The Tree

by Steve Lazarowitz 

Many light years away on a world it had never bothered to name, stood a tree. It had lived there for countless eons, alone yet not alone. It was aware that it was one of a kind, the last of its dying race. Thus, it was alone. Part of the Tree was saddened by this and many limbs died in sorrow and were subsequently shed. That was so long ago, the Tree could only barely recall it. For a time, a short time by its own reckoning, it withdrew into itself. When it again emerged, it found a 
new way to deal with its isolation. 

With the absence of others of its kind, the Tree's perceptions reached out and found a living world. A world so full of life and death, of movement and stillness, of strength and vulnerability, that the tree was enthralled. Over the millennia, it learned not just to appreciate but to 
communicate with its new friends and for the most part, the Tree was content. 

Then a new creature entered the Tree's domain. Many of the older fruit, the philosophers, debated what this meant but that's what fruit did. Most of the Tree ignored their ramblings and concentrated on the newcomer. The creature was like nothing it had ever encountered before. The Tree emitted waves of friendship, that met with no response. It did not doubt that the newcomer had some sort of intelligence, but nothing to which it could form a bond. 

For a time, the strange being traveled the world, completely intent upon its mission. The Tree spent much of its resources tracking it, hoping to understand the creature. Unfortunately, a short while later it somehow removed itself from the world in a way the Tree did not understand. The Tree shed a branch in sorrow, but grew yet more in joy for it reveled in the birth of a new mystery. 

With the absence of the stranger life resumed for the Tree. It returned its attention to the world around it and left the pondering to the fruit. 

Morgan stared at the platform, eyes intent on the changing images. He had viewed hundreds, perhaps thousands of such three dimensional recordings and still the novelty never wore off. A new world. Many people were no longer fascinated by such discoveries, which illustrated how easily humanity was able to embrace new ideas. It was Morgan himself, who designed the technology that made such lengthy trips possible. The payoff had been tremendous. 

Morgan Gregory, the sole proprietor of Galactic Travel Inc., was one of the richest men in the galaxy. Now, at the age of one hundred and thirty, fifty years after he had first conceived the pulse engine, he could pursue his real passion; xenobiology. Predictably, many of the newly discovered worlds were barren, but occasionally a probe would return with images such as these. 

Based on preliminary reports, the planet X231-4 was similar to earth. The atmosphere was almost identical, as was its mass, the spectrum of light received, gravity and its water to land ratio. Many of the life forms seemed almost, but not quite, commonplace to the aged scientist. Rabbits ran across an ordinary field of grass, except they were two meters long with black and gold stripes. There were tiny butterflies with six wings and eight legs and snakes with no apparent head. Some of the trees he could swear were already growing in his gardens, while others had bright red bark and purple leaves. 

It was by chance that he caught a glimpse of it. Far in the background, little more than a speck, stood a tree completely different from any he'd ever seen. 

He ran his fingers over the console, making the appropriate adjustments without taking his gaze from the platform. He zoomed in on the object until it filled the view area. He rotated it and gaped at the sight. It was shaped much like an oak, wide at the base, tapering as it reached toward the heavens. Large thick branches sprouted at intervals from its bole narrowing as they protruded further. Many of these had yet smaller branches and twigs, the ends of which grew five pointed leaves. 

Were it not for the colors, it could almost be mistaken for an oak. The trunk was violet near the ground, but seemed to run the spectrum as it increased in height, displaying reds, yellows, greens, blues and purples. The largest branches were a bright crimson hue, while the smaller were 
olive or yellow. The leaves were multicolored, no two the same and the teardrop-shaped fruit, hanging from some of the lower branches were orange or blue or a combination of the two. From the first moment he saw it, Morgan Gregory knew he had to have it. 

It would be the centerpiece of his largest biodome. He left the image rotating slowly, while his hands manipulated the controls. Within a few minutes, it was done. A ship would be sent and the tree would be collected. Satisfied, Morgan returned to staring at the image. It would be a magnificent addition to his collection. 

Aaron Gregory, son of Morgan and vice president of Galactic Travel Inc., stood in his father's outer office. Before entering, he paused to check his appearance in the full length mirrored wall. Though fifty years old, he looked closer to thirty. The short black hair that crowned his head was only a shade darker than his eyes. A goatee and thin mustache, impeccably groomed, completed the strong lines of his face. His slender, muscular body were a testament to the number of hours 
he spent at the spa. Perhaps he would have been handsome, were it not for the perpetual scowl that returned each time he had to deal with his father. With effort, he concealed the emotion, took a deep breath and entered. 

Morgan sat behind his desk, eyes intent upon the image before him. Aaron glanced at it briefly, not surprised it was a forest. It was Aaron's opinion that his father wasted far too much time studying biology, when there was work to be done. Aaron forced down his impatience, as he 
regarded Galactic Travel's top executive. Up until recently, Morgan had looked younger, but finally the years were beginning to show. Light wrinkles painted his clean shaven, rather long face. The thinning hair on his head was more than a little gray. His steel blue eyes added to his overall appearance, making him look like the genius he was. If only he were as worldly, as he were intelligent. 

Aaron cleared his throat, and the older man glanced up, before returning his gaze to the image. Aaron almost sighed. He spoke. "Pod Three has been trying to contact you." He tried to keep his voice devoid of emotion. 

Morgan shrugged. "In reference to what?" 

Aaron tried to remain calm. "What do you think? They want to buy engines. There's a lot of money to be made here. I don't understand why you refuse to do business with them." 

His father looked up and sighed. "What do they manufacture?" 

"Spacecraft," replied Aaron. "Just like Planetscape and Gravitron." 

Morgan again returned his attention to the platform. "Is that so? For your information, Planetscape is a travel company. Gravitron does research. Pod Three, as I'm sure you're aware, is the creator of instruments of destruction. Mega-weapons, Aaron. I will not be responsible, nor will my company, for the loss of lives on a mass scale. I won't have it." 

Aaron, in spite of himself, raised his voice. "But they sell mostly to the government. Surely such weapons would be used in the interest of mankind." 

Morgan rose and studied his son. When he spoke again, his voice had in it the air of finality. "You don't care what they do, as long as they pay. I tell you, there are some things that can not be bought and absolution is one of them. Whatever the profit from such a contract, it can not buy back a single life, let alone the millions that might perish were some official to lose his head. We don't need that kind of money. We are doing fine." 

"We can do better than fine. We can surpass even your wildest expectations." 

His father smiled gently. "I am an old man. I have long ago exceeded whatever expectations I care about. This matter is now closed. I will discuss it no further." 

Aaron might have responded, but for the all too familiar look in his father's eyes. Certain that further debate would lead nowhere, Aaron Gregory turned and stalked from the room. 

For a time, Morgan Gregory sat lost in thought. Though he loved his son, certain issues on which they could not agree was driving a wedge between them. Perhaps things would have been different, had Aaron's mother survived. Since her death, five years earlier, Morgan's relationship with his son had not been the same. 

Sighing, he switched off the holojector and leaned back in his chair. Within a short time, the tree would arrive. Perhaps that was the last specimen he would acquire. He could retire and leave the company in the hands of his son. Of course, that would mean his son would go ahead with the Pod Three contract, but that would happen as soon as he died anyway. And he would die. 

Longevity research had long ago come to a standstill. Morgan was beginning to think that immortality, or even virtual immortality was beyond human grasp and in truth, that was fine by him. During the last few years, he had grown tired. Too tired to continue fighting battles, he knew in the end, he could never win. Should a difference of opinion be more important than his relationship with his son? Many people, good people, would agree with Aaron. Perhaps he was just too set in his ways. He stood up slowly and stretched, his tired muscles protesting the excessive movement. When the tree came, he would retire and then Aaron Gregory could do as he pleased. And perhaps there would come a time when the two could have dinner again and converse in normal tones. 

The matter decided, Morgan Gregory smiled sadly, looked around his office fondly, as if he were gone already and slowly made his way to the exit. As the door slid shut behind him, he was more aware of its hydraulic hiss than he'd ever been before. 

