“Listen to what the moles say and you should be fine.”
Dieter nodded his head and tried to look like he was paying attention. He was, with that part of his brain that also listened to his wife and stored the information away in case he was put on the spot. Mostly, though, he was looking out the window as the pod descended down the space elevator to the planet’s surface. He hadn’t had time to study the complete histories – just skimmed them on his way to the station. Now, he wished he had read more. He couldn’t remember why the planet was called Millipede, and it seemed too basic a question to ask now that he was headed right for it.
From up above the surface, all he could see were clouds. At least, all he could see was white. As they got closer, the white resolved into darker and lighter patches.
“Not long now,” the captain said behind him.
The dark patches were clouds, he could see. But everywhere else, every other expanse of white, was the surface covered in snow.
“Hope you packed your woollens,” said the captain.
The station was stark, a shade of grey barely darker than the snow outside the windows. The welcoming party consisted of one man bundled in layers of color, his face bare of any covering except for a wiry red mustache and beard curling in every direction. Against the monochromatic background, he looked like a patchwork quilt.
Expecting a booming voice from so large and imposing a figure, Dieter didn’t quite catch what the man said when he mumbled something under his breath.
The man leaned closer to him, until his mouth hovered near his ear. He smelled of sweat, but Dieter tried not to make it too obvious he was leaning away. “We can’t speak too loudly or it’ll affect the pods. Is this everything?”
The captain and his two underlings helped carry his equipment and personal bag from the elevator car. There was only one tunnel sloping away from the domed room, with no other obvious exits or entrances. The path spiraled downwards at a gentle angle, so it was almost hard to tell they were descending. By the time they reached the door, Dieter estimated they must be several dozen meters under the top layer of snow. When the man – he realized he had never caught his name – used a code to open the doors at the end of the tunnel, they found themselves in another tunnel, this one with walls glaring white from reflected light coming from inside the station. The tunnel was snow compressed under layers of more snow until it had become a nearly solid sheet of ice. Dieter wondered how far down the freeze went, or if the planet could be just one giant snowball, thrown from the careless hand of a playful god.
He helped load his bags into the back of the sled. The captain shook his hand.
“We’ll be back for you in a month. Good luck.”
“Thank you, sir.”
There were four seats in the sled, and an additional two folded down to make room for his cargo. It was day on this side of the planet and the ice around him glowed white where the headlamp flared across it, but returned to old-glass green when the artificial light faded away. The route was worn smooth by the skidders, and it felt almost as if they were not moving at all. When the path branched, they went left.
“What’s that way?” he asked, but was quietly shushed.
Finally, after what felt like an interminably long journey, but which was probably only half an hour, there was the glow of more artificial light ahead. The man pressed a button on the console and the light brightened – a door opening. The sled slowed and the man angled it up the ramp and into the bay. Another press of the button and the door shut behind them.
“Nice. What about–”
The man shushed him again, glaring. Dieter’s face burned as he followed the man from the vehicle and unloaded two of his bags from the back without another word. The large man led the way up another ramp and into a dome smaller than the space elevator station. When the door swished shut behind the two of them, his guide tossed the bags he was carrying onto the floor, as if they were trash. Dieter winced, although nothing could damage the equipment secure in its padding. Just an automatic reaction.
“There, now. Extra soundproofing,” said the man in an almost normal tone of voice. “Are you daft, man? Didn’t you read the notices before they let you loose here?”
The curse of fair skin. He was sure his face was even redder than before. “I’m sorry. They rushed me over here, so I didn’t have time to look over all of them.”
“It’s the basics, man! If you’ve ruined the H-2 quadrant, Jenna will have my head.” He shook said shaggy head, started to unpeel the layers of clothing swathing him from head to foot. When he finally emerged, after unzipping and unwrapping and unwinding, he was still a head taller than Dieter and with the bulk of a man used to working outdoors in all weather. His hair was long and in a braid halfway down his back. In fact, he looked somewhat like a Viking, if a Viking had been dressed in a one-suit of rainbow stripes.
