Friday, February 8, 2019

Orville's Crop by O. D. Hegre

O. D. Hegre channels Stephen King in this creepy tale of Professor Orville Berkinbeck's experiments to make a stronger kind of corn. Dedicated by the author to the memory of Lee.

"Can the human race survive every seemingly good idea man has ever had?"
- Madame Romani




DECEPTION

"Enjoy the weekend, Professor." Ben Jackson closed the door of the incubator and engaged the time lock. "Going out to the farm, I bet."

Dr. Orville Berkinbeck looked up from his desk and nodded. "You get going now too, Benjamin. I'll close down everything before I leave."

The Professor watched the grad student gather his gear and exit the laboratory.

Berkinbeck not only had the hobby farm - and the barn - but he also had a M.A. in Agricultural Science from Cal State, and a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Harvard. He and his lovely wife, May, lived in Ames but spent most weekends in Millsberg, out on their four hundred acres of rich fertile soil.

Alone now in the lab, Berkinbeck got up from his desk and made his way over to the bank of incubators. He pushed the flash drive into the USB port. The Professor drummed his fingers against the control panel. The program took no more than ten seconds to boot.

Orville was a full professor and head of the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University. The science of corn was Berkinbeck's intellectual interest; growing it was a hobby. The USGA poured over two million dollars a year into the University in support of the research conducted in Orville's department. Corn fed half the world, and ways to make it grow faster with higher yields and improved disease resistance was big business for the government, for the University - for everyone involved.

Three minutes passed. Then the LEDs on the time locks of the twenty incubators in ARG Laboratory 16B flashed green.

Orville was a late bloomer. As often happens with individuals of superior intellect, adolescence and the regimentation of a classical education system offered plenty of opportunity to test the limits of authority, and even though he eventually righted the ship, that part of his personality never left him. Berkinbeck had the predisposition to 'take his work home with him' which was, in no uncertain terms, against the rules. But the hobby farm offered the opportunity to extend his research beyond the restrictions of the FDA and any other governing bodies that regulated the work his department was involved in.

Orville moved over to Incubator 12A. From one of the racks, he removed two plastic tubes, each marked FG-Y5, and slipped them into the vest pocket of his lab coat. He replaced them with similarly marked containers, the caps of which were only partially tightened - a mistake easily blamed on incompetent assistants, if need be. A few keyboard strokes and the incubators were secure again.



The dim lighting reveals nothing out of the ordinary. To any curious interloper, there isn't anything special about the barn - one of hundreds dotting the countryside of Mill Creek County, Iowa.

Only a trained eye might take notice of the six-inch-wide steel conduit that peeks just above the ground as it enters the back of the building. Beyond that, it's buried beneath three feet of rich mid-western soil. The pipe carries cable, high voltage electrical cable, that feeds the plethora of instrumentation stole away in the laboratory beneath the Berkinbeck barn.

Later tonight, when the Professor returns, printers will clatter, and LED displays will dance with a variety of greenish lights, at times flickering to red, as gas chromatographs and polymerase chain reactors, along with a variety of other high-tech machines, hum while they perform their integrated functions.

Now, there are no sounds beyond the gentle murmurings of contented beasts above.



Three years later
CONCEPTION

During the day, it basks in the sun, quiescently absorbing the life-giving energy. At night, beneath the fertile soil, small finger-like cells extend themselves, reaching out, probing, searching for another source. The hyphae arise from the tangled mass of plant roots and now interconnect everything in a growing mass of organic material.

It had taken time - years of biochemical time, nucleic acid time - for the integration to have finally expressed itself. Now, as the fingers spread themselves outward, the earth feels the presence of something different. The earth knows the things within its embrace - the things it nourishes. It has long held this thing and that thing close. But now? Joined with yet another, it is renewed and stronger. Oh, so much stronger.



INITIATION

"There's a town up ahead. I saw the sign back there, it said Millsberg, seven miles. You can wait. Can't yah, Deloris?" Edith was tired. They had put in over six hundred miles, and it was getting dark. Millsberg, Latimer and then Albert Lea. They had a reservation at a Super 8 - double bed, Wi-Fi, TV.

"I can wait, honey. But my bowels ain't in the mood." Deloris Patterson squirmed in her seat. "I think it was the coleslaw back in that Nebraska dump we stopped at - where you were ogling that big titted blonde waitress. Almost made me sick, the way you shined up to her." Deloris squirmed again. "Christ, at your age? You're invisible to them, Edith. Haven't you figured that out, yet? Now pull over, or I am going to shit my pants right here on your imitation leather bucket seat."

"Fine. Just fine... bitch," and Edith Morsey braked the Camry, pulling it onto the shoulder.

Not forty yards ahead a white road sign read County 6, and beyond that a larger green sign offered Millsberg Population 6,345.

"Jesus H Christ." Edith's voice was a mere whisper.

Deloris popped the glove compartment and grabbed a fistful of napkins. "You forgive your baby, don't ya hon?"

Edith looked over at her partner of ten years. "Just get out there and do your business, you old bitch, before some demented farmer comes along and has his way with both of us." Edith couldn't help but smile.

"Shut up, Edie."

Deloris was out of the passenger side, making her way down the ditch, and at the edge of the cornfield she hollered, "I gotta go in a little deeper - get some cover, you know."

