Author Topic: The Long Game  (Read 715 times)

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on: 08:26:14 PM 07/06/17
It all began several years ago.  Exon/Mobil had been conducting a drilling operation for several months in the city of Campeche, in Mexico.  Nobody remembers if they found what they were looking for, because the operation was very quickly overshadowed by what was discovered just a few days after the operation finished.  At first, there were only three.    Hell, they might have gone completely unnoticed if not for the environmental survey that was conducted after the drilling was completed.  But while the crew was searching for any signs of ecological degradation, they found something else entirely.

The initial report listed them as ‘unidentified flower.’  To this day, a lot of people call them ‘plants’ but neither ‘plants’ nor ‘flowers’ adequately describe them. Truth be told, there is no word in the English language that captures just what they are, exactly.   They share varying characteristics with plants, animals, fungus, and slime molds.  When scientists attempted to conduct genetic testing to find out where they fit in the tree of life, they made a peculiar discovery.

The plants aren’t made of DNA at all.  Instead, they have a sort of DNA-analogue, with a similar structure and function, but made of different chemical compounds.  Instead of 4 bases, their genetic structure has 8.  This is what led to the first suggestions that the plants might be extraterrestrial in origin, an idea that was bolstered by the fact that Campeche is located in the Chicxulub Crater, left behind when a meteor struck the earth 66 million years ago.  Others believe that they are a kind of anachronistic throwback from billions of years ago, having evolved independently of the rest of life on earth. 

But wherever they ultimately come from, there’s no denying just how strange they are.  People call them plants because, like plants, they are sessile, send up shoots toward the sky, and anchor themselves to the ground with roots.  But that’s where the similarities end.  The base of the plants – what’s called the ‘body’ – is a large, mostly amorphous blob.  The surface is… uncomfortably human, both in appearance and texture.  The color could best be described as somewhere between tan and peach, and is even covered in structures that superficially resemble freckles and hairs.  In reality, these are sensory organs.  The ‘freckles’ are bundles of photoreceptive cells that function like eyes, and the hairs are chemoreceptors, just like the hairs in our noses. 

As a defense mechanism, the plants employ a fern-like structure composed of a long, protruding stem covered in barbed hairs.  When threatened, the hairs erupt from the stem in the direction of the attacker.  Once embedded in the skin, the barbs prevent the hairs from being easily dislodged.  If you ever get showered in plant hairs, don’t try pulling them out.  The barbed edges will just saw through your skin.  Thankfully for us, the plants were very reluctant to use this line of defense on humans, at least initially.  They only ever attacked if certain pressure points on their bodies were touched. 

The plants have neither an exoskeleton nor an endo skeleton.  Instead, they possess a series of stiffening fibers embedded in the skin, which researchers have dubbed the ‘mesoskeleton.’  On the outside of their skin, the plants have three inflatable lungs that resemble sickly-colored balloons that inflate and deflate at a consistent rhythm.  When fully inflated, they look like gigantic, piss-colored tumors about to burst into a rain of puss.  They pump the body full of air, but instead of absorbing oxygen and producing water and carbon dioxide as waste products, the plants absorb nitrogen and produce hydrogen cyanide.  This waste is expelled through their roots into the soil on which they grow.  Instead of red blood, the nitrogen is carried throughout the plant in the form of clear hemolymph, similar to that of arthropods.  Two hearts pump the hemolymph through the plant, each pumping at alternating times, keeping the blood flow constant.  All of the plant’s tissues, organs, and systems are connected by a tangled web of mycelium-like cells that all link back to an elongated, tube-like structure that early studies believed was a primitive brain.   
The plants are carnivorous.  Of the two shoots that they send skywards, the taller of the pair splits into two branches connected by a net-like membrane of tissue.  Standing six feet-tall at the highest point, this net can harvest prey either passively or actively; flying animals may inadvertently stumble into the net, or else the plant can scoop up any unfortunate animals who wander too close.  Either method ends the same – with the branches wrapping tightly around the prey, which is swallowed by the primary shoot into the body to be digested. 

The other shoot, which is only about half as tall as the first one, ends in a pair of sac-like bladders and a long, tube-like nozzle.  For many years, this part of the plant was a great mystery.  When the sacs were examined, they were found to contain a collection of haploid spores.  The simplest explanation was that this was involved in the plants’ reproductive biology, but how exactly that worked was anyone’s guess.  The plants didn’t seem to have any active form of reproduction; it’s not as if they could go out and mate with each other, and nothing would pollinate them.  For many years, the leading theory was that this was a relictual or vestigial apparatus for a form of reproduction that the plants no longer used.  Supporters of the extraterrestrial origin for the plants also contended that perhaps the plants had a symbiosis with some other organism on their homeworld, similar to the relationship between flowers and bees, but there was no lifeform on earth that could function the same way. 

Now, that’s not to say that the plants couldn’t – or can’t – reproduce. In fact, it’s very easy for them to do so.  During the first round of dissections, it was discovered that the plants have remarkable regenerative properties.  They can regenerate cells, tissues, and even entire organ systems in a matter of hours, depending on the damage.  This is when we learned that the plants themselves aren’t actually individual organisms, but rather colonial organisms.  They are made of a series of micro-organisms that communicate and work together to form a functioning whole, similar to siphonophores like the Portuguese man-o-war.  And just like a Portuguese man-o-war, if one piece should become separated from the whole, the microbes contain all the information they need to regenerate an exact duplicate from the dismembered fragment.  If you cut a plant in half, within hours, you’ll soon have two new plants with an identical genetic makeup.  In fact, the colonial microbes that make up a plant are so efficient, that it only takes one of them to germinate an entire plant. 

All in all, during those first few months, the plants were proving to be an exciting enigma.  They made headlines the world over, and were touted as the biological discovery of the century.  In particular, the fact that they produce hydrogen cyanide as a byproduct of their respiration was especially exciting to many large industrial businesses that need HCA in order to produce other chemicals or synthetic products.  A single plant could produce gallon after gallon in just one day, with no detrimental effects to the environment.  Soon, many major industrial factories had whole fields of plants dedicated to the production of HCA, which was collected from the runoff of the soil. 

Meanwhile, an entire industry sprouted up around the care of plants for hobbyists, with many products claiming to give your plant a healthier shine or stronger hearts or whatever.  None of these did anything of course, but that’s never stopped snake-oil peddlers before, nor the people that buy it.

Two years after their original discovery, plants could be found in the millions, all over the planet.  They were in industrial farms, backyard gardens, botanical collections, arboretums, zoos, and anywhere else their novelty could be enjoyed or exploited.  Meanwhile, any time a colonial microbe was separated from the colony – by the weather, by a person, by an animal, etc. – a new plant would germinate in no time.  It was soon very common to find feral plants sprouting up in the wild all over the world.  This would sometimes present a danger, because their hazardous waste would sometimes run off into supplies of drinking water.

This is when we learned just how hard they are to kill.

When it soon became apparent that certain plants couldn’t be allowed to grow in certain areas, local authorities soon discovered just how tenacious they are.  One mayor in a small Alabama town apparently hadn’t read anything about the plants’ regenerative abilities, and had the bright idea to try clearing them away with explosives.  By the time the dust cleared, 800 plants grew where before there were 6.  More cognizant leaders resorted to other methods, such as trying to burn them.  But the plants proved fireproof.  When fire didn’t work, others tried ice.  But a full spray of liquid nitrogen didn’t faze them either. 

It was back to the lab for the researchers.  The plants proved resistant to everything scientists threw at them.  Temperatures of near absolute 0, or as high 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, ionizing radiation that would make the Incredible Hulk nauseous, atmospheric pressures greater than the deepest ocean trenches, and even conditions simulating the vacuum of space were all tested.  The plants withstood them all.  They were like tardigrades on steroids – environmental extremes couldn’t touch them.  We tried several conventional poisons as well, but no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides made any impression. 

With the plants as good as invincible, different towns took different measures to deal with them.  Some places found it helped to better invest in water filtration and treatment to clean out the toxins.  Others found it made more sense to simply relocate problem plants to areas where they didn’t pose a threat.  Such solutions were cumbersome, but they worked.  Years passed, and in time, the plants became just another part of life for everyone.

All until June 11, 2017. 

On that day, at precisely 12:07 AM GMT, every plant on earth – and by then, they numbered in the billions – pointed their tube-like nozzles upward and sprayed a cloud of haploid spores into the air.  Given the bizarre nature of the phenomenon there was a lot of initial curiosity, all of which was quickly overshadowed by what happened next.  All over the world, millions of people started reporting a strange, burning, itching rash.  Where on the body varied by person, but they all reported the same symptoms, accompanied by a dark, greenish-brown fungus growing on the affected areas.  Many quickly saw the connection to the plants, but the full extent of what was happening wouldn’t be clear until the next day. 

The fungus spread across their bodies, creeping up their arms, down their legs, and over their faces.  As it did, it ate.   Within less than 24 hours, an entire person would be covered from head to toe in the slimy, mold-like substance.  The fungus devoured all extraneous tissues: fat, skin, hair, certain muscles.  What started as a minor irritation ended in what the victims described as a million burning needles being pushed slowly through their bodies.  By the day’s end, death was a welcome relief. 

But this was only the beginning.

