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Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Wednesday, April 1, 1723

The plant was in the wrong place, and it bothered him.

Bernard was inclined to suspect his brother of a practical joke. Plants do not spring from the air, after all, and this plant had definitely not been here the day before.

It had not been anywhere. It was not like any of the other plants in the garden. Frankly, Bernard was not even entirely certain that it was a plant.

Bernard did not like things that were in the wrong place. It was one of the reasons that he was so very good at classifying things.

He continued on his rounds, conscientiously inspecting each plant and giving it the proper amount of water and fertiliser. The lilac trees were coming into bloom, and he stopped for a long moment to breathe in their fragrance.

Resolutely he continued past the new plant without looking at it, and went in to breakfast.

Antoine was already at the table. He did not look like someone who had just perpetrated a practical joke, but then, he never did. Those outside the family thought that he was a serious man, pious, a little humourless; dedicated to science and to the service of the poor.  Bernard knew better. His brother’s sense of humour was quiet, a little sly, and all too often focused on his younger brother.

Not that he was an unkind man, Antoine. It had been he who had invited Bernard on the botanical expeditions to Spain and Portugal; he who had recommended him for the job here at the Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales so many years ago; he who had supported his training and ensured that the world knew of the Bernard de Jussieu system of botanical classifications.

Bernard could never have done this himself. While he was certain in his own mind of his knowledge, he became shy, even tongue-tied in company. Antoine had coached him on public speaking, and Bernard had at length become quite a competent botanical demonstrator. But he would never truly enjoy it.


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 1

At last, a planetary environment capable of sustaining life! The temperature here is somewhat warmer than back on Eden, and the sun provides a good source of light energy. I will have no difficulties in generating clorophyll. The atmosphere is, however, a little more oxygen-rich than we are accustomed to, and we shall need to make allowances for this in our plans.

Most exciting and unanticipated of all, sister, this planet is inhabited! And inhabited in a variety that is unprecedented in my experience. There are trees, shrubs, grasses and algae – even fungi! Indeed, the variety is so wide that I suspect that my seed parachute has landed me most fortuitiously in a centre of government for the entire planet.

In addition to our fellow flora, there are numerous species of fauna here – enough to keep any xenobiologist busy for decades.

I have very high hopes, sister, that this will be our new home. My first task will be to establish communications and a treaty with the indigenous flora. I do not expect this to be easy, and of course, it would have been simpler to have found a planet with no indigenous population – but I do not despair – indeed, I see this as an opportunity to build an alliance that will benefit us both!  We ask for a home – but in return, we offer the universe! What could be fairer than this?  To be sisters and allies, two races united in friendship, sharing knowledge and resources and guiding each other to a brighter future…

But perhaps I should save my speeches for their proper audience.  Look for my next report in two days.




Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Wednesday, April 1, 1744

Antoine had denied everything over breakfast, but there had been a suspicious twitch to his lips. Bernard half expected him to shout ‘poisson d’Avril!’ when they reached the bed where the new plant was growing.

But he did not.

“You are right,” he said. “That is a very unusual plant indeed. I have never seen anything quite like it.”

Bernard had thought that this would make him feel better. It did not. “Then how did it come here?” He heard the agitation in his own voice.

His brother shrugged. “On the wind, or carried by birds, like any seedling, I presume. When did you last inspect this flowerbed?”

“Yesterday,” said Bernard, keeping his voice steady with effort.

His brother shot him a look that suggested he knew exactly what his younger brother was thinking. Bernard tried to appeaer unperturbed, and his brother smiled.

“Well, whatever it is, and however it came here, it seems to be an entirely new plant, which means that you, my dear brother, will need to classify it. Always assuming that it is indeed a plant and not an animal. All those eyes are a little unsettling.”

“Berries.  And I do know the difference between a plant and an animal, thank you, brother.”

Antoine coughed in a way that sounded suspiciously like “Polyp,” and Bernard rolled his eyes.

“The freshwater polyp is an animal. No rational scientist could doubt it, and history will certainly prove me correct. Why, de Réamur himself named it for its resemblance to the octopus. As for this strange visitor to our garden, I shall analyse it as you suggest, but I feel certain that it will prove to be a plant. What animal has a stem for a body and roots for feet? No, brother, you are frivolous to suggest otherwise.”

“Did I suggest anything?” Antoine’s lips were definitely twitching now, and Bernard shook his head as he went back to his work. His brother was, without a doubt, the most irritating man of science in all France, but he did know how to bring Bernard’s world back into order.


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 3

I have observed the local flora and have begun an ethnological survey. I believe that I, myself, am being observed, but as yet, I have received no responses to my attempts at contact.   Patience will be the key here. There is definite communication between members of the same species, principally by exchange of chemical and hormonal signals, so it is only a matter of time before we are able to establish direct communication.

You have asked for a report on the intelligence of local species. Direct evidence is difficult to come by. For example, as you know, it is not always evident whether communication between less developed flora is purposeful. However, I believe there is strong indirect evidence for floral intelligence to be found in the fauna of this planet. It is clear from my observations that many of the smaller native fauna, in particular a variety of flying and crawling species, have been domesticated and trained to assist with reproductive functions, and in some cases to aid in defense against predators. As you know, fauna have a significant advantage over us in terms of mobility – we are only able to move under very specific conditions and at particular phases of our life-cycles, whereas fauna can move throughout their lives and without external assistance. The indigenous flora appear to have harnessed this tendency towards movement to transport seeds or pollen over long distances, and have also trained certain species to protect them against predators.

Larger mammals seem less well-controlled; some attempts have clearly been made to domesticate the upright-walking primate species, which are evidently intelligent enough to use tools to influence local climate and soil quality. However, many of these primates are less useful, and actively destructive. The species may represent a failed experiment in genetic engineering, to overcome local flora’s disadvantages of locomotion. At this stage, I would be inclined to recommend pest control initiatives prior to settlement, but of course, we must tread delicately in this area (unlike, it must be said, the primates in question!). It is possible that these primates may be viewed as pets, and we would not wish to cause offence to the indigenous inhabitants.

I will continue my efforts to establish contact through chemical signalling.




Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Saturday, April 4, 1744 (Easter Saturday)

It really is a very odd-looking plant.

Bernard takes three clippings, the better to study it. One, he plants outside, near its fellow. The second, he plants in the greenhouse, and treats with all the tender care that he would give the most finicky of orchids.

The third, he brings to his workbench for closer study. He inspects the leaves and stems under the microscope, then removes several berries, which he crushes.  He performs certain chemical analyses on their juices.  Unsurprisingly, given their appearance, they are poisonous, but they may have medicinal applications in the correct dosage. This is more his brother’s area of expertise, and he sets his conclusions aside for Antoine to work on.

He visits the original plant whenever his duties permit. Despite its initial rapid growth – none of the gardeners had observed it prior to its dramatic appearance on April 1 – it has remained fairly constant in size, though it is producing a prodigious number of berries. The stalks on which the berries go twist and turn in every breeze, as if tracking his presence. If he were a fanciful man, he would think that the plant was watching him.

But of course he is a man of science and moreover one who has thoroughly investigated the berries in question. They bear no resemblance to an eyeball when dissected, lacking vitreous fluid or anything resembling an optic nerve.

There is thus no reason that their gaze should keep him awake at night.

He tells himself this very firmly, and sleeps like a child. His dreams are entirely normal, and not in any way haunted by a plant’s many-eyed gaze.


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 6

Difficulties have arisen. My soil analysis indicates that while levels of nitrogen and potassium are adequate, phosphorous levels are dangerously low and helium is barely present at all. This will need to be addressed if we proceed with colonisation, as our seedlings cannot tolerate such an environment.

The local flora continue to ignore my efforts to communicate. I am attempting to synthesise and translate the hormonal and chemical messages that I intercept, in order to create a useful lexicon. Unfortunately, the communications that I have been able to translate are mostly warnings of imminent danger, and unsuitable for diplomatic purposes.

On a more interesting scientific note, my presence has attracted attention from several of the primates. I have taken the opportunity to observe them more closely, and include a sketch of the most frequently viewed one with my dispatch.

The primates are 3-4 times my height, with white curly hairs on their heads, and a black or brown pelt elsewhere. Their faces are pink, and the more striking among them have a white chest. They are curious, and quite dexterous, able to walk on two legs, and manipulate items with their forepaws. They have an extensive range of vocalisations among themselves, however it is not possible at this stage to be certain whether these are meaningful, or whether they are simply responses to the usual mammalian biological imperatives (seeking food, competing for mates, etc). There is a notable degree of sexual dimorphism. The coloration I have described represents, I believe, the female of the species, which is larger and more active than the male. The male is smaller, but more varied and striking in coloration. Males share the pink faces and white curly hair of the females, but their pelts are often patterned in a variety of colours, the better to attract a mate.

Most interestingly of all, one of them even appears to be imitating our earlier surveys! She moves slowly through the gardens, performing her irrigation duties, but pausing to study each seedling closely. She even took three clippings from my own shoots! One of them she planted in a pot not far from me; I am uncertain of the fate of the other two. This must, of course, be imitative behaviour, since mammals are known to lack higher executive function. It is nonetheless rather endearing, and perhaps explains why the indigenous flora attempted the experiment of domestication in the first place.




Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Wednesday, April 8, 1744

The first of the cuttings withers within days. Bernard waters it, and, at his brother’s suggestion, uses chicken manure rather than compost to fertilise it, but to no avail. It withers away and dies.

The cutting in the greenhouse fares somewhat better, but seems pale and sickly compared to its parent plant.

It is certainly an illusion that the strange plant stares at him accusingly whenever he passes by it in the garden.


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 9

Thank you for your congratulations, but I regret to inform you that they are premature. My daughter clipping failed to thrive and withered away a day after planting. This was not unexpected, but I took comfort in the evident distress of the primate, who clearly shared my grief. They really are charming creatures.

I know, I know. It is axiomatic that mammals are incapable of higher intelligence, and that it is foolish to ascribe to them floral emotions and motivations. You will forgive me this little indulgence. Xenobiology and ethology have always been interests of mine, and you must concede that an understanding of the behaviour and habits of local fauna can only add valuable data to our mission, particularly if we intend to colonise this planet. 

I continue my attempts to establish communication with the indigenous flora, but have been met with silence. I have therefore turned my mind to the problem of helium. Evidently, the indigenous population can survive without it, however this is an absolute requirement for our species. As you know from our initial survey, there are good supplies in the gases emitted during times of volcanic eruption, however this is a highly volatile and irregular source, and there is the problem of storage to be considered.

Generating helium through nuclear fission might be another possibility, however as you know, the temperatures and byproducts involved are highly toxic. Perhaps we could train some of the mammalian species to work on the refinement of helium?

I can see you shaking your head at my fancifulness. But fancifulness – or at least imagination – may be our only way forward here.




Académie des Sciences, Paris

Monday, April 13, 1744

Bernard would rather be studying his new plant, but Antoine drags him out to hear Chéseaux speak at the French Academy of Sciences.

“Too much fresh air is bad for you,” he tells his younger brother, cheerfully.  “Besides, Chéseaux will be talking about that comet of his.  I gather it is still visible in the southern hemisphere.  Perhaps Joseph has seen it.”

Bernard rolls his eyes.  “If he has, nobody will ever find out.  He is the worst correspondent I know.”

“He sent you those heliotrope seeds,” Antoine chides.

This did not seem like a good reason to go to listen to a talk about comets, and yet here Bernard finds himself.  Antoine’s methods are irrational, but effective.

And it is an interesting talk, Bernard concedes.  Chéseaux had speculated on the nature of the comet’s six tails, and had also presented correspondence from countries as far away as China.

“A singing comet!” exclaims Antoine as they walked home through the narrow streets.  “Can you imagine such a thing?”

Bernard frowns at this imprecision.  “Chéseaux did not say that the comet sang.  He said that the Chinese astronomers reported that it made a sound as it passed.  So does an arrow, when it passes close to you in flight, but nobody would say that the arrow was singing.  Singing implies intent.”

Antoine considers this in silence.  “So you think, then, that the sound made by the comet was merely the whistle of an object as it passes close by?  I think I find that thought more alarming than the idea of a comet who has intelligent motivations.”

“I did not say its motivations were intelligent.” Bernard corrects him, but he smiles a little as he does so.

Antoine laughs.  “If anything, that would be worse.”

This is certainly true.

“I wonder, though, if a comet could be intelligent,” continues Antoine.  “They are made of the same stuff as we are, after all.  The meteors that fall from the sky are composed of the same elements that make up our bodies.”

“Would you suggest that the stones beneath our feet are intelligent, then? We should be careful how we tread on them, if that is the case.”

“You would class a comet merely as part of the greater category of stones?  That seems… a little reductive.”

It did.  “I would not class a comet at all,” admitted Bernard.  “I would rather admire its passing, and leave its analysis to others.  I have enough to occupy me with my plants.  Still, that was a good talk.”


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 15

I apologise for my prolonged silence. The problem of helium becomes more complex – and, I confess, more distressing.

As you may recall, my initial hypothesis was that the indigenous flora did not require or rely on helium, however I now have reason to suspect that in fact they do – or rather, that they once did – but that the results of helium deficiency are more subtle, and more destructive, than we had previously realised.

You are, I am sure, now recalling the unethical experiments, carried out by certain war criminals during the late conflict, regarding the effect of helium withdrawal on healthy plants. The pictures are indelibly etched in all our minds. But there were no signs of such here, and so it was not initially apparent that I was observing a related phenomenon…

I am speaking in circles. My apologies. The truth that I have discovered is so unpleasant that I find it difficult even to write it.

I believe that Terran flora were once as intelligent as we are ourselves, but that over time – perhaps twenty generations, perhaps more – this intelligence was lost as a result of prolonged and slow helium starvation.

You will tell me that this is impossible – that we understand the effects of helium starvation, and that these effects are fatal – slowly, perhaps, and painfully, certainly – but inevitable. I would have thought the same until now.

But consider the evidence:

  1. I have been unable to establish communication with the indigenous floral species, despite the fact that they possess the same parts necessary for communication that we do.
  2. While there is evidence of communication between Terran plants, it is strictly functional in nature. Responses appear to be rote, perhaps even automated, rather than directed by intelligence
  3. There is evidence that Terran plants were highly intelligent in the past (their domestication of small fauna, their adaptation to diverse environments)
  4. Most Terran soil lacks helium. And yet, helium clearly exists beneath the surface of this planet – witness the observation of the helium-rich environment around volcanoes. (Note, too, that the soil around volcanoes is also particularly rich in nutrients and plant-life, presumably enabled by this periodic access to helium)

I hypothesise therefore that there was a slow decline in helium levels on this planet over a prolonged period of time. This amount of time was sufficient for the flora to encompass some degree of adaptation – sufficient for basic survival – however the prolonged lack of helium has had genetic, or, more probably, epigenetic effects on the genes for floral intelligence.

