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Science Fiction Fiction Thriller

My final exam for General Biology is first thing tomorrow morning, Fern lectured herself sternly. I really should go back to my dorm and study. I’ll never keep that A average if I don’t ace this exam. The biological sciences department is so competitive and I won’t have a chance of progressing towards a career in biotech unless I maintain a high GPA in my life-science classes.

Yet Fern couldn’t quite find the willpower to make herself rise from the soft towel spread on the outskirts of the quad lawn. Her skin still ached for the sensual caress of the torrid tendrils of sunlight. For the last four months, ever since returning from winter break, Fern had been questioning what had possessed her to pick a university that was located so far north. Although her mother had warned her, she hadn’t truly appreciated how different winter here was from her home in southern Florida; the precious, golden sun was locked away in an impenetrable vault of gloomy clouds and guarded by intense snow squalls all the way into early May. Fern had never before felt as if it were possible to starve from lack of sunlight. Even if it wasn’t that warm and patches of mud lingered from the recent snow-melt, she couldn’t understand why all the other students hadn’t joined her to bask in the luscious rays arrowing downwards from the chariot of the resplendent, reappeared Helios. Perhaps she should consider transferring to avoid being forced to spend another winter in this bitter, bone-chilling Niflheim. Focus on biology for now, she told herself. The exam for Comparative Mythology isn’t until next week.

Yet Fern would still need good grades on both exams to succeed in transferring somewhere both competitive and warmer. Just a few more minutes, she told herself. Reluctantly, she decided that she could still mentally review core concepts while lying in the sun even if she hadn’t toted the heavy textbook to the quad along with her.

Photosynthesis: the process by which plants utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide to generate oxygen and glucose, she began.

As raw material to fuel the process, the plant draws in carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil. Carbon dioxide is easy enough to find, Fern thought sadly, since we humans go out of our way to make so much of it. But if it’s a colorless and odorless gas, how do plants know when they have enough to use for photosynthesis? Or have they just evolved with the assumption that we’ve polluted the air everywhere?

Soil… Idly, without opening her eyes, Fern stretched out her left leg and poked her bare toes into the ground. Unexpectedly, she encountered a mud puddle. Letting out a little squeak at the cold, squelchy sensation as the mud surrounded her big toe, she nearly jerked her foot away instinctively. I wonder if plants hate the first thaw as much as we do, she wondered. If they sleep all winter, only to awaken in spring, do they ever feel their roots get cold? It’s not as if they can scrunch their rootlets up to huddle together the way that I can curl my toes.

Yet, as her ambient body heat slowly warmed the mud, Fern found the contact growing more pleasant. It was as if she could sense the dormant nutrients drowsing in the soil; as the soil heated, they would escape from the chunky frozen clumps of winter to become free-floating and porous. Soon enough they would be ready to be sponged up by a plant the same way her dry winter skin sucked in vitamins from a moisturizing mask. No longer slimy, the mud felt enriched and restorative. It almost seemed alive itself.

First stage of photosynthesis: light-dependent reactions. Light-dependent reactions require the presence of a constant source of sunlight throughout the process and begin when a plant cell’s chlorophyll, located in the chloroplasts, absorbs sunlight, Fern recited to herself. Chlorophyll is the pigment that makes plants appear green by absorbing light on the red and blue parts of the spectrum. What would she look like if she was green like a plant? Fern contemplated playfully. Certainly it would be much harder to find appropriate foundation and flattering eye and lip palettes. Human skin tones obviously reflected light on the red part of the light spectrum.

But more than that, under the skin, how would it feel to be a plant full of chlorophyll? Since it was technically a pigment, would one’s flesh always be smooth and hydrated? Or would she even notice its presence at all since it lurked at a cellular level?

Focus, Fern, she reprimanded herself.

The sunlight excites the chlorophyll, which then splits water molecules to form the gas oxygen as a by-product. If a plant had any awareness, what sensations would the plant experience as it drank in energy? Would it be as simple as the pleasant warmth that Fern felt now, heating her skin and penetrating to the flesh beneath to relax tense muscles? Would a plant’s leaves tingle with a faint bio-electrical shock as it took in energy? Did a plant ever feel like it was sunburning? Perhaps the plant would delight in the same combination of relaxation and invigoration that now left her feeling both boneless and hyper-attuned to the world around her.

No, Fern decided, that didn’t sound right. Since the excited chlorophyll split water molecules to form gas, the plant would probably feel jumpy, the way she did after too many coffees in one afternoon. And full of gas, like she’d been after the third day in a row of having tacos at the cafeteria last week. Giggling, Fern imagined a bloated plant leaf with a tiny belly letting out flatulent little burps and farts that were too soft for humans to hear. Except that the plant was expelling oxygen and not hydrogen sulfide, so its farts wouldn’t stink like Fern’s awful roommate’s did. How did a tiny blond sorority girl manage to spew so much foul air? Us stupid humans depend on plant farts to breathe, Fern thought to herself mirthfully. That should tell us our real significance in the universe.

The plant cell generates ATP and NADPH, which are molecules that the plant uses to store that light energy for the second stage of photosynthesis. The sugars that actually nourish the plant are not created during this stage of photosynthesis, she continued, dragging her thoughts away from both her roommate and philosophy. Fern had initially struggled with the distinction the textbook made between energy and nourishment. Finally, she’d simply decided to analogize it to her cell phone charging until it had a full battery. Being permeated by energy in the first stage of photosynthesis didn’t itself do anything to ease the plant’s hunger, but it then had enough battery power to call out for delivery.

If I were a plant, she speculated whimsically, what type of take-out would I like? Pizza, but with no meat toppings, she decided. Maybe broccoli or spinach. Or would that be plant-cannibalism? Fern’s own stomach gurgled faintly as she thought longingly of slippery, melted cheese and the smell of freshly baked, piping hot crust. Unfortunately, she’d already finished the entire napkin of food she’d purloined from the cafeteria for her impromptu spring picnic lunch. Fern promised herself a snack once she had gathered enough energy to go back to her dorm. Again, she chortled silently at her own silly imagination: plants didn’t have mouths! Sadly, no pizza for them! And if she wanted any food soon herself, she’d better finish up.

During the second stage of photosynthesis, light-independent reactions, also known as the Calvin Cycle, take place. The plant cell transforms the ATP and NADPH produced by the first stage of of photosynthesis into food. This phase of the process does not require an active, consistent source of sunlight but still occurs during daytime. The plant cell uses carbon dioxide and the ATP and NADPH to manufacture RuBP and glucose.

Deciding that she’d soaked in enough sunlight for today, her bones finally feeling fully warmed through to their core, Fern pulled her toes out of the mud and stood up. Or she tried to. When she started to tug, she encountered unexpected resistance. Although the mud still felt damp, it was as if it had dried around her foot, holding her in place. Confused and frustrated, Fern pulled harder, then gasped as she experienced an oddly painful sensation at the tip of her toes, as if she were trying to snap her end-knuckles loose.

Or she tried to gasp. Her mouth never opened. In fact, it was as if her entire oral cavity had grown completely shut, her lips sealed. Though she certainly made a mighty effort, she discovered quickly that screaming was both impossible and useless.

Truly alarmed by the unpleasant, hallucinatory turn her thoughts had taken, Fern attempted to wrench open her eyes. Yet, like her mouth, they refused to respond. Actually, it was worse than a mere refusal to open; although she still felt the sunlight pouring down on her skin, there wasn’t even a bit of light visible through the crack between her eyelashes or the thin, delicate flesh of her eyelids. Her entire field of vision appeared a uniform black. Surely she should at least see a faintly red haze from the sun even through her closed eyes! Nor did Fern feel even the slightest twitch of the sensitive muscles of her eyes and eyelids despite her now terrified efforts to lift those heavy lids. Panic flooded her as she realized that she was now effectively blind.

Her next impulse was to lift her hands, lying relaxed at her sides, to peel off whatever impossible obstructions had covered her facial orifices. Yet, like her eyes, her arms refused to rise. It was almost as if Fern was yanking on a slack rope that wasn’t attached to anything: she couldn’t get any traction, as if the underlying muscle structure in her arms no longer existed at all. Now that she’d turned her attention to her arms, Fern abruptly realized that she felt dirt surrounding her fingertips, as if they had somehow lengthened and burrowed into the earth next to the towel, although she hadn’t been touching the dirt before. What is going on here? She thought in frightened confusion.

It was an unpleasant non-surprise when Fern tried to move her legs and discovered that they were in exactly the same condition as her arms. Not only was she blind and mute, but she was also immobile!

After what felt like an eternity, Fern gave up on struggling when she failed to move even a single part of her body. A helpless lassitude filled her and sapped her willpower: what was the point? Every effort was a mere waste of energy.

Distantly, she knew she should be alarmed by the fact that if she couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe. Yet she didn’t feel as if she was in any distress. Her chest did not ache, even if it didn’t rise and fall in a normal breathing pattern. The racing of Fern’s frantically pounding heartbeat began to slow gradually. Yet Fern simply didn’t have enough vigor left to panic again when she realized that the sound had faded beneath the threshold of her perception. The comforting and constant pulse of flowing blood that had accompanied her through her entire life seemed to have ceased completely.

Was she dying? Why? Somehow, she would have thought it would have been a more painful process. Surely somebody passing through the quad would notice her limp body! Hopefully they would find her in time to save her life!

Focusing on the last sense left to her, Fern strained to hear anything at all. Even as her hearing grew dim, she heard a faint, girlish voice exclaim, “What an odd-looking shrub! And how did those old clothes and that towel get tangled in its roots?” Fern felt pressure brush against first her arched back and then the side of her arm.

Help me! She wanted to scream. Stop worrying about whatever stupid plant you’re looking at! How are you not seeing me lying here?

“Careful, now!” the voice continued. “We don’t want to uproot it by accident!”

Suddenly, there was no obstruction between the surface of her back and the rich soil beneath. Obeying a primal impulse as darkness closed in around her mind, Fern delved deeper into the welcoming earth.

“There you go! Grow, little plant, grow! That yucky litter is all gone now.” Those were the last words Fern heard with human ears.

March 25, 2022 01:44

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12 comments

Riel Rosehill
20:43 Mar 28, 2022

Hey, I learned a new word! Not gonna lie, first reading the title I thought it was going to be about dinasours. After googling it... actually, close enough, dinos and ferns go hand in hand ay. And you called her Fern! Lovely... As soon as she planted her foot in the ground I had a suspicion she might turn plant, especially once she started thinking about what it would be like! And it was so so well done, how you described the new feelings and the loss of the old ones... Nice one! Also, this line here: "Us stupid humans depend on plant farts...

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L.M. Lydon
22:29 Mar 28, 2022

Thank you so much for the kind comment. I also learned a new word (I had to google it before I used it as a title ;) ). I thought it would be fun for Fern to show a little contempt for humanity to kind of prime her transformation. Like: "yeah, we suck."

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Zack Powell
01:57 Mar 28, 2022

Oh. Oh! This was absolutely not where I was expecting the story to go. I even looked up the meaning of the title before I read (nice job with naming the character, by the way), and I was still caught off-guard. The twist was legitimately horrifying and had me making all kinds of faces, but it was also so well-written. What a wild ride. Thanks for sharing this one! P.S.: I gotta know - how did you come up with this story idea? This is very creative.

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L.M. Lydon
02:23 Mar 28, 2022

Thank you so much for your kind comments. When I was younger, I went to school up north (and did not turn into a plant). It seemed fun to take a commonplace to an extreme.

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Michał Przywara
21:30 Mar 27, 2022

This was a fun read! I was expecting a fairly tame student-learns-science-through-experience story, so the twist caught me by surprise. I like how her nature gradually shifts, where she panics less and starts accepting her new situation, like a plant would. But even though it's a fairly calm, basking-in-the-sun kind of story, there's also a neat horror undercurrent.

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L.M. Lydon
21:38 Mar 27, 2022

Thank you very much. The mechanics of such a transformation are a bit hard to sort out, so I'm glad it was believable (as much as a girl spontaneously transforming into a plant can be).

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L. Maddison
17:56 Mar 27, 2022

Fern by name, Fern by nature! How brilliant if we really could photosynthesise… I think 🤔 I really enjoyed this transformative story.

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L.M. Lydon
20:30 Mar 27, 2022

Thank you. Fern got an up close and personal experience with photosynthesis- If only she still cared about her exam :)

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Kendall Defoe
00:46 Mar 27, 2022

Oh, my... She turned into a...Triffid? ;) Seriously, this was very well done. A real creepy vibe with the scientific terms and chatter always impresses me. Keep them coming! :)

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L.M. Lydon
12:58 Mar 27, 2022

Thanks for your comment. I was an English major so I had to do more than a bit of googling to write this. Glad it at least sounded plausible!

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Robin Davidson
00:51 Mar 31, 2022

Wow, such a gentle premise with a crazy twist! My favorite part of the story was when the narrator describes Fern's transformation; it was so well-told. But because there is so much internal thought, I wonder if this piece would read better written in 1st POV instead of 3rd? Overall fun read! I don't think I'll be forgetting that ending any time soon!

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L.M. Lydon
01:15 Mar 31, 2022

Thanks for your kind comments!

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