Thursday, March 28, 2019

Weekly Story #38: Invasive Species

Looking back, it's pretty easy to tell where this came from. I hadn't had a vacation in a while, and a few months, I was feeling especially irritable. Fortunately, I took a week off earlier this month, and I feel a lot better.

It did occur to me that the central premise is sort of similar to the rage spores from the 80's Transformers cartoon. I guess it just happened to be lurking in my subconscious that week.


INVASIVE SPECIES

The seed was planted early in the morning, in the dark, with no witnesses. Even the neighbor's dog never noticed anything unusual. Neither did Walter Ennis when he left his house later that morning to go to work.
The seed quietly germinated in his front lawn for three months, until Walter came home one otherwise uneventful day and spotted a strange flower next to one of his bushes. It had iridescent petals, purple from one angle, gold from another. He'd never seen a flower like it, certainly not in this neighborhood. He was no botanist—he could mow a lawn and whack weeds, but flowers were beyond him. And this one looked more like something you'd see in a rainforest.
He took a photo with his phone, went inside, and posted it online. Maybe someone out there would know what it was, and how it could have gotten into his lawn.
By morning, he had no replies.
On the way to work, Walter took a sniff of the flower, and found a strong scent that reminded him of a bowl of mixed fruit.
There was one person in the office who might know something about it. Matilda, one of the customer service reps, decorated her desk with some flowers she grew at home, taking advantage of the light from the window nearby. She was constantly swapping new varieties in and out. Walter showed her a picture of his flower. "This showed up in my lawn yesterday," he said. "Any idea what it is?"
She shook her head. "Can't say I have. Looks gorgeous, though. And you don't know where it came from?"
"Not a clue." He put his phone in his pocket. "But it's not a problem. Just one of life's little mysteries."
"Well, let me know if you need any gardening tips."
Walter moved on to his desk, and before he sat down, found it strangely sparse. Post-Its on the monitor, cheat sheets on the cubicle walls, but for the most part, rather lifeless. He did have another window closeby for sunlight… And there was the water cooler just a short walk away…
After work, he bought a flower pot, dug up the iridescent flower, and took it to the office the next morning. His desk looked lovelier already. Now he could be greeted each day with that bright fruity aroma.
Matilda stopped by his cubicle for a closer look. "Oh wow, it's even better in person. And such a strong scent. I can smell it from here."
"Glad you like it," Walter said.
The day seemed to fly by, and Walter went home feeling like he'd accomplished more in eight hours than he had in a whole week.
As he sat down on the couch, he checked his phone and found he had a notification on his post about the flower. He had one reply. The fact that it was in all-caps was not a good sign.

BURN IT! BURN IT RIGHT NOW!1! THAT THING DAMN NEAR RUINED MY LIFE I HATE IT SO MUCH. KEEP IT AWAY FROM YOU'RE COMPUTER TOO ITS STEALING OUR SECRETS. THAT FLOWER IS A MENACE!!!1!! 
Posted by: GoroManda

And that was about thirty seconds Walter would never get back. Probably some troll who thought he was funny. How could a flower be a threat? It made Walter think of some 60's protester placing a flower into the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle. Real flower power, man.
It would take a week for everything to turn amiss.
As Walter headed for his desk with his coffee, he noticed Kent from Processing coming up the aisle. Walter started to wave, but Kent ignored it and bumped Walter in the shoulder. Some of the coffee spilled over the rim and dribbled onto Walter's shirt. Before Walter could even complain, Kent had left the room.
"What was that about?" Walter said as he passed by Matilda's desk.
"What was what about?" she said.
"Kent. He seemed to be in a bad mood. Made me spill my coffee."
"And that's my business how?"
"I'm… sorry?"
"Do I look like I'm here to listen to your problems? No, I'm here to listen to customers bitch at me and this company all day. So you just go do your job, and I'll do mine. Okay? Okay."
Walter stood frozen for a moment, and walked to his desk without another word.
He checked his email, shared with the entire office. The first message he clicked turned out to be a massive argument between about five people over a box of leftover sesame chicken. He left that alone and reviewed the rest of his messages, then his bug reports. At least none of the coding problems were too extreme. Simple enough to knock out fairly quickly. He sniffed the flower and got to work. Quietly.
The next few days were similarly tense. Gene passed along some project notes saying "I know you'd rather piss around on Reddit, but please get to work on this ASAP, or else." He'd never spoken to Walter like that before, and Walter couldn't think of a thing he was doing differently from usual. As for Matilda, she no longer responded to greetings at all, instead giving only quick grunts. And the argument about the sesame chicken showed no signs of slowing down.
That Friday afternoon, an hour before Walter clocked out, he found another reply to his post. This one, at least, looked like it was written by an adult.

