23 March 2013

Freezing to Death in a Gamma Garden

Gerry leaned against the binnacle and bit into the nectarine. Juice dribbled down his chin and he sucked frantically at the flesh of the fruit to avoid losing any more.
“Where on Earth did you find that?” asked the Berg.
“Below decks,” said Gerry, slurping greedily. “There’s a whole box of them.”
“But you’ve been eating nothing but pemmican for nearly two months now.”
“I must have missed them. Nooks and crannies down there. Yesterday I found a book of crosswords.”
The Berg cracked alarmingly. It was a sunny day and light blared back from its surface and hurt Gerry’s eyes.
Gerry shrugged and continued savouring the nectarine.
“They’re radioactive you know.”
Gerry spat the stone noisily overboard. “Bullshit.”
“Well, not strictly radioactive, but bred with the aid of radiation.”
Gerry, who had been about to go down to get another one, turned back. “Really?”
“Really. After World War Two everyone was trying to find peaceful uses for atomic energy. Just using it to vaporise Japanese people was giving it a bad name. They made atomic gardens to try and harness its mutagenic properties.”
“Wasn’t this a Simpsons episode?”
The Berg trickled furiously. The sunshine had made its whole surface run with meltwater.
“Don’t be facetious. It’s entirely true. They set up circular fields with a radioactive slug, cobalt-60 or something equally nasty, tied to a pole in the middle. The idea was you planted a wedge of a particular crop and let the radiation work its mutation magic. Close to the centre everything just died. Further back though you’d get weird effects like giant fruit or strangely coloured leaves and flowers.”
“Actually, I’m finding it distinctly warm,” said the Berg.
“You’re very grumpy today. So what happened with the mutant plants? And how did they harvest this stuff?”
“The pole with the radiation source could be retracted into the ground, then workers would come in to examine what had happened to the plants.”
“Voila, radioactive nectarines.”
“Actually, peach trees mutated by radiation whose progeny are what, today, we know as the nectarine.”
“I’ll be damned. Any other successes?”
“Mint oil.”
“Mint oil?”
“Mint is particularly susceptible to a particular fungal wilt. The Americans irradiated hundreds of thousands of shoots and then planted them in wilt-infested fields. The resulting wilt-resistant cultivar, Todd’s Mitcham as I believe it’s called, is now the standard crop used in the world’s mint oil industry. You brushed your teeth with some this morning.”
“I ate the last of the toothpaste six weeks ago.”
“You’re going to wish you hadn’t when it comes time to get all those bits of nectarine out of your teeth.”
“Very funny. So, nectarines, mint oil… they give it up after that?”
“Oh, it’s still happening. Not as popular as back in the ‘60s and ‘70s but they still use it to try and breed new plant varieties today. The last success we know of was the ‘Rio Star’ – a particularly red variety of grapefruit.”
“That we know of?”
“It’s all very hush hush. Genetic engineering. Radioactive mutants. You know – things you don’t want associated with your product.”
“So how do you know about it?” asked Gerry, turning to head below deck again. The sun had moved and he was in the Berg’s shadow. When he tried to lick some of the nectarine juice from his beard it was already starting to freeze.
“A hippy who was down here in 1976 told me. They parked their boat alongside me for a few days. He used to like to come and and talk to me.”
“Talk to you? You’re an iceberg.”
“He was taking a lot of acid.”