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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Inconstant Nature

Colum has been published previously in Daily Science Fiction, as well as in Hub Magazine, Kasma Magazine, Jupiter Magazine, Cossmass Infinities, Bards and Sages, Fusion Fragment, and possibly some other places that he's forgotten about.

"I see the acid-elms have a new predator," says Zina, pointing out a vine that's strangling them.
"Good," says Olesia, "Death to traitors."
This sets Zina to laughing, until the laughing becomes the girl's trademark hacking cough. Olesia waits, and waits, and waits to the point where she starts to worry. She takes a step towards her companion, but Zina waves her back and manages to gasp, "I'm all right." Zina accuses Olesia of "mothering" her. The age gap is about right, and Zina's mysterious ailments persist despite all treatment, it's only natural to worry. But Zina can look after herself; after all, she came to the refuge from outside. In the refuge people call her "Jungle Girl," because she's a walk-in from outside, because she's more comfortable with the forest than most, and because of her middling-brown skin. Zina makes no objection to the appellation, probably having no knowledge of history.
"You can't blame the trees," says Zina.
"They started it," says Olesia. "They were the first to change." The Change began with this mutant tree that was not only resistant to acid rain, but actually preferred an acidic environment, promoted one, and reaped the benefit that their competition couldn't stand the heat. These elms poisoned the earth and air about them, so only they could grow in it. But they could have been dealt with, could have been cut down. The wheels really came off the world when a species of fast-growing weed developed the same trick. Then the race was on. Creatures that had become resistant to pollution became polluters themselves, creating new environments in which they could thrive unmolested. It became an arms race, it became a feedback loop, it became a holocaust. In two hundred years the creatures of Earth have undergone more evolution than in the previous hundred thousand.
"We started it," says Zina. "We changed the environment. We changed the rules of the game."
Olesia has to smile at that. Zina always sticks up for the forest, like it's a delinquent child that's more to be pitied than blamed. Oleisa can see it only as an enemy, a monstrous cancer on the face of the Earth. Once this land would have been fields for as far as the eye could see. Now it's thick and dark and vibrant. Primordial. Full of strange and dangerous critters. The air itself is tinted green with toxins and alien chemistry. Outside of their suits they'd die horrible, hacking deaths, drowning in their own blood as their lungs dissolved. Olesia's grip tightens on her AK-2020. Her breathing is loud in the confines of her hazmat suit. She advances up to the acid-elms to inspect the vine that's strangling them.
"Kudzu?" asks Zina, "Bindweed?"
"Wisteria," says Olesia. Acid-resistant wisteria.
"Heads up," says Zina suddenly, urgently. "Three o-clock."
Olesia turns quickly, pointing her gun into the green gloom. The gun's sensor array feeds into her suit helmet, giving her preternatural sight. Something moves in the shadows, shiny black, big as a coffee table and with pincers that could snip off her legs. Pale shapes ride on its back, clambering over each other.
"What the fu--"
"Giant scorpion," says Zina.
The scorpion lunges forward, waving its huge pincers, reminding Olesia of those gladiators they had in the old days. Boxers, that's what they were called. It dances back, surprisingly nimble, lunges again.
"Threat display," says Zina. "She's just protecting her kids."
"Yes, I know," says Olesia, a little more sharply than she intends. The forest makes her feel as foolish and vulnerable as a child, and Zina's fearless composure makes it worse. "You've seen this species before?" she asks, backing slowly away from the monster.
Zina shrugs, looking down her own gun at it. "Seen 'em about."
"Didn't report it?"
"Are they important?" says Zina.
"That armor's not chitin, it looks like plastic."
"Well, why not, that's an organic polymer, right?"
Olesia sighs and shakes her head. Zina never grew up learning biology
from the refuge's datastore. She came to the refuge as a skinny
teenager in a hazmat-suit three sizes too big. She didn't even speak
for the first year, seeming to relearn the language from
eavesdropping, and claims to remember nothing of her life before. She
doesn't know how impossible the outside is, so it doesn't bother her
much. Olesia, who spent her childhood studying an ecosystem that was
already extinct while she clicked through her lesson plans, feels more
like a dinosaur herself with every passing day. "Things are getting
worse," she says
"Not from the scorpion's viewpoint," says Zina. "For the scorpion things are just dandy."
