Barry Rice

- doing science on a terrestrial planet -

A note from the author: I wrote this as a joke, back in graduate school. You can tell I was reading a lot of Robert E. Howard at the time. Fortunately, this never made it to print. I blocked it in time by becoming the journal editor.

A slow day at the greenhouse

Just before dawn, the grey Toyota truck, with its headlights extinguished, coasted discreetly into the gravel covered driveway. The driver, a tall rogueish figure with steely eyes, stepped out and scanned the neighboring houses on this sleepy residential backroad. He was relieved that no windows were yet lit. The white bungalow he was visiting was almost hidden beneath the vines and shrubs that grew profusely over its walls, obscuring the windows and much of the front door screen. An occasional native cactus or agave poked through the tall grasses and tumbleweeds, all surrounding the introduced mulberry tree towering in the center of the yard. Hanging from this tree was an assortment of pots holding rare and exotic plants. Although the man moved with the stealth and confidence of a dangerous predator, he was cautious and tense. He turned to his car and softly called to the shadow moving inside.

"Hans! Come on!"

A massive yellow hound bounded out, muscles rippling just beneath its rich coat. With his black trenchcoat flapping in the desert's morning wind, the man quickly led his mighty beast through the tall gate in the privacy fence that surrounded the house's back yard. Once through the fence he allowed himself to relax. The two had hardly circled to the back when a door opened and a towering giant of a man stepped out to meet them.

"Barry! How are you, man! I see you brought the dog. Good, he may be of help."

"Yes, I figured I should, considering the trouble we got into last time. Paul, I'm sorry I'm late. I suppose we should just get started."

"Don't worry about it, we'll get to them soon enough. They can wait. And anyway, you know that it would be impossible for me to survive the morning without my coffee."

Barry laughed and jovially slapped Paul on the back with a blow that would have brought an ox to the ground--Paul barely flinched, "Well, let's get you your caffeine then, monster!"

The two disappeared into the house. The dog remained in the yard and ranged around the enclosure, keeping a distance from the electrified chain link fence circling the buildings. Outside this, the tall wooden privacy fence and an assortment of dense trees and shrubs on the property lines formed the next line of defense. With the addition of his new privacy fence, the greenhouse was no longer even visible off his property, A large gambrel roofed greenhouse, flanked by a small shed, stood in the center of the yard. The greenhouse was glazed with translucent corregated lexan siding, so from the outside the inhabitants of the building were blurred into amorphous green shapes. A unique feature of the building was that the walls and roof were enclosed by an unbreachable network of strong iron security bars. When he installed these bars, Paul explained to inquisitive neighbors that he often worked with hybridizing rare and expensive orchids, and that one could not be too careful about security. Since no one other than he and Barry ever went in, his explanation had never been questioned. Both shed and greenhouse were padlocked and armed with several redundant security systems.

After a light breakfast, the two stepped back into the yard. Paul's sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, exposing his heavily muscled forearms. Barry's jacket was off, and his tall lean figure was revealed to be bristling with thick muscles and steely tendons. Paul slapped him heavily on his back laughing, "So that's how you got in this business? For a woman, eh? Well, I'm sure she must have been a beauty! Good thing for her that she left you while she could!"

"What?" Barry bellowed out, "I could have your head for saying lesser things!" Paul looked at his burly friend carefully, but then saw the twinkle in his eye. Barry met his gaze with a smile and added, "But fighting friends is not why I'm here. So, let's get started."

Paul unlocked the shed, and pulled out their equipment. Over his clothes, Barry put on a layer of padding, then plastic armour, and finally his enzyme-resistent environment suit. The suit had a six inch wide steel band that encircled his waist. Once it was in place, he put on his tools. Highly magnetized, they adhered firmly to the metal belt. Completely assembled, the weight of his heavy protective gear would have been impossible for a lesser man to bear, but Barry's vast muscles were not even slowed. Paul's suit was similar, but had been personalized to "suit his whims," as he would often tell Barry. Barry thought it was amusing, but had mixed feelings about the usefulness of the black cape. Still, he thought, since the costume was extremely faithful to the original, the cape was necessary.

"Ready, Paul?"

Paul slowly turned his hulking seven foot frame to Barry, eyes hidden behind the black protective mask. He answered, his voice rumbling deep and heavy in the helmet like distant thunder, "I am ready. Join me, Barry. Join the Dark Side"

Barry smiled grimly, "Well, let's go."

