Seedy dealings

From the LabLit short story series

Axel Brennicke 8 March 2009

He still needed to bolster his own conscience, to find legitimate-sounding excuses for his first criminal act

Keep the light down, Tom!"

"Don’t yell, Kevin. I just have to read what’s in all these bags. We don’t want to come home with the wrong line. What would Pa say? Let’s see. This is Bt747. Ok, next one. This is Bt911. And this Bt2015. We don’t want those either."

Tom rummaged around the piles of sacks, striving to see the labels. More to assuage his older brother’s fears than out of any real need, he shaded the flashlight with one hand so that only a thin strip of light flickered across the sacks.

Tom told himself to be patient with his brother. Kevin had always been the cautious one. More anxious, more nervous. The one who urged waiting and seeing whenever new machines and methods became available or fashionable.

Naturally Kevin had been against the plan. At some point Kevin had told him that in the very beginning he, Kevin, had thought his younger brother was joking, that Tom was suggesting some hare-brained scheme just to needle him and his caution. Just to make fun of him, to keep himself amused. As Tom had done so often when they had been kids on the farm, before they had gone their separate ways.

But Tom had persisted, he had brought it up time and again, whenever they met. Tom was glad he had insisted on calling his plan 'Project Bt538', a real name for a real plan, since eventually Kevin had realized that Tom was serious about this. It also helped that Tom kept bothering Kevin with more and more practical details. As Tom had expected, Kevin argued vehemently with his brother. Actually, for an entire two days he had not argued, he simply had not talked to him. That was classic Kevin behavior, sulking just to show Tom how stupid he was. Just to let him know what his older brother thought of the plan.

But Tom had not let go of the idea and had pestered Kevin with lengthy speeches on all occasions: over lunch in some diner in town, when they met back on the farm and their parents were out somewhere – even in the restroom of some pub Tom would go through his spiel, after he had made sure they were alone. This was to convince Kevin, but it also strengthened Tom’s resolve: they had to do this.

Tom had argued again and again what they already knew. That to get the seeds for the resistant wheat they would have to steal them. Because of the laws that prohibited the sale of the resistant seeds. That they could not buy the grain like you could in Argentina because Washington had made the sale of transgenic seeds illegal several years ago – only a year or two before this crazy bug had arrived in the country.

Before it had started eating its way through all the crops. Before the suicide rate amongst farmers had mushroomed. Tom had argued vehemently that before these laws were made, such resistant transgenic plants had been perfectly legal and safe. And that even now it was OK by law to grow them, only that no one was allowed to sell or buy transgenic seeds to be able to plant the resistant grain.

So there was nothing, really, for Kevin to worry about, Tom insisted. Once they had the seeds for the grain it was perfectly safe. All they had to do was to go and get it.

Tom had told Kevin that it would be just a matter of time until the resistant seeds and plants would be legalized again. That this would have to be very soon, since no pesticide could stop this killer bug. Tom had repeated over and over the stories that made their father so desperate: none of the insecticides on the market could do the bad bug any harm; only the toxin from this peculiar bacterium would get it. The poison made by Bacillus thuringiensis Bt538. The insect poison, the genes for which had been isolated from the bacterium and had been put into wheat and other crop plants. The genes that enabled the plants to kill the bug and survive. The genes, which did nothing to humans but gave insects the shivers as soon as they started munching.

In the end, Kevin had succumbed to Tom’s insistent pressure. And to the worries and the quiet desperation of their father. Tom realized that Kevin was still reluctant, yes, but the main thing was that he had agreed to come along for the ride. Kevin had said that he would tag along just to watch his younger brother’s back. Just to be there when they would need to get away. To get away quickly. Just in case.

Now they were in this together. To get the seeds for wheat, Triticum aestivum. To get the seeds for the transgenic wheat fortified by the bacterial gene encoding the only toxin that could kill the new insects. Their only chance to stop the pest on their father’s fields.

And now they finally stood in the big storage shed of the major seed company in the area where, as rumor had it, several sacks of the genetically modified wheat grain were kept. Some people even said that the company had them there on purpose. The rumor went that they were replenished every so often and that they would be easy to get. The grain that was the only hope for their father’s farm. The grain that they had come for in the middle of the night.

Most of the pallets had labels right on the front, but some of the smaller piles along one wall of the huge warehouse did not. These were the ones the brothers were after tonight. If there was any GMO grain, they would not be in the major mountains of bags.

They had cut the meshed wire fence and crept through – apparently unnoticed, since no alarm had gone off and they had not seen a soul. And now they wandered around the huge corrugated iron hall trying to read the various labels on the bags.

"I got it," Tom almost shouted, catching himself just in time to suppress his excitement into a barely audible mumble. He smoothed the label, waved Kevin over with the light, "Bt538. This is it."

Kevin let out a relieved sigh.

"Hold my rucksack open," Tom instructed, getting out his Swiss army knife and smoothing the big sack of grain on top of the pile. He stabbed the blade into the sturdy plastic and made a careful incision. Kevin held the first rucksack with shaking hands while Tom doubled up the heavy sack and slowly bent it in the middle. An avalanche of kernels slid with a satisfying rustling into the rucksack. When the first pack was full, Kevin set it aside and held up the second.

The brothers tightened their bags and shouldered the load. They had filled an entire sack of seeds into the two backpacks. Tom carefully pushed the limp sack into a heap of other empty bags in a corner, hoping it would not be noticed among the others waiting to be incinerated.

