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Monday, September 5, 2011

Vegetation

It's ragweed season.  Here's a piece of flash fiction to think about, the next time you sneeze.

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Captain Tarkonen stood in front of the closed hatch, facing the five members of the away team.

“Remember our briefing,” she said, her gray eyes holding the gaze of each of her five crew members in turn. “There seems to be no animal life on this planet. This is no excuse for a lack of caution. We know the air is breathable, and there is nothing out there that is an apparent threat. The emphasis is on the word apparent. You are on an alien world, and everything you touch – no matter how innocuous – should be looked upon as a potential danger.” She paused, raising an eyebrow. “Are there any questions?”

No one spoke. The exobotanist, Latimer, moved his feet in barely-restrained nervous excitement, pawing the ground like a colt.

Tarkonen allowed herself a small smile. “I know, Latimer, I know. Plants. Lots of them. But if you can refrain from having multiple orgasms until you’re alone in your lab later, we’d all be most grateful.”

There was a ripple of laughter, and some of the tension dissipated. Tarkonen turned, and pressed the button for the hatch.

“Then, ladies and gentlemen… welcome to Delta Cygni V.”

The light that came in through the open hatchway was dim, and the air humid and fragrant with a spicy sweetness that none of the six could name. It was warm, welcoming. Any thoughts of danger that were instilled by Tarkonen’s warnings evaporated immediately as they stepped out into the woodland, took in the colors, textures, aromas.

But no sounds. It was a silent world. Tarkonen, looking around her and trying not to allow her natural wariness to drown in the wonder of an alien forest, noticed it immediately. Anywhere on Earth, such a woodland would be a symphony of noises – birdsong, insects buzzing, small movements of animals in the underbrush. Here, it was as quiet as a cathedral.

It’s not the Earth, she thought. You shouldn’t expect it to beYou've been on enough alien worlds that you should have learned that by now.

Latimer, the exobotanist, went from one plant to another, murmuring, “It’s a little like a Curcuma or Alpinia – something from the Zingiberaceae – but it’s got woody stems. Parallel evolution. And this has nuts in shells, like a Carya – but they’re in threes…” He stopped suddenly, jerked his hand back, and put his lips to the back of his wrist.

Markland, the geologist, said, “What’s wrong?”

Latimer looked up sheepishly. “Thorns,” he said. “Should have expected it.”

 Markland laughed. “That’s why I stick to rocks.”


The preliminary exploration lasted for two hours. They found flowers in a dazzling array of colors. There was fruit hanging in clusters – samples would tell if it was edible, but for now, it was just collected and bagged for lab analysis. Everything was photographed, sampled, tagged.

 As they returned to the ship, Mzenga, the barrel-chested chief of security, said, “We need more expeditions like this. I could get into defending people from a bunch of vegetation.”

Tarkonen smiled as she mounted the ladder back to the hatch of the landing shuttle. “We’d have to discuss your salary, if your job was that easy.”

Behind her, Markland sneezed. Tarkonen turned. “Cold, Lieutenant?”

Markland shook her head. “Just allergies, Captain,” she said. “I’ll get Dr. Dietz to give me a booster if it doesn’t clear up once we’re indoors.”


Latimer and Markland were the last to finish dinner, and lingered briefly over a celebratory glass of wine, traditional after an initial expedition on a new world. He absently scratched the back of his wrist.

“I’ve been wondering,” Markland said. “Don’t you think it’s kind of weird, all the flowers and fruit and so on?”

“Why is it weird?” Latimer said.

“You’re the botanist,” she responded. “You don’t see anything strange about it?”

Latimer shrugged. “It’s awesome, not strange,” he said. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I could spend twenty years just cataloguing all the species here.”

Markland shook her head. “Why do plants make flowers and fruits?”

“Pollination and seed dispersal,” Latimer said. “Because…” He stopped, set down his wine glass. “Oh.”

“Yeah. No animals. Why would plants waste their time with fruits and flowers when there are no animals to attract in to pollinate the flowers and disperse the seeds?”

"I was so excited by all of the diversity, that never even occurred to me."  He looked at Markland, a little uncertainly.  "There's got to be another reason, then."

"I can think of one other," Markland said.  "Why else do organisms lure in other organisms?"

Latimer frowned, and then his eyes widened in horror. “And…” He looked at the back of his wrist, where a rough, inflamed spot had begun, around the site where he’d been poked by a thorn. “Why make thorns? As a defense against what?” He pushed his chair back, and it squeaked on the tiled floor. “I’ll be in my lab,” he said, his voice thin.


“What do you mean, Latimer’s missing?” Tarkonen said.

“He’s not in his lab, Captain,” Markland said. “And I checked in with Mzenga. The computer shows that no one has activated the hatch since we came in yesterday evening.”

“He’s got to be on the ship, then,” Tarkonen said, and sneezed.

Markland looked at her, and only then did Tarkonen notice that Markland’s eyes were watery and red, and her nose seemed runny.

“Two more things, Captain,” Markland said. “First, the exobotany lab is full of plants. There are thorny vines all over the lab stool and the table where Latimer puts his samples.” She hesitated. “The cluster of vines on the lab stool are twisted together, and the shape looks a little like a human body.”

Tarkonen swallowed. “So you think that…”

Markland shook her head.  “No. I know. Dr. Dietz did a scan of my lungs this morning.” The geologist held up a translucent sheet, showing the outline of her own lungs, bronchi, trachea. They were shadowed with a network of fine filaments, that looked alarmingly like… roots.

“Dear god,” Tarkonen said. “Pollen.”

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