The Aegis Crop
(A Langford Joh story)
by William Alan Rieser
When the sleek, silver craft eased into the landing bed of the Aegis transport platform, Bolee was there and waiting for its arrival. Aside from butloids and other computerized life forms, he was the only human present on the farming asteroid. It was to be his first contact with another human in a year, not since they made the crop collectors mechanized. Consequently, he was excited about having a real conversation. When he saw who it was, he was even more overjoyed.
"Langford! Well, I'll be damned. What brings you to this part of the galaxy?"
"Bolee, it's been a long time, hasn't it? Let's get inside your quarters and I'll tell you all about it."
Bolee Jackson had two facilities to maintain aside from his farm enterprises. His straight-from-ancient-Earth, Wizard of Oz-Kansas-style farmhouse that he built himself, according to old dreams. And his modern underground lab that catered to the demands of his employers, the Confederation Farming Commune, where he enjoyed the fruits of modern asteroid technology. Bolee was a plant sorcerer, that is, for his day and age, he could make nearly anything grow. Actually, he was a remnant from a long line of soil manipulators, the kind that were once attributed to have green thumbs.
"Gosh, Langford, the last time I saw you was before you went off to college. When you was runnin' through my cornfield on Mars, wasn't it?"
"That was it, Bolee. I'm afraid I never thanked you for the ears I stole back then. Most delicious corn I've ever eaten."
"Well, thankee there, Langford. A little belated, but thankee just the same. Now somethin' brought ya out here. I do read the papers and watch the news on the telecasts. Been followin' yer career for some time. Always thought you had it in ya to be famous, but this here Ambassador thing is beyond me. I just grows vegetables. Now what can I do fer ya?"
"I remember you telling me once that after letting a field lie fallow for a year, you treated it with a home-made recipe of juice. You called it 'growing urge potion' back then, but I recall you telling me that it contained some heady chemicals, molybdenum, for one."
"Got one helluva memory, ya do. Yeah. Tweren't no secret back then, but since the Commune took over, I reckon I'm the last to use the formula. Always seems to work. Ain't let me down yet."
"That plus your remoteness and our past association gave me the idea of using you."
"Fer what, Langford? Ya always were a bit slow on revelations."
"Oh, I have a few seeds for you to try out. If you can make them grow, I'll be back in a month to harvest the crop myself. Naturally, I'll be checking on their progress from week to week. Have you got a field ready for something new?"
"That I have. But what kinda seeds you talkin' 'bout. One of them DNA germinators? I don't want the asteroid ruined like they did in the '50s with that shit."
"No. This is something different. These are special millpods from Manic."
"You talkin' 'bout military plants?"
"Something like that. I need you to grow an army so I can use them to take care of an infestation elsewhere. The Confederation needs to impress some entities by doing them a favor. You just popped into my head."
"A mite aggressive, those things. I suppose you'll be tellin' me I have to take precautions too?"
"That's why I selected you and this out-of-the-way post."
"And ya thought I'd just jump at the chance, huh?"
"Well, your peers are afraid to try it. Publicly, they are all saying that nobody can pull this little miracle off. Of course, they don't possess your secrets and they don't know how dangerous these pods are."
"Just how bad are these seeds, Langford?"
"No one really knows. I figured you'd be up for a challenge like that. You'd be doing the Confederation a huge favor by letting us take advantage of your special gifts."
"I ain't doin' it for ol' times sake, Langford. That and a whole lotta praise ain't worth much out here."
"No. Of course not. If you are successful, that is, if the crop reaches maturity on this asteroid of yours and you are still around, I'll see that you get paid whatever you want."
"That bad, huh? What if they do away with me or destroy my house?"
"Houses can be replaced. As for you...I'm hoping you're too smart for them. Really, if things get dicey I'll get a team in here to remove them. Now, Bolee, when was the last time you backed down from a gauntlet like that? After all, this is your chosen field, your expertise."
"Let me see the little bastards," said Bolee, scratching his head.
Langford Joh reached into his inner robe and withdrew a metallic sample case. Bolee watched as he opened it and revealed two rows of five oval seed pods each, brass-colored and rimmed with spikes.
