The thing swayed ever so slightly in the interrogation bay. Purple streaks ran vertically up a midsection I would best describe as a thick trunk. Limbs sprouted from the trunk with flat pads at its ends that looked remarkably like leaves. On its top perched an enormous maw—closed like a flower waiting for the dawn—with faint hints of orange hiding within. It stood five feet tall, was mostly green, and sat inside a tub filled with black dirt.
“You’re kidding, right?” I said to General O’Sullivan. “It’s a plant.”
“You are a member of the Diplomatic Corps, are you not, Mr. Mann?”
The general raised a hand, stopping me in mid-sentence. “This specimen has been determined to be the sentient species of this planet. According to the Confederation Articles of Galactic Expansion, contact must be established with the dominant native species before any commerce, military, or scientific outpost is made permanent—”
“If the dominant species shows signs of intelligence,” I finished for him. I looked at it again. It had nothing like a hand, lacked any receptors that would be useful for communication—like speech or sight—and was permanently affixed to one space. “But it’s a plant,” I whined. “How in the hell am I supposed to talk to a plant?”
“You managed to talk to a fish, didn’t you?”
I grimaced at the general. I received plenty of admiration from the Confederation when I established contact with the Tunish, but cute pranks still plagued me every time I was reassigned. Usually, a goldfish in a fishbowl—or the native equivalent—would be waiting to greet me in my new office with a pasted note begging “take me to your leader,” or something equally as lame, stuck to its side. My first thought was this was a cleverer version of that running joke, but General O’Sullivan struck me as man who wouldn’t tolerate such nonsense.
“The Tunish already had a means of communication,” I said. “They had a sophisticated form of body language with vocal signals that complemented it. Piecing it together was hard but they were cooperative once they realized what we were up to.” I swept an arm at the monstrous pansy. “This thing, is a plant; a term that’s universally accepted as a euphemism for an unresponsive life form. Just look at it.” I stared at it for a moment, almost hoping the thing would prove me wrong by waving a branch at me or something, but it didn’t move so much as a stem. “It’s . . . primitive building material . . . an oxygen cleanser . . . shade for a rodent . . . cow food . . . a plant!”
O’Sullivan grasped his hands behind his back and stared down the bridge of his nose at me. “Are you telling me that I, my leading scientist, and everyone who has been on this station more than a day, are wrong, Mr. Mann?”
I buried my face in my hands. He’s serious. I shook my head and cursed the Sub-Secretary of Alien Affairs for tricking me into accepting this assignment. I drew in a deep breath and tried something that never worked before—talking sense to a general.
“Sir,” I started. “There are forty-seven known planets where multi-celled life exists, each one evolving its own form of chlorophyll-based life—plants. But plants can’t communicate and aren’t capable of forming an intelligence, despite having a billion-year evolutionary head start on every planet where they’re found. Plants aren’t built for intelligence; they’re plants.”
“I don’t care what you know, what you’ve learned, and any other preconceived notions you had before,” said the general. “This species is different. Alien intelligence is supposed to be your expertise. Do your job and open up a dialogue with it, so we can do ours.”
I glared at the thing, sitting in its tub of dirt while it soaked in the bay’s artificial light. If the flower was capable of experiencing any feelings at all, this one had to be full of contempt. I grimaced. How in the hell am I supposed to communicate with a plant?
“What makes you so sure it is sentient?” I asked.
“By demonstrating an ability to defend itself, assess a threat, and adapt.”
I arched an eyebrow at the general then looked at the alien flower. “Go on.”
“There have been six attempts to establish a base on Darvolock. Every structure has been destroyed. Eighty-seven people have set foot on the planet. Over half have been confirmed as dead or lost.”
I turned to study him, not sure if I heard him correctly. “What do you mean by lost? I thought everyone assigned to expeditions had to have a nanite locator.”
“They are. All traces of the first two expeditions are completely gone. All the equipment, clothing, and organic matter were completely absorbed by the jungle, right down to their microscopic tags.”
“Absorbed as in overgrown?”
The general led me to a viewer. “This is the third expedition viewed from orbit shortly after it landed.”
The ship looked like a troop lander, minus all the intimidating weaponry. The round vessel landed in a clearing surrounded by trees covered with vines and plants similar to ferns, the landscape looking very much like how the Amazon must have appeared centuries ago.
“The hull is an iron-based flexible-carbide composite, common material for spaceships. Tough stuff with all types of alloys and proto-polymer material woven into its fabric, resistant to almost everything. Here is a time-lapse archive.”