A short time after the strange creature had made its mark on the Tree's memory, others, much like it entered the world. The Tree understood birth and death, but had no way to explain these sudden arrivals seemingly from nowhere. Again the Tree sent out waves of friendship. As before, they remained unanswered. 

Though these creatures were similar to the one that had come before, they were not identical. It was as if many entities were present in a single body. None were alive, at least not in any way the Tree defined it, though complex thought patterns were present. Their actions were efficient and logical. 

Having lived so long without enemies, the thought of danger never occurred to the Tree, even after the creatures descended nearby and began to alter the area. In fact, the Tree was excited to be able to study them so closely. 

For a time the strangers worked, the nature of their task yet another mystery to explore. They seemed to be digging into the world with no apparent goal in sight. Even after the Tree was lifted into the air and loaded into the specially prepared compartment aboard the spacecraft, it still felt no fear. Joyfully, it continued to study, analyze and attempt to communicate with the creatures. 

The Tree enjoyed the sensation of take off. Though it was sad to leave its friends, it was happy to have a new place to live and learn. During the trip, the Tree continued to try to contact the robots and computers around it. It found space travel interesting, though the concept of space was new to the Tree, as was the idea that somewhere, there might exist another world, different from its own. Yet surely there must, for the Tree was unable to conceive any reality that might produce such specimens. 

Throughout the flight, it continued to try and interpret the new data, though it was not always successful. Nevertheless, the Tree was content. 

Aaron Gregory shook his head, exasperated. His desk was so covered with paper, it did not look like it would be clear anytime soon. It was not real, of course, simply a computer simulation of the work he had left to do. He sighed. Strange that after all these years, they still programmed it to look like paper. He hit a switch and the mess on his desk disappeared. 

Aaron leaned back and thought about his father. Perhaps Morgan Gregory had once been a great scientist, but now, he was simply not capable of running the company. His other interests, which had no effect on Galactic Travel's profits, used up far too many resources. At least he wouldn't be around much longer. Odd that, with all the advances in technology, the average life span had not increased in a century. Soon, within a few years at most, his father would pass on and Aaron would own the company. 

Then things would finally start happening. Two million exchange units to send a probe to collect a tree. He shook his head, more than annoyed at the unnecessary expense. Aaron had little respect for his father and at times like this, wished he were dead already. There was too much to do, without worrying about that kind of nonsense. 

"Orange juice," he said. It took thirty seconds for the machine to fill his glass. It wasn't real juice, but it tasted the same and was better for you. He smiled as he sipped it, allowing the cool beverage to refresh him. A few more years and nothing would stand in his way. 

It was more than a month, before the tree arrived, during which time Morgan could think of nothing else. It consumed him, as little had in recent years. With the planting of the tree, his garden would be complete. 

Then he would spend more time in the domes, living the way he wished. He would give up simulated food. The fruits and vegetables he'd planted would be more than sufficient for him. He would have no computers, no vid screen and no audio system. Morgan Gregory was going to relax during his last years of life in what he considered to be a better kind of existence. Aaron would run the company, had been doing so in fact, for some time. 

Last minute details seemed to conspire to keep him forever busy. He worked hard, often long into the night until, finally, the day before the tree was scheduled to arrive, Morgan Gregory finished the last of his work. There was no longer anything to keep him in his office. 

An odd mixture of feelings engulfed him, as he turned his computer off for the last time. In a way, it was almost like being born. Like leaving behind the security of the womb, Morgan was walking away from all the comforts of technology to live in an environment that would take no small amount of adjustment. He had taken great pains to make the domes as realistic as possible. You could spend days in there, without even realizing that you were indoors. Even artificial temperature 
fluctuations were provided. He would live out the remainder of his life there in his own private biological experiment. What became of Galactic Travel Inc. was no longer any concern of his. 

Though the Tree was not yet able to communicate with its new friends, it had learned enough to sense the change in routine, illustrating perhaps at least modest progress. The rest would come in time...or wouldn't. 

No event in the Tree's very long life prepared it for the overwhelming sensation of contact with a billion minds. It was as if it had been blind all its life, only now "seeing" for the first time. It did not possess the references necessary for it to make sense of the new input. Even the fruit had little to say. The Tree was too flooded with images to concentrate on the landing though, on a deeper level, it was aware that some transition had occurred. 

