Adventures of a Botanist
by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
appeared in issue 253
Chapter 6: GROK
A few days after the flap over radiation hazard I decided that a night on the town would be a fun way to relax. “Listen, Sidney,” I said, “let’s take the night off and go out to the Golden Turnip for dinner and drinks.”
“Sorry, Albert, I’m going to have to work tonight. There’s a new assay in progress and they want results by morning. In fact, I could use some help with it. It would go much faster if you could run some of the numbers.”
“Not a chance, my friend. You’re letting these vegetables work you too hard. Treat yourself to a little time out. I’m sure Marguerite would appreciate it too. She’s been complaining to me she hasn’t seen enough of you lately.”
“You’re tempting me, Albert. I haven’t been seeing enough of her either. It would be fun to go dancing tonight.”
“Come on, Sidney. Let’s do it.”
“Okay, pal. I’ll find someone to fill in for me tonight.”
That evening at the Golden Turnip, Sidney, Marguerite and I sat at a corner table sipping, yep, margaritas, while waiting for our dinner orders to arrive. A gypsy trio was circulating among the tables playing their romantic fiddle music, full of weltschmerz and love-longing. It was so corny that it made me smile, lifting my mood, which was already quite elevated, as I was working on my second drink.
Marguerite said, “Sidney, we have to find Albert a girlfriend. He’s been too long on the job with no one to amuse him. You are lonely, aren’t you, Albert?”
Was that Marguerite or the margaritas talking? Both, I guessed. The drinks gave her the nerve to be so direct with me. None of the women I’d met over here appealed to me, but I liked it that Marguerite was trying to look after me. “Let me put it this way, Marguerite. I’d take another dose of KR22 if I could be sure that it would put me on the beach at Topolobampo with Belinda.”
“I have a better idea, Albert,” Sidney said. “Send her an email offering her a job at the lab. I’m sure we could get it okayed. Has she got her degree yet? If she goes for it, then send her an air ticket to Kyvia. Meet her at the plane with a big bunch of flowers.”
“That’s a great idea, Sidney.” My mood shot up another notch. “I’ll put in a request tomorrow. The vegetables really ought to go for it, shorthanded as we are.”
“I’ll put my magic endorsement on it,” Sidney replied. “We’ll push it right through.”
Then doubts began to assail me. “Do you think she’ll go for it?”
“Of course, she will. Wasn’t she nuts about you in Topolobampo?”
“Yes, but that was just my mental construct of her.”
“Believe me, Albert, from everything you’ve told me about the real Belinda flirting with you back at Rutabaga U, she’s going to jump on your bones the minute she gets here.”
“But will I like her as much as I liked my mental construct of her?”
“Oh, shut up, Albert. She loves you. You love her. It’s going to be great.”
After dinner we moved on to the Slippery Salamander. Sidney and Marguerite wanted to dance. I felt like dancing myself. And I did dance two numbers with Marguerite. The band was terrible, but for Kyvia, not too bad. I had switched to rum punch and I was feeling really loose, balancing between a don’t-give-a-damn happiness and some jets of apprehension about bringing Belinda here, when what I really wanted was to get the hell out of this place.
As I walked back to our table from dancing with Marguerite, a man I knew slightly from the lab approached me. He was a Kyvian biochemist with the rather schizoid name of Mohammed Rosenfeld. He extended his hand. I shook it and said, “How ya doin’, Mohammed?” He leaned in close to me and whispered, “I got a message for you, Dr. Salsify.” He handed me a note and walked away.
I opened the note and read: Don’t go to the lab tonight. Don’t let Dr. Purslane go to the lab tonight. Danger. It was signed Bart Comfrey.
It was about 3 am when we finally decided to call it a night and slide out of the Slippery Salamander. We got into a taxi and Sidney said, “I’m going to stop off at the lab for a few minutes and see how that assay is coming.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “You’re going home with Marguerite. You’re on a date, for goodness sake. And you’re too drunk to evaluate an assay. Tomorrow will be soon enough.”
“This is only going to take a few minutes,” he objected. “I want to make sure they’re doing it right. Then I’ll go along with Marguerite, won’t I, dear Marguerite?”
“Albert is right,” she said, snuggling up to him. “You better just come with me.”
“Now wait just a minute,” he said. “Am I not the director of Project Exodus at the Kyvian Botanical Research Laba...babratory? I mean, all vegetative intelligences aside, do I not have responsibi...bilities? I ask you as one human to another.”
Marguerite and I were both about to respond when we heard a terrific explosion.
“What the hell was that?” said Sidney.
I said, “Maybe it’s ...”
“Maybe it’s what?”
I tried to assume a sinister tone. “Somebody told me there’s danger at the lab.”
