"Nu Werld" by Eric Seaholm

 

Sweet-Pea
by Greg Guerin

 

Now

Ingle-9 was as hellish a world as any than man had come to inhabit in the area of the galaxy near Sol. A permanent band of thick acidic cloud wrapped around the rocky planet and more or less completely blanked out the light of its large red star. When ferocious gales weren't rearranging the broken-up hills of basalt on the surface, planet-wide rains were dissolving them. There were no seas of any kind. Instead the surface consisted of a series of dry and treacherous hills interspersed with ravines trickling with the deadly run-off. Peering out of the transporter into this gloom, Wendyl thought it strange that the elite nursing home facility she was headed for had been set up by the administration in such a hostile place. Perhaps the patients were too far gone to care about the scenery, or perhaps the real estate was just cheap.

It was with some relief that Wendyl left the transporter and entered the brightly lit interior of the home. Was she ready for this? She still couldn't understand why she had been rostered to this job by the ruling administrators of her nation. Sure, there were labour shortages, but she was a graphic designer by trade for Godsake. Still, she knew with the increasing tension and conflict between rival nations, the administration had to place resources where they saw fit. They didn't have a great demand for her talents.

The Matron greeted her at the gate and flashed her plump ruby lips in a forced smile. Her face was painted with a deep layer of make-up.

"Good day," she said, "you must be Wendyl Islington. Welcome to Ingle-9 nursing home. Your things are being moved now so I'll just show you around and then you can get settled in. You won't have any trouble here, I assure you."

Wendyl smiled half-heartedly and followed the Matron through the facility as she randomly pointed things out. They finished the tour of the dining and sleeping areas then stepped out into the garden. This was a delight beyond anything Wendyl could have imagined finding on such a world. The area was lit with an almost organic light that brought out the brilliantly contrasting colours of the flower beds on either side of the path.

"Are these dahlias?" Wendyl asked, pausing to look at a flower.

"Oh, I really wouldn't know, I'm far too busy with my own duties. I leave all this with the patients."

Wendyl's question was answered when she noticed one or two older people down paths, pruning roses and such. Continuing on, they passed a series of crystal-clear raised ponds which speckled carp circled lazily. Fountains splashed water over floating lilies and broad-leafed trees hung overhead. The net effect of the design was to induce a sense of absolute tranquillity.

It was then that Wendyl noticed the man. He was a youngish fellow who was dressed in pajamas and had uncombed blond hair. He was crouched over a small length of bare soil.

Curious, she asked the Matron, "Who's that man there?"

"Oh him? That's just Hunter. He's one of our younger patients. Sad case that. Total loss of brain function due to a sudden breakdown of nerve tissue. He's been at that for weeks. We have to come and get him every night at bed time. He always comes back first thing the next day, poor sod." She shook her head. "Look, I must see to my rounds. Do you think you could find your way back now that I've shown you? I'm terribly sorry."

"That's fine Matron."

Immediately she approached the man and crouched down next to him. He didn't stop cultivating with his hands as he had been, breaking up the clods of dark soil with stained fingers.

"Hello there, my name's Wendyl, I'm a new nurse."

He looked up at her intensely for a second then returned to what he was doing.

"Matron tells me you are Hunter. What are you doing Hunter?"

At that he stopped work and retrieved a small paper sachet from his pajama pocket and unfolded it with shaky hands. Opening the packet, he rolled some large seeds out onto his cupped palm.

As he carefully and precisely dibbed a hole for each seed before dropping it in and resettling the soil around it, he muttered under his breath, "Seed, seed, grow, seed, remember, grow, seed..."


Then

"Well, it's official then. We weren't imagining things."

Garth Hunter pulled his lambskin coat around him more tightly as he scanned the figures. The cold was a necessary but unendearing feature of the research centre. The insulation wasn't adequate to contain the cold of the reactor which was kept at three degrees above absolute zero and there simply weren't the funds to effectively heat the surrounding area. The bare rock walls were stark and unwelcoming.

Di Bradlock was wiping chocolate off her fingers onto her coveralls. The thirty two hours of the experiment had left her with rings under her brown eyes. Even her fuzzy hair seemed to stand on end with less than its usual energy. "No doubt," she said.