Even when the Tree was finally off-loaded and transplanted, it was only marginally cognizant of its surroundings. It wasn't simply the number of minds, but the complexity of each that caused the problem. Nothing on its home world possessed thought processes as advanced as a human's. It tried in vain to withdraw, but the volume with which the new beings broadcast, (where had it gotten those words, it wondered) was too great to ignore. 

Then, through the dizzying array of thoughts and emotions, a single mind, closer and stronger than the others demanded attention. The Tree reached out and linked to this new force, using the power of its output as a point of focus. Gradually, the other voices faded as the Tree continued to concentrate on the entity. 

The Tree was surprised to learn it had been expected. The entity had been anxiously awaiting its arrival and was there to welcome it. This eased the feeling the Tree had yet to identify as anxiety. 

Now at last, with the bulk of the voices subdued, the Tree was finally able to examine its new situation. For a time, the entity watched until it withdrew into sleep, an action with which the Tree was quite familiar. The Tree maintained the link, monitoring its dreams. It liked the creature and was able to learn much from its mind. Finally unable to absorb any more, the Tree withdrew into itself and, for the first time in a millennia, slept. 

Morgan Gregory was there to oversee the transplant of the Tree, happy yet concerned, as he always was with new arrivals. It was a very real possibility that some environmental factor upon which a specimen was dependent, had been overlooked by the probes. 

When that happened, in most cases the specimen would die before the error could be detected. It had happened with a species of rodent he'd imported, many years earlier. They required a strain of  bacteria to digest their food that could not breed inside of them, but rather grew comfortably around the roots of the trees, in which the rodents laired. Unable to absorb nutrients, the small colony eventually starved to death. 

After the incident, he spent much money researching the problem until that bacteria was isolated. He never did try to import those creatures again, but because of that failure, it was always with mixed emotions that he greeted new additions to his collection. 

When he finally began to tire, he sat on the ground near his newest acquisition. He slept deeply and dreamed of the tree. 
 After his father's retirement and subsequent self-imposed exile, Aaron Gregory wasted no time contacting Pod Three. After weeks of skillful negotiation, it looked as if a deal was about to be cut. The proposed contract represented more money in a single transaction than the entire 
company had yielded the previous year. Aaron Gregory was a very happy man. 

He reclined in his seat and dimmed the lights. After a few moments, he closed his eyes. It felt good to relax. At first, when the telecom beeped, he declined to answer. Whoever it was could leave a message. Then he considered the possibility that the call was from a Pod Three executive. 

He sat up and sighed. "Aaron Gregory," he said, enabling only the audio portion of the transmission." 

"Mr. Gregory, My name is Bentley. I've been trying to get in touch with your father. He has not returned any of my messages." 

"He's retired and no longer accepting calls. I'm sorry." He leaned forward to switch off, when the voice spoke again. 

"But this is a matter that I'm certain would interest him. There's been a tremendous breakthrough in longevity research. It looks like we might be able to, not just prolong life, but actually make people younger. It's going to be a very expensive procedure, but it is certainly within your father's means." 

Aaron sat up in his chair, immediately alert. This could ruin everything. "Well, I'll ask him, but I'm not certain he'd be interested. He's gone natural it seems. No artificial foods, no tablets, medicine or surgery of any kind. I'll make certain he gets the message and get back to you." 

There was a silence at the other end for a long time. Perhaps the caller didn't believe him, not that there was really anything that he could do about it. 

Finally, he spoke. "Very well, then. Have him return my call, if he's interested." Without waiting for a reply, the man called Bently broke the connection. 

Aaron Gregory wasted no time. He could not allow his father to live a longer life, let alone become young again. He'd waited a long time to own the company and now, with the Pod Three deal imminent, he could afford no obstructions. 

Even without leaving his office, Aaron was able to delete Morgan's messages and route all new calls to his own machine. In addition, he set up security measures that would inform him if anyone tried to enter his father's home or office. He even arranged to monitor the perimeter of the biodomes so that, if anyone did try to reach the aging scientist or Morgan decided to leave the premises, Aaron would know immediately. 