Flowers, like the prisoner in the interrogation bay, turned their maws toward the landing vessel. Vines wormed out of the ground and slithered like snakes over the ship, constricting around the landing pads. I saw men—sped up at ridiculous speeds—exit the ship, working to free it from the vines. They must have used lasers because the vines momentarily began to pile up. Then new vines from the flowers went after the men. A battle commenced. Fallen men were dragged back into the ship.
Two minutes into the show—two hours in real time—the first landing pad was sawed free. Men again exited the ship with what looked like flamethrowers. Flowers fell, as did men when silverish plants sprang up that resisted the fire. Again the men retreated. A minute later into the film, a rescue vessel landed and took off seconds later with the crew.
“Here is what happened to the lander, one day at a time.”
Vines swarmed the vessel. Like butter left in the sun on a warm day, the vessel shrunk with each frame. It took ten frames for the ship to disappear.
“They dissolved it?”
General O’Sullivan nodded.
“There must be a pool of metal under all that vegetation.”
“You would think so but no. Spectral analyses and scans confirm not a trace of it is left. You could burn the jungle down and you wouldn’t find a rivet.”
I looked at the prisoner plant behind the glass window with a new measure of respect. Deceptive bastard, aren’t you?
“So why land in the jungle? Planets are big. Go where they don’t grow.”
“Have you had a chance to view Darvolock yet?”
The station orbited the planet but I hadn’t the time to sightsee. My orders explicitly said to report to the general when I arrived.
The general led me to a port window. The greenest planet I’d ever seen filled the frame. Behind it loomed Darvolock’s sister planet, a blue methane world whose name I had yet to learn.
“This species covers every inch of this world. You’ll find only a limited number of insects and plants coexisting with them. No ice fields, deserts, or rolling prairies, only jungle. Just one big planet-wide tropical forest.”
I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes at the green world. “No oceans? What about the poles? Shouldn’t it be colder and dryer there?”
“The oceans are covered with pond scum twenty feet thick, a very fertile surface for them. As far as the poles, this world maintains a consistent temperature. You won’t find a rain cloud anywhere. Fog in the morning, but that’s it. The theory is the plants have irrigated all the water. A really humid place with one season—sticky.”
I was astounded, a single species covering every square inch of a space. The surface might as well be an ocean of acid. “So the native life doesn’t want to share their world. Why not let them keep it?”
“Multi-dimensional cartology isn’t your strong suit, is it?”
I shook my head while feeling my face flush.
“Noticed the lopsided barbell-shaped blue sun? That’s Spica A and B, 16 AUs away. B is four times larger than Sol. A is twice its size. They circle so close both stars are distorted. They kick out enough solar activity to sterilize Earth, even at this distance. Darvolock has a magnetic field three times stronger than ours, and its Neptune-sized partner makes for the third counter-gravity well. A big battery with a big partner to help offset time-and-space.”
It took me second to piece it together. “Wormhole generation?”
“Several,” he said. “As in fourteen, most going to unexplored systems.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Multiple wormholes were rare. Five was the most discovered in one system.
“And one leads back to Alpha Centauri,” added the general.
Two jumps to Earth. I almost doubled the number of jumps I ever made to get to this wormhole dead end. Darvolock was more than a life-sustaining world. It represented the Panama Canal of space.
I looked back at the flowery monstrosity. “You try herbicides yet?”
“I’m surprised at you, Mr. Mann. What you’re suggesting is xenocide.”
I glared at the general. The Confederation’s policy may appear progressive to the public, but I knew the military employed an aggressive speak softly and big stick approach in dealing with new worlds: Hit it with the big stick first then try speaking softly to it second; an effective Machiavellian tactic.
“Yes, we tried it already,” he admitted. “Three times. They’ve adapted and managed to counteract the poisons each time.”
Can’t beat em and the planet is too important to ignore.
I sighed. This was going to be a long assignment.
“Where would I find the bar?”
I signaled to the bartender for another shot of whiskey, my third, cursing my immediate superior for tricking me into accepting this assignment. He promised he would submit me for an Earth position if I could establish contact. He was eager to get rid of me. I was cocky, and I had a problem with keeping my mouth shut. At my honoring party for my part in making a treaty with the Tunish, I got drunk and boasted the Corps would be nowhere without me, promising I would be ‘running the dump’ in a month—not very wise when most of the people at the party were my superiors. Since then, the Corps utilized my talents by transferring me to every backwater post it had. News of my idiotic display, and success as a ‘fish talker’, preceded me everywhere I went. Darvolock was supposed to be my ticket out of my self-made purgatory. I had to hand it to my boss for finding an impossible task for me to complete.
I downed the shot and went back to nursing my fourth beer when a man with a metal arm sat next to me.
