by O. E. Tearmann
“Okay Abbie. We gonna do it?”
The beans lay on the table like a sacrament. Abigail bit her lip. “I mean…the embryos are still viable: they’re clean of disease, and it worked on the fruit salad tree and the coffee tree already…cacao is from somewhere really wet, but if we can splice in some new genes for a C4 pathway and some genes for our clay soil…” the teenager trailed off, staring down at the handful of history and possible future. The sunlight filtering through the slicktarp made a copper halo of her hair.
Tweak bent her head to catch Abigail’s eye. “Hey. Abbie. What’s up?”
Abigail drew a breath, fingers tugging at a few curls of her fro. “There’s so few of them, and they cost us so much…I mean if I screw up…” her dark eyes flicked away, staring at her fears. Man, the kid was really taking this hard. She needed to loosen up, or she’d freak before they even started.
Tweak caught Abigail’s eye and gave the girl a quick, feral grin. “Hey. The Corps f-fucked up my genes. I’m still here, r-right?”
Abigail smiled weakly. “I mean yeah…I guess, but…”
Tweak cocked her head, face expectant. “So? We gonna do it?”
Abigail sucked in a breath. “Yeah. Yeah. We are.”
Tweak reached over and patted Abbie’s shoulder. In the sunlight, the golden-brown scales covering her arm glimmered.
They borrowed genes from rabbit-brush and mesquite to tailor the roots to Colorado soil, careful to retain the markers for the precursor compounds in cacao that created flavor. Was that ever a trick. It took them more than a month to pin down all the precursor genes. They went hiking in the Dust and found the agrobacterium they needed in knotted growths on the trunk of an old sand-cherry tree, coming home smelling of summer sun and dust. They handled the genomic material as a team, Abigail setting samples and extracting DNA, Tweak sequencing and reorganizing it once they’d coded it into a language her computers understood. Sometimes she thought about the techs that must have done this same work on the egg that had become her dad, back in the days when the Cavanaugh Medical Corporation thought it was a good idea to make people who could thrive on fewer resources. Had those bio-techs felt like this, hopeful and scared all at once, when they recoded the genes that worked so great in the Beta Babies and got so messed up in the germ lines that produced their kids? Or had the techs just checked their boxes, talked until they’d won over the families they contracted for the experiments, and counted their profits from the Beta Baby Project?
Tweak could only hope she and Abbie were doing better for these plants than the techs had for her. With the mess that Cavanaugh Corp had made of gene-splicing sitting in her head, she made sure that she and Abbie took their time. If she ever needed a reminder that they needed to be careful as they adjusted the genetic codes of these plants, she just glanced down at her arms. Scaled arms. She didn’t hate her scales — well, not anymore, anyway — but she couldn’t forget them. That was for sure.
They switched out vulnerable A-T nucleotides for tough G-C nucleotides in the Bt gene; no bugs were going to eat this plant. They added a C4 pathway, increasing the little tree’s ability to survive low humidity and high heat twentyfold. For a little extra security, they injected genes for a thick waxy coating on the epithelium of the leaves, to help the baby trees retain water in the baking sun that had eradicated most of the species. They sped up maturation too; it wasn’t great for the tree, but they couldn’t afford to take care of a plant that wasn’t producing anything.
They used up half the heirloom cacao beans their commander and their logistics officer had gotten ahold of the year the men had married, ending up with six tiny petri dishes full of dividing cell clumps that might become plants.
“What if they bite it?” Tweak whispered late in the night, safe under the covers beside her guy. “All the l-little em-em…all the babies. What if they all croak?” The tightness was starting to squeeze her throat. She swallowed against it, reaching up to massage her neck. She’d have to chill out, or her stutter would make talking impossible.
Inyoni’s ear twitched against her shoulder. “Nah. They’ll make it,” he murmured. “You guys worked on their genes an’ made ‘em tough.”
Tweak snorted a laugh. “Gene splices make it b-better? S-seriously? You know genes go wrong.”
“Yeah I know. I got a mirror,” Inyoni agreed quietly as Tweak stroked one of his deer-like ears. He rolled closer and put an arm around her. It was still strange having someone in bed beside her, a couple months into this crazy relationship between two genetic disasters. Some nights it was hard to believe he was really there.
His fingers traced her scales as he spoke. “Thing is, I know you, an’ Abbie too,” Inyoni murmured in the dark, “you guys’re good.”
“Hope so.” Tweak whispered.
On Friday, Tweak held a zoom screen while Abbie studied the cell clumps in the morning light.
“Dead,” the teen murmured over the first petri dish. Nerves tightened up Tweak’s gut.
“Dead,” Abigail sighed over the second.
And the third. “Dead.” Tweak felt the muscles of her throat tightening up.
The fourth dish. Abigail drew a sharp breath. “Dead.”
Standing beside the fifth dish, Abigail looked over at her. The kid looked so scared, lower lip between her teeth, her whole body taut as a wire. “Tweak? What if —?”
“No what ifs,” Tweak stated quietly, holding her eyes. “Just l-look, Abbie.”
Abbie closed her eyes, whispering a little prayer. Reminding herself to breathe, Tweak held the viewing screen over the fifth petri dish. Abbie looked.
When she raised her face, her grin was big and beautiful as rain clouds after a summer drought. Tweak couldn’t help but match it.
Abbie bobbed her head hard enough to make her cloud of hair bounce. “Alive! They’re alive!”
And Tweak breathed.
A week later, they split cell clusters into new groups: eight dishes full of growth substrate and the chemical soup the embryos needed. Getting ahold of the chemicals had been some trick, but the logistics team had pulled off miracles. Topher gave Abbie a hand, and together they printed shells for their babies on the 3D rig. They redid a packing-box pattern and printed germination chambers, planting their pseudo-seeds in agar blocks.
Waiting for germination was hell. Every day that Tweak looked into inert germination chambers was like a little piece of sandpaper rubbed over her soul. There were so many days like that.
And then there was green in the chambers.
“Those real?” Tweak whispered at the little cotyledons, her breath fogging the plastic covering. Abigail turned and hugged her with a squeal of delight, dark arms squeezing Tweak’s ribs till they creaked.
“They germinated! They germinated! They’re gonna make it!”
“Hell yes they are,” Tweak laughed, hugging the girl tight.
A week later, they planted the tiny seedlings in soil substrate.
“Can I write you guys a commendation for this?” Their base commander asked, watching his tech officer and his junior agro specialist work with a grin a mile wide.
“After we drink the first cup off the harvest you can,” Abigail replied seriously, “not before. We don’t know if it was worth it until then.”
The cacao trees bloomed the next May. Tweak had learned her lesson from the coffee tree; those flowers needed pollination. This time, she was ready. She’d already retooled a couple of the tiny pollinator drones she’d created for the other fruit trees in their garden to care for the newest saplings. The little machines flapped their iridescent wings as she got them to work, glowing like stained glass. Tweak had designed them to look like the most beautiful of the extinct bugs she’d seen in pictures; if it didn’t hurt efficiency, why not make them pretty?
Once she was sure they were functional, she walked outside and let them loose. They glowed like gems in the filtered sun.
The crew picked their first crop from the saplings in September. By the time they were done, the back of the base canteen was filled with buckets of glowing yellow cacao pods. That yellow had really thrown Tweak for a loop. She’d been expecting some shade of brown, not a yellow that was almost neon. The coffee tree harvest had given her the same kind of surprise a couple years ago; those fruits were lipstick-red. Who would have thought that coffee started out so bright?
She bugged Kevin for help with the retro-tech research to get the cocoa-bean processing right, and the skinny logistics officer came through with not just processing directions, but schematics for a roaster and instructions for making the finished beans into chocolate. Billie eagerly grabbed those for her cooking records before she got back to work making lunch for everyone working outside. Everybody who was off duty helped to smash the cacao pods open, scoop the slippery guts out and spread the beans in their slimy white coats out to ferment and dry on the roof of their base. They moved carefully between the solar panels and the struts of the microfiber slicktarp, working their way around the infrastructure providing them power and shade from the broiling Colorado sun, and, bonus, hiding their electromagnetic footprint from the Corporations still fighting their losing battle to stay in control.
“Just hope this works,” Tweak muttered. Her guy ran a hand over her black hair, his ears flicking in the hot breeze. “Worked pretty good already.”
“Yeah, well.” Tweak shrugged, leaning against him.
The kids, and even some of the grownups, ate handfuls of the sweet-sharp pith. Kevin said it tasted like lemonade, but Tweak wouldn’t know; her parents hadn’t been rich enough to afford real fruit on their Corporate indenture contracts. They hadn’t been able to afford much of a life at all. But Tweak had broken her contract. She’d gotten in on the fight to bring democracy back to the country. And from where she stood, she felt richer than any CEO had ever been.
The beans sat and stewed under tarps for a week. What was left of the pith and the empty pods went into the compost pile that made soil for the base’s wheeled planting beds. Abigail’s parents used their engineering skills, Kevin did some trading around in his capacity as logistics and requisitions officer, and together they scraped together a chocolate-bean roaster. Banging the thing together brought on one of the famous cussing fits from Janice, but that was nothing new. If the engineer was cussing, she was working. And when the cussing stopped, there was a functional roaster fitted up to its own solar panel, ready to start cooking.