“Jenna?” Dieter picked out what he thought the most innocuous part of the statement.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name?”
The man laughed. There it was, the big, booming laugh he expected to go with the man, a sound to make others laugh with him – except the sound had been turned way, way down. “Blimey, they really told you nothing. My name is Smith.”
“Thank you for all your help, Mr. Smith–”
“Mister nothing,” he interrupted. “Just Smith.”
“Okay. I’m Dieter.”
The man rolled his eyes. “I know. I read the reports.” Smith turned his back. “Let me show you where you’ll be working.”
The dome was divided into open-air partitions, with only one part of it closed off in a completely contained box. They headed for that part first. Dieter peeked into the ‘rooms’ along the way – spartanly furnished, everything splashed with bright, garish colors like peacock plumage against the dull grey walls. Two bedrooms, a bathroom. The first room they’d entered had been a galley with a table and four chairs and a counter lining the outside wall, with storage bins stacked neatly under the shelf.
“First one’s mine. This one’s yours,” Smith explained with a casual wave at the rooms they passed. “This is the lab.” The door opened after he typed something on the outside panel. Inside was a glass enclosure barely big enough for the two of them. After the first door closed behind them, they faced a red light flashing off and on in front of them. After a hiss of new air, the light glared green and the glass wall slid aside to let them in.
“Standard decom,” Dieter noticed. “But are there clean suits?” He stepped into the grey room, empty except for a shelf circling the walls of the room and a large grey table in the center that matched the walls.
“No one else asked for them.”
“No one else made much progress here, did they?” He walked the perimeter of the room. “What happened to the rest of the equipment?”
“They took it with ’em. Didn’t leave behind anything when they were called back.”
“Good.” He stepped up to the panel next to the door, studied it. It seemed standard. “What’s the schedule like around here?”
“Harvest not for another month. Growing season now.”
“Perfect. I’ll set up here, and then let’s go get some samples.”
Dieter supposed he didn’t blame Smith leaving him behind when he visited the fields, but the other man’s bedside manner left a lot to be desired. “Are you trained in the five-step method of pod harvesting? No? Then don’t try to get in my way.”
While waiting for the Viking to return, he unpacked his clothes and set up the lab. After that, he found a slightly squishy chair in the common room and sat down to catch up on the data he’d been forwarded by headquarters, but never gotten to.
By the time Smith walked through the door, Dieter felt ten times more the fool than he had before catching up on the reports. No wonder Smith had had zero patience with him.
In Smith’s hands was a cylinder about four hands wide and two hands tall. The Viking gave him a glare, but Dieter shrugged without saying anything, and silently followed him back to the lab. Once the plant sample was gently placed in the master storage container, he manipulated the outside controls to unlock the cylinder and discard it in the chute, where it would be sterilized for another use.
The plants from the cylinder resembled nothing so much as conical mushrooms. They were shaded a dusty color of lavender or green, very pale. The container had a layer of snow from outside covering the bottom of it and would be maintained at the same temperature as outside the dome, changing to reflect any sudden drops or increases. When it snowed outside, there would be big, fat artificial flakes cascading down onto the pods inside.
It was never enough. No matter how reliably their natural environment was duplicated, the plants never survived very long away from their colonies. Without a full field of their fellows about them, the plants slowly withered and died. The maximum they’d been kept alive when secluded like this was about a week. The process seemed to accelerate the farther away they were taken. Samples taken off-planet lasted barely a few days before crumbling away to nothing. And once they were dead, they were useless. They were only valuable when alive.
Once they’d left the sterilized, sound-proofed lab, Dieter felt obliged to turn to the other man. “Thanks for the sample. I’m very sor–” before he realized Smith had walked away from him without a backward glance.
It didn’t matter. He was here for as long as it took to gather enough data to proceed. He could live with the man until then. It was no different than being on long space voyages with only a few strangers for company. He was here to do a job, nothing more.
Might as well start now. Shrugging, he turned around and returned to the lab.