“What danger? Who says there’s danger?”
I showed him the note.
“What the hell is this? Isn’t Bart Comfrey your ex-student? Could he be here in Kyvia? What the hell is he up to?”
“I have no idea.”
“Didn’t you tell me the plants were driving him nuts?”
“Yes, but that stopped some time ago.”
“Driver, take us to the Botanical Laboratory.” The driver pulled away from the curb and headed for the lab.
Another huge explosion rocked our ears. Then another and another. The sounds were coming from the direction of the lab. We were still two or three miles away. Sidney urged the driver to hurry. As we raced to the scene, planes passed us flying low overhead and we heard more explosions. The sky ahead was lit up with a flickering glow. As we entered the long drive leading to the lab complex, we saw flames shooting from several of the buildings. Four planes skimmed in low, dropping bombs, and flew on out of sight. The driver pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
We leaped out of the taxi and ran toward the lab. People were scattered about the grounds, some still running out of the burning buildings. The main building, the principal site of Project Exodus research, was badly damaged and burning furiously. The KR22 wing was rubble. Every building in the complex had received some hits and was burning.
“Dr. Purslane! Dr. Purslane! Workers still inside.” The heat was driving people away from the fires. Sidney pushed his way closer. I ran after him, shouting, “Sidney, you can’t go in there.” With all the shouting and pushing I couldn’t reach him or make myself heard. He got within ten feet of the main building and stopped. Flames shot out the entrance toward him and his shirt caught fire. He rolled on the ground and ripped off his shirt. I could see the buttons popping. He flung it away and ran from the building.
Police cars and fire engines came roaring up the drive with sirens wailing. The firemen hooked up their hoses and began to attack the flames. The police set up a cordon and pushed the crowd back. I looked up to see if more planes were coming, but the raid appeared to be over.
Two policemen caught up with Sidney and dragged him away from the flames. He tried to explain that because of some of the chemicals in the lab, water could make the fire worse. Foam would be needed to snuff the flames. But no foam was available, so water was used, with little or no effect. No doubt the highly inflammable stocks of Lycopodium and Escapodium powder were also fueling the fire.
Marguerite and I rushed up to Sidney. His eyebrows and chest hair were gone. “I’m sober now,” he said.
“No kidding,” Marguerite replied. “No coffee needed.” She put her arms around him. “I thought we were going to lose you, baby,” she added.
“Yeah,” he said. “For a moment I thought so too.”
“Sidney,” I said, “What did you think you were doing?”
“Jeez, Albert. There are people in there. My assay team is in one of the basement labs. They may still be alive down there.”
“It’s possible,” I said, “but they’ve got to get the fire under control before anyone can go on rescue missions.”
“This fire is just going to burn itself out,” he said. “The water’s not helping. Wait, the tunnel, the tunnel!”
Sidney ran to the nearest police officer and began gesticulating wildly. Marguerite and I caught up to him just in time to hear him shouting, “Fifty yards behind the main building, an entrance to an underground storage area for toxic chemicals. A tunnel leads from there to the basement of the main building. If there’s anyone alive in the basement, we can reach them.”
“Just who are you, sir?”
“Dr. Sidney Purslane, one of the directors of the lab. There’s no time to lose. Let’s get some firemen together and get back there. We’ll need some axes. I don’t have my keys with me.”
The policeman sprang into action. He conferred with his fellow officers. They commandeered a firetruck. We all jumped aboard and went bouncing off, circling around the main building and pulling up near a small stone structure with a single door.
“Thank God, it hasn’t been hit,” Sidney cried. “Smash that door.” A hefty fireman wielded his axe and made short work of the job. The fire fighters and police officers followed Sidney through the doorway, which led immediately to a descending stone staircase. Marguerite and I brought up the rear. At the bottom of the steps, they forced another door and we entered the storage area, where the walls were lined with metal and plastic drums with biohazard warning signs all over them. Then we ran down the tunnel and came at last to the door to the main basement.
“One more door,” said Sidney. “But we’ve got a problem here. I don’t know if we should axe it. If the fire spreads to the tunnel, it could reach those chemicals. We can’t let that happen. Anyone know how to pick the lock?”
One of the policemen pounded on the door. “Anybody in there?”
A faint answering knock came from within. “They’re alive in there,” cried Sidney. “We’ve got to get this door open.”
The axe wielding fireman said, “We’re gonna waste too much time dinkin’ around with the lock. Better to bust a big hole in that door. We can drag a hose down here and keep the fire from spreading into the tunnel. We’re a pretty good distance from those drums.”
“Okay,” said the police officer. “Do it.” Two firemen went to work on the door. When a hole appeared, we were greeted with a blast of heat, but no flames or smoke.