"Hmm," said Bolee. "Interesting. You say they're from Manic? Is that the place where ya found that race of Prail folk, the ones who are supposed to be so superior?"
"That's the place. I don't know if these are homegrown or manufactured."
"Well, I can tell you two things. Those spikes are for gripping anything they cling to, so you really don't need my special soil. Now that coloring, that's special, because these babies ain't lookin' fer no sun nor moisture. No sir."
"Yes or no, Bolee. I need an answer now."
"If they do any real damage, ya better be square with me about the reparations. Just leave the box on the table, Langford. I'll still be studying them after ya go. Keep in touch on the Commune frequencies. Now why don't ya just skedaddle and let me get about my business."
"All right, Bolee. No need for you to mention this to anyone. Not until we have something to talk about."
As Langford was leaving Aegis, he taped a message for his old friend. "They say you can talk to plants, Bolee. If I were you, I'd learn the language of these fellows fairly quick."
* * *
As it turned out, after examining the seeds in his lab and finding nothing useful, Bolee tripped over a wire and inadvertently blew out the illumination. His flashlight was set for ultra-mauve strobe, having calibrated it for a different, less potent crop earlier. That was when he discovered that the Manic seeds responded to ultraviolet irradiation.
Virtually all ten seeds extended their spikes in that light, reaching out like tendrils for prey. He decided to place, not plant them, in the black field facing the quadrant's Vendetta Nebula, the one that weekly exuded a burst of ultraviolet gas. Carefully, he separated them from each other by ten feet on all sides. Bolee didn't need to do anything else and waited patiently for the gas explosion.
He noted that overnight, the Manic seed tendrils dug themselves into his soil and rooted their structures more or less in the spots he had chosen for them. Ten little oval rebels, firmly clutching his field, did not at first seem to Bolee like much of the challenge that Langford had intimated. When the gas display came six days later, Bolee's sophisticated underground mechanisms alerted him to the fact that something extraordinary was occurring in the black field.
Bolee decided to examine the area with his video rather than run out to the site and risk himself. What he saw took him by surprise. The seeds had expanded a hundredfold, covering the entire acreage. The spike-tendrils had altered appreciably into unrecognizable and unusual limb patterns, each different as though they served separate purposes. He got a demonstration of their use almost immediately when an acid-mole-caterpillar, an amscat peculiar to Aegis, attacked one of the seed pods by trying to ingest a limb. This particular creature, though Bolee knew how to drive it off, was virtually unkillable by Confederation standards and he always allowed a small percentage of crop as a tithe to the asteroid beast in an exchange that made coexistence possible. Not so the Manic seed pods.
They waited until the entire ten meters of its body was exposed from an underground hole in the field. Then they converged on him speedily so that he could not escape, rather like a military pincer maneuver. Somehow, their tendrils stunned the amscat into immobility, something Bolee had never been able to accomplish. It was encircled. A green light emanated from some of the pod tendrils and suffused the beast. In moments, that most fearsome predator of the Aegis landscape was reduced to nothing. It had been completely dissolved or eaten. Then, as a singular tribute to their first feast, the pods raised their tendrils to the stars in salute. Not having used audio, Bolee didn't know whether they were singing, talking or raising a verbal fuss. After that, they simply resumed their former positions as though nothing had happened.
* * *
"So what's happening, Bolee?" asked Langford during the first communication.
"You didn't tell me I was raisin' fanatics. I'm sendin' some images and ya can judge fer yaself."
"Looks like they grew a bit."
"That and then some, Langford. Any idea how long the gestation period takes?"
"Supposedly four weeks. After that, you don't want to be anywhere near them."
"Neither do the traditional Aegis varmints and we're talkin' 'bout right now. We got flies here on Aegis that actually do some good fer the fields. Not anymore, not with them Manic pods. Ripped off their wings and made the buggers crawl. Then they absorbed them. Damned ugly sight, Langford."
"Can't the mechanicals distribute nutrients in your fields?"
