FRUIT AND VEG
Ethel Fisher briefly looked up from her painstakingly precise artwork.
The thing was still there. Through the discoloured net curtains the glowing sphere resembled the eye of a fox waiting to pounce. It was unlike any other heavenly body, louring with the expression of a ravenous, mad animal in the reflected earthlight.
It reminded Ethel to put Sprocket out for the night.
The cat heard her coming and leapt onto the only shelf her six feet were unable to reach without a kick stool. Ethel put her pet's cunning down to the fact that they now shared the same age - in relative years at least. She was 58 and beginning to slow down, and what the cat lacked in agility, it made up for with the shrewdness to avoid spending freezing nights outside pursuing rodents it had no intention of consuming. So she rinsed the blue from her fine sable brush and covered the painting of the hybrid ipomoea with a sheet of blotting paper in case she was tempted to carry on tinkering with it.
Ethel's eyes were too tired to start another tedious watercolour of an equally tedious hybrid that would defy her palate to match its unnatural colours. Why she had devoted her life to botany when most of her income now came from nurseries who believed that the frilly, fancy creations in their seed catalogues would be more eye catching in a piece of artwork than a photograph? Her closest university friend with the same qualifications did not have this trouble. She pursued her consulting vocation in the peace and quiet of a convent. Ethel may have had the artistic ability and reputation as an authority on the most unlikely weeds, but Mary Florinda had that odd charisma of cloister and eccentricity the media adored. On a bad day, it seemed to Ethel that her friend was never off the digital airwaves; a hell of a feat for someone who got up to pray at five in the morning. Mary Florinda was plump, single-minded and indestructible: Ethel was ludicrously tall, perverse, borderline impoverished, and ached in every joint.
She decided not to waste time trying to coax the cat down, cursed it with a few turns of phrase that would have barred her entry into the most lax religious order, and switched on the kettle. Hands wrapped round a warming mug of cocoa, she dawdled into the garden to watch the eye in the sky that was baffling astronomers. It wasn't an asteroid or comet, so they had decided it was some sort of unnaturally reflective planetoid. Then, as the world held its breath in anticipation of either invasion or first contact, everything went strangely quiet. Even a shuttle company was stopped from diverting one of its regular moon flights to give the passengers a closer look. "The transitory, extra solar phenomenon could be unstable," was the excuse, but no one believed it and speculation over what wonders, or threats, they had discovered beneath the heavenly arrival's bright, bland surface filled a million blogs.
Ethel knew little about astronomy. She had rather hoped it might have been the first in a swarm of comets perturbed from the Oort Cloud by Nemesis, the Sun's phantom companion star. Though nobody had found evidence of that not-so-heavenly body yet on any wavelength, deep down the botanist was disappointed. The "I told you so" monster in her had so wanted to witness a planetary cataclysm before she died, yet the realist would resent it killing every living thing on the planet. In her youth, she had been one of the most vociferous in the movement to ban everything nuclear to save the world, only to live through decades of power cuts. And even now Ethel still refused to exploit her considerable botanical knowledge to help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs which would have given her a lucrative consultancy position. Apart from that, this botanist's theories were not easily accepted by a society that believed the Earth existed purely for its own benefit. Ethel had once proposed in an article for a prestigious botanical magazine that the plants on other planets were unlikely to be of any use to humans whatsoever. This speculation seemed innocuous enough to her, yet the suggestion that the rest of the Universe had no interest in preserving her presumptuous species was met with resounding disapproval. She knew what Alfred Wegener must have felt like when he initially proposed continental drift, even though that would have also made perfect sense to a child with a jigsaw of the planet's continents.
The sinister astral interloper now appeared as large as the moon, its gleaming face as featureless as Venus.
Ethel raised her mug to the anomaly. 'Here's to Nemesis, Nature and natural childbirth for those dumb enough to want it. Bet you put an end to a few pregnancies when you first appeared, as well as scaring all the cats indoors. Oh well, if you hang about and look that menacing for long enough they might give you a female name. Perhaps Minerva, Athena - or even Alison Clutterbuck. You might as well have her name now she's called Mary Florinda. Thankfully she's not yet religiously addled enough to believe you came to escort three wise men to a virgin birth in some underprivileged slum.'