The roasting freaked the hell out of Tweak. Not only did it take forever, it made her bounce like a pinball between boredom and paranoia. She went back to the info on her tab again and again, checking the temps and the timing. All the readouts looked good. That didn’t make the knot in her stomach loosen much.
She did her best to distract herself with work: she had coding to do for the base, for the region, and for all the civilians joining in the fight against the Corporations. Every line of code got somebody supplies, saved somebody’s life, or helped make someone a
little safer. She knew that, and she was proud of it. But it was still hard to focus on the code when months of work were either going right or going to waste in that roaster outside. If they got this wrong, they’d have to wait a year to try again. Tweak had never been good at waiting, and that’s all this project was. Waiting for each step. Waiting to see if it worked with a knot in her gut. Waiting to see if their work would do any good.
Waiting was hell.
On the third day, Kevin helped Tweak opened the roaster. Heart in her mouth, Tweak drew a deep breath, waiting for the smell of scorching or rot to hit her nose. The rich, earthy scent of chocolate rose to meet her from the perfectly cooked beans. She grinned.
“Looks like we’ll have hot chocolate in time to celebrate Inyoni’s anniversary of joining up!” Kevin declared with a smile, glancing at Tweak. “And in a few weeks it’ll be the one year anniversary for the two of you as well. How are you planning on marking the occasion?”
Tweak shrugged. “Not g-going to. I’m not a sap, like you.”
Kevin put a hand to his heart, doing his ‘oh you hurt me so deep’ act. Tweak grinned. “Okay, sap, what am I supposed to do for an an-nivers-s-sery?” She swallowed hard, trying to loosen her throat up. Some words just plain sucked to get out.
“Oh, just something that makes Inyoni feel special,” Kevin replied. The sunlight that made it through the slicktarp flashed off his glasses and his red hair as he sifted a handful of beans through his fingers. “Something that reminds him he’s important to you.”
Tweak felt her gut tighten up. Inyoni was important to her. But if she got too weird about an anniversary, would he back out? Would it turn out she wasn’t so important to him?
When she looked back, Kevin was smiling gently down at her. “Tweak. I know you worry about how things are going between you and Inyoni. But look at what you’ve already helped to grow.” He held out the handful of roasted beans. “You’ve helped a cacao tree grow in the Colorado desert. You actually made a cacao tree grow in the Dust. If you can do that, I know for a fact that you can do the right thing with that boyfriend of yours.”
“Y-yeah?” Tweak barely got the word out. Stupid nerves. Stupid stutter.
Kevin nodded, the rich scent of cocoa weaving around them in the afternoon heat. “When it’s the right person, it will be the right thing.”
Tweak gave him the side eye. “You’re s-such a sap.”
Kevin grinned. “True, but I’m also a married man. Believe me, when we’re talking about anniversaries, I’m speaking from experience. Take my advice on this.”
Tweak shrugged. “Meh. I’ll think about it.”
The compound drank their first cup of hot chocolate with dinner a week later.
“Okay, now I’m writing you guys a couple commendations,” Aidan remarked with a grin. Beside him, Kevin chuckled and kissed his cheek. “I second the motion. Whatever will you two think of next?”
“Already thought it,” Tweak replied with a cat’s grin. She shot her pal Billie a wink. The other woman beamed.
Tweak spent barely any time in the coding chair the next week. She still had the big assignment for the new secure voting app to work on, but getting the chocolate right was priority one. Once they got chocolate right, all kinds of barter and sales possibilities opened up to keep funding their base and the movement. Selling their coffee was already making them bank. Real chocolate would sell for sky-high prices in the cities. They’d be selling something the Corporations couldn’t produce, and that would bring in the cash like nothing else. The number of people they could feed, clothe and shelter with the funds off this chocolate was going to be incredible.
When they got it right. For three days, all they got was wrong.
Tweak studied the chunk of chocolate she was being offered carefully. “This is going to be b-b-bitter as hell again. It’s been crap the l-last five times. Is it g-gonna be crap again?”
“Taste it and tell me,” Billie suggested with a little smile. Tweak side-eyed her. “That’s what you said the l-last three times.”
Billie shrugged and stood her ground: still holding out the chocolate, still smiling.
Warily, Tweak took the chocolate. Braced for vicious bitterness, she bit down.
Flavor wrapped her up in layers of velvet and satin, rich and warm. She closed her eyes. “Holy…wow…”
“So did we get it right this time?” Billie asked. Tweak gobbled the rest of her piece. Billie laughed. “I guess that’s a yes!”
