Chapter 17

“What do you mean by ‘alien values of wealth’?” asked the Leewit. The Leewit had a healthy interest in treasure, and finance. Goth was good at it too, the captain recalled, rather nostalgically. He remembered her delight at figuring out the Venture ‘s cargo values for the Daal’s officials, and working out cargo and passenger rates — and searching for the Agandar’s loot.

Mebeckey shrugged. “Things which were valuable to an alien species. That had collector’s value, but were of no use to humans. Much of it we didn’t understand. But it was plainly a mixture between a fortress and a palace. There were no jewels. If there were ornaments they were things that looked like lumps of coal. There were many bones. Everything was very uniform, very ordered. There were thousands of patterned long planting-beds of dusty earth, all the same. There was alien machinery. Weapons not designed for human limbs. There were freighter loads of stuff that did have a value. Rare metals. The treasure of dozens of worlds that they’d conquered — some of it they had plainly understood as little as we understood them.”

His expression got a little dreamy. “For a little while I had made the greatest find of xeno-archeological treasure any one ever has, and I was rich beyond my imagining. But we kept going deeper. Looking for the source of the radio-signal. We should have loaded the Kapurnia and got out. But greed kept us going deeper.”

“And what did you find down there?” asked Pausert, warily.

“We found a stasis box of some kind. I cleared the area. Wanted to send the Waldo-robot down. ”

He sighed. “My associates were perhaps less scrupulous than they should have been. One of my assistants sneaked back. Or hid herself and remained behind. She opened it as soon as we were out of sight.”

He sighed again. “We heard her scream. And we ran back. But by then it was too late.”


“She’d opened the stasis box.”


“It had been full of the dust — and she was covered in it.”

“Dust,” said the Leewit. She’d plainly, by the tone of voice been expecting treasure.

“Everything thing becomes dust eventually, child. I expect their stasis box hadn’t worked,” said the captain, faintly relieved.

Mebeckey shook his head. “It had worked perfectly. It had preserved viably what it was meant to preserve. We just didn’t recognize it for what it was. ”

“So what was it?”

“Seeds of a kind,” said Mebeckey, his voice quavering slightly. “Or spores, perhaps. Everything was so different that we should have guessed that the aliens were not an animal life-form. We are animals that eat plants and other animals… These were plants that used animals to grow in, and to disperse their spores. I say ‘plants’ but really they were all one plant. One vast telepathically linked plant, with various lifestages, with only one vegetative goal: to cover all, to harvest, to bring back to the mother-plant, to breed, to create more seedlings in the motiles, to spread, to cover all, to harvest, to bring back to the mother-plant, to breed, to create more seedlings in the motiles to cover all, to harvest, to bring back to the mother-plant, to create more seedlings.”

His voice had become a monotone, his eyes glazed, and he was was plainly caught in the hypnotic repetitive chanting. The captain interrupted. “We get the point. But how do you know all this?”

“And what were the bones from, if it was a plant?” demanded the Leewit.

He looked calmly at them. “Because I too became part of the mother-plant. The haploid stage takes over animal life. Marshi got most of the spores, but the rest of us must have breathed in a few. She was the dominant plant. It grew in us, spreading hyphae through us, taking over our nervous system and then our bodies. That’s what it does, until it is ready to sporify. Then it begins to grow rapidly, devouring the host, using the animal for nutrients and produces millions of spores, haploid spores, that then mix and make new mother-plants — which are all part of the great mother-plant.”

“What?” Pausert had his blaster out, pointed at Mebeckey. “Are you telling me you’re full of some alien parasite?”

The man shook his head. “Not any more. I was. It controlled me. But at least one of my crew may still be. My assistant Marshi, the woman who got most of it. Except she was not part of my crew any more. She’d just become part of the plant.”

“You mean this plant out there, spreading?”

“No,” said Mebeckey. “Well, they must have some spores with them. But they need Melchin to finish the life-cycle. The species they co-evolved with, that they used as reproductive hosts. They can live in other animals, but not finish the breeding cycle. They left me there, left me to seek for the Illtraming. I don’t know if they survived.”

“I get the feeling that there are big gaps in this story,” said Pausert. ” And I don’t like it. Who or what is the Illtraming?”

“The mother-plant used its motiles — Melchin that had been infected with the haploid stage, to colonize other places, then continents, then planets. Only, somewhere… the Melchin hosts were infected by some disease before sporification. It killed the mother-plant haploids in the hosts. It did not kill the the Melchin hosts. They survived. And bred. They are the Illtraming. The Melchin who are no longer ruled the mother-plant. They are the Mother-plant’s most deadly enemies, with a fear and hatred of the mother-plant as deep as the universe. And also the Mother-plant’s only hope of survival. The bones we found… the bones are all that is left of the hosts, the Melchin. The haploid mother-plant can manage with a female human host. But to produce viable spores they need a male Melchin. And then more Melchin to breed for hosts. My crew — or what used to be my crew — left me so they could go and search for Illtraming.”

“Why didn’t they just take you too?” asked Vezzarn.

“I tried to get to them.” He held up his scarred hands. “But had I locked myself in, when I started getting the shakes. I was scared they’d think I was infected with some alien disease and kill me. I was scared that they had been infected. I still thought it was a disease. It took a while to become one with the plant, and its control of the nervous system took a while too. And then it takes control. It can’t properly read your mind or know what you know. You are just part of the plant. And the plant didn’t know how to open the lock. I could have picked it, but the Mother-plant couldn’t control enough dexterity or access my memories sufficiently. It tried, but I think I only had one spore, and I think the more plants the more complete the control. Anyway, I was trapped. Then maybe the plant needed something more than my body could supply. It was adapted to parasitize Melchin, not humans — although it could use other animals, just not to breed. The plant mind faded and I was myself again. Alone. Alone!”

“In the mean time those are some blips on our screen, Captain,” said Vezzarn, pointing. “It looks like the Phantom ships are back.”

Mebeckey looked at the screen too, at the fast approaching needle shapes. “Melchin. Or maybe even Illtraming.”


“Xeno-archeologists have found Melchin-mother-plant ruins and the wreck of a ship. And there are Nartheby sprite illustrations. That’s what their ships look like.”

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