It's true. For the scorpions and spiders and ants and mites and tardigrades and amoebas and rotifers, and all the small, short-lived, fast-evolving species, things are indeed dandy. They have been able to adapt quickly to the massive changes, and they have each contributed change of their own. In this way they have poisoned and squeezed out the big, complex, longer-lived, slow-to-adapt creatures like tigers and pigs and elephants and people. The age of mammals is past; even those champion survivors, the rats, have been unable to keep up.
"Let's go this way," says Zina. "The grab-weed's not so thick."
"Coming up on the left," says Zina.
"Yes, I've been watching it for a while. What is it?"
"No idea," says Zina. "Something new." "It" is a glowing green dome as high as your waist, pulsing slightly. It looks like a beached jellyfish. "At least a giant scorpion is something you can recognize," says Zina. "Watch this." She walks towards the thing. The glow brightens and the frequency of the pulsation increases. Zina stops and backs away from it. "That's as close as I ever get," she says, "notice how burned the surrounding vegetation is." But she's grinning, the forest's endless novelty is joy and a fascination to her. Olesia feels a spike of envy; she should be more interested in nature's new tapestry, but she gave her heart to the tigers and elephants in her zoology classes; to the things she understood as nature before she saw the outside, the life she thought was still living out there somewhere, maybe in Africa. She's too old to learn to love these weird usurpers.
As they continue the ground starts to slope up. The jungle gives way to a more familiar looking scrubland with shrubs poking out from between rocks and boulders. The air starts to clear, becoming more oxygenated and less toxic. They're climbing out of the valley. But still the streams they cross are yellow and steaming, and there are many strange sights to be seen. They have to skirt round a nest of tardigrades, eight-legged creatures which were once invisible without a microscope; now, they're the size of rats, armored, living in eusocial groups, and spitting acid at trespassers.
But as they approach their destination their suit readings show a steadily improved quality of air, an angry hum becomes audible, and they encounter a stream that at least looks fresh and pure. Olesia breaks into an inelegant run, her laughter crackling over their radio-link. It's Zina who comes slogging behind on legs that suddenly seem old and tired.
"It worked!" cries Olesia. "It's working!" She stands in a clearing, a field, a plantation, neatly ordered and blooming. The air above it is alive, swarming with black shapes that cluster on her suit. Bees. Huge, aggressive bees that dive-bomb these two intruders. It's a good thing the suits are strong, because this species has been bred to be supremely lethal to almost all known life. The air is black with them, flowing in streams to and from a tree-trunk sized mound, like those termites build. Arranged around the mound are rings of plants: crop species interspersed with those bred to neutralize acids or scrub chlorine from the air. The bees do not merely harvest the plants for nectar, they are actively tending them, fighting off anything that comes too close, working in teams to uproot and drag away any weed species that try to colonize the field. These are bees that know agriculture.
"Congratulations," says Zina, "it's an unbelievable achievement. Unique." The smile visible through her suit visor seems forced, but Olesia doesn't notice. This is, after all, the cumulation of her life's work. All previous attempts at bio-engineering a solution to The Change were dependent upon a single plant or bacterial species designed to deal with the major environmental toxins. But such single soldiers are vulnerable to the multiple threats in this new world.
Olesia's method is a system of species working together, scrubbing the air and soil clean, fixing nitrogen and producing oxygen, fighting off the weird new predators. Together these species are strong, where individually they would be weak.
Olesia pirouettes within her personal, angry-buzzing, black cloud. "It's worked! They're thriving!"
"Yeah," says Zina, brushing a struggling black mass from her suit-visor. "The Earth is ours again. So long as we wear bee-keeping suits when outside."
"Oh, you are in a perverse mood today," says Olesia. "We can eat these plants. Well, some of them. It means we can grow food outside again. And these colonies will spread, and fight back, changing the world back to what it was."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," says Zina. "Sorry." She starts coughing again, bending over with the effort of it. For once, Olesia lets her cough, too busy reporting the success of her hillside ecosystem into the voice-recorder of her suit.
When Zina's coughing subsides she says. "I've got something to show you. Just a bit further along the ridge."
Across the ground before them is a sprinkling of blue. Blue cones held aloft on green stalks. Bluebells.
"I don't believe it," says Olesia.
"They're your favorites, right?" says Zina. "You always keep some growing in the lab, even though you never use them for experiments."
