EPA Agent Ava Dominguez received a tip on an unauthorized tree and went to investigate.
The tree, a maple, grew in a suburban yard. The neighboring yards were in compliance — dirt, gravel, rock, like the surface of the moon. Then there was the tree. It had deep green leaves and branches that twisted and spread and reached up to rival the surrounding rooftops.
Ava parked across the street, unable to believe what she was seeing. In a decade with the EPA, she had never come across such a blatant violation of growth policy. Usually she dealt with people who cultivated daffodils or ivy in their basements.
She snapped a photo and sent it to her team leader.
He texted back: “Is that real?”
“Yes. I need a removal team.”
“On the way. Arrest the grower.”
She put on the helmet of her bio-hazard suit and stepped from her van. Dozens of gawkers had congregated around the tree in their own suits. Ava snapped more photos, then went to press the call button on the intercom at the front door.
“Yes?” said a voice, male.
“My name is Ava Dominguez. I’m with the Environmental Protection Agency. I need to speak with the homeowner.”
“May I come in?”
She went through a decontamination chamber and into the foyer, where the man greeted her. He was average in every way: height, weight and looks. Middle-aged. Dressed in slacks and a sweater vest. Hardly the type to grow a tree in his yard.
Ava took off her helmet, tucked it under one arm and held out her other. “Ava Dominguez.”
The man shook her gloved hand. “Norman Melville.”
“Mr. Melville, your tree — ”
“Is unauthorized, I know.”
“Then why’d you grow it?”
He smiled politely. “Would you like to sit down? I have tea and coffee.”
Tempting, but Ava knew the cupboards would hold only imitations of tea leaves and coffee beans. She remembered real tea from her youth, the aroma of a cup of chamomile. That was back when there were still tea plantations.
Before everything had died.
Before the microbes.
“What I’d like is an answer,” she said.
His smile fell. “It’s my daughter’s 18th birthday. She’s out in the yard. She’s never seen a tree.”
“Do you know what microbes do to a tree in the open?”
He nodded. “They swarm to it with the purpose of using it to breed, or clone, or whatever it is they do to increase their numbers. In the process, they kill the tree. I’m a botanist. I work to improve the rate and volume of plant oxygen release for the greenhouses. So yes, I know about the microbes.”
If all that was true, then the man must be insane, Ava thought. He might as well have set off a bomb in his yard, yet he didn’t seem to care.
“Did you get the seed from your work?” she asked.
“And the fast-grow formula?”
“I didn’t use any.”
“The tree wasn’t there yesterday. Now it is. You must have planted the seed overnight, so where’d you get the formula? From your lab? Did you have an accomplice?”
“Do you know what the EPA did before the microbes came, Agent Dominguez? It protected trees.”
“The world changed.”
“The world can change back. Do you have children?”
“Well someday you will, and you won’t want them to grow up without ever climbing a tree or smelling a rose.”
Ava had heard enough. She took handcuffs from her pocket. “You’re under arrest for violation of Section 3, Paragraph 9 of the U.S. Code for Growth Control.”
She snapped on the cuffs and put Norman in a bio-hazard suit she found in a closet. He didn’t resist. With both their helmets secure, she marched him out the front door.
The removal team had arrived and cordoned off the yard. They were sawing at the maple.
“No!” Norman yelled. “Take me, but leave the tree!”
Ava handed Norman over to an agent who led him away while Norman yelled: “I manipulated the seed. The tree is years’ worth of work. The microbes that reproduce there will mutate. They’ll be harmless. They’ll spread the mutation!”
The agent put Norman in a van.
The crowd outside the cordon yelled curses and threats at the removers, while a teenager cried behind the faceplate of her helmet. Norman’s daughter, no doubt.
Ava felt sick. Some days, she hated her job.
When the removers were done, and the tree and stump had been stacked in the back of a truck to haul away for incineration, Ava did a final inspection of the site.
Amid the gray dirt, a bit of greenery. She bent over and picked it up. A seed.
“Hey,” she yelled at the removers.
One of them looked back. “Yeah?”
You missed something, she almost said. Instead she turned the seed over in her hand. It resembled an insect wing with a bulge at one end. In her youth, she and her friends had made a game of throwing maple seeds into the air and watching them spin down like tiny helicopters.
Regulation called for its incineration, but if Norman had been truthful about his tree, this seed could change the world.
“Did you find something?” the remover yelled.
Agents didn’t grow trees. They removed them. But what if one day they didn’t have to?
She closed her hand over the seed.
“False alarm,” she said. “We’re done here.”
She tucked the seed in her pocket and walked to her van.
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks is a writer, journalist, wife, mother and lifelong science-fiction fan who lives in Colorado. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Fireside Magazine, Abyss & Apex and other venues.