This was where patience came into play. No one would ever compare molecular biology with high-speed car chases, that was for sure. The tests he needed to run could take hours, even days. He began with the most basic, settling in for a long wait as he subjected each pod to a measured dose of light.
After moving on to a thorough testing of the effects of different levels of radiation stimuli on the pods, Dieter came to a conclusion, and one that the Viking wouldn’t like. He checked the time – it must be evening, although the indoor light never varied in strength. He went through the sterilization room, discarded his clean suit in the bin and headed to the galley.
He found Smith already there, eating something monochromatic and staring off into space. Pre-packaged rations. Dieter investigated the cupboards, finally returning with a similar container. When he popped the seal, steam rose to greet him from the chemical heating reaction. The food wasn’t as tasteless as it looked – while it resembled in texture nothing so much as oatmeal, it was rich with the spices from the cuisine he’d selected.
Around a mouthful, he said, “I need to do on-site testing. I won’t get anything accomplished in the lab.”
Smith had no doubt intended to ignore him during the meal, but with that one comment, Dieter captured the man’s attention. His eyes bugged out as he stared at the scientist, as if facing a raving lunatic. “Whose crop do you intend to ruin? Mine, I suppose?”
Dieter shrugged, took another bite. “The Company will compensate you for any loss of profit.”
“Are you mad? What about the long-term, man? The fields don’t recover when we go out, not for years. Only the millis can safely go through so that the pods recover. Even then, it’s months before the fields grow back.”
“Yes, the millipedes.” Through trial and error – a lot of error – Company scientists had created a harvesting machine for the pods that could capture live samples, like the one the Viking had brought him. They were a series of linked spheres, each containing one cylinder for collection and “walking” on metal spikes that kept a firm grip on the ice while disturbing the least amount of surface. While the pods reacted unfavorably to the mechanical invasion, the harvesters weren’t as destructive as if a human walked among the fields, picking the pods by hand or machine. Then, it was as if the earth was strewn with salt. As Smith had said, the pods wouldn’t creep back to fill the space for years after a human’s touch. “Maybe if we worked together, we could modify one of the millipedes to carry out the measurements I need,” he suggested instead.
“And what measurements do you need?”
Dieter, for once, stared the Viking down. “That’s classified.”
The Viking snorted. “Then how am I supposed to help you?”
“Just show me how to modify the millipede. I can do the rest.”
“Fine.” The Viking had finished and threw his container into the recycle. He eyed Dieter’s half-eaten plate. “We’ll get started in five minutes.”
Having pushed his luck once, Dieter wasn’t about to argue. He wolfed down the rest of his portion before chucking it in the trash and following Smith through the outside doors to the sled.
The millis were kept at the edge of the fields, so they would only have to travel a short distance for collection. The machines could only move very slowly, to cause the least amount of disturbance to the pods, but that also meant they could only harvest small portions each day. They were kept in a triple sound-proofed dome, so that quick repairs could be made on-site. Still, Dieter kept his mouth shut while Smith pulled apart the control panel of a milli and showed him by drawing and gesture what to do to reprogram it.
He was a scientist, though, not a mechanic. After several hours working trying to reprogram the machine to his exact specifications with the Viking lending minimal assistance, he finally shook his head and made his way back to the sled.
When they got back to the bunker, he guessed it must be close to midnight on the planet’s time. The space station tried to mimic the planet’s actual hours, but he still felt like he had been awake for days. “Let’s talk in the morning,” he said, getting only a grunt in return. Having shed his outer garments in the entryway, he fell onto his bed fully clothed and was asleep before his head hit the neon-colored pillow.
Over coffee the next morning, Dieter broke the awkward silence. “You have to sign the same confidentiality clause that I’ve signed. This is Company business, and I’m only telling you because I can’t fix the milli.”
“Fine.” After only a cursory glance at what he was signing, Smith put his thumb-print on the tablet Dieter gave him and said, “Well?”