Hunter traced the line of a chart with a finger. "Yep, this shows it nicely. Here we have the energy infusion of the reactor, increasing to a maximum here. Here we have the transitional phase. These marks represent the wave-functions of the neutrons. They last a few fractions of a second before the process reverses... here, almost instantaneous compared to creation."

"And we're sure that the particles are really forming from the energy? They're not contamination?"

They had discussed this a hundred times already. "Impossible. The reaction chamber was clean." He looked at her. "We've done it. We've produced viable particles out of raw energy. We can make as many as we want, given the energy." Hunter's excitement was contained by fatigue.

"Not for long though."

"They only have to be stable for a short time."

They both knew what their work would be used for. What defence could stand up to a barrage of tiny particles zipping in at near light velocities then reverting to pure energy? All they had to do was design a particle that was small enough to pass barriers, neutral so that it could not be diverted with a simple magnet, then throw so many of them at the enemy that their combined explosive energy would be devastating. On the more far-fetched side, Di had suggested the idea of using the technique to transport objects, even people, as energy at light speed through wormholes. Somehow he hadn't been convinced that the end result, albeit with the same relative arrangement of particles, the same probability patterns for cerebral electrical patterns, would feel like him. But such philosophical matters were a long way ahead of these initial experiments.

Di plonked herself down on a chair and crossed her arms. "You know what this means though don't you?"

"What?"

"With such an important find, the administrators are going to have us locked in here. They're not going to risk us spilling the beans to a rival. And they're going to want us to work on this non-stop. They've been hounding people here for months to come up with something to give them the edge in the war. The worst part is, we're going to miss the millennium celebrations on Hedron."

Hunter hadn't thought of that. It had been billed as the party of a lifetime, not to be missed. They'd both been waiting years for it to come. Now they'd be shut up down in the dingy confines of the high security research centre, located a hundred kilometres below the frozen surface of the dead world to reduce interference from cosmic radiation and detection by spies.

"We aren't even stocked with enough alcohol here," Di added sourly. "The last shipment's about to run out."


Now

Wendyl spent a disproportionate amount of her duty watching Hunter at his garden, trying to get him to talk. The other nurses insisted that there was nobody home, but she felt that his focus on the garden bed hinted at deeper thoughts, that he was no vegetable.

If it wasn't also a convenient excuse to spend time in the luxury of the garden, she might have given up on him. As it was, she had begun to doubt her original conviction as the weeks rolled by and the man continued to meticulously tend the small patch of dirt, even though nothing had grown.

She watched with curiosity as he poured water from a metal can onto the seed-bed. He did this every time a probe with his finger suggested to him it might be necessary. It was heart-breaking to watch him go through these futile actions. She had gathered from the nurse in charge of running the gardening activities that only certain selected plants were able to grow and survive in the conditions of the garden. The gravity and artificial conditions affected many species beyond help. They said he was bananas. With her limited experience, Wendyl had not become so calloused and indifferent to the suffering of the patients. After all, this was a home run at great expense by the administration to look after their most valued people. She felt she should do what she could to help Hunter.

"Mr. Hunter," she said, not sure whether he had been aware of her presence, "can you hear me?"

He stared at her blankly.

"It's been weeks since you planted those seeds. I don't think they're going to come up now. Maybe you can start again?"

Hunter remained on his hands and knees, scanning the dirt closely. He said, "Seeds, must grow seeds... grow, must..."

"I know you brought those with you. Were they special? I'm sure we can order something in for you, something better suited."

"Seeds must seeds grow... dirt..."

Well, at least he had managed to add one word to his vocabulary.

She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see the condescending face of the Matron, studying her with disapproval. "Wendyl, I expect not to have to tell you again that you are spending too much time on Mr Hunter. There's a pile of laundry inside waiting for your attention."


Then

"What are we going to tell Himmlen?" Hunter asked.

He was standing in his small patch of indoor garden under the glare of the Sun-lamp, dead-heading his chrysanthemums. Di had come to find him in the tiny space he had been allowed to carry out this hobby at his own expense, a rare privilege in the rigidly controlled centre. She sat on a crate, mindlessly watching Hunter at work before the backdrop of a wall covered with rampant, pink-flowered sweat-peas.