Ethel was aware of a low growl from the back door. The cat hated it when she talked to herself, almost as much as it despised the hedgehogs who received better table service.
'Shut up Sprocket. You're a bloody pain sometimes.'
The large black and white cat slunk back inside before it could be evicted, and bounced back onto its shelf.
Ethel would have resumed her one-sided conversation with the astral oddity if the phone hadn't warbled. She yawned and ambled inside to answer it.
The voice was unfamiliar and disconcertingly formal. 'Who? World Space Co? You're kidding?' The caller wasn't. Somewhere in the file the authorities kept on botanists, Ethel's speculations had been pigeonholed for the unlikelihood they might come in useful, though she believed her theories were more likely to get her ostracised from society than polite phone calls from important space officials with Russian accents.
'Of course I'm fit,' Ethel lied. 'Given the amount of pollen I breathe in I'd never survive with a respiratory condition... Height? For a spacesuit? Six-foot tall and shrinking... Weight? Not much… Yes, send someone round to measure me if you don't believe it... Where am I supposed to be going then? Some crater on the moon filled with this planet's menopausal troublemakers?'
Then the caller mentioned how much she would receive for this short excursion beyond the Earth's atmosphere.
Facing an impecunious future, Ethel's misgivings melted away to be replaced by guarded co-operation. 'All right then. I'll be in the rest of the week... Oh, by the way, who recommended me? Couldn't be a plump lady about my age wearing a long black habit, could it? Yes, I did once tell Mary Florinda I wanted to have a trip in a space shuttle.' Though she hadn't been quite sober at the time.
After 35 years, Sister Mary Florinda was just as round and bouncy as ever, yet retained a firm shape that defied the need for matronly corsets, probably due to digging the convent's many acres and shelling enough peas to prove Mendel may have been mistaken about his theory of heredity. Ethel had to confess sympathy for the nuns who were obliged to endure her forthright manner and non-stop jollity for so many years. At least the team that joined them in the lobby of the World Space Co had been given dispensation to call her Alison for the duration of the trip; Mary Florinda in a tight situation could waste valuable seconds.
The two astrobotanists travelling with them found the ebullient nun a blessed relief from their own privately funded college faculties primarily concerned with research that would prove lucrative. All the remarkable astronomical discoveries and space research of previous decades had now been reduced to what the market would allow and whether there was a profit in it. The one thing the independent, pecuniary Ethel, the former Alison Clutterbuck in holy orders, and two astrobotanists held in common were unorthodox botanical theories unique to their disciplines. There was much to discuss, but no time to do it at the pre-flight briefing; they barely had the chance to sum up each other. Professor Boniface was small and middle-aged, with dark skin so like hammered copper it was possible to believe he had planted every tree that now held the Sahara Desert back from its remorseless advance. He spoke rapidly in whatever language he used and, on first meeting a woman, dipped a small birdlike bow in keeping with his disconcertingly impeccable manners. The less than immaculate Ethel had to resist a strange desire to pat his profusion of wiry hair.
The third woman was a totally different creature. Ethel and Alison mutually agreed she must be a petunia because of her hat of petals which proved that some surviving milliner had a sense of humour. It was a shame she would have to remove it for the sake of a spacesuit. In fact, this petunia, real name Dr Lamont, put up more opposition to parting with it than Alison being divested of her nun's habit; even Professor Boniface was less bothered by having his explosion of hair trimmed back an inch.
After an introduction and brief tuition for the uninitiated in space travel, the sense of self-preservation started to rear its inconvenient head. Though the botanists didn't have time to discuss much else, they did decide amongst themselves that they had the right to be told where they were going. It couldn't have been just coincidence that none of them had any concerned next of kin to sue the World Space Co if anything went wrong. Ethel knew that not even Sprocket would miss her as long as a compliant neighbour supplied the cat with food. So she confronted the bright, intense young man who was their - she sensed reluctant - ground liaison officer. He fobbed her off with several minutes of legal non-speak. It was obvious they were to be told nothing until safely on board, not even if they had a return ticket.
Ethel was disappointed by the apparent compliance of the other three as they travelled in the windowless van out to the shuttle; she had expected at least one of them to back her up. 'None of you seem that bothered?'
'Why not just enjoy the trip?' Alison told her.
'You'd sign up for a trip to Sirius B. on a moped.'
'Perhaps they have managed to develop some vegetable strain for the new moon colony,' suggested the Professor.
'Or even found viable organic growth on Mars,' added Dr Lamont brightly, now fully recovered from the loss of her hat.
'Mars! I don't want to go to Mars,' protested Ethel.
That prospect seemed quite reasonable to Alison. 'It only takes a few weeks now, you know.'
'There are plenty of deserts on Earth where I can breathe oxygen.'
'Why must you always complain about everything? I thought you wanted a trip in a spaceship?'
'I wasn't sober, and prefer to know which way it's pointing.'
'Oh they'll tell us as soon as we're on board,' declared the Professor happily. 'It can only be a space station or the Moon. We're all too old to be insured for the journey to Mars.'
'If they want my opinion about anything-' Ethel's expression suddenly froze. How could she, the one with the most suspicious mind, have overlooked the obvious?
'Now what's the matter?' demanded Alison.
'Something just occurred to me, Alison Clutterbuck, and I'm surprised it hasn't occurred to you.'
It wasn't often Ethel had premonitions, but when she did - and they usually came true - none involved winning the lottery. They fell into the category of knowing that the cat had been sick on her antique tapestry chair when she was on the other side of the country, or that the only specimen of a plant she was commissioned to paint had just been ploughed up. This foreboding was just as worrying.
Only when they were safely on board the shuttle did its captain offer a half-hearted, last-minute opportunity for them to opt out knowing, that if they did at this point, curiosity would have gnawed at the souls of at least three of them for the rest of their lives, and the fourth needed the money. Also, they now wore World Space Co uniforms with insignias which should have been too prestigious for the mightiest ego to resist.
'When we reach our destination you may revert to your own clothes if you wish,' the Captain explained.
'Are we going to the moon?' asked Dr Lamont.
'Then where else in space would we be allowed to wear our own clothes? Even the space stations now demand essential life-support suits.' Then the Doctor noticed Ethel's frown. 'Of course, you've already guessed, haven't you?'
The Captain looked relieved at not having to tell them after all.
'We're going to visit that new heavenly body,' Ethel declared.
'But... That can't be stable...' protested Dr Lamont, trying not to shake like a sweet pea in a high wind.
'Yes, it is quite stable,' the Captain quickly reassured them, 'but you will not be allowed to use any equipment with an ignition or which creates sparks.'
'That much oxygen?' gasped the Professor.
'An embarrassing amount. No doubt respired by the plants.'
'No kidding!' that was something Ethel hadn't anticipated - alien plants that expired oxygen!
'It may have once been a natural planetoid about the size of Charon, but now...'
'It appears to be - for want of a better description - a greenhouse.'
The Captain was grateful for the prolonged silence at the revelation and took the opportunity to order her flight officer to start the shuttle's launch sequence. 'I take it no one wants to bale out?'
Of course none of them was going to bale out after learning that they were travelling to a moon-sized greenhouse filled with alien plants.
Once free of the Earth's atmosphere, the botanists were released from their launch couches, able to float about and turn the odd somersault like hyperactive adolescents before gathering for the mission briefing.
The Captain pushed back her orange flecked hair and put on a pair of magnetic spectacles. 'This planetoid is nothing like a greenhouse as we would know it, of course. The shell, although now totally clear, is made of meteor and cosmic ray proof alloys. Analysis shows some metal, diamond, and other silicate-'
'Now totally clear?' interrupted Ethel.
'Yes. As the body approached the Sun, the shielding ceased to be opaque. Before then our probes detected nothing.'
'Our sun turned it on?' deduced the Professor.
'So how did you discover it was a greenhouse?' asked Ethel.
'Our probe sent back detailed images when the condensation cleared.'
'Plants travelling through space without sunlight? That's not possible,' pointed out Dr Lamont.
'That's why you're here. Some of those specimens could be pretty useful; not only on Earth, but for extended space travel.'
Ethel refused to believe that for one second. 'If they don't eat us first.'
'Ignore her,' advised Alison, 'this woman has never believed in anything.'