Dieter filed away the tablet before thinking through his reply. “The pods are very valuable medically, as you must know.” Smith rolled his eyes, and Dieter cleared his throat. “Okay, well, you know that. But they are only a local phenomenon. The Company can’t transport them any further than the space station circling this planet before the components break down. So far, with all the rich clients willing to pay for a miracle cure for their diseases, this hasn’t been a problem. But the Company would like to take this to the next level. As such, they have hired me to see if we can engineer a recombination of the pod DNA with a hardier off-planet plant… such as spiros from Larunda, which are genetically similar. The only problem is that all the testing done on the pods has been done in the labs, once they’ve already started to die. To get a truly accurate idea of what it is that is causing their sensitivity to transportation, I need to figure out how they react in their natural environment, before any decay sets in.”
Smith’s small eyes traveled the length of Dieter’s face. “No.”
“Do your testing in the lab. If it fails, then find another guinea pig. I’m not subjecting my fields to your experiments.”
Dieter stared at him. “The captain assured me of full cooperation. I can inform him–”
“Inform away. I own this land, Company be damned. The answer is still no.”
Sitting back, Dieter watched as Smith casually sipped his coffee and stared off into space. Abruptly, the other man asked, “What happens if you’re successful?”
Pausing a moment before answering, Dieter finally shrugged. He didn’t know how to change Smith’s mind about the testing. He would try the official route, but the Company’s official influence ended at the elevator. “Well, then we’d be able to export them. Grow them on other planets. It would be a revolution for modern medicine.”
“Hunh. No, I mean what happens to us? To the farmers here?”
Dieter drew in a breath. “Um… I don’t know. Honestly, I’m only on the science side of the equation. I don’t have any part in policy.”
“I see.” Smith drained his coffee cup. “Well, I think I can modify the millis to take the measurements you need. It’ll take me the better part of today. But mark my words, I’m not budging on the field tests. You won’t find a farmer here who would subscribe to such idiocy.”
“I’ll need more than one sample.” He rubbed his chin consideringly. “I think a hundred
should do it.”
The Viking threw back his head and laughed. “A hundred!” Still chuckling, he dropped his cup in the recycle. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I only have five machines. How much time you got?”
Face red, Dieter said, “Fine, then. Five is good.”
The next day as the data rolled in, Dieter began making calculations. By afternoon, he was ecstatic.
“I think it’ll work,” he told the Viking, having caught him at his evening meal again. He shoveled food into his own mouth around the words. “I’ve brought sample DNA to try out, and I can start work on the specimens in the labs. They’ve already started to break down, but I think…”
Smith stood up, dumped his plate and walked into his bedroom. The door shut behind him.
Closing his mouth hanging open from shock, Dieter fiddled with his spoon. So Smith wasn’t receptive. That was okay. He reminded himself he didn’t need to make a good impression. The only people who mattered – his bosses up above – would be as excited as he was. He’d send off a report to them right away.
The response he got back, though cautiously optimistic, didn’t seem as thrilled as he thought they should be. “Please send additional test results,” was the final request.
Okay, then. It had only been a few days. He was counting his eggs a bit.
That night before going to bed, he inserted the engineered virus into each pod. Since he only had a small sample, he used the same DNA for each plant – the spiros he’d mentioned to Smith. He had about ten sample plants to try before he would run out of time.
When he woke the next morning, he felt like a kid at Christmas. Not bothering with coffee or wanting to see Smith’s sour face, he headed straight to the lab. As the decom cycled for the second time after he donned his clean suit, he found himself grinning.
An hour later, he came out of the lab. He’d done every test conceivable on the melted puddles of goo splashed across the snow in the bottom of the master storage container. The plants had liquefied overnight, significantly speeded in their decay by the attempted DNA modification.
“I need another sample,” he told Smith, who was loitering in the kitchen area. Without a word, the big man walked out the bay doors, returning an hour later with another cylinder.
The days passed. As he used up his offworld plant samples, each with dismal results, he grew more and more depressed. What had seemed so promising was now inexplicable. It should work, that was the problem. On any other plant, it would have. But he couldn’t come up with any other effective strategies.