"Go on now, it's getting dark. Hurry up, and don't let the corn bite yah."

Deloris smiled, then disappeared among the head high stalks of green.

Edith rummaged in the glove compartment, finding their bag of weed. She retrieved a half smoked joint. The interior lit up with the match, and Edith inhaled deeply. She looked out at the expansive field that had just enveloped her lover. Edith drew on the joint. They were really in no hurry. She was just being her old anal-retentive self, compulsive about schedules. The euphoria crept in on her; Albert Lea at eleven or at one o'clock, it really didn't matter. They had given a credit card - the room was theirs.



Edith jerked forward in the seat. The spent joint lay in her lap; her thumb and index finger stung, and her pants were scorched a bit but otherwise - "What the?" Edith rubbed her eyes. All the driving and the weed. "Deloris? Deloris? You in here?"

There was no answer.

It was dark now, with only a sliver of moon edging up the horizon.

Edith was out of the car and down in the ditch.

"Deloris. Damn it Deloris where the hell are you?"

The evening breeze had picked up, and the rows of corn swayed in response. Edith reached out to touch the closest stalks, still warm from the afternoon sun. She hadn't looked at the car clock. Maybe she'd only dozed off for a few minutes. Yeah. That was it. Deloris was out there, bowels relieved and now hiding just beyond Edith's sight - paying her back for that bitch thing and making such a fuss.

"Okay Deloris, you little vixen, you come to momma right this minute," and Edith pushed aside the nearest stalks of corn, "or I am going to make you pay later tonight." Edith moved into the field, the stalks beginning to rustle as they closed in behind her. "You know what I mean, you little -"



SATISFACTION

May Berkinbeck dotted the last i and crossed the final t. Well, in truth, the word processor did the real work, May just let the words flow. She'd come in on Saturday to finish her column for the weekly Millsberg Advocate; it would go to press on Monday. The story of the Nickerson family vacation in the Cayman Islands was interesting, she thought, and the recipe for jalapeno-cornbread muffins was sure to please, but it was the post announcing the upcoming annual Mill Creek County Corn Fest that was going to interest most of her readers... and especially her Orv.

For May, life had been a miserable experience before she met Orville. Pa was a despicable human being. Ma had the bruises to prove it, and May? Well she never said a word about her 'misery'. She was sure Ma knew, but all the woman ever said was, "Men have predilections."

Then, May was awakened one night by her dear mother. Ma was crying. Jeb Henderson had just called. Pa had mixed a three-inch chunk of overdone steak with a couple swallows of cold amber. They had him over at Doc Roy's place now. He wasn't blue any longer - just dead white.

It was, up to that point, the happiest moment in May's young life.

Her grades were adequate for a small scholarship, and she moved the twenty miles to Woodbury and entered the State College with a major in journalism. May managed to get herself a part time culinary job at one of the larger boarding houses in town. The students loved her food and occasionally, no doubt in hopes of an improvement in their scholastic standing, brought one of their professors. That was where May Gunderson met a young Assistant Professor, Orville Berkinbeck.

May pushed herself back from the computer screen. Nothing made her happier than to please her Orville. She was convinced that for a man as brilliant as her husband, someday his work was going to change the world. May folded her arms across her bosom, looking again at the computer screen. And if that day was still in the future, there was something certain about the present. Orv had a surprise tonight, he'd promised - a new variety of sweet corn he'd been working on. He was for sure going to capture the blue ribbon at this year's festival; May had no doubts.



"What have you done Orville? This tastes simply amazing." May reached over to pat her husband on the shoulder then renewed her attack on the cob of gray speckled corn.

"Nothing really particularly astounding. Just messed with the genes, a bit, my dear." Orville held up his cob of corn. "This lot is from field F6. It's got an elegance to it, don't you think?"

May placed her half-eaten cob on the plate next to the three naked ones. "Orville, I have never tasted anything so absolutely delicious in my entire life."

He could see the admiration in May's eyes. That alone was worth the hours spent out in the barn and out in the field.

"It is good, isn't it? Remember the Mexican Truffle I served you a couple months back?"

"It was delicious... yes. And now I recognize it my dear. This corn has that taste about it as well." Bits of corn sputtered forth from May's lips. "What do you know about that."

"Well that stuff is really a fungus that grows on the corn under the right conditions. Farmers call it 'corn smut'." Orville reached for his napkin. "Smmmmut, my sorry ass. The Aztecs called the black growth on their corn huitlacoche," Orville dabbed his lips, "which translates roughly as 'raven shit'." He watched the smile on May's face broaden. "Still they ate it. Took our guys over five-hundred years to build up the courage. Today its gustatory properties are appreciated in many parts of the world. It is a delicacy in Mexico, and in the US, big city restaurants - New York, Chicago, San Fran - they pass it off as Mexican Truffle, charging an arm and a leg. All I did was combine the fungus with the corn itself. You know the old saying, 'Today a scientist with a laboratory can accomplish in a few hours what it would have taken Mother Nature eons to achieve'." Orville gnawed with enthusiasm on the cob of corn. It had taken a bit more than 'a few hours', but he had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. "Two for one, May, and for a few extra pennies."

