Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Burger Taste Test Ramen Taste Test Pancake Taste Test
The room was small and sparsely decorated, but even without many objects to hold onto the smell of pancakes and syrup was thick in the air. It was almost as if the scent was pumped in through the vents from an industrial-sized vat. There were enough people in there to add an element of body odor, but Ms. Mapple had the ability to weed that out in her decision making.
She was the only one seated, in front of a plain table with three plates. Each held a stack of pancakes with its own assortment of fruits or syrups. There was a fork for each, so there would be no syrup contamination between bites. The group standing before her, nervously wringing their hands, were an odd collection of town elders, chefs, lumber workers, and the town crier.
“I don’t mean to rush you, but this could be time sensitive,” one of the elders said, eyeing the pancakes like seashells, half-expecting a giant hermit crab to scuttle out from one of them.
“This cannot be rushed, unless you want inaccurate results,” Ms. Mapple insisted. She took up the first fork, from a dark brown stack flecked with strawberry and dark chocolate. Her bite was a perfect cross-section, with one piece from each of the three cakes and a little of the whipped cream from the top. She placed it in her mouth, but didn’t chew. Her lips simply closed as she sat there, letting its fluids and smells spread across her oral cavity.
That was when her real expertise kicked in: the talent honed from over eight years in a gastronomy school. She’d been both a researcher and a guinea pig on several new fronts of the culinary experience. She’d pioneered the use of settled recycled saliva in palette cleansing, refuted the work of the group called the roasted romantics, and even patented a new compound for hollandaise consistency. Ms. Cacklin Mapple was the greatest food expert the elders had access to, after all their local food critics failed them.
To be fair, it was a newly complex field, food study. All of the ingredients of the pancakes set out before her used to have different sources. Now they all came from the same network of spliced hybrid trees, the same trees holding up the small building they now gathered in. Mankind had very few buildings left on the ground, only twenty-five on this continent.
They were still the first generation for the attempt to return to nature. Once the trees were engineered, loaded with all the DNA they could ever need from all of Earth’s organisms, they took their calculated steps backward. The tree houses were built and grown from wood. The factories were left to break up in the roots. The phones and computers were left behind. They could get it all from the trees now, including the wheat and fruit used to make the pancakes.
Ms. Mapple sampled all three while the others waited. Dark chocolate and strawberry. Cinnamon and brown sugar. Walnut and blackberry. She only needed one bite, which was good, because around five bites or so she might’ve experienced some of the toxic effects the elders hoped to weed out. She stood and circled the table, arranging her conclusions in her head. There was a clear culprit. Her finger tapped on the table, in front of the guilty.
Chocolate Strawberry Cinnamon Brown Sugar Walnut Blackberry
The elders crowded around the table and leaned forward. Her nail, painted burnt orange, clearly pointed to the stack of walnut blackberry pancakes.
“Oh no,” one of them groaned. “Those are my favorite. I had two this morning.” He rushed out of the small building before Ms. Mapple could stop him. The fool. If you hire an expert you should probably listen to her conclusions first. She did present quite the professional image with her long orange coat free of dust, her hair done up in a bun like a pastry no child would ever be allowed to touch, and her soft eye shadow that somehow still sharpened her to the image of a raptor.
“Now that I’ve identified your source of ‘toxins’, perhaps you could tell me what this is all about,” she suggested. The elders straightened out and coughed a little. It was sensitive information. She wasn’t really needed anymore, as they knew where all those ingredients came from. They could have a troop of climbers and gardeners on each of the associated levels within three hours.
“Would you first tell us exactly what you noticed?” one of them squeaked.
“There’s something off with the powdered walnuts in the batter. There’s always an oily bitterness to those nuts, like varnish on a deck that’s already sun-bleached to death, but the sour note I detected was unnatural. An acidic compound. A taste I would more normally associate with rotten lemons. What’s this all about? I’ve already deduced that if I were to eat that whole stack I would perish within forty-eight hours.”
“It is being kept secret,” the one with the longest beard said, grabbing the end of it like he was about to ring a bell. “Thank you for your services Ms. Mapple. What do you charge? I have plenty of coin with me, and we appreciate your efforts, so name a reasonable price.” The others nodded.
“I’m an expert,” she said peevishly, “not an errand girl. I’m a professor and innovator. I’ve eaten things you’ve never dreamed of and dissected them with nothing but the scalpel that is my tongue and the hammer that is my uvula. Your coin cannot make this worth my time, only knowledge of the trees around us, that I don’t already have, can do that. I will accompany you on your efforts to trace the sources of this poison. That is my price.”
“Absolutely not,” Long-beard protested. “The walnuts are grown in the dark canopy. There are many beasts in there, some grown huge by the eating of hybrid things we do not harvest. We would be responsible for your safety, and you would only slow us down.” The others nodded again; apparently they’d poured all their words into one head before she’d arrived.
