Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 2, part 1; part 2
appeared in issue 252.
Chapter 3: Project Exodus
My first night in Kyvia, Sidney Purslane got me drunk. He took me to a bar in the native quarter and told me his story while I tried to cope with the incredible noise, my jet lag and unaccustomed amounts of alcohol.
On one side a local band was playing a highly percussive music, in fact, it would not be too much to say that they were punishing their instruments. This delighted their fans, who were dancing, which is to say, they were jumping up and down vigorously, making the hardwood floor react like a trampoline. I had to hold onto my glass to keep it from dancing off the table.
On the other side a group of sports fans and their highly vocal kibitzers were torturing a dozen foosball machines, the banging and clacking of which blended with the music so that we were suspended in a pocket of total sound, much as I would imagine the interior of a loudspeaker during a rock concert. All the while darts were whizzing past my head.
I missed a great deal of Purslane’s story. I got only a surrealistic impression. He was a giant of a man, built like a stevedore, tall and muscular. I could picture him leading a safari except for his face, which reminded me of my dentist’s, with frightened bewildered eyes behind oversize glasses, an apologetic moustache. His expression gave me the impression that life tasted like a sour lemon to him and yet it was also a hilarious joke. He pulsed with a scarcely reined in energy, roaring constantly against the wall of sound, waving his great bulging arms and filling our glasses. I heard almost nothing, saw only his broad gestures, most of them unintelligible. Several times the gesture was clearly that of driving a car, several times that of counting out money or perhaps dealing cards, interspersed with unmistakable references to a woman with large breasts.
Only much later did I get the story straight. On that wild night I understood only that by some confusing mixture of coercion and seduction, he had become the director of Project Exodus at KBRL, the Kyvian Botanical Research Laboratory. For seven years he had been locked in a room where, to keep his sanity, he studied the anatomy of the floor. This made no sense at the time, but later I learned that this floor was composed of the cross-section of a great tree and that Dr. Sidney Purslane was a specialist in plant anatomy. In his long paper on the subject he enumerated 105 particulars in which the anatomy of this tree differed from anything he had ever studied before.
When I awoke the next day I felt totally disoriented. Hung over and jet-lagged, I found myself in an unfamiliar country, cut off from my past life with all its habitual routines and as yet without a clue about the new life that was beginning. No doubt Sidney Purslane was trying to brief me the previous night. In fact, he seemed desperate to do so, but he only compounded my confusion.
When I reported in at the lab, Dr. Purslane was addressing members of his staff. He showed no signs of the agitated personality that animated him in the bar. He was entirely the urbane director, unruffled, in charge.
When he saw me enter he turned his attention to me and cordially introduced me to the staff and welcomed me to the lab. Then he took me on a tour of the facility, explained the nature of the work, and finished by showing me the generous lab space that had been assigned to me.
When I mentioned our drunken evening, saying that I had missed a great many of his remarks and would enjoy hearing more of his stories in a more conducive setting, he made a lightning-fast gesture and continued explaining the layout of the lab. The gesture was the well-known finger on the lips admonishing me to silence, but it happened in passing on the way to his scratching his cheek, so that I would not have been sure of his meaning except that it was accompanied by an equally fast look, a penetrating look of warning. I let it slide, but it disturbed me, since we were the only two people in the room.
Later he took me to lunch and I waited for him to reopen the topics of the previous night, but he went on at length about Kyvian tribal customs, a subject that he made quite interesting, even amusing, except for the unbearable tension between what was and what wasn’t being discussed. Finally, I said, “Look here, Dr. Purslane, there’s something odd going on here.”
“My dear Dr. Salsify,” he interjected before I could say more, “you are going to need an account for direct deposit of your salary. Let’s go along to the bank and set that up for you.” I had to admit that he was well suited to the post of administrator. He knew how to take charge of a situation and steer it in any direction he wanted, but I was beginning to be annoyed with him.
When we finished our business at the bank, he took me by the sleeve and said, “Have you ever seen the inside of a great bank vault? It’s quite impressive.”
“Some other time, perhaps.”
“No time like the present,” he said, dragging me along with him. We entered the office of one of the bank’s officers where he rapped sharply on the glass. A head popped up in response, that of an attractive woman, who smiled on recognizing Purslane and hurried over. She projected a matronly aura, mixed with a subliminal charge of sexuality. She wore a business suit that accentuated her voluptuous body.
“Marguerite, this is Dr. Albert Salsify, who has just joined our staff. He would love to see the vault. Can you spare the time?”
“Certainly, Sidney, I’d be delighted to oblige.”
I began to protest, mumbling lamely about not wanting to impose, but it was clear that both parties wanted me to see the vault and my protest was a weak attempt not to be bullied. We followed the lady’s brisk passage through a thickly carpeted corridor, a zone redolent of secret bank transactions, where only privileged customers were permitted to tread.
We came to the imposing door of the vault and there the lady performed the necessary incantations, involving keys, buttons and codes and at last the mighty door swung open. We entered. I was surprised when the great door closed, sealing us inside with the holy ingots and the buried wealth.
Here the air was dead. Despite the harsh shadowless light which bathed the interior, the room presented a totally mysterious face. It was like a mausoleum, a solemn, pretentious, pseudo-religious theater where bank officials came at specified intervals to pay their respects to the long dead gods of money.
“Here we can talk,” said Sidney Purslane. “No plants. Beyond their telepathic range.”
So, that’s what it was about this place. No plants. No life. In this setting the other two humans, both strangers to me, appeared pasty and alien, their vitality sucked away by the sepulchral atmosphere of the place. I wondered suddenly if they were lovers, whether in fact they came here to fornicate among the ingots, in some attempt to vivify themselves, to overcome the deadly emptiness of this tomb.