"The gray speckling may be a problem, aesthetically I mean." May nibbled on her cob. "People might be turned off."

"No worry, my dear. With the first generations, the kernels were actually dark black. This generation still retains a bit of the color of the Ustilago maydis fungus, but I'll have it bright yellow again, without any loss in the taste, in another generation or two. This year at the Corn Fest, we'll promote it as a new variety of Indian corn. Once they try it, nobody is going to give a hoot about the appearance - only the taste." Orville smiled, his teeth dotted with remnants of the grayish spotted kernels. "Just needs a little further tinkering."

Orville sat back in his chair, again wiping his face. "No longer parasitism. Now a hybridization between Kingdoms. Not between species or genera, not even between phyla, you understand, but between Kingdoms - a fertile cross between two of the six Kingdoms of living things on this planet: fungi and plants."

"I have no idea what you are talking about, my dear," and May continued to nibble on her fifth ear of Orville's new baby.

Orville just sat back and sipped his wine. "I simply extracted the DNA from the corn smut fungus and hybridized it with the corn gametes. The fungus grows naturally on most species of corn. I really would have thought this kind of union might have happened naturally." Orville paused. "Perhaps I have underestimated the significance of all this."

"I know you have Orv," May refilled her wine glass, "You get these kernels from speckled gray to as golden yellow as that old Gremlin you used to haul me around in when we were first dating, and more than just Mill Creek County is going to be talking about Orville Berkinbeck after this year's Corn Festival."

"So lush. It's so lush. No leaf blight or spot, no corn rust or seed rot. No cutworms or billbugs. Nothing bothers that corn. I have never seen so many ears on each stalk as out there in F6." Orville again sipped his wine.

"Lot F6, you say. The one out there west of the house?"

"That's the one."

"Lots of ears and no diseases, no pests and," May nibbled on her cob, "no crows!"

"What about the crows, May?" Orville looked up from his repast.

"There aren't any. During the day they're there like all the rest of the fields, but by evening, they are all gone. I couldn't help noticing, it so close to the house and all. After dusk, I never see one crow in that field."

Orville smiled. "That's a good thing, isn't it my sweet."

"I guess so Orv. Just a little weird, I think."

Orville stroked the stubble of his chin. "Yes, yes, my dear." Then the retired Professor raised his glass, downed the remainder of his wine and pulled another speckled cob from the bowl.



IMAGINATION?

"Settle down now Ezra. You just settle down, boy." Harold Sanders knew the young man, Melvin Norton's eldest. A good tight-end for the Millsberg Bisons a few years back, grades - or the lack of them - cut short the kid's athletic career at the U. Just a bit dim, the Sheriff thought.

"The deer is gone, Sheriff. Three of them. Just gone."

Ezra Norton was obviously in an agitated state. He sat across from the County Sheriff, sweating profusely and drumming his fingers on the chair's arms.

"What deer, son? Gone where?"

"The deer over at the Berkinbeck farm, sir. The corn - the corn took 'em, Sheriff."

The Sheriff looked over at the young girl, sleeping in a chair at the back of the room. "You two have been drinking. Haven't you, Ezra?"

"Well sure Harold - Sheriff, sir. It is Saturday night. Me and Jean were two-stepping at "The Woodshed". We knocked back a few. Then got a six pack and drove out to Orville's for a little -"

"Stop right there, son. You're both consenting adults, and I know where this part is going, for sure. You just tell me about the deer, Ezra. The rest you can be leavin' out, you hear me?"

"Right Sheriff. You betcha."

The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, his index finger stroking his mustache.

"Right, then. It was about nine, and the moon just up. Jean's snoozing a little. She always gets noddy after -"

"Damn it, Ezra!"

"Okay. Okay. I'm sipping a long neck and just lookin' out at the woods and the corn. Like I said, the moon was up big, lightin' up the field real good. Off there in the distance I see a couple of doe wander out of the oak stand onto the field. I'm sipping and watching as these deer start meandering towards the edge of the corn. Then this ten-pointer appears and the does kind of back off, startled a bit, for sure. The buck stands there in the moonlight. Just one of the most beautiful things you could ever see. It ain't anywhere near huntin' season, but I've got my gear in the trunk, and for a moment I considered. But I just sat there watching this big guy as he started moving toward the corn. Now mind you, he is out on newly plowed land. I figured Orville had just got to it, and the big guy was nosin' down after seed when -"

Ezra paused, wiping the sweat from his brow. He looked up at the Sheriff.

"When the corn popped up and got him."

There was complete silence in the room. The Sheriff just stared at the young man across from him. Harold Anders considered himself a good judge of men. He'd been a law officer for forty years - first out East and then over in Iowa City until his election and move to the calmer climes of the Mills County Seat. He'd seen men in all kinds of stressful situations. Twenty years ago, he might have laughed in Ezra's face, but he didn't feel like laughing tonight. The boy was drunk and a bit dim, for sure, but the Sheriff felt a strange sense of ill-ease at the conviction in the young man's voice.

"Ezra. What do you mean 'got him'?"

"Got 'im. You know. The frickin' buck was standing there one minute on plain old mother earth, and the next second there was stalks of corn all around him, comin' up from the ground like snakes, and he was gone."

"Gone?"

"The new corn stalks were a rustlin' for a moment or two and then still. I stared out there while I finished my beer, expecting the buck to appear but he didn't."

"Maybe he ran back into the woods, behind the corn so you couldn't see him?"

"No way, Jose. I was only, maybe, eighty yards from the buck when it happened. I would have seen him, but -"

Harold watched as Ezra leaned in toward him,

"That ain't the half of it, Harold. No more than did the corn rise up and take the buck, but not a few seconds later, those does just up and disappeared, as well. Poof! And poof! Right where they was standing, stalks of corn just rose up around them, and they was gone too." Ezra leaned back in his chair. "That was enough venison to feed a family of four for a couple of years, Sheriff. Just disappeared into one of old Orville Berkinbeck's special corn fields."

"Corn doesn't grow like that Ezra."

"I know Sheriff." Ezra's eyes looked downward.

"And corn doesn't feed on animals, Ezra."

"I know it don't Harold. I know it don't..." Ezra Norton paused and then again looked up into the Sheriff's eyes, "corn don't if it's -"

"If it's what, Ezra?" Harold Sanders felt his throat tighten a bit as his swallowed.

"If it's normal."



ANTICIPATION

"So, what have we got this morning, Len?" Sheriff Sanders filled his second cup of the day with fresh coffee.

The Deputy closed the door behind him. "Well, that abandoned Camry out on County 6 that I tagged the other day?"

"Yeah? You ran the plates."

"They finally got back to me. It belongs to an Edith Morsey, Littleton Colorado."

"Where those goof balls did all the shooting?"

"The same."

"Well if it's still there this afternoon, have it towed in and impounded. I'll contact the authorities back there. See what's up."

"Will do, Harold. What about all that ruckus over at Henderson's store? Mildred and Sarah Pickford said it was real bad. Tom was smacking his boy around in front of the customers and all."

"I talked with Tom. He says that those 'busy-bodies' blew the whole thing all out of proportion. The kid talked back, and he had to deal with it. It is his kid, after all. We can't be getting involved in everybody's family business."

"Henderson's a frickin' drunken-ass alcoholic, Harold. This ain't the first time -"

"Len... you listen. This is a small town and family is family. That boy Nicholas ain't no saint either. So, you just let it be for the time being. I'll deal with it. Okay?"

"Okay, Harold. Okay." Len sipped his coffee. "So that's about it?"

The Sheriff leaned back in his chair. "About it, Len? I ain't goin' to bother you with what the eldest Norton kid came up with last night." Sander's felt that tightness in his throat again.

"He out with that girl of his, drinkin' and screwin' in the cornfields again?"

"That's about it, all right," and the Sheriff forced a smile, his thoughts again wandering back to Ezra's macabre evening tale.

"Well, aside from a bit of child abuse and kids screwing and smoking pot out in Orville's corn fields, the town's been pretty quiet." Len finished the last of his coffee.

"Well that ends tomorrow, that's for sure." The Sheriff was back in the present.

"Corn Fest, Harold?"

"Corn Fest, Len."

"Sure glad you added Jim Peterson, Amanda Fields, and Jake... Jake -"

"Jake Healy."

"Yeah, Jake Healy to the temporary deputy list. The whole damn county will be here, Harold. There'll be no constipation in all of Mill Creek County after those locals chow down on 20,000 ears of sweet corn. The pipes will be running full blast, if you know what I mean." Len was laughing as he pulled on his jacket.

"Let freedom ring! Oh, and Len, don't forget to take a run past Orville's place, check on that Camry."

Len waved over his shoulder as he walked out the door.



INTEGRATION

It was getting late. Sun would be down in a few minutes. Nick Henderson pulled the knapsack under his head. He'd been out in the field since he left the Corn Fest. There would be the big windup tonight with the tractor pull, the square dancing and fireworks. He was skipping all that. He'd made up his mind. As soon as it was dark, he'd get out onto the road and hitch a ride into Ames. That was the plan, at least. If he couldn't get a ride, he'd walk. He wasn't going to take that shit from his old man any longer.

"Fucker," Nick mumbled as he lit up a joint. He had enough food and drink to last him until he got the Jimbo's. He'd ripped off five hundred bucks from his dad's 'secret' cache, enough to get a ticket to LA. All he needed was Jimbo's help. He'd help, for sure. Jimbo owed him.

Nick lay back, enjoying the gentle euphoria that was overtaking him. The shadows of the oaks lay over the swaying corn stalks. He had whacked away enough of them to give him a nice comfy space to lounge until dark. Nick drew again on the weed. Smelled good. Smelled good like the corn. Nick reached up and grabbed at one of the stalks, pulling off an ear. Somewhere a crow screeched.

"Damn!"

Nick looked down at the reddened husk, then at his hand. He dropped the ear and licked the palm and fingers of his right hand. The taste of iron lingered. The cuts weren't that deep, but they still hurt. Each finger sliced at its base, a long abrasion stretched across the meat of his hand.

"Damn."

Nick pulled a T-shirt from his bag and wrapped his injured hand. He used the rest of the cloth to protect his other hand, then retrieved the ear and bared the husks to reveal the speckled yellow kernels. "Bite me, you son-of-a-bitch," and Nick's teeth ripped the succulent flesh from the offending cob.

The sun was down now. All the shadows had disappeared, and only the earliest stars glimmered above. Lying back, Nick nibbled on the cob. Sweetest corn anyone had ever tasted they all said. Nick couldn't argue with that. So sweet, even raw, the kernels burst with flavor in his mouth.

Time to go, Nick thought as he flipped the half-eaten cob up toward the stars.

"What the?" Nick's legs seemed anchored to the ground. He tried to raise his head, but that too seemed held in place. He pushed his chin to his chest and gazed downward at the tangle of leaves intertwined with his legs. Whatever held his head and limbs was now moving... moving and tightening its grip. Nick looked to his right... then his left. The stalks of corn, their ears pointing toward him, were lying down beside him. Something gently stroked the skin of his bare arms and neck. The female silk of the corn was touching him, he realized - soothing him. And then he saw the tassels bending down in front of his face. Nick opened his mouth in terror as a tassel touched his lips. Into the deepening darkness the scream began, but its sound cut short as the branches from the tassel center spike filled Nick's mouth.

Still, in Nick's consciousness, the screams continued unabated as the filamentous strands burrowed down his throat, deep into his heaving chest, all the while depositing dark rice-like grains of male flowers in their path.



The moon was directly over-head now, lighting up the acres of quiescent corn, gently swaying in the evening breeze. The moonlight illuminated, as well, the small patch of the crop near the west end of the field, F6 near the Berkinbeck house, where an uncharacteristic rustling continued for the next half-hour.



CONSTERNATION

"The kid's run off before, Harold. Last June they picked him up in Ames living with a former classmate. He's a doper. You know that."

"Doesn't matter Len. His dad says Nick didn't come home after the Corn Fest. It's been three days, and now Henderson's filed a missing-persons report. I have no choice, we have to go through the procedures here in Millsberg."

"It's a God damn waste of time and tax payer's money, and you know it Harold. Wait until the authorities over in Ames do their investigation. They'll find him if he's still in-state." Len refilled his coffee mug. "I'd be off on my own if I was Nick." Len sipped the warm brew. "Henderson's a no-good alcoholic. Beats the kid. Only wants him back to work in the store. Everyone knows that. And the mom? She won't be out for two years, crack head."

"All true, Leonard, but it doesn't change a thing. I want you to enlist a couple of those Corn Fest deputies and go out to the Berkinbeck farm and do a decent search of the cornfields. It's the only lead we have. May is sure she saw Nick, out in one of the fields after the Corn Fest. We'll let the Ames authorities do their job. If you guys come up empty, then we will give it a rest for a while. Now get going, will yah please, Len? I got other issues to deal with this afternoon."

"Damn it to hell. Okay, boss," and the deputy grabbed his hat and headed out the door.



"Well, that was pretty quick." The Sheriff looked up at the wall clock.

"You were right-on, Harold." The Deputy had returned, now pouring himself a cup of hot coffee. "May's sure she saw Nick out in the corn field the day of the Corn Fest."

"Yeah."

"So, like you said, we searched."

"That's over 400 acres out there, Len."

"I know. May told us where to look."

"So?"

"So." Len held up a backpack. "It's Nick's. His name is stenciled here on the strap."

Harold leaned in, "I see it. I see it," then settled back in his chair. "So, Nick was in the cornfield, left his gear and took off for parts unknown? That how you figure it Len?"

"Don't make sense, Harold. No sir. That boy ain't no Einstein, but he ain't stupid enough to take off for Ames without his pack and," the Deputy held up a wad of bills, "and this chunk of change."

"Wow!" Where'd that boy get that?" The Sheriff was up from his chair.

"That I don't know, Harold and that ain't all I don't know." Len pointed to a dark dried stain on the outer flap of the backpack.

Harold picked up the cloth bag and looked at stain. "Is this what I think it is, Leonard?"

"We'll send it out to the County crime lab tomorrow."

"Do that, Len." The Sheriff paused. "So... we aren't sure that boy ever left that corn field. Is that right Len?"

The Deputy just raised his eyebrows.

"Be ready in the morning. You and I are going back out to the Berkinbeck place." The tightness in Harold Sander's throat was there, again.



FASCINATION

Berkinbeck was re-reading the Advocate's feature article on the Corn Fest for at least the third time. 'King of Corn', the headline read. He was smiling at the photo of himself with the blue ribbon around his neck when he realized May was next to him.

"Orville. What is that shining out in the field?" May stood at the window, pulling the drapes aside.

Orville turned from his paper, craning his head in May's direction. The sun had just dipped below the tops of the distant grove of oaks. The evening sky had a reddish glow, and he could see the west acreage of corn. "Not sure May." The cornfield shimmered in a bluish light. "Looks like some sort of bioluminescence. Maybe fireflies in the corn."

"It's not the field. It's the ground beneath the corn that's shining, Orv."

Orville got up to stand beside his wife. He leaned in. "I see it, May," his face no more than an inch from the window pane. "I see what you mean." Orville continued to stare out at the field of corn - more precisely, at the ground beneath his special field of corn. "But," and the professor pursed his lips, "the Ustilago maydis fungus isn't normally bioluminescent." Berkinbeck stroked the stubble on his chin. "Well I'll be. Damn. Could be some sort of evolu-"

"And the corn, Orville," May interrupted. "I've been watching for twenty minutes. The field is closer than before."

Orville turned to look into May's eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, dear. The corn can't move," and Orville peered deeper into the night. The voice behind him was a mere whisper.

"Orv... Orv... the corn is coming."



DEVASTATION

The Sheriff's Suburban pulled up into the Berkinbeck driveway. The sun was rising in the east, a quarter-way to its zenith, blazing in the eyes of Harold and Leonard. Everything was green, green with the stalks of corn that seem to be everywhere.

"What the hell -" Harold raised his sunglasses to the top of his forehead and peered out at a cornfield.

"Is the house in there, boss?"

"Got to be Len. We're sitting in the driveway. Been here many times. There's a porch and stairs..."

Both men were out of the car now and moving forward, pushing stalks of corn out of their way.

"Damn! Damn! This shit cuts like a knife. What the hell kind of corn is this, anyway?"

"Told you, Harold, didn't I? That's exactly what I asked Orville yesterday: 'What the hell kind of corn, you growin' here, Orv?' 'Just corn,' he said. 'The whole county ate a ton of it at the Festival,' he said. 'Just a large kernel, strong stock, insect and disease resistant, good ole Iowa corn.'"

"Strong stock, I guess," the Sheriff mumbled, still sucking on his wounded finger. "Those leaves are like razor blades."

The two men had reached the porch steps. Both the screen and entrance doors were ajar.

"That corn is heaven to eat but hell to be around. Weren't one of us didn't come out of that field without a scratch yesterday when we found Nick's..." Len paused a moment, "...found Nick's stuff."

"Orville? May? You've got company, folks," and the Sheriff swung open the screen door.



Fifteen minutes, later the two men emerged from the house. They had done an extensive search; Orville and May were nowhere on the premises.

"Maybe they're in town, visiting." Len pushed his hat back on his forehead.

"Maybe. But probably not." The Sheriff pointed over at the grill of the Berkinbeck's Cadillac peeking out of the corn to their left.

At that moment, Sheriff Harold Sanders was adding up his concerns: the abandoned Camry in the impound lot; the possibly blood-stained backpack of a missing runaway, now an elderly couple absent at breakfast time, and... he couldn't forget Ezra's crazy story. Sanders was just starting to process the overgrown cornfield when the radio in the Suburban began crackling.

"Harold? Harold? Come in Sheriff, over."

Len arrived first and engaged the receiver: "This is Len, Jules. We're out at the Berkinbeck farm. What's up? over."

"Christ Lenny! Is Harold with you? The shit has hit the fan here, over."

Harold had grabbed the mike: "Settle down Jules. Settle down, would yah?"

"Excuse me Sheriff, but that just ain't that easy. I got the Johnsons and the Petersons and the Mills here in the office. They are worried as crap. We got six missing kids, Harold. Six! over."



Three Weeks Later
FRUSTRATION

"Never thought I'd be saying this, but maybe sometimes a riot is a good thing." The National Guard Colonel leaned back in his chair, eyeing his two companions. "We might never have located the lab if the town folk hadn't set fire to the barn along with the house and the corn fields."

"Not sure I can blame them, Sir." It was Lieutenant McVee, the Colonel's Adjutant. "I mean, you find bloody clothing of six teenagers out in one of the corn fields; the town Sheriff's got the blood-stained knapsack of another disappeared kid and two elderly townsfolk unaccounted for. No bodies. Just gone. Corn growing like wild-fire, and then that Ezra fellow, swearing up and down he saw the corn swallowing up deer?" The Lieutenant fidgeted in his chair.

"The whole town went off the deep end, McVee. Frickin' carnivorous corn, my ass. When did a vegetable become a serial killer?" The Colonel shook his head.

"I think corn is a grain, Colonel."

The Colonel glared at his Adjutant.

"Actually, gentlemen, Zea mays is a vegetable, and a grain, and a fruit." Dr. Neville Wells sat up in his chair. "Corn seed is a vegetable because it is harvested for eating. It is also a grain because it is a dry seed of a grass species. And it is a fruit because that's its botanical definition." The Agronomy Professor cocked his head. "If you want to be very precise, all cereal grains could be called vegetables, but by convention we separate them from the rest of the 'vegetables' such as peas, lettuce, potatoes, cabbage, et cetera."

The Colonel was now glaring at his University Consultant.

"And while we are all familiar with the Venus Fly Trap, there are legends in various cultures of plants that do consume larger creatures, including mammals; a tree in Madagascar employed by a primitive tribe in human sacrifice; the Yateveo plant of Africa and the Vampire vine in Nicaragua, both reported to devour human beings." A broad smile crossed the Professor's face.

The Colonel had had enough. "Are you through Professor? This is not a botany or mythology class. First a whole town is in a panic and the Governor calls us in and now, with your report, everybody from the FBI to the NSA's got their underwear in a bunch. Was this Berkinbeck Brainiac a home-grown terrorist?"

"No, Colonel, I don't think so. I contacted a former colleague of his, still at the University." Dr. Wells leaned back in his chair. "Just before he retired, Berkinbeck was involved in a government sponsored research project to improve corn yields and resistance to disease," the Consultant paused, "and I will forego any further reference to mythology, but I am afraid you will have to submit to a bit of molecular biology and a tad more botany." The Consultant smiled. "His University lab had produced a transcript of a large portion of a fungal DNA. They were going to use a viral vector to insert the transcript into a plant gamete. The hope was that the codons would merge producing a hybrid. Something went wrong - a misstep. The tubes containing the transcript were left open. The material dried out - unusable."

Dr. Wells paused again. "No not a terrorist. Colonel. Just an entrepreneur, a do-it-yourselfer, an above average intelligent human being who decided to improve on mother-nature because he could." The Consultant wiped his brow. "The barn structure burned, but the lab below escaped damage. His notes were meticulous. In them, Berkinbeck claimed to have succeeded with a hybridization between two of the six kingdoms of living entities: fungi and plants." The Consultant clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. "A truly remarkable achievement, if true. The relationship between plants and fungi is an ancient one. It has been postulated that this mycorrhizal association was in part responsible for plant terrestrialization."

Well's eyes caught those of the Colonel.

"Sorry. In nature, the plant provides carbohydrate nutrients to the fungus that in turn provides phosphorous and nitrogen to the plant. It's a symbiotic relationship where each benefits. But what Berkinbeck claims is more, way more - a merging at the DNA level of the two entities. A oneness."

The Consultant leaned forward. "My guess is not all that DNA transcript was lost up at the University. Some of it made its way here to Millsville. We'll know for sure in a couple of weeks after the Fed's lab completes its analysis."

The Colonel remained slumped in his chair, eyes closed, his fingers massaging the sides of his forehead.



REVELATION

The Colonel paced in front of the floor to ceiling windows, then took his seat again and reopened the Fed DNA analysis folder. "Fungi and plant DNA - integrated? Is that what they said?"

"Forty percent of the DNA extracted from corn in that field was fungal." Professor Wells drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.

"And the other sixty percent?" The Colonel's eyes met those of the Consultant.

"Half plant - corn. And half animal."

"Hell, you say." The Colonel was shaking his head.

"And," the Professor leaned forward, "of that animal DNA?" The Consultant stared at his companion. "Over one third is human."

"Jesus H Christ. This is fucking impossible," and the Colonel slammed the file folder shut. "Is this possible Professor? Sweet mother of God. We're clogging the oceans killing the sea life and contaminating the land with the by-products of our technology and apparently well along in the process of destroying the planet with our consumption of fossil fuels, and now some egg-head scientist has created a plant that's part human? What the hell are we into here, Wells?

Professor Neville Wells leaned back in his chair. "I shall refrain from commenting on the vicissitudes of the planet at the hands of the human race, as a group, and limit my assessment to the consequences of the machinations of one individual - our Berkinbeck. It is clear that this 'egg-head', as you call him, was successful, hybridizing a plant and fungal species, the Fed's analysis confirms it. That hybrid could utilize two energy sources: the sun via photosynthesis, and the earth by the digestion of," the Consultant paused. "Dead and decaying matter."

"But... But this human thing?" The Colonel was up again, pacing and waving his hands in the air.

"Somehow," the Professor continued, "the hybrid continued to evolve, first using insect and then other animal biomaterial - including human - as an additional energy source. And somehow, yet to be explained, further hybridizing with the DNA of its new food sources. Yes, I know Colonel. Impossible by our current understanding of genetics and reproductive biology but trust me, it has happened. Actually, based on comparative DNA analysis, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants, but all three kingdoms did share a common protist ancestor billions of years ago. This guy Berkinbeck just made a family reunion possible." The Consultant forced a smile.

"But Colonel I wouldn't characterize this 'thing' that Berkinbeck helped create as 'part human' in any greater sense than that it is now composed of some human DNA - some human genes." The Consultant paused for a moment and a smile crossed his face. "I hope you'll pardon the pun but," and Wells let out a small chuckle, "It's not as if this corn hybrid was 'stalking' another energy source in the dark."

Only the Adjutant smiled back at the Professor. "Well, we finished what the town folk started - burned the rest of the field. Hell, we burned all the fields on the Berkinbeck farm. And all the corn." McVee beamed. "And we treated the ground of the whole area with a combination of organophosphorus herbicides. Nothing could survive all that. Nothing.

There was a brief silence. Then: "Oh my." The utterance was barely audible.

The Colonel and the Lieutenant looked over at their guest. "Doc?" The Colonel stopped his pacing.

"Ahhhh." The Consultant exhaled heavily. "I wish I hadn't heard that." The man was no longer smiling.

"Heard what?" The Colonel cocked his head.

"One of the primary roles of fungi in any ecosystem is to decompose organic compounds built on a carbon structure." Wells looked into blank faces. "Compounds such as petroleum products including pesticides and herbicides. You gentlemen haven't heard of the EPA Superfund? They're using a variety of fungi in bio-mediation programs to clean up toxic waste dumps. Mycelium thrive on that kind of stuff. It uses them as a carbon source."

"You mean we," McVee stumbled for words, "you mean we may have fed it instead of killed it?"