“Mr. Mann?” he said while offering his good hand for a greeting. “I was told I’d find you here. I’m the stations xeno-ethnobotanist, Daniel Smyth.”
“Plez-sure,” I slurred. “What happened? Got too close when feeding the fern?”
“In fact I did. One of the plants wrapped a vine around my forearm. I lost a pint of blood and my ulna and radius disintegrated before I freed myself.”
I sat up, embarrassment spurring momentary sobriety. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . . ”
“Don’t mention it,” he said while he signaled the bartender. “But take my arm as a warning. Don’t trust the Tulips. They bite.”
I dug into my pocket and popped a sobriety tab. Saying stupid things while I was drunk was my trademark, and the last thing I needed was to collect a fresh batch of enemies the first day on the job. The tabs had an effective lifespan of ten minutes, so I knew I’d be swaying again very soon.
“Did I hear you right?” I asked when he scooped up the shot of golden liquid the bartender set before him. “It ate your bones inside your body?”
Smyth nodded, then downed his drink. “They like calcium, and iron, and a lot of other chemical compounds Earth plants wouldn’t touch. Damnedest species I ever came across. Like locusts except they do eat everything.”
Visions of a melting lander danced in my head. A chemical compound predator. The galaxy had no shortage of species that would subsist on metals and acids, but never had I come across one that could absorb anything. I was sure chemical engineers and xeno-biologists would be curious to know how, but the how wasn’t going to help me.
“Why would plants eat metal?”
Smyth shrugged and reached for the beer the bartender slid down the counter his way. “A topographical survey confirms the planet’s surface doesn’t have much in higher elements, so the Tulips hoard it when they find it. Don’t know why, it’s not like they’re hiding plant cities underground. The best theory we’ve come up with is it’s an evolutionary redundancy. An autopilot reaction they haven’t kicked, yet.”
I sipped my beer and looked at the impossibly green world in the lounge’s observation window and frowned. How ironic that the most valuable piece of real estate in the galaxy was off-limits because of a weed.
“Why would the plants be hoarding iron?” I asked. “This planet is supposed to have a strong magnetic field. Shouldn’t it be loaded with iron?”
Smyth nodded. “Tons of it, all of it at its core. Scans of the surface show it’s covered in peat moss, bogs, plants, but hardly any metals.”
“No volcanic activity?”
“Oh yeah. It has three active ones. The only spots on the planet that aren’t green.”
I sipped my beer and gazed at the green world below. A planet without metal covered by a species that can’t get enough of it. It didn’t make any sense.
I set up shop with a view of the prisoner and spent the next three weeks pawing over bales of reports. Darvolock proved to be an enigma of a planet. Dan was right. Despite its strong magnetic field, the surface appeared to be almost devoid of metals. It had continents but not much for mountains. The surface was caked in decaying vegetation hundreds of meters thick. If O’Sullivan’s men could ever establish the twin bases on opposite sides of the planet, they would have to scrape away all the swamp scum and import the material needed to build the power pyramids for wormhole generation. But first an understanding needed to be reached with the natives, and I wasn’t having much luck.
Plants were not my thing. An old live-in girlfriend once bought a bunch of them to liven up my apartment. They all died a week after she left; a fitting metaphor for our relationship. The Tulips (I had gotten used to using their slang name) proved to be tougher to figure out than I hoped. I attempted a dozen tactics to reach our prisoner—negative stimuli, positive stimuli, sound vibrations—it reacted the same way every plant I ever knew reacted, by sitting in its dirt and soaking up all the artificial sunlight it could.
Their anatomy showed they were nothing more than an ordinary plant. They lacked crucial organs—like a brain—higher life forms needed, but their actions proved they were as dangerous as any predator discovered. It was their strategic capability that concerned O’Sullivan the most.
I watched recordings of previous expeditions. O’Sullivan’s men would try a new tactic with each attempt. Early success would turn to complete failure every time. The Tulips would be waiting when they landed—acting like innocent sunflowers bathing in the blue rays of Spica—then all hell would break loose. While replaying one disastrous battle, I noticed a small red flower bloom from a leaf of a Tulip.
I called Dan. He shrugged when I showed him it. “Pollinating. You see the dragonfly thing? They’re attracted to the red variety. The Tulips have been known to bud up to five different types of flowers. Each one attracts a different insect species.”
“Is that common?”
“No, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. The different flowers could be their way of cross-pollinating so they don’t interbreed.”
I replayed the film, grimacing as I weighed Dan’s conclusion.
“Not buying it?” asked Dan.