I don't know what kind of flower that is, but I had one just like it appear in my garden out of nowhere. It had a sort of sublime quality that I found appealing, so I brought it inside. It must have some kind of strange pheromones because my husband and I both started acting differently after bringing it in. We'd fight at the drop of a hat, over the smallest, stupidest things. Finally our little boy buried it in the backyard, and the fighting stopped.

I know that probably doesn't help. Just because it was potent for me doesn't mean it will be for you. Maybe you should take it to a scientist for study?

Posted by: ViolinTale

Walter reread the message to make sure he understood it properly. It was one thing to rant incoherently about an exotic flower to strangers on the Internet, but botany10000's post described the atmosphere at the office pretty well. Yet the connection still seemed so flimsy. All this conflict, caused by a flower? By that logic, Matilda's collection should have driven everyone into a frenzy.
Still, though. None of this had started before he brought this flower in. And ever since he placed it there, it had gotten bigger and taller, and grown more leaves, as if it thrived in this environment even more than it would have in his lawn.
At least the weekend was coming up. Maybe the time away from the office would do everyone some good.
He saved some files to his USB drive to work on over the weekend, but when he pulled it out, he noticed something odd. Some strange dirt had gotten onto one of the other USB ports. The dirt sparkled in spots, as if it had bits of glitter and metal mixed in. Odder still, it formed a sort of trail leading to the bottom of the flower pot. One of the roots was poking out.
Now this was impossible. This flower pot was a quarter of an inch thick. No way could it have rotted that quickly, and no way could a root, of all things, pierce through it so easily.
Walter reached forward to pick some of the dirt away.
His hand snapped back. Walter rubbed his arm. He hadn't touched a thing. Now an ache ran from his wrist to his shoulder. His arm had moved entirely on its own. As if something in his brain wanted to stop him from clearing the dirt away.
He decided to leave it alone for the weekend. You know something's wrong when you're getting suspicious of a flower.

***

On Sunday, more people posted replies to his thread.

Hi, count me as another victim of one of these flowers. I know it's hard to believe, but I'm convinced these things are intelligent. I put it next to my computer, and next thing I know there's dirt on the USB drive, my files are missing, and I'm getting all sorts of weird and creepy Russian emails. Then my dog ate it.

Posted by: Reimu1994
I am a botanist at Columbia University, and one of these had my whole lab at each other's throats. We ran some tests, and I don't want to say too much before we publish, but what we found was totally bizarre. We don't even know what its nearest relative is. 
Posted by: HowardPhD

Walter posted a reply:

HowardPhD, do you have any idea where it came from?

Posted by: Nanmo

He got a private message in response.

HowardPhD: Can I swear you to secrecy?

Nanmo: Of course.

HowardPhD: Absolute secrecy? I am severely limited in what I can tell the public.

Nanmo: It's okay, I handle a lot of sensitive information at work.

Nanmo: But I think this flower's having an effect on my office now. I need to know what's going on.

HowardPhD: All right.

Howard PhD: Get ready, because this will be hard to believe.

HowardPhD: We found a separate creature living inside the ovary of the flower. It seemed to have been there all along. Whatever it was, it didn't look like anything that exists on Earth.

HowardPhD: As soon as we found it, it tried to hide, then vaporized itself.

HowardPhD: All our problems stopped as soon as that happened.

Nanmo: You're not saying what I think you're saying?

HowardPhD: Are you thinking that the flower may have come from an extraterrestrial source?

Nanmo: Are you serious?

HowardPhD: Check my post history. I'm no crank.

