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The Dangerous Greenhouse
by Roger Pattison
Beneath the creeping ice of an uncomfortable planet in the constellation of Cassiopeia, the Caph had sifted for centuries through the endless dimensions. The seemingly hopeless quest was devoted to what had become their Holy Grail. With technology of reality-scrambling complexity they interrogated the infinite chaos and sought out warps in the fabric of Time, Space, and Otherthings, that might have given away its existence.
Much closer to home, things were happening they would have found very interesting, even when shrouded under the tediousness of Derek (the humanoid to which these interesting things were happening). Derek was a boring fart to all outward appearances; though something very different was on the inside.
I had never come across any being less bothered by the unknown or happier in the company of the unknowable than Derek, but my finding him and his big problem in the first place was, however you view it, an extreme stroke of luck.
Strange things had happened in Derek’s greenhouse. Things that were not common knowledge around Farmdon; the source of these ‘things’ had been well camouflaged by the trees at the bottom of his garden. There had been the odd ghost story circulated locally that provoked curiosity rather than satisfying it, but these stories didn’t go far towards explaining anything; so, popular opinion erred on the side of safety by labelling Derek a harmless nutter who smelled a bit, and left him alone to bore himself to death.
But to pick up from the beginning, or thereabouts, we need to be introduced to this oddball, Derek Modley, clearly an unusual man even if packed in a sack full of unusual men. How to describe the strange but true, Derek? ‘Ordinary’ about covers it. But ‘too ordinary’ is nearer the mark. Nothing as ordinary as Derek could possibly be ordinary.
There were other, disturbing things about the ordinariness of Derek. Although ultimately mundane to look at, nothing he actually did was either ordinary or indeed, sane. Coming from an inhabitant of Callisto (me), who’s on holiday here for a few years, that statement has to rate amongst the most unlikely.
The first time I met Derek, he was talking to a squirrel. Being new to this sector, I had little familiarity with the conventions of your civilisation, either local or global, but I was fairly certain that talking to squirrels was not normal. He was sat cross-legged on his lawn chatting with this squirrel that was clearly in raptures with the conversation. Derek, he later told me, had found the squirrel stealing his tomatoes. Derek discussed at some considerable philosophical length, the error of said squirrel’s ways, and directed it towards the pea sticks of Mr. Canardle’s next door. The arrangement, it seems, worked well for both the squirrel and Derek, but not marvellously for Mr. Canardle or his pea sticks.
But I digress. It was the greenhouse that was his crowning glory of the oddball. The latest in a long line of improbable projects, he’d built it from a flat pack. He said the instructions were very precise, except for one thing. It didn’t tell you which way up it went, and Derek had the roof on the ground, supported by an ingenious arrangement of props. It rained in of course, as the roof was nothing at all, but we’ve already mentioned Derek’s comfort with all things that make no sense.
I was staying at self-catering place just down the road from Derek and decided to make his acquaintance having seen a few surprising sights over the back fence. They looked strangely familiar, and that’s saying something because there’s not much on Callisto that would seem very familiar on Earth. It was the greenhouse that was providing the surprises.
It would be useful at this point to describe something about Callisto and we Callistoeans, or it’s only Derek who might make any sense of the rest of this.
For start, there are no ‘natives of Callisto’; life with any intelligence would never have taken the trouble to develop there from scratch. This particular moon of Jupiter has been there for longer than any of the others, or so I’m told. I wasn’t there to start with. About four billion Earth years or so ago, it arrived from wherever these things arrive when they’re not thrown off the parent planet. Not all that long after that (and this is all written the folklore of our race so I don’t have to take a guess at this bit) about a billion years, give or take, a race from out towards Aldebran turned up to give the place a look-over. They left Aldebran because the politics there were an insult to common sense, but found, by a very long process of elimination, that it was the same wherever they went.
As Callisto had nothing that looked like it might turn into a politician, (nor had it much else, save ice), they decided to do what they could to make the place slightly less inhospitable to life than politics had made more or less everywhere else, and a couple of fortuitous discoveries came along while they were investigating this. One was the sea beneath the surface ice of Callisto, and the other was the Colyster Generator which is like a particle collider, but the particles don’t collide. Anyway, these Colyster Generators were the things that looked like Derek’s greenhouse, and hence the familiarity I mentioned earlier.
The generators were able to produce heat at an unbelievable rate. They were originally discovered, oddly enough, by an eccentric Aldebran who built a greenhouse from a flat pack to grow tomatoes on the surface of Callisto, (he apparently ignored the fact that tomatoes are happiest in a temperate climate and Callisto is two hundred miles thick in ice) and built it upside down. The first ray of sunlight that fell on it interrupted a valency electron negative feedback loop, and the whole thing became unstable. It drilled a hole through the ice, hit the subterranean sea and continued to accelerate out the other side. That one hasn’t been seen since, but replicas were built to prove a point.
Although this had nothing to do with politics, there did seem to be some terrible lack of common sense in its operation. How did a thing generating the heat of a bundle of exploding oil rigs not melt itself to a frazzle as there was nothing in it that might survive in a pot-bellied log burner? The scientific minds of the Aldebrans argued violently about this; in part because there seemed no logical explanation but mostly because it made them look stupid; the guy who invented it had a background in interior decorating and couldn’t add up. Even worse than that; the only letters he had after his name were NGTOP, which happened to be his actual name.
Their first ploy was to insist that it didn’t work, but after frying a dozen or two PHD equivalents, most of the remainder went into religion and said the same thing without actually going anywhere near it. NGTOP figured out that the extreme frequencies that commutated around the greenhouse when it was in operation produced a skin effect, which was, he thought, why it didn’t melt. In the meantime, the scientific community had converted to various religions en masse, which gave them the perfect opportunity to label him a heretic and burn him at the stake in his own greenhouse. Such is life.
But the story rolls on. By commissioning Colyster Generators (Defreece Colyster was the nauseating celebrity with the bad hair who appeared on the Generator adverts) under the ice at various strategic positions, the Aldebrans were able to create a tropical sub-stratum between the ice surface of Callisto and its internal seas. All they had to do after that was to organise the fishing rights.
The Tropical Sub-Stratum soon became the hot destination for the universal tourist industry because of its catchy name. In every other language in the universe it came out as ‘Marbella’. Under the ice of Callisto spread a strata studded with showers of microscopic gems that shattered rainbows in an endless rain over the island paradises. They also served the ‘Callisto Skull-Cracker’ a drink so volatile it was a dangerous business just pouring one out.
‘Hello, over there!” shouted Derek to me, as I looked over the back fence at something that looked uncomfortably like a Colyster Generator in tick-over mode. “You wouldn’t happen to know why my greenhouse is doing this, would you?” It had purple, chasing concentric rings whipping around it, and a turbine whine screaming an accompaniment fit to drill teeth. “The name’s Derek, by the way.” Derek turned back to the greenhouse and stared at it, much as one might observe a barrel of petrol on top of a bonfire.
“You need to inversely charge a section of the crystalline structure.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Derek looked around like a sheep in a desert. “How do I do that Mr. erm?”
“NGTOP” said I, a statement which clearly opens many other avenues of curiosity; “you should open a window.”
With some trepidation, Derek opened a window with a long pea stick and there was an obvious deceleration of the whole process, accompanied by a whine that fell precipitously through a few dozen octaves finishing at the bottom of a well. Brushing self-consciously at his tatty Fair Isle short-sleeved V-neck, Derek waved for me to come over the fence; as I was halfway over and in something of a discomfort zone, it was an unnecessary invitation.
“You’re NGTOP, then” said Derek without betraying a hint of surprise. I was surprised though. For an alien (alien to me that is) mouth to get round my name, which does not come out at all like ‘NGTOP’ when I say it, some significant tonsil gyrations must have been necessary. I was impressed; this was no ordinary little fat bloke in an ill-fitting sweater.
“You’re Derek, then?” said I, having a lot more trouble with ‘Derek’ than he had with NGTOP, irritatingly.
“I thought I was this morning, then my greenhouse did unusual things; but you saw all that. You didn’t seem all that surprised, NGTOP.” He’d done it again. ‘NGTOP’ was rolling off his tongue like marbles down a chute while I was still having trouble avoiding choking myself on ‘Derek’.
“No, it’s not that I wasn’t surprised to see one; it’s just that I was a bit shocked to see one here.” says I.
“You weren’t amazed to see what it was doing then?” Now it was Derek’s turn to be gobsmacked; which I found smugly satisfying.
“I invented them, my friend. And I know enough about them to know that this one is going to convert this planet into a clinker quite shortly.” Now that really got to him. After describing ever-decreasing pirouettes like a blender in a panic, he stopped and sniggered.
“You nearly had me going there. That was a Callistoean joke, wasn’t it? You’d be shaking like a jelly if that was right.” Derek muffled a chuckle down his V-neck.
“I’m not too worried. I can get off. You can’t though.” I thought that might reintroduce some gravity into the situation, which it seemed to do. “These Colyster Generators have to be shut down in a sequence, and very gradually or they go unstable; which is a wonderful sight, but the last the most people ever see.”
“So you’re telling me that we’re all stuffed; knackered; doomed! Am I right?” The ignominiously open-mouthed Derek turned to shriek this at me, after suddenly appreciating all the wondrous things that the Earth has to offer; that he had, for some mysterious reason, happened to miss for the last forty-three years.
“There is a remote chance that it might not happen. However, is there anything you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t done? Because now would be a good time to do it.”
“I was quite interested in growing old gracefully.” said Derek, whimsically. Just then, I caught sight of a brilliantly glinting, zigzagging object high in the night sky. It looked like we might be OK. It depends on your version of ‘OK’, however.
“What in Hell’s that?” wailed Derek. It was now close enough to make out that it was some kind of distorting prism, and that it was moving much faster than it was possible for anything to move. Suddenly, it was there. I’d seen them before, but not this close.
It was a Caph ship. But whatever it was there was no doubting its beauty. A prism of pure crystal, without blemish; which was saying something considering it had just travelled the fifty-odd light years from Caph in the space of the last quarter of an hour. It was not much bigger than Derek’s greenhouse (over which it hovered); but size, in this case anyway, didn’t matter, because the number of dimensions the thing inhabited and travelled through was infinite. It could be anywhere it liked, at the same time as being somewhere else; if it liked.
Shimmering and glinting, it disturbed not one blade of grass. Other than a very slight visual indeterminacy, they could see straight through as if it didn’t exist.
Derek, throughout this, had stared like a rabbit at a snake, making the odd gurgling noise in his throat, as the Caph craft quietly hummed to itself while semi-dematerialising in a slow pulsing rhythm.
“We… are… the… Caph: We… are… alright… Thank you”. I figured they’d misinterpreted Derek’s brush with strangulation as a polite enquiry as to their health. One of the Caph had relocated his bodily molecules a yard or so to the right of the prism, while the other remained seated inside the now completely transparent craft. They had obviously not quite got the hang of the beaming technique, his arms and legs wandering about like trapeze group that could have done with a lot more practise.
“The Colyster generator is too dangerous to remain with the human race. We must take it far from here.” The voice emanated from everywhere and nowhere and Derek spun round on his heel in an attempt to locate its origin.
“Is that another way of saying that the Caph want it?” says I in the most bizarre language Derek had ever had his ears attacked by. The Caph were shocked. Their bodies, some strange extension of the prism craft, collectively underwent a subtle change of tint. There was a simultaneous variation in size and dimension, all of which caused Derek to hold his head, presumably to check it was still on and if it was to keep it there.
“You are from Callisto!” said the Caph. “By strange and untrammelled paths have the Fates concurred.” The Caph seemed to be beginning to rearrange itself into a little known form of quantum physics, with orbiting molecules flicking and sparking in eye-defeating random sweeps.
“If you mean that our meeting here was a long shot, I’d have to say they don’t often come any longer. You should do Derek some sort of deal on the Colyster Generator. It was his flat pack greenhouse, after all.”
Well, I presided over the dealings and Derek came out of it quite well with a voucher for a flat pack conservatory, the instructions for which were quite comprehensible to a native of Callisto, if not to anybody else.
“Well Derek, they’re going to have to get a move on, or were all going to Hell on a very un-business-class ticket.” There was no way that anybody was going to figure out what happened next. The sound of a concrete roller door being slammed from the top of a cliff shattered the silence; and then nothing.
“They’ve stolen my greenhouse,” moaned the quaking voice of Derek just before he fell in an unconscious heap on the blasted lawn. I was going to say “Thank fuck they have, Derek” but I would have wasted less breath talking to a lamb chop.
The Caph, then, had been searching for a long time for a Colyster Generator, but as all the others belonged to us (the Callistoeans) and were under two hundred miles of Callisto ice, they were no more than a myth for the Caph; but, as we mentioned, they spent much of their time searching the Universe for an example of these devices with some pretty insanely advanced gear; which is why they picked up on this one so damned fast. The reason they were so very interested in the Colyster Generator, was greatly less obscure than the stuff they used to look for it. Their home was the only planet of the Cassiopeian star, Caph, and was imminently ready to turn into a lump of ice.
“Their plan is simple, Derek,” I explained. “They plant Colyster Generators in Caph’s core and regulate the temperature themselves. It is a neat idea, but falls down on just the one detail.
A thoroughly bemused Derek was picking his own dazed and crazy direction along his crazy-paved path back to his shed; which, he was happy to note, was the right way up.
“Falls down on, err, which detail is it that it falls down on, NGTOP?”
“They don’t have a clue how they work, Derek.”
“But they sound very, very, clever, NGTOP.” said a further bemused Derek as he reached the kettle and teapot with a long sigh of relief. “How did you invent the Colyster Generator when they couldn’t hack it?”
“Well sometimes you can just be tooo clever. There are plenty of things in this universe that aren’t bothered about making sense. For instance, who would think that to build a Colyster Generator that will put out infinity gigawatts, with no energy input at all, you just build a flat pack greenhouse upside down?” As I said it, I realised that most of the Universe came about like this. One more monumental accident wasn’t going to break the camel’s back. Was it?
A kettle’s boiling later, Derek and I were sitting on the patio in the still evening with a civilised cup of tea, appreciating the night sky.
Suddenly, a silent kaleidoscope of concentric ripples radiated from the constellation of Cassiopeia, distorting and tearing at the canvass of the heavens. Derek looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“I wondered if they’d remember to close the window” I said reflectively.
You might be wondering how it is that I can be relating this tale, as I had, ostensibly, been burned at the stake as a heretic? It seems that the Colyster Generator, if you stand in the middle of it at start up, becomes a matter transporter; hence the holiday. I might try Marbella next. Marbella, Aldebran that is.
Roger Pattison wanted to be a phillosopher... erm... Filosopher... filofax... one of them, anyway. Unfortunately this proved irrevocably that he couldn't spell it. So he moved subtly into Scianch Fictoon. Which he also could not spell. But discovered that it could be shortened to SciFi. Which he could spel... sppil... spurl... one of them.