe left.”
“Bet it’s a silver krill,” Tardi said. “Not an Earth-evolved species. And apparently you made a completely new silver sea mammal as well. Dolphins crossed with humans? Whose idea was that?”
“They’re humans so wanting the peaceful ocean life, and so loving their dolphin friends. So yes, I melded them.”
The peaceful ocean life? The poor fucking dolphins. But careful now, Tar-boy. You want her help. You are not her conscience. “The Great Bastard showed me a bunch of eggs containing the genetic material of his kind. Eggs that are waiting somewhere nearby, for good times had by all on a water planet. He’s picked me for the first of his new support system and he’s going to try to make me do things with bad repercussions. I hoped that you might have some suggestions on how to help overcome … I don’t know … prevent the worst?”
“The Huddle have controlled him for thousands of years. Get in with them.”
The way she smiled reminded him of Rowan’s tricks.
“I’ll start you on that road if you like,” she said.
“Is it irrevocable?” he said.
She laughed nastily. “Look at you, asking that.”
She sobered. “The dust is forever, the Huddle told me again and again. What keeps them and now you in thrall. The mud needs constant refreshing. In the valley the ladies all had their own ponds to lie around in and for their clones to be born into.”
“Do you? Lie around in it?” Tardi said.
She stopped before a set of fire containment doors. Unlocked them. “Come on in and see my witch’s cauldron.”
Put like that he didn’t know if he wanted to. He stepped back, into someone right behind him.
“I got your back, Tar. I be here a while, listening. You heard when she saw me.”
Tardi tried to recall the moment when Cele focussed on how she might be able to help him. When Shad stepped from the shadows?
“The lady is saying the dust is forever,” Shad said. “There’s your irrevocable, she be saying. The mud sounds like a shield.” He nudged Tardi toward the tank Cele indicated. “Big enough for a swim, almost.”
“I’ll leave you gents to figure something. When I leave here, soon, I’ll be opening the sea-doors. Flooding all this,” she said with her arms spread. “You left my great great grandson … where?” she said, looking at Shad.
“Youngster is with Trinnet in the caf, learning his edibles.”
“Zebe might help you, if you ask her nicely,” Cele said.
“Zebe? She’s here?” Tardi said.
“You know her already?”
“Only that she came down to Byron Bay to help my friend Poul infect himself and her with the same silvery coral that I was in hospital for. She is a blonde and she doesn’t answer friendly emails.”
Now Cele laughed nastily. “You do not know Zebe. Trust me on that, if on nothing else. Just as well for you. After I leave, she’ll be the only one who can help you with that project.”
She swirled down a corridor opposite.
They heard a second set of doors slamming back to the walls. A few minutes later the smell of the ocean trembled into the room.