Walter took HowardPhD up on the challenge. What he found were several threads about botany, including an "Ask the Botanist" thread where Dr. Howard T. Rothke gave his credentials. Dr. Rothke was indeed listed among Columbia's faculty, and had enough awards to show he knew what he was talking about. Walter even found a few posts that hinted something about the mysterious flower: one about conflict among grad students in the lab, and another on a study about a newly discovered plant species.

Nanmo: Yeah, you're pretty legit.

Nanmo: So the flower's an alien?

HowardPhD: I'm not fully prepared to say yes, but it's likely.

HowardPhD: The creature inside behaved less like a cornered animal and more like a captured spy.

HowardPhD: I couldn't tell you how it got here. Maybe a ship flew into orbit and scattered the seeds. I can only guess.

Nanmo: Did it do anything with your computers?

HowardPhD: Possibly. My PC logged a ton of activity, even when I wasn't using it.

Nanmo: Then what if it was a spy? What's it trying to find out?

HowardPhD: I wish I could say.

Nanmo: What do I do with my flower?

HowardPhD: I'd like to say you should follow GoroManda's advice. But if there is an intelligent creature in there, that might be going too far.

HowardPhD: If nothing else, definitely get it away from your office.

Nanmo: I'll try. It stopped me from clearing dirt off my USB port.

HowardPhD: Hm.

HowardPhD: Maybe a signal from the flower?

HowardPhD: Or maybe something else from the flower?

Nanmo: I can't believe I'm discussing this with an actual scientist.

HowardPhD: I can't believe I'm an actual scientist discussing this.

