He kneels carefully and begins to deploy his tools. He takes a precious few seconds to get his breathing under control, blank from his mind the corpse of Logan a little way to his right.
He must not think of how the blue forest is dissolving his body, eating his cells with its toxic enzymes. His suit must have failed. Acid squirted from the plant must have melted the shield.
They’d got separated. Greed had made Logan ignore protocol and push ahead. Protocol said two had to be together at all times in this hellish place.
An entire ecosystem keyed to kill you. The slightest failure, the slightest tear in the suit and there were minutes, seconds maybe.
And yet it has its own infernal beauty. No direct sunlight can penetrate the depths of the blue forest. The colour of the toxic vegetation and the blue haze which suffuses everything is the product of some kind of bioluminescence, poorly understood.
He clears the riot from his mind and sets to work. The outer cowls of the plant’s sac must be cut slowly, according to a sequence he has practised over and over. His mouth stiffens. Those were simulations. There’s always something unexpected, something you’ve never quite prepared for.
What did Logan …? He must excise the thought. There must be nothing in the Universe except his hands and the plant, the precision of his tools.
The first layers start to give way, spilling a viscous liquid his eyes interpret as purple on to the sodden forest floor. There’s a jet that almost sends him falling backward. The suit. Check the suit.
He extracts a torch and passes it all over, from boots to crotch, all around his arms and chest. An alarm should sound if it’s been compromised but you never know … those loops and beeps upon which we all depend for life have their moments of chaos, of treachery. Everything seems fine. He goes back to work.
‘What’s happening? Have you got it yet?’
Even through the communicator’s metallic tone he can feel her impatience, the speed of her breathing.
‘I’ll get it if you stop interrupting me.’
‘Don’t know yet.’
‘Is Logan there?’
‘Dead. Like you thought. Hate to think what he’s like now.’
He doesn’t reply. Does this mean she cares? She’d been at pains to suggest she did … how many nights now?
Back in his cabin on the station. She’d insisted he turn on his privacy screen and then … Side by side after, staring at the never quite perfect artificial dark.
‘I suppose this is just about sex to you,’ she’d said in a voice that still seemed to purr. He’d offered a kind of slow grunt. Strange how careful you always have to be, no matter the situation.
‘I just want you to know that it’s not like that for me,’ she’d said, ‘I feel care.’
I feel care. When had that become the phrase of choice for expressing sincerely held emotion? An impersonal way to express the personal. There was an efficiency about it, he supposed. I feel care. I feel queasy. I detect anomalies.
Then again, sex – and the pretence of care – were the oldest ways of keeping somebody close, under watch.
He is closer now. Under the thickest liquid layer is a micro-forest of fibrous sinew. Some contain burning acid, others a toxic powder known to terminate breathing in seconds. The Morbius Plant, like most living things, is loath to yield up its treasure.
It is now that he must cut with extreme precision, tiny tube by tiny tube. He needs to do it in the right order, like defusing a bomb, watching the tubes closely for movement, for any light that indicates a sudden surge of liquid.
He is his task now, nothing in his mind except the unfolding and severing of tendons. A forest of tendrils suddenly shoots up from nowhere, covering the rim of the plant like a lizard’s frill.
It almost makes him fall back. He drops his micro-cutter. He has five or so seconds to key the sonic emitter to the prescribed frequency, to freeze those deadly quills in place.
He waits a moment or two, wanting to be certain the plant’s last line of defence is immobilised. He must work quickly now. The last moments of anything are always the tightest. The last two layers resemble a kind of hard plastic. They have to be prised loose at the edges then peeled away with terrible delicacy.
Too quick or too slow and what remains of the plant’s consciousness will trigger the very last defensive reflex – suicide – and instantly the prize he’s travelled thousands of years to steal will be disgorged as a dead black husk.
His tension eases just enough to allow the voice to come back from that room on Old Earth, thousands of light years away.
‘These things shouldn’t exist, but they do. How can something so incredible have happened by chance? Makes you think, maybe. But the Universe has its own perverted sensibility. It hates to make anything easy. So it decides that they only grow on one world in a forest utterly toxic to humanity.
‘We estimate there’s only one every few hundred square miles or so, and how or why they evolve – if that’s what they do – is utterly beyond our ability to fathom.
‘The bottom line is: peel away layer after toxic layer of one of the most vicious growths in the Universe and you have it, nothing less than a crystalline brain, something capable of performing octillions of calculations every single nanosecond, billions of times more powerful than our greatest computers will ever be.
