A Most Unusual Plant
DescriptionA bit of SciFi fun, with a nod to Frank Herbert for the Fogwood tree.
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A Quick TalkDoug Saunders tipped the taxi driver and exited the cab when it stopped it front of his lifelong friend's home. He and Charley Chalmers had been friends for forty-five standard years. They had grown up together. And even, as young adults, when their lives had taken completely different paths, they remained close. Now Doug needed to talk to Charley. Douglas Saunders had finished school and did a four-year hitch in the army. When the service time completed, he entered college, graduated with a history degree, and received a job offer from Callisto, Ltd. It was an unusual offer, as Callisto as a security and private investigation firm whose sole client was Centrons, Ltd. Centrons had a monopoly on all space travel. Doug became one of Callisto's best investigators. Now, at age fifty-two, he had one more assignment. Then he would retire. Charley's life had taken a different path. Right after school, he signed up for a three-year labor job at a developing planet in the Talmus System. Planets discovered by Centrons were explored and thoroughly evaluated for the livability and economic viability before being opened for colonization. Once opened, mining and food production were usually the first industries established. The newly opened planet could be a very rough environment for the first thirty years or so. It took a while to establish towns, families, and government. Charley had signed on to a mining contract on the newly opened planet. Workers, when the colonization of a new planet was in its early stages, were very highly paid. They were paid far more then their counterparts on the more established planets, and justifiably so. Conditions were rough and dangerous. It was not a job for either the physically weak or those with weak personalities. Charley had signed up for a four-year stint at the mining complex, re-signed for another four-year tour, and finally finished up with a two-year obligation. This made him, by age thirty-three, an exceptionally wealthy man. He banked most of his money, married a prostitute from the mining settlement, and moved to a more civilized location. He opened an alcohol importing business, added to his fortune, and retired at fifty-one after selling the importing business. He and his wife, who were childless, lived well but not ostentatiously. Now he awaited his old friend, Doug. Doug was admitted to the house by the butler and entered the parlor. He, Charley, and Charley's wife, Jill, made some small talk and had a drink before dinner. At dinner, the talk turned to a serious matter. "This is my last assignment," said Doug. "I retire when it is complete. I've got a small cottage near the edge of town, and I am going to put in a garden. Then I am done. I'm getting too old for this." "If you live," said Charley. Charley had always been blunt. "My guess is that they are sending you to a mining colony to investigate drug problems. Those things can be messy and violent." "I know, Charley," said Doug, finishing his meal and allowing the cook to clear his plate. "But Callisto has promised me a big bonus. Think you may have some information to help me?" Charley allowed the cook to clear his plate as well and watched as the butler served his coffee. He took the coffee mug in both hands and stared into the dark and hot liquid for a few seconds, collecting his thoughts. Then he looked at his life-long pal, smiled for a second, and grew very serious. "The drug trade at the new planets was always a nasty affair," began Charley. "It is illegal and very profitable. All sorts of drugs have been smuggled into the colonies. Performance enhancers, tranquilizers, hallucinogens, you name it. Anything to keep the workers running at peak performance. The problem is, the drugs tend to kill they guy after about three years of use." "Then there was the Venus drug," added Jill. "The Venus drug?" queried Doug, his eyes getting wide. He had thought that was just a story. "Yes," responded Jill. "The drug was designed to keep a girl in a constant state of arousal. The idea was that she would enjoy her work. The problem was that it raised her heart and blood pressure to very high levels. A stroke or heart attack was guaranteed in three to five years. And it was addictive as hell." Centrons was not stupid. They knew that putting five hundred or one thousand men in a newly established mining colony for two or three years was a ticket for trouble. So they established professional prostitution, paying the girls very well and taking care of them. The Venus drug allowed the girls to work like crazy, but killed them quickly. If anyone would know about the drug, Jill would. "If I remember correctly," said Doug, "it took Callisto a while to get control of that drug and pretty much eliminate it." "That's true," said Jill. "The problem with it was not only could the girls make a ton of money, they were always ready to go. And most of the girls liked that sensation. When they died, though, it was quick. Almost like the speed being sold to the miners at the time." "The miners," added Charley, "could work eighteen standard hours a day, seven standard days a week, with no time off. They could really pull down the cash. But that speed killed you quick. And once you started, you didn't want to stop." The couple filled Doug in on the negative effects of the drugs that would be pumped into the miners. The evening ended with cocktails in the parlor. "When do you leave?" asked Charley. "One standard week. Two weeks in transit. I haven't been fully briefed as of yet. I think that will happen the day after tomorrow. Man, I am getting old and tired!" The three had a good laugh. Jill sent for a taxi, and Doug headed back to his apartments in the Centrons complex. He undressed and headed to bed. He would log into the Centrons mainframe tomorrow and start reading the details and fine print on this assignment. He hoped that this would not be the last time he would see his friends.