Finally, after it was all done, Aaron returned to his office, secure in the knowledge that Morgan Gregory would never learn of the breakthrough. 

It was the many differences between this world and the one of its birth that the Tree enjoyed most. The closest entities were similar to its friends back home, while further away was a world beyond its wildest imaginings. It could sense the presence of two distant forms of life. There were colder types such as the computers and robots it had encountered on board the ship and yet others that lived lives of almost infinite depth and complexity. 

Closest and most beloved was the Near One, the being that had been there to greet the Tree on the day it had arrived. Due to the great intelligence and empathy of the Near One, the Tree was able to greatly accelerate its ability to internalize new ideas, of which there seemed to be no shortage. The Tree was exposed to many concepts noticeably absent from its home world including hope, good and evil, anger, regret and a plethora of others. 

The vast quantity of new input kept the fruit working furiously, trying to come to terms with even the basics. Never had they had to deal with so much in so short a time. The Tree placed more energy into producing greater quantities of fruit, in an attempt to accelerate understanding. When it first realized that it had never done anything like that before and was experiencing impatience for the first time, the Tree was happy. At least it was able to internalize one of the new ideas. 

The Near One continued to be of assistance and even daily the Tree acquired large amounts of information. It was even beginning to understand the computers, as they transmitted data back and forth, though it was unable to converse with them. 

Time passed. The Tree learned and was content. 

Morgan looked around his gardens and liked what he saw. The feel of the cool grass on his bare feet exhilarated him in a way he could not really explain to anyone, though few people, he found, ever question the eccentricity of the rich. He walked around looking at the trees and flowers, the small animals and even a few larger, he'd spent half a lifetime acquiring. The domes were a totally self-sustaining ecosystem and he was proud of them. 

The new tree had been planted in the center of his largest dome. There, leaning with his back against the trunk, he spent most of his time contemplating things he'd never had time to consider. Sometimes, he thought the tree was attempting to make contact, trying to tell him things. It was probably just the effects of age and isolation. Still, he loved his new life and wouldn't trade it for anything. Here, in the solitude of his own creation, he had finally found peace. 

For a time, the Tree continued to grow and learn. It finally was able to grasp the whole name business and learned that the Near One was called Morgan. It already understood much of the broadcasting surrounding it. It could "hear" the computer transmissions and, with a small margin of error, grasp their meaning. 

Much of its resources were used to analyze such "chatter" and so, it was only a matter of time before a message for Morgan was intercepted, as it was redirected to Aaron's computer. Curious as to why it should be so, the Tree began to explore. At first, it was unable to fathom the reason, until it stumbled upon Morgan's deleted messages. The Tree realized the truth and grew angry. 

It had never experienced anger before and did not know how to deal with it. Perhaps the Near, perhaps Morgan could help. It called out and as always, Morgan responded. 

Morgan spent the day doing nothing. At first, he worried he would miss the activity of running the business, but it had yet to happen. He found the less he did, the happier he was. He had just finished eating a fruit that was almost amazingly apple-like, especially considering how many light years from earth the tree that produced it had been found. He was about to walk to the spring for a swallow or two of water, when he felt the Tree calling. 

It was not the first time he'd experienced it, though this was the strongest. He was no longer certain it was his imagination. He walked toward the tree, not certain that doing so was the act of a sane man. Still, he had nothing else to do. 

As he approached, he quickened his pace, until the tree came into view. Then he moved more slowly, taking it in with relish. It was one of the most beautiful sights he'd ever seen. He walked closer and placed his right hand gently upon the trunk as if caressing a lover. Slowly, Morgan lowered himself into a sitting position. He leaned against the trunk and almost immediately slept. 

He was back in his office again. Even after months of absence, it still looked the same. In his mind spoke a voice, he knew to be the Tree's. It did not surprise him that the Tree was sentient. Though he was dreaming, he knew when he woke, it wouldn't surprise him then either. 

"You must go back to your old world," the voice said. 

He sat at the console and turned it on. He felt as if he'd never left. 

"You have been betrayed." 

