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Story 4

Jez Patterson

Jez Patterson is a British teacher currently based in Madrid.

Links to other things with his name at the end can be found at http://jezpatterson.wordpress.com/

I can’t remember where I got the idea for Squidge, but the opening scene of Julia eating is drawn from my own experience eating fresh mangos, straight from the tree, when I lived in Maceio, Brazil. The only practical way to eat them, in fact, was to strip down to your swimming trunks, stand over the sink…and gorge.
-- Jez Patterson

Mega-corporations gone amuck, a mysterious prehistoric fruit, scientists stuck in a steaming jungle, all in the context of an Earth caught in the grip of runaway global warming. What else could go wrong?

 

Squidge

By Jez Patterson

 

Tom had his eye screwed to the microscope he’d brought down to the breakfast table. “Peculiar…”

            “Wassatlookinat?” Julia’s mouth was struggling to contain all the Squidge she’d stuffed in it. Pink-orange juice had run garish fangs down to her chin and streaked her forearms. She licked her fingers in a hopeless attempt to try and clean herself.

            “Probably nothing,” Tom said. He stared at the plate of Squidge slices. Mouth-watering. The aroma the kitchen’s cooler was blasting his way triggered a childhood memory of standing next to a candyfloss machine back when fairs still toured.

            Julia crammed in another wedge and started to suck out the juice like a vacuum cleaner fallen in custard. When it was empty, she chewed up the flesh and got it down in one gulp. Her stomach rumbled. Or maybe it was the baby in there roaring for more.

            Probably nothing. The mantra was becoming less convincing. It was that ‘probably’ he was finding harder to gulp down.

            “Wannsome?” Julia asked.

            “Not just now.” Tom turned back to the microscope.

            “You have to do that in the kitchen?”

“It’s what pays the bills, hon.”

 “Sure you’re not hungry? Nope? Then all the more for baby and me.”

            When he increased the magnification, all Tom found to swallow was a nervous cough.

#

            Tom’s disquiet rode with him into work like a pessimistic lab partner. The real-life versions weren’t much more enthusiastic about his proposal to re-investigate Squidge.

“Give me a moment first with this damned thing.” Herman gave the room-cooler a thump with the soft edge of his fist. It changed notes. The technicians at JYH Pharmaceuticals claimed Herman played the cooler like a Caribbean oil-drum. The cooler bore dents enough to resemble one. “Stupid. Damn. Thing. Better off lining the walls with fridge-strips and having done with it.”

            “Except they give you asthma,” Kenneth said, practical as always.

            “At this rate, we might as well be out there,” Herman said. Their lab windows were clouded with condensation because the filters were clogged and the techs weren’t doing their jobs. The jungle beyond steamed and fronds of sticky undergrowth trailed down from its waxy canopy into mud that bubbled like simmering treacle. Difficult to believe this had once been the country’s second largest city.

Unless they cleared the condensation and bleached the glass, the windows would eventually slime up with something resembling moss dissolved in sparkling mineral water. Even in those places where the jungle had been cleared, puddles of the green froth filled every dip and crevasse. If you were outside for any length of time, it settled on you and made it feel like you were sweating the oozing, syrupy gloop.

            “If you’re both quite finished?” Tom said. His colleagues’ faces were shiny, their shirt collars and armpits oily. Herman looked ready to bust a vein and Kenneth was fanning himself with an old report. Tom sighed. “Okay. Let’s go to my office -- at least the cooler’s working there. I’ve brought my scope from home.”

            “You bring some beers too?” Herman asked, wincing as he peeled his shirt from his armpits.

            In Tom’s office, they tilted their heads towards the stream of air and sighed like men denied an earlier toilet break.

“We need to look at Squidge again,” Tom told them.

            “What on earth for?” Herman said. “Every test we’ve ever done has shown zero pharmaceutical qualities. High sugar content, little fibre, good for energy, blah-blah-blah. We’ve got a hundred other species out there with better prospects queued up to be tested and certified.”

            “Nevertheless….”

            “Have you spoken to management?” Kenneth asked. “They’re the ones making us stew in these conditions -- all because we haven’t found them anything new and wonderful since Hyper-alert. Over half our filter and vent fans have burnt out and not been replaced. They’re punishing us. It’s like living in a dirty aquarium.”

“Damn right,” Herman said. “They haven’t put anything new on the market in the last five months besides a new laxative and that cream for mole removal. They’ll outsource the testing if we don’t come up with something.”

            “We’re running out of illnesses to cure, that’s the problem,” Kenneth said. “Back in the good old days there were more diseases than doctors could shake a hypodermic at. Now we’ve too many cures. Too many cures spoil the bottom line.” Kenneth shook his head at his failed attempt to rewrite the corny phrase. “Hell, you know what I mean.”

            “I know all that. Don’t you think I know all that?” Tom paused to control his breathing. “Look, since the apple had its day, Squidge has become the most popular new fruit on the market. Last quarter it even outsold the Truberry and Joosepips. Taking into account Squidge trees only began fruiting eleven months ago, that’s quite some achievement.”

            “Is this a presentation?” Herman asked. “Need I remind you that we don’t own the rights to Squidge. No one does.”

“Just bear with me. The stuff has already become a staple part of most people’s diet so anything that might affect the world’s supply of Squidge is something worth knowing about. Agreed?” Tom waited for their nods. “And the one problem with Squidge has been trying to grow more trees.”

            “It’s not exactly a pressing concern,” Kenneth said.

            Squidge had seemingly been sown across the world like a grain warehouse exploding. Trees had sprung up and fruited before they’d even been noticed poking through the undergrowth.

            “They’re so plentiful, it’s not worth trying to plant more,” Herman said. “Or finding out how to.”

            “That’s not what I’m proposing. Just remember that we’re dealing with something unknown. We keep picking all this new stuff that’s growing and testing it to see what it does, but we’re only ever concerned with the future commercial applications, not its past.”

            “Quite some past,” Kenneth said with a grim smile.  

Once the planet’s core temperature rose and the ground started warming from below, everything above had softened or wilted. The panic had turned to wonder when seeds that were buried -- deep and very much unknown — began germinating and growing upwards into a climate they remembered from their time.

            ‘The Time That Horticulturists Forgot, Kenneth had called it. Tom thought about that deep underground heat. Why not ‘Plants From Hell’?

“Anyway, not everyone’s in it for the money,” Kenneth said. Kenneth’s wife and sister worked for an NGO that distributed their discoveries free of charge before companies like JYH could patent and control availability of the new drugs. “Collectively, we’ve found treatments for almost every disease and ailment out there. It’s exactly what the greens always predicted: nature provided a cure for every disease it created. It just never occurred to anyone that the cures were dormant whilst the diseases were still up top running amok.”

            “That doesn’t explain how Squidge spreads, how it germinates….” Tom said.

            “It’s seedless!” Herman said. “That’s why kids and old people love it. You can consume the whole thing -- skin and all -- and there’s absolutely no wastage.”

            “Then why do the trees even produce fruit?” Tom said. “Why bother if it’s got nothing to do with disseminating its seed?”

            “Maybe it found another way but carried on producing fruit as a remembered habit,” Herman said. “What does it matter? The things are everywhere. Who cares?”

            “No, I think Tom’s got a point,” Kenneth said. “It could be worth looking at it again to safeguard supply. What if the trees get hit by a blight? How would we replace them? Cuttings didn’t take when they were tried. Neither does it produce runners, rhizomes, suckering or bulbs.”

“It’s no odder than some of the other stuff sprouting up these days. Even the slime-froth looks like it’s breathing,” Herman said.

            “You’ve noticed that too?” Kenneth said.

            Tom snapped his pencil. “Plants don’t carry on unnecessary habits. Squidge has evolved over thousands, millions of years. No one ever saw the original seeds we presumed were down there and that sprouted into these trees -- but every plant has to produce the next generation. These things can’t be immortal.”

He shivered and thought, ‘Hell’s Own Horticulture Handbook’. This morning’s discovery was due to be announced in nothing but imaginary B-Movie titles.

            “Maybe it switches off the reproduction function when it reaches maximum capacity,” Kenneth said. “Maybe it only produces seeds when it senses it has enough space for them to grow.”

            “A plant isn’t so kind to its neighbours,” Tom said. “Besides, the ground around the Squidge orchards isn’t what’s limiting their spread. The fruit is being produced to help it spread. Somehow. It must be.”

            “Except there are no seeds,” Herman said again.

It was time to show them. The only reason he’d avoided doing so at the outset was because he hoped they’d jump in and give him reason to think he was wrong somehow.

            “I’ve been looking at the cells,” said Tom. “Up close. I mean, really close. And if you get them big enough, you see that they have these hooks.”

            “So?” Herman said.

            “They remind me of seeds that hook onto animal fur or a sheep’s coat. Burrs, for example. Only, these are microscopic.”

            Kenneth and Herman frowned. They were all trained botanists, even if their current work was searching for the commercial applications of the plant-life now available.

            “There’s a reason why fruits are made sweet and tasty,” Tom said, remembering Julia and the breakfast plate of Squidge.

            So animals would eat them, get the seeds in their gut. The seeds couldn’t be digested and so were shit out in another place. It was a symbiotic trick in order to be spread to new areas. If Squidge contained no seeds, why were they trying so hard to be consumed by being the most delicious thing around?

            “So what are the hooks designed to hook onto?” Herman asked.

            Hooked, thought Tom and swallowed an awful urge to giggle. In every sense, that’s what they want.

Julia, the baby, the whole nation’s spreading addiction to Squidge? The Squidge cells he’d examined were smaller than a human blood cell. But it always took two to tango. Just like most things in life. In creating life.

He remembered old cartoons where children swallowed peach stones and woke up with a tree growing out of their heads the following morning. Presumably feeding on their brain tissue the same way pot plants did their specially mixed compost. He looked across at Herman and Kenneth and at their shiny faces, and tight, rounded stomachs. It was air-conditioned in his office. They weren’t just sweating as a result of the warming planet. And they wouldn’t be the first species to become extinct under mysterious circumstances.

 

END

 

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