The Musilinum forcillium or Torbin berry was
by Dr. Wayne Simmons shortly after human colonization of the planet
Torbin in the Almira System. It is commonly referred to as the "Sweet
Pea" due to its spherical shape and size which closely resembles the
Earth garden pea, Pisum sativum.
Torbin berries grow from a clinging vine found exclusively in the
Olympic Forest of Torbin. Attempts to replant the berries on other
planets have been unsuccessful. The reason for these failures is, as
The berry is similar to pepos found on Earth, in that the pericarp
forms a hard, thin rind when dried. Under normal conditions this rind
lasts only until the next wet season when germination takes place.
If dried in stages of increasing heat, concentric shells develop within
the berry and an intoxicating gas, Toxiva,
throughout. Early settlers of Torbin discovered that as each of the
shells is broken a portion of the sweet smelling gas is released. When
inhaled the gas has an inebriating effect on humans that may last for
more than an hour.
Dodson, H., “The Volatile Responses of Toxiva
in the Inner Tissues of the Torbin Berry at Various Temperatures”, Universal
Journal of Botany Studies Vol. 25 (1), Feb. 2545: 22–44.
“You must be Doctor Dodson. I’m Marco Conway.”
The two men shook hands and quickly sized each other up. The smaller
Marco was rugged-looking with a full beard, leathery skin, and a scar
running along his right cheek. The doctor was a middle-aged,
gray-haired academic who seldom ventured far from his ivory tower. They
were immediately suspicious of each other.
Walking up from behind the doctor was a young, slender woman with
short, dark hair. She stopped near the scientist and gave Marco a
handshake, but her attention quickly shifted to the camp and the jungle
surrounding it. She smiled, knowing that this place was everything
she’d hoped for. After all her years of study she was finally on a
planet with alien plants and soils.
“This is Alya Pasha,” said Dodson. “She’s a grad assistant that’ll be
“Your stuff arrived with last month’s supply shipment.” said Marco.
“It’s over here.” He led them to a rusted metal shed. The doors
squealed as he pushed them aside. Inside were boxes and crates that
were marked for delivery to Professor Dodson at Balmore Support Station.
“Alya and I need to sort through this and get our personal belongings,”
said Dodson. “We’ll unpack the equipment tomorrow.”
“Okay, I’m going back to the cabin and whip up some supper for us,”
said Marco. “There’s only about an hour of daylight left and the
critters around here aren’t very friendly after dark so be quick about
That night at supper Dodson and Alya studied the meal in front of them
very carefully. The meat was completely foreign to them and they were
equally puzzled by the loose-leafed greens on their plates.
“I would say it’s from the cultivar group,” ventured Dodson. “Perhaps
it’s Brassica oleracea but the color isn’t right.”
Marco downed a mouthful and said, “I grew it here on Balmore from
seeds. I call it collard greens.”
Dodson and Alya nibbled at theirs and decided that it was quite edible.
They opted to pass on the meat when Marco explained that it came from a
native omnivore that he called a squat.
“I can’t believe you cooked all of this on an open fire,” said Alya.
“It’s called a fireplace,” Marco said as he began to clean up. “There
was a time when all meals were cooked that way.”
“Why don’t you just get a food assembler?”
“What’s the fun in that?” sighed Marco. “I’ve been here almost ten
years and there’s not much to do. I keep the landing pad clear and
check on the outlying installations. But that’s not enough for a hot
shot like me so I do a bit of gardening, hunting, and cooking. I need
something to keep me busy. I understand the company made me caretaker
of Balmore just so no one else lays claim to it, but it doesn’t take
much to care for a bunch of rusting sugar refineries.”
Marco paused and noticed the untouched squat on their plates.
“You didn’t have any meat so I assume you’re both vegan. I guess I
should have asked.”
“No, we just like to recognize what we’re eating,” said Dodson.
Sensing a tense situation, Alya tried to change the subject, “It’s hard
to believe this place once produced sugar. From what I saw in orbit
most of the land is covered in a thick forest.”
“Yes, it’s mostly jungle,” said Marco as he leaned back in his chair,
“but parts of it are rather special and that’s why the company
originally came here. In certain spots around this planet there’s a
fungus that grows just below the ground…”
“Armillaria ostoyae,” injected Dodson, “Actually
it’s an alien
variety that doesn’t consume sugar. This one produces sucrose as a
by-product of growth.”
“Whatever,” said Marco who was obviously irritated by the interruption.
“Anyway, a hundred years ago sugar was worth its weight in gold so the
company built refineries all over Balmore. Unfortunately, the boom
didn’t last and fifty years ago this place was closed down. I’ve been
caretaker the last ten years.”
“I saw a bunch of old, rusty towers outside,” said Alya.