‘Harvest it properly, and you have in your hands the only entity capable of processing the satanic maths of true faster than light travel. You cut space journeys from decades into hours. You change human life forever. You open the Universe. More important than anything: you become richer than Satan himself.’
One layer comes away like skin off a scab. This should be …
‘The plant seems to have evolved to protect the thing. It seems to have no other purpose. Bauble and plant are separate life forms, unconnected apart from the symbiosis. Like a fetus maybe. Are either of them conscious? Who knows? Who cares?’
It almost slides into his arms, like the easiest of births. And what he cannot process is its stupefying beauty. The deep blue is shot through with lattices of moving, multi-coloured light, the physical manifestation of billions upon billions of thoughts, all happening at once. He’s been warned about this, how the thing can hypnotise.
‘Turn on your camera.’ And he’s grateful to her, her shrill impatience.
‘No need. I’m coming back.’
‘Have you got it?’
It’s got to be transferred into the environmental can almost immediately. Contact with what passes for open air will kill it. He has to trust the case will do its work. If they’re off by a tenth of a degree, if the case has been damaged …
The plant remains immobile as he backs away from its kill zone, daring a few seconds for a glance over Logan’s spent shell.
They’d been a team, the three of them, their pact made on Earth then reassembled here, after the decades of frozen sleep. They’d worked themselves down here to Theta Station, the one in the zone of the forest calculated as most likely to harbour a living Morbius Plant.
It was the most secret of pacts. They never even spoke to each other till they reached Theta. Like all its counterparts across this globe, Theta was engaged in the ridiculous study of this place as a possible abode – someday – for human life. They had masqueraded as scientists, passionate about survival of the species.
But Logan had broken the pact, had chosen to go it alone, just as Shannon said he would.
A rain has started to fall. It begins as a slow trickle, gathers into a full squall within seconds.
One droplet from this deluge would be enough to deep fry a naked human arm. This Universe. The amount of things in it that want to kill us.
He trudges slowly, ever warily, over metallic bark and grasping spiky creepers, trying not to scream in panic as the ground disappears and his foot is swallowed by a mudhole.
The last moment of everything is always the most clenched. Noise in his ear tells him she’s trying to make contact. He reopens the channel.
‘Where are you? Did you get it?’
‘I’m on my way back.’
‘I want to show you something.’
‘Just switch me on. Do it.’
He activates the small screen inside his helmet. She is standing in Theta’s control room, completely naked, her arms outstretched.
‘Preview of coming attractions,’ she says.
‘Are there – uh – are there people there?’
‘The last two techies went back up to orbit 30 minutes ago. Hurry back.’
She winks and disappears, her body burned on his retinas like a carnal Cheshire cat.
He is careful not to increase his pace. The blue haze of the forest has been pummelled silver by the deluge. He needs to adjust his helmet’s viewer. The suit has its own map and beacon to guide him but he prefers to rely on memory.
A small ridge has been turned to sludge by the storm. He opts to try and trudge through it.
There, he thinks, is the copse of spindly alien trees he remembers. There is no known animal life in the blue forest. The flora is simply too hostile, too predatory.
In the thickening mist he can still spy the white dome. He advances across a stream of violet liquid and waits. He touches his communicator.
‘Here,’ he says, and falls to the ground, still clutching the case.
The husk of his suit remains outside for long minutes before anything happens. If there is no tear, then the enzymes in the ground can’t dissolve him straight away, but it’s only a matter of time.
He is a shell, a dead piece of almost forest waiting for … contact?
It comes with a gentle pulling at his lifeless arm. It is the signal to activate himself, to spring to life like the feral plant and its frill.
He strikes out, knocking the other suit to the ground. The weapon it was carrying falls away. He doesn’t bother retrieving it, simply grabs the case.
He opens his communicator. The voice inside is struggling. His blow must have compromised the suit.
‘Wha … attt?’
‘I checked Logan’s suit before I came back,’ he says, ‘no breaches. The only answer was that the suit had been commanded to shut down from the station. I disabled the frequency on my own suit. You probably should have checked that. Maybe you should have killed my suit before, but then it would have been just you, no fail safe.’
‘I … I’m sorry.’
‘Funny, isn’t it? The three of us would each have been richer than Satan. Funny how even that’s never enough.
‘I … felt … care.’ He waits a time, as if to make sure these are in fact her final words.
Yes, he whispers, in a funny way I think you did.
He turns away from her to the Dome. There is no need to worry about the body, about evidence. The forest will consume everything soon enough. He opens the hatch, climbs inside and begins decontamination.