'Especially manna from Heaven. So how do we get inside?'
'There are entry locks at regular intervals,' explained the Captain. 'One opened automatically for us when we first approached it. Don't worry; the Company built a docking bay so you won't need to suit up.'
'Oh dear. I was so looking forward to clambering into one of those coffins with its own microclimate,' Ethel noted sarcastically.
'Hopefully that will not be necessary.'
Alison had a more pressing concern. 'Is its orbit stable?'
'Yes. Being a small body, the rotation should be much faster, but its mass is very dense.'
'Bit like me for not bailing out when I had the chance,' muttered Ethel.
'Oh shut up!' scolded Alison. 'You know you're enjoying every minute of it.'
'And what if the civilisation who owns that greenhouse wants it back?'
All the botanists had been thinking the same thing, though afraid to mention it.
'We should have good warning if an alien vessel enters the Solar System.'
The Professor's priorities were more altruistic than apprehensive. His thoughts were on food for millions of humans, and not confronting annoyed aliens who wanted to know why a less advanced species were tampering with their greenhouse. 'It must be worth the risk if these plants can help us feed the world.'
Ethel's solution to sustaining the Earth billions was to encourage the well off to stop feeding with shovels and everyone keep out of each other's knickers, but this was not the time to air such cynicism when starry-eyed optimism reigned, though the trembling petunia in Dr Lamont could visualise yet another difficulty. 'Are you sure there are no other life forms on this body?'
'Nothing but foliage, fruit and vegetables and, as far as we can tell, none of them move about.'
Ethel was able to think of one thing that wouldn't have dared cross the minds of the others. 'These plants couldn't be intelligent, could they?'
Alison registered the circumspect expression creep over the Captain's face. Until then, the woman obviously hadn't doubted the botanists' superior intellects. 'She's been thinking up these cuckoo ideas since she was your age. They grow worst as she gets older.'
'I hope she's wrong. I left half a dozen observers there four weeks ago.' The Captain could see the conversation heading down a path she was not equipped to tread, and left for the flight deck to supervise the docking of the shuttle.
As they approached the planetoid, sunlight glinted on its crystal clear shell through which it was possible to see bubble-like compartments overflowing with every shade of green.
'Thank God! Chlorophyll!' exclaimed Ethel as though that meant it was less likely the vegetation would be carnivorous.
The shuttle docked at a custom-built airlock and Dr Lamont, Alison, the Professor and Ethel disembarked onto the planetoid. The spacesuits, which they thankfully did not have to don, were unloaded with them as safety regulations specified they had to be within easy reach at all times.
As they emerged from the airlock and into the living quarters, the observation team were waiting to be relieved. It was not reassuring to see the Captain discreetly do a head count. Satisfied that there were still four of them, she wished the botanists good luck and allowed the transfer go ahead.
The airlock closed and the new arrivals hurried out of the living area's hatch to stand and gaze in awe at the botanical wonderland surrounding them. The canopy in some sections was as tall and dense as the last remaining, preciously preserved, rainforests on Earth. In others, sunlight illuminated banks of brilliant blooms, pods and fruit bursting from lower branches in waterfall fashion. The clear shell above them seemed very breakable and it was difficult to believe that this space travelling greenhouse could be meteor and cosmic ray proof.
Even if the botanists hadn't been instructed to wait for the World Space Co's steward, their intimidating surroundings persuaded them to remain where they were, and it wasn't long before the disconcertingly jolly Tonkin bustled from one of the narrow roads dividing the sections. There could be no doubt that he had volunteered to remain on the planetoid because he was infuriatingly imperturbable. Perhaps it was just as well, as he would be the one to show them how to get into their spacesuits in the event of a decompression.
Tonkin had an assistant called Henn; his complete opposite, withdrawn and shy of company, who only appeared for a brief introduction before disappearing into an impenetrable thicket of foliage to monitor humidity levels.
'Don't pay any attention,' advised Tonkin. 'She knows her way about and is good in a tight corner, and does talk when she has to.'
The botanists assumed Henn's secretive behaviour was due to her prolonged stay on the planetoid. Permanently exposed to such levels of humidity and oxygen, they could well end up confined to their own tiny mental ecosystems as well.
