Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
"To Fruition" by Tamara Wilhite
Jorge was excitedly talking about the hybrid’s potential, how the structural plant’s new ability to create food and other useful substances was ideal for the developed world’s market. I felt a little claustrophobic inside the dark greenery that had grown up around the lattice work. The plant entirely surrounded me except for the two open window holes yet to be filled with manufactured windows. He saw me looking at them and said, “Oh, don’t worry, we have solar tubes and solar powered lights so we’ll have plenty of light whenever we need it.” He smiled. "In fact, we need it so the plants can grow on the interior of the home."
“What do you do for plumbing?” I asked.
He escorted me into the single bathroom in the house. The hybrid wicker-like species formed the walls, while leaf-free runners formed a bamboo-like floor. Pipes had been run into the bathroom to provide running water to the standard sink, shower and toilet. “I don’t see drainage pipes.”
“Did you notice this room is a little higher than the rest of the house?”
“I assumed it was because you needed a concrete pad and plumbing pipes here.”
“The dirty water and biological wastes all go to the plant.”
“I don’t think it will agree with all the things people might flush down the drain.”
“You just use the same types of eco-friendly soaps for dish washing and clothes washing for washing your own hair and body. Oh, and the laundry room has the same draining arrangement.”
“The plant just takes it all in?”
“Wait until you see the kitchen.”
We exited the bathroom, in the middle of the three small bedrooms, and walked past the living room into the basic kitchen. For those who had only recently had reliable green electricity delivery through solar panels and waste burning systems and still lacked good wastewater disposal, I could see the attraction. For rural areas, barrios and suburbs where the alternative was creative homelessness and scrap-built shacks, a house that protected you from the elements and cleaned the dirty city air while almost never needing repairs seemed like a dream come true. These things were even being grown in multi-level structures around existing shacks in Brazil …
The kitchen had a standard sink with water tap, concrete pad for a refrigerator and oven. “We get the power from the local incinerators for farm waste. One of the benefits of this species is we can take the ash and drop it in the trash here to feed the plant.”
“It shouldn’t need much.”
“When it is growing, it needs ash from waste streams plus nutrient boosts to get going. Once it is established, then the average family’s waste barring aluminum cans and non-bio-degradable plastic can go into it.”
Jorge opened the sink cabinet. The sink drained directly into a deep maw in the roots, a black hole that was disquieting. “You can just throw food debris in there instead of installing a garbage disposal.”
“I hope it can handle chicken bones, gristle and everything else it might receive or else the house will stink up.”
“Oh, it can. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out people were burying dead relatives under the floor per local traditions and it was absorbed as well.”
“As long as the dead weren’t murder victims,” I said.
“The plant would just see it all as food. We’ve even had people feeding the plants stray animals they’ve killed, dead rodents, and it handled it. Local animal control’s job got so much easier.”
“You said this version puts out something edible,” I pressed.
We went outside. Jorge took me over to a structure off the side of the plant where a window box hung off the side of the living wall. I supposed there were streamers from the plant coming into the window box, altered somewhat by nutrients only available there. He opened the colored plastic lid where what might have been a small fruit was.
“These things are only supposed to grow through runners that can’t grow without specific nutrient feeds. That’s how we control its spread.”
“What? You think it can propagate through this? No, it only looks like a rose hip.”
“It looks like a strawberry to me.”
“My parents raised roses, which is why I have that association. Did you think the coloring variations on the outside were seeds? It can’t make seeds.”
“The ancestral strains that were turned into this species could spread through runners or seeds. I wonder if the variation is it trying to express those genes though we tried to turn them off to control this species.”
“It is totally dependent on people,” Jorje replied.
“It can sustain itself off rain and sunlight and wind- blown particulate matter. It just benefits from people bringing in food and turning it into fertilizer, electric lights that give it additional energy, water brought in and returned to the plant with valuable fertilizers.”
“So why bother trying to replicate except through our desires?”
“Because the plant doesn’t care about us the way we care about it.”
“Does that mean you don’t want to try one of the fruit?”
Jorge pulled one of the strawberry like fruits off the stem and into his mouth. “This one tastes more like an apple.”
“This one? You’ve had other ones?”
“Sure. We do taste tests all the time.”
“I hope you’re doing pesticide tests first.”
“These things don’t have problems with pests.”
“The plants make a variety of insecticides naturally, so we don’t end up moving people into a free home and leave them to fight off termites or ants or anything else. And we’ll take care of anything else.”
“That’s a broad index. Are you selling the pesticides it makes as a separate product?”
“We don’t want any species to develop broad resistance to what it makes. You know what happened when we used antibiotics too far and wide in high density livestock production.”
“Fine. Fine. But why even bother with food production when we’re in a rural area?”
“The roots of this thing sometimes kill everything immediately around it unless it is kept in a pot. Grass sometimes does OK if the structure’s roots go deep enough.”
“I’m sure that’s popular with owners who have dogs.”
