Sunlight by Bill Suboski

“Our Jellybean is the ultimate lifeboat – Your life-saving solution in a hopeless scenario! The Jellybean is the size of a candy, and easily held in your hand – but it will build whatever you need, from a life jacket to a habitat to a space fleet. Don’t leave Earth without it!” * Some restrictions may apply

Mainstem Alga, the leader of the war fleet of the Growers, spread his fronds open in his private chamber on the command vessel, enjoying the rich artificial light and the light mist afforded by his position. He felt guilty for absorbing this pleasure but assured himself that his great responsibilities warranted the luxury. He felt returning strength in his buds and stems in the rich light.

The com breezed and the Mainstem fluttered, “Admit the operative.”

“The mission is germinal?” gusted the Mainstem.

“Yes, Mainstem. The grazer has been incapacitated, and his husk forced down onto a barren rock. He is in the absence of sunlight. He is helpless.“

Sunlight was of course a frequent metaphor in Greening; the literal meaning was contextually highly sensitive. In this instance it meant simply that the asteroid the human ship had been grounded on was barren and devoid. A human might have used the word “shade”, but the cognate in Greening was a vulgar word, whereas “absence of sunlight” was a socially acceptable construction.

“Noooo!” blew Mainstem Alga Chloroplastos. “That was not the mission! The grazers are tricky…devious. They hide behind trunks; they dry and desiccate, then spring to life again! The mission was to isolate the alien, trap it in a lightless box, or to grind it to non-germinal dust. As long as it lives it is a danger!”

“Mainstem, it is helpless on a dry rock.”

“This is an herbivore! An herbivore is never helpless!”

The operative seemed both chagrined and dumbfounded.

Mainstem Alga was in some ways the sad victim of exaggerated wartime propaganda. “Herbivore”, a new word, was currently one of the most terrifying words in Greening. The only more profane and horrifying concept was the notion of a grazer. There was no single human word that could capture the fear instilled by this simple word. The closest approximation would be something like, “casual devourer of ketchup-soaked limbs of children in a daycare”. It was exactly to incite and remind of this horror that the military Growers used the word.

But the Mainstem’s innate fear and repulsion toward Humans was fueled not merely by prejudice but also by knowledge. The Human / Grower war would not and could not last long. The two races were too different. They had different ecologies and lived in different ways and in different places. This first and last war was purely philosophical and intellectual and already ending.

Before Alga had been appointed Mainstem he had suggested peace. As an academic he had advocated more investigation, more tropic growth, longer vining and deeper rooting, to better understand these new beings. But then the technology of the jellybean had been revealed. To the Growers, this was the ultimate fungus, the rot that couldn’t be stopped. Visions of lush verdant tropical paradises remade as monocultured lawns and pastures and vegetable gardens were used by adults to frighten juveniles to nighttime quiescence. The jellybean was the super-spore that could shade all.

“Great suns, fellow, they eat salads!”

Spaceman Olaf Gundersson had been surprised to see the Grower ship. He was passing through on a merchant mission and did not pay much heed, until the bomb hit his ship, and the black paint-like substance covered his view ports. Visuals were not necessary to continue, but he was a spaceman to see the stars, and he was well ahead of schedule, and so he set down to clear the windows.

He watched as the Grower ship moved off.  He had been warned that they were in the area, but he had never seen one. The warning had therefore served as an invitation. He really knew as little about the Growers as Mainstem Alga knew about him. Only decades later, long after the two sides had slowly and tentatively entered into mutual trade, would Humans realize that there had even been a war.

Gundersson had seen many things in his years in the service. Times and beliefs change. He had long ago learned not to react. He waited to form judgements and therefore had no real opinion as to why the Growers had thrown black paint at him. But he was phlegmatic by nature and simply preferred to get on with the task. The blackening of ships was something reported more and more frequently – he had no idea why.

There were ongoing talks, research groups, and diplomatic channels, but the two sides were so weirdly different from each other that many experts despaired of ever achieving true communication. There had been incidents. The Growers had absorbed the energy of a messaging laser without processing its contents. After the salad incident Humans now refrained from eating in the presence of even those Growers attached to the diplomatic mission. Extreme caution on both sides was the watchword of the day, until the bucket of paint blackened Gundersson’s view.

Gundersson carried high-value cargo. His hold was small and he had to look for big margins to successfully operate. But he had a sense that something important might have happened here today, and so he scanned his cargo manifest, searching for the items he remembered. There were six of them, and they had been packed near the front of the hold.

Olaf was scrupulously honest, and known for being so; still, his cargo was always well-insured, which was part of the professionalism that had made his business profitable. He would arrive with five, and not file a claim, but rather compensate the client from his own funds. He cycled back through the airlock, skipped a few dozen feet from his ship, and gently set the unit on the surface of the rock. He bounded back feeling light-hearted and free.

The Grower command ship stood two hundred feet away, hanging in space near the small rock. The grazer was gone but sensors had detected an artifact still on the surface. Mainstem Alga had ordered extreme caution but the object had been partially identified by telescope from a distance, and after suitable inspection it had just been brought into the cargo bay of the capital ship.

Alga and the operative stared up at it. It was a clear cube two-thirds of a meter on a side. The walls tapered slightly inward so that the top was just smaller than the base. The topside of the top was obsidian black, but on the underside, inside the box, bright light shone down. The bottom twenty centimeters of the box showed as soil, thick and dark and rich. It was twice the height of Alga and the operative, large enough to serve as a spacious stateroom for any Grower.

Even outside the box Alga could feel the rich wavelengths of the light that fed the plant. Inside the box, above and behind green leaves slender and long as blades of grass, was a single blossom, a white lily in full bloom. The Mainstem and the operative stood silent. The flower was like nothing either Grower had seen before, and yet it was like every flower both had seen. A flower is a flower is a flower and a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. The room was quiet with only the pulsing of the ships engines as the silent sapflow of life; to speak seemed sacrilege.

Finally the operative whispered: “Mainstem, I believe it is a gift.”

“I believe,” said Alga, feeling light-stemmed, “that it is more than a gift. It is a symbol. Operative, stand down. Navigation, hold position. We have asserted our sovereignty.  There is no need to advance – the Human has fled.”

 Bill is an aspiring fiction writer with a background in computer programming. He is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Born in Indiana, Bill is a transplanted Hoosier living as a Buckeye by way of Canada and the Netherlands.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *