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Forbidden Fruit

Despite what the recruiting posters said, exobiology was never going to

be as glamorous as they promised. The endless cataloging of plants and

creatures, admittedly fascinating at first, became boring and routine quickly

enough. The exotic landscapes on distant worlds he fully expected to see,

never quite materialized, being confined as he was to a claustrophobic

science module with little more than a bed and a computer.

He wasn’t even allowed outside for fear he might contaminate the

environment with his micro-organisms. Only the sterilized collecting teams

were allowed to roam around gathering material for bio-techs like him to

examine and classify. That, at least, was what life was like for Bio-Specialist

Tomas Merton as he worked his way through yet another container of Zenob

4’s enormous variety of plant life. Like so much of what human beings did,

repetitive tasks quickly lost their charm and became routine. Thomas Merton

was bored and when he was bored, his mind wandered and he dreamed of

Mary and home and what life might have been like if he’d have taken a

different path.
In the eighty plus years of space exploration, some 20 Earth-like planets

had been discovered. All of them teemed with exotic plant and animal life.

All of that life had to be cataloged and classified before any colonization

could begin. Human settlement always upset the natural order and once

introduced, Earth’s aggressive biota reduced and displaced much of the

native species. There was a lot of pressure on the biologists to get their work

done quickly so the terra forming could begin. The business interests that

bankrolled the exploration weren’t really interested in the local flora and

fauna. There were minerals to mine, cities to build and a whole new planet

to remake in Earth’s image. Sometimes Thomas wondered why he was even

a part of such desecration.

Despite the greed and rapaciousness of the expedition’s corporate

sponsors, many interesting and useful biological molecules managed to get

discovered. Some even made fortunes for the pharmaceutical companies

that developed them. A few lucky biologists had mountains or continents

named after them, but for the foot soldiers like Thomas it was just one box

of exotic vegetation after another—another fern, another bromileliad,

another stem.

Thomas’ mind wandered. He was homesick for Mary and the daughter
he’d never seen. Lucy would be five years old before he even set foot back

on Earth. Even though he’d only signed up for a two year hitch. They

traveled so close to the speed of light to get here, five years will have

passed on Earth by the time he returned. That was the thing about relativity

— you never really appreciated it until it affected you personally. Mary

would be older than him even though he was 3 years older than her when he

left.

His hands reached automatically into the bin and closed around

something different, a bright green lumpy spherical object. What was this? A

fruit? Couldn’t be. The object looked like an avocado but fruits were

unknown outside of terrestrial biology. He thought for an instant someone

was playing a trick on him, but on closer inspection he saw the color wasn’t

right and it had a warty skin. He opened a new entry window on his

computer and began describing the object.

Nature had a myriad of ways to propagate its creations. No two worlds

were alike. He settled on “round fruit-like object” as a description. He made

note of where it was found and by whom, when it was collected,

temperature, elevation as well as its physical description. He punched in the

numbers describing the appearance of the object, the shape and color of the
leaves, the diameter of the stem anything else that would help differentiate

it from a million other plants.

The fruit was large (about 70 cm on circumference) rather heavy for its

size (about 3 kilos). It had a green warty surface. His hands and brain

worked methodically and his mind wandered. Only another year of this and

he'd have enough money to buy that place in Vermont. He’d build a

workshop and make wooden toys.

Cutting into the fruit proved more difficult than expected. He reached for

the power knife. The skin parted easily revealing a deep purple interior with

a pleasant smell. Juice flowed over his hands and into the tray, purple juice,

looking cool and sweet. He was tempted to lick his fingers it but knew

better. It was a cardinal rule in the Corps not to “eat the natives.”

Beneath the layer of juicy flesh his probe struck something firm and

hard. This brought his wandering mind to attention. Seeds or pits, if that's

what it was, were a terrestrial invention and few if any alien species

employed this method of propagation. He removed the seed-like capsule

from the flesh and wiped it clean. It was a lustrous dark purple almost black,

smooth and hard as glass. He described the find, weighed and measured it
and attempted to cut it open. The power knife could get no purchase on the

hard round surface. Finally, he clamped the capsule into a vise and brought

a diamond tipped drill to bear. As the drill lowered, tiny curls of seed

covering wound out from the surface. Suddenly the drill broke through and a

spurt of gas puffed out right in his face. Startled, Thomas gasped and

managed to inhale whatever was inside.

In an instant he found himself in his Vermont workshop. Mary was in the

kitchen calling the children to the table. He tells her he is coming. Is this a

dream? A hallucination? Everything is real. He can touch every tool on his

workbench; what’s more, they all feel familiar as if he had been using them

for years. There is the child's toy he was working on, clamped in the vise.

The scent of wood shavings on the floor and in his hair is accurate and real.

Besides the piney odor of new wood, he smells supper cooking— kasha,

cheese and onions with a hint of peach cobbler.

Mary sings and the children giggle. This is his dream. He has his dream.

He sees himself go to dinner through his own eyes. There is Mary and Lucy

smiling at him and a little boy in a high chair he didn’t know or did he? He

eats heartily and jokes with Mary and the kids. He hugs them and they hug

him.
Dinner is good and filling, the dishwater hot and soapy. He scrapes the

plates into the compost, smells the earthy smell. He feels Mary's arm around

him. Smells her perfume turns into her kiss and feels the ache of his love for

her. It is real. It is there. It is his dream. After dinner there is talk, television,

putting the children to bed. Later there is lovemaking and sleep. In the

morning he brushes his teeth, jokes at the breakfast table and sees Lucy off

to school. Mary goes to town and returns to the workshop where he makes

wooden toys. He is a happy man.

The dream is perfect in every detail. There are business worries,

checkbooks, domestic problems, leaky faucets, children to scold, runny

noses, laundry and vacuuming and supermarkets. He lives through each day

and each day is different than the day before. Their lives ate filled with plans

and hopes and, just as in any life, some hopes are realized and some wither.

He watches his children grow and gradually leave home, they find lives and

mates of their own. After a good many years, he and Mary are grandparents.

There is tragedy when a grand child dies of pneumonia. He weeps at the

funeral. Mary and he age imperceptibly but, when he looks in a mirror, a

gray and wrinkled face looks back at him.


When he thinks about it at all, he estimates it has been a good forty

years since he awoke at his worktable. Life has been good. Maybe not

exciting, but warm and loving and full of solid comforts. He can barely

remember any other life.

One day after supper, a perfect summer evening, he and Mary are

walking down a country road. A walk they knew well. They hold hands and

talk of inconsequential things. Suddenly, Thomas began twitching and

shaking as if an invisible hand had reached down and grabbed him. Mary

cries out with alarm, “Tom, are you all right? Why are you shaking like that?”

Before he can answer, Mary, the woods and the country lane dissolve into

mist.

He awakes to find himself back on Zenob 4 at his table full of alien plants,

a concerned colleague shaking his shoulder. "I must have dozed off. I'm all

right. Just a dream is all.”

Confused and disoriented, he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, he

was young again. He checks his watch, only 20 minutes has elapsed since

he drilled into the capsule. Yet he can remember a lifetime with Mary and

his family. So real, so utterly convincing, it couldn’t have been a dream. Who
ever has a dream that lasts a whole lifetime? Yet it must have been a dream

because here he is a young man again. Can a dream last forty years? That

gas he inhaled. What was it? What a remarkable compound. Imagine a

substance that could give you any life you wanted, grant your wishes like

Aladdin’s lamp. Imagine the market for such a drug. A whole alternate

lifetime in twenty minutes. Thomas’ head swam with the possibilities.

Suddenly classifying alien vegetation didn’t seem nearly so dull. He was

young again after an alternative lifetime, after actually living every second

of every day. He could try out other dreams. Why not? All he needed were

some more of those remarkable fruits. Maybe he could patent them, license

them, distribute them to a dream deprived world. Just imagine the wealth.

Big cars, big homes, beautiful women. He feels dizzy with possibilities and is

forced to sit down. His head swims.

He awakes on satin sheets. The bed is as big as a ball field. He has a

hangover. The curved lump besides him is named Evelyn and he is wealthy

beyond counting…