The Fangs of the Trees
by Robert Silverberg
From the plantation house atop the gray, needle-sharp spire of Dolan’s Hill, Zen Holbrook could see everything that mattered: the groves of juice-trees in the broad valley, the quick rushing stream where his niece Naomi liked to bathe, the wide, sluggish lake beyond. He could also see the zone of suspected infection in Sector C at the north end of the valley, where—or was it just his imagination?—the lustrous blue leaves of the juice-trees already seemed flecked with the orange of the rust disease.
If his world started to end, that was where the end would start.
He stood by the clear curved window of the info center at the top of the house. It was early morning; two pale moons still hung in a dawn-streaked sky, but the sun was coming up out of the hill country. Naomi was already up and out, cavorting in the stream. Before Holbrook left the house each morning, he ran a check on the whole plantation. Scanners and sensors offered him remote pickups from every key point out there. Hunching forward, Holbrook ran thick-fingered hands over the command nodes and made the relay screens flanking the window light up. He owned forty thousand acres of juice-trees—a fortune in juice, though his own equity was small and the notes he had given were immense. His kingdom. His empire. He scanned Sector C, his favorite. Yes. The screen showed long rows of trees, fifty feet high, shifting their ropy limbs restlessly. This was the endangered zone, the threatened sector. Holbrook peered intently at the leaves of the trees. Going rusty yet? The lab reports would come in a little later. He studied the trees, saw the gleam of their eyes, the sheen of their fangs. Some good trees in that sector. Alert, keen, good producers.
His pet trees. He liked to play a little game with himself, pretending the trees had personalities, names, identities. It didn’t take much pretending.
Holbrook turned on the audio. “Morning, Caesar,” he said. “Alcibiades. Hector. Good morning, Plato.”
The trees knew their names. In response to his greeting their limbs swayed as though a gale were sweeping through the grove. Holbrook saw the fruit, almost ripe, long and swollen and heavy with the hallucinogenic juice. The eyes of the trees—glittering scaly plates embedded in crisscrossing rows on their trunks—flickered and turned, searching for him. “I’m not in the grove, Plato,” Holbrook said. “I’m still in the plantation house. I’ll be down soon. It’s a gorgeous morning, isn’t it?”
Out of the musty darkness at ground level came the long, raw pink snout of a juice-stealer, jutting uncertainly from a heap of cast-off leaves. In distaste Holbrook watched the audacious little rodent cross the floor of the grove in four quick bounds and leap onto Caesar’s massive trunk, clambering cleverly upward between the big tree’s eyes. Caesar’s limbs fluttered angrily, but he could not locate the little pest. The juice-stealer vanished in the leaves and reappeared thirty feet higher, moving now in the level where Caesar carried his fruit. The beast’s snout twitched. The juice-stealer reared back on its four hind limbs and got ready to suck eight dollars’ worth of dreams from a nearly ripe fruit.
From Alcibiades’ crown emerged the thin, sinuous serpentine form of a grasping tendril. Whiplash-fast it crossed the interval between Alcibiades and Caesar and snapped into place around the juice-stealer. The animal had time only to whimper in the first realization that it had been caught before the tendril choked the life from it. On a high arc the tendril returned to Alcibiades’ crown; the gaping mouth of the tree came clearly into view as the leaves parted; the fangs parted; the tendril uncoiled; and the body of the juice-stealer dropped into the tree’s maw. Alcibiades gave a wriggle of pleasure: a mincing, camping quiver of his leaves, arch and coy, self-congratulations for his quick reflexes, which had brought him so tasty a morsel. He was a clever tree, and a handsome one, and very pleased with himself. Forgivable vanity, Holbrook thought. You’re a good tree, Alcibiades. All the trees in Sector C are good trees. What if you have the rust, Alcibiades? What becomes of your shining leaves and sleek limbs if I have to burn you out of the grove?
“Nice going,” he said. “I like to see you wide awake like that.”
Alcibiades went on wriggling. Socrates, four trees diagonally down the row, pulled his limbs tightly together in what Holbrook knew was a gesture of displeasure, a grumpy harrumph. Not all the trees cared for Alcibiades’ vanity, his preening, his quickness.
Suddenly Holbrook could not bear to watch Sector C any longer. He jammed down on the command nodes and switched to Sector K, the new grove, down at the southern end of the valley. The trees here had no names and would not get any. Holbrook had decided long ago that it was a silly affectation to regard the trees as though they were friends or pets. They were income-producing property. It was a mistake to get this involved with them—as he realized more clearly now that some of his oldest friends were threatened by the rust that was sweeping from world to world to blight the juice-tree plantations.
With more detachment he scanned Sector K.
Think of them as trees, he told himself. Not animals. Not people. Trees. Long tap roots, going sixty feet down into the chalky soil, pulling up nutrients. They cannot move from place to place. They photosynthesize. They blossom and are pollenated and produce bulging phallic fruit loaded with weird alkaloids that cast interesting shadows in the minds of men. Trees. Trees. Trees.
But they have eyes and teeth and mouths. They have prehensile limbs. They can think. They can react. They have souls. When pushed to it, they can cry out. They are adapted for preying on small animals. They digest meat. Some of them prefer lamb to beef. Some are thoughtful and solemn; some volatile and jumpy; some placid, almost bovine. Though each tree is bisexual, some are plainly male by personality, some female, some ambivalent. Souls. Personalities.
The nameless trees of Sector K tempted him to commit the sin of involvement. That fat one could be Buddha, and there’s Abe Lincoln, and you, you’re William the Conqueror, and—
He had made the effort and succeeded. Coolly he surveyed the grove, making sure there had been no damage during the night from prowling beasts, checking on the ripening fruit, reading the info that came from the sap sensors, the monitors that watched sugar levels, fermentation stages, manganese intake, all the intricately balanced life processes on which the output of the plantation depended. Holbrook handled practically everything himself. He had a staff of three human overseers and three dozen robots; the rest was done by telemetry, and usually all went smoothly. Usually. Properly guarded, coddled, and nourished, the trees produced their fruit three seasons a year; Holbrook marketed the goods at the pickup station near the coastal spaceport, where the juice was processed and shipped to Earth. Holbrook had no part in that; he was simply a fruit producer. He had been here ten years and had no plans for doing anything else. It was a quiet life, a lonely life, but it was the life he had chosen.
He swung the scanners from sector to sector, until he had assured himself that all was well throughout the plantation. On his final swing he cut to the stream and caught Naomi just as she was coming out from her swim. She scrambled to a rocky ledge overhanging the swirling water and shook out her long, straight, silken golden hair. Her back was to the scanner. With pleasure Holbrook watched the rippling of her slender muscles. Her spine was clearly outlined by shadow; sunlight danced across the narrowness of her waist, the sudden flare of her hips, the taut mounds of her buttocks. She was fifteen; she was spending a month of her summer vacation with Uncle Zen; she was having the time of her life among the juice-trees. Her father was Holbrook’s older brother. Holbrook had seen Naomi only twice before, once when she was a baby, once when she was about six. He had been a little uneasy about having her come here, since he knew nothing about children and in any case had no great hunger for company. But he had not refused his brother’s request. Nor was she a child. She turned, now, and his screens gave him apple-round breasts and flat belly and deep-socketed navel and strong, sleek thighs. Fifteen. No child. A woman. She was unself-conscious about her nudity, swimming like this every morning; she knew there were scanners. Holbrook was not easy about watching her. Should I look? Not really proper. The sight of her roiled him suspiciously. What the hell: I’m her uncle. A muscle twitched in his cheek. He told himself that the only emotions he felt when he saw her this way were pleasure and pride that his brother had created something so lovely. Only admiration; that was all he let himself feel. She was tanned, honey-colored, with islands of pink and gold. She seemed to give off a radiance more brilliant than that of the early sun. Holbrook clenched the command node. I’ve lived too long alone. My niece. My niece. Just a kid. Fifteen. Lovely. He closed his eyes, opened them slit-wide,