“We are in a damn difficult situation here,” Purslane continued. “What you need to know, Albert, is that Project Exodus is not the only project going forward in the lab. Have you wondered why this laboratory came to be set up in this impoverished desert kingdom? Clearly, the plant leaders needed a human front organization to facilitate their operations. To support the research they needed buildings, grounds and maintenance staff. They needed legal protection, tax breaks, corporate status, policy enforcement, all the usual prerogatives enjoyed by large-scale business enterprises. To achieve this they made a deal with the most corrupt government on the face of the planet.
“In return for these services a wing of the lab has been set up for the production, under plant supervision, of KR22, the most addicting drug known to humanity. The Kyvian sheikhs are getting rich off the sale of KR22 throughout the world. Oh, and by the way, as far as I can tell, the Kyvians are unaware of Project Exodus. They think that the legitimate function of the lab is medical research, and in fact, another wing of the lab is actually engaged in such research, developing drugs for the treatment of the acute mental breakdowns suffered by KR22 addicts.”
“But this is crazy,” I objected.
“Does anything about the plant kingdom seem sane to you anymore?” he countered. “Actually, from the vegetable point of view it makes a lot of sense. Why should they worry about us? They want off the planet. And since the human race is doomed anyway, what does it matter if a few million drug addicts are created in the process?”
“You sure about this?”
“Oh, yes. I tumbled to it fairly early on. The plant bosses don’t know I know and I’ve been damn careful to keep them from finding out. But it’s difficult to make a move without their knowing it. They’re everywhere.”
“I’ve noticed that about plants. I used to find that inspiring. Their wonderful ability to thrive in every possible niche. But under the circumstances it’s rather creepy.”
“So what do you think? Want to do something about it?”
“What do you mean do something?”
“I mean stop the production of KR22.”
I looked at Purslane. I looked at his friend, Marguerite. They looked back at me with such serious expressions, as though everything hung on my answer. “I don’t know what to say. I came here with such different expectations. Of course, the manufacture and sale of KR22 is pernicious and should be stopped. But is there anything we can actually do?”
Sidney Purslane paced the vault with a gold ingot that he casually tossed from hand to hand. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he replied, “and the answer is a KR22 scavenger.”
“Well, sure, but where are we going to get one of those?”
“We’ll have to build one. We would start by determining the structure of the KR22 molecule and then designing an enzyme that can cut it apart. Or better yet, design our enzyme to modify the KR22 molecule so that it can no longer bind in the human body. We would dump our enzyme into the vat where they make the KR22. It would presumably render the contents of the vat harmless, turn it into so much mush. This wouldn’t stop them for long, of course. They’d just clean out the vat and start over, but it would be a nice proof of concept.”
“By that time,” I replied, “our little trick would be discovered and we’d be stopped from further mischief.”
He stopped his pacing and looked at me. “Well, we’d have to be clever about that and do our best to escape detection. But then the big trick would be this. We modify the DNA of a harmless bacterium so that it will eat only KR22 molecules.” He spun around with the ingot in one hand and pretended to be an athlete competing for the shotput event. I was afraid he would actually let go of the gold brick and send it crashing into the wall of the vault.
“That sounds like a nice ten-year project for a crack team of biochemists,” I said.
“With the new techniques we’ve been learning from the our plant friends on Project Exodus we might just be able to do it ourselves.”
“Oh, but there’s more,” I replied. “If there’s a receptor in the human body that KR22 binds to, then there must be some natural peptide that the body produces to bind to that site. Our hungry little bacterium is likely to get confused and eat something the body really needs. All it would take is a small mutation.”
“Admittedly, there are some problems to be solved. I didn’t say this would be easy.”
We kicked this topic around for another hour, with Purslane enthusiastically tossing out fresh ideas, and me as the great naysayer shooting them down. By then the stale air in the vault was making me sleepy. I came away convinced of three things: one, that Sidney Purslane was a brilliant theoretician; two, that his ideas were totally crazy; and three, that I would do my best to help him.
Over the next few weeks I learned a great deal about Project Exodus. The idea was to create a compound creature whose necessary and desirable qualities would be derived from already existing organisms, like the chimera of mythology. As all this had to be wrapped up in the smallest, lightest possible package, the base organism would be chosen from among those plants with extremely light propagules. The additional needed characteristics would be added molecule by molecule to the genetic material of the base organism. The plant chosen to play this role was Lycopodium.
I remembered a book I had read as a child by the astronomer Fred Hoyle. He described an experiment to demonstrate that light exerts pressure on matter. The experimenter created a vacuum in a glass jar which had a device at the top permitting him to introduce some Lycopodium powder into the jar without disturbing the vacuum. The powder fell straight down to the bottom of the jar, as one would expect. However, when he directed a strong floodlight through the side of the jar, the falling powder slanted away from the source of light. All this was by way of introducing the solar wind, whereby dust and gas particles are driven away from the sun partly by the force of its light. This impressed me, so that for quite some while afterward I dreamed of becoming an astronomer.
But something else was nagging at my inquisitive young mind. What was this mysterious Lycopodium powder that was so easily deflected by a beam of light? Perhaps it was this question, and ultimately its answer, that deflected me from my own trajectory and carried me away from astronomy into the glorious realm of botany.
The genus Lycopodium, one of the pretty club mosses that decorate the floor of our moist forests, reproduces by means of tiny spores that seek their fortunes on the wind. The powder of Hoyle’s experiment was none other than a collection of thousands of these spores, each one capable, if landing in a favorable spot, of initiating a new Lycopodium plant. This tiny spore, suitably modified, was to be the vehicle that would take the plant kingdom to the stars.
Proceed to Chapter 4...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill