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Description: The Star Cactus is a globular succulent. Each stem forms its own sphere, connected to other stems at the base or sides. The stems are unribbed; instead they are textured by many small bumps called tubercles, each of which bears a cluster of thorns. Major thorns range from 1-2 inches long and are surrounded by several smaller, finer thorns. The thorn-bearing tubercles also help the cactus to expand as its globular stems draw and store water during the infrequent desert storms.
The Star Cactus has a dual root system. This helps it gather and store water, and resist violent storms. First, a taproot with a bulbous top and narrower spike reaches deep into the sandy soil from the main globe. Where any secondary globe touches the ground, a fine mesh of shallow roots extends just under the surface to capture dew, or even moisture and nutrients left by animals. This network of roots discourages competing plants as it extends several feet in all directions around the globular cluster. Clusters of Star Cactus can cover a sizable area, much like Terran prickly pear.
Flower buds may emerge anywhere on the sides or top of the globes. Each globe puts out 1-3 flowers. Most of the flowers on the plant open at the same time, in two or three waves with each wave of flowers lasting from dawn to dusk of one day. So the bloom period is quite brief. Each flower has five long, narrow petals with pointed tips, streaked in shades of pink, peach, and white. Centers have a ring of white around a bright pink throat. The stamens ring that outer opening, while the short pistil lies deep inside the tube, actually beneath the surface of the globe’s skin. The flowers give off a sweet, delicate, ephemeral fragrance to help attract pollinators.
Habitat: The Star Cactus grows in full sun, all around the edges of the Crystal Desert where the time crystal sands peter out into ordinary sand. Indeed, this succulent requires small amounts of time crystal dust in order to grow properly, so it does not grow (and could not easily be transplanted) anywhere else. Smaller outlying areas of time crystal sand may also support populations. If it was introduced to another area that was hot, dry, nitrogen-rich, and temporally disturbed, however, it could turn into a serious weed. Little would be able to eat it, and the vegetative propagation would let it spread without needing its primary pollinator.
This desert climate is very hot and dry, but prone to violent weather – including frequent sandstorms and rare torrential rains – due to disturbances from the temporal effects deeper in the desert. A more reliable, if scanty, source of moisture comes from dew.
In order to produce its characteristic set of alkaloids, Star Cactus needs a good supply of nitrogen. Without this, it cannot form those necessary compounds and it tends to die. It usually gets its nitrogen from animal waste left by herbivores as they attempt to get past its defenses to eat its moist pulp.
Pests: Various sucking insects have adapted to feed on succulent plants. They are small enough to slip between the thorns, and they have sharp mouthparts to pierce the tough skin and drink the plant’s juices. In a healthy environment, these create only a minor nuisance, as insectivores keep their numbers down.
The needle-nosed shrew is another desert denizen that specializes in cacti. It has a very long, narrow snout and its upper incisors have developed into sharp little tusks pointing forward. The shrew sticks its snout between the thorns, jabs a hole in the skin, then inserts its long tongue into the hole to lick the pulp. The shrew is particularly destructive during the bloom season as it bores into the base of the flower buds to devour the nectar, stealing the sweet bait that attracts pollinating insects and usually destroying the ovary in the process. Fortunately for the Star Cactus, snakes like its shade; also some mammals such as foxes can learn that the scent of cactus flowers means a banquet of shrews.
The Star Cactus tries to discourage these pests with an ever-changing array of alkaloids and other unpleasant substances in the never-ending chemical warfare between the plant and animal kingdoms.
Propagation: The Star Cactus has two forms of propagation, vegetative and sexual. Wherever two globes join, there is a tough node. This node restricts flow between different globes, resisting the spread of pests and diseases, and preventing the plant from losing too much water from a single wound. If a globe is broken away from the parent cluster and dropped elsewhere with the node on or near the ground, root buds in the node will activate and grow a new taproot. More rarely, a half-eaten globe may sprout rootlets from the injured tissue if a latent node (from which a new globe could have emerged) is exposed.
This asexual mode of propagation creates a clone of the parent plant. In order to spread itself, it takes advantage of two local conditions that can damage cacti. The first is violent weather, which can break off small globes; the spherical shape allows them to roll with the wind instead of simply breaking to pieces. The second is grazing by herbivores, such as tortoises or sand-pigs, tough enough to get past the protective thorns. Sand-pigs, like Terran javelinas, run in packs; they are particularly prone to snatching off the globes, running away with them, and fighting over them – making it possible for viable pieces to get dropped far from the parent cluster.