Inside the greenhouse, the two stayed close together. The first several benches were well under control. The Dionaea were safely tucked away in neatly spaced spaced 15 cm pots. As they walked down the aisles, Paul plucked out a few weeds, while Barry isolated a few specimens that were becoming too large to be kept among the small plants. Barry called to Paul, "The VFTs look pretty good. I'll put these big ones over on the other benches." The next room had some seedlings and cuttings. When the plants were this small, they were never any problem, but still needed careful tending to avoid overcrowding which always brought the worst out in a plant. Paul pulled a few inferior seedlings out of one overplanted pot, and could feel them wriggle even through his gloves--more refuse for the incinerator. "Come on Barry, we've finished up in here for now. Let's spend our energies where they're needed."

When Barry met him at the riveted steel portal that sealed off the next room, Paul was already studying the floor plan on the wall. They both knew it well, but needed to finalize their strategy.

"I think that we ought to strike here, with the Drosera. All of the sundews are totally out of hand. You saw how they were massing last time. I think that while we were cleaning out the pitcher plants, they were only sizing us up. The Drosera binata's are going to give us our most trouble."

Barry considered Paul's words. "I'm afraid that I have to agree with you. The binata var. dichotoma's are really what have me worried, though." He paused, "The usual, then? I'll separate and you'll prune?"

Paul nodded. Barry flipped down his face visor and switched his helmet to radio contact. The two exchanged a tense glance and unlocked the doorway. The gas jets lining the door automatically lit, insuring that that nothing could get through the door without bursting into flame. Paul swung the door open, and the two jumped into the humid chamber beyond, the tongues of fire from the gas jets licking at their flame resistent suits. The air was thick with humidity and the smells of soil, plants and nectar. Barry looked around. The disarray was incredible. Huge plants, grossly overgrown in their pots, towered to the ceiling. Deadly lowland Nepenthes species vined around the rafters and crawled down the walls to coil and uncoil near their feet. Enormous, unidentified Sarracenia hybrids swayed in their pots, flexing their rhizomes in meat-hungry anticipation. The walls of the entire room were completely obscured by growth, and in places vision was limited to only a few feet because of the twining array of dangerous plants. The two men ran down an aisle, barely discernable in the jungle, jumping over snapping Cephalotus and Darlingtonia ground runners to get to the sundew section. As soon as they were there, Barry ran to a great four foot tall mound of mossy growth, and began to tear into the Sphagnum with his mighty fists of iron. Meanwhile, Paul kept the more ravenous and aggressive sundew species at bay with lightning-fast sweeps of his modified cattle-prod. Several inches into the moss Barry encountered some old rotting pots, and beneath that he found the bench. A few minutes later, he had exposed a length of tabletop several feet long. They paused, and then turned to the sundews. Barry carefully approached the closest plant, a medium sized clump of filiformis var. filiformis. The plant sensed his approach, and its questing leaf-blades extended their full five feet towards him. "Be careful, Barry, it looks like it may be ready to flower. You know how they get then."

Barry's eye's narrowed to slits like those of a snake, and he looked for an opening. Distracting the plant with his pike, he coolly snatched the plant's pot off the ground. As the pot lifted out of the moss, he heard a strange tearing noise but paid it no heed. He held the pot towards his lusty companion who trimmed the dead growth. Paul then yanked out a few weeds and broke the pot in half with a blow from his hammer. The two grabbed opposite sides of the root ball and pulled--with a mighty tear, the plant cleaved in two. Paul pruned slightly, repotted the humbled plants in two small tubs, and put them on the cleared bench. As a final touch, he bolted the tubs firmly onto the moist and dripping tabletop--two plants completed. While Paul was working on these plants, Barry stood guard against a field of erect tuberous Drosera which had suddenly sprung up nearby. The plants had sensed their footfalls and had popped out of dormancy in hopes of a warm meal. An emerging D. lowriei rosette joined the fray. Not spying this bloodthirsty carnivore, Barry trod on the slick plant and slipped headlong into a thick mound of Sphagnum. Paul hooted in laughter as his furious and cursing friend pulled himself out, covered with bits of moss and leaves, "Laugh all you want! Where's that damned plant?" Barry strode to the D. lowriei and tried to grind it underfoot, but the plant quickly zipped back underground like a frightened earthworm. Barry roared in fury and frustration, "Send that thing back to Allen in Australia, hidden in a box of Vegemite!" Paul continued to chuckle at his friend's antics until Barry glanced at him, "And enough from you! Or do I have to put more Aldrovanda in your bathtub?" Paul quieted quickly, and then changed the subject.

"Well Barry, it looks like that's the end of the filiformis. It's Drosera binata for a while. A whole witch's brew of subspecies, too." He considered the bedewed mass of long tendrils swaying before him. As far as he could see in the dense growth, he spied out binatas, dichotomas, and even a dreaded multifida f. extrema. The branches were two to three feet long, as thick as his thumb, and covered with short stalks which held glistening globs of adhesive mucus. Once caught in that deadly embrace, the digestive glands would not be far off. Even his environment suit couldn't stand a direct assault for long.

"Yeah, Paul, it looks bad. Above all, stay away from the extrema's. Move out!"

Barry chose his next quarry. It was a fair sized D. binata "T form" close against the others. He reached out and pulled the pot away. Again he heard the strange tearing sound, but this time, he saw its origin. The tough roots from the plants had all grown together into each other's pots! Fear coursed through his veins.

"Oh my god, Paul, they've grown together! Who knows what they might do coordinated like this!" He turned to his comrade just in time to see the soil erupt at Paul's feet. Paul was pulled down, a mass of shoots coiling around his legs. A large Drosera capensis "narrow leaf" toppled onto him, slapping its long, oar shaped leaf blades around his torso, pinning his arms to his sides and covering his face plate. Paul thrashed about blindly on the floor, in an effort to damage the plant's woody stem, but together the plants were an easy match even for his titanic strength. In the same instant, all of the nearby binatas whipped tendrils around Barry, and he was quickly covered by the slimy growth.

With both men conscious but subdued, the plants began to constrict their prey. Barry felt his armour collapsing under the tremendous pressure. Paul lost sensation in his legs as ground runners coiled ever tighter. An acrid smell filled the air as digestive enzymes sizzled into their clothing.

Barry fought against the pressure on his massive chest for some air, and forced out some hoarse words, "Paul, can you move?" He paused and waited for a response. "Paul?" Faintly he could hear his warrior-friend's voice whispering over the crackling headset, but the acids from a Drosera intermedia gripping his helmet had done too much damage to the circuitry for Barry to be able to understand him. He realized that Paul couldn't help him, and that they were both completely helpless. He resigned himself to his cruel fate.

Suddenly Barry felt a heavy impact in his side as a large flaming mass of ravening tooth and fur ran into the writhing crowd of plants that held him helpless. He looked over and saw that Hans had run in through the flaming door to help them. The dog's fur was burning in only a few spots, for he was covered with some sort of fluid that kept him from bursting completely aflame. The plants recoiled from the flames and dropped Barry heavily to the ground. The flames on the dog soon burnt out, but still the plants mysteriously recoiled from Hans's touch! The vicious canine jumped upon the bound figure of Paul and began rolling upon the D. capensis which held him, which inexplicably shrivelled and browned and loosened its hold. Hans then set his powerful slavering jaws to rending through the roots binding Paul's feet, and finally freed him. The two, guided by the brave dog, crawled through the wildly overgrown rooms towards the exit. Although the plants tried to harass the men, they were kept at bay, strangely repulsed by the rugged canine--even the tick-sized gemmae trying to burrow into his coat shrivelled and died. Finally the three exhausted crusaders reached the door, pausing only to turn off the gas flames to allow the dog to pass unscathed. In the relative safety of the Dionaea room, Barry noticed that several bottles of concentrated herbicide had been chewed open and emptied, and looked with understanding at his dripping, plant-repellent dog.

A few hours later, Paul and Barry were relaxing in the yard, watching Hans teasing an annoyed and hissing Darlingtonia. They were back in their street clothes, and Barry enjoyed the rays of the Arizonan sun playing across his handsome face. On the glass table was a medium sized box, already addressed to Australia. The phone rang, it was Barry's wife.

"Yeah, I'll be heading home in about forty-five minutes. Yeah, I've got the dog. OK, I'll tell him." He put his hand over the mouthpiece, "She says hi, Paul." Paul waved tiredly. "Yeah, he says hi. What did we do today? Not much really, just the usual stuff, wouldn't you say so, Paul? We just puttered around." He continued to talk to his wife, and Paul leaned back, stretching his tired and knotted muscles. Yes, he answered quietly to himself as he sipped his coke, just puttered around.


10 November 2007