Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Sweet Peas

by George Schaade




The Musilinum forcillium or Torbin berry was first identified 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 yet, unexplained.

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, develops 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.

Reference:
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 helping me.”

“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 your business.”

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 story.”

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 pocket.

“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 from the berries.”

“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 up.”

“They can’t grow here,” said Marco. “They can’t grow anywhere except Torbin.”

“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 at least.”

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 you do.”

“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 to be.”

“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 in.”

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 closest one.

“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 next day.

“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,” replied Alya. “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 plant is 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 animals.”

“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 relieving himself.

“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 frighten themselves.

“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 doctor’s arm.

“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 squat.”

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 its base.

“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.

Reference:
Pasha, Dr. Alya, “The Influence of Exotic Living Organisms on the Soils of Heterogeneous Planets”, The Edaphology Science Review, Nov. 2551: 86.

THE END


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.

E-mail: George Schaade

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