In plain words, we are witnessing the aftermath of a hideous depopulation event. The flora of this planet, once so vibrant and ambitious that they attempted to domesticate even large, semi-intelligent fauna, are now mere mindless vegetable matter, compost that does not yet know itself to be so.

I cannot contemplate this without horror.




Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Thursday, April 16, 1744

Their nephew, Antoine Laurent has come to stay with them, ostensibly for a holiday and to spend time with his uncles, but in reality to begin his botanical training.  He is a cheerful child, chattering constantly as he follows his uncles around the great garden, his pet blackbird on his shoulder.

Bernard shows him the cuttings from the strange new plant, and Antoine-Laurent exclaims over them with disgusted glee.

“They are horrible! Like little eyeballs on stalks. You should call them that – Dolls Eyes, or something.”

“Dolls Eyes is not a proper scientific name,” explains Bernard, patiently. “Can you tell me why?”

The boy sighs. “Because it doesn’t describe its morphological characteristics. But it does though – its morphology is that it looks like tiny eyeballs! Look, even Merlin thinks so. Don’t you Merlin?”

And he gestures to the bird, who has hopped off the boy’s shoulder and is happily eating the berries from the plant.

“Blackbirds eat the eyes off corpses, did you know that, Uncle? Merlin must think the berries are eyes, too! It’s completely grotesque, don’t you think?”

But Bernard is shooing the bird away. “You must not let Merlin eat the berries,” he tells Antoine Laurent. “They are poisonous to humans. I don’t know what they might do to birds.”

Antoine Laurent looks worried for a moment, then smiles. “He’s fine, Uncle. Look, he’s flying around like there’s nothing wrong!”

He is indeed, and moreover he has swooped in for another try at the berries. Clearly they are tastier to the avian palate than they appear.

Bernard shoos Merlin away again, then beckons Antoine Laurent to the door. “I think we had better remove Merlin from temptation. Come, let’s go outside and you can tell me about your new classification system for birds.”

The boy whistles to the bird, who returns to his shoulder. “Well,” he explains to his uncle, “I was thinking we should classify them by their songs. So birds with more complicated songs would be part of the same family, and birds who just have one or two notes would belong together too.”

Bernard nods, approvingly. “An interesting idea. And how would you classify birds where one sex has a more sophisticated song than the other?”

He closes the greenhouse door carefully behind him, and uncle and nephew step out into the spring sunshine.


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 17

You accuse me of melodrama, and perhaps my distress colours my words too vividly. But oh, my sister, if you had seen this world – this lush, but vacant garden – these flowers, as beautiful as the dawn and as mindless as the sun’s rays! If you had but witnessed the empty horror of roots that grope in darkness toward their goal, their movements intentional, yet with with no self-awareness or appreciation of the soil’s taste to drive them – the pathos of seedlings which reach for the sun, yet remain blind to its light, unable to rejoice in its warmth – the horror of plants that cry warning to one another of an insect attack or a drought – plants who act on this warning, who repel the attack or close up their pores to conserve water, yet who do all this from some primal instinct, empty of thought or intention, without any feeling of altruism or sisterly love to drive them, without any emotion whatsoever…

And yet, they are so green and lush. Their petals are full of scents as sweet as any I have found on our home world. Their flowers are as beautiful as those of any belle of Eden, and their petals are coloured in every shade imaginable, bright or pastel, light or dark. There is so much beauty here, so much life – and yet in the midst of it, animating it, there is nothing – nothing but death. A death of awareness, of spirit, of intelligence.

I will not apologise for my emotions. This is a dead world, sister, and yet it lacks the awareness to grieve its loss. But I am aware, and as long as my mission permits it, I will bear witness, and grieve for those who can no longer do so.

On to the problem of helium. You are right, of course, that the ethical issues around using mammals to produce our helium are massive, perhaps even insurmountable, and would need to be addressed before we even considered the problem of training. But it is hard to think of other alternatives. There simply are no safe sources of helium on this planet. Sol itself, of course, has abundant helium supplies, but I feel that harvesting there would be even more hazardous than my previous suggestions. We would need a self-driving ship, with the ability to withstand terrible heat – is such a thing even possible? I am no engineer; perhaps you could relay a message back to Command and see what resources they may have available?


PS – the mammal has taken two more cuttings, and planted them near me. He seems to be experimenting with different soil varieties, but I fear that they are doomed to as short a life as their elder sister – or worse, a long life, but one lacking in awareness. I think I would rather see them wither, than see them thrive in body but not in mind.


Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Friday, April 17, 1744

It is raining today, and Bernard takes the opportunity to sit in the greenhouse and begin noting down his observations of the strange plant.  The two new cuttings in the garden are doing poorly, and their parent plant is also beginning to look a little sickly.  Several of its leaves have dropped, though the berries sway as eagerly as ever at even the slight movement of air caused by his passing.  Interestingly, the seedling which he planted in the greenhouse has perked up considerably in the last day or two.  Perhaps the soil in the initial garden bed does not contain the nutrients that this plant requires – but if so, how did it spring up there in the first place?

The question of its origin is another mystery that Bernard is determined to resolve.

To do this, he returns to first principles.  What are the plant’s morphological characteristics? He sketches the plant carefully, noting the precise shape of the leaves and the berries.  The plant looks far less alien when drawn in simple black pencil on paper.  The leaves might, conceivably, be similar to tomato leaves, though they lack the tomato scent, but the configuration of the berries is completely different.  Then there are the red stems, which occur sometimes in geraniums – but the flowers are entirely different.  It’s a puzzle.

A blackbird sings in the garden, and Bernard remembers his nephew’s system of bird classification.  They had argued for some time over whether complexity of song suggested greater intelligence on the part of the birds, or whether it had more to do with the mechanics and morphology of the bird’s larynx and vocal organs.  Merlin, Bernard was forced to agree, was clearly a bird of great intelligence and discernment, but did this have anything to do with his song?  Bernard doubted it.

“And as for you,” Bernard tells the plant in the pot in front of him, “You do not sing at all.  And I am glad of it.  Between my nephew’s fascination with the intelligence of birds and my brother’s suggestion that astronomical bodies might also be operating with intent, I don’t think I could face a sentient, singing plant.”

The plant in the pot remains silent.  Only a person of excessive imagination would think that its berries seem like eyes, staring in silent despair at their captor.

Fortunately, Bernard has very little imagination.


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 18

No, and no, and no again!

Once again, you suggest that I am irrational. That I am allowing my emotions to rule me. But, sister, my emotions are irrelevant. There is not sufficient helium on this planet to sustain a colony, even a small one. That is simple fact. Besides, you know that colonies never stay contained. Even if they are advised not to expand beyond a certain point, expand they will – we can’t control fertility without having the Free Pollenists after us – and then we will be forced to expend resources to sustain them. You know that this is true! One picture of a poor, wilting seedling, starved of helium, and the hedge-polloi will be rioting until regular deliveries of the element are assured. And then there will be the Rhodophytae, waiting to tell everyone that we sent those particular colonists here intending for them to die, because you know those algae want nothing more than to start a revolution… I could go on, but you know as well as I do how these things go.

It’s a political nightmare waiting to happen.

More than that – it’s the direct opposite of what we were sent here to do. Our own planet is running short of resources. We do not have the capacity to provide regular helium shipments to an outpost, especially one this far away.

No. Unless we can find a sustainable solution to the helium problem, it is my formal recommendation that we do not attempt to colonise Sol 3.



Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Sunday, April 19, 1744

The plant is definitely starting to wilt.  Bernard returns from Mass to see that several berries have dropped, and the leaves are beginning to shrivel.  He hurries to the compost heap, and then to the chicken coop, and brings a bucket of each back to the bed where the strange plant is growing.  He digs the fertiliser in thoroughly, but also with caution – he does not wish to damage the plant’s roots.

Antoine Laurent wants to help, but Bernard refuses to permit it.  “Bad enough that I am breaking the Sabbath.  I will not have the corruption of the young on my conscience.”

Besides, where Antoine Laurent goes, Merlin follows, and the bird has taken a distinct liking to the plant’s berries.  He has already picked several out of the grass, and would probably be stealing them directly from the plant itself if Bernard were not keeping a close eye on him.

“But we are allowed to do good deeds on the Sabbath!  The priest said so today: ‘Man is not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man,’ remember?”

Bernard bites his lip against a smile.  “This is true.  But since this good deed only requires one pair of hands, it is better that only one of us breaks the Sabbath.  Now, be a good boy and go to your Uncle Antoine.  He has several books that he has been setting aside for you, so you will not be bored.  I will come soon.”

The boy goes inside, and Bernard finishes his work.

He looks at the plant.  It takes no imagination at all to see it as sad now.

“I am sorry,” he tells it.  “I wish I knew what you needed.”


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 20

I don’t think so. The underlying issue remains the same: a lack of helium. And let us not forget that we are low on phosphorous, too.  The planet simply is not hospitable for our kind.

Now, sister, I do not wish to alarm you, but I need you to send the retrieval pod at your earliest convenience. It is, as you know, the accepted policy in expeditions such as these, for explorers to draw nutrients from the soil, and use their supply packs solely for supplementation. Unfortunately, this planet’s soil not only lacks important nutrients, but contains an excess of chemicals that I cannot properly digest in such quantities.

Under normal circumstances, I would be able to rebalance my hormonal and chemical levels myself, however I am being prevented in this endeavour by the very primate I mentioned earlier! She insists on feeding me with nitrogen-rich mammal excrement, which is delicious, but does not contain the nutrients I need. Worse still, its chemical composition is such that it actually hinders my ability to synthesise some of these nutrients.