Silently, he started going about his business. He thought it odd that he'd received no new messages, not even an advertisement. Though he had told his closest friends and business associates that he'd be away indefinitely, there should have been something. 

"And that I can not allow." 

Only seconds after he began to check the system, he was certain there had been tampering. He was now glad that he had set up an automated backup system. He located his deleted mail with ease and began to go through it. Most of it was inane, pointless material. As he deleted each item, he began to wonder why anyone would have gone to the trouble. Until he came upon the description of Project Immortality. He was fascinated by the new procedures, as outlined in articles accompanying the message. He was also angry that such information had been kept from him. More than angry. And the Tree shared his rage. Worse yet, the only one with both a motive and a high enough level of access to accomplish the task was his son. 

The voice in his head was relentless. "You know what you must do." 

He did know. 
Aaron, tired from yet another day of intense negotiation, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. With a few soft commands, he dimmed the lights. He felt completely relaxed. He rarely felt this good. He stretched and smiled, when chimes broke the mood. He thought about not answering, but after the second time, he cursed softly and sat forward. He did not raise the lights. 

"This better be important," he said, softly. 

"Aaron." The voice was his father's. "I need to see you." 

Aaron was immediately alert. A quick check told him that his father was still isolated in that damned garden and his office was still sealed. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes, father." 

"How long will you be there?" 

"Stay where you are. I know you love the domes and there's no reason for you to leave. I'll come to you." After the connection was broken, Aaron sat and stared at the wall. Never a brave man, he was now terrified. Suppose his father had somehow found out about his deception. He shook his head. That, at least, did not seem possible. Not with all of the precautions he'd taken. With the Pod Three deal imminent, it would not do to have his father back in the picture now. 

Minutes passed, as Aaron tried to guess what his father might have to say. Had there been any hint of ire in his voice? Aaron did not think so, but couldn't be certain. If he hadn't learned about Project Immortality, then what? If Morgan was to come out of retirement, if did become young again, if he discovered of his son's deception, what would happen to Aaron? He couldn't allow that to happen under any circumstance, though he wasn't certain what could he do, if anything, to 
prevent it. 

Aaron stood and began to pace. After a time, he stopped and typed a code word into the computer. Behind him, a section of wall slid to the side, revealing a small hidden closet. Inside, among other items, was a photon pistol. When he'd purchased it, years earlier, he never thought 
he'd have use for it. Even now, he was not certain he could bring himself to pull the trigger. 

He lifted it. It was lighter than he remembered. Such an easy thing to do. His father had already cut himself off from anyone that would miss him. One small movement of his finger and it would be over. 

Hurriedly, he concealed the weapon and moved toward the door. Perhaps it wouldn't be necessary. Maybe Morgan just wanted to see him. He could almost picture his life, fifty years later. Morgan, young again, would still be running the company, never forgiving his disowned son for deceiving him. He drew a deep breath before he left the room, the decision already made. 

He could not allow his father back into the company and Aaron was ready to kill him to prevent it. 

Morgan Gregory, totally relaxed, leaned against the Tree. That the Tree had placed the dream in his mind, he had no doubt, though he couldn't begin to guess the method with which it communicated. How could it have known what was going on, when Morgan himself didn't? How 
could it enter his dreams or control them? Morgan did not know and moreover did not care. The results of its abilities were enough. 

He waited for what seemed a long time, before he felt the approach of his son. He didn't hear or see, but sensed it. It was another piece of the puzzle he did not understand. It still took Aaron almost ten minutes to reach him. The biodome was large. 

Finally, his son approached. To Morgan, he looked worn down. Perhaps he'd been working hard lately. He kept all emotion from his face, but could not keep it entirely from his voice. 

"We need to talk." 

Aaron nodded, pausing to catch his breath. He tried not to look at the tree against which his father reclined. He didn't like the thing and wasn't certain why. 

Morgan paused for a time, as if searching for the right words. When he finally he spoke, his voice laced with pain. "How could you?" 

Aaron looked surprised. "How could I what?" 

His father shook his head. "Did you think I would never find out? Project Immortality, Aaron.Why?" Morgan fought back tears. 

Aaron's face grew grim. "I didn't want to disturb you. After all, it's only a theory. And I didn't think you'd want to be a test subject at this stage in life." 