It should have felt uncomfortably hot in the living quarters adjoining the atmosphere lock given that they were in a massive greenhouse, but the temperature appeared to be constant. This suggested that there were alien mechanisms at work that it was not the botanists' responsibility to investigate, though they felt entitled to be slightly unsettled by it.
'There's some sort of screen in the shielding which spreads the sunlight,' explained the avuncular Tonkin. 'Farrar was working on it before she went back.'
None of the botanists requested to see this researcher's report, or evidence of anything else she might have discovered. What they didn't understand they were less likely to worry about.
Tonkin helped the newcomers stow their bulky spacesuits and the small amount of luggage they had been allowed. It wasn't easy. The hatches to their quarters were more suited to a submarine.
'The unit was constructed to moon base standards just in case there's a sudden decompression or change in atmosphere. We could survive in here for weeks.'
Ethel was too busy changing out of her World Space Co uniform and into comfortable slacks and blouse to hear his odd reassurance. The other botanists appreciated the kudos of wearing the uniforms and kept theirs on.
At last able to eat the first decent meal in days, Dr Lamont minutely examined her vegetables to ensure that they did originate from Earth. 'There must be a weather system of some sort operating here?'
Tonkin gave a benign smile. 'There is weather of sorts. Moisture in the atmosphere provides rain when the plants need it, bubble by bubble if necessary.'
'Growing plants also need the resistance of air movement, especially if travelling in the zero gravity of space.'
Ethel thought that their floral expert was missing the point. 'These are alien plants - probably speak several universal languages and have evolved their own lead boots.'
Alison decided to guide the conversation onto a track Ethel would find it more difficult to sabotage. 'How far out have you been?'
'No more than a couple of kilometres,' said Tonkin. 'We were ordered to stay in one spot. The World Space Co didn't want our muddy boots trampling about before you got here.'
'How far out are we expected to go then?'
'As far as you want. We have satellite maps and the atmosphere appears to be quite stable.'
'It wasn't before though, was it,' interjected Ethel. 'Dr Lamont was right. If the greenhouse was only "switched on" when it reached our sun; that suggests the plants were being held in some sort of stasis by a totally different environment.'
Tonkin wondered how much more this tall troublemaker had worked out. 'You will keep your spacesuits with you at all times, of course. Your buggies have the capacity to carry them with your other equipment.'
Ethel groaned - spacesuits again!
As it was obvious no one else was going to ask, or was too preoccupied to notice it, Dr Lamont observed, 'What is that strange droning noise?'
Tonkin seemed uncomfortable. 'It only became apparent a few days ago. Seems to be getting louder. We assumed it was something to do with the engines driving the planetoid. Henn darts off every now and then to try and track it down, but it originates from beyond our designated area.'
'What engines driving the planet?' asked Ethel.
'Solar powered no doubt. As you said, our sun might have activated them.'
'Why is that not a very comforting thought.'
There was a brief silence.
'I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. We've been here some while and not bumped into anything you wouldn't want your mother to meet.'
'Not even a vegetarian?'
'Not so much as a butterfly.'
After a few hours rest, the botanists checked the cameras, sampling flasks, DNA kits and other equipment supplied by the World Space Co, and then decided to split into two parties. After stowing the compulsory spacesuits, Ethel and Alison went off with the taciturn Henn, and Dr Lamont and the Professor accompanied Tonkin.
The long roads between the compartments of plants made the visitors feel like mice scuttling up the never ending aisles of a flower filled cathedral. Fragrances as overwhelming as they were alien wafted from the open entrances to each bubble. Bowers of blossoms the size of cartwheels could hardly have been fertilised by something as minute as butterflies - chicken sized hummingbirds, perhaps.
Ethel had no fear of gigantic insects that might have just woken from hibernation and asked Henn to stop the buggy. She wanted to investigate a particularly intriguing section filled with a tangle of tendrils, blooms shaped like pelican beaks, and roots that clutched the orange tilth as though about to be ejected into space. The growth of everything here was too vigorous to have been tended by just an automatic watering system. Plants that could remain dormant for the time it took to reach a sun emitting the right wavelengths could hardly be natural, but these specimens must have evolved on some world or other, and they were far too diverse for it to have been the same one. What if it wasn't only the sun which had attracted the roaming greenhouse into their solar system? Even Ethel's robust view of the Universe quavered a little at the thought. Now was not the time to encounter the alien life form responsible, even if it only ate lettuce.
While she began to wish she knew more about astronomy and unarmed combat, the other botanists were revelling in this floral wonderland; Dr Lamont was even tempted to taste some of the ripe fruit weighing down corkscrew branches, but persuaded not to by the Professor, who knew all to well the reactions injudicious browsing could trigger on Earth.
With no qualms about desecrating such cosmic wonders, whatever god had created them, Alison rolled up the sleeves of her uniform to dissect any interesting samples within reach. Henn's buggy was soon loaded with specimens; crinkly pods with fleshy bracts, which could have been flower or fruit, long silken trumpets that reminded the botanist of a blouse with frilly sleeves her grandmother wore on special occasions, and clusters of fronds which looked like pretzels, gave off a smell like candle gas, and felt like latex.
Alison and Ethel became so consumed by their tasks, they persuaded Henn to take a detour and escape the encroaching night as the planetoid rotated so they could carry on working while Tonkin, Dr Lamont and the Professor were already camped and fast asleep, worn out by the excitement of it all.
Alison carried on gathering samples while Ethel put on the tracking device Henn insisted she wear to remain within the legal distance of her spacesuit, and then wandered off to dive deeper into the foliage, taking hundreds of snapshots as she went. Every plant, whether towering towards the shielding or scrambling through the intermittently lit gloom below it, was heavy with fruit or pulses. The huge, umbrella leaves of some suggested that their produce was below ground. Ethel dug up one of the roots and pulled out handfuls of perfectly round, waxy vegetables which looked edible enough to take a bite from. She knew better than to try and tossed a couple into her satchel. Perhaps this planetoid was nothing but a global farm which had accidentally broken away from its orbit after all? Perhaps for once in her lifetime she should opt for the safe, soft option and provide the World Space Co with a good reason for their expenditure on the botanists. After all, wasn't that the only purpose for them being there: to justify profiting from some other civilisation's misfortune? The thought made Ethel uncomfortable: she was always more at home rocking the boat. And there was something seriously out of kilter here: just how many planets with oxygen based atmospheres did these plants represent?
She was too exhausted to wonder about it any more, so fastened her satchel and returned to Henn and Alison who had already set out the sleeping bags.
Ethel was woken by sunlight shimmering through the high shielding. Henn was already doing one of her disappearing acts while Alison was up to her elbows in leaves, petals and bark, examining every specimen for the potential to cure humanity of all known diseases and give them longevity, if not blind faith. When Henn eventually returned from monitoring the local humidity, Ethel persuaded her to leave Alison looking for the Universe's magic mushroom and take her back to the same equatorial longitude as the atmosphere lock. Fortunately their secretive guide was so wrapped up in her own observations, she would have allowed the older women to do whatever they wanted, even wander beyond the regulation distance from their spacesuits.
Henn left the botanist with an electronic map and tracking device before returning to Alison.
Ethel thought it best not to mention her misgivings about the origins of the plants, especially now she was aware that the persistent throbbing sound the others no longer paid attention to seemed to be getting louder.
Walking along the equatorial road, she focused on the spaces between the plants. There was a break in the foliage between every third bubble that had escaped the botanist's attention when she passed this way before. Ethel cautiously stepped one, only to lose her footing and slide down a tunnel onto a large grill. Fortunately it wasn't deep. She was tall enough to brace her body against the walls and push her way back out to avoid the embarrassment of radioing Henn to come and rescue her.
The tunnel was probably a ventilation duct of some sort. The plants had plenty of atmosphere, air movement and climate, so it was unlikely to be for their benefit and something subterranean instead. Even if Ethel did radio her findings to the others the optimistic Tonkin, the only engineer amongst them, would probably conclude that the ventilation was for the massive engines that drove the planetoid - nothing to worry about - and the botanists should just carry on collecting samples.
But Ethel was worried. Ethel
She slung her satchel onto her shoulder and walked on until the road branched off. It was well covered enough to be concealed from the World Space Co's satellite surveillance and not recorded on Henn's map. Ethel turned down an avenue covered by a huge arch barely visible for dense creepers. That wasn't on the map either. It should have been; it was at least 25 metres high.
The throbbing became louder. Ethel took a deep breath, checked that her location monitor was working, and pressed on under the arch where she came to a shutter partially concealed by leaves, tendrils and branches. It was heavily ribbed, which suggested it was an atmosphere lock. Perhaps now Ethel should tell the others. No; everyone might be ordered to put on their wretched spacesuits as a precaution. Best to find out if it was really something to worry about first. The only way to do that was discover what was on the other side of the shutter.
Half hoping it wouldn't open for her, Ethel jabbed at a panel of symbols by its side. Were alien panels with mysterious symbols a good sign? It was usually the way old science-fiction TV episodes introduced their characters to nightmare scenarios - ravenous alien monsters, blood sucking serpents, or invisible phantoms that wanted to experiment on the hero's brain. There was a low rumble as the shutter yawned upwards. Expecting to look down into the chasm of some botanical hell, Ethel was pleasantly surprised that it instead revealed a vast, well lit chamber. There was nothing terrifying here and she went in, feeling like a mouse scuttling across the floor of a giant's living room. On the far side was what appeared to be an inner sanctum with murals running around its high walls. Most of the images were baffling; they could have been expressions of ecstasy or instructions on how the space-borne, gardening aliens managed their zero gravity allotments. Then Ethel was able to make out creatures. These were not aliens she wanted to bump into. They might have been very nice people in their own way, but human beings had never held mice in very high regard, so why should these giants have any more consideration for puny humans.
Despite her lifelong commitment to the botanical, Ethel found herself repelled by the creatures' appendages that looked like tendrils and, more disturbingly, limb like spines supported them at an angle of 45°. Sprouting from what appeared to be shoulders were bulbous growths that must have been heads. Ethel's prejudices would have expected any vegetable creature to be clumsy and sloth like, but those spine-like limbs suggested they were built for speed and skewering prey, more like hunters than gatherers. And to drive the point home, the mural continued to depict the gory details of how they fed. The plants the botanists had been sampling, however alien, provided no suggestion they would encounter anything this horrible.
Ethel shuddered. Yet, at the risk of nightmares haunting her for the rest of her life, she pressed on towards the source of the thrumming growing louder by the minute. The sound led to a passage which opened into another huge, domed chamber. As she entered, sensors detected the movement and filled it with illumination and enveloping fragrance. The botanist knew it wasn't to welcome her and stopped.
The sound was now almost deafening and coming from below her feet. Then she was aware that the opaque floor had become as clear as glass.
Ethel apprehensively looked down.
Dr Lamont was being happily drenched as she took readings in a localised downpour of soft rain and Tonkin was lounging back in the buggy, bathing in a patch of sunlight, when his radio crackled.
He sleepily opened his transmitter. 'Can't hear you. You've got interference of some sort.' He suddenly woke and listened more intently, hoping the voice hadn't said what he thought he heard.
'What's the problem?' asked the Professor from under the cover of a massive tree as he sampled sap from its spongy bark.
Tonkin was looking at his receiver in alarm. 'It sounded like the tall one. She had to be hallucinating.'
Several kilometres away Alison was up to her knees in specimens, which Henn was loading into their buggy when her radio crackled. She dropped the foliage to reach it.
'Careful. It's just Ethel letting us know she's found a talking tomato,' warned Alison.
By now Ethel's tone had hardened from desperate to angry. Through the interference Henn could just make out her demand for them to drop everything and pick her up immediately.
'What did she want?' asked Alison.
Henn looked worried. 'We have to get back to base right away. We'll collect her on the way there.'
'She's got to be kidding?'
'Oh no. She was serious.'
'Oh hell!' swore Alison. She gathered up as many samples as possible and tossed them into the buggy before Henn could switch on its engine.
They met Ethel dashing along the equatorial road to meet them. Without letting Henn stop the vehicle, the botanist jumped on board with a bound that only confirmed something was very wrong.
'Mind the samples,' scolded Alison. 'What is the matter with you?'
'We have to get off this planetoid! Now!'
'Why? What's happened?' asked Henn. 'Isn't it stable?'