"What are you going to tell him, you mean. I'm not doing it. You must be crazy to try and stall him. Blokes like him have got even bigger monkeys on their backs."

"Look, I'll tell him the work's still inconclusive, that we need to take time to rethink the theory and then develop a series of new tests, after the millennium celebrations of course."

Di nodded savagely. "No doubt he'll be thrilled by that. I reckon he'll give you a pat on the back and return tickets to Hedron."

"Your sarcasm is not appreciated," he said, smiling over a feeling of dread.


* * *

Hunter cleared his throat nervously and knocked on the door.

"Yes, what is it?" came the agitated reply.

He went in to Himmlen's office and took a seat before the un-ornate desk.

"What is it Hunter?" demanded the round-cheeked, small-eyed man that was his direct superior.

"I've come to request that my deadline for a report on the experiments be extended for one month."

"A month?" He dropped his pen and chewed more vigorously on his gum. "We don't have a month. What in hell's the hold-up Hunter?"

"The results need further analysis before we know if they are significant." He looked Himmlen in the eye but felt his face blush.

Himmlen waved his hand dismissively. "Thwot. Significance? There's a war on. Statistical inferences are not what's required. The front office wants to raise a major offensive on Checkova Station immediately, and we need a new weapon..."

"Checkova Station?" Hunter interrupted, forgetting himself. "Isn't that..."

"I know what that is Hunter. The outcome is worth any cost. Now don't interrupt me and don't think I'm not wise to what you're up to. I keep my ear close to the ground here and don't you forget it. Rumour has it you and Di Bradlock are on to something big. I want it developed fully, yesterday."

Hunter cursed silently. Di and her drinking mates...

"And I am well aware," Himmlen continued, "that scientists are taking it upon themselves to be un-required during the millennium celebrations. If you've booked a ticket to Hedron, you may as well give it away because you and Di are going nowhere. Even once you've finished your part of the project, any leaks and the enemy will be after the two of you for information. When you signed up for this you agreed to our terms. Under the circumstances, I can't see how you could be released from maximum security here for some time, if ever. We don't want the enemy to have any idea what's about to hit them, got it?"

Hunter nodded solemnly and left the office.


Now

Wendyl, taking the Matron's warning seriously, had stayed well away from Hunter for several days, but she knew from his absence inside that he had still been at his garden non-stop. One lunch break she decided to take a relaxing stroll through the garden and pay him a visit. He was there as expected, bent over at some task or other, the knees of his pajama pants brown with soil.

As she approached, she heard him mumbling his usual words to himself continuously, "Seedsgrowseedsseedsgrowmustgrow..."

Shaking her head sadly, she moved closer. It was then that she first noticed the neat row of little green seedlings poking their heads out of the soil. She sucked a breath of air in surprise and crouched next to Hunter, placing her arm around his shoulder.

"Well done Hunter," she said, trying not to sound overly condescending, "you've done it. Patience has its rewards."

She took a closer look at the healthy dark green plants. "They look like sweet-peas to me," she said. "They were my Mother's favourites. I wonder what colour they'll be. I'll see what I can do about organising a trellis for them to grow up."

To her, this proved the point she had made all along that Mr. Hunter was not a complete dimwit. He must have known what he was doing. Or was it blind luck that the seeds had germinated eventually? Anyway, something had to be done. She farewelled the dedicated gardener and went in search of the Matron. She found her in her office where she spent ninety percent of her time, being what she called 'busy' although all Wendyl ever saw her do there was shuffled papers around and talk on the phone.

"Hello Wendyl. What can I do for you?" she asked. "I am busy so do make this quick dear."

"I wanted a chat about Mr. Hunter."

The Matron's appreciable eyebrows lowered instantly at this. "What about him then?"

"I think he could be helped. He clearly has more going on inside his head than we realise. I think he needs to go on some kind of medication to treat his symptoms. Perhaps then he will start to talk."