“I know of a dozen emerging intelligences that rely on other species to help them breed, feed, and defecate. The galaxy has no shortage of species that will exploit the labors of a lower intelligence for their own benefit.”
“Like man and horse?”
I pointed at him and smiled. “Good example, but there are better ones. There is a feline/marsupial race on Altair Five that exploits an herbivore to build their shelters for the brutal winters. I’m wondering if we’re viewing the works of a puppet master species, one hiding in the shadows.”
Dan frowned then shook his head. “I doubt it. If you don’t count the Tulips, those insects represent the highest form of life on Darvolock.”
“I can’t count the Tulips.”
I leaned back into my chair and retrieved a holographic-anatomical schematic of our prisoner.
“They don’t have the wiring for a higher intelligence. They lack a nervous system. Nothing in them can carry the electrical impulses required for higher thought.”
Dan looked at the plant then narrowed his eyes at me. “I’m not sure I can agree. The Yuplin is a species that have nothing like our brains, yet they’re considered intelligent.”
I punched up a schematic of a Yuplin. A hairy and squat creature without a neck replaced the Tulip. It had long arms they used for yanking out grass and pulling down leafy branches for it to feed. Short, thick legs were needed to support its bulky body. The creatures lived under an orange sun and lumbered about with all the enthusiasm of a grazing cow. If it wasn’t for the duck-billed mouth, you’d have a hard time identifying its head.
“True, the Yulpin don’t have a central processing unit like ours.” I pointed at the glowing lines of bio-electrical energy intersecting throughout its body. “But they do have a network of nerves to carry electrical impulses. Their nervous system doubles as their brain. The Tulips have nothing, so aren’t capable of intelligence. They’re plants.”
“My specialty may be in plants but I know a nervous system doesn’t define the intelligence of a species,” said Dan. “There are plenty of creatures that have a complex nervous system that aren’t much brighter than an earthworm.”
I shook my head. “The nervous system isn’t what makes the intelligence, but it is the requirement for intelligence. It’s like the old electrical grids of Earth when power plants generated electricity for civilization. The electricity traveled along power lines. It’s the lines that the Tulips . . . ”
The lines. Long strands of copper; metal.
I dug for a geological survey. “Anyone else find it odd how a planet with a strong magnetic field has practically no metal on its surface?”
Dan pursed his lips and shook his head. “It wouldn’t be the only one. Could be the way it was formed. More than a few cooled with all the heavier elements pooling at the core.”
“Not when they have active volcanoes and continents that drift.” I showed him the topographical survey. “Look. No mountains. I recall reading a chemical analysis of several Tulips, they all had trace elements of metals in their anatomy.”
Dan shrugged. “So? That wouldn’t make them unusual. We have trace elements of metals in us. Our blood is loaded with iron.”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “And your bones have calcium.”
He looked at his metal arm. I punched up a recording of a particular disastrous expedition. The soldiers wore heavy-G suits, ripping Tulips out from the roots as they attempted to swarm them. As always, what looked like a promising strategy turned into catastrophe. Water began to seep from the ground and pool around the heavy-G-suited men’s feet. They started to sink. Vines crept around their shoulders and pulled them in. A man drew a cutting laser. The shades of silver formed over vines that were targeted, slowing the effect of the laser. I froze the frame and zoomed in.
“Look closely,” I said and advanced the recording, extra slow. Silver leaked from the skin of the vine, crinkling like aluminum foil. “When I saw this, I couldn’t help but think how this looked like the lining of a spacesuit. Now watch what happens when the laser strikes it.”
A white flame burst from the silver skin. It changed color. Green, then a brick red, a bright orange that was followed by a hot blue.
Dan leaned in, a puzzled expression was on his face. “That’s odd. What does it mean?”
“I’m not anything close to an expert but I believe laser cutters cut at a constant temperature. Those flames reminded me of an experiment a chemistry teacher of mine performed long ago.” I rewound it back to the orange flame. “That’s what the flame looked like when he put fire to calcium.”
Dan manipulated the vid for a moment, studying the flames.
“Assuming you’re right,” he said. “Calcium is a poor flame retardant. Why would the Tulips use it?”
“Trial and error,” I said, as I took note of all the insects flying within the battle zone in the recording. “It’s how evolution operates.”
“Not that quickly it doesn’t,” countered Dan. “But intelligence can. Trial and error solutions are a mark of sentience.”
I nodded. “Yes it can be, but I’m not convinced who is performing the trial and error experiments. I have a hunch on how to find out. Does this station have a device that can detect weak magnetic fields?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure the engineers can make a scanner that can do the job. What are you hoping to find with it?”