"Sure, but nowhere near as effective as a natural denizen like them flies. I have to reprogram everything."
"Bolee, it will get worse. I suggest you concentrate on microbial symbiants and smaller. You need to prepare yourself."
"Why? Are they gonna eat up the whole asteroid?"
"Just do what I said, the microbial."
"Don't that beat all, Langford. I'm beginning to regret this. Look, it has gotten worse. One of the pods incapacitated a butloid this mornin'. It was 50 yards from the field at the time, so they're spreading out. This is the first week, Langford."
"You just might want to shield the farmhouse, Bolee."
"Thankee so much, Langford. I needed that."
* * *
During the next week, Bolee confirmed Langford's suspicion by concentrating on a lab analysis. The Manic pods were affecting every form of microscopic life on Aegis, removing them, absorbing them, converting them into their own peculiar form of alien energy inside their growing husks. Every symbiant that he had patiently developed over the years to aid the many crop requests was gone, vanished forever. At the end of that second week, there were virtually no other life forms available for the pods to ingest. That was when they began to affect the atmosphere with their voices.
At first, it was little more than random hooting, an odd baritone, wailing sound that penetrated the air like loons on earth or the archaeologist's conceptions of prehistoric duck-billed dinosaurs. Then, as he began to perceive slight differences in the tonalities, Bolee realized he was listening to immature attempts to coordinate a rudimentary form of communication. Were they trying to contact him, talking to themselves, or reaching out into the galaxy for advice? Bolee's computer, though highly sophisticated in terms of farm applications, was woefully inadequate as a language interpreter. Therefore the sounds, which became more coordinated and intense daily, were hardly more than gibberish. Langford connected again after the second week.
"They're scheduled to try basic mobility exercises this week, Bolee. I hope your shield is strong."
"It is. Like what are they gonna do? Roll up to the house and beat on it? Attack of the watermelons? Why would they come after me anyway?"
"Because you are alive and not one of them. That's why."
"Well, they can't do nothin' if I don't let them. Besides, I can git underground faster than they can bowl me over. 'Course, they did away with my harvesters and seed spreaders. Got into the fertilizer shed, too."
"You'd better make sure about the lab, Bolee. I have a feeling I'll be talking to you in there from now on. Hope you've stocked up on supplies."
"Ready for the duration, Langford. I expect you'll be gettin' down here in two weeks time to remove the rascals. Bastards ate everything useful in my other fields. Ruined all my crops and impacted my Commune expectations."
"I'll take care of that. You'll be compensated."
It was in the third week that a colony of Vagen Belt wassops made their yearly diversion to Aegis in order to raid Bolee's lush cantemelon and mushloupe fields. Not a single melon or loupe were they able to find. The wassops, considered by Bolee to be a temporary plague like earth locusts, found themselves surrounded by the ten Manic sentinels, now grown to immense proportions, each encompassing one of the fields. This time, the pods opened up and released millions of flying mini-pods to go after the wassops. It was over in minutes, according to the videos. The entire wassop colony was wiped out, not a single entity given quarter or allowed to warn progenies elsewhere. Bolee was aghast because the Commune had considered the wassop problem insoluble.
The attack on the farmhouse was even more revelatory. Bolee woke up that morning to alarm sensors. The house was encircled by the growing pods and he could no longer look through the invisible shield to view his fields, they were that big. And then it happened. One of the behemoths rolled up to the shield and went through like it wasn't there. Electricity didn't affect them and the transparent web barrier, constructed of the latest and greatest lumen fibers, didn't hold. They were dismantling the porch, kitchen and sidings simultaneously when he realized he had to escape to the lab through the cellar chute.
"Langford, they made a shambles of my place," cried Bolee during the next transmission. "Nothing left at all up there."
"That's to be expected. You should be relatively safe in the lab for another week. They probably won't try to get you underground until the surface possibilities are exhausted."
"Ya knew about this?"
"Not for sure, but you've pretty much answered my questions."
"What do ya mean by probably?"
"I'm monitoring Aegis full time now, Bolee. If they start to submerge, I'll be on them in a flash. The Manics gave me a control mechanism. That's how I'm going to harvest the pods. You'll know if they're coming. Activate a seismic program to sense if they're examining the soil."
"And if they start burrowing?"
"Get yourself in a hibernation closet. That ought to throw them."
"I can transport you out of there now, Bolee, if that's what you want."
"Why wouldn't I? Ain't got a death wish."
"Because you're just as curious to see them at full maturity as I am. I'm told it's a sight to behold. Because you'd be the first human to beat them at their own game. That's worth a look, isn't it? Besides, if I remove the last food source prematurely, they'll just fold up and wither away to nothing. That's the trick, keeping them hungry and curious enough to keep developing. They'll die if I take you out now."
"Last food source? Is that what I am?"
"I didn't think you'd care to hear that earlier."
"G-d damn it all, Langford ..." but the transmission was cut off.
The maturity of Manic pods was not on Bolee's mind when his computer began to analyze new changes on the surface. Not only had they rid the asteroid of all life forms, barring himself, but they had begun a systematic effort to convert the surface and its atmosphere into alien formations and consistency. Oxygen was replaced with methane and ammonia, forcing Bolee to wear breathing apparatus until the ordeal was terminated. Whereas Aegis once possessed an abundance of topsoil, imported and nurtured for decades, it was now being converted into an array of running grooves and ravines so that the pods could ramble about with speed like insane marbles. Not a smidgeon of growth was detectable anywhere in the fourth week. That was when the seismic alarms kicked in and informed Bolee that the pods were beginning to delve for their nourishment.
He tried to contact Langford, but there was a new interference in the transmission channels. The asteroid's innards began to groan in protest at the tunneling of the pods and Bolee began to think that his formerly serene slice of rock was slated for eternal mummification, having its brains scooped out and placed in alien jars. The drone of the dragon seeds became constant, now coordinated with a frenzied rush to find him as though they were triangulating his location. Bolee finally gave in and admitted the wisdom of Langford's recent advice, opting for the hibernation closet where his molecular structure might elude the scrutiny of the formidable pods inside a tiny force field. He lost consciousness, not knowing whether there was a future, assuming he was about to become a new formula in the belly of the beasts he helped raise.
* * *
The first words he heard upon regaining his senses were Langford's. "Some soup? You deserve a treat and I've got some Lunaberry on board."
"I'm taking you with me so you can see the results, Bolee. You'll want to witness this. Also, the engineers are restoring Aegis for you and that will take a little time. You might as well have a vacation."
"The pods?" he gasped, remembering the nightmare.
"Right here in my robe in the little box where they started."
"I told you. I have a control mechanism. When we get to Radix, you'll see how the whole thing works. It's an ingenious method. The Prail are nothing short of a miracle when it comes to solving difficult problems."
"An infestation? I think ya told me 'bout that."
"Yes, but I didn't describe it for you. The culprits are like insects on earth, but they are sentient, organized, militaristic and able to propel themselves in husks through space like some of the pests in your asteroid belt. These, however, are not satisfied to simply raid a field of melons and sneak away. They are omnivorous and accustomed to whittling every planet's resources down to the bedrock, like fiendish soldier ants. When everything is gone, then they leave and look for another site. In this case, on Radix, they are consuming the populace while they are in a state of hibernation. The indigenous Radixians don't know of their danger. The Confederation found out because the Prail consulted me about the problem. We have been trying to get the Radixians to join us. They are stubborn and our negotiations failed before they cocooned themselves."
"So the pods were designed to account for such a thing with a parallel ferocity?"
"Even superior, Bolee. The pods would have absorbed the Aegis core if I had allowed them the time. I'm sorry to take advantage of your good nature and curiosity, but I had to find a way to get these beasties installed and initialized. Besides, other than your nerves and wits, everything on Aegis will be restored and then some. You won't regret helping me. We are hoping the Radixians will appreciate our gesture."
"But how ...?"
"Just wait and see. It will all make sense in a jiffy."