"My girl, are you a doctor? Are you in charge of prescribing the patient's medication? No, I don't think so. I've had quite enough of you obsession with Mr. Hunter. Symptoms, really. The man is virtually brain dead, we've had all the tests done, I assure you. He is more than happy, as far as he is capable of feeling, to tend his little patch of dirt. Keeps him occupied anyway. Why bother him with doctors and treatments?"

"But Matron I..."

"But nothing. Return to your duties immediately or I'll see to it that you are permanently confined to mopping floors in the bathrooms."

Wendyl left the room, angry but more determined than before to understand her mysterious patient. If she kept quiet, the Matron would hardly notice what she was doing anyway.


Then

Once again Hunter sat with Di in his miniature garden, the both of them dejected and sullen.

Di looked sourly down at her cordial. "I wish this was something a bit stronger," she said. Then, "This is too much."

"Yeah, we're in for the long-run now. We can kiss Hedron goodbye. I don't think Himmlen's ever going to sign our release from this place. We may as well be in prison."

"Not to mention what they're going to use our research for. Checkova Station you say? That's civilian. The war never stooped to this level before. How can they justify it? All those innocent lives... No doubt this will spark equivalent retaliation from the enemy. I hope Hedron is well defended."

"Yeah. They say Checkova is a key strategic target. I don't know, maybe it is necessary to stop further fighting. I just can't get to grips with the idea though."

"Necessary seems an odd choice of words. So Mister charisma Himmlen isn't too keen on releasing us to go to Hedron."

"Not a chance in hell. Your drinking mates saw to that."

"Eh, I didn't drop as much as a bean to anyone."

"Come off it Di. When you've had a few, you can't keep it closed."

She sighed, smirking. "True, you have a point there. Just as well they're not letting us out; I'd let enemy spies shout me drinks and tell them everything." She became more serious. "We have to do something to get out of this. I don't know if I can live with the responsibility."

"And the grief of missing the party."

"Exactly."


Now

No matter how long she spent, or how hard she tried, Wendyl hadn't managed to get Hunter to speak more or even to respond directly to her in any tangible manner. It had become a continual frustration but one she couldn't let go. The other nurses could manage the other work without her. At least Hunter's garden was progressing healthily, if rather slowly. Somehow his soil preparation, exact watering and hours spent picking off sap suckers and other herbivores was paying off. He now had a dark green mass of intertwining stems covering the wire, and the numerous flower buds were beginning to swell.

He tended the garden more vigorously now, checking over the leaves repeatedly and training the thin vines to give each the maximum possible light. She began to wonder how he would react when the flowers came and the vines began to wither and die. Would he pull them up and start again or would he be devastated, confused? He showed no signs of excitement or anticipation as the product of his endeavours came closer. Perhaps he didn't possess the ability to think forward like that. Time would tell.


Then

Hunter worked diligently with Di by his side to develop the technology they had created and refine it to a workable state. Hunter rarely allowed himself more than four of five hours of sleep every thirty hours whilst Di seemed to be the living dead. She spent nearly as much time on the work as he did but added to this an intriguing sideline. She claimed secretly to be working on a plan that would get them out of their current dilemma.

"Don't worry," she would say when they had a quiet moment, "Himmlen might be warming his hands, but I've got other plans." Or, "I've just signed up another helper," (she had many anonymous contacts), "they know an electrical technician that would be perfect," or, "the surgeon is on board now." These comments did nothing but make the knot at the base of Hunter's stomach tighter.

"What the heck are you really up to?" he had asked her once. She refused to let him know, claiming it could jeopardise the whole thing.

He was only let in on the drastic plan literally minutes before it was set into action. How he had been talked into it, he didn't know, but he supposed he was doing the right thing by the people it was designed for. That made it a bit easier. He was so exhausted at that stage, he didn't give it any more thought.


* * *

Himmlen glared at the sheaf of papers in his shaking hand, feeling the despair of his crumbling triumph. The war, if not his job, may well have been lost. He read over the official medical report a third time, as if he thought his mind might have been tricking him, but it read the same.