Maybe it was being cooped up inside. Since that failed trip to the sheds on his second day here, he hadn’t left the bunker. He’d barely left the lab to eat and sleep. He was used to the open sky, fresh air. Although he spent the majority of his time in a lab, he did do a lot of field work – collecting exotic samples from strange locales, going to the back end of nowhere in order to get them. He was also used to working alone, but never had he felt so alone. Smith rarely spoke. Barely even looked at him if they were in the same room. It was like living with a robot.
When he woke up a week before he was to be returned to the space station, he woke up with the germ of an idea. He checked the outside temperature on the monitor, then sat down in the kitchen unit while Smith ate his breakfast.
“I’m going for a walk today.” At the alarm in the other man’s eyes, he said, “Not to the fields, of course. But there are the routes under the ice, which should be safe as long as you aren’t planning on sledding anywhere today.”
Smith leaned back in his chair. Gave him a considering look. Finally, a faint nod of agreement.
Although Dieter bundled up in all his outdoor clothing, it was still a shock of cold stepping into the tunnel. A good one, though. The underground air, while it had low circulation, still somehow felt fresher than the air in the bunker, which was recycled regularly. He’d borrowed Smith’s headlamp with the other man’s permission, and the light glared back at him from hard-packed ice crystals, like the eyes of a thousand tiny nightmare beasts. His shoes were padded with soft rubber spikes to prevent excessive sound and keep his grip on the ice, and he tried to walk lightly, but the muffled sound of his own movement was a comfort in the tomb-silence of the tunnel.
The peace of being far under the surface began to settle over him. The regular swinging of his limbs gave him a hypnotic focus. It was like swimming deep underwater, feeling the pressure of the ocean, and knowing that he was the only human around for miles. He turned his thoughts back to the problem.
One unique thing about the pods was their root system. Namely, that they didn’t have any deep roots, only small hair-like protrusions which held them to the ice. Since it snowed fairly regularly on the surface, one might think that the plants would get buried after each snowfall. Instead, they seemed to rise up as the snow deepened, the cilia of their roots propelling them to the new surface. The swimming analogy held, as if they were trying to keep their heads above water.
The ice glittered at him as he reached an intersection that led to the main route. Although it was unlikely another farmer would be sledding along this route, since the sleds were used only when necessary going to and from the fields, it seemed too much of a chance to keep on walking and perhaps end his career as a pancake. Reluctantly, he turned around and headed back to the bunker.
The walk had done him good, though. When he got back, he announced, ” Now it’s time to go to the surface.”
Smith argued, but it wasn’t hard to reaffirm that he intended to do nothing except look outside. Finally, the glowering giant led him to the escape hatch.
Dieter wouldn’t have known it was there if it hadn’t been pointed out to him. The Viking typed a special sequence of numbers in a covered touch pad, and a panel slid aside in the ceiling, a ladder descending to the floor. “After you,” Smith growled.
At the top, another touch pad, another panel, another climb. A third pad, and the final panel slid open to the sky.
Dieter’s legs ached from the climb up the endless ladder, so when he finally heaved himself outside, he spent several moments resting splayed out on his stomach, panting great plumes of fog into the cold air. Smith levered himself out of the hole, closing it behind him before turning upslope and marching off without waiting for the scientist.
Restraining the urge to call after him, Dieter scrambled to his feet and hurried as much as he could on the slippery surface without actually running.
Abruptly, Smith stopped walking at the summit of the snow-buried dome, and Dieter almost ran into him. All around them was glaring white ice, although squinting into the distance, he thought he could see lines of purple and green stretching for kilometers further out. The muted colors blended into the shadows and ridges of the snowfield.
Smith waved his hand, his expression fierce. As if to say, Now what?
Dieter shrugged. Looked around.
The plain was fairly flat, with only minor ridges and whorls, probably caused by wind. In the far, far distance was a smudge of grey against the horizon – that must be the mountain range named Olympus, the tallest mountains on the planet.