When Inyoni opened the door of their quarters a week later, Tweak had wormed into a tight black dress. Two warm-bulb LEDs covered with silk cloths gave the room a low, golden glow. A pot and two cups sat on a hotplate, filling the room with the scent of coffee. Tweak’s body was taut, but she managed a grin. “Hi.”
Inyoni blinked “Uh…hi. Whatcha doin’?”
Tweak glanced down at her feet. “Um…guys like this shit. Right?”
Inyoni gave a tiny, perplexed laugh. He took her in his arms, his ears pricked forward happily. “Yeah, guess we do.” He leaned down to kiss her. “Mmmm. Sexy.”
Tweak stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “Knew s-s-something was s-supposed to be s-s-special. An-nivers-s-sery. Asked around. Got ideas. Got stuff. So. Surprise?”
Inyoni laughed, picked her up and flopped onto the bed, settling her in his lap. The dress bunched around her hips, and his hands pushed the cloth up a bit further.
“Hey. Hotshot.” Tweak squirmed, grinning as she yanked the fabric back down, “Keep your s-snake in the c-cage. Got you stuff. Special.”
Inyoni groaned, his ears falling playfully. “Thought you got a new dress.”
“Stuff first. Dress second. Snake in cage.” Tweak slid off his lap with a quick pat for his crotch. She opened the smaller of the two boxes beside the bed. “You had r-real chocolate before?” Tweak asked, holding out her offering. The chocolate bar gleamed a rich brown in the lamplight.
Inyoni’s eyes went wide. He leaned forward to stare at his gift. “Not the real stuff…wow…how’d you turn the beans into this?”
“Me and Billie. Spent a buncha t-t-time in the k-kitchen. Figured it out. We can s-sell these: easy to transport, good v-value.” Tweak shrugged. “So yeah. Today. We have chocolate and coffee. Sell that on the black m-m-market? We’ll make bank.”
“Holy shit, you’ll pay for everything we need that way,” her guy’s ears went straight up in delight. Tweak grinned. “Yep. Tonight, we do a t-t-taste test. Remember that vid? Chocolat?” She smirked. “You fell asleep.”
Inyoni chuckled sheepishly, his long ears dropping like a dog’s. “Yeah, I did. Guess the rest of you guys liked it. Totally zoned me out.”
Tweak gave a quiet bark of a laugh. “Yeah. Anyway.” Carefully, she poured two steaming cups made from last year’s bean harvest. “There’s a trick. Take a bite, take a sip, taste. S’posed to be good.”
“You gonna do it, too?” Inyoni whispered, his ears pricking as he lifted his coffee cup.
“Shithead. Of course.” Tweak lifted out the bar she and Billie had spent so much time perfecting, and broke off two tiny morsels. She pressed one against Inyoni’s lips with a soft smile. “Taste?”
Inyoni smiled, his dark eyes sparkling. He carefully opened his lips and took the chocolate. He pressed another piece of chocolate against Tweak’s lips. Her pink tongue flicked out, taking it delicately. She held the coffee cup to Inyoni’s lips, warm and rich. Inyoni took a sip. “Mmm.”
Tweak grinned. “Just like the m-movies.”
Inyoni laughed as he took the cup and held it to her lips. “Yeah. Guess so.”
Tweak sipped slowly. Billie had done an incredible job. Absolutely nothing could compare to this taste.
Inyoni raised his eyes to hold hers, shaking his head in wonder. “Hot damn, Tweak…we gotta have more anniversaries, if you’re gonna get the base shit like this for ‘em.”
“Like to,” Tweak agreed in a murmur, staring at the brew. “Like that a lot…” she swallowed, drawing a breath. “We started something growing last year. Just like a tree. Growing pretty good,” she added, glancing up at him. She did her best to smile, hoping he couldn’t see her nerves. What if he didn’t think this whole dating thing was going good? What if he wanted out?
Inyoni’s smile was unguarded. His ears twisted forward as he took her hand. “Yeah. Growin’ real good.”
Tweak leaned in and kissed him, tasting coffee and chocolate and joy. She slid back into his lap, her heart like a balloon in her chest.
Inyoni grinned. “Yeah. This dress. Let’s do something about this dress.”
O.E. Tearmann is the author of the Aces High, Jokers Wild series. Their books include strong themes of diversity and found family, providing a surprisingly hopeful take on a dystopian future. Bringing their own experiences as a marginalized author together with flawed but genuine characters, Tearmann’s work has been described as “Firefly for the dystopian genre.”
Tearmann lives in Colorado with two cats, their partner, and the belief that individuals can make humanity better through small actions. They are a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the Queer Scifi group. In their spare time, they teach workshops about writing LGBTQ characters, speak and plant gardens to encourage sustainable agricultural practices, and play too many video games.
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