(of an environment or habitat) containing little moisture; very dry.
X is for Xeric
Doctor Jefferson Molesworth frowned at the intern he had been delivered. He had little use for wet-behind-the-ears college students with near zero experience. “Just don’t touch anything,” he said. “The artificial biome has to be maintained at optimal conditions.”
“It’s so hot,” complained Shaun. “I feel like I’m already shriveling up.” Although they were walking outside a glass wall over 4 inches thick, heat radiated at them like a furnace.
“Of course it’s hot. We’re looking at replicating the conditions near Dallol, Ethiopia. It’s one of the hottest, driest places on this whole damn planet.”
“Like Death Valley…”
“Sure. If Death Valley had sulfuric pools of boiling volcanic gasses. Hot both above and below.”
Shaun continued to shadow the scientist he’d been assigned to for several more minutes. Finally he asked, “Why did you request a biology intern? My specialty isn’t microorganisms or hostile environments. I’m not sure how I can help you here?”
Jefferson stopped and turned on the trainee. “I’m not the one who requested you.” He harrumphed and resumed going over the checklist on his board.
Just when Shaun was about to ask another question, Jefferson continued. “We have been asked by a government agency to do some testing on a possible life form that they can’t identify.”
“Insects? In the thermal pools?”
“Not insects. And they weren’t found in Dallol.”
“But then, why…”
“It is believed to be an exo organism. Xeric in nature.”
“Off world? Cool! But still, why an intern? Usually they don’t let us within a mile of the really ground breaking stuff.”
Jefferson shook his head without looking at the younger man. “Like I said, I didn’t pick you.”
They continued to skirt the outer rim of the artificial environment until Dr. Molesworth stopped suddenly and pointed. Shaun followed his gesture and had to resist the urge to press in nose to the glass to try to see better. “I don’t see anything,” he said.
“But I… Oh!” He still managed not to press his face to the glass, but he did lay his hand on it as he saw a thing—the thing—move. “What in the world?”
“Not our world,” Jefferson reminded him.
Shaun nodded and continued to stare. “If I didn’t see it move…”
“Exactly. It looks like a hundred other rocks. But it isn’t. Not even close.”
Shaun sucked in air as if a realization had suddenly dawned on him. “And I’m going to study it?”
Jefferson didn’t respond. Instead he asked, “Do you think you can handle 114 degrees for a few minutes?”
“You mean, I get to go in there?”
The excitement in the intern’s voice made Jefferson realize exactly why this particular intern had been sent. He guided the student to the hatch, a sealed airlock that would prevent contamination of the habitat.
After Shaun changed into specialized, biodegradable, paper-like clothing, he walked into the hatch, waited for the outer door to seal, and entered the biome. He carried nothing with him but a stainless steel tank of purified water.
“Don’t worry,” Jefferson said into a microphone. “It doesn’t move fast at all.”
Shaun made his way back to the rock-like creature and began speaking his observations. “It’s slightly smaller than my hand. Maybe 5 inches long. The surface appears almost porous—similar to coral.”
He unscrewed the cap from the water tank and gently poured its contents—roughly 4 cups of water—in a circle around the creature, just as he had been instructed.
Without warning, tendrils shot out from beneath the creature into the water, drying the ground almost instantaneously.
“The creature is highly sensitized to the presence of water,” Shaun said, his voice wavering. “It’s … oh my god! It’s growing! Only… NO!”
The creature, still expanding in size, sent out tendrils that sank into Shaun, drying him to dust just as rapidly as they had dried out the sand.
Dr. Molesworth instinctively stepped backwards, throwing his arms up as the thing suddenly exploded into hundreds of duplicates, each piece roughly the size of the first. Each one moved slowly, perhaps, Molesworth speculated, searching for water in this Xeric biome.
“Interesting.” He spoke into the microphone so the computer would record his observation. “We may have discovered the means of reproduction.”
Copyright Notice: Please note that I fully assert my right to be associated as the author of this story, and while it is complete, it may not be finished. This story may be subject to alteration at the author’s discretion. Please do not copy, quote, or post this story or excerpts anywhere in any format. You are, however, free to share the link with anyone who might be interested.