“Right through here,” Redcoat motioned to the doorway nearby, “is an entire forest of melasynthetic plants. Watch your step though, we keep them in absolute darkness.”
As Allie stepped into the darkness, she could feel the concrete beneath give way to earth, and what felt like moss. A feathery plant, probably a fern, brushed against her leg, and soon she could feel the cragged bark of a deciduous tree; strangely, the trunk was so wide that Allie couldn’t wrap her arms around its circumference.
“How old are these trees?” she asked into the void. Much older than Ex Nihilo Industries, she concluded after receiving no response. Straining her ears, she could hear Redcoat’s voice still back in the entry hall; he probably hadn’t heard her.
“All right everyone, watch your eyes,” he called out; after a moment, the room was flooded with light. Squinting, Allie glanced upward. Judging by the fact that the lights were suspended stories above the group, she concluded that they had entered the warehouse portion of ENI. Makes sense.
What didn’t make sense, however, was the clarity with which she was able to see the lights, and the wavy, metal roof. “What in the…” Grace trailed, clearly as shocked as Allie. She looked down, away from the lights, and peered over the barren wasteland that entirely canvassed the warehouse floor. There wasn’t a tree in sight.
“Is this a joke?” asked Winthrop. “You said there was a forest in here.”
“There is, in a sense,” Redcoat replied. “What you are looking at right now is a forest of trees which don’t exist.”
Allie considered that statement for a moment. Before the lights were turned on, she had felt the trunk of a tree; of that much she was certain. Now however, she could step entirely through the space which the tree had previously occupied. Not invisible; it disappeared.
Her mind made a connection. Digging through her purse, she found the article regarding a disappearing forest in Millvale, and skimmed over it again. There have been incidents, she recalled Wright’s letter, strange things happening around the Pittsburgh area, which may tie back to Ex Nihilo – accidents which might be our fault. Was that disappearing forest somehow connected to this one? Her informant seemed to think so.
Dr. Wright, she reminded herself; she was surprised he hadn’t come to the tour to meet her. “I hope he’s all right,” she muttered.
Grace’s voice returned Allie from her musings. “Trees which don’t exist,” she repeated. “You’re kidding.”
“Not in the slightest,” Redcoat replied with the straightest poker face Allie had ever seen. “The trees in this room don’t exist; they are a product of your imagination,” he asserted. “Well, not your imagination, someone else’s, but you get the idea.”
“So if I understand you correctly,” Winthrop summarized, “your trees, which run off of nonexistent darkness, themselves do not exist, and are instead…imaginary.”
“That is an excellent summary,” Redcoat nodded; Grace let out an incredulous laugh.
“Then tell me,” he continued, “why am I here, wasting a perfectly good Friday night on this ridiculous company of yours?”
“Because,” Redcoat stepped over to a toggle switch jutting out of the wall, “this ridiculous company is in the business of taking imaginary things which don’t exist, and bringing them into reality.”
He flipped the switch. Without a warning of any sort, stalks of brown and canopies of green appeared instantaneously around them. Leaves crunched underfoot, and the smell of pine and cigarette smoke saturated the air.
Cigarette smoke?! Allie whirled around, her mind resisting the suspicion that she might find the man in her dreams – Skippy Darnight as the article named him. Fortunately all she could see was empty forest. Still the scent was strong, and she began to imagine him somewhere nearby, hiding behind one of the trees.
“He’s not here,” she convinced herself; she had stared across the expanse of the warehouse only moments before, and the only people present were those in the tour. Behind her, Allie could hear the excited chatter and excited footsteps of the tour group as they explored this impossible wonderland. In front of her, despite her best efforts to convince herself of her safety, she listened intently for any sign of the man she never wanted to meet.
A foot crunched in the leaves.
I should run. She knew that she should run; every instinct in her body was telling her to flee to the safety found in numbers. Yet still she lingered, to her own surprise. In a way she felt as though she needed to see him, to know that her fear was grounded in something real.
The footstep had come from her left, from the other side of the tree she had touched in the darkness. Slowly she approached the tree, and began to feel her way around its circumference. As damp leaves crunched under her footsteps, she began to hear the labored breathing of a nearby man, breaths which grew in intensity with every step she took. She herself grew aware of a cool sensation on the back of her left hand as it neared the other side of the tree. The sensation became steadily colder, until the man drew in a sharp breath; he had noticed it too.
Suddenly, the sensation became a frigid pain, and Allie drew her hand back just as he was about to touch her. She jumped around the tree to face Darnight head-on, but when she saw the place where he should have been, all she found was silence, and a fading scent.
“Hey!” came a voice from behind; Allie jumped a mile in the air. Whirling around, she discovered it was only Earlobes.
“Ugh, don’t sneak up on me!” she grumbled.
“Sorry; Grace was looking for you.” He jerked his thumb toward the sounds of frolicking in the depths of the woods.
“Grace?” Allie breathed. “You guys are on a first name basis now? Whatever, I’ll be right there.”