***

The next day, Walter hesitated a moment before sitting down. Part of him wanted to pour his coffee right on the head of the flower, see if that improved morale around the office. But if Dr. Rothke was right, and there was potentially a tiny astronaut in there, Walter knew he couldn't go through with it. He didn't even like killing cockroaches. Besides, it probably had some way to prevent him from doing anything, just like the dirt on Friday.
A hand pressed on his shoulder. Mr. Pringle had come up behind him, with Gene by his side. "Good morning, Walter. Or, I forget, is it Walt? I was hoping we could have a talk in my office."
"Sure," Walter said. "What about?"
"Just come with me."
Walking behind the manager and team supervisor, Walter took a moment to survey the office. Some of the CSRs were hanging their heads in silent frustration. Another was locked in a touchy conversation on her headset. Matilda hadn't arrived, and some of her flowers didn't seem to be doing so great. Many of them sagged, and their petals withered.
Gene shut the door to Mr. Pringle's office behind Walter, and directed him to the chair in front of the desk.
"Everybody seems to be rather stressed out," Mr. Pringle said as he sat down. "Could be we've all had family events happen at once, and I'm hoping it'll pass soon. How have you been holding up lately?"
Walter had figured the situation in this office couldn't escape management's notice. "I've been doing all right. At least, I haven't had anything too big to complain about."
"I'm glad to hear that." Mr. Pringle rocked his chair back and forth. "In that case, maybe you can help us with something."
Gene slid a folder toward Walter. Inside was a printout of three days' worth of computer logs—files, processes, IP addresses, some of which had been highlighted. Walter flipped through them. "What is this?"
"The highlighted items," Gene said, "are attempts made from a terminal in our office to access files from various government agencies—Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Homeland Security, the Pentagon, NASA—including highly classified data."
"Walter," Mr. Pringle said, "all this is from your workstation."
"What?" Walter flipped through the papers again.
"Right now we're just trying to get more information. Figure out what's going on. How do you think this happened?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out." Walter was sweating. "Look, this one was 7:45 PM. That's after I clocked out. And here, this one's from Saturday. And this… And this… None of this happened while I was here."
Gene said, "It would take an idiot to hack the Pentagon during work hours. It's not possible these were scheduled tasks?"
"Mr. Pringle…" Walter rose from his chair. "You have to believe me, I'd never do this. I love working here. Even if I could hack the Pentagon of all places, why would I want to throw this away?"
"That's definitely a very good question," Mr. Pringle said. "Somebody apparently does want to throw their job away. And ours. I assure you, when the federal government notices what's happened, I intend to cooperate to the fullest extent I can. So I need to know who in their right mind would try something like this."
Walter sat back down and pressed his fingers to his scalp. He had his suspicion, but no way could the flower accomplish that much. "Were there any logins while I was gone?"
"Not from what we can tell," Gene said. "Which seems to support my 'scheduled task' theory."
Gene started to get on Walter's last nerve. "And what are all these? They seem to be—"
A scream broke through from down the hall.
Mr. Pringle sprang up and out the door, with Gene following behind him holding the file, and Walter trailing both of them.
Matilda was standing at her desk, holding a bundle of severed flower heads, their stems poking up from their pots. Tears filled her eyes as she searched for any survivors, even one. "No… I worked so hard… Who could have…"
She caught sight of Walter and jabbed her finger at him. "YOU. You and that flower of yours. YOU DID THIS! Couldn't stand the competition, could you?"
"What?" Walter turned to Mr. Pringle. "They were just fine a minute ago."
Matilda picked up a pair of scissors. "Let's see how you like it!"
She rushed over to his desk like a ravenous animal. Gene darted out to try and stop her. Walter, on the other hand, felt strangely at ease. This might wind up solving everyone's problem.
Whatever had stopped Walter before didn't stop her. She grabbed the head of the flower and snipped it right off. "See this?" she said. "Here's what I think of your exotic flower." She threw it to the floor and lifted her foot.
Something burst out of the flower just as her heel crushed it. A tiny blue thing skittered across the office floor. Nobody but Walter seemed to have noticed it, except Mr. Pringle, who tried to stomp on it. The thing got away from him and ran up the wall.
Walter grabbed a cup from the water cooler and pressed it to the wall around the thing, then slid a piece of paper underneath to seal it up, just like he would with a cockroach or spider at home. Once he had the cup upright, he took a peek inside. The thing had three legs and a set of thin tendrils all around its single eye.
"What the hell is that thing?" Mr. Pringle said.
"What in the—?" Matilda rubbed her head, and saw the flower's remains. "Walter? Oh God, what have I done? I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me."
"It's okay," Walter said. "Not the worst that could have happened today. Mr. Pringle, what would you say if I told you this was our hacker?" He pointed at the cup.
"I'd think you're crazy. But man, that thing is disgusting."
"Mr. Pringle," Matilda said, "I think I need a vacation."
"Yes, you do. Just say when."
"In that case," Walter said, "Do you mind if I take this outsi—"
There was a loud pop inside the cup. Walter let go, and when it landed on the ground, only ash fell out.
"I was going to let you go, you little turd," Walter muttered.
He, Gene, Mr. Pringle, and Matilda stood around the debris of their encounter—the scraps of the flower and the ash of their strange visitor. Walter's main thought was how soon he could tell Dr. Rothke about this… and if he'd get a chance to, with possible federal charges on the way.
Gene took another look at the computer logs. "Hm. Now that I take another look, there are a few listings that seem to represent remote access attempts into Walter's computer, but with no other IP—just encryption."
"Remote access?" Mr. Pringle said. "So someone else tried to hack into us?"
"Quite possibly." Gene showed him the lines in the logs. "And probably used Walter's terminal as a relay point for further hacking. Walter, I apologize. I must have been so eager to convict you that I overlooked some of the finer details."
"D-don't worry about it," Walter said. "I don't think anybody's really been themselves lately." He stooped down and picked up the crushed flower. This thing, and the tiny pile of ash next to it, had traveled untold light years to wind up in his office. On one hand, it was a shame to see it all destroyed, and so quickly at that. On the other, it did try to frame him for cybercrime.
Walter checked his coffee. Still a little lukewarm.
"May I get back to work, Mr. Pringle?" Walter said.
"Certainly. We'll let you know if anything comes up in the investigation."
"In the meantime," Gene said, "see if you can whip up some new security measures."
"Will do," Walter said. Info security wasn't his forte, but he should be able to manage something.
Matilda lingered at his desk.
"Walter, I really am sorry. I wasn't taking very good care of those flowers anyway. And we never even found out what yours was. Is there any way I can make it up to you?"
"Don't worry too much about it," Walter said, picking away some of the dirt off his USB drive. "Now that it's dead, I know a botanist up in New York who might like to have it."