Langford Joh launched the Manic pods to the Radix surface in a small, destructible probe. He invited Bolee to take a look at the infestation through the viewer. It was staggering.
"I'm afraid I don't get it, Langford. I see the dark areas where the buggers are turning the home colonies black and all, but I can't make out the enemy."
"That's because they are mirror entities. They reflect light, therefore the only thing that can be seen is Radixian. Look at that big nest down there. It's a Radix outpost in complete hibernation at this time of the rotation. Thousands of entities are sleeping inside the cocoon. Now look at the right corner. See how it's turning black as though another cocoon was eating it and replacing it with an inky substance?"
"I see it now. Why didn't ya just go in and blast the buggers?"
"Because Radix would object to our interference, even for their benefit. Their politics prefers a natural solution to remedy all problems. The pods will satisfy them in a way that Confederation technology never could."
"What do ya know about these critters?"
"We think that their mirrors are contrived, like deliberate armor designs for deception."
"And you don't think they'll have any kind of chance against the pods?"
"Doesn't seem very likely considering what we know."
"Unless the mirrors are smarter than you think. Did you trace their origins?"
"Unfortunately, no. But they are likely to retreat once they realize what they are up against. I'm prepared for that, Bolee, assuming the pods let them get away."
"There's millions of 'em, Langford."
"There were millions of wassops on Aegis. You saw what happened to them. Ah, have another look. The pods are on target near the colony. I'm activating them now."
"Can't exactly make out much from up here, Langford."
"The computer can. The mirrors will appear in red, the pods in blue, so we can watch their progress."
Bolee's eyes riveted on the display. The pervasive red blotches were suddenly impacted by smaller blue ones like cancer cells invading healthy tissue. There was a distinct reaction from the red blanket as though it had become cognizant of a heavy weight.
"The incursion has become aware of a new foe," said Langford. "Now they will attack the pods en masse."
"The reds ain't doin' too well," commented Bolee. "Their forces are being reduced."
"As soon as they realize that, they will try to adapt a new method. I'm going to picozoom and hope we can see something better. There we go. That's the same battlefield by the original cocoon outpost. Look! The pods have anticipated the mirror swarm and adapted first."
"I don't think I ..."
"Mirrors, Bolee. The pods have silvered over and are now reflecting the enemy, using their tactics against them. Brilliant."
"What about that green area?"
"The swarm is trying to flee. That's it. They're leaving. In fact, they are coming towards our position."
"What's to stop those things from reaching us?"
"The pods. Just watch."
It was like an old-time depiction of the Venusian dragon clones, where Earth DNA manipulators spliced pterodactyl and allosaurus genes together in the same egg. The pods sprouted wings from their amazing tendrils and took to the atmosphere in order to contain the mirror swarm. Cloud by swirling cloud, they engulfed the infestation like ravenous anteaters in their glory at a Mara Bunta banquet. Bolee had thought the swarm far too immense, but the pods were relentless. In less than an hour, the entire mirror assault was gone and the swarm not in evidence.
"Now what happens? Looks to me like the pods are coming toward this ship, Langford."
"So they are. They should have gone back to Radix. Lots more food sources down there. I'll have to trigger the control pulse now before they get here. Uh-oh."
"What? What's wrong? I know that look on your face."
"The controller failed. There's no way to stop them."
"A fine mess ya got me in, Langford."
"I've done for us both. Sorry, Bolee."
Together they watched the monitor as the pods grew in space, approaching their position without hindrance. Langford Joh fingered the little box that once held the seeds and threw the failed controller on the floor of the ship's cabin with disgust.
"I was hoping to negotiate with Radix. Someone else will have that honor now."
"Looks like I've grown my last crop," added Bolee.
Abruptly, the display went black and replaced its former onslaught with stars. A discarnate voice infused the cabin.
"We have recovered the seeds, Langford. Have a good journey to Aegis."
"What just happened?" asked Bolee excitedly.
"I should have known," said Langford, laughing aloud. "The Prail were here to observe. They would never allow us to keep the pods. I should have had more faith."
Story © 2002 by William A Rieser firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2002 by Ehrad email@example.com
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