I stood and stared at the prisoner plant in the next room. “A nervous system.”
The Chief Engineer was skeptical when I explained what I needed. He was quick with excuses, complaining about how busy they were while promising to get on it as soon as he could. I thanked him then marched to General O’Sullivan’s office. A working low-yield magnetic field scanner was delivered to my doorstep in six hours. Just for the fun of it, I sent it back with instructions to increase its range. Two hours later, a technician came back with an improved model. I asked if he could stay behind to operate it. Before he could protest, I called the general and Dan to let them know the experiment was ready.
The tech linked the scanner to the station’s holographic mainframe. A 3D representation of our prisoner rotated in my office. Glowing lines intersected and ran all through the Tulip.
“What are we looking at?” asked the general.
“A nervous system,” I said.
Dan kneeled, tracing the paths of the brightest pathways with a metal finger. “How could we have missed this?”
“You didn’t,” I said. “You said you found traces of metal in them, you just mistook it as part of their basic chemistry.”
“This is how they use iron?” asked the general. “To create nerves?”
“Some of it is iron.” I pointed at a bright pathway Dan had become enamored with. “This I suspect is copper or maybe gold. They make a better conduit than iron. Think of this as an electrical grid that runs on bio-electrical energy, a substitute for an organic nervous system.”
“So you’re saying this is what happened to our ships?” asked O’Sullivan. “To create a network of nerves?”
“Oh no. There may be a little bit of our material in our friend, but I’m sure what we’re seeing here came from Darvolock itself.”
Dan stared up at me. General O’Sullivan looked just as baffled as he did. He turned to face the xeno-ethnobotanist.
“I thought this planet had no metal.”
“Not now it doesn’t,” I interjected. “It’s been mined out.”
I walked to the port window and tapped on its glass, pointing at the green world below. “Look at it, sir. The entire planet, every square inch, is covered by a single species. It’s changed the weather, eliminated seasons, exterminated all its rivals; did it all over an entire world. Now, imagine if every Tulip had as much metal as our friend here. They picked this world clean.”
The general turned from the window and studied the hologram. “How the hell could a plant know it could use metal as a nervous system?”
“Evolution.” Dan’s eyes were wide.
I could see the realization of my proposal hitting all at once.
“A distant ancestor likely absorbed chemical compounds that were toxic to an herbivore. Over time, that ability adapted and turned them into master chemical engineers and the dominant species of the planet.” Dan turned to look at the Tulip in the next room. “And it’s going to be their downfall.”
It was my turn to be stunned. “How so? They reached the pinnacle of evolution. Their actions proved they’re capable of adapting to anything thrown their way.”
Dan shook his head. “Their actions proved that they’re starving for essential minerals. This world is overpopulated, way overpopulated. They probably haven’t the ability to control their numbers and they won’t be able to sustain their levels much longer. This world is on the verge of an apocalypse never seen before.”
I saw a glimmer of hope in O’Sullivan’s eyes. “When?”
“It won’t be tomorrow,” said Dan. “Or in a year. The soonest? A few decades. Maybe ten thousand years on the outside, but collapse it will.”
The general pointed at the base of the holographic Tulip. “What’s going on down there?”
The Tulip’s roots glowed with activity. The magnetic field detector showed it to be alive with electricity.
“That must be its brain,” said Dan.
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “Wasn’t it part of a larger root system? I recall in a report that they had to cut it away from one.”
“I believe they did,” said the general. “What are you thinking?”
I turned and smiled at the technician who had been standing behind us quietly, listening to us the entire time. “I’m thinking engineering needs to build us another scanner.”
We watched from the safety of the station as a scanner-equipped lander hovered meters above Darvolock’s surface. The floor of the jungle, through the enhanced image, looked like the jumbled mess of wires you would find in an ancient electronic machine.
“It looks like one big brain,” said Dan.
“Is that what we’re dealing with?” asked O’Sullivan. “A single entity?”
“Looks like that is the case, sir,” said Dan.
“Not so fast,” I said. “You see all the insect activity? I noticed in other vids how they swarm whenever a ship of ours is on the scene. From orbit, they’re nowhere near as thick.”
“So?” countered Dan. “Just look at all the electrical impulses below the surface. Tell me that isn’t complex thought we’re seeing. All the Tulips are connected. It’s a collective mind. I’d bet my salary on it.”
“If the Tulips are all connected then why would they need insects for pollination?”
Dan opened his mouth then closed it, apparently thinking about what I said.
“There is an emerging species on Hatrac 4,” I continued. “They have a high percentage of conjoined births—one in five. Some of their children are joined at the brain yet each half has their own independent thoughts. To communicate, they have to talk to each other.”
