SF Manna

Editor’s Foreword

Try explaining this one to your insurance company!

It was the unusual spherical shape of the meteor that first brought it to the attention of Near Earth Objects Monitoring Satellite Number Four. NEOMS #4 belonged to a low budget class of micro-satellites developed and launched by NASA back in 2013 to catalogue and classify all asteroids crossing Earth’s orbit after a large asteroid erased from existence a good portion of the city of Beaumont, Texas and about half of its residents back in late 2011.

The sole purpose of a NEOMS satellite was simple: spot potential asteroid threats to the planet and plot out initial trajectory. If necessary, a NEOMS satellite would then send out a warning alarm to ground-based monitoring stations of incoming, large space rocks capable of destroying cities or civilization as a whole. It was up to the International Asteroid Defense Organization [IADO] to then determine which method to use to destroy the incoming menace from outer space.

The asteroid observation satellites also had a secondary mission of cataloguing all orbiting space junk that presented potential navigation hazards to the aging International Space Station and various manned ships leaving and returning back to Earth orbit.

At roughly seven meters in width the spherical meteor was far too small to pose any danger to anyone on Earth. Yet its unique shape caused NEOMS #4’s monitoring program to tag it as a dead satellite falling back to Earth–space junk with lethal potential. The sensors on asteroid monitoring satellite studied the meteor and in minutes had projected its eventual course.

The meteor would lazily drift into an orbit that would ultimately carry it to a fiery demise in Earth’s upper atmosphere somewhere over the fair blue skies of Pomona, California. With no apparent threat offered by the spherical meteor, the satellite dutifully assigned the meteor’s orbital path a number and stored the data away in its database and went back to charting and monitoring asteroids crossing Earth’s orbit.

In the meantime, the unusual spherical meteor continued in its downward orbital spiral to Pomona’s lush green orchard valleys.

* * *

As NEOMS #4 correctly calculated, the frictional stress of its fiery entry into Earth’s atmosphere tore apart the spherical meteorite somewhere over the blues skies of Pomona’s orchard valleys.

If the asteroid watching satellite had positioned it’s telescopic cameras back at Earth towards that particular region of pale blue sky, it would have noticed something like a maple seed emerging from the disintegrating meteoritic shell.

Only this maple-like seed was about thirty times larger than the average winged maple seed. Any human observer on the ground, who had witnessed the emergence of the giant maple-like seed from the crumbling meteorite, would have sworn that the seed flexed its translucent green wings as it tacked across the vibrant breezes.

The seed wanted to land in the most nutrient rich soil it could sense from the air, and it instinctively knew how to shape and flex its billowing wings to reach its desired destination.

It would be ready to germinate and grow once its shell touched the rich moist earth it was seeking.

* * *

Craig Dickerson first noticed the unusually large, green translucent tree growing in the middle of his orchard when he was out making his usual early morning check of the orange trees.

Craig brought his aging Ford 150 truck to a stop when the tree came into his line of sight. He got out of the truck cab and starred in utter disbelief at the singular leafy green crown that easily overshadowed all his orange trees.

The orchard had been in his family for slightly more than one hundred and thirty-seven years. He was the ninth generation in a long line of orange growers that dated back to when his Great-Great-Great Grandfather Rudolph Dickerson immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Pomona Valley Region back in 1881 and planted the first trees in what eventually became the Dickson Family Farm Orchard.

Craig had been barely five years old when he begun learning the fine art of cultivating and maintaining a citrus orchard from his grandfather and father. The forty-seven year old citrus grower knew the exact date and time every tree had been first planted, and when his memory failed, he could reference generations of written records. Yet he didn’t need to rummage through his photographic memory or paperwork to know that that weird, green translucent tree just simply didn’t belong in his orchard.

Just like an ugly lawn weed, it had just sprouted up overnight, right dab, smack in the exact middle of his pristine orange grove.

After wasting another few moments in dumbstruck bewilderment, Craig got back into his truck and eased it on the dirt road towards the botanical eyesore.

“Probably some area college punks playing a prank with some kind of inflatable enviro-art they created to bring attention to some pet environmental cause of theirs,” he mumbled to himself as the truck drew closer to the huge tree.

Only as he drew neared, he couldn’t figure out how some politico enviro-artists would have been able to bring in, virtually unnoticed, so large of an inflatable tree. If his initial visual estimations of the ugly green tree were right, it was at least 425 feet tall, with a crown width that would easily spread across two football field lengths. It was about as tall and wide as any Redwood tree he’d seen before.

The dirt road that bisected the orchard was the only means in travel in and out. It was wide enough to accommodate his truck and seasonal harvest vehicles–nothing more. Craig figured that an 18-wheeler with an oversized trailer would have been needed to haul the un-inflated tree in. Another 18-wheeler would have also been needed to bring in the generators and fans needed inflate it. Yet the only tire tread impressions preserved on the road’s top sandy layer were those made of his truck from previous days.

He brought his truck to a stop within the outermost limits of the shadow big green tree’s crown on the ground and got out of the cab to get a closer look at it. Being a light sleeper, he still had no clue as to how the pranksters accomplished getting the tree in unobserved and inflated, but if they had caused any damaged to the orchard, he was damn sure the President Paul Samuels of Pomona University would be getting a call from his lawyer with a detailed billed for damages to the orchard and revenues lost as a direct result of this latest masterpiece of enviro-art.

“Why couldn’t they stick to creating crop circles,” Craig angrily said as he walked between the orange trees. He cursed as he saw some of his orange trees had been displaced by this stunt. They were lying on their sides, their roots bare of all the soil that once provided them with nourishment.

Even with the good weather the valley was now enjoying for this particular time of the growing season, extended periods of shade could dramatically impact the quality and quantity of oranges the surviving trees produced. Fortunately only about an hour had passed since sunrise. The bitch would be in figuring out how to deflate this monstrosity without causing any further damage to the remaining upright fruit bearing trees–his family’s lifeblood for generations past and for those Dickersons still yet to come.

His opinion as to the true nature of the weed that had sprouted up among his trees changed as he approached it and touched its warm green translucent surface. The bark, which resembled and felt like smooth skin of a peach, pulsated with life. He could feel and see greenish-gold sap pulsating throughout every fibrous vein of the plant. It was as if he was taking someone’s pulse.

Craig stepped back, feeling extreme fear and confusion mixed in equal measures.

Whatever the tree was, it was definitely not the work of student artists wanting to punk out a farmer. If it was truly a piece of inflatable enviro-art, he should have at seen or at least heard the generators sputtering as the fans they powered spewed the air necessary to keep it aloft. Birdsong fluttering on the wind and his own intense breathing were the only noises he heard.

The sheer size and volume of the tree overwhelmed him. He felt like a puny ant beside it. The trunk spanned about four arm lengths wide. He took a couple of steps back way from the green translucency of the tree. The heel of his right boot struck something that made a hollow “clunk” sound.

Craig looked down to discover that he had backed into a large blue oval looking squash. He looked around and noticed several more of the big blue squash scattered around the base of the tree. If it had not been for the odd light blue color of the external shell, he would have sworn that he had bumped into a particularly large spaghetti squash.

A bit of green vine was still attached to the top of the squash. With great caution, and keeping one eye peeled on the tree, Craig picked up the blue squash. The absence of any real weight pressing down on his hands surprised him.

Cradling the squash against his body with his left arm, he reached around to the side of his belt where he kept a versatool stored away in a black leather case and got it out. He pried the knife attachment out of its slot and punctured the blue shell of the squash with it.

Again Craig was surprised by what he encountered. The versatool’s blade encountered with no real resistance as he cut around the blue shell. The blade had no tell tale signs of moisture on it when he pulled it out. He carefully wiped the blade on his pant’s leg, closed it the blade back up and returned the versatool to the case riding on his belt.

Snapping the blue squash apart proved to be simple. Its seedless, fleshly interior was blueberry toned and gave off a fragrance much akin to freshly spun cotton candy at a carnival.

Craig took a tentative bite and his taste buds were immediately treated to the light wispy taste of sweet warm blueberry flavored cotton candy. That hesitant first taste was quickly followed with more ribald bites. In less than a minute, and with no real thought given as to the safety of the nature of the act he was engaged in, he had consumed the entire blue squash including its shell.

“Well, that was an incredibly stupid thing to do,” he said as he tossed the remaining green vine down on the ground. “Eating something without first finding out if it was safe to eat.”

Yet, he was not experiencing any physical symptoms that indicated he had inadvertently poisoned himself. His stomach wasn’t cramping up. He wasn’t vomiting blood. His vision wasn’t blurred. In fact, he felt pretty good and slightly buzzed from the sweet tasting fruit flesh he had consumed wish such unruly abandon.

He was still like a child stumbling around in the dark when it came to figuring out what the tree was and how it came to be in his orchard, laden with tasty blue fruit. He took out his cell phone and took a few photos of the tree with its fruit bearing branches. He also took a few establishing shots of the green tree and it’s relationship to the other trees in his orchard.

It was time to bring this puzzle to the attention of Niel Lupoff, the senior agricultural agent assigned to the Pomona Valley region, and see what light he could shed on this mystery.

Craig gathered up a few more of the blue squash that had fallen on the ground–just to give Niel some physical evidence of what had sprouted up in the family orchard. He was sure there’d be no harm in eating another one or two of them on the way to the agricultural agent’s office.

* * *

“Sticking a strange piece of fruit in your mouth wasn’t exactly the smartest thing you’ve ever done, Craig,” said Niel Lupoff as he examined the strange blue squash on his desk with great intensity. “Hell, you could have poisoned yourself. It’s no small wonder that you ain’t dead in the field right now.”

Craig just shrugged. “Feel fine. Ate five of them in all. Just feeling a little buzzed from all that sugar in them. Otherwise, I’m still as right fit as I was earlier this morning.”

Apart from being buzzed from the high sugar content, Craig obviously wasn’t suffering from any negative side effects from wolfing down five manna fruits.

But there was something different about the orchard farmer’s physical appearance that Niel just quiet couldn’t put his finger on.

“Go ahead and take a bite out of it. Tastes just like freshly spun blueberry flavored cotton candy. I’m thinking of marketing this blue fruit under the brand name of ‘manna’ since it tastes so heavenly” Craig said. “Provided of course that the results from your lab give it a clean bill of health for human consumption. Gotta make up for the revenue that tree cost me when it uprooted a bunch of my orange trees. ”

The stout agricultural agent pursed his lips in a frown and shook his head at the fruity enigma Craig had placed on his desk as short while ago. Aside from its vague resemble to spaghetti squash, it certainly didn’t resemble any type of regular or exotic type of vegetable or fruit he’d come across in nearly twenty years on the job. He had sent the companion blue squash that Craig had brought with him to the lab for a complete spectrum of tests including those that measured toxicity.

“Let’s first try to figure out where it came from before you go selling it at the farmer’s market,” Niel cautioned as he again studied the images of the tree Craig had captured on his cell phone. “For all we know this could be the result of some Frankensteinistic-gene splicing experiment that ran amok and somehow escaped from a bio-tech lab somewhere.”

Niel was completely flummoxed by the digital images of the tree the orchard farmer had brought to him. The tree belonged to no taxonomy that he knew of and he was completely clueless as to where it belonged in the phylogeny of plants. He was forced to admit to himself that he needed to bring in a big gun in the form an agricultural botanist from Pomona University. He began thumbing through the well-worn cards of the Rolodex on his desk.

“What I’d like to do Craig, is to call Professor James Chouinard and get his opinion as to what we’re dealing with here,” Niel said.

“I’m out of my depth here as to what has sprouted up in your orchard,” he candidly admitted. “What I’d like to do, Craig, is give Professor James Chouinard at Pomona University a call and get his opinion as to what we’re dealing with here. He’s the world’s leading authority on agricultural plants. If anyone can clear up the mystery as to what type of fruit bearing plant we’re dealing with here, it would be him.

“You won’t mind Professor Chouinard taking an up close and personal look at this giant tree of yours, would you? He’ll probably also want to take a few samples of the fruit and plant tissue back to his lab for further study.”

“Hell, yes, I do mind!” Craig objected. “I don’t want some university egghead getting tissue samples of my manna tree, so that he a profit selling cloned manna trees to one of those big corporate agricultural conglomerates. I only brought the manna fruit to you for analysis because it had no seeds in it.

“I’ve already lost a good portion of my orchard from this tree sprouting up like it did. I can’t afford to loose anything more to it. That manna tree might be the only thing that keeps my family’s orchard afloat, and I aim to have all the exclusive rights to it!”

A bit taken back by Craig’s passionate outburst, Niel held up his hands in an attempt to calm the orchard farmer down a bit. He silently cursed himself a fool for not remembering that Craig felt on his shoulders the full weight of the previous eight successful generations of Dickerson orchard farmers. It was only natural that Craig didn’t want to be known in the valley as the Dickerson who lost the family farm.

“Let’s compromise then,” Niel suggested in a quiet voice. “I’m sure I can convince Professor Chouinard to just look at the manna tree. You can tell a lot about a plant just from looking at it.

“The results from the toxicity tests on the fruit should also provide him with some clues as to what we’re dealing with. Agreed?”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Craig agreed, with eyes a bit downcast. He felt foolish about being so possessive about what he had dubbed the manna tree. He had, after all, gone to the agricultural agent for help.

“Good, then I’ll just give Chouinard a ring here and see if he’s available to run out to your orchard,” Niel said. “I’ll just tell him that we got a really peculiar plant that we can’t identify.”

He reached for the phone after finding the Rolodex card that listed all of the phone numbers where Professor Chouinard might be reached. Since it was still about two hours before noon, Neil keyed in the numbers on the phone’s dial pad to the professor’s laboratory. He knew from previous experience in calling upon the botanist’s experience and knowledge that the old professor liked to stay in his lab unless he had a class to teach or a student to counsel.

Niel had just keyed in the last number when he noticed that everything on his desk was vibrating and falling off the edge.

“Earthquake,” he yelled to Craig as the office lights flicked. The two men quickly sought refuge in the doorframe of Niel’s office. Niel had expected that it would be a tight squeeze since both of them had almost identical ample spare tires that took up a lot of interpersonal space.

Craig, he noticed as the rumbling subsided, didn’t take up as much space as he did. Then the realization of what was different about the orchard farmer struck him. Craig looked like he had lost about twenty pounds since the last time he saw him a month ago. His clothes were extremely loose on his body. Niel also noticed that Craig’s belt had a couple new holes hastily drilled into it so that the buckle could hold up his pants.

Another realization struck Niel as he and Craig moved out of the doorframe once the vibrations from the minute long earthquake had subsided. Due to its somewhat distant location from the San Andreas Fault line, Pomona suffered minor earthquakes about once a year. Those minor quakes rarely rated a two on the Richter scale. A major rumble like the one they just experienced like the one that they shouldn’t have occurred in the valley.

“What’s the matter?” Craig asked as he watched all the blood drained out of the agricultural agent’s face.

“We need to get out to your orchard right now,” Niel said. He quickly ran over to where the Rolodex had fallen on his office floor and salvaged the entry containing Professor Chouinard’s contact numbers.

“You told me that tree just sprouted up overnight smack dab in your orchard fully grown, right?”

“That’s what I said,” Craig replied. “Why?”

“What if you’re wrong about that tree being fully grown? What if that tree is still growing and that earthquake we just had was a result of its roots digging into deeper ground?”

Now it was Craig’s turn to feel the blood rush from his face. In grim, panicked silence, both men rushed out of the office and made their way to the nearest mode of transportation that would take them back to the Dickerson Family Orchard where the manna tree was waiting and very likely growing upward and outward.

* * *

The supple translucent green trunk and blue fruit speckled leafy crown of Manna jutted out of what could only be now the ruined remains of Craig’s orange orchard. Niel estimated that they were still about four miles on the road out from the orchard’s entrance, but Manna could be clearly seen.

The surreal tree resembled a skyscraper jutting out against a city skyline. It had grown to a seeming, almost absurdly impossible height and girth in just the few hours since Craig had first discovered it. No living thing since the dinosaurs should have been that massively huge and lived. Yet there was absolutely no denying the odd reality that their eyes were witnessing.

Manna was real. Manna lived. Manna may indeed be in a category belonging to weeds as Craig had first described it to him, but just like any weed Niel doubted that they had experienced the last growth spurt from it.

From his vantage point as a passenger, Niel studied the frantic activity behind barricades blocking incoming traffic on the road leading to the Dickerson Family Orchard as Craig brought his truck to a slow halt in front of them.

The barricades were manned both by civilian police and military personnel who were scurrying back and forth in response to several officers barking a multitude of commands.

Professor Chouinard still remained unreachable, so Niel just folded up his cell phone and replaced it in its belt holder as he and Craig ambled up to the barricades. Niel cast a worried glance at the orchard farmer who needed to punch another hole in his belt to keep his pants up. His shirt billowed wildly in the late morning breeze due from the lack of substantial body mass to fill it.

Craig was wasting away right before his eyes, and Niel suspected that it was due to the manna fruit that the orchard farmer had consumed prior to visiting his office.

Army soldiers greeted their advance to the barricades with M40A2 106mm Recoilless assault rifles pointed directly at them.

“Sirs, turn around, get back into your vehicle and head back into town,” ordered a young Corporal.

“Like hell I will!” Craig shouted back. “Clear those helicopters off of my land! Those pilots might crash into Manna. You’ll upset my wife and kids with this entire hullabaloo!”

Niel placed a hand on the farmer’s shoulder in an attempt to get him to quiet down, but Craig shrugged it off. The protruding bones against skin his light touch had felt greatly disturbed the agricultural agent and heightened his concern over Craig’s ongoing physical deterioration.

“Sir, are you Craig Dickerson, owner of what was the Dickerson Family Orchard?” the young Corporal asked. The black ink stenciled letters on his camouflaged uniform shirt identified him as Garcia.

“Damn straight I am punk! What do you mean ‘was’ the orchard?” Craig’s forward leaning stance suggested that he was ready to rush the barricades to get back to his orchard and Manna “Let me through now!”

Niel felt a chill at the soldier’s words as he came to the dawning realization that they were under the reach of Manna’s long shadow. For Manna’s shadow to reach this far from the orchard, it would have reached a height of at least two thousand feet - far taller then the Freedom Tower in New York City. The base of the tree alone must have grown to at least a half of mile in width to support the truck and crown. If so, that could only mean that it would that it would have uprooted everything in its path as it expanded outward–including the house where Craig called home with his wife Nancy, and their children, Roger, Sam, and Betsy.

“Can’t do that sir. I have orders to restrain you at this barricade if you showed up. And I’m going to do so, peacefully with your cooperation, or forcibly without it. The choice, Mr. Dickerson, is yours to make,” Garcia said.

Niel decided to try to salvage the rapidly deteriorating situation as best he could. He held his hands up and out to show submission to the young soldier’s authority.

“Corporal Garcia, may I show you my identification?”

The solider grunted his assent, and Niel with slow deliberation reached into his pants pocket and brought out his wallet containing his official California Agricultural Agent badge on the inside flap. He seriously doubted his badge would grant him any real authority to countermand the soldier’s orders on detaining Craig.

His goal in showing his badge was to establish himself as a state agent. Perhaps the official silver state badge would be enough to get him and Craig out to the orchard under armed escort. For Craig’s sake, they had to learn if the farmer’s wife and children survived and escaped from the path of the tree trunk’s rapid outward growth spurt.

Corporal Garcia critically eyeballed the badge. “No disrespect intended sir, but this is a military operation, not a state fair. You have no authority here.

“My orders are to retain Craig Dickerson for questioning in regards to that gigantic tree that sprouted up in his orchard. I also have the authority to retain anyone who is accompanying Mr. Dickerson. I see no reason as why I can’t do that.”

“Fine,” Niel said. “Just take us to the orchard right now so the we can check on Craig’s wife and kids.”

Corporal Garcia’s eyes turned away from them inadvertently revealing the fate of Craig’s family.

“Naaaannncyyyy…” Craig screamed as he raced forward a few steps, only to collapse face down on the road with a hard thud. His back arched upwards as he drew one final breath.

Garcia and Niel rushed over and turned the now skeletal farmer on his back. The frozen hollowness of Craig’s still open green eyes and parted lips told them that the farmer would not require any medical attention.

Niel looked back towards Manna with sickening certainty that the humongous translucent green tree had claimed another victim. He silently spoke a prayer for Craig, Nancy, and the children, hoping that they were together in the next life.

As Manna’s shadow expanded further out under the bright sunlight, he shuddered to speculate on how many helpless victims the gigantic tree would ultimately claim.

* * *

Manna was growing again.

It was the only logical conclusion Niel could reach as violent earthquake tremors knocked him down to the cold linoleum tile of the classroom he had had been sequestered him in for the last three hours of the early afternoon.

Corporal Garcia had placed him in protective custody as Army corpsmen had ushered away Craig Dickerson’s scant bodily remains in a covered stretcher to a field hospital for an autopsy to determine how the orchard farmer died.

Niel had been evacuated under armed guard to the temporary field base of operations that the Army had established at the International Polytechnic High School, about some fifteen miles away where the Dickerson Family Orchard once existed. Garcia had confiscated his cell phone as he was shuffled into an armored humvee. The soldier had done so under the pretense that the whole of Pomona and surrounding communities were under a complete civilian communications blackout. Several M40A2 106mm Recoilless assault rifles aimed at his upper torso persuaded him to comply the soldier’s request. Since calling back for help to his office was no longer an option, Niel picked himself off the classroom floor and gingerly flexed his body, making sure nothing was broken as he took stock of his containment cell. A few ceiling tiles that had been shaken loose by the two-minute quake caused by Manna’s latest growth spurt had narrowly missed him. Student desks and chairs had been jiggled around a bit, but otherwise, nothing else in the classroom was damaged.

Somewhat reassured that he was only bruised, banged up, but not broken, he made his way to the row of windows on the far side of the classroom. Jumping out from the second story classroom was not an option unless he wanted to risk ending up with a broken leg or two. He doubted that there was anyplace he could reach on foot that would provide safe haven from the ever upward and outward expansion of the green translucent tree.

Manna’s ominous shadow was absent from the school grounds. Yet Niel knew that it would only be a matter of time before the green tree’s growth devastated the high school. Fortunately, all schools in Pomona were officially closed for summer break, so families would be evacuated together.

Neil heard the soldiers acknowledge someone approaching them and the door to classroom was being opened. He turned to meet his visitors and was greeted by the sight of the very person he had been so desperately trying to contact when he was on the road with Craig: Professor James Chouinard.

“Did you eat any of the fruit from that tree?” Professor Chouinard harshly demanded. He reached the now somewhat befuddled agricultural agent in four long strides.

“Absolutely not! I sent the manna fruit that Craig had brought in to the state lab for testing,” Niel angrily responded. “You know me better than that. I’m not some stupid kid who sticks some tempting looking treat into his mouth.”

He immediately regretted those words the moment he heard them leave his lips and cast his eyes downward in shame as the image of Craig’s death came flooding back in his memory. He felt Professor Chouinard’s hands rest firmly on his shoulders.

“Witnessing young Dickerson’s death must have been a horrible shock to you,” said the agricultural botanist. “Forgive me for being so abrupt. We just got the results back on the autopsies done on Dickerson and the other poor souls that ate that blue squash-like fruit.”

Niel swallowed hard at the news that Manna had claimed addition victims beside Craig and his entire family. “How did the manna fruit kill them?”

“Every vital vitamin and mineral necessary for the human body to maintain life had been leeched out of Dickerson and all the other victims who ate the fruit. Once that happens, every major organ in the body fails and death is imminent.

“Did Dickerson tell you anything at all about that tree? Start at the beginning and leave nothing out. Even what you think is the most unimportant detail might give us a clue as to where this tree came from and how it can be destroyed. As you witnessed by the tremors moments ago, that thing is still growing unfettered.”

Niel quickly summarized how Craig had came into the agricultural office brining with two of the blue fruits under his arm ranting about a giant green tree that had sprouted up over night in now destroyed orchard. “Craig said the fruit tasted like freshly spun blueberry cotton candy. He called it manna from heaven. I thought it was some biotech experiment that escaped from the lab and run amok. When I felt the first tremors, I kind of put two and two together and ended up under armed guard here because Corporal Garcia thought I might actually know how that tree sprouted,” he finished up.

Professor Chouinard sighed. “I wish Craig had discovered how that tree sooner then he did. Manna, as you call it, is definitely not a gene-engineered plant. Nothing like it has ever existed on Earth before. It might have been easier to destroy when it was a seedling. Now I’m not so sure we can do anything against it and time is definitely running out for all of humanity and the world.”

“What do you mean that time is running out for humanity and the world?” Neil asked. He felt his entire body grown numb with cold fear.

“Come with me and I’ll show you.”

Niel quickly matched the professor’s long stride as they departed from his improvised cell. The two-armed soldiers who were standing guard at the doorway fell in behind with them. Obviously they knew ahead of time that Professor Chouinard would be debriefing and springing him since they raised no objection to his leaving confinement.

A temporary tactical command outpost had been established in the school cafeteria at the opposite far end of stairwell.

Rows of lunchroom tables had been converted into computer desks occupied with military personnel and civilians shouting out updated information as if flashed on monitors and exchanging paperwork at a frantic pace. Niel felt like he had stepped onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during an early morning rush on trading.

Professor Chouinard paused for a moment to search for the location where his research assistant had set up a temporary base camp, and when he found her, he motioned for Niel to follow him.

“Niel, this is Carrie Sullivan, one of the finest botany post-docs ever to grace the halls of Pomona University,” he said. “Carrie this is Niel Lupoff. He’s the senior agricultural agent stationed in this region of Los Angeles County.”

Carrie gave him a tired smile. Within the confines of her oval face framed by green eyes and auburn hair was an understated beauty that was still resilient against the extreme mental and physical strain everyone in the improvised command center was under. “I wish we were meeting under different circumstances Agent Luppoff,” she said.

He returned the smile she had given him. “So do I Dr. Sullivan. Please call me Niel.”

“Carrie,” she corrected with a slight smile. She turned her attention to back to Professor Chouinard. “I’ve updated the simulation with the latest growth data on the tree. It’s not like any plant on Earth. It should be releasing more oxygen but it’s not. But it’s not good. We have even less time then we thought. Less then 68 hours remain before the catastrophic axial tilt of the Earth begins.”

“Manna destroys the world by causing it to tilt over on its axis?” Niel asked.

“Manna?” Carrie gave him a puzzled look.

“It’s what Craig Dickerson called the tree and fruit he discovered earlier this morning in his orchard,” Professor Chouinard explained.

“Appropriate. Since this crisis is of biblical proportions. Here Niel, take a look how Manna will destroy the world if General Appelt’s plan to cut it down to size fails.” With a few deft keystrokes, Carrie brought up an animated QuickTime™ movie on her monitor.

Niel watched with nauseous fascination as the movie simulation played out. Manna grew unabated, it’s base completely engulfing the prosperous San Gabriel Valley region where Pomona resided as it’s trunk and crown soar upward and outward casting it’s shadow over the four surrounding counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino.

The view of the simulation quickly changed, showing a long distant cutaway shot of the world the showed the outer and inner molten cores. As Manna grew upward and outward, it’s roots tunneled deeper and deeper underground towards the core. Finally Manna’s crown brushed against the upper reaches of the atmosphere as its base covered about ten percent of the world’s surface. Its roots were close to breaching into the first layer of the outer core. Earth began wobble from the sheer bulk of Manna’s weight. As the world tilted southward, the weakened tectonic plates shattered causing flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. It was obviously that no living being would survive, as Earth broke apart and shattered into a trillion fold asteroid field.

The movie simulation ended with Manna endlessly tumbling in the new asteroid field in the solar system that it created.

Niel felt all hope for even containing Manna within the confines of Pomona abandon him. “Good Lord! How can we even hope to prevent Manna from destroying the Earth?”

“All of our hopes for whacking Manna down to size are pinned on General Applet’s somewhat audacious plan,” Carrie said. “He has already ordered a squadron of 747-400 Airborne Laser Aircraft into the sky. They should be approaching Manna any moment now. Once they come within range of the tree, they’ll target the base and selected points above it with the COIL lasers mounted on their nose cones and fire.”

“Why are they attacking from the air? Why not position those lasers on the ground around Manna’s base?”

“There wasn’t enough time to strip the units from the planes,” Air Force Major General Gregory Appelt interjected. The hefty middle aged general had made his way over to Professor Chouinard, Carrie and Niel as the quick time movie showing the demise of humanity and the planet under the sheer weight of Manna spooled on Carrie’s computer monitor. It was obvious from his girth, that the general was more of a desk jockey these days instead of a hot shot pilot with closely cropped red hair. He had, though, a quiet Midwestern drawl that exuded confidence in his pilots and the team assembled around them.

“A single COIL laser unit spans the entire width of the plane. The nose cone turret that contains the chemical oxygen and iodine lasers of the system alone weighs 11,000 pounds. The turrets also allow the planes to rotate the laser lens configuration a full three-hundred and sixty degrees. So they can fly around in full circles and still maintain the lasers on their designated target.

“Power for the lasers is generated aboard each jet from a syrupy mixture of hydrogen, oxygen and salts that combine to make hydrogen peroxide–which being about twenty times more viscous than water,” General Appelt said. “That enables the COIL laser system to knock out any incoming missile from the air. I have every confidence that the COIL lasers will shred through the plant fibers of that humongous tree and bring it tumbling down to the ground.”

“General Appelt, sir, the attack planes are on final approach. T-minus twenty seconds before all COIL systems lock on target and commence firing,” a computer tech announced to the general and the rest of the crew assembled to deal with the Manna crisis.

“Hunker down everyone,” General Appelt advised. “That tree’s bound to make one hell of a wallop when it strikes the ground once our pilots up there take it down.”

“We can see what happens on the monitors,” Carrie said. She brought up a real time image of Manna on her monitor. Niel joined her, Professor Chouinard, and General Appelt as they focused their attention on the base of the giant tree.

“T-minus five seconds, four, three, two, one…” the technician announced. For a second, nothing seemed to happen, then Niel saw seven yellow hued laser beams converge around the base of the tree and several points scattered up its trunk, all the way to the leafy crown. Then the unimaginable happened. White noise began flooding the base camp, causing everyone to cover their ears as they fell to their knees on the cold linoleum of the school cafeteria floor. Another violent earthquake began as the tree responded to the aerial attack it was under.

“Abort! All pilots abort!” yelled General Appelt. It felt to Niel that his brain was on fire as he was blacking out. His last conscious thought was on what was happening as the pilots began veering away from their attack. Manna was screaming in rage.

* * *

An angel was calling Niel home from the darkness. He would have been happier though if the angel also wasn’t slapping his face.

“Niel, please wakeup. We don’t have much time left,” the angel was telling him. Now the angel was also shaking him out of the comforting darkness into full wakeful awareness.

He reluctantly opened his eyes and blinked the angel into clarity amidst the whirling noise of helicopters in the nearby distance. A very worried Carrie was kneeling beside him on the cafeteria floor where he had fallen after being driven into unconsciousness by the high pitch wail of Manna’s rage. She gave him a relieved smile as she began helping him to his feet.

“Not much time remains before Manna overruns our base camp here,” she told him. “Most of General Applet’s staff recovered only moments ago and began the emergency evacuation procedures. The General has already helped Professor Chouinard aboard his helicopter. I told them I’d bring you aboard once I revived you.”

Niel rubbed his temples in an attempt the ease the severe headache he was experiencing.

“Manna was screaming. That’s the last thing I remember,” he worriedly told her. “How long was everybody out for?”

“No, it only seemed like that tree was screaming,” Carrie told she ushered him out of the cafeteria. “The vascular pressure in its cellular walls is beyond imagining. It must be maintained by some highly dense sap that is pumped throughout the tree. It’s the only conceivable way that the plant fibers in it could maintain their rigidity as the base and crown of the tree continues to expand upward and outward.

“Manna’s screaming, as you called it, incapacitated everyone for about three minutes. The COIL lasers had no effect on it at all, except to accelerate its growth.

“What we heard as Manna’s screaming was really its internal fluids being heated up to such a degree that they began evaporating,” she said. “It was like the whistle you hear when steam escapes from a tea kettle. The only difference is that this time there is really one homogenous kettle on the stove.”

“I like two lumps of sugar with my tea please,” Niel joked with a weak laugh as they ran along the ruined school corridor.

Before Carrie could reply, another violent earth tremor threw her, Niel, and the remaining military staff on the floor. The few reaming ceiling tiles were shaken loose and crashed down around them. She cried out in pain as the tremor subsided. As the earthquake subsided, Niel crawled over to her, as she was curled up in a near fetal position, cradling her rapidly swelling ankle. “I think I broke my ankle,” she said, blinking back tears.

Before she could utter a word of protest or some foolish heroic nonsense about leaving her behind, he scooped her up in his arms and began running towards the exit. Carrie felt like she belonged in his arms. She was feather light compared to the lambs and calves he was used to carrying during the animal health inspection rounds that his job regularly demanded.

The doors leading out of the school had been shaken off their hinges. He eased himself and Carrie around them and began running towards the nearest helicopter. In the distance, thunder rumbled in the clear blue sky.

“Hurry, Manna will be here at any moment,” screamed Professor Chouinard from within the open door frame of the waiting CH-53A Sea Stallion transport helicopter.

Niel ducked beneath the whirling helicopter blades and somewhat reluctantly transferred to the outstretched arms of anxious military personnel, who take her before helping him into the helicopter.

“Tell the pilot to haul ass out of here,” General Appelt barked as the doors were closed. He waved away the medical corpsmen who were trying to staunch a bleeding from a cut on his forehead and directed them to attend to Carrie as the helicopter began climbing up and a way at a frantic pace. Two remaining helicopters on the ground quickly joined them in flight formation.

“Look!” Carrie screamed from her window seat. She pointed in the distance behind the rapidly shrinking school building as a medic wrapped her swollen ankle. “Manna is coming!”

From the vantagepoint of his window seat in the helicopter, Niel looked out and saw a rapidly approaching tidal wave of translucent green jade block out the landscape and sky. “My God, we’re not going to make it,” he looked at General Appelt. “It’s coming in too fast. We’ll never outrun it.”

“Tell the pilot to climb as high and as fast as he can,” Appelt ordered his nearest aide.

Niel was immediately jerked back into his seat as the pilot put the helicopter into a steep upward climb. He silently prayed that it would be enough to get them out of Manna’s destructive reach.

Turbulence from a nearby aerial explosion shook the helicopter and its occupants. “We just lost a ‘copter and her crew,” a tightlipped Appelt said. A second round of turbulence signaled another explosion. “General Appelt, sir,” an aide said. “The pilot said to tell you that we’re as high as she can go, sir!”

Appelt nodded. “Pray we’re out of its reach for now. Otherwise we’re as dead as the poor souls who perished in the ‘copters before us.”

Another round of turbulence shook the helicopter and jostled the crew and passengers inside her. Niel looked out of the window. His eyes were greeted with the almost dazzling sight of an emerald ocean several dozens of feet just below the base of the helicopter. The green translucent ocean of leaves of the crown appeared to stretch from horizon to horizon. Absolute rage consumed him as he realized that nothing resembling Pomona remained. Manna had destroyed everything he ever cared about. He looked at Carrie in the seat opposite his and some of the rage abated when she gave him a smile that mirrored her exhaustion. Most of the rage he felt at Manna abated for a moment as she held out her hands to him.

“Thank you for saving my life back at the school,” she said.

He felt himself blushing as if he were some tongue-tied schoolboy about to say something completely corny and absolutely hokey. “I was glad to do it. I’d do it again. Anytime.”

He smiled and inwardly grimaced as he took her small hands in his rather clumsy one. He had been right. He did come up with a cornball response. If Carrie minded though, her warm smile hid it quiet well.

General Appelt interrupted the moment between Carrie and Niel with an abrupt cough. “Hate to break you two love birds apart, but we’re still not out of danger here. Nor is humanity and the world, for that matter.

“Anyone got any bright ideas on how we can stop this monster plant from breaking open the Earth like it was a egg dropped on a sidewalk?”

“Project Acridadae just might be our only chance at salvation now,” Professor Chouinard said.

“How do you know about a black ops project?” General Appelt demanded.

“I was one of the consultants who advised that all research into it should be ceased,” Professor Chouinard said. “At the time, I and several other of my colleagues felt meddling with nature on this massive scale was too risky and present too many unknown dangers.”

“What is Project Acridadae, Professor?” Carrie asked.

“A government black ops project designed to offer an eco-friendly solution to clearing vast areas of vegetation without having to resort to Agent Orange-like chemicals, like the military did back during the Vietnam War.”

“How do you get rid of trees, brush, and other vegetation if you don’t use chemicals?” Niel asked.

“Locusts,” General Appelt replied. “We have enough freeze-dried locusts on hand that we can revive and send out to decimate a region several times the entire width and breadth of the Amazon Rain Forest.”

“Sounds like a winning plan if you asked me,” Niel said. “Locusts are the natural enemy of all plant life. Those voracious insects might succeed in cutting Manna down to size where all our advanced weaponry failed.”

“I need presidential authorization before I can unleash Project Acridadae into a public area,” General Appelt said.

“With all due respect General, what’s the worst the president is going to do to you? Pin a medal on your chest if the bio-enhanced locusts cut Manna down to size?” Niel said.

“Hurumph….well, the president did say to use all means at my disposal to stop this menace. All right, I’ll give the orders to release Project Acridadae as a defensive weapon against Manna.” General Appelt stood up and began making his way to the cockpit. “Just pray this works, because it’s the only trick we have up our sleeve and we’re about to use it.”

“Amen,” said Niel. He and Carrie looked out the window as the helicopter finally cleared Manna’s leafy crown and began heading towards a temporary safe harbor somewhere along the sandy coastline of the Pacific Ocean.

* * *

General Appelt had chosen to make humanity’s final stand against Manna where the Pacific Ocean caressed the white sandy beaches of Carlsband.

While in flight to where the CH-53A Sea Stallion transport helicopter had landed and set up a temporary base of operations, Appelt had ordered every single freeze-dried locust that comprised Project Acridadae at its homebase in Nevada’s infamous Area 51 Air Force Base to be rehydrated. The plan called for dumping the locusts over Manna from and shipped aboard every available transport plane. He had taken the liberty of using his rank and position in the Air Force hierarchy to have every C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III transport plane diverted to Area 51 and loaded up with the hungry grasshoppers of Project Acridadae.

“But Professor Chouinard, won’t the sterile, mutated locusts find a way to produce offspring with native, non-mutated grasshopper species?” Carrie asked. All of them were within the safe confines of the helicopter, which was ready to immediately take off to make another attempt at outrunning Manna if needed, but Niel doubted that they would get very far if this attempt to stop the giant tree in its tracks failed.

“Humanity has always shared the planet with insect pests,” Professor Chouinard replied. “What’s a few billion more annoying bugs that we can squash under our feet when Manna threatens the very existence of Earth!”

The translucent green trunk and crown of Manna appeared on the distant horizon of the Carlsband skyline as if in defiance to the action the military was about to take against it.

“General, now would be a good time for your planes to begin dumping their cargo out to feed on Manna,” Niel said.

“They are,” General Appelt said, pointing at Manna. “Look upward over the crown!”

Niel looked to where Appelt was pointing. He could see what looked like a swarm of dots over Manna’s leafy crown. “It looks like pink snow is coming out of the planes,” Niel said.

“Those are the genetically engineered Project Acridadae locusts,” Professor Chouinard said. “We should know if this works soon. Manna could have some natural protection against insect infestations that we aren’t aware of.”

An aide rushed to General Appelt’s side and whispered something to low for Niel, Carrie, and Professor Chouinard to eavesdrop in on. Appelt nodded once and gave the aide whispered instructions. The aide jotted something down on a notepad before hurrying off to the helicopter cockpit.

A very serious looking Appelt faced the anxious trio of faces waiting for any positive word of hope from him.

“Our plan worked folks!” He broke into a toothy, relieved smile. “Ariel surveillance planes are reporting the locusts are making great strides in cutting Manna down. Under current projections, Project Acridadae will have successfully decimated Manna in a mere eleven hours. Best of all, those COIL lasers on the 747-400 Airborne Laser Aircraft are burning up the dead locusts that ate themselves into oblivion.

“The president is very happy! And I might just get a promotion!”

Niel found Carrie within his arms, returning the heart felt hug and kiss she was giving him. Professor Chouinard clasped his hands together in thanks. In the distance, Manna was experiencing something no one kind of its species of plant had ever done before.

Manna was being eaten to death by an insect predator far tinier than it could have imagined.

* * *

About nine months later, the orbital path of Near Earth Objects Monitoring Satellite Number One Hundred and Forty-Seven took it over the house belonging to Niel and Carrie Lupoff in Carlsband, California.

Pomona and the surrounding region of California that had been decimated by Manna was still off to civilians limits as scientists from around the globe made sure that no trace of alien plant DNA existed in the now sterile, lifeless soil. Manna had stripped every vital nutrient vital for plant and animal life out of the Pomona Valley region.

If NEOMS #147 had positioned it’s telescopic cameras back at Earth towards that particular region of Carlsband, where Niel and Carrie fussing over their newborn son–Jason.

NEOMS #147 had a more pressing mission then reviewing the pleasing family life of two of Earth’s beloved heroes. A review of the data downloaded from its predecessor satellite NEOMS #4, after the death of Manna, showed how the giant tree arrived on Earth. Now NEOMS #147, like its newly minted orbiting sister satellites, monitored all incoming meteorites that approached the spinning, cloud speckled blue marble below it.

NEOMS #147 had just one singular mission once it identified a potential Manna seed–destroy it at any cost, by any means possible–even at the sacrifice of its own existence. After all, if the galactic winds carried one Manna seed to the shores of Earth, who knew how many more Manna seeds were waiting to drift up to the cozy harbor that the planet offered in the galactic wilderness.

 

About the Author

Joseph Baneth Allen has been previously published in the anthologies Amazing Heroes 2, Testosterone, A Splash Of Crimson, and Xoddity and Romance and Beyond magazines.
His feature articles have appeared in People, USA Today, Boys' Life, Girls' Life, Ft. Myers Magazine, Kidsworld, Popular Science, Canadian Geographic, eBay Magazine, Muse, Omni, Astronomy, Pet Life, Business North Carolina, Jacksonville Business Journal, Maxim, Final Frontier, The Retired Officers' Magazine, and many other magazines.
He has also received the Disney Showmanship Award for his work on promoting “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and other animated movies. 

 

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