My analysis of the indigenous flora suggests that such treatment would, in fact, be beneficial to most of them, so no malice should be ascribed to my primate’s actions. Indeed, it is clear that she is attempting to help me! But of course, she has no real understanding of plant biology, and so her efforts are in vain.

But sister, do you know what this means? This primate is acting with intent, and is in fact using logic to generalise from one situation (a sick indigenous plant) to an analogous one (my own sickness). The fact that she is missing crucial information does not take away from the fact that this is absolute evidence of higher thought in a mammalian life form! If I am not mistaken (and I am certain that I am not), this is the first recorded observation of intelligence in fauna!

I admit, my excitement at this discovery has caused me to delay summoning the retrieval pod, which may have been unwise. I have been making extensive observations, and you will find attached to this report the first draft of my paper on the intelligent primates of Sol 3 – I beg you to forward it to the Journal of Xenoethology at the earliest opportunity.

Or rather, the second earliest opportunity. Please, sister, do not delay in sending the shuttle. My resources are getting low, and I am beginning to feel quite unwell. If even the primates have noticed, you will agree it must be bad! I am bitterly disappointed to cut short my mission at such an exciting juncture, but my love for xenoethology is not such that I desire to die for it.

Speaking of which, I must officially inform you, my two daughter seedlings have died. They were too young to know how to balance their chemical levels correctly, and did not, in any case, have access to my soil enrichment equipment.




Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Monday, April 20, 1744

The plant has dropped even more berries today, and its leaves are beginning to fall. Bernard is staring at it helplessly when his brother joins him in the garden.

“A pity,” Antoine says. “It was rather beautiful in its way. Odd that we never did find out where it came from.”

Bernard nods. He is too dispirited to speak.

“Perhaps it was always an annual,” suggests Antoine. “Not every plant is destined to bloom and thrive forever in our gardens, after all. You’ve dried some of the berries, have you not? You could always plant another next spring.”

This is true, but Bernard still feels guilty. This was his plant, his discovery, and he has failed to adequately take care of it.

The brothers regard the plant in silence.

“I think I’ll take it into the greenhouse,” says Bernard suddenly. “It has been cold, these last few days. Perhaps the extra warmth will cheer it up.”

“An excellent idea,” agrees Antoine. “I’ll go get you a pot.”

His voice is a little too hearty, but he helps Bernard dig up the seedling and replant it in the pot, and finds a particularly sunny spot in the greenhouse, near the tropical plants.  They use soil from the pea crop, and dig in guano from the chickens.

Once again, they have to shoo away Merlin, who is determined to steal berries from the dying plant.

“Well, at least we can be certain that the berries are not poisonous to birds,” remarks Antoine.

“His droppings are full of seeds.  I shall have to tell Antoine Laurent to take them out to the compost heap this afternoon.”


Planet: Sol 3
Mission Log, Day 21

My dearest sister, I request that you call back the shuttle, and depart this solar system immediately.

Matters have worsened since I last wrote to you. The primate who I mentioned earlier came to visit me shortly after I sent my last dispatch. She was with another primate, and sister, even in this, my final extremity, I must tell you – they spoke! Do not, I pray you, take this as the ravings of a sick imagination or a dying mind – my perceptions are still perfectly sharp. It is only my leaves and roots that fail me.

The two primates produced a range of vocalisations, varying in volume and pitch and accompanied by gestures that clearly conveyed meaning. I believe that you will agree, particularly when you read what follows, that this confirms my suspicion that the primates on this planet are on the verge of developing true intelligence, and that this planet is therefore unsuitable for colonisation on ethical grounds as well as the grounds of inadequate soil.

As a result of these vocalisations, dear sister, they dug me up!

I can see you now, your leaves at full turgor, your stalk bending toward the console, intent on some drastic action.  Do not take that action. As you can see by this despatch, I survived. Once again, the primates’ intentions were benign, though the outcome will, I fear, be my death. They replanted me in a large pot, with more nitrogen-rich excrement around me, as well as small pieces of some chemical designed to ward off insects, and they carried me into the large green glass building that I could see from my place in the garden.

It is quite a wonder, this building, and not entirely unlike a primitive version of our own hospitals. Indeed, I believe they use the building for this very purpose, as well as to nurture plants too young or fragile for the cold nights here. The glass, as you know, concentrates heat and moisture, I and my fellow plants are constantly watered and monitored, and if my problems were ones of climate, rather than the more fundamental nutritional ones of which you are well aware, I would rapidly recover here.

Alas, this is not the case. And, as you will perceive, this care for my health has sealed my fate. There is no way to send a shuttle for me now. I will die here, surrounded by carers who know no better than to kill me with kindness.