“Most people don’t have one when they have trouble feeding themselves and sheltering their families. And if they have a pet, they aren’t going to care where it goes as long as it isn’t inside the house.”
“Valid points. What about chickens?”
“They don’t last very long.”
“Chickens generate eggs and meat and generate enough income from sales of both to raise a family earning a dollar a day to three dollars a day and give them protein to boot.”
“Not enough insects here to feed them, though I guess you could put grain out for them to eat, but then you have enough food for your family.”
“Maybe you could check the faux fruit for seeds to feed the birds.”
“I told you, there aren’t seeds, so birds don’t eat them. I don’t see how you see that there could be.”
“I don’t see how you can’t see that there aren’t.”
“I think you need to have those fruit tested in the lab in case those natural pesticides are affecting your brain.”
Jorge stormed off, obviously angry with me. I sat down on the concrete steps in front of the living house, the beams around me holding up the solar panels that powered the home. He was so invested in his dream of helping the poor and saving the world, the ends justified the means and that meant nothing could be allowed to challenge his world view …
I got up and returned to the window box. I pulled out a plastic bag and started breaking off the fruit. If he wouldn’t get it tested, I would. When done, I walked the half a kilometer to the construction staff’s building instead of using the living house’s bathroom.
The dim lights meant that the batteries needed to be replaced soon or someone needed to stop streaming so much live media. When I went to the sink and turned on the water, I washed my hands thoroughly. The vague scent of the soap bothered me until I realized it wasn’t the soap.
The bathroom toilet was originally a composting toilet, but someone had swapped out the collection bin with a root system. Living house plant. That or one of the plants had grown its roots here and no one bothered to cut it back. It was like trees growing roots into a house water line … but that meant the plants were spreading farther than we thought they were.
Then I remembered Jorge saying they’d been eating the fruit. Someone could have eaten some of the fruit, one seed survived the digestive tract, took literal root in a pile of fertilizer and low light … Either way, it was bad.
I walked outside and around the building. There were no strong indicators of runners below the surface, but something genetically engineered to grow up a 50 foot structural lattice could run rootlets 500 feet if it was acting like a bamboo colony.
My first thought was whether or not to tell Jorge. My second thought was whether or not I needed to leave the site to talk to someone sensible, because things were getting out of control. I really hated the management team banning cell phones out of fear someone would take pictures of anything propriety that could get used by the competition or location information before poor people moved in and environmentalists showed up and trashed everything. I didn’t want to admit those pagan extremists had a point, but they did.
I headed for one of the work sheds and found it locked. Of course, against theft. So what could I do? Wait until my ride came to take me back to sanity and civilization? Could I wait that long? How long did I have?
I approached Jorge after seeing him with several of the workers stringing runners at a project in progress. “I’d like a ride back to the regional office.”
“You were going to stay the night in one of the houses. Give your report on the thermal profiles, comfort and so forth.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
“Are you too elitist? You’re too good for this life?” Jorge challenged me.
What could I say that wouldn’t sound bad? I realized everything I would say would be taken as an insult or worse. “You have runners in the bathroom.”
“Saves us quite a bit of money on waste hauling.”
“They aren’t supposed to be there.”
“We didn’t put them there,” he replied defensively.
“So how did they get there?”
“Why should I care? We’re here to build homes, grow communities – you should know the advertising slogans better than I do.” An edge of angry skepticism entered his voice. “Why aren’t you going to do what you’re supposed to do, what you’re paid to do, so we can get the project signed off and we get our lump sum payments for project completion?” The other workers had stopped working and were staring at me. Most didn’t know much English, but money and payments and not getting paid were terms they seemed keyed off of, teed off at … oh, man, these guys were mad.
“I’ll sign if off, if you need me to.”
“If you don’t do it and I sign it off, I could get charged with violating policy. I’d lose my job and I don’t have the options you do.” More anger. “Are you testing me?” If I said no, he’d accuse me of corruption, and if I said yes, he’d be mad and likely delay my ability to leave tomorrow morning.
“Do I have any way out of this?” I asked him.
The pollen floating in the air sticking to my skin woke me up if only from the discomfort as it dried and irritated my skin. As I groggily came to awareness, I wondered how much of it had already coated my lungs.
I briefly wondered how they’d dug a grave to put me in without burying me until I realized it was one of the maw pits. The tendrils were rising up around me, poking me. I couldn’t do much more than wiggle a little around due to the hemp ropes on my arms and legs.
I tried to yell for help, but it was only a harsh wheeze. Yep, in the lungs. I tried to sit up and was too winded to do so. Footsteps, and then I saw Jorge. “I’ll get the approval I need, just say you ran off and were unwilling to do it, so the office needs to send someone else to do what I need.” I couldn’t get the words out beyond a whisper, and he wouldn’t have listened even if he heard me. “And you’re about to save me a lot of money on nutritional supplements for this project, too.” I tried to glare at him. “The fruit harvest won’t be bad, too. You really should have tried them, then you’d understand.”
He stormed off and left me alone to the darkness and the plant to its next fruition.