Grow, garden, grow
by Tony Noland
Behind neutron-infused molybdenum crystal, thin purple fronds trailed from scaly dark brown stems. Almost two meters tall, the plants were odd looking, but not ugly. The bright lights above the big tank gave each leaf a slightly iridescent sheen, like a butterfly's wing.
"What's so special about these things? They look like dwarf willow trees." Mechanic's mate (3rd class) Tyr Haarfansen was close to the glass, his nose almost touching it. "Why's the tank so massive? Are they valuable?"
Gravitic drive technician (3rd class) Solly Reynollt said, "They must be. I heard Professor Kenndaarek talking to the XO, said that they were some kind of unique species or something. He said they pre-date people, so they must be really old."
"Pre-date people? Hang on, do you mean they pre-date people in this sector? That would make them hundreds of years old! He must mean from when we found this planet thirty years ago. Either way, they don't look that old."
"You got me. I've heard about these Japanese trees, bonsai or something. They can be fifty or a hundred, even two hundred years old and still be only the size of a little potted plant. For rich people, it's a big deal to have one, shows you're cultured. Anyway, all I know is, I was eavesdropping in cargo bay five a couple of hours ago when they were unloading the tank from the shuttle. The exec didn't seem too happy about having these on board. There's a whole political thing mixed up in it." Solly leaned closer to the glass. "The Professor is supposed to make sure they get safely back to Earth. From what I heard, they were a gift from the head of the local government to Emperor Yaablik. The Ministry of Culture is gonna set up some kind of special display for it at the Kew Gardens Botanical Research Center outside Old London."
"Yep. I heard that once the display is done, this planet's king or president or whatever will go visit Earth to tour the gardens and sign a treaty. Some kind of diplomatic thing, unity of worlds, interspecies friendship, all that crap."
"In exchange for which the locals are going to give us yttrium mining rights and let us set up a naval base on their moon? These must be some special plants!" Tyr said.
Solly shrugged. "Whatever they are, they must be pretty damned valuable. They came on board inside this locked tank. I don't know if it's because they're so old, or if it's because that makes them rare, or what. All I know is, the Professor told the exec to make sure nobody touched them, because they're unique and they pre-date people."
Tyr was examining the locks on the tank. "Valuable, huh?"
Solly recognized the tone of voice. "Tyr, don't even think it. For one thing there isn't time; a duty shift is due in here soon. Besides, you know how much trouble we'll get into if they find out we were messing with these?"
"What are they going to do? Put you in the brig again? Bust you down? There's nothing lower than 3rd class, dummy." Tyr returned his gaze to the plants. "I bet some rich guy would love to have one of these. I read that you can regrow an entire plant from just one piece of leaf, that it's even easier to clone plants than to clone animals. Look at all those leaves; every one of those plants must have hundreds of them hanging down. We just take one leaf from each one, and nobody's the wiser."
"And then what? You don't know anything about plants. How are you going to keep it alive until we get to Earth?"
Tyr said, "I don't know, put it in a glass of water or something. If it dies, it dies. I know a guy in Brisbane who'll pay top dollar for something like this, even dead tissue. Live would be better, but as long as he can extract the DNA, he's good for a couple of hundred." Tyr took a jury-rigged electronic probe out of this pocket and held it up to the lock on the tank.
"Well, hurry it up, will you? Seriously, Tyr, they're supposed to be down here to inspect the things any minute."
Tyr, working the controls of his probe, didn't respond. After a moment, the lock beeped and slid apart. Grinning, Tyr exhanged the probe for a multi-tool, which he opened to a pair of scissors. He opened the tank and leaned into it, sliding his tool into the mass of fronds of the closest plant.
With a rustling snap, the fronds wrapped around his arm and yanked him forward. He fell face first into the waving leaves. Tyr screamed as blood spurted from his arm, then fountained outward from his face and neck. The leaves wriggled, sawing their sharp edges into his flesh. He reached up with he free arm to fend them off, and it, too was enmeshed in the slicing fronds.
Solly shouted and grabbed Tyr's legs to pull him free, but let go almost as soon as he had started to pull. Fronds had whipped forward, lashing at his hands. Two of the little trees were working together to drag Tyr's struggling, muffled form into the tank.
The other eight trees were pulling themselves out of the soil and climbing toward the open tank door.
Solly turned and ran toward the hatchway of the storage room. It opened before he could reach it. The Professor stepped in, speaking over his shoulder to someone. They turned to face the screams from the tank, saw Solly's terrified face. The newcomers fell back as Solly pushed forward, shoving past them to run away. They all fell in a heap into the corridor. One of the crewmen scrambled forward and slammed the hatch closed just as a waving, crackling mass of fronds reached for the door.
The Professor shouted, "Flood that compartment with carbon tetrafluoride gas! If we don't get them back inside the tank, they'll start tearing through the bulkheads. I only hope this doesn't harm them, or the treaty will be blown!" He turned on Solly. "And you! What the hell were you doing? They were locked up for a reason, you idiot! I made it abundantly clear to your executive officer that no one was to touch them because they predate people!"
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