Sexual propagation only takes place after the cactus is touched by the edge of a time-wave emanating from the Crystal Desert. The cacti grow along the boundary where these waves are too weak to kill all the plants, but still strong enough for the speeding effect to trigger life-cycle events – rather like the way tidepool creatures interact with ocean waves. These cacti spend most of their time in a near-dormant state, their internal metabolism running very slowly, as a result of living around the temporal disruption. They are resistant to most of the effects because they aren’t “doing” anything much of the time. When the fading edge of a wave touches them, however, they burst into action.
Immediately after a temporal wave, the Star Cactus uses its stored resources to initiate the growth of one or more new globes, slightly expanding the size of its prior globes as well. It puts out flower buds which open in waves. These flowers attract timeflies to pollinate them. (Timeflies only appear shortly after a temporal wave, because their method of coping with temporal distortion is to live and breed fast – the adults last just a few short days – then lay eggs which are hatched by a subsequent wave.) The tiny timeflies crawl past the stamens down the tubes in search of nectar; then they carry the pollen to the next flower where it rubs off on the pistil. Other insects serve as secondary pollinators, but timeflies are the primary pollinators for the Star Cactus.
The ovary of the flower lies under the globe’s skin, so that the seeds form just inside the sphere. The growing seeds create a small swelling that is barely visible under all the thorn-bearing tubercles. A single flower creates 10-20 small black seeds like pinheads. These seeds have very tough shells which allow them to withstand the temporal disruptions, arid desert air, and digestive tracts of herbivores.
Seeds are distributed in one of two ways. First, an extra-strong temporal wave may kill part or all of the parent plant, releasing the dormant seeds onto the ground. Second, a herbivore may eat part of a globe that contains seeds and excrete them far away. In either case, the next temporal wave causes the seeds to sprout; if they’re lucky enough to do so during a rainstorm triggered by the event, they are likely to survive.
Use: The Star Cactus has potential which, as yet, has been minimally explored by humans. It only grows in a habitat which is dangerous to humans, so that nobody lives there permanently; therefore, nobody has had close enough contact and sufficient observation to unlock its secrets.
The taproot, although nonpoisonous, is too tough and woody to eat. So is the leathery skin of the globes. The seeds and pulp are a different story.
The hard round seeds contain several dozen different alkaloids, several of which have notable qualities. Star Cactus plants all have pretty much the same set of alkaloids, but the exact proportions vary somewhat from one plant to another, causing different effects to prevail. All of the alkaloids somewhat leach out of the seeds into the surrounding pulp of the globe. The presence of bitter and variably toxic substances aids propagation by allowing herbivores to nibble the globes (and thus spread seeds or partial globes) while discouraging them from devouring the whole plant (which would probably kill it, although a taproot whose globe gets broken off may sprout a new one). Of all the botanical substances, alkaloids are among the most mysterious, and many of them are purported to have mystical properties.
Four primary alkaloids generate the prominent qualities of Star Cactus. They don’t have local names because nobody there knows exactly what they are or what they do. For convenience, contributors may call them Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.
1) The first alkaloid, Alpha, works in concert with a substance produced by the pulp; together these create the plant’s resistance to temporal effects. The pulp’s native composition is only strong enough to keep it alive until it blooms. The seeds then add this extra, stronger substance which combines with the pulp to increase the plant’s resistance; this allows it to continue reproducing sexually and gathering energy and resources. Alpha could bestow some temporary (a few Torn World hours) temporal resistance on humans; it is not dangerously toxic, but it consistently causes severe nausea and moderate disorientation which only fade after 10-20 Torn World hours. The actual vomiting only lasts for about half an hour to an hour; about the time that stops, the resistance kicks in. Herbivores that regularly eat Star Cactus have developed an immunity to the negative effects of this alkaloid; eating it allows them to share some of the plant’s temporal resistance, which helps them survive in their harsh habitat.
2) The second alkaloid, Beta, helps give the plant its “awareness” of temporal waves by responding to them and bonding to special receptors inside the plant, part of activating its sexual reproductive processes. In humans, Alpha grants a temporary (about 10 Torn World hours) ability to see temporal effects such as the Others; it does not cause false hallucinations. It does cause other mild side effects which vary from person to person, most commonly queasiness, blurred vision, and difficulty concentrating; these typically last 1-2 Torn World days. Herbivores that regularly eat Star Cactus have developed a partial immunity to the negative effects of this alkaloid; eating it allows them to share some of the plant’s temporal awareness, which helps them survive in their harsh habitat.
3) The third alkaloid, Gamma, is a potent poison. It causes debilitating pain, muscle cramps, and convulsions. The worst effects usually pass after several Torn World hours, but full recovery can take up to a week. In large enough doses, it is fatal, stopping the heart and lungs. Gamma has no positive effects, although its structure is similar to Alpha. This affects humans and animals in the same ways, although some herbivores are starting to build up partial resistance to it.