One of my daughter seedlings, who I thought lost, is here with me also. I do not know what became of her sister, but I fear the worst. Alas, while she is surprisingly robust in body, the lack of communication at a crucial stage in her seedlinghood has profoundly damaged her. You have read the studies, of course, and know as well as I do that seedlings who experience no communication during the cotyledon stage fail to develop the capacity to communicate with other plants. While no neglect was intended – quite the contrary – the outcome is the same. My daughter will never speak. This grieves me more than you can know.

Sister, I beg you not to avenge my death, or the disability of my daughter. Such action would waste resources that we cannot, in any case afford. And sentient life must be respected. It would, of course, be a different matter if the primates were acting maliciously, but they are not. Moreover, this planet is not habitable for our kind. Nothing would be gained by such an action, and we would, I believe, lose a portion of our collective soul if we rained down destruction on a young, promising, mammalian race.

As for me, I have few regrets. I have seen more of the universe than most of my kind, and discovered a new world, one that contains both tragedy and hope. There is great consolation in this. I would have liked to be the one who found the planet where we could all take root, but it was not to be.

I am glad to witness in these, my last days, this evidence that life persists. Sentient life will find a way, even when the natural bearers of such life are gone! Is this not a cause for rejoicing? Though it is strange to think that even as we replaced the aquatic creatures as the dominant life form of our own planet, so too, one day, a mammalian species may replace us…

Give my love to my eldest daughters – perhaps they shall succeed where I failed.

May the sun’s blessings always go with you.

(Actaea Pachypoda Ranunculaceae, Explorer First Class)



Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, Paris

Wednesday, April 22, 1744

The plant withers away as quickly as it appeared.  In the morning, the leaves are brown; by midday, the berries have all dropped, and by nightfall, the only evidence of its existence are a few dry leaves in a pot of soil.

Bernard regards it with sadness.  “Poor thing,” he says.  “I wish I could have kept you alive.  I shall do better with your cutting, I hope.”

With a sigh, he digs the last of the roots out of the pot. He picks up a handful of soil and lets it run through his fingers.  It is rich and loamy, perfect for seed raising.

The heliotrope seeds Joseph sent him are still sitting in their packet on the counter.  It is a little late to sow them, but the warmth of the greenhouse will help speed their germination. Besides, they have spent months already on the ship from South America.  Waiting for next winter to plant them might be too long – dried seeds always lose some of their viability over time.

Bernard sets out four seed trays, and fills them with the soil from the strange plant’s pot.  With his finger, he makes little indentations in the soil at regular intervals.  Then he opens the packet of seeds, and presses them into the holes, one by one.


In the compost heap, a tiny red shoot uncoils from inside a berry embedded in a dropping of blackbird guano. The shoot is small, but vigorous.  It burrows its way through berry and guano alike, and pokes itself up between the dead leaves to meet the sun.


Introduction to the Collected Diaries of Actaea Pachypoda Ranunculaceae 

It is my privilege to preface this first edition of Actaea Pachypoda Ranunculaceae’s diaries. Actaea Pachypoda Ranunculaceae of the Linnaean clan was one of the first great interstellar explorers of the Post-War Era. She was also my foremother.  Over a period of two decades, she led expeditions to multiple planets and asteroids, to ascertain their suitability for colonisation.

Actaea was an explorer, a xenoethologist, and a philosopher. Her observations regarding the effects of prolonged helium deficiency over multiple generations changed the face of exploration, and led to new discoveries in the field of helium generation and refinement. Her observation on the domestication of insectoid, avian and mammalian species on Sol 3 are of particular interest to the young xenobiologist, and have led to the identification of several domesticable species on new colony planets.

It is perhaps apt that Actaea ended her life on the planet that was the site of her greatest discoveries. Unable to derive sufficient helium and phosphorous from the soil, and further weakened by the misguided assistance of her mammalian pets, she perished only three weeks after her arrival on the planet. Her three youngest seedlings were also born and perished on Sol 3.

Early space exploration was hazardous, and many scouts perished on their way to the planets they were assigned to explore. To conserve resources, navigators identified comets with paths that would lead them close to a planet of interest, and would attach the space pods to these comets. The comet’s trajectory would then be modified as needed by the application of precisely calculated explosions. Scouts were normally released in seed parachutes as the comet approached perihelion, however in the case of Actaea’s last journey, this was impossible, and the parachute release occurred on the comet’s return journey past Sol 3. To ensure Actaea’s safety, the pilot calculated a trajectory that would use the respective gravities of Sol 3, Sol 5, and Sol itself to draw the comet back towards earth after three seasons, and a shuttle was left in orbit around the moon, in case an earlier retrieval was required.

Unfortunately for Actaea, the mission failed well before this point, and retrieval was impossible. The comet was thus allowed to continue on its original trajectory, out of Sol’s system and beyond, into the Milky Way Galaxy.

Students of history will be aware that Actaea’s final expedition was more significant than she would ever know. As they rode the comet out into the Milky Way, Actaea’s crew observed several helium-rich planets. These observations provided the impetus for a second exploratory mission to the Milky Way, led by Actaea’s eldest seedling, Actaea Rubra Ranunculaceae, which which resulted in the discovery of three habitable planets, and the beginning of the Colonial Era.