“Those are distillation stacks. The sucrose was pumped out of the
ground and into the stacks where it was refined.”
“Right now there’s a giant fungus beneath us for miles in every
direction,” said Dodson. “That’s part of why I’m here. I want to study
the biochemistry of these organisms.”
“Part of why you’re here?” questioned Marco. “What’s the other part?”
Dodson hung his head and went silent.
“Go ahead and tell him, doctor,” Alya said with a smile. “It’s a great
For a long moment Dodson stared at Marco, trying to judge how his tale
would be received.
“Well, when I was a little boy my Uncle Frank would often tell us about
places he visited and jobs he had when he was a young man. One of those
jobs was right here on Balmore. He was an instrument man that worked on
those same distillation towers that you were talking about.”
“When was that?” asked Marco, who was now a little interested.
“It must have been over fifty years ago. He was here for five years but
as it turned out he was on the last crew that mothballed all of the
stations on Balmore. The way Uncle Frank described it the last couple
of years were kind of wild. The company relaxed their rules and the
workers took advantage of it.”
For the first time, Marco smiled and nodded approvingly. He started to
pull out a pipe but thought better of it and pushed it back into his
“Some of the workers,” continued Dodson, “had smuggled in contraband
like alcohol and Torbin berries. In their spare time the men would play
gambling games, drink liquor, and sniff Toxiva
“Ah, yes, Sweet Peas,” said Marco. “I did that a bit in my youth, too.
They can make a hard day seem much softer.”
Dodson hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he should finish the story.
“Go on,” prodded Alya. “Tell him the rest of it.”
“Okay. One day Uncle Frank was shutting down a distillation tower when
he had the wild idea to plant some Sweet Peas. He dug a little hole
beside one of the stacks, dropped in a couple of peas, and covered them
“They can’t grow here,” said Marco. “They can’t grow anywhere except
“The Olympic Forest on Torbin to be exact,” said Dodson. “Every
textbook and every botanist in the galaxy will tell you that, but Uncle
Frank wasn’t a botanist. He told us that just before the planet was
shut down he went back to the spot where he planted the peas. He
claimed that he found a plant growing. It was a Torbin berry plant.
There were vines climbing up the side of the tower with lots of leaves.
No berries had formed because it takes two years for those to develop
but my uncle’s description was accurate.”
“You’re crazy!” laughed Marco. “Do you really think you’re going to
find Sweet Peas here? Your uncle made up a fairy tale and all of these
years later you still believe it.”
“It could be true,” said Alya, “and there’s no harm in checking it out
Marco shook his head then asked Alya, “What’s your role in all of this?
Why are you here?”
“Edaphology,” said Alya. “I’m doing research on the influence of soils
on alien flora.”
Marco raised an eyebrow and asked, “So you study dirt?”
Alya leaned across the table and laughed, “Yes, I love dirt just like
“What do you mean?”
Alya’s eyes lit up. Marco wasn’t going to help Dodson but maybe she’d
found a way to connect with him.
“The plants you raise in your garden depend on the soil,” said Alya.
“Maybe you could help me with my research.” She flashed him a flirty
smile. “And if Doctor Dodson finds his uncle’s Torbin berry plant we’ll
all make history.”
Marco thought for a moment then said, “Well, the company told me to
help you so I will. When it comes to that Sweet Pea plant, I think both
of you are chasing a ghost. We’ll talk about that another time. Right
now, we need to get some rest because we get started at daybreak.”
Over the next few days no one said much about the mysterious Sweet Pea
plant. Instead Dodson and Alya concentrated on setting up their
equipment, collecting plant and soil samples, running experiments, and
documenting their results. Marco performed his usual chores but also
helped with finding new alien plants and identifying their
characteristics. But it was inevitable that they would return to the
curious story about the plant.
“Can you take us to Station L23?” asked Dodson.
“L23? Why there?” questioned Marco as he settled into his favorite
chair. “Oh, that must be where your uncle’s Sweet Pea plant is supposed
“We’ve finished up around here,” said Alya. “We’d like to get some
samples from another area.”
Marco laughed and said, “Sure, sure. There’s 117 stations scattered
around this planet and you want to go to a specific one. I know a wild
goose chase when I see it but I could use a little vacation so count me
Marco picked up a tablet and opened a map of station locations around
Balmore. In less than a minute he found L23.
“You’re lucky. It’s not that far away, maybe a four hour drive
depending on how much the road is overgrown. I’m sure no one’s been
there in a very long time.”
Marco was right. Originally the company had built a clean, solid,
concrete road that cut through the thick forest to L23 but decades of
neglect left it covered in weeds, cracks, and holes. More delays were
caused by fallen trees, meandering streams, and one very large
reptilian creature. Eventually they reached a sizable clearing with
eleven rusty towers scattered throughout. Marco parked next to the
“We’ll make camp here,” said Marco. “Unpack the gear before you start
searching for those imaginary peas.”
By the time they set up the tents, unloaded the equipment, and built a
fire, Dodson and Alya only had time for a quick visit to the nearest
tower. They received plenty of teasing from Marco when they returned
empty handed but they vowed to check the other distillation stacks the
“This will be number eight,” said Alya. “If this isn’t the one we
should break for lunch.”
“Okay,” said Marco. “You guys have a look while I start…what the hell?”
The distillation stack standing in front of them was covered in more
than rust, much more. A myriad of dark green vines weaved and twisted
up the tower. The runners climbed almost to the top and sprouted small,
oval leaves that almost hid the structure.
Dodson and Alya began circling the tower, taking samples and inspecting
the plant. The trunks of the vines were thick and appeared to have very
deep roots. The ground around them was littered with green and gray
berries. There was no doubt these were Sweet Peas.
“I take it all back,” said Marco as he walked up. “This is amazing. I
never imagined it could be true. What do you do now?”
“We take our specimens and test them,” said Dodson. “If it all checks
out we will have discovered a new source of Torbin berries.”
That evening the scientists worked far into the night. They carefully
inspected the molecular makeup of the plant and soil samples. Their
discoveries were startling.
“What kind of fungus is beneath the ground here?” asked Dodson.
“The alien form of Cryptococcus neoformans,”
“That’s a different one than the fungus under the Support Station.”
“Well, I’m finding traces of it in the plant tissue, the berries, and
even the Toxiva gas. This could explain why the
growing here when it really shouldn’t.”
Alya was lost in thought for a moment, then said, “Cryptococcus
neoformans is an obligate aerobe. It can live in both plants
“And it can cause diseases,” added Dodson. “We need to take precautions
like wearing masks and gloves. Marco is probably sleeping but we need
to warn him.”
The two of them walked out of their tent, past the campfire, and into
Marco’s tent which was empty. They went back to the campfire and waited
for him to return from the nearby woods where they assumed he was
“What’s this?” asked Alya as she pointed to a spot near the fire where
there was several dried Sweet Peas and a pair of pliers.
“Oh, no,” said Dodson, “I didn’t expect this from him.”
“What is it?” asked Alya.
“Marco’s sniffed Toxiva gas!”
“Won’t he just be high for awhile then it’ll wear off?”
“With normal Sweet Peas that’s true but I don’t know about this hybrid
version. It could produce some weird effects.”
They now looked at the dark woods from a different perspective. The
flickering flames of the fire created dancing shadows between the
glimmering light reflected from the trees. There was no way to detect
the real from the imagined. They realized they were starting to
“He’ll be all right in a little while, right?” Alya whispered nervously.
“He could be in danger,” said Dodson. “We have to go looking for him.”
Alya was hesitant but she knew the doctor was right. She grabbed a
couple of flashlights while Dodson got the pistol that the company had
given him. There was no way to know what they would find in the
chilling gloom of the forest.
“I think this is the way he went into the jungle,” said Dodson. “See
how the grass is tramped down.”
“That may have happened earlier,” Alya said as she held tight to the
“Maybe, but it’s the best clue we’ve got as to where he went.”
The brush between the trees was thick which, along with the darkness,
added to their slow progress but also made it easier to follow Marco’s
path. Ten minutes after they started the pair froze when a long,
high-pitched squeal of a wild animal echoed through the trees.
“What was that?” whispered Alya.
“I think it was one of those pig-like creatures that Marco called a
They stopped when just in front of them in the shadows there was a low
guttural moan. Dodson pointed the beam of his light and there was Marco
kneeling beside the body of a dead animal. The creature had been
freshly disemboweled. Soft, slimy tissues were still flowing from the
squat’s belly. Blood was everywhere. Much of it was on Marco. His chest
and face were covered in blood. He turned to the light with a primal,
savage look in his eyes.
“Marco?” said Alya.
When he stood they could see the large knife in his hand and the blood
dripping off of the tip. At that moment the fear exploded in Alya and
she couldn’t control herself anymore. She turned and ran.
Dodson began to raise his gun but Marco jumped on him, knocked the
doctor to the ground, and pulled himself on top. Marco held the
scientist’s gunned hand to the ground while lifting his knife for a
lethal stab. At that moment Dodson inadvertently pulled the trigger on
the gun, the errant shot distracted Marco and gave Dodson just enough
time to grab Marco’s wrist. It then became a struggle between Dodson
trying to raise the gun and Marco’s knife that slowly inched closer to
the doctor’s neck.
Dodson was slowly losing the fight when suddenly Marco went limp and
fell to the side. Standing over them was Alya. She’d returned when she
heard the shot and somehow found the courage to whack Marco on the head
with her flashlight. Both of them stared at Marco’s motionless body as
they caught their breath.
Finally Alya asked, “Are you okay?”
“Just a few scratches. How about you?”
“Did I kill him?” she asked. “I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”
Dodson cautiously checked for a pulse and found none. He stood and put
an arm around Alya.
“You did what you had to do. You saved my life.”
“What do we do?” asked Alya.
“Well, we can’t move him now. Let’s go back to the camp and in the
morning we’ll come back.”
It wasn’t until they got back to the base camp that Dodson realized how
upset Alya was. She was deeply affected by what she had done to Marco
and for several minutes her body shook as she stared into the fire.
Dodson was upset too. His hand trembled as he tended the scratches on
his chest. Once the adrenalin subsided the pair began to think more
clearly and Dodson tried to reassure Alya.
“What happened to Marco wasn’t your fault,” said Dodson.
“What made him act so crazy?”
“There was a battle going on in his body between two fungi. The one
under the Support Station entered his body through the food he grew and
ate. The other fungus got into him when he inhaled the hybrid Toxiva
gas from the Sweet Peas.”
“We ate that food too,” exclaimed Alya.
“Yes, but we haven’t ingested anything that contains the fungus that’s
here under L23.”
“Why didn’t something like this happen back when your uncle was here?”
“Could be many things,” said Dodson. “For one thing their food was
imported.” He thought for a second. “But if it did happen back then, it
would explain why they closed down the sugar operation so quickly. You
know, Alya, the company may know more about this than we think. Let’s
be careful what we say to them about it.”
As dawn broke they gathered up some tools and supplies then made their
way back to where they left Marco. The body was lying face down near
the trunk of a large tree. Dark, dried blood was caked to the back of
his head below a deep gash. Dodson rolled the body over to reveal
strands of light green fungus growing out of Marco’s eyes, nose, and
mouth. His bloated, discolored body was covered in blisters that easily
burst and oozed more of the green fungus. The tiny alien insects of
Balmore scurried over the body. They avoided the fungus but were
already feasting on Marco’s remains. The sight caused Dodson and Alya
to take a step back.
“Oh, dear god,” cried Alya.
“We’ll never be able to get him all the way back to the Support
Station,” said Dodson. “We should bury him here. I’ll start digging a
grave. Hand me the shovel and pull your mask up.”
It took Dodson the better part of an hour to dig a shallow trench that
would hold Marco. The bottom of the grave was striped with veins of the
green fungus that was growing in Marco. Dodson quickly rolled the body
into the grave and began covering it.
“That fungus is everywhere,” said Alya.
“It’s worse than you think. Let’s go, we’ve got things to do.”
When they got back to the camp, Dodson immediately walked into his tent
and emerged with a large plastic bottle containing a liquid. Without a
word he went to the Sweet Pea tower and began pouring the liquid around
“What are you doing?” asked Alya.
“This is the acetone we brought to clean out equipment,” said Dodson.
“It’s highly flammable. I’m going to burn down this plant.”
“Because of what happened to Marco?”
“And because of this,” said Dodson as he pulled down the neck of his
shirt to reveal a patch of green fungus growing from a small cut.
Alya stepped back in shock.
“Take the transport and drive back to the Support Station,” said
Dodson. “Contact the company and tell them it’s an emergency. The
sooner you get off this planet the better.”
“What about you?” asked Alya.
Dodson removed the gun from his pocket then grimly said, “Go! Go now!”
In the case of Balmore in the Damarian System the dense forests have a
significant effect on the planet’s soil but the greatest impact comes
from the organisms living below the surface. A variety of giant fungal
communities lie scattered underground around the planet. These fungi
extend their hyphae or filaments into the soil which then has a marked
impact on the flora and fauna of Balmore. The consequences of this
convergence can have both positive and negative results. Some of
Balmore’s plant life benefit by exceptional growth while human visitors
to the planet discovered the horrendous effects, as witnessed by the
deaths of biochemist Dr. Henry Dodson and naturalist Marco Conway.
The extensive use of sulfur and Neem oil was moderately effective on
the fungi but ultimately altered the soil extensively. The present
quarantine of Balmore makes it impossible to continue any research into
the planet’s soil or its unusual organisms. It is hoped that at some
point in the future a comprehensive study of the organics of the planet
will be possible.
Pasha, Dr. Alya, “The Influence of Exotic Living Organisms on the Soils
of Heterogeneous Planets”, The Edaphology Science Review,
Nov. 2551: 86.
© 2017 George Schaade
Bio: George Schaade is a retired history teacher
living in the
Big Thicket forest of East Texas. Although he occasionally ventures
into fantasy or horror, his true passion is writing science fiction for
anyone that will listen.
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