Turning in a circle, he shaded his eyes with one hand against the glare of the sun. There were clouds hovering by the mountains; Dieter wondered if they would be coming this way or if this part of the world had just weathered a massive snowstorm and what they saw were the fleeing remnants. He honestly didn’t know, cocooned as he had been inside the bunker and oblivious to all happenings outside of it.
With a nod at Smith, he turned to go back down the hatch.
Once sealed in the soundproof bunker, Smith balked at what Dieter suggested. “The mountains? What do you want them for?”
“Well, do you know if any pods grow there?”
Smith considered, finally shook his head. “Most of the planet has farms, but not up there. Maybe the pods can’t grow on rock or on such an angled surface.”
“Is there a lot of seismic activity in the mountains?”
Smith looked thoughtful before he answered. “Some volcanos, perhaps.”
“Could be natural vibrations are what disturb them, so our artificial vibrations of speech and movement mimic what is anathema to them,” said Dieter. “Worth checking out.”
“Why? Seems like a wild goose chase.”
Dieter stared at Smith. For once, the man didn’t seem to be asking the question in a hostile manner – more as if he really wanted to hear the answer.
“Sensitivity seems such an odd survival tactic. Especially for a plant,” Dieter answered. “Look, most mutations that are successful allow a species a greater chance to propagate. What use would such an extreme sensitivity to sound/movement serve? And why are the activities of humans so much more destructive to the pods than machines, which make the same amount of noise? There’s got to be a reason that the pods developed the way they did, and why they respond to similar stimuli with different results.”
“Maybe there is no reason. Maybe it’s enough to work with what is, not find out what isn’t.”
“Not for me.” Dieter shook his head for emphasis. “This is what I do. I get paid to figure things out.”
“Okay, then.” Smith took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh. “I’ll have to get the big sled from Jenna. It’ll take us ten days there and back.”
Dieter stared. “I only have a week before the shuttle returns.”
Smith shrugged, as if saying, Not my problem.
“Okay,” Dieter said. “I’ll inform the captain.”
“I’m going to have to regretfully request that you stick to the schedule. We can’t afford to change it now. It’s too close to your departure, and we have a timetable.”
“I think I finally have the answer,” Dieter repeated for the fifth time, which was only a slight exaggeration, really. He had no idea if he had the answer or not, but something about this felt right. There was a key to this mystery, and he knew he was getting closer to a solution.
“Please stick to the targeted departure,” was the final word.
Dieter packed his bags and met Smith in the common room. “We’ve been approved. Let’s go,” he said uneasily.
The other man didn’t seem to notice the lie – or perhaps he didn’t care. It didn’t take Smith long to pack. Jenna came by to drop off her sled, which had a trailer compartment attached to it containing two sleeping bunks. In return, she borrowed Smith’s sled to use while they were gone.
“Bring it back in one piece,” Jenna told him, smiling easily. She had grey and white hair, but her face seemed younger than the hair implied. Maybe only a decade older than Smith. The big man grinned back at her, murmuring something in her ear that was too quiet for Dieter to hear, but which made her laugh and slap his shoulder in a friendly manner.
They left soon after that. After the brief interlude with Jenna, Smith was back to frowning fiercely. Ten days of this, thought Dieter with despair.
The webwork of connected tunnels stretched below most of the surface of the plains. It was only on the fourth day when they approached the mountains that Smith turned on the drill function of the sled and they made their slow progress up to the surface.
They emerged in a sparse field of pods. Dieter turned to look at his companion at an abrupt motion on Smith’s part, and their forward motion ceased.
What is it? he typed on a tablet, holding it out for Smith to read. Smith touched the keys and handed it back, although the anguish in his expression was enough of a giveaway.
I can’t kill them , he’d written.
Dieter thought about how long Smith had been a farmer, how he’d been trained to cultivate and nurture these shy pods and then, and only then, sparingly harvest them. Any pod farmer would be a conservationist – to callously drive an underground sled through a field of pods must seem like genocide.
