Secret Project: The Pholus Mutagen

“We welcome you, earthdeirdre and earthwheat and earthtree as honored guests, for you add great power to our ancient song– planetfungus and planetworm and planetmind sing and play here, and you are welcome among us.”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Conversations with Planet”

It’s probably best to start with what this secret project does before digging in to the video. The Pholus Mutagen requires Centauri Genetics to build. And the faction that constructs it gets a faction-wide bonus to the ecodamage calculation and a lifecycle bonus to any native life grown in any of the base’s factions.

This set of bonuses is the same as that delivered by the earlier Centauri Preserve. So it’s interesting that it doesn’t just grant a free Centauri Preserve at every base, which would follow a common pattern found elsewhere in SMAC. Recall that the earlier Command Nexus grants Command Centers, or how the Virtual World adds Hologram Theater functionality to Network Nodes. The important difference in implementing the rules this way is that this bonus stacks with any investment in Centauri Preserves, as opposed to making them obsolete.

The last clue we have comes from the name of the project. On every map there are several landmarks that are randomly scattered about when the Planet is generated at the beginning of the game. Most of these have some additional tile yield bonuses in addition to looking neat. And they are all labeled on the map with their names.

One of these landmarks is named the Pholus Ridge. It is a low rise that generally runs for a decent distance from north to south. Any bases that work tiles on the ridge get a small energy bonus, presumably reflecting the ease of collecting solar energy there.

So now we can turn back to the video and make some sense of what we see. The video begins with a shot of a lonely, scrawny-looking tree clinging tenuously to a bleak alien landscape. Then the camera switches from a standard optical view to some digital representation of the tree. In this view, the tree then grows and flourishes. We then pop back out to the optical view to see that the tree has grown tall and strong, and pan away to see the previously barren landscape covered with what appear to be Earth plants and fungal patches growing side-by-side.

The quote, from Lady Deirdre’s collected Conversations With Planet, must mean that the Gaians have found some way for Earth plants and the native fungus to coexist more effectively out in the wild. It’s the first step toward the dream of the Hybrid Forest, but now brought out of the domes and spread over the planet’s surface. In the implied canon, the Gaians must have used this to make the Pholus Ridge bloom in a way pleasing to both the humans and Planet.

But how is this accomplished? Looking at the prerequisites to the required technology, the Pholus Mutagen is most likely an engineered retrovirus. When released into the wild, it infects and rewrites the DNA of the wild earth plants so that they can better thrive on Planet amidst the fungus.

That realization provides a context that adds a creepy undertone to the words of peace spoken by Planet. On the surface, this seems like a happy video. Planet is willing to welcome these alien visitors to the surface. And humans and wheat and trees can join the native life in their ancient song. It’s a poetic image so sweet it verges on saccharine.

But it turns out that what Planet means by “joining the song” is something rather different than an uplifting Coca-Cola commercial. When it welcomes Deirdre and the Gaians to the song, it is actually thanking Deirdre for releasing a tailored retrovirus into the air of her people’s bases. When the virus has done its work, her people will have been hacked at the DNA-level into being more psionically-receptive to the overarching Planetmind.

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