Morgan shook his head. " What do you think I am, an imbecile? You kept those messages from me, so I would die. It's why you set up sensors around the gardens and in my office. Why you deleted all my mail. What made you think you could get away with it?" 

Aaron's face turned to a sneer. "I don't know how you found out, old man and I don't care. You're insane, you know that. Sitting here, day after day, under this alien monstrosity. I've even heard you talk to it. Have you given it a name yet?" 

Morgan slowly rose to his feet. "You're finished, do you hear me? Finished with this company, finished as my son. It's over, Aaron." Tears rolled down the elder's cheeks, as he took a step forward. 

Aaron backed away and in one swift motion drew his weapon. "You're quite right, it is over, but not for me. You couldn't just die gracefully, could you? You had to go and learn and now, I've no time left and neither do you." 

Morgan froze in his tracks. This last bit of betrayal was more than he could stand. "You would threaten me?" The anguish in his eyes was not enough to hide the fear. 

Aaron smiled. "No, sir. No threat at all." With those words, he gently squeezed the trigger. The pistol made only the slightest of hums as it generated a pulse of energy. For a stunned second, Morgan remained standing, then sagged to the ground already dead. 

Now that it was done, Aaron felt sick. Until it happened, he wasn't certain he could go through with it. He didn't want to look at the body, but found himself unable to turn away. Though he wished it could have been avoided, Aaron felt he'd been left with no choice. 

At least he wouldn't have to bury his father too deeply. No one ever came here. He reholstered the weapon and set to work, planting the corpse beside the Tree he hated so much. That much he felt was appropriate. 

After the work was done, he returned to his office, stopping only to program new parameters into the area's security, making absolutely certain that no one entered or left the dome. One couldn't be too careful. 

In the months that followed, life was good to Aaron. The Pod Three deal became reality. The company's profits increased tremendously and, as far as the galaxy knew, his father was still sequestered in his garden. Things couldn't have been better. 

Aaron didn't have much time to think about the biodome and had no reason to do so, as long as he kept his security intact. Though he sometimes regretted what he'd done, he did not dwell on it. His father had lived a long useful life and had died in a place he loved. Business was more important. 

Back in the domes, the natural process continued. The body of Morgan Gregory slowly decomposed, returning to the system some of what he'd consumed. He would have been pleased to know that even in death, he was helping the environment. 

Yet there was more. Possibly because of the link between them, the very essence of the man, all that he was and all that he'd wished he could be was somehow absorbed into the Tree. 

As time passed, the Tree began to come to terms with other, more difficult concepts. When it had first learned of it, the idea of bitterness had seemed strange to the Tree, as had been the idea of revenge, but, now they were beginning to make sense. Why should evil go unpunished? Could the Tree, as a conscientious citizen, allow a criminal to get away? 

The orange and blue fruits fell from the Tree and new ones, black, swollen and ugly replaced them. They hung heavy from the lowest branches. Over time, the weight of some exceeded their twigs capacity to hold them. Several of them, almost simultaneously, fell to the ground and burst open. 

The first animal of the forest, to sample the new food, could almost be mistaken for a chipmunk. The small creature nibbled, first tentatively, then greedily on the black substance, and, like the Tree, it too began to change. It ravenously consumed all of the black fruit it could, until it was so fat, it could barely move. Unfortunately, its thrashing about eventually drew the attention of a bobcat, which leaped on it and devoured the hapless creature in a single swallow. 

It did not take long for the cat to feel the influence as well. Somehow, within the fruit, instructions had been placed by the Tree and the cat, instincts modified, moved to comply. Running with the great speed and agility of its kind, it reached the wall of the enclosure, a place it did not visit often. There were no trees here and the metal wall held nothing to attract it, until now. It searched the wall carefully, until it located the alarm sensor. It did not understand the nature of the device, it only knew it had touch it. 

From twenty feet away, the feline ran at top speed, leaping gracefully from the ground. It sailed through the air, hitting the wall feet first and pushing off to the side to gain even more height, but missed the target. The bobcat tried again and again, until it finally accomplished its objective. Then it turned and disappeared between the trees. 