'Things are starting to go bump.'
'What things?' demanded Alison, convinced her friend was having her long delayed and inevitable breakdown.
Henn didn't need persuading. Even above the purring of the buggy's engine she was aware of the change in the thrumming sound.
'What did you find?'
'Living quarters of some sort.'
'Living quarters?' echoed Alison.
'There were pictograms and murals. This world was designed to search out stars like our Sun, stars that have planets with oxygen atmospheres and are filled with vegetation.'
When they reached the living quarters Tonkin and the others were waiting for them.
'I've sent out a distress call to the moon,' he told them. 'A private space company can get a rescue vehicle here within 24 hours. They haven't an atmosphere lock to match ours, so we'll have to go out on a line.'
'What!' stormed Alison. 'What about the samples?'
'Sorry,' said Tonkin sheepishly at the unexpected explosion.
'That means we'll have to get into spacesuits,' protested Dr Lamont.
Alison turned on Ethel and, totally forgetting her holy calling, was tempted to box her friend's ears. 'Well, aren't you going to tell us why we have to evacuate this place like locusts fleeing a wild fire?'
'I'll tell you everything as soon as we're off this planetoid.'
Tonkin's ebullient expression had long since disappeared. 'Just believe it's really that serious.'
'You're in charge! You tell us!' Alison ordered.
Tonkin gave her a bland, humourless smile, which only conveyed that they really didn't want to know at that moment.
The Professor shrugged philosophically. 'Oh well, it was quite an experience, but I think we should ere on the side of caution, however interesting the discoveries.'
'Thanks Prof. Now us old fogies had better practice for a space walk.' The enthusiasm with which Ethel was embracing that prospect was even less reassuring.
Hours dawdled by. The thrumming seemed to be working up to a crescendo and the others were now thankful not to know what terrible knowledge Ethel and Tonkin were nursing. It undoubtedly had something to do with whatever was shaking the ground far below them.
The cosmic rays and vacuum outside no longer seemed quite so daunting as the botanists sat in their living module like frightened mice, kitted out by Henn and Tonkin for their first ever space walk.
They all jumped at the sudden noise of shutters clanking open and a sound like clicking stilts.
The botanists looked at Ethel.
She looked away.
The rumble of something huge ascending from the depths of the planetoid shook the walls and floor.
'They're coming this way,' squeaked Dr Lamont.
After what seemed a terrifying eternity, they heard that curious clicking again. It was made by something enormous just outside the living quarters.
No one else said anything for fear of screeching instead.
Tonkin and Henn ushered the botanists into the airlock.
They had hardly sealed it when there was the crash of monstrous creatures breaking through into the living quarters. No one wanted to conjure up what had the strength to dismantle solid steel so rapidly.
Then came the battering at the airlock.
The shuttle wasn't due for another hour.
Tonkin made a decision.
Rapidly checking that everyone's spacesuit was secure, Henn unwound a safety line and attached it to each belt. Tonkin removed a jet pack from its niche and strapped it on.
'Just relax,' the botanists heard him say over their helmet communicators as though it was humanly possible for them to control their blood pressure and bladders. 'Your air supply can last hours.'
There was something hideous crashing against the airlock door and he wanted them to relax? It was just as well the spacesuits could deal with bodily waste.
The airlock door started to buckle.
Henn evacuated the atmosphere and opened the external hatch. Tonkin fired the jet pack and drew everyone out after him, whether they were ready or not. The novice space walkers floated from the cramped airlock like a string of disorganised white baubles against the backdrop of space.
Tonkin took them well clear of the planetoid.
The botanists could see frenetic activity in many of its sections. A huge tree similar to the one the Professor had collected sap from was being felled and shredded. In another, vivid fruit was being voraciously devoured by gargantuan creatures difficult to make out amongst the carnage.
'Sweet Jesus!' exclaimed Alison.' That looks like a massacre!'
'No,' said Ethel. 'That's just lunch. I suspect they will need something more substantial for dinner.'
Dr Lamont sounded as though she was crying.
'But they're so near our planet,' protested Alison. 'What happens if those creatures are able to reach it?'
Ethel sighed. 'Deforestation will take on a whole new meaning.'