The Weeds in the Greenhouse by acrasis
Frances Laterell unlocked the door to the locker room and walked across the tiled floor. She carefully opened the frosted glass door, its hinges moving with difficulty, and stepped into the cramped shower stall. It was like any shower stall except there was a second door on the opposite side from the first. You entered the Bio-Safety Level Three agricultural facility through the shower stall the way characters in children’s books entered other worlds through magic wardrobes or mirrors. In this case, the magic realm was the “hot side”, the part of the building that had contained the hazardous pathogens, but these days the side was “hot” only in the literal sense; hot and humid. The facility had once been connected to a giant air handler and water-cooled chiller which had kept it habitable, but when it had been abandoned the electricity was cut. Temperatures had soared, reaching 120 degrees on hot days, and all the pathogens were now presumed to be dead. Laterell stood in the changing room, which smelled of rotting fabric; with her penlight she could make out old medical scrubs hanging on pegs and the outline of a door. She turned the handle and entered the facility. The air smelled stale, and the humidity caused her tyvek coveralls to become uncomfortably sticky on her skin. The hallway was dimly lit and filled with mysterious silhouettes, but Laterell increased the amount of sunlight by carefully moving down the hallway and as she went, propping open each of the four double doors on the right, the doors that led to the greenhouses. Sunlight still passed through the hundreds of dirt-encrusted panes of glass framing each greenhouse. With the weak light, Laterell could now make out rusty carts, shelves stacked with metal parts, old signs reading “Do not Enter! Pesticides in use!”.
Things she remembered as painted were now flaking; things she remembered as shiny were now covered in dust. On the left she saw the doorway to what had been her laboratory. She flashed the light inside, more as a memorial to her old life as an agricultural scientist than in the hope that she’d see anything useful. Huge cockroaches ran across the floor and disappeared down the floor drain; they used to do that back then, too. In this lab she had studied dodder: an orange string-like parasitic plant that sucked nutrients out of other plants. She had exposed seeds to mutagens in order to come up with accessions that were host-specific. She wanted to develop a strain that would only attack certain broadleaf weeds and keep fields of soybean or tomato weed-free without the use of herbicides. The laboratory was as she remembered it, except the paint was peeling from the walls in large sheets. There was a pair of scissors on the benchtop, two flasks and a tape dispenser, a couple of dissecting needles. There had been no way to go in and tidy up.
She went back into the hallway where the refrigerated storage unit sat. Her accessions had been stored there, and she hoped a few seeds were still alive. She pulled out a box filled with glassine envelopes: her accessions. The glassine envelopes were warped and stained, and inside each there was a small lumpy brown crust. She sighed. Not much hope of anything germinating, but she’d have to try.
She began to walk back to shower room, but couldn’t resist detouring into Greenhouse One. The skeletons of greenhouse benches were arrayed on each side of a central cement path. The wooden boards that had made up the top of each bench had rotted, but the metal frames remained, some still festooned with plastic irrigation tubing. Each bench stood over a pit filled with gravel, a pit that collected the irrigation runoff from each bench and drained the contaminated water into a large storage tank. Nothing exited the facility without being treated: the air had been filtered and the water sterilized.
When the unit after many lean years finally got money to do renovations, they had hired a crew to send a fiber-optic camera down into that tank to make sure it was in good condition and that there were no leaks. This was not easy to arrange. The facility plumbers had stalled and argued and finally admitted that no one had an accurate map of the pipes exiting the various laboratories whose drains emptied into the holding tank. The buildings had been erected during World War II to study biological warfare agents, and probably no one had expected them to still be in use today. The electricians and plumbers had passed on information to their successors as oral histories, and information had been lost or garbled in the transmission. There were blueprints, of course, but they were annotated with ambiguous pencil tracings, dots indicating things that had once been of interest, lines showing the addition of new conduits. Pipes had been sealed off, pipes had been added, pipes that people thought had been sealed off turned out not to have been, and there were some pipes that no one remembered at all and had no idea where they led. On the whole, the plumbers would rather not know if the tank was in disrepair; it would only mean hot filthy work done while wearing heavy waterproof suits and respirators. The engineers were adamant, however: the funding had to be spent this fiscal year or not at all, so the camera had to be sent down. So one of our technicians was assigned to escort the crew into the facility and report on their progress by cellphone to the Bio-Safety Officer, a man who preferred to stay in his office. When the camera was inserted down the pipe, almost immediately the engineers reported seeing cracks: that was a serious breach of containment that would have meant shutting down the lab. They lowered the camera farther down and reported that the lens had been obscured and it was hard to see into the tank. Then they saw nothing. The technician called the Bio-Safety Officer to report that the engineers had pulled the camera out to see what was wrong with it. And then, over the cell phone, the BioSafety Officer heard shouting. And then silence. Alarmed, he entered the facility to see what had happened, and found nothing: the four men had disappeared. From his cellphone, he gave the order that no one else enter the facility. And then his phone went dead.
Laterell went to the pit that had been emptied of gravel so the camera could be lowered down the drain. The bottom was now green with algae and moss. She had used this greenhouse and the next one to grow the weeds that she infected with dodder to see how well her mutants would kill. She could see broken pots scattered on the gravel where they had fallen when the benchtops had rotted; her plants would have quickly died from the lack of water and the heat. Yet she hoped she might find a few seeds of dodder stuck to the sides of the pots. Dodder seeds were sticky; they stuck to everything. The pots were covered with a greenish-black crust and nothing else; it seemed hopeless. Laterell looked over to the next greenhouse, slightly visible through the lime-encrusted glass separating one greenhouse from the next. She could barely make anything out, but was puzzled by the yellowish cast to the objects in that greenhouse. What had been in there that was that color? The carts? The benches?
She went back into the hallway and entered Greenhouse Two. It only took her a second to recognize the tangle of yellowish-orange string covering the ruins of the benches: dodder. It was wound up the bench legs and its intertwined tendrils held the rotten wood of the benchtops roughly in place, each bench’s sagging concave top resembling a strange orange hammock. Tangled strands ran across the gravel floor in a layer that in places was six inches deep. Laterell was astounded: how could dodder still be alive? Not only was there no water, but dodder was a parasite: it couldn’t live without a host. She walked over the matted stems: they were tough and wiry, like walking over a horsehair mattress. The mat of tendrils was so thick it was impossible at first to determine where the strands originated, but as she walked she was able to detect a faint pattern to the feltlike accumulation. The strands seemed to bloom out of each of the gravel pits, the tendrils from one pit meeting the other tendrils from the other pits and winding around each other. If you looked carefully, you could see the rectangular outline of each of the eight pits, each extruding these pale orange plant threads like noodles out of a noodle-maker. Laterell rubbed her thigh in consternation. No plant could live in the pits. Well, maybe moss and algae, in the first few inches of gravel where sunlight could penetrate. But dodder couldn’t parasitize moss or algae, not even her mutant strains.
She rubbed her leg again, and looked down. Her legs! They were covered in dodder seeds! As she had walked though the carpet of dodder she had become covered in sticky seeds. Of course she couldn’t know which strain or strains were present here, but she could test their host range later! What mattered now was to collect the fresh seeds. She opened her knapsack and pulled out a plastic ziplock bag.
She pulled off her blue nitrile gloves. She had taken precautions with her tyvek suit, boots and gloves, but no one thought a toxin was present in the building. Toxins killed people, but didn’t make them disappear. The army had released dogs into the facility wearing cameras on their collars; the dogs had transmitted shaky footage that always went black. The dogs were sent in; the dogs disappeared. And then, the dogs didn’t disappear. They ran around and came back. The film showed nothing abnormal. Soldiers were sent in and found nothing. Finally, the army gave Laterell permission to go in and collect her seeds, which is what she did now. It was too hard to manipulate each sticky seed- they wouldn’t let go of her fingers- so instead she pulled off the ripe seed pods and dropped them into the bag. The seeds sticking to her fingers stung- she had never noticed that before, in all the years she had worked with them. Then she glanced at her tyvek suit, and was amazed to see pockmarks in the plastic: pockmarks at every spot where the seeds had adhered. Perhaps gloves were a good idea after all. She tried to pull the seeds off her skin, but they wouldn’t budge. She used a thumb and fingernail to pry one off, and managed to remove it, but to her amazement, it had germinated and sent out a short tendril. She looked as her hand, and saw a bead of blood.
She needed to get out of there. She jerked forward, only to find the tendrils near her feet adhering to the rubber boots. She kicked her way free, the boots incised with dots and lines like a strange inscription. Her hands were swelling, and had become a purplish color. She felt dizzy and had to hold herself up against one of the benches. Her vision was strangely blurred. She felt in the knapsack for her cellphone; there were soldiers outside, and they’d rescue her. She dialed, and as it rang, a thought occurred to her. What exactly was in the drain? What was the dodder parasitizing? She felt a slight vibration and hoped it was soldiers entering the facility. It was that, or it was the thing the dodder fed off of. One thing she knew: a parasite could only feed off of something that was still alive.