– Actaea Alba Ranunculaceae





Botanists, Asteroids, and Plants in Space

Jussieu is a station in the 5th arondissement, serving lines 7 and 10 of the Paris Métro.  It is situated south of the Seine, and close to the Jardin des Plantes, where this story is set.  The station opened in 1931 and is named for the Place Jussieu, which is in turn named for a famous botanical family, the de Jussieus.

Bernard de Jussieu was the third of four brothers in the de Jussieu family.  Born in Lyon in 1699, the son of an apothecary, he completed a medical degree, but preferred botany, and accepted an invitation to Paris from his elder brother, Antoine, a physician and professor of botany at the Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales (now known as the Jardin des Plantes) to join him there as a demonstrator of plants. The other two brothers were Christophe (born 1685), an apothecary who wrote a treatise on treacle, and Joseph (born 1704), another medical graduate and a botanist, who travelled to Peru to measure the arc of the meridian, and remained there as a botanist for most of his life. Christophe was the father of Antoine-Laurent, but does not appear in this story.  Joseph is mentioned in the story as being a notoriously poor correspondent – at his funeral, his friend Nicolas de Condorcet remarked that “this was a unique case of an academic in the field of science who never spoke at a meeting, nor published any memoire.”  So I’m guessing he wasn’t a great letter writer either.

Bernard developed a new system of plant classification, which differed from the Linnaean one in that it used a variety of morphological characteristics to define families of plants, rather than simply grouping them based on the number of stamens and pistils.  He was also the first to realise that freshwater polyps were in fact animals and not flowers.  He seems to have been a modest and retiring man, who elected not to succeed his brother as professor of botany at the Jardin.

Antoine-Laurent, Antoine and Bernard’s nephew, was in fact not born until 1748, but I brought his date of birth forward by a decade or so in order to include him in this story.  Like his uncles, and indeed, his son, he became a medical man and a botanist, and extended and improved on Bernard’s work on classification.

To my fascination, when I began looking up the de Jussieu family, I discovered something else that was named after them –  the asteroid 9470 Jussieu.  This asteroid can be found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and was first observed in 1981, but only formally discovered and named in 1998.  I’m not sure how that works, since I know exceedingly little about astronomy, or about botany (as I fear is already evident to anyone who has read this story), but it was clear to me that this story had to be about botanists foiling an alien invasion.

The Jussieu asteroid was probably not visible in the night sky in 1744, but something else was, and that was the Great Comet of 1744.  By March, this comet was even visible to the naked eye, and it developed a spectacular fanned tail, like a peacock, an extremely unusual phenomenon.  Astronomers are still not sure what caused this effect, but it probably had something to do with the comet being co-opted by Actaea’s people for the purposes of space exploration.  The comet was last seen in the northern hemisphere on March 9, which is presumably when it ejected Actaea’s seed parachute, and left it to drift down to earth.  Its last sighting in the southern hemisphere was on April 22nd.

I needed a name for my intrepid floral scout, and I wanted it to sound botanical.  I chose Actaea Pachypoda Ranunculaceae, because, as you will see from the photographs, this plant looks *very* alien indeed, like a tree that sprouts tiny eyeballs.  The Actaea Pachypoda, commonly known as Dolls Eyes or White Baneberry, is actually native to North America (and quite poisonous, so if you do find her, do not eat her), and does not require helium to survive – no plant does, that I know of.  But it is a fact that Earth is running short of helium, and that there is no really good way to make more of it, so while I don’t believe we will be facing quite the same near-extinction event that happened to Earth’s intelligent flora in my story, we do need to come up with a solution to the problem of how to get more if we wish to maintain our current technological levels.

Also, I just want to pause here and mention a fascinating book which helped me write this story (even though I basically ignored all the science of it quite blatantly), and that is What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Sense, by Daniel Chamovitz.  It’s a fascinating look at how plants sense and respond to the world, and a remarkably easy read – I highly recommend it.

If you are wondering where Actaea’s people ended up, I cannot tell you the precise planet, but it would have been one of the warm Neptunes in the Milky Way Galaxy.  These are blue planets with a high helium concentration in their atmosphere.  So far, all those that have been discovered by us would be too hot to sustain life, but astronomers are convinced that there are many Neptune-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy, and one of them is bound to suit Actaea’s people.

The images I have used in this story are all available from Wikimedia Commons.  The first photograph of the Actaea Pachypoda is by Robert E. Wright.  The engraving of Bernard de Jussieu is by an unknown artist and is in the public domain.  The second photograph is by Cbaile19. The botanical sketch is from Illustrated Flora of the Northern States and Canada, Vol. 2: 90 by N.L. Britton and A. Brown, published in 1913.  It is in the public domain.  And the final picture is by Gary Peeples, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region.



Place Monge
fleur7left Jussieu
fleur7right Sully-Morland
Cardinal Lemoine
fleur10left Jussieu fleur10right Gare d’Austerlitz

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