Tom led the way back out of the storage hall and stopped by the big sliding door. They had left it partially open, just wide enough for them to slip through, the gap barely noticeable in the grey night.

Tom carefully reconnoitred the compound, holding back Kevin, who looked longingly at the distant gap in the fence. All seemed quiet, and he nodded to his brother. Luckily this was not one of the high security areas with the frequent guard patrols, ferocious Rottweilers, ultra-sensitive motion detectors and high resolution automatic cameras so prevalent in the movies. This was just one of the local storage compounds of the MonteChristo Company for fertilizers, seeds and other bulk farm products. A plain fence of meshed wire was deemed to be enough protection out here in the country.

They ran across the open yard to the fence. Kevin could not get there fast enough and panted for his younger brother to hurry up. They stepped through the open fence. Tom bent the cut section back to close the gap, hoping that it would not be too obvious, even in daylight. Kevin had already heaved his rucksack onto the back seat of the car.

"Come on! Let’s go," he urged Tom. Kevin was fidgeting on the front seat when Tom slid into the driver’s seat and closed the door carefully. He started the motor and drove off slowly into the dark. The bumpy track wound around several fields and small clumps of greenery before it joined a paved road.

As soon as they were on the main highway,with headlights on and purring along the asphalt like any other car, Kevin let out a deep sigh and started babbling.

"Oh man, this is not my kind of thing. Why do we have to go stealing grain like criminals? If only these stupid tourists had never come back from these old ruins in Mexico or Guatemala or whatever jungle it was."

Kevin pulled a couple of candy bars from the glovebox and offered one to Tom. With his mouth full of sticky caramel Kevin continued to ramble. Tom understood that Kevin was trying to get a hold on familiar thoughts and arguments, that he needed to compensate for the new experience of having broken in, of having done something illegal: to rationalize and justify it to himself. Tom nodded occasionally, hearing his own arguments repeated, quietly helping his older brother to wind down. But it was going to take quite a while of patient listening before Kevin would be anywhere near his normal state.

"And shit," Kevin waved the wrapper with his left hand, "we actually made the stupid genetic plants with this poison, this Bt538 stuff. We here in the US of A, we made the genes and now we can’t even use them."

"They are transgenic plants," Tom said quietly, as he had so often before. "And we didn't make the genes, we..."

"…put the genes from the bacteria into wheat, corn and God knows what other plants," Kevin finished impatiently. "And why don't they let us use them? Why can’t we just buy the grain? Why can’t we have decent laws like we had before? Like they still have in Argentina and Brazil? Did you see in the paper, they are expecting another bumper crop this season? And us? First we lost 30%, then 50%. Last year it was 80%, and this season there will be nothing left to harvest. Last year the gas to run the combine cost more than what Dad brought in."

A quick look to the passenger seat showed Tom that Kevin was staring straight ahead through the windshield. Familiar landmarks were beginning to become recognizable as they got closer to home. Kevin relaxed visibly in his seat, but still was not finished with his tirade. He kept on complaining, using almost the same words his younger brother had used to convince him to come on this trip. Apparently he still needed to bolster his own conscience, to find legitimate-sounding excuses for their break in, for his first criminal act.

"It’s the politicians. It’s all their fault. Bending in the slightest breeze. Soon we'll be like Europe. Those poor guys over there. No grain any more, no wheat, no rye, no corn. All finished. Everything has to be imported from Argentina and Brazil. And all because of those guys against genes. And the stupid politicians kow-towing before the doomsday prophets. And they actually got exactly what they had predicted gene technology would do: no grass, no corn, no wheat, no more farmers. Well, I guess it serves them right. It was their tourists that dug up the bug in the first place."

Tom remained quiet, just driving and listening.

"And now it’s going the same way here. Nothing left to export to Europe. Our politicians are cowards. Everyone of them too lame to stand up to these anti-gene jerks. And now it's too late for us. We needed permission for the new plants three years ago. Now we have to go out in the night and steal it. I still can’t believe we actually did it."

While Kevin wound down with his final slash at the culprits, the car had swerved into the driveway of their father’s farm. The light was creeping over the horizon. Their father stood in the open door of their house, his outline sharply illuminated from the kitchen light behind him. Slowly the boys got out of the car, heaved the full rucksacks from the back seat and walked towards him.

"Well?" their father asked, in the quiet, disapproving voice they knew so well.

Tom said quickly, "We brought you something, dad. Something good." He slid the pack from his shoulders and set it on the ground before his father’s feet. He knelt down and started to untie the straps. "This is something you wanted. Something you've really wanted for some time. Put your hand in and see what we brought. What we got for you."

Tom waited until his father had sunk his parched hand into the rucksack. Only then did he continue.

"Bt538. This is Bt538," he said. "The real stuff. Bt538 wheat seeds. Resistant wheat."

His father’s face looked doubtful as he pulled his hand out of the bag. He held his open hand closer to his eyes and squinted at the contents.

"I know you meant well," he said, "Taking the risks. Getting these seeds."

He closed his calloused hand around the seeds and lifted his head towards the horizon where the sun would soon rise.

"This may be Bt538, but…"

Their father sighed and looked them in the eyes, first Tom, then Kevin and finally back to his younger son.

"At least we can still make beer," he finally said. Tom wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the corners of his mouth quiver. "This is barley, boys."