Aaron was about to retire for the night and go home, when a soft trilling brought him to his feet. Only the biodome alarm produced that sound. Panicked, he hurried to check the nature of the intrusion, but it was too late. Whatever had tripped the alarm was gone. He cursed. It might have been an animal or perhaps a malfunction. He could check it in the morning. At least the perimeter still seemed to be intact. 

He turned away, still tense. What if it wasn't? Suppose someone had gone looking for his father, no longer accepting his words as truthful and the perimeter circuit had malfunctioned. It was possible. He had no choice but to check it out now. Stopping only to retrieve his pistol, he made his way to the biodome, fear mounting as he drew closer. 

When he reached the area, he checked it carefully, noting with satisfaction that the entrance seemed to be undisturbed. He entered anyway, just to make sure. He made his way through the dome, trying to unwind after the scare. Had he been concentrating, he might have avoided the area where his father lay buried. 

At first, he didn't even recognize the place, as the only landmark with which he was familiar had changed. The once colorful tree was now solid black, from its lowest root to its highest leaf. Cautiously, he approached. He did not understand why it had transformed and didn't care. He never did like the thing. He drew his pistol. Tomorrow, he would have it destroyed. As he continued slowly forward, a strange dread began to seep into him. 

Behind the tree, just out of his sight, something made a sound. He slowed his pace even more. He moved closer, telling himself that it was just his imagination, but, though he spoke the words aloud, he did not really believe them. Then, a bobcat walked out from behind the tree. Aaron cursed, then laughed, gently, until he saw the look in the cat's eyes and the saliva dripping from its jaws. He began to back away, as it approached. 

The cat hissed and prepared to spring. Aaron raised his pistol, still backing away. For a brief moment that might have been eternity, nothing else happened. Then, the cat moved, Aaron's heel struck a root and he fell over backwards, firing multiple shots into the air. The cat landed on him, fangs ripping at his throat. He did not see the heavy limb break from the Tree, freed from the trunk by a stray shot. He did not suffer for long, after it crashed down on his head, knocking him 
mercifully unconscious. Blood oozed from the wound in his neck. There was no one to help him. Even the cat ceased its attack, satisfied to watch the blood run into the soil, where it would eventually be transformed into something useful. Only minutes later Aaron Gregory bled to death. For the first time in its life, the Tree felt proud. 

A small group of security officers milled around the body. The story had not been difficult to piece together. Aaron Gregory had killed his father and buried him in the domes. Several months later, the son died in a hunting accident. If it hadn't been for that stroke of misfortune, no one would ever have known. 

Most of them enjoyed their experience in the woods that day, despite the grisly sight that awaited them. The temperature was fine and it had been far too long since any of those men and women had been in a natural environment. It was all so lovely, especially that tree. All the colors of the rainbow and more. It was almost as if one could sense the joy, flowing from it. 

Mere fancy, of course. It was only a tree. A beautiful one for certain, but just a tree. 

The security personnel left the scene of the crime and returned to the office to file their reports. 

Without Morgan, the Tree felt alone, even though part of its friend had been assimilated. It shed a limb in sorrow, as much for the death of its friend, as for its own loss of innocence. At first, people came less often, until a short time later, when the biodome became a tourist attraction. People traveled great distances to see the place where the inventor of the pulse drive was buried after having been brutally murdered by his son. 

Though they came to experience the history or the macabre aspect of it, more often than not, it was the Tree they remembered, when they returned home. Many visited again and again for reasons they could not explain, or would not. They would certainly not admit it was the Tree that drew them, though most of them at some point, realized it consciously. 

Over the course of time, the Tree forgot about its home world altogether and came to love its new home, where it spanned the millennia, dreaming dreams of eternity. 

And the Tree was content. 


Author Bio 

 Steve Lazarowitz lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, ten year old daughter and enough animals to shake a stick at.  His short fiction and articles have appeared in The Little Read Writer Hood
Jackhammer, Titan Ezine and   His short 
story As Luck Would Have It appears in NetNovels second 


Copyright © 1998 by Steve Lazarowitz. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

border graphic by Ken
border by Windy