The report outlined a severe medical condition in Garth Hunter, his chief scientist. Breakdown of nervous tissue in the spinal column and brain had let to dysfunction of his thought patterns. The ECG showed little other than an occasional ripple or spark; hardly the sign of a genius. It was a freak degenerative condition that had suddenly manifested itself as neural connections were severed. The way Himmlen read it, Hunter was effectively brain-dead, at least as far as particle physics was concerned.

Himmlen was devastated. Without Hunter's lead and knowledge there was no hope of continuing the project. Di Bradlock was little more than a technician and didn't have the expertise to develop a fully functional weapon. The last section of the report detailed the patient's recorded preference for health care facility in the event of incapacitation. It was a strange choice but a good enough institute. He had sent one or two to the nursing home on Ingle-9 on previous occasions. Reluctantly he signed the release forms that removed the top security measures from Hunter and buzzed his assistant to come in and pass the form on.


* * *

Hunter's mind was blank as he was led around the unfamiliar corridors. He found it hard to remember what was happening from one minute to the next yet he failed to question his circumstances.

As he boarded the shuttle-tram a young girl with curly hair pressed a paper packet into his hands, saying, "Here Hunt. I thought you might like to take these with you. They're sweet-pea seeds, from your garden. You can grow them at the home on Ingle-9, they have a garden."

He looked at her blankly, feeling nothing.

"Just remember to grow them. That's all. You must grow these seeds..."

Somehow, these last few words remained imprinted in his mind. He became devoted to the task.


Now

Wendyl had caught up with some of her duties for the morning, so she went out for her regular visit to the garden. There was Hunter, standing proudly by an impressive display of pink- the buds had sprung open en masse that morning. A sharp smile was written on his face and he looked at her and nodded as she approached. What an effect this had had upon him. It had brought him right to life.

"Hello there, Mr. Hunter," she said. "What a wonderful display."

"Good morning there," Hunter said perkily, "and what a delicate shade of pink. What a pity they only last a short time, eh?"

Wendyl was astonished. "Mr. Hunter. You're talking, you're..."

"Healed? Yeah, I still feel a bit groggy but I hope that will pass."

"But how?"

"It's quite simple in principle," he said happily. "can you keep this a secret?"

She shrugged. "How can I promise...?"

"Look, fair enough. Perhaps I can show you. But Wendyl, I at least need you to go with me on this for the time being and maintain the facade."

"You mean, don't let anyone know you are well?"

"That's exactly what I mean. When I explain, I'm sure you'll agree."

Wendyl shrugged her shoulders with bemusement.

Hunter motioned with his head. "Can you get us outside Wendyl?"


* * *

To Hunter, who was used to the indoors, the lightweight plasti-flex suits were simply too thin a barrier against the hostile atmosphere of Ingle-9, yet he felt physically comfortable enough out there. Luckily it was one of the calmer seasons and the harsh winds were manageable. They walked with difficulty across the loose, broken-up surface and traversed several hills. It was incredibly dim, although the Sun could be seen dimly through the cloud layer as a light haze, so they navigated using headlamps and the internal compasses of their suits. Di had thought of everything. She must have known the home had such suits for adventurous workers, patients and visitors. Hopefully they would just see this as Hunter's new obsession. He was looking forward to hooking up with her again soon, but he couldn't see it happening. There was no way she could get out as well without rousing Himmlen's suspicions. It would take an end to the war for her to regain her freedom. Hunter saddened at the thought. His own escape was small compensation.

"So are you going to tell me why you are here Mr. Hunter?" Wendyl asked through the wireless as they trudged through the semi-darkness.

He didn't quite know where to begin. "I was kept under lock and key by the administration because of some secret research I was conducting," he explained. "But my co-worker, Di Bradlock, came up with a plan to get me out."

"Look, I spent plenty of time with you and I know you weren't faking it. Nobody could keep up that sort of performance."

Hunter looked at her through the transparent face cover. She looked nervous or tense. "No, I wasn't faking anything. I didn't know what was going on. All I remember is those bloody peas and... you. I enjoyed your visits."

They hit an incline that required some effort to mount. Panting slightly, Wendyl prodded him further. "Well then? How do you explain this miraculous change?"