General O’Sullivan waved a finger at the holographic jungle floor. “Then what is all this?”
“I am only guessing, but if Dan is correct about the Tulip’s mineral shortage, this could be part of a highway for essentials. Chemical compounds relocated to where they’re needed. To move so much material would require energy. I’m betting this is the power supply for a complex conveyor belt.”
That sparked an argument between Dan and me. The general listened to us spar for a full minute before he decided he had enough.
“I just want to know one thing,” he shouted above our raising voices. “Can you talk to it?”
I pursed my lips together and thought for a second. “I don’t know, but I have a theory. I need bugs.”
O’Sullivan wasn’t happy about sending men to the surface for bug collecting. The scout ship that was sent down grabbed a dozen specimens, and managed to come back intact. Dan’s expertise was the closest thing the station had to an entomologist. He analyzed the pollinated fluid the insects stored in a sac while I watched over his shoulder.
“What’s the verdict?” I asked.
“It’s alien nectar, with one small difference. Each insect has a trace element of metal compounds in it. The dragonfly has iron. The green butterfly, copper. Each species carries something different.”
“Any other differences?”
“None that I can see, but this may be outside my field of expertise.” He motioned at the magnified display of the nectar.
I leaned toward the screen and frowned. The superimposed red fluid had a hexagonal block structure. Slivers of silver were skewered into some of the blocks.
“Find anything I should be made aware of?” Dan asked.
“If you were an alien species that came across a book and you broke down its molecular structure in hopes of finding an answer to its purpose, what would you find?”
He leaned back into his chair and rubbed his chin. “Organic cells from the paper with traces of chemical compounds used to make the ink.”
“You’re still going with your theory that the Tulips are individual entities?”
“I’m still not convinced they’re intelligent but I’m sure we’re not dealing with a single mind.”
Dan threw up his hands then punched up a vid of the scan of the jungle floor. “Look at all the activity. You could power a twenty-first-century city with what we’re seeing here. If this isn’t a brain at work, what is it?”
“If you did a similar scan of Earth a thousand years ago, you might conclude the same thing from its electrical grid.”
“But it’d be obvious that you were seeing an advanced society at work.”
I pointed at the Tulip in the other room. “Not to everyone and likely not to this species. I’ve learned over the years that our point of perception is unique in the universe. The same goes for all the rest of the intelligences we’ve come across. This life form is the most alien I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve been studying them for almost a month and still not sure how they sense the world around them, but I am sure they do sense it.”
Dan crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “I agree. They’re the most alien creatures I’ve ever come across myself. Doesn’t mean they aren’t able to see us as intelligent counterparts. They’ve adapted to every tactic we tried against them, and did it on the fly. That alone supports my contention that they’re a single mind. They’ve identified us as a threat. Intelligent beings do that, and an intelligent being would recognize intelligence when it sees it.”
“They’re plants,” I countered. “That makes them unique. All through the galaxy plants are used as raw material. From their perspective, we’re the raw material. I can’t even fathom what they would consider to be a society, or even guess if they could grasp the concept of a society. They probably have no idea what we are, but are hoping we keep coming back. We are what they need.”
Dan frowned. “Well, in the words of the general, ‘can you talk to it?'”
I grinned thinly at him. “Rule one for First Contact Diplomats: All sentient species love to gossip. Eavesdropping is what we specialize in. All it takes is finding the right type of cup and a thin wall to press it against. If they’re individuals, they gossip. I just got to find out how.” I walked over to a jar holding a red dragonfly. “Let’s see what happens when we release this guy into the next room.”
I opened the jar and ushered the dragonfly into the interrogation bay. The Tulip immediately reacted. Its enormous maw turned toward the insect. It lifted a limb. A red flower bloomed in the crux of a leaf. The dragonfly landed and fed. Twenty seconds later, it took flight again. The red flower retreated into the Tulip’s limb.
Figuring out how to retrieve the dragonfly proved to be our biggest problem. No one wanted to go into the interrogation bay to get it. When it flew near the quarantined access door, a lowly aide was sent in with a net.
What we found in its fluid caught us all by surprise. Traces of a dozen different elements, all of which were found inside the interrogation bay. A scanned inspection was made of the bay. Fine scarring was found on every panel, surface, and crevice. The Tulip left its mark on anything it could reach, even the pot in which it was planted.
“Looking for an escape?” Dan joked.
I shook my head. “I think it was tasting its surroundings.”
“Now what?” he asked.
I set my hand in my chin. I really didn’t know. Then it hit me.
“We take the dragonfly back to the surface and deliver its message.”
General O’Sullivan was not thrilled with the idea. The way he saw it, we were hand-delivering secret documents directly to the enemy.
“What’s it going to tell ’em?” I asked. “Help. I’m being held captive aboard a spaceship?”
The scout ship released the dragonfly near a cluster of Tulips while we watched from orbit. One immediately opened a red flower. It sat and swayed, as if contemplating what it absorbed. A moment later, it lashed out a vine and captured the dragonfly.
“That was new,” remarked Dan.
The Tulip then opened a half-dozen flowers. Insects swarmed them. They flew to other Tulips. They repeated the original Tulip’s blooming. Clouds of insects fanned out, as if they were spreading the word. The first Tulip reopened its red flower. Our dragonfly flew from the Tulip’s grip and fed off it. It then launched.
“Don’t let that get away!” I screamed at the pilot of the scout ship. The dragonfly darted. The cluster of Tulips all closed their flowers. It took a few minutes, but our men finally managed to recapture it. I couldn’t wait until they brought it back up it to the station.
General O’Sullivan wanted us to dissect the dragonfly. I preferred to leave it be. We struck a compromise and extracted the fluid. It had traces of iron salts in it but appeared to be no different than the previous sample.
“What’s it say?” the general asked.
“Gibberish, now that we disturbed it. We shouldn’t have messed with it.”
He glared at me. “Then put it back in the bug.”
“It’s alphabet soup now.” I swished the fluid in the test tube. I was so close to breaking this enigma but worried I wouldn’t get any closer than this. I already considered re-injecting the nectar back into the fly but knew whatever message it held was likely lost. Confusion would likely be the result when our Tulip extracted it. That gave me an idea.
I set the tube on its perch and placed it on the floor of the buffered quarantined connector. I closed our side and opened the door into the bay. The Tulip lifted its maw and turned it toward the tube. It snaked a vine across the floor, found the tube and dipped its tip into the nectar. Its maw opened wide, revealing orange overlapping petals within. It pulled the tube in and sucked up the nectar. It closed its maw tight and whipped its vine, smashing the tube on the far wall.
“That didn’t go well,” said Dan.
“Oh, it went better than I hoped,” I replied. “Our friend recognized something was out of the norm. I am convinced it is more than a simple flower now.”
“Intelligent?” asked Dan.
I shrugged but added, “I am leaning that way.”
“But can you talk to it?” asked the General.
I shook my head. “I still don’t know, but I know how I might find out.”
My request for man-shaped figurines of carbon, filled with proportional amounts of the basic compounds found in all of us, did not go over well with the engineering department.
“He wants us to make dolls for him now?” I overheard the chief engineer yell while walking by his department. “What does he think we are? An arts and crafts store?”
I detoured to the general’s office to impress upon him the importance of the figurines. He assured me that they would be a top priority, promising a dozen would be at my office in an hour. A box of a dozen was delivered at my doorstep fifty-eight minutes later.
Dan took one of the six-inch-tall men out and examined it. “Bearing gifts?” he said.
I set one of the men in the quarantined connector and opened the buffer once I was safely outside. The Tulip slithered a vine out, finding the figurine. It ran its tip over it and swayed.
“Curious,” Dan said. “Now what?”
I answered by putting on a spacesuit. Dan eyed me as if I had lost it.
“You can’t be serious.”
I grabbed a figurine and jammed a sliver of copper in one of its hands.
“About time I earned my pay.”
I stepped into the connector and took a deep breath, reminding myself that I did dumber things in the past.
Yes, but you were drunk, myself answered back.
I waited for the doors to do their job and stepped into the bay. I set the figurine before the Tulip and took a step back.
The Tulip was aware of my presence. It turned its maw to face me, slithering a vine cautiously toward the figurine on the floor.
“Careful,” said Dan in my headset. “They’re quick. Your suit will protect you, for a while. And remember, I’m the only one in here and it might take a few minutes before help will arrive to get you out.”
I watched as a second and third vine sprouted from opposite branches, hating Dan for reminding me that I was completely on my own if the worst happened. The Tulip’s vines unfurled as they touched the floor, coiling next to its pot. I eyed them as if they were vipers ready to strike.
“I’ll be okay,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t crack with fear.
Sweat rolled off my brow and down the ridge of my nose as the probing vine crawled over the figurine. The Tulip went rigid when it touched the sliver of copper. The vine curled around the figurine. I reached down and snatched the doll. It coiled around the figurine tighter and tugged but I refused to let go.
“Not so fast, big boy,” I said to it as I pulled the figurine toward me.
“Look out!” Dan’s voice shouted in my helmet.
The other two vines unfurled and rushed toward me at my flanks. I stomped on the one on my right, pinning it to the floor under my heavy boot. The other vine grasped my wrist and constricted.
“Help is on the way,” said Dan.
“Good,” I replied. I grabbed the vine holding the figurine and yanked. The lower half of the figurine broke and shattered on the floor. I still held the end with the copper. “But tell them to stay out there until I get this worked out.”
The vine under my foot thrashed. I leaned more weight on it. With my free hand I grabbed the vine that held my wrist and snapped it. I jumped back as the third vine lashed out at me. I retreated toward the wall where the smashed test tube rested.
“Mann, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I glanced at the window to my office. General O’Sullivan glared at me from the other side of the glass with four soldiers standing behind him.
“Reaching an understanding with our friend.”
The Tulip’s maw was partially opened and faced me. Pointing at me like a radar tower tracking its target. Vines swept the floor, searching for my feet. I backed away, carefully, lifting a foot to avoid a probing vine.
I reached the wall. I crouched and felt on the ground, keeping an eye on the vines while searching for the busted tube. I found it just as vine touched the tip of my boot. The three vines converged. I held out the broken tube, touching its smooth side to a vine.
A vine wrapped around my arm while the other probed at the tube. The maw to the Tulip opened wide when it tasted the traces of nectar inside.
“Come on,” I said as I shook the tube. “Prove to me you can reason.”
The Tulip swayed. Its maw opened and closed. It still held my arm in an iron grip but kept itself at bay.
“Hold on,” said General O’Sullivan. “We’re coming in.”
“Don’t,” I said, not believing my own ears when I did. “Just give it one more minute.”
I froze. Sweat clouded my vision. If the Tulip could feel my heartbeat, it would likely know that I was filled with panic. It wrapped another loop around my arm with its vine, then withdrew the other two back into its branches. A moment later, a red flower bloomed from one of the branches.
“Get a dragonfly,” I whispered through clenched teeth into my headset.
It took half a minute for the crew to release an insect into the room. It found the flower and fed. The dragonfly launched and fluttered into the connector, disappearing out of my field of vision. Two minutes felt like an hour. Finally, Dan’s voice announced the results into my headset.
“It has copper in it.”
I touched the vine gripping my arm with the sliver of copper. The vine unraveled from my arm and snatched it away. I watched it melt into the vines fabric. Then the Tulip opened another flower, this one a vibrant blue.
“That one attracts a green bee,” said Dan. “Give me a second.”
I edged along the wall. The Tulip’s maw tracked me but held its vine at bay. I entered the connector just as Dan set a bee free. He handed me a net and shut the door. I watched the bee land on the flower. It took longer to feed than the dragonfly. It launched in flight. I snatched it out of the air as it flew near the door. I punched the button closing the door to the bay. The door behind me opened. I stepped out and handed the net to Dan.
I peeled out of the suit. General O’Sullivan stood opposite of me with his arms crossed, glaring at me with his hard eyes.
“That was the most foolish thing I have ever witnessed. Do you have any idea what would have happened if that thing got inside your suit?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “You would have gotten your answer on whether I could talk to it or not.”
Dan waved me over. He had the fluid extracted from the bee and fed it into the analyzer. He leaned toward the screen and turned it to show me.
I turned to General O’Sullivan and smiled. I was relieved and filled with pride. “We have made contact.”
I downed my third shot and went back to nursing my fourth beer when a man who once had a metal arm sat next to me.
“You’re back,” I said to Dan. “Your arm looks great. How was Altair?”
He flexed his cloned arm for me. “It was wonderful. I feel like a new man. How are the negotiations coming along?”
I lifted my beer. “Been a tough two months but we finally have an agreement. The Tulips are clearing two areas on opposite sides of the planet for us. Costing us a bundle in metal but fortunately this system is loaded with asteroids rich in it.”
The bartender set a beer in front of Dan. Dan raised it in a toast.
“Congratulations. You’ve made big news back there. I even ran into friends of yours in the Corps. They say Earth has plans for you.”
I sat up. The bureaucrats rarely acknowledged anything outside Earth’s atmosphere.
“Your friends sent their congratulations,” said Dan. “And wanted me to give you a gift. I left it on your desk.”
I sat my beer down and made a beeline to my office, my buzzed brain imagining my wish of a reassignment to Earth was about to be granted.
I opened my door and saw an Earth tulip in a vase on my desk. A gold necklace with a locket was draped around its stem. I opened the locket and cringed when I read what my ‘friends’ from my old office had inscribed in it.
NEED MORE BLING.