Think of the greater good , typed Dieter.
Smith rolled his eyes, but after a moment, he nodded. He put the sled into gear. But Dieter noticed that the other man closed his eyes in a last moment of agony before hitting the accelerator.
The field petered out to nothing as the way began to slope upwards. The pods were left behind as the two men began their ascent into the mountains.
GPS gave them a smooth route to follow upwards, but even so, they camped that night with all the emergency brakes dug into the snowy crust to anchor them sideways onto the mountainside. Although the sled had soundproofing, it wasn’t quite strong enough to keep out an ominous rumbling that woke the two men sometime after midnight.
“What was that?” asked Dieter. With no pod fields nearby, they had reverted to speaking aloud.
“Don’t know.” Smith dragged himself to the front of the sled to check the instrument’s readings. “Nothing’s showing up here.”
Uneasily, they returned to their bunks. But Dieter, at least, didn’t get another wink of sleep that night, replaying endless scenarios of avalanches and rockfalls in his imagination.
The next morning, Smith traced their route with his finger on the screen. “This is as far as we can go – this is the last plateau before the way gets too steep. There’s a bit of a dip in the elevation here.”
They didn’t hear any more rumbling as they went, but maybe it was because they were leaving the dangerous area behind.
It was late afternoon by the time they reached the end of their plotted course and topped the rise to a flat surface. Abruptly, Smith shut off the engine of the sled, which ground to a neck-jarring halt. When Dieter opened his mouth to ask why, his companion clamped a none-too-clean hand over it to prevent him from speaking and gestured outside.
Ah , Dieter thought. He should have realized. They were on a flat surface, and pods grew on flat surfaces. This plateau was filled with them, all squeezed tightly together over its too-small surface. On three of the four sides were sharp drop-offs. This was an isolated community of the pods, trapped for who knows how long. Dieter felt his heart rate picking up as he began to realize upon closer examination that these pods seemed somewhat different from the ones in the fields below. He squinted against the snow-glare outside the window. These pods were swaying slightly, but it didn’t seem as if there was any wind up here. They seemed to be moving – moving of their own volition. Albeit slowly, they were creeping away from the sled, creating an ever-widening circle of ruffled-looking ice.
Smith realized at the same moment as Dieter, and his mouth dropped open. Together, they watched the pods sway away from their unwelcome entrance, their movements in real, visible time.
Plants didn’t behave like that. At least, none that he had run across in his lifetime of study. There might be gradual movement, such as phototropism when a plant turned to follow the movement of the sun, and there might be abrupt, reactionary movement of the parts of a plant, such as thigmonasty, like with a Venus flytrap. This was full-bodied movement away from them, more than a simple reaction to a stimulus.
The two men watched the pods edge away from them. The pressure of their movement pushed against the pods in front of them, and the ones in front of them – until the ones on the furthest edge of the plateau seemed to disappear into thin air. Smith realized what was happening to the far pods a moment before Dieter did, for he restarted the engine while Dieter was still feeling awe at watching the pod migration, and backed as quickly as he could down the slope they had just spent the better part of two days climbing.
Dieter opened his mouth to complain, but remembered just in time. As he was typing out an angry demand to Smith to go back, he looked up and saw the far side of plateau receding in the distance. Hurtling over the steep drop of the cliff were small figures falling like rain, pushed to their deaths by their brethren as they struggled to get away from the intruders into their peaceful Eden.
His fingers stilled. This was why none of the modified DNA he’d subjected them to had taken hold. However strange their composition, however similar they were to plant life on other planets, they might not be plants, not as he understood them. Not at all.
That night as he lay in his bunk, he couldn’t sleep again. Not bothered by the distant rumbling in the background anymore, he couldn’t sleep for putting together the pieces of the puzzle. For there seemed to be one other thing involved, something almost unspeakable. Some primitive intelligence that seemed to do more than respond to stimuli. What if…?
He didn’t even want to think about it.