4) The fourth alkaloid, Delta, is strongly hallucinogenic. Delta has no temporally positive effects, although its structure is similar to Beta. The main effects last for several Torn World hours, while the side effects can linger for 1-2 Torn World days. Delta causes blurred vision, flashes and waves of light, dreamlike visions, etc. Although these hallucinations are false – not revealing obscure information from the outside world – they can incorporate personal memories or other images much as nightly dreams do. An affected human often, though not always, feels a strong conviction that these hallucinations are real. Humans may become confused or belligerent under the influence of this alkaloid, an effect also seen in animals. Another common side effect in humans, though not so much in animals, is dry mouth and strong thirst.
Virgin, seedless globes are not poisonous; they are merely bitter, slimy, and unpalatable due to the native substance produced by the pulp. Thus they can help sustain a desperate traveler by providing moisture in the dry desert landscape. A desert does not have very abundant plant life, but the Star Cactus is a dominant plant within its habitat, easy to locate and identify. However, virgin globes are difficult to single out accurately, because the stem scars left by flowers are hidden under the thorns, other marks can resemble those scars, and the bulges of seed pods are subtle and also obscured by thorns and tubercles. Also, virgin globes contain only trace quantities of alkaloids because those don’t travel across the nodes very well; so virgin globes do not convey any temporal resistance or sensitivity.
It may be possible for somebody to devise a method of separating the active substances, and therefore reduce the negative side effects; but it is not possible to eliminate the risks altogether because some of the individual alkaloids have both positive and negative effects (rather like peyote, which also happens to be a cactus). It may also be possible to use other substances to diminish the side effects somewhat. So far, nobody has discovered how to do either.
Two of the alkaloids, Alpha and Beta, if they could be gotten more safely than they appear in the raw plant, would thus provide similar – though notably inferior – benefits as snowy-milk does for the Snow Unicorn riders. One possibility is that, if carefully combined with that, they could enhance a Northerner’s temporal perceptions and resistance beyond normal even for that race. Another is that they might allow a Southerner to gain temporary, lesser access to abilities usually reserved for Northerners. But all alkaloids tend to have physical drawbacks; Terran ones often cause addiction or cumulative impairment. So far nobody has taken it that far because contact is rare and nobody eats these plants except in an emergency. If anyone does more than that, they’re likely to discover more drawbacks.
A likely sequence would be the Southerners searching for anything with remotely similar properties to the almost unobtainable snowy-milk, discovering the limited benefits of the Star Cactus, discovering more and more severe side effects – and then realizing that it gives Northerners an even bigger advantage with somewhat lesser side effects. (Although it still wouldn’t be good for Northerners long-term, they’d tolerate it better because its effects resemble something they already consume heavily.) Also useful for story purposes is that Southern traders would be familiar with the idea of a plant that causes “hallucinations” which look like temporal effects (because some of them are). So if a Southerner had natural timesight, that person would be suspected of indulging in hallucinogens; and when the Northerners report the same kind of perceptions, some Southerners would probably say the equivalent of, “Okay, bub, what kinda cactus you been eatin’ there?”
Lore: Because there are no humans native to the desert where the Star Cactus lives, this plant has not yet been significantly explored by people. So the factual and fictional lore is somewhat limited compared to plants that grow where people live all the time.
Those who live closest to its habitat know:
• Star Cactus forms clusters of big thorny balls that sprout fragrant, 5-pointed, pink flowers after a severe stormy disturbance.
• Star Cactus can survive where little else can. Its habitat defines the risky borderland between the deadly Crystal Desert and the ordinary, habitable desert; this makes it a valuable living landmark.
• Sand-pigs like Star Cactus, making an isolated cluster a good place to hunt them.
• Snakes, some of them venomous, also like Star Cactus; so approach with caution and preferably a long stick.
• Star Cactus is sometimes barely edible, usually makes people sick, and occasionally kills people. It serves as an emergency water source for people passing through its habitat. Try really hard to find small balls that have never bloomed.
Traders and other travelers not native to the surrounding territory know less, and they are more likely to remember the nickname “Madpot” than the proper name “Star Cactus.” They know:
• Madpot is a cactus with big thorny balls that sometimes have star-shaped pink flowers on them.
• If you’re traveling through desert land and you find Madpot, flee if you can, because that territory is deadly dangerous.
• People who eat Madpot go crazy or die. Or both. Only the desperate try to get water from it.
It is the traders who, being bored on their long journeys, tell stories about Madpot. Most of those stories are garish descriptions of lost travelers eating the pulp and going crazy or dying. A few tell of miraculous survivals.
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