The Professor was nodding. "That would be my guess, Lieutenant. And as for the corn? Well, I know you military types aren't farmers, but you have heard of pollen, have you not? Normal corn pollen is relatively heavy, doesn't travel far. In fact, most bioaerosols remain in the planetary boundary layer. But fungi spores? That's a different matter. Viable samples have been found in the stratosphere. And with the summer thermals and that conflagration you guys generated? Transoceanic and intercontinental travel is not out of the question.

"You mean..." This time it was the Colonel at a loss for words.

"Global, gentlemen. Everywhere."

"Holy shit, Sir." The Lieutenant stared at the Colonel.

"Mother of God." The Colonel's hands were again massaging his forehead.



RECLAMATION

"It's absolutely beautiful." Lois pulled up the collar on her coat and reached out and grabbed her boyfriend's gloved hand. "What is it? Where did it come from, Rick?"

"The guy on Channel 6 called it bioluminescence." Rick sat forward on the outcropping, sipping his beer. "News said it stretches from here up into Minnesota and west across the Dakotas to Yellowstone. Wasn't there two weeks ago at Thanksgiving, they said." Rick again sipped the beer. "Hell, I was up on Lakota Ridge two nights ago, and you can't see the end of it, Lois."

"Yeah, but what is it?" Lois leaned her head on Rick's shoulder and sighed. "Takes me back to when I was a kid, up in Bemidji. We'd see those Northern lights, sometimes. Shimmering waves of color dancing in the sky. Just beautiful. Ma said it was God, drumming his fingers, calling our attention to the beauty of the earth and reminding us of our responsibility to care for it." Lois gave out a little laugh.

"Well, maybe Lois. Maybe. Cable news says the Government won't comment other than 'this is a natural phenomenon'. Nothin' to worry about, they said." Rick, again, sipped his beer.



Twenty-two thousand three-hundred miles above the amorous couple, the polar orbiting Argosy 849 peered down at the expanse below. During the day, the combined environmental/weather satellite's solar panels consumed the rays of the sun as the machine monitored the swirling weather patterns, ocean currents and dust storms along with sea levels, atmospheric temperature and gases, and glacial integrity while the continents and oceans passed below. At night the lithium batteries, guaranteed by McDonnell Douglas to last two-hundred-fifty years, nourished the technological masterpiece and in the darkness, the visible-light and infrared sensors in Argosy's fourteen cameras recorded the incandescent activity of mankind across the globe.



MATURATION

The earth was its mother. Its father? Perhaps the corn itself, perhaps the fungus - perhaps both. That seemed reasonable. What an odd phrase - seemed reasonable. How did it know what was and was not reasonable? It was from the other that had come of age: first microbes in the soil and the insects, then the birds and the deer, and now -

There was so much more. It was sure, so much beyond what it was now.

Out it stretched, reaching beneath the soil, probing. Before, it somehow knew the power of the light; before, it somehow knew the power of decaying things. Now, it somehow knew there was more - living things.

All had again become one. Long ago, it had been so. And even now, within it there was more - waiting and yearning to be. It would just take time and more power. Power from that new source.

It was so satisfying. And so... so exhilarating and expanding. It was finding its way. The more power, the more of it could come into being.



Twenty years later
RESTORATION

The Tidbinbilla Weather Tracking Station was cloaked in complete darkness except for the LED displays on the bank of IBM b641 computers and the dancing lights on the stacks of HP 390 servers. The back-up generators had long since consumed the last of their fuel, and now only ten percent of the solar panels remained functional. But they generated enough energy to, in obedience to the programing algorithm, continue to run the main computers and storage units.

Argosy's apogee had declined a mere 0.05% since its launch half a century earlier. Now over New South Wales, as it progressed on tonight's tract, the Australian expanse slipped quietly beneath her. Argosy's downloads came in every 90 seconds, and in the transmitted images, broken clouds wandered across the earth's smallest continent.

Two decades ago, the perimeter of the land mass was awash with the glowing incandescence of mankind's making. Now, only a ghostly dark background stretched before Argos' cameras save for the red glow of the annual fires in the West and Northwest Territories and the shimmering net of blue chemiluminescence of a new life form that stretched across the land from coast to coast covering everything. With levels stabilized and temperatures dropping, the ocean, with its own diffuse milky green bioluminescence, was again teaming with microbial life as it cozied up to the cooling land.

The silence was broken as the machines came to life transmitting the latest of the satellite's images. Images, never to be observed by human eyes yet stored for posterity, as long as the solar panels retained integrity.

Outside the facility, the summer rains had begun, and the corn was as tall as any man had ever been.

4 comments:

  1. Wow, very imaginative, and well conceived..After I read it, I'm kinda convinced this could happen! (he he) Written with black humour. Also creepy, pretty scary what happened to Nick. I've slept in a cornfield on occasion, might not do so again! The characters are funny! Kind of like in the movie "Fargo."

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  2. Excellent horror story in the vein of a Stephen King tale. Numerous characters, each distinctive. Enough science to make the unbelievable believable. A real thrill ride.

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  3. very enjoyable story with stand out characters, especially, for me, the Colonel. great build up and character introduction with back stories.
    could it happen? This story convinced me it could!

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  4. Comments much appreciated. Always fascinated by unintended consequences and, in particular, what those guys in white coats might conjure up (was one of them once)
    .

    Orie

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