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Seeds of Hope
Everything seemed so right on that last evening. In the Texan division of the great farm supply company Miragrow, the fields of corn stood unbroken, their rich green leaves rustling in the wind. Each ear was plump, full of identical seeds that held just the right mixture of vitamins and minerals to sustain life. A separate, high-sugar variety next to the first field produced only ethanol. On the far side of the ethanol corn, a vast building held the machines that would harvest the corn and crush the stalks back into the earth to supplement the chemical fertilizers. As Vice-President of Species Development John Randall finished his twice-daily inspection of the crop reports and checked off the “Unchanged” box, he might as well have added “We have won.” There had been no famines for three decades. The new ALKD/1395/990 genus of corn was working better than any he and his underlings had ever developed. He paused before going inside just to look out over the green ocean of plants and imagine similar oceans in special urban areas, in divisions of state parks, in the Great Plains and the Gobi Desert—everywhere except the poles. ALKD/1395/990 was his greatest triumph. It grew anywhere. The world had no more need to fear starvation or poverty or the wars those things caused. Science had overcome nature once and for all.
He drove home that night in an excellent mood. “ALKD is still working well,” he told his wife. “The kernels are developing normally, and they’re plumper than any of our previous attempts. Reports from the Sahara and the tundra indicate that it doesn’t grow as well there, but it’s still producing enough to feed humans.”
“I’ll bet they’re getting rather sick of corn.” Her voice was barbed, as it always was whenever he talked about his work. He’d taken the job with Miragrow after they got married. She’d thought his work in science would turn to another field.
He shrugged. “We’re working on new foods every day. Miragrow is sponsoring several of the most fashionable restaurants in the world. They’ll find things to do with our corn, or we’ll stop their funding.”
She helped him get his coat off. “I still don’t like it. It’s just stupid, in fact. The whole world depends on this one species of corn. Not even a species. A single variety within a species. How is that safe?”
“What on earth do you mean?” He sat down at the table and waited for her to sit before he started eating. The meal was canned corn, bread made with corn flour, and a meatloaf made from specially modified corn proteins. He decided not to point this out.
She leaned across the table. “You took history, right? Remember the Irish Potato Famine? They grew all one kind of potato. And when it died, they starved.”
“We’ve tested ALKD against every plant disease known to man. No deaths.”
“What about the bananas?” she persisted. “You can hardly get them now. They used to be common. But then another disease wiped out the only strain we grew.”
He nodded, bored, and took another bite of food. “So?”
“When the potatoes died, a nation starved. When the bananas died, the world was irritated. What happens when the corn dies?”
He patted her hand. “Nothing. Because it won’t die. And even if a new disease did appear, we’d be able to develop a resistant variety before it could do any harm. You just trust me and science, dear.”
She sat back. “We need the seeds.”
“What?” Surely she didn’t know all that his recent promotion meant. . .
“The seeds. There used to be thousands of different varieties of every plant. Your corn destroyed that. We need the seeds, the diversity, in order to survive.”
“The world! But especially farmers. Everyone’s going to need them, though, if something happens to the corn.”
“Mmh. Good meal. It’s completely made of our corn, you know. People aren’t getting bored, and they aren’t in any danger of starvation. Even if one or two crops failed, there’s more corn than humankind could possibly eat growing on this planet. And new varieties being tested every day! Don’t worry, dear.”
“Hmm.” She started clearing the table. “I can see I’m not going to change your mind. But I’m worried. There was something on the news about corn dying in the Rockies.”
“Probably some fool planted the hot-weather subvariety when he should have planted cold. Now how’d your day go?” He listened with interest while she told him about her job as a talk show host. He didn’t approve of her arguments—she had allied herself firmly with those green, earth-loving people who ignored the new civilization’s cleaner energy and renewable food source, and kept going on and on about seeds and diversity and preserving ecosystems—but her sincerity amused him, and she liked her job, and it brought in money.
He went into work the next morning almost as happy as he’d left it. The sky was a clear blue, its color undimmed by exhaust from the electric cars and renewed by the photosynthesis from his fields of corn. There weren’t many birds crossing it, but he didn’t mind that. He hardly ever saw birds and thus didn’t miss them.
Flipping through the worker reports, he came across an entry. 11:08 P. M. Found brown spots on leaves of corn in section 12.8.354. Sprayed with fungicide. No insect infestation apparent.
He’d have to check that section now. As Vice-President of Species Development, he had to monitor any problems with his developed species. His job was especially important now, since there was a power shift in process in the upper levels of Miragrow and control was primarily in the hands of presidents and vice-presidents like himself. He thought pleasantly about all the changes he could make—cutting a few workers, for instance, and channeling the extra money to the advertising campaign for ALKD/1395/991. The strain would have to have a better name, though. “Survivor”? No, that sounded like it only barely lived. He stepped down from the concrete floors onto the earth of his fields and barely noticed the change; the first six feet of topsoil were packed hard as iron by the massive tractors required to till the compacted soil. The earth was better under the corn, where it had been slightly broken up by the roots, although his last three tested varieties had died for lack of root depth. But ALKD 991 was growing even in the shallow soil.
Or was it? He stopped abruptly, squinting at the nearest plant. He could barely tell one stalk from another in the shifting jungle, but he was almost certain that he’d seen discoloration on a leaf. Cautiously, he walked toward the edge of the path.
Yes, there was a problem. The leaves of the nearest corn plant were covered in dead brown spots. No, the leaves of the three nearest corn plants. He wasn’t in the section where this had been first seen, was he? And now he was seeing the spots on every plant within his range of vision.
He grabbed his pocket radio and switched it to the main speaker system. “Attention, all plant caretakers. Attention, all plant caretakers. Report discoloration of plant leaves to your supervisors. Supervisors, project reports onto main viewing screen. Thank you.”
He switched the radio off and caught himself shaking. There was nothing to worry about. 991 would be resistant, in all likelihood, and there were six other varieties under testing. The only thing making him nervous was his conversation with his wife. All this was just an unfortunate coincidence.
Slowly, reluctantly, he reached forward to one of the ears of corn that had been so plump the night before. Surely it only looked shriveled because the brown spots covered it? Gently, he pulled back the husks. He knew how to do it so that the husks didn’t even crease and he could fold them back again as they had been before, but this time the covering husks cracked and fell away like the clothing of a mummy. His stomach knotted with dread as he pushed the last husks back and let them spiral to the ground.
The kernels were dying. Those which weren’t already small wrinkled knots were brown and oozing. The fields closed in around him like the fear striking at the back of his neck. He spun around and saw, as if it had only just appeared, the discoloration clustering thickly on every ear of corn in sight.
His fragile calm broke then. He ran down the halls to the main viewing room, not caring that his boots, muddied where he’d stepped off the path, left tracks which made the cleaning robots chitter and buzz at him angrily.
Settling into his leather-covered seat in front of the big screen, he tried to breathe slowly and deeply. There was nothing to worry about. There had been other diseases in the past, but science had always been able to overcome them. Perhaps this nervousness was just the price he paid for feeding the world.
The screen hummed. The aerial view of the fields was so clear that he could almost count the heads of corn. It was an old photograph, though, not a live broadcast. He looked at the swelling ears and long, lovely leaves with the longing grief he’d felt when watching photographs of the victims of a recent plane crash.
A grid appeared over the photograph, dividing it into the sections that each group of workers monitored. Thicker lines divided the ethanol corn from the food corn and the different varieties from each other. A key informed him that the section leaders would report the discoloration as it had first appeared in their workers’ reports and that each report would be signified by a red tinting of the section. He chewed on his tongue as the status bar across the top of the screen reported incoming signals.
Then he bit his tongue nearly in half as he stared. It looked like a time-lapse photograph of the tide coming in. The red began in the northwest corner, which was least sheltered from the wind, and spread to the three adjacent sections in forty minutes. Six more sections fell by midnight, two hours later. Fingers of red snaked ahead of the main mass. It leaped a section of testing corn and his hopes leaped with it, only to fall a moment later as the larger bulk of the disease rolled over that section as well. The red patch that had skipped the testing section was already chewing through the ethanol corn.
He looked away, trying to get control of himself, and when he looked back every field in the entire facility was red. A static-filled cough preceded the advice program’s suggestion. “Reports from facilities across the Americas and in Europe imply similar events in those locations. Might I suggest you declare a state of emergency?”
It was the first good advice he could remember in its entire history.
The next three hours were the longest of his life. Only a few testing fields in America and Europe reported no sign of the disease. The Asian ones were still safe, except for one in the Middle East. The disease must be spreading eastward on the wind, stopped on its westward path by the Pacific Ocean. The fact gave him no comfort.
His secretary, being a robot, was perfectly unflustered. It gave a series of whirring clicks and the slot half-way up its column dispensed a stack of reports from various testing labs around the world. No new varieties had survived the disease. They would need to start developing new hybrids immediately. Instantly, in fact.
The halls were fuller than they had been when he ran down them to the viewing room, but the people were moving differently. Many workers wandered from one room to another with no clear purpose, occasionally stopping to stare out at the brown-splotched field of corn. The three managers of the species development subdivision fell eagerly into step behind him, glad for someone with a purpose.
A heavy steel door slid up into the ceiling without a sound and he stepped into the room behind it. It was cool and dry, perfect for storing seeds without letting them mold. The lone guard looked up from the wall screen—television, it had once been called—he had been watching.
He looked at the television sharply as he recognized the announcer’s voice. “This is not the time for squabbling. This is not the time for worrying about rules and procedures. This is the time for action. Throughout this program and on the site www.seedsavers.org, you will find tips for creating your own garden in every climate and growing many different vegetables. Please, please act on them.” His wife sounded as earnest as she had the night before. “If our world is to survive, each man must learn to feed himself and his neighbor. You prepare the ground. We’ll do our best to find the seeds.” She paused briefly while a number flashed on the screen. “Anyone who has seeds already, please plant them. Give extras to your neighbors or send them to us. Thank you.”
He turned away slowly and gestured for the guard to enter the code for the next room. The iron doors slid apart with a dull groan; this room was rarely used. The cold air bit his face and the lack of humidity made his lungs burn. The single bulb set into the top of the ceiling gave only dim light so that it wouldn’t trigger sprouting. He squinted into the gloom as the door shut behind him and his subordinates.
Seeds were all around them. Some were held in tightly shut clear containers, but others lay in bags or in bins on the floor. Their shapes and sizes ranged from the vertebra-like chard to the too-familiar corn, from the dust-like lettuce to the heavy Brazil nuts. He moved forward into the room, careful not to bump a container and send an avalanche of miniscule carrot or lettuce seeds to the ground.
One of the managers cleared his throat respectfully. “Which variety of corn shall we use as out base plant this time?”
It was funny, he thought bitterly, that after all this time they still had to use nature as a foundation for every experiment. Surely by the time these seeds ran out they would have found a way to experiment without requiring an unmodified plant to work from. After all, they would have a long time before the seeds ran out. There were tens of millions in this storeroom, the collected legacy of a thousand farmers who’d had their land seized for copyright infringement or who had sold their seeds for a profit when the big companies overwhelmed the market.
But would the seeds run out before the world starved?
The rich, dry smell of the seeds filled his nose. It reminded him slightly of the rich earth that he’d smelled once when they took over a farm. It smelled nothing like the chemical-saturated soil in the fields. It was something worth preserving.
“Sir, the disease is spreading rapidly. We don’t have time to waste.”
“No. No, we don’t.” He ran a hand along a row of boxes, not touching them but reading each label in turn. They were all corn, but there were two hundred different varieties on that shelf alone. Some of them were old hybrids, but most were the heritage grains—corn that had grown and survived in a specific area of the world, nurtured by people that knew and loved the land. It was the same for every vegetable in the room.
“Sir, we await your instructions. As Vice-president, you are the only one with authority over these seeds.”
“I am?” Yes, of course he was. The president had resigned early that morning. The Chief Executive had fired most of the presidents in every continent on earth and then resigned. For once, the fate of the world really did rest on a vice-president’s shoulders. And, at last, he knew what to do.
“Then I’m using my authority right now.” He paused and looked around again to gain courage. “Set aside two containers of each variety of seed. Send the rest to the Seedsavers headquarters. We took on the responsibility of feeding the world; now we have to fulfill it.” He turned and glared at the shocked managers. “That is an order!”
“Do you not understand what ‘an order’ means? I know what I’m doing and I take full responsibility. Now do it.”
He had many more battles to fight before he saw the first shipment of seeds go out late that evening. Just because he was temporarily the highest authority in his global department didn’t mean that the underlings were going to obey him. He argued with those he thought would understand his reasons and bullied those he knew were only sticking to habits. But when he went home near midnight, he was happy. Corn was dying in Central Asia now, but seeds were leaving the Miragrow centers there as well. The next months would be very, very hard, but for the first time since the disease had appeared, he thought the world could survive.
His wife was waiting at the door and as soon as he came in she hugged him. They would talk later. They both knew that those fields of hybrid corn had nearly caused disaster, but now there was hope. And he had helped to create it.