Authors: John Boyd
Tags: #Science Fiction
The Pollinators of Eden
To Lynn Gillaspy, as a warning
Go, and catch a falling star.
Get with child a mandrake root…
Serves to advance an honest mind.
FROM: Surgeon General, NASA, Houston, Texas. TO: Director, Institute of Advanced Studies, Santa Barbara, California. SUBJECT: Psychiatric case history, Freda Janet Caron. DIAGNOSIS: Humanism with nymphomanic omniphilia. REFERENCES: (A) Letter dated 8/12/37. Doctor Hans Clayborg, IAS, to Secretary of Agriculture.
(B) Directive #27, U.S. Attorney General.
In accordance with reference (A) and in compliance with reference (B), the case history of the subject patient, a female Caucasian, aged 24, formerly employed as a cystologist for the Bureau of Exotic Plants, is herewith submitted for extramedical recommendations.
Subject patient’s traumatic episode occurred May 16-17, while accompanying Scientific Expedition C, for Charlie, to the planet called variously Flora, the Flower Planet, or the Planet of Flowers. However, deep narcosis analysis reveals that events contributing to the patient’s hospitalization commenced in January with the arrival from Flora of the first section, A for Able, at the Fresno facility’s Navy landing…
Blond and ovately willowy, Freda Caron stood on the control-tower bridge and searched the morning blue above the San Joaquin Valley, using Commodore Minor’s binoculars to scan the sector he pointed out. Thus she caught the first glint of sunlight against the USSS
when the transport swung stern down to commence its earth approach and saw the first prick of its contrail when the ship plummeted into the atmosphere. She was focusing on the droplet of vanadium 320 beneath the rosette when the bridge lookout called, “
As its retros slowed it in the thickening air, the starship became a dot in the sky that inched southwestward over the landing pad as its contrails dissipated eastward. The dot swelled. Her ears caught the rustle of its retro-jets, which rose to a keening and faded as the launching pad’s concavity focused the whine back onto its source, dampening the shriek to a rumble that hardly shook the control tower one thousand yards from the pad.
Silver, slim, the shape of the Botany was emerging to her angle of sight as it sank into a self-compressed cushion of air. Below her, the decontamination chamber, exit nozzle flexing from its huge carapace, was trundling over the hardpan toward the pad. All the technology of man, it seemed to her, had gathered to this segment of time wherein the earth received her children from space, and Freda thrilled at the sight until…
Above her, the Botany’s landing pods unfolded, outward and downward, on extenders which resembled the ribs of a wind-stripped umbrella, and its grace was altered to the grotesquerie of a praying mantis. Even its silver dulled to slate when the vessel sank below the skyline of the winter-greened Coastal Range, and that which had sailed as companion to the stars was squatting a captive of earth.
Now, inside the ship, she knew, the weight of passengers, coiled inside eggs of water, was triggering their expulsion into chutes, marked 1, 2, 3, from decks A, B, C. They would awaken while sliding down curving tubes whose branches connected at lower levels, and they would plop, 1A, 2B, 3C, into bins on the floor of the decon chamber, sorted and graded by rank and serial number, academic degree and Social Security number, line or staff officer, scientist or assistant. In her mind’s ear, she could hear the plop, plop of the falling pieces which had composed Section Able of the Flora Project. But the pieces were friends and associates: they were named Rex and Hal and Kenneth. Among them was a very special piece, whom she had already sorted and graded and selected to be her husband.
Paul Theaston was coming home from Flora. Had it not been for their wedding in June, Freda herself would be leaving in April, with the Charlie Section, for the Planet of Flowers.
Flora, the Planet of Flowers. It, at least, had escaped being numbered!
Freda recalled the telecast months before when the Royal Space Navy captain, who had discovered the planet, denied himself a place in history when he refused to follow the standard procedure of explorers and put his name before the planet’s orbit number. She remembered his exact words: “When they call the Grand Canyon ‘Powell’s Ditch’ then I shall permit this planet to be named ‘Ramsbotham-Twatwetham #3!’ ”
She was remembering the telecast as the Botany settled so gently to the pad that its strut joints barely flexed. Before the gyros whirred into silence, the decon turtle had scuttled up, its exit nozzle nudging for the airlock distended from the crotch of the spidery extenders. Beside her, the Commodore exploded with admiration, “Barron always brings them down as lightly as a falling rose petal.”
Freda smiled agreement, knowing that the old space dog was simply following Navy etiquette. Commodore Minor well knew that a box no bigger than a man’s head had controlled the descent of the ship, that a reserve apprentice spaceman could have conned the craft as well as Captain Philip Barron, USSN.
Freda thanked the Commodore for his invitation to the bridge and promised that she and Paul would join him for lunch. She left the bridge for the reception area below.
Decontamination usually took half an hour. Waiting in the section reserved for management, she was grateful that rank had its privileges. Across the areaway, families of enlisted men and nonprofessionals crowded into a roped-off area in a melee of jostling elbows, a miasma of evaporating deodorants, and a din of crying babies. She was already edgy with anxiety: there seemed to be some law, she thought, which stated that anxiety increased with the square of the nearness to reunion with a loved one.
To compose herself, Freda reviewed the wedding plans she was saving to discuss with Paul: guest list, engravings, cake and gown design—all the delightful trivia of a formal wedding. For the most part, she didn’t absolutely need Paul’s opinions or decisions, but she wanted him to feel that he was contributing more to the wedding than the body he would place before the altar. Then she ran through the agenda backwards, but her jitteriness increased and went into overdrive when she heard the clunk of the turtle locking onto the exit ramp.