When they got back to the bunker, he asked Dieter for a new pod sample to experiment on. The other man looked at him for a long time, considering, but finally went off in the sled. On his return, Dieter separated each of the pods into an isolated, soundproof container and exposed them to an array of audible stimuli. The higher the frequency and decibel, the more damage caused to the pods. At medium to low frequencies, the pods would move – often slowly and almost indecipherably, but they would migrate away from the source of the sound. The lower the frequency, the faster they moved.
He wanted to ask Smith about it, but didn’t know how to broach the subject that first night they were back. But he finally screwed up his courage and told him what he had found. Smith nodded, his eyes serious. “I would like to do one additional test,” Dieter said. “I’ve tried only to DNA splice the pods with plant samples. But I would like to try…” He paused, almost embarrassed to say it. He cleared his throat before continuing. “I would like to try animal DNA, but I didn’t bring any with me. Do you happen to know if any of the other moles have pets? And would mind my taking a sample from them? It wouldn’t be significant enough to harm the animals.”
But Smith shook his head. “No pets here. Too much risk to the pods.”
Dieter nodded glumly, unsurprised, staring down into his cup of tea.
They sat in silence for a while. Smith was sipping coffee, staring away into space. “What about human?” he asked.
In answer, the big man put down his cup and rolled up his sleeve, holding his hairy arm out to Dieter. Their eyes met.
Dieter was the first one to break away. “I’ll get my kit,” he said, standing up.
He had asked Smith if he wanted to be present for the results. The other man had snorted and gone off to his room. So much for that, then.
Plant and animal DNA could often combine. Scientists had been doing it since the late twentieth century, so it wasn’t anything new. But the extreme sensitivity of the pods made a combination of their genes with common plant DNA a failure. They resembled plants; they were not plants.
The experiment with animal DNA was a success.
The captain was furious when Dieter sent him a brief message that night. “We waited for a full day before pulling up!” he shouted.
Dieter didn’t even wince. The man’s anger seemed inconsequential.
Finally, the captain seemed to wind down. “Well?” he demanded.
“I know why the pods die,” Dieter said. “And I know how to stop it.”
After that, the captain was all smiles. “We’ll be down to pick you up in one hour.”
“What are you going to do?”
Those were the first words Smith had spoken to Dieter since he’d volunteered his DNA. Dieter had asked him for a ride back to the station, but Smith didn’t seem inclined to get to his feet.
“Tell them, I guess.”
“You guess?” The scorn in the other man’s tone came through, despite the softness of his voice. “And then what?”
“Then I have to try to convince them to leave this planet alone while we study the pods further. They are group animals and communicate with each other. I don’t know to what extent their sentience reaches.”
Smith stared at the smaller man, but Dieter refused to lift up his eyes. It seemed too much effort. His earlier reflections about genocide – How apt, he thought.
“They won’t want to listen to you.”
The thought of trying to convince the men in charge seemed overwhelming. “Probably not. Easier for all of them not to believe what my findings mean.” He finally met the other man’s eyes. “When you think about it,” he temporized, “harvesting them in small batches is much more humane than mass production. At least this way, only a small amount of the pods die. If I don’t tell the Company about the results, nothing will change.”
Smith stared at him. A shadow passed over his face.
“I’ve been a mole for years. All those pods I’ve harvested…” His expression was stark.
Dieter realized that he felt numb, as numb as if he had walked out onto the ice fields without any clothes on, without any protection at all. “If I had to decide between supporting the status quo versus giving them the key to exporting the pods for mass consumption to save lives, I know what I would choose.”
“What you have chosen.” The large man’s tone was sarcastic as he quoted the scientist’s words back at him. “‘For the greater good.'”
Dieter stared at Smith. What did Smith want him to do? To say? It was the first time Dieter had ever questioned his scientific mission and found it so difficult.
Finally, he nodded. He hadn’t realized until Smith said it that his mind was already made up. It had been, before he even came here.
“Yes,” he said quietly, without inflection. “For the greater good.”
by Alison McBain