People died, but the fungus didn’t.  After eating away any remaining signs of personality or individuality, the fungus penetrated the leftover parts of the brain, effectively hijacking the body and turning it into a mostly-decomposed puppet.  The nearly-skeletonized marionettes shambled along, now serving the purpose of the fungus.  I wish I could say that was the worst of it.  The fungus, like its plant progenitor, was colonial – only one microbe was enough to germinate.  This meant that all it took was one touch from an infected individual to spread the disaster.  Soon, doctors who were supposed to be aiding people became victims and carriers, contaminating entire hospitals in minutes. 

By June 12, 2017, over 300 million people were affected by this fungal plague. 

It took a while to figure out exactly what had happened, not least of which because we needed to safe guard against contamination.  Fortunately, gas masks seemed effective against the airborne fungal spores, which only begin spreading when in contact with organic material.  Whenever outdoors, people had to start wearing sealed clothing.  Millions of dollars were poured into research and development of industrial sized air filtration systems to keep entire towns and cities clear.  And while the world did its best to defend itself, the scientists went back to the lab for the last time.

It’s so easy to overlook things that you aren’t searching for.  I like to think this is why we missed so much.  The fungal spores are indeed a part of the plants’ reproductive biology.  Remember, there were only 3 plants at first.  All the rest that followed were genetic clones of these first three individuals.  But this was only a secondary method of reproduction.  The fungal spores were part of their primary method.  The process seems to be, so far as we can tell, that the plants spray another lifeform with their spores, which consume the host and turn them into a walking, brain-dead husk.  This shambling fungal zombie then finds another plant with a different genetic makeup to be sprayed again.  The two sets of haploid spores then recombine to form diploid organisms that are then able to grow into a new, genetically distinct plant.  The bones the collapse to the ground as the new plant grows from their remains.  Along the way, anyone or anything they touch becomes another carrier with the same purpose. 

This raises obvious questions – why did it take so long?  It was five years before they first sprayed.  If this was an essential part of their primary mode of sexual reproduction, why did it take so long for them to begin?  More to the point, why – and how -  did they all do it simultaneously?  Nobody knows for sure, but there are theories out there.

Remember that long, tube-like organ inside the body?  The one that was originally interpreted as a primitive brain?  Well, they were half right.  It was a brain, but it was anything but primitive.  The network of mycelium-like microbes running through the body’s interior work exactly like neurons, and the brain they all connect to has over 20 trillion neural connections – that’s 200 times more processing power than the human brain.  We didn’t think much of this organ initially because of the plants’ sessile lifestyle.  We never figured they’d be anymore cognizant than a sea sponge. 

Had we subjected them to more rigorous scientific scrutiny, we might have detected the infrasonic waves they used to communicate with each other over hundreds of miles, or the range of pheromones they used to control their fungal meat puppets.   And those barbed hairs they shoot to protect themselves?  After that initial attack, they weren’t so reluctant to use them anymore.  Ever since June 2017, the plants fire at anyone who comes within sight of them. 

The world population stands at about 4 billion now.  Seven years later, and the plants now outnumber us, appearing on the face of every continent.  There’s no one left in South America or Australia.   But I do try to hold out for some hope.  A month ago, we had a major breakthrough.  The plants will die when exposed to high amounts of selenium, which seems to act the same way for them as arsenic does for us. 50 grams of selenium is enough to kill a single plant colony.  The only hard part now will producing so much selenium and distributing it across the entire planet.

But while we try desperately to think of solutions, the plants remain.  We know they can wait.  They were more than patient enough to observe us, even as we observed them, waiting for us to spread them across the surface of our own planet.  And while we harvested their waste, they plotted and schemed with each other, deciding amongst themselves the best time to strike.  They weaponized their own reproductive system to turn a not-so-insignificant percentage of the human race into mold-zombies just to spread themselves further.  And ever since they started employing animals (both human and otherwise) as zombified pollinators, they’ve been given the genetic variation that only sexual reproduction can produce.  With 8 base pairs to mutate and change, they evolve quickly.  I’ve heard rumors of some that are over 15 feet tall, but you always have to take these things with a grain of salt.  But the fact is, they are changing.  And there’s no knowing what they will become in the coming years.  . 
If you want to find me, follow the dinosaur tracks.


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on: 09:12:35 AM 07/07/17
Just one little nitpick I got with such plots: if it is so different from regular plants, how it survives on Earth soil? I am not quite sure it is a big thing, but... How come fire and pressure not affects them? It means they are essentially not a living thing but a mere microbe, making mutated plants? Well... Maybe it is just fiction, this is why. :3

Otherwise, it is a well-written story. I might sound a bit disheartening, but this story was done a hundred times and I personally not see your twist so far on it... Still, it was fine to read once. :3 I wonder... Could there be a better twist? Like, the change being actually beneficial for the mutated life forms, so some actually try their best to change?