Navy protocol aligned the procession that filed down the ramp into the waiting room. Heading the contingent of ship’s officers came Captain Barron, striving simultaneously to adjust to earth’s gravity and to maintain military bearing. As he strode toward the elevator, his rigid bounce reminded Freda of a man walking on two pogo sticks. Staggering, cantering, bouncing, gliding, the ship’s officers followed, all beautifully tanned by the sun of Flora. Next came Doctor Hector, Project Able’s scientific director, his lanky frame gallumphing across the floor as he waved a greeting to Freda. Behind him came the remaining scientists, department heads all, but Paul Theaston was not among them.
Paul Theaston, her fiancé, had not returned from Flora!
She knew immediately that he had merely stayed over with Section Baker; her friends had all greeted her with smiles. But her former anxiety deepened into disappointment. No doubt, since he was the project’s only morphologist, he had been unable to complete his work goals in the four months assigned to a section. Now, he would be returning only days before the wedding. All the prewedding tasks would be hers, demanding twice the time she had scheduled, taking from time she had planned to use crossbreeding Martian lichen with terrestrial rock moss.
She stood for a moment to watch the tide flow down the ramp and crest over the crowd opposite, eddying around cries of “There’s daddy!” and “Over here, honey!” With an ear trumpet, she was positive she could have heard the slurp of kisses and the plop of withdrawing lips. With disgust and envy, she was watching when Hal Polino, Paul’s assistant, literally swirled from the crowd, pirouetting to clear two earthenware pots he held, one under each arm. Each pot contained a tulip in full bloom, and he had seen her, was coming toward her with a grin. “Keep your lips puckered, Doctor Caron. Paul is sending me as his proxy.”
“If you enjoy public displays,” she snapped, “look behind you! Where’s Paul?”
“The lucky stiff got an extension through Section Baker, to finish his study of orchid pollination.”
Polino noticed her disappointment, and his grin changed to a smile, his eyes softened. “Anyway, he sent you these, a gift from fairyland to the most beautiful plant scientist on earth. My words, not his. Paul’s message is on the name plates.”
She glanced at the flowers Polino held. Their stems were a foot long and greener than the stems of earth tulips. Their blooms were of a yellow that was iridescent. Three inches below the carpels there was a bulbous swelling, serrated with flutings. On placards stuck into the loam of the pots Paul had lettered, “
Tulipa caronus sireni
“If Paul thinks he can placate me by naming a tulip for me, he’d better reconsider his approach.”
“These aren’t ordinary tulips, Doctor. Listen.”
Polino bent his head and whistled a wolf’s call against the bulb of the tulip in his right arm. Holding the pot away from him, he swirled once in a complete circle and held the pot toward her. Low, but very distinct, the flower trilled a wolf whistle. It was realistic to the point of bawdiness, and Freda laughed.
“The ovary sac is an air chamber with a plastic memory,” Polino explained, “and that’s why Paul gave it the name ‘siren.’ ”
Freda took the tulip from his hand and looked down into the bloom. It was a male, all stamen and no stigma. “This plant is heterosexual,” she said.
“Completely so,” Polino agreed. “I’m carrying the female next to my heart.”
Astonished, she glanced at the female. There was a vestigial stigma at the lip of the oviduct, but no stamen at all. For her the air chamber had become merely an oddity. The two plants had achieved a stage of heterosexuality which put them eons ahead of their terrestrial cousins.
“Are you returning to the base with the rest of us?” Polino asked.
“No, Hal. Paul and I had a luncheon date with the Commodore, and I plan to keep it.”
“I have a package for you in my gear which includes a letter. Paul wanted me to hold it until after the briefing, because he wants you to see the briefing first. Besides, he gave me twenty dollars to take you to dinner tonight. There’s a postscript to the letter he wants me to give to you verbally, because he’s afraid if you read it cold, without my persuasiveness, you’d think he flipped his lid.”
“We’ll discuss that after the briefing,” Freda said brusquely. “Meanwhile, you take the female tulip to my office, in greenhouse five, and hang it. I’ll bring the male tulip.”
It was an order from a superior, and Polino recognized it as such. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and turned toward the bus ramp.
She had been angered by Paul’s presumption in virtually ordering her to dine with a mere assistant, particularly with one who used such expressions as “flipped his lid” and called his administrative superior a “lucky stiff,” and she had been abrupt with the student. Walking toward the elevator, she felt a tinge of remorse which she recognized as a feminine weakness. When Polino turned away, his sad brown eyes had reminded her of her childhood’s only pet, a cocker spaniel which had died while still a puppy.
In the elevator her anger softened in the presence of Paul’s gift. The tulip was adorable, and if she judged Paul’s behavior without rancor, she had to admit that he had acted intelligently when he suggested dinner with Polino. On twenty dollars the student would be compelled to take her to some obscure restaurant in the Italian section of Fresno where it was unlikely she would be seen dining with him. As Paul well knew, Doctor Gaynor, Chief of the Bureau of Exotic Plants, disapproved of management fraternizing with lower-echelon personnel, even when such personnel were graduate botanical students attached to the Bureau. Doctor Gaynor would particularly disapprove of a female department head dining with Hal Polino.
Although Hal Polino was handsome and Italian, his major faults were lack of methodology, irreverence toward authority, and odd enthusiasms, particularly his interest in twentieth-century folkways. He played dissonant jazz on a guitar, wore a plaid cap when he drove; and, Paul had told her, Polino’s “pad” held fewer professional journals than it did the philosophical works of Ayn Rand, William James, and Hugh Hefner. In her official capacity as Administrative Director of the Cystological Section of the Bureau of Exotic Plants, Department of Agriculture, Freda was called upon to make value judgments as an administrator as well as a scientist. In both capacities she was in full agreement on Hal Polino, despite Paul’s regard for the boy. Polino was certainly not junior-executive material; in fact, she doubted if Hal Polino would ever have a name plate on his desk.