“So it is your intention to not pay me for my services?” she asked, voice growing louder. The walls, like all their walls, were thin. Even if nobody listened just ouside, the trees did. They occasionally had a way or two to communicate.
“Keep your voice down.”
“No. I have a grievance. You have not paid me for my serv…”
“Fine, fine, just be quiet.” He shuffled through his associates like a deck of cards and pulled one out. “He will be your guide. Hurry and get this over with. The sooner we can get poison off our shelves the better.”
Gardener Climber Weeder
Ms. Mapple scrutinized the man. He was not large, around the same height as her, but the muscles on his arms were bulbous and twitchy, like those of the horses that had the ground all to themselves now. His face had a fair number of scars, concentrated around his eyelids and lips. She couldn’t guess what he’d gotten into a fight with. Such scars on her lips would’ve prevented a large chunk of her education, so she was lucky they had the highly-trained weeders to root out any strange growths on the trees and end them.
He shook her hand, showing her more respect than the rest of the muttering handful of elders and authorities. He told her his name was Gadlick and that they would travel quickly and quietly, if that was alright with her. Now it was her turn to nod.
The weeder escorted her out. Away from the closed quarters and the syrup, she got her first breath of the trees in several hours. The air was never empty; it couldn’t be with that many things growing in the branches nearby. She smelled fruit, vegetables, grains, oils, honey, and even various hints of meat from the furred fruits. That gamy rind smell was particularly present, as bundles of cowpears grew on both sides of the bridge they now crossed.
Gadlick snagged one from its stem and bit into it, its blood-like juice falling between the slats and down to the forest floor. Where Cacklin Mapple was from, such impromptu eating was impolite, especially of the fleshiest fruits. It brought to mind images of mindless predators gathered around their kill, smearing blood on their face. They had gotten rid of most of the metal in their world, but they were supposed to keep the manners.
Still, she said nothing, as she recognized how delicate her situation was. This new knowledge was not a guarantee, especially if she lost her life in the process of acquiring it. The pair eventually joined a squad of climbers on the lip of a distant heartwood platform. Each person was given a slithervine, which they would use to traverse the treetops until reaching the walnut grove. Gadlick handed her the thickest one, perhaps thinking she was too much of a polished spoon to use the vines much.
She proved him wrong by being the first one off the platform, swinging through the branches and kicking off any that got in her way. The top of the vine was a starfish-like collection of tendrils. When it felt the weight beneath it shifting it grabbed a new branch. It was the fastest method of travel in the new trees, as long as you didn’t mind the occasional plummeting death.
Gadlick quickly caught up with her and flashed her a smile. He was impressed. She appreciated that he was the quiet sort about it though. Conversation was not her forte. The hardest part of gastronomy school was never the cooking, the writing, or letting a single ingredient sit in your mouth for five hours without swallowing. It was the questions. Why try to unravel a mystery people had intentionally created? Why try and find rhyme or reason in the cocktail of flavors created within the chaotic soup of the trees’ DNA? Why bother? You’d never get far with just your taste buds.
Power over the Trees An Old Dream Get a Taste out of her Mouth
Cacklin was skilled enough with the vine to let her mind wander back to the answer to that final question. Why bother? Because the trees were everything! They were the sum total of human understanding. Not knowledge, mind you. Knowledge was kept in computers and books. Understanding required life, emotion, and nuance. The chemical soup running under the bark of each tree had those things. They were safes, keeping humanity from misusing its own understanding, from annihilating the trees when they were no longer needed.
She’d put her mind to being the absolute best in her second year at the school. She was out on a vine then as well, though nowhere near as surefooted. She had an assignment to gather thirty different anomalous berries. Even in the variety of the new trees, among roots growing wheat and branches heavy with pumpkins, such things were not easy to find. Sometimes they weren’t even easy to pluck, guarded as they might be by thorns or old predatory animal instincts lurking in their limbs.
An anomalous berry was a berry that exhibited a combination of traits never before classified. There were set categories for each trait: size,color, texture, shape, taste, scent, habitat, and sometimes even behavior. Ms. Mapple was eighteen berries into the assignment, deep in a territory with no houses or tree-toilets, when she spotted her next quarry.
It was oblong, bumpy, dark pink, and wiggling next to its brethren, which were ordinary raspberries. The wiggle was what caught her eye. She turned her slithervine slowly and quietly, so as not to spook the berry into breaking its own stem and falling out of reach. She dropped off the vine, onto the branch, as delicately as she could before inching forward like a chameleon.
She joined the school because she liked to eat and she liked to cook. She liked to discern the wood of each smoky flavor when her friends and family couldn’t. Simple pride had convinced her to enroll, but all her pride dropped out from under her when her fingers closed around that anomalous berry. The branch became limp like an octopus tentacle. It grabbed her, wrapped around her, and pulled her down. She shouted for help, but you don’t find such strange berries where the people roam. The branch squeezed the breath out of her, made her as silent as the rest of the forest.
The branch curled and curled, bringing her over to its trunk. She’d never noticed the mottled pattern in its bark, as bark was rarely an ingredient. The pattern opened up, revealing an old pocket of cruel DNA. This strange organ under the tree’s skin was like a mouth, or a thousand mouths all nipping at each other, vying for position. They had the red gum tissue of terrestrial animals, but the sharp clicking brittle teeth of sharks and deep sea fish. It pulled her closer.
They’d brought the trees back by changing them. It was foolish to think they wouldn’t use that power for vengeance, for bone-crushing and blood-drinking with their new teeth. Cacklin escaped just by the skin of hers by emptying her bag of berries into the gaping fleshy mouths. She knew some of them to be poison and foul-tasting. The tree screeched at the taste of tainted juice and dropped her. Her own slithervine was far out of reach; it was only luck that she snatched a feral one before falling to her death. The predatory tree hid its redness and went still and silent once more. She couldn’t pick it out from the rest, like it had never happened.
She failed the assignment because she couldn’t gather enough replacement berries in time. She never failed another. There was hidden power in the trees, hidden danger, just under the skins. It was in the flavors, and she would learn the taste and trace of every last molecule.
Ballistic Walnuts Acidic Walnuts Sharp Walnuts
Ms. Mapple was pulled from the memory by their arrival at the walnut grove. They were high in the canopy, yet the leaf density made it extremely dark. Gadlick stayed in front of her and pulled a hedge blade in case anything strange happened. The other climbers spread out, examining the walnut shells one by one for any signs of tampering.
None of them talked, as they all tried to puzzle out exactly what had happened. This aberration was not like the usual cases of random poison in their food supply. It was inevitable there would be some error in the guided natural selection occurring within the trees on a daily bass. Sometimes snake venom would get into a hanging watermelon and there was nothing they could do about it, much like the anomalies present in anomalous berries.
This was different. A whole crop of nuts had been made toxic. This was a subtle toxin too, only activating in large amounts and with symptoms that moved slowly. It seemed targeted. It struck their comfort food, obscuring itself among other ingredients. No poison could learn to do that on its own. There had to be a hand in it.
Gadlick reached out and sliced one from its branch. He silently brought it over to Cacklin so they could both examine it. There were no signs of tampering. No scratches or punctures on the shell. It twitched! Gadlick leaned in, muttering his confusion, but Cacklin was struck by an uneasy feeling. She pulled back just as the shell exploded, spraying a thin blue fluid in all directions.
Gadlick screamed, the loudest of his life, as the acidic contents rusted his hedge blade and seared his flesh simultaneously. He reeled back, Mapple reached for him, but he fell off the branch into the darkness below. It was only the first. The nuts exploded on all sides, spraying the exposed faces and arms of the climbers.
Mapple ran for her life, searched for an intact slithervine, but the acid ate through them too. She caught a drop on her cheek and the back of her hand. It sizzled on her skin, threatening to drive her mad and steal her balance. The poison was just the bait. Draw in weeders and climbers. Burn them out of the branches the way you would cauterize infected flesh.
The space opened up as the acid blackened and destroyed all the surrounding leaves. Shafts of sunlight broke through, and Mapple found herself dodging them as well, unsure if the entirety of the natural world was out to get her. She jumped to another branch which snapped under her weight. After that it was all a green blur, grabbing at whatever she could.
She fell through the walnuts, with their acid rain, through the next layer, the next, and then the final stretches of the canopy. Her body nearly broke upon the ground, but it was protected by a great cushion of dead leaves.
Abandoned slithervines crawled away from her impact like frightened lizards. The bodies of the party she joined fell around her, many of them burned out of life, now as hollow as the nuts. Holding back her tears, she crawled away from the fall of acid and death.
She spotted something in the undergrowth. Dark pink. Covered in bumps. It slithered away, into shadows where she didn’t dare follow. It couldn’t be. It was too similar to the bait berry she’d seen those years ago. It had to be grown especially for her, to mock her for showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It hit her. The power of the trees that she sought wasn’t spread across them all. It was one intelligence, molding things as it passed through them. It had hoarded all the understanding from the cloned network of the new trees. It had smarts. Resentment. Ingenuity. And now it had eyes for Cacklin Mapple, the woman who’d seen it probing, testing mankind’s weaknesses, twice already.
She had to stay on the ground, where she would be alone. That was the only way she wouldn’t be a threat to it. Ms. Mapple stood, held herself, and walked away as quietly as she could. She wasn’t an expert anymore, just a creature skittering across the ground, appreciating the truffles and how separate their deep taste was from the rest of the world.