"Yes. Oh, this is wonderful." Olesia squats to examine the plants. "Clearly they're resistant to toxins, but otherwise they look pretty normal." She prods one gently with a finger. It does nothing unexpected. "When did you find them?"
"I didn't find them," says Zina. "I made them. Secret breeding project. Wanted it to be a surprise. I've adapted them to the environmental changes. They're still not as toxin-resistant as I'd like, I ran out of time. But now that they're out in the wild they should keep adapting, getting stronger."
"I hope not. They'll probably turn into monster flowers with fanged mouths hidden in the bells. I like them just the way they are." She looks up to Zina, smiling, and her smile is met with tears. They slide fat and silent down Zina's brown cheeks.
"Zina? What's the matter?"
"I have something else to show you," says Zina. She reaches up and unsnaps the helmet clasps of her suit.
"Zina!" Olesia screams it, leaping up from her crouching position, reaching out to forestall disaster. But she is too slow, and Zina steps deliberately out of her reach, and inhales deeply of the poisoned air.
Olesia waits for something to happen. Nothing does. Zina just stands there, perhaps with a look of challenge in her sad eyes.
"Oh my god," says Olesia.
"It's not a sickness that makes me cough," says Zina. "It's your damn clean air. It would probably kill me if I didn't sneak outside every now and then to get my fix."
"How?" says Olesia.
"Olesia, people can evolve too. We're not short lived, we don't evolve fast, but we did have a massive population to select from, like the rats, although I don't understand what went wrong for them. Most people died, but a few had something that let them survive. So, when you're wandering around alone, anyone you meet is likely to have something that helped them survive. Any offspring you have with them are likely to be some who had both those somethings, and anyone they met had to have something too. It's like a horrible natural eugenics experiment."
"But this is wonderful, you're... you're Homo Extrematans!"
"No," says Zina. "This," she waves an arm to encompass the view, "isn't extreme any more. This is the new normal."
"What?" says Olesia. "No." She frowns at the view of the green-smogged valley, the refuge shining on the other side like a steel star.
"Olesia, I'm not even particularly extreme. There are some of us who are much further along, much more adapted to the new world. We can't let you change it back."
"Oh," says Olesia.
"Two species, living side by side, one who needs an environment like this, and one who needs an environment like that. It's not going to work, is it?"
"We'd make it work. It would be like... like... We'd make it work."
"Olesia, read a history book," says Zina. "Any one. Pick one at random."
Olesia says nothing for a while, letting the dust settle in her mind, processing this new understanding. Then she asks, "Am I going to be allowed that chance?"
"No," says Zina. She hangs her head. "Many have tried to produce something that could turn things back, you're the first to have succeeded. We can't allow that. We can't keep you prisoner, we don't yet have the technology to keep you alive. Your suit readings are false, sabotaged. You don't have enough air to return to the refuge."
"Oh," says Olesia. Her legs are suddenly weak, complaining, the delayed effect of all that recent running. Before they can betray her she sits down among her bluebells.
"I'm truly sorry," says Zina. "I always liked and admired you, always hoped this day wouldn't come. But I must do what's best for my species. We need this new environment, it's suited to what we are becoming. We're reclaiming the cities, rebuilding. We plan to look after our world better than you looked after yours."
"And what of the others?" asks Olesia. "The people in the refuge?"
Zina's lips press into a thin line. She says, "Nature must be allowed to take its course. I'm sorry." She turns to leave, but hesitates, like she's waiting for something to happen. When nothing does she strides away into the gathering green mist.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Author Comments

This story was inspired by an article in new scientist magazine about how some species were adapting to our polluted environment so well that they actually preferred it. On reading this the following left/right brain dialogue ensued: Creative brain: "Could this not mean that we will soon see giant scorpions made from living plastic?"

Rational brain: "No."

Creative brain: "Shut up, you."

So I wrote this as a counterblast to all those greeny types who see pollution as a bad thing for life on Earth. It's only a bad thing for overevolved, slow-to-adapt, degenerate species like Homo Sapiens, and it could result in the creation of new and highly cool things like rat-sized, acid-spitting water-bears. And ask yourself, on the basis of pure awesomeness, which has greater claim to the planet: your slacker co-workers, loser friends and hateful relatives, or GIANT SCORPIONS?

- Colum Paget
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