The Good Seed

by Mack Reynolds

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Worlds of If Science Fiction, January 1960. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

They said⁠—as they have said of so many frontiersmen just like him⁠—that there must have been a woman in his past, to make him what he was. And indeed there had, but she was no flesh-and-blood female. The name of his lady was Victoria, whom the Greeks called Nike and early confounded with the Pallas Athena, that sterile maiden. And at the age of thirty-four she had Calvin Mulloy most firmly in her grasp, for he had neither wife nor child, nor any close friend worth mentioning⁠—only his hungry dream for some great accomplishment.

It had harried him to the stars, that dream of his. It had driven him to the position of top survey engineer on the new, raw planet of Mersey, still largely unexplored and unmapped. And it had pushed him, too, into foolishnesses like this latest one, building a sailplane out of scrap odds and ends around the Mersey Advance Base⁠—a sailplane which had just this moment been caught in a storm and cracked up on an island the size of a city backyard, between the banks of one of the mouths of the Adze River.

The sailplane was gone the moment it hit. Actually it had come down just short of the island and floated quickly off, what was left of it, while Calvin was thrashing for the island with that inept stroke of his. He pulled himself up, gasping, onto the rocks, and, with the coolness of a logical man who has faced crises before, set himself immediately to taking stock of his situation.

He was wet and winded, but since he was undrowned and on solid land in the semitropics, he dismissed that part of it from his mind. It had been full noon when he had been caught in the storm, and it could not be much more than minutes past that now, so swiftly had everything happened; but the black, low clouds, racing across the sky, and the gusts of intermittent rain, cut visibility down around him.

He stood up on his small island and leaned against the wind that blew in and up the river from the open gulf. On three sides he saw nothing but the fast-riding waves. On the fourth, though, shading his eyes against the occasional bursts of rain, he discerned a long, low, curving blackness that would be one of the river shores.

There lay safety. He estimated its distance from him at less than a hundred and fifty yards. It was merely, he told himself, a matter of reaching it.

* * * * *

Under ordinary conditions, he would have settled down where he was and waited for rescue. He was not more than fifteen or twenty miles from the Advance Base, and in this storm they would waste no time waiting for him to come in, before starting out to search for him. No sailplane could survive in such a blow. Standing now, with the wind pushing at him and the rain stinging against his face and hands, he found time for a moment’s wry humor at his own bad luck. On any civilized world, such a storm would have been charted and predicted, if not controlled entirely. Well, the more fool he, for venturing this far from Base.

It was in his favor that this world of Mersey happened to be so Earthlike that the differences between the two planets were mostly unimportant. Unfortunately, it was the one unimportant difference that made his present position on the island a death trap. The gulf into which his river emptied was merely a twentieth the area of the Gulf of Mexico⁠—but in this section it was extremely shallow, having an overall average depth of around seventy-five feet. When one of these flash storms formed suddenly out over its waters, the wind could either drain huge tidal areas around the mouths of the Adze, or else raise the river level within hours a matter of thirty feet.

With the onshore wind whistling about his ears right now, it was only too obvious to Calvin that the river was rising. This rocky little bit sticking some twelve or fifteen feet above the waves could expect to be overwhelmed in the next few hours.

He looked about him. The island was bare except for a few straggly bushes. He reached out for a shoot from a bush beside him. It came up easily from the thin layer of soil that overlaid the rocks, and the wind snatched it out of his hand. He saw it go skipping over the tops of the waves in the direction of the shore, until a wave-slope caught it and carried it into the next trough and out of sight. It at least, he thought, would reach the safety of the river bank. But it would take a thousand such slender stems, plaited into a raft, to do him any good; and there were not that many stems, and not that much time.

Calvin turned and climbed in toward the center high point of the island. It was only a few steps over the damp soil and rocks, but when he stood upright on a little crown of rock and looked about him, it seemed that the island was smaller than ever, and might be drowned at any second by the wind-lashed waves. Moreover, there was nothing to be seen which offered him any more help or hope of escape.

Even then, he was not moved to despair. He saw no way out, but this simply reinforced his conviction that the way out was hiding about him somewhere, and he must look that much harder for it.

He was going to step down out of the full force of the wind, when he happened to notice a rounded object nestling in a little hollow of the rock below him, about a dozen or so feet away.

* * * * *

He went and stood over it, seeing that his first guess as to its nature had been correct. It was one of the intelligent traveling plants that wandered around the oceans of this world. It should have been at home in this situation. Evidently, however, it had made the mistake of coming ashore here to seed. It was now rooted in the soil of the island, facing death as surely as he; if the wind or the waves tore it from its own helplessly anchored roots.

“Can you understand me?” he asked it.

There was an odd sort of croaking from it, which seemed to shape itself into words, though the how of it remained baffling to the ear. It was a sort of supplemental telepathy at work, over and above the rough attempts to imitate human speech. Some of these intelligent plants they had got to know in this area could communicate with them in this fashion, though most could not.

“I know you, man,” said the plant. “I have seen your gathering.” It was referring to the Advance Base, which had attracted a steady stream of the plant visitors at first.

“Know any way to get ashore?” Calvin asked.

“There is none,” said the plant.

“I can’t see any, either.”

“There is none,” repeated the plant.

“Everyone to his own opinion,” said Calvin. Almost he sneered a little. He turned his gaze once more about the island. “In my book, them that won’t be beat can’t be beat. That’s maybe where we’re different, plant.”

He left the plant and went for a walk about the island. It had been in his mind that possibly a drifting log or some such could have been caught by the island and he could use this to get ashore. He found nothing. For a few minutes, at one end of the island, he stood fascinated, watching a long sloping black rock with a crack in it, reaching down into the water. There was a small tuft of moss growing in the crack about five inches above where the waves were slapping. As he watched, the waves slapped higher and higher, until he turned away abruptly, shivering, before he could see the water actually reach and cover the little clump of green.

For the first time a realization that he might not get off the island touched him. It was not yet fear, this realization, but it reached deep into him and he felt it, suddenly, like a pressure against his heart. As the moss was being covered, so could he be covered, by the far-reaching inexorable advance of the water.

And then this was wiped away by an abrupt outburst of anger and self-ridicule that he⁠—who had been through so many dangers⁠—should find himself pinned by so commonplace a threat. A man, he told himself, could die of drowning anywhere. There was no need to go light-years from his place of birth to find such a death. It made all dying⁠—and all living⁠—seem small and futile and insignificant, and he did not like that feeling.

* * * * *

Calvin went back to the plant in its little hollow, tight-hugging to the ground and half-sheltered from the wind, and looked down on its dusky basketball-sized shape, the tough hide swollen and ready to burst with seeds.

“So you think there’s no way out,” he said roughly.

“There is none,” said the plant.

“Why don’t you just let yourself go if you think like that?” Calvin said. “Why try to keep down out of the wind, if the waves’ll get you anyway, later?”

The plant did not answer for a while.

“I do not want to die,” it said then. “As long as I am alive, there is the possibility of some great improbable chance saving me.”

“Oh,” said Calvin, and he himself was silent in turn. “I thought you’d given up.”

“I cannot give up,” said the plant. “I am still alive. But I know there is no way to safety.”

“You make a lot of sense.” Calvin straightened up to squint through the rain at the dark and distant line of the shore. “How much more time would you say we had before the water covers this rock?”

“The eighth part of a daylight period, perhaps more, perhaps less. The water can rise either faster or more slowly.”

“Any chance of it cresting and going down?”

“That would be a great improbable chance such as that of which I spoke,” said the plant.

Calvin rotated slowly, surveying the water around them. Bits and pieces of flotsam were streaming by them on their way before the wind, now angling toward the near bank. But none were close enough or large enough to do Calvin any good.

“Look,” said Calvin abruptly, “there’s a fisheries survey station upriver here, not too far. Now, I could dig up the soil holding your roots. If I did that, would you get to the survey station as fast as you could and tell them I’m stranded here?”

“I would be glad to,” said the plant. “But you cannot dig me up. My roots have penetrated into the rock. If you tried to dig me up, they would break off⁠—and I would die that much sooner.”

“You would, would you?” grunted Calvin. But the question was rhetorical. Already his mind was busy searching for some other way out. For the first time in his life, he felt the touch of cold about his heart. Could this be fear, he wondered. But he had never been afraid of death.

Crouching down again to be out of the wind and rain, he told himself that knowledge still remained a tool he could use. The plant must know something that was, perhaps, useless to it, but that could be twisted to a human’s advantage.

“What made you come to a place like this to seed?” he asked.

“Twenty nights and days ago, when I first took root here,” said the plant, “this land was safe. The signs were good for fair weather. And this place was easy of access from the water. I am not built to travel far on land.”

“How would you manage in a storm like this, if you were not rooted down?”

“I would go with the wind until I found shelter,” said the plant. “The wind and waves would not harm me then. They hurt only whatever stands firm and opposes them.”

“You can’t communicate with others of your people from here, can you?” asked Calvin.

“There are none close,” said the plant. “Anyway, what could they do?”

“They could get a message to the fisheries station, to get help out here for us.”

“What help could help me?” said the plant. “And in any case they could not go against the wind. They would have to be upwind of the station, even to help you.”

“We could try it.”

“We could try it,” agreed the plant. “But first one of my kind must come into speaking range. We still hunt our great improbable chance.”

* * * * *

There was a moment’s silence between them in the wind and rain. The river was noisy, working against the rock of the island.

“There must be something that would give us a better chance than just sitting here,” said Calvin.

The plant did not answer.

“What are you thinking about?” demanded Calvin.

“I am thinking of the irony of our situation,” said the plant. “You are free to wander the water, but cannot. I can wander the water, but I am not free to do so. This is death, and it is a strange thing.”

“I don’t get you.”

“I only mean that it makes no difference⁠—that I am what I am, or that you are what you are. We could be any things that would die when the waves finally cover the island.”

“Right enough,” said Calvin impatiently. “What about it?”

“Nothing about it, man,” said the plant. “I was only thinking.”

“Don’t waste your time on philosophy,” said Calvin harshly. “Use some of that brain power on a way to get loose and get off.”

“Perhaps that and philosophy are one and the same.”

“You’re not going to convince me of that,” said Calvin, getting up. “I’m going to take another look around the island.”

* * * * *

The island, as he walked around its short margin, showed itself to be definitely smaller. He paused again by the black rock. The moss was lost now, under the water, and the crack was all but under as well. He stood shielding his eyes against the wind-driven rain, peering across at the still visible shore. The waves, he noted, were not extreme⁠—some four or five feet in height⁠—which meant that the storm proper was probably paralleling the land some distance out in the gulf.

He clenched his fists in sudden frustration. If only he had hung on to the sailplane⁠—or any decent-sized chunk of it! At least going into the water then would have been a gamble with some faint chance of success.

He had nowhere else to go, after rounding the island. He went back to the plant.

“Man,” said the plant, “one of my people has been blown to shelter a little downstream.”

Calvin straightened up eagerly, turning to stare into the wind.

“You cannot see him,” said the plant. “He is caught below the river bend and cannot break loose against the force of the wind. But he is close enough to talk. And he sends you good news.”

“Me?” Calvin hunkered down beside the plant. “Good news?”

“There is a large tree torn loose from the bank and floating this way. It should strike the little bit of land where we are here.”

“Strike it? Are you positive?”

“There are the wind and the water and the tree. They can move only to one destination⁠—this island. Go quickly to the windward point of the island. The tree will be coming shortly.”

Calvin jerked erect and turned, wild triumph bursting in him.

“Goodbye, man,” said the plant.

But he was already plunging toward the downstream end of the island. He reached it and, shielding his eyes with a hand, peered desperately out over the water. The waves hammered upon his boots as he stood there, and then he saw it, a mass of branches upon which the wind was blowing as on a sail, green against black, coming toward him.

* * * * *

He crouched, wrung with impatience, as the tree drifted swiftly through the water toward him, too ponderous to rise and fall more than a little with the waves and presenting a galleonlike appearance of mass and invincibility. As it came closer, a fear that it would, in spite of the plant’s assurances, miss the island, crept into his heart and chilled it.

It seemed to Calvin that it was veering⁠—that it would pass to windward of the island, between him and the dimly seen shore. The thought of losing it was more than he could bear to consider; and with a sudden burst of panic, he threw himself into the waves, beating clumsily and frantically for it.

The river took him into its massive fury. He had forgotten the strength of it. His first dive took him under an incoming wave, and he emerged, gasping, into the trough behind, with water exploding in his face. He kicked and threw his arms about, but the slow and futile-seeming beatings of his limbs appeared helpless as the fluttering of a butterfly in a collector’s net. He choked for air, and, rising on the crest of one wave, found himself turned backward to face the island, and being swept past it.

Fear came home to him then. He lashed out, fighting only for the solid ground of the island and his life. His world became a place of foam and fury. He strained for air. He dug for the island. And then, suddenly, he felt himself flung upon hard rock and gasping, crawling, he emerged onto safety.

He hung there on hands and knees, battered and panting. Then the remembrance of the tree cut like a knife to the core of his fear-soaked being. He staggered up, and, looking about, saw that he was almost to the far end of the island. He turned. Above him, at the windward point, the tree itself was just now grounding, branches first, and swinging about as the long trunk, caught by the waves, pulled it around and onward.

With an inarticulate cry, he ran toward it. But the mass of water against the heavy tree trunk was already pulling the branches from their tanglings with the rock. It floated free. Taking the wind once more in its sail of leaves, it moved slowly⁠—and then more swiftly on past the far side of the island.

He scrambled up his side of the island’s crest. But when he reached its top and could see the tree again, it was already moving past and out from the island, too swiftly for him to catch it, even if he had been the swimmer he had just proved himself not to be.

He dropped on his knees, there on the island’s rocky spine, and watched it fade in the grayness of the rain, until the green of its branches was lost in a grayish blob, and this in the general welter of storm and waves. And suddenly a dark horror of death closed over him, blotting out all the scene.

* * * * *

A voice roused him. “That is too bad,” said the plant.

He turned his head numbly. He was kneeling less than half a dozen feet from the little hollow where the plant still sheltered. He looked at it now, dazed, as if he could not remember what it was, nor how it came to talk to him. Then his eyes cleared a little of their shock and he crept over to it on hands and knees and crouched in the shelter of the hollow.

“The water is rising more swiftly,” said the plant. “It will be not long now.”

“No!” said Calvin. The word was lost in the sound of the waves and wind, as though it had never been. Nor, the minute it was spoken, could he remember what he had meant to deny by it. It had been only a response without thought, an instinctive negation.

“You make me wonder,” said the plant, after a little, “why it hurts you so⁠—this thought of dying. Since you first became alive, you have faced ultimate death. And you have not faced it alone. All things die. This storm must die. This rock on which we lie will not exist forever. Even worlds and suns come at last to their ends, and galaxies, perhaps even the Universe.”

Calvin shook his head. He did not answer.

“You are a fighting people,” said the plant, almost as if to itself. “Well and good. Perhaps a life like mine, yielding, giving to the forces of nature, traveling before the wind, sees less than you see, of a reason for clawing hold on existence. But still it seems to me that even a fighter would be glad at last to quit the struggle, when there is no other choice.”

“Not here,” said Calvin thickly. “Not now.”

“Why not here, why not now,” said the plant, “when it has to be somewhere and sometime?”

Calvin did not answer.

“I feel sorry for you,” said the plant. “I do not like to see things suffer.”

Raising his head a little and looking around him, Calvin could see the water, risen high around them, so that waves were splashing on all sides, less than the length of his own body away.

“It wouldn’t make sense to you,” said Calvin then, raising his rain-wet face toward the plant. “You’re old by your standards. I’m young. I’ve got things to do. You don’t understand.”

“No,” the plant agreed. “I do not understand.”

* * * * *

Calvin crawled a little closer to the plant, into the hollow, until he could see the vibrating air-sac that produced the voice of the plant. “Don’t you see? I’ve got to do something⁠—I’ve got to feel I’ve accomplished something⁠—before I quit.”

“What something?” asked the plant.

“I don’t know!” cried Calvin. “I just know I haven’t! I feel thrown away!”

“What is living? It is feeling and thinking. It is seeding and trying to understand. It is companionship of your own people. What more is there?”

“You have to do something.”

“Do what?”

“Something important. Something to feel satisfied about.” A wave, higher than the rest, slapped the rock a bare couple of feet below them and sent spray stinging in against them. “You have to say, ‘Look, maybe it wasn’t much, but I did this.’ ”

“What kind of this?”

“How do I know?” shouted Calvin. “Something⁠—maybe something nobody else did⁠—maybe something that hasn’t been done before!”

“For yourself?” said the plant. A higher wave slapped at the very rim of their hollow, and a little water ran over and down to pool around them. Calvin felt it cold around his knees and wrists. “Or for the doing?”

“For the doing! For the doing!”

“If it is for the doing, can you take no comfort from the fact there are others of your own kind to do it?”

Another wave came in on them. Calvin moved spasmodically right up against the plant and put his arms around it, holding on.

“I have seeded ten times and done much thinking,” said the plant⁠—rather muffledly, for Calvin’s body was pressing against its air-sac. “I have not thought of anything really new, or startling, or great, but I am satisfied.” It paused a moment as a new wave drenched them and receded. They were half awash in the hollow now, and the waves came regularly. “I do not see how this is so different from what you have done. But I am content.” Another and stronger wave rocked them. The plant made a sound that might have been of pain at its roots tearing. “Have you seeded?”

“No,” said Calvin, and all at once, like light breaking at last into the dark cave of his being, in this twelfth hour, it came to him⁠—all of what he had robbed himself in his search for a victory. Choking on a wave, he clung to the plant with frenzied strength. “Nothing!” The word came torn from him as if by some ruthless hand. “I’ve got nothing!”

“Then I understand at last,” said the plant. “For of all things, the most terrible is to die unfruitful. It is no good to say we will not be beaten, because there is always waiting, somewhere, that which can beat us. And then a life that is seedless goes down to defeat finally and forever. But when one has seeded, there is no ending of the battle, and life mounts on life until the light is reached by those far generations in which we have had our own small but necessary part. Then our personal defeat has been nothing, for though we died, we are still living, and though we fell, we conquered.”

But Calvin, clinging to the plant with both arms, saw only the water closing over him.

“Too late⁠—” he choked. “Too late⁠—too late⁠—”

“No,” bubbled the plant. “Not too late yet. This changes things. For I have seeded ten times and passed on my life. But you⁠—I did not understand. I did not realize your need.”

* * * * *

The flood, cresting, ran clear and strong, the waves breaking heavily on the drowned shore by the river mouth. The rescue spinner, two hours out of Base and descending once again through the fleeting murk, checked at the sight of a begrimed human figure, staggering along the slick margin of the shore, carrying something large and limp under one arm, and with the other arm poking at the ground with a stick.

The spinner came down almost on top of him, and the two men in it reached to catch Calvin. He could hardly stand, let alone stumble forward, but stumble he did.

“Cal!” said the pilot. “Hold up! It’s us.”

“Let go,” said Calvin thickly. He pulled loose, dug with his stick, dropped something from the limp thing into the hole he had made, and moved on.

“You out of your head, Cal?” cried the copilot. “Come on, we’ve got to get you back to the hospital.”

“No,” said Calvin, pulling away again.

“What’re you doing?” demanded the pilot. “What’ve you got there?”

“Think-plant. Dead,” said Calvin, continuing his work. “Let go!” He fought weakly, but so fiercely that they did turn him loose again. “You don’t understand. Saved my life.”

“Saved your life?” The pilot followed him. “How?”

“I was on an island. In the river. Flood coming up.” Calvin dug a fresh hole in the ground. “It could have lived a little longer. It let me pull it ahead of time⁠—so I’d have something to float to shore on.” He turned exhaustion-bleared eyes on them. “Saved my life.”

The pilot and the copilot looked at each other as two men look at each other over the head of a child, or a madman.

“All right, Cal,” said the pilot. “So it saved your life. But how come you’ve got to do this? And what are you doing, anyhow?”

“What am I doing?” Calvin paused entirely and turned to face them. “What am I doing?” he repeated on a rising note of wonder. “Why, you damn fools, I’m doing the first real thing I ever did in my life! I’m saving the lives of these seeds!”