“Listen Allie, I was wondering if I could speak with you in private for a moment.”
“It’s ‘Allison’,” she replied, hoping he’d take the hint. “Only my friends call me ‘Allie’.”
“Haven’t I thoroughly endeared myself to you already?” he attempted a joke; still smelling the stench of Darnight, she couldn’t bring herself to laugh. She turned away from him, and placed her hand against the nearby tree trunk.
“What do you want?”
“I wanted to compare notes, you know, see if we’ve come to similar conclusions.”
“I’m sorry?” she glanced back, giving him the most wearied expression she could muster; his face registered confusion.
“I’m assuming you got my letter,” he replied, stepping around to face her, “after all, you’re here. We’re going to investigate the truth about Ex Nihilo together. Remember?”
Allison blinked. “You’re Dr. Wright?” she asked in astonishment.
“Well, you can think of me as ‘Mr. Wright’ if that will help convince you to go out with me.”
“But you’re young…ish.”
“Ish?” he questioned. “Gee, thanks. How does coffee sound?”
“No, no the man who wrote that letter was well versed in English, refined in his speech.”
“I happen to have a sensational vocabulary.”
“He was dignified.”
“And yet not averse to poking people,” he returned, nudging her in the shoulder.
“Stop that,” she swatted his hand away; then she realized something. “So if you’re Dr. Wright,” she said, “then that means Derek Winthrop would be the only actual investor on this tour.”
“Well he’s the only person marketing invited,” Earlobes explained, “I just slipped you onto the tour’s manifest after the fact.”
Allison furrowed her brow in confusion. “Why?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you want as many investors as possible to come to this sort of thing?” Wright shook his head.
“One of Ex Nihilo’s most important assets is secrecy; Charlie wants as few outsiders as possible to know what we’re up to. So, it’s more secure if we only invite one or two, and have a small number of investors provide all the funding we need.”
“What makes you so sure Derek will invest anything at all?”
“Are you seeing this forest? He’ll invest. I even know how much he’ll give us.”
Allie narrowed her eyes. “How much?” she asked.
Aaron leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Nine hundred and sixty million dollars.” She immediately made the connection.
“Mob money?” she inquired, recalling the article he’d sent her.
“Technically no, but ultimately yes.”
“Is he that accountant from the mob?” she rifled through her purse, “Slim Richards?”
“Technically no, but ultimately yes.”
“What does that mean?” she griped, still wondering if this nuisance of a man could possibly be Dr. Wright.
“It means,” he started, then halted himself mid-sentence. “Off the record?”
“Derek Winthrop isn’t the same person as Richards; he’s more like his opposite.” He glanced at Allie and she nodded for him to continue. “Winthrop is a generous financier,” he said, “and Richards is a greedy mob accountant. So, when we created Winthrop, reality took Richards and his millions in payment.”
“Wait a minute,” Allie raised her hands and stepped back, “back up. ‘When you created him’?” she quoted.
“Oh, right,” Aaron briefly glanced to the side. “Forgot that part. “Ex Nihilo is running short on cash, so we created Winthrop to donate what we need; happens every twelve to fourteen months or so.”
“You created…Derek? You can’t just create a person!” she exclaimed.
Aaron motioned to a nearby trunk. “We created trees easily enough,” he gestured. “I mean, I guess people are a bit more complex, but the process is essentially the same.”
“No, but you can’t do that! That’s just like, morally wrong. Aren’t you afraid of playing God?”
Aaron shook his head. “I never used to be,” he admitted. “It was all fun and games when mob accountants and rapists were the ones disappearing. But when I found out that boy was hurt, falling from his tree house as a result of our experiment; I’ll admit, I’m started to question whether what we’re doing here is ethical – or at the very least safe.”
“I’m telling Derek,” she decided, turning toward the sound of the approaching group; Aaron took hold of her arm.
“Bad idea,” he told her.
“He has a right to know!”
“Sure, but do you honestly think he’d want to?”
“If I were him, I would want to know,” Allie declared; Aaron gave her a dubious look.
“You would?” he asked. “If someone told you that you were created out of nothing, crafted from one man’s imagination, how exactly would that affect you psychologically?”
Allie thought for a moment. “I suppose it would depend on the man’s reason for creating me.”
“And if his purpose was financial, to pull a couple million dollars out of you?”
“I’d be pretty angry,” she admitted. “but I’d still want to know.”
Aaron sighed, and placed his hands around her shoulders. Strangely, she didn’t flinch at the contact. “Maybe you’re right,” he allowed, searching her eyes for something. Eventually he released her.
“Go ahead and tell him, if you think it’s the right thing to do,” he gestured; Allie blinked, then gave him a relenting smile.
“Maybe another time,” she decided, “somewhere outside of Ex Nihilo.”
“We can tell him together, meet him for coffee.” Aaron smiled; Allie rolled her eyes.
“Let’s just get back to the group.”
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