Age of Cosmic Exploration Chapter 35
Around three in the afternoon, Earth's time, the Hope came across Planet Sahara's (unofficial name) native plant life. It was a moss-like organism that was green in color and was made out of many individual units. Each unit, the size of a sand granule, was a host to a bunch of tendrils that served two purposes. One, they were used to bind to one another to gather into a large mass. Two, they could hook onto metallic surfaces to drain them of their power. After the power was fully drained, the tendrils would start breaking down the metals into sand particles.
At 3:05 PM, the geological surveillance unit's drills were besieged by the green organisms. After draining and dissolving the drill bits, they disappeared underground.
Later, at 3:08 PM, the unit was ambushed by alien creatures. Paper-thin creatures and urchin-like creatures led the first wave of the attack. It resulted in 73 deaths and the survivors had to retire into the more secure inner camps. Not long after that, they received the order to immediately return to the Hope, but it was already too late for that as they had already been boxed in by the alien creatures. The larger group of the unit1 with 2,400 people was luckier in the sense that they weren't close to the drilling site when the creatures attacked. Their number was high enough that they could barrel through the onslaught and turn back to the Hope.
At 3:11 PM, Yao Yuan returned to the Hope with the rest of the rescue crew. The number of casualties reported by geological unit A had risen to 107, and they were still heavily surrounded by all sorts of weird-looking alien creatures. However, they did notice that after everyone had retreated into the inner camps, a general state of inactivity seemed to fall over the alien creatures. It appeared that they were already wrung out from their initial assault.
Hoping to take advantage of their lethargy, a soldier volunteered to carry out Yao Yuan's order to go empty their supply of water at the middle of their campground. The moment the water hit the ground, there was a visible change among the alien creatures; they swarmed towards the spot in a frenzy. The carnage was so horrendous that the soldier who was caught in the fray was torn into a mess of guts and marrow within seconds. As unfortunate as the whole thing was, they did come to a conclusion. Other than the ability to detect water particles, the alien creatures were able to detect other signals, and that they weren't so ferocious in the absence of water.
There were also updates from group B. Even without removing their helmets and after disposing of all their water supply, the band of alien creatures trailing them didn't stop growing in size. As they drew closer, they also got increasingly more savage. This showed that contrary to what they believed, these creatures, or at least some of them, had learning capability. They had learned that underneath the space suits was a rich source of water…
This was the conundrum facing Yao Yuan. Two teams needed immediate attention or they might not see the end of the day. On the other hand, the amount of green organisms under the Hope had increased exponentially. The engine room calculated that they only had six hours left before their energy ran out!
Yao Yuan didn't have much time left…
"I understand, we have six hours left," Yao Yuan said, after listening to all the updates and reports. He immediately gathered the Hope's chemists, genetic engineers, biologists, and pathologists to hand the alien carcass over to them.
"This is the only perfectly preserved alien carcass we have. I want you all to conduct an autopsy immediately. Also, I've heard that studies have been done on the plant draining the Hope of its energy. Has there been any result?"
The 100 plus scientists Yao Yuan was addressing had anxiety written all over their faces. All of the specialized districts, the Academy, the Workshop, and the Barracks had been given news of the Hope's situation, so they knew conditions were dire.
One of the biologists came forth to answer. "Yes, major. We have taken samples of the green lifeform. We found out that the plant can consume anything be it metal, plastic, glass, or clay. That's why we are having problems containing it. It eats through everything and leave us with sand. The only solution is to use electrically-charged containers, but we realized that electricity induces mitosis in these organisms. They grow in size through absorption of energy, and when that's done, we're left with more of these organisms, and then they eat through everything again."
"Acid!" interrupted Yao Yuan. "Only strong acid can resist being consumed by these plants."
"Acid?" Most of the scientists were understandably incredulous. but since it was the best, if not only, suggestion they had, some of them retreated from the room to start conducting more experiments. More and more groups of scientists left the small conference room after they received the alien carcass from Yao Yuan until only a few biologists remained. These were all respected biologists with at least half a century of experience in their field, and Yao Yuan issued them a question. "Sirs and madams, I've asked you to remain because I have a question that only your group can answer… do you believe plants can be sentient?"
An old gentleman answered instantly, "Major, we can tell you without a doubt that plants are sentient beings. This is observable from years of classic experiments. Just look at how plants can alter their liquid distribution to accommodate areas that are burnt. There is also evidence of animal-like homeostasis in many plants, and certain plants can also produce specific reactions if injected with specific types of chemicals…"
Yao Yuan quickly interjected, "What I mean is, is it possible for plant life to have a consciousness that is akin to ours? Like the predatory intention to set traps, or to prepare ambushes. Do plants have the capability to plan stuff like that?"
The few biologists looked askance at one another, curious at where their major was going with this train of thought. One of them hesitantly answered, "I don't think that's possible. Even with Earth's most ostentatiously predatory plant, the venus flytrap, its reaction is entirely chemical. The clasping of its mouth is a reaction to prey landing on its surface. The motor skill is made possible through the transference of water within its flexible stem. It is entirely reactionary; it is not the flytrap itself going 'food, me eat.' Plants don't have a nervous system like that of an animal to produce and act on concepts like these…"
Yao Yuan took some time to digest the information before finally adding, "Everyone, I'm just going through an imaginary scenario here, so just hear me out and tell me whether what I'm saying is possible. For survival, a species of plant undergoes evolution to gain the ability to connect with one another to form a hive mind. Individually, each of them works like a single synapse, but once connected, they can maintain a semblance of consciousness.
"I know it's a far-fetched concept, but this is the cosmos we're dealing with, so we have to think outside the box. We can't limit ourselves to Earth-bound knowledge. So I want everyone to approach this with a fresh perspective: is it possible for a plant species to achieve this level of evolution, to gain consciousness through a confluence of cells? To reach such a size and scale where it has the sophistication to control every other living organism of its planet and even attract prey beyond the planet's confines? Earth's flowers could attract pollinators through use of colors and smell, so couldn't this evolved species do the same but with bigger prey and better manipulation techniques?"
The biologists were stunned by Yao Yuan's suggestion. It completely overturned everything they had learned. After a period of silent consideration, a biologist volunteered, "Alright, major, let's take your advice. We'll all start from a fresh perspective. If what you are saying is true, that a plant species was induced by drastic evolution into achieving, or like what you said, merging into consciousness, then… there is still one loophole. Why wouldn't they strive for civilization? It has happened to every other sentient being, so why not them? A plant civilization might seem weird, but it's the next logical step, so why would they instead opt for the destruction of their home planet? It makes no sense."
Yao Yuan continued to struggle trying to get his point across. "No, I think you might have misunderstood what I've said. Yes, they have achieved consciousness, but it is an awareness that is simplistic and primal… Like that of bees and ants, just advanced enough to systematically manage issues of reproduction, food, and survival, but not advanced enough to produce personas and psyches. Is that possible?"
The few biologists were still skeptical, but at that moment, the door flew open and a group of scientists rushed in. They announced excitedly, "Major, the autopsy has just finished. We've found an abundance of the green plants, or rather, the spores of these plants, within the creature's body. When imbibed with water, they instantly germinate into the matured form that is now draining us of our energy. Also, we tried suppressing them with acid and it worked! All of their functions have been stunted, but they are still alive somehow. It's hard to believe, but with these results, we have to conclude that these plants are controlling this planet's creatures!"
There's no explicit mention of the unit being split in this chapter, but if I have to guess, the one group at the drill site is the group that went ahead to set up camp (see chapter 34 for details), and the larger group would be the rest. Since there was no clear distinction between the two made by the author, I'm taking the authority to name the smaller group as Group A and larger group as Group B to avoid confusion.