"Di organised for someone she knew within the research centre to rig up some neuron control devices. I let the medic, a part time surgeon, perform an illegal operation on me. Not that the place was really set up for it. They inserted these little gadgets in my central nervous system that cut out most of the neuron activity associated with thought and non-essential functioning. That caused me to be virtually brain-dead and forget everything. I haven't been aware of what was going on since I came here. At least, it's all been pretty clouded."

They reached the top of the rise and Hunter offered an arm to help Wendyl stabilise her steps on the steep, loose surfaced decent that met them at the other side. The view was dim but showed the major landscape features clearly enough to navigate.

"This is all getting a bit complicated for my liking," Wendyl told him as they reached level ground once again. "Why did these 'gadgets' stop working?"

"Ah, but they didn't, that's the clever part. Di got her mate to program the chips to be sensitive to the nervous response of smelling the specific perfumes released from sweet-pea flowers. I grew them at the centre, so it seemed like a good choice. No-one was suspicious about a ruined man taking a few harmless seeds out with him. Luckily Di drilled it into me to grow the seeds. As soon as they all came out I instinctively smelt them and whamo, the chips shut down and here I am, back to normal." He beamed a smile at Wendyl.

"But Mr. Hunter, why did you do it? Why here of all places to escape to?"

"I was coming to that. Firstly, this is one home I was eligible for where they allow patients to garden. But there is a much more important reason."

"Oh?"

Coming over the crest of a small rise, Hunter spotted their destination. A small, sheltered depression where a load of various equipment had been deposited and left for Hunter. Wendyl was looking at him and even through the face-plate it was clear she was confused, if not slightly scared by what he had told her. He led her at a run down to the equipment and made a quick scan to make sure everything he might need was there.

"What's all this?" Wendyl asked. She, too, was inspecting the boxes and the small twelve-wheeled rover.

"This research I was conducting," he said by way of explanation, "it had to do with a technology that can produce vast amounts of energy out of unstable matter. You create particles from energy, fire them off and they explode later."

"That sounds like a military device. Are you sure I want to be hearing this?"

He waved a gloved hand in the negative. "The administration wanted me to develop it to use in up-coming attacks after the millennium celebrations. On Checkova, a civilian station."

Wendyl gaped at him in surprise.

"But I have other plans," he continued. "All this stuff here is equipment I can use to develop and fiddle with the technology."

"But I thought you meant you didn't like the idea of making this weapon, or of the attack."

"In war, perhaps such things can be necessary. But I doubt it. And I certainly won't be a part of it."

"Then what's this about? What has it got to do with me?"

Hunter paused. "My friend Di has many contacts in the administration. I'm sorry if you feel used but she organised for you to be assigned here at the same time as me. We figured this was big enough to warrant interfering with one person's life."

"You're kidding."

"No way. I hear you are a graphic designer as well as a gardener."

"Yes, but are you sure you've got the right person?"

"Yes Wendyl, I am. This is the perfect place to develop this. No-one wants to come here because its horrible and that cloud provides a perfect screen from spying eyes above. The people in the home won't be paying attention- it's perfect."

"Perfect for what?" Wendyl demanded, her voice becoming impatient.

Hunter grinned savagely and stepped over to Wendyl, gesturing at the sky. They looked up together. "Imagine up there," he said grandly, "way up in the heavens, across the vastness of space, a million explosions the size of planets, brilliant colours shimmering everywhere, captivating those who watch."

"That sounds too romantic for a weapon of mass destruction."

"No, not a weapon." He looked down and met her eyes intensely. "Between us, Wendyl, we are going to put on a fireworks display for the Hedron celebration that will never be forgotten."

The lines of tension in Wendyl's face suddenly relaxed as she reached understanding. "What's more," she said, "we're going to tell everyone about the plan to attack Checkova. Lets see how the military deals with the complaints. And when we send out the details of how to construct this technology to everyone in human space, the war will have to end before we wipe each other out altogether."

"I think you're getting the idea." He smiled, thinking that although Wendyl's ideas were probably overly simplistic, not to mention, optimistic, he might just be seeing Di again soon after all.




Story © 2002 by Greg Guerin greg.guerin@adelaide.edu.au

Illustration © 2002 by Eric Seaholm eric@seaholm.com




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