When the hole was big enough, Sidney stepped into the basement, followed by several others. When I got up close, I could see through the hole two women lying in the cooler air at floor level. Sidney helped one of them to her feet. “Good morning, Lily,” he said, “how’s the assay coming? I hope you haven’t let it get too hot.”
“Oh, Dr. Purslane, I’m afraid it got a bit overcooked.”
One of the firemen helped the other woman up. Sidney said, “It’s very, very good to see you, Rose. So happy to see both of you. Anybody else in here?”
“Upstairs, yes, but we were the only ones working in the basement.”
“Then let’s get out of here.”
As they left, the firemen were calling for hoses and reinforcements, and planning to mount a rescue expedition up to the first floor.
Two hours later Marguerite, Sidney and I sat around Marguerite’s apartment thoroughly exhausted, but too wired to sleep. Marguerite had put on a pot of coffee and was cooking up an omelette. The sun was already climbing in the sky. I found the light offensive, as though the sun should have waited for us to go through a night of sleep before daring to show itself.
Sidney finally voiced the question that had haunted us since we first saw the lab in flames. “Who in the hell came over in bombers, fer Chrissake, and demolished the lab?”
We kicked this one around. Kyvia was not at war. There was a hostile neighbor to the east, but that had been a standoff situation for decades, with only the occasional border skirmish that had never threatened to escalate into a fullblown war. Besides, why would they target the lab? The answer is they wouldn’t, so it wasn’t the Dalamanians. But then, who?
I heard a familiar voice in my head. It was an international taskforce known as GROK. That’s an acronym for Get Rid Of KR22.
Sidney straightened up and cried out, “So, it was about KR22 then. Why didn’t we think of blowing up the lab? We had such a sophisticated, elegant, biochemist’s solution, except it didn’t work, was years from fruition. My God, so simple. So straight forward.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Except for the people who got killed.”
“What are you two on about?” asked Marguerite, as she brought the omelette to the table.
“Oh, we could have done much better when it comes to that,” said Sidney. “We would only have destroyed the KR22 lab, not the whole complex. We could have gotten everyone out of the building on a pretext, like the threat of a toxic leak or something. Then kaboom!” He pounded his fist on the table and the omelette took a short leap.
“Hey,” I said, “is it you talking, the philodendron hanging over the kitchen sink?”
“Oh,” said Marguerite. “You’re talking with plants again. I’ll never get used to that.”
Yes, it is I, the philodendron, speaking for the group, as usual. GROK is an ad hoc coalition of militant activist groups from about thirty nations. They grew tired of petitioning the UN and the world’s major governments and receiving nothing but rhetoric and promises to form committees to look into the problem. The raid was led by the impetuous and controversial mercenary General Jock Oakenshield. You may recall that he made the cover of Time Magazine last year in connection with a raid on a crack cocaine operation in Peru.
“You seem to know all about this GROK,” put in Sidney. “Did you know they were planning this attack?”
We’ve been following their operations for some time. You know we have our roots and rhizomes everywhere. But we knew of no way of forestalling them.
“Well, you could at least have warned us to evacuate the lab.”
True, but what are a few humans more or less? There were plenty of plants in the lab too. We do not concern ourselves with individuals.
“Oh, but that’s not so,” I interjected. “I know from Backster’s experiments and from my own research that plants scream in anticipation of being harmed. These are individuals who seem quite concerned with themselves and their continued well being.”
Yes and no, the philodendron replied. You and Backster both interpreted the jump of a polygraph needle as a scream, but it’s merely a heightened awareness in anticipation of an imminent change. Of course, the individual plant has concerns for itself, but at the same time all plants are more concerned with the super organism of which they are a part.
“Well, I can tell you,” Sidney added, “that it’s not the same for humans. The individual is everything and a few humans more or less is a very big deal.”
Yes, we know that, but however you may judge us, we think and act like plants, true to our nature. What I’ve been instructed to tell you now is that our operations in Kyvia are finished, so you’ll need to plan for your futures, as we are planning for ours. Please alert your colleagues.
“So much for KR22,” said Sidney. “Good riddance. And so much for Project Exodus. And I say, so what! Speaking as a human and being true to our nature, why should I care if you vegetables get off the planet or not?”
Oh, Project Exodus will go forward, but not in Kyvia and not funded by drug money.
“So much for the distinguished director of Project Exodus.” Sidney took a big bite of omelette and smiled. “On to the next adventure.”
“So much for bringing Belinda to Kyvia,” said I, as I dug into the omelette. I smiled too as I realized that I was free now to leave this impoverished desert kingdom and return to the land of reliable plumbing, good bagels, the New York Yankees, and Belinda Peartree.
Proceed to Chapter 7...
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill