This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue.
|Morphology||Central stem, several wiry branches at variable height along the stem, narrow needle-shaped leaves, foamy off-white fruit floss with kernels|
|Biochemistry||C/H/O/N, broadly compatible with human|
|Respiration||Carbon dioxide inhalant, molecular oxygen exhalant, photosynthetic, tolerant of a wide range of atmospheres|
|Habitat||Open plains, steppes, tundra, deserts, lightly forested areas|
|Trophics||Demands low-nutrient soil|
|Reproduction||Self-pollinating, kernels spread by animals.|
|Lifecycle and ontogeny||Perennial (blooming the year round, existing for several planetary vears)|
The first explorers expanding the borders of the Ziru Sirka were amazed when they found the skivashi plant independently on scores of unsettled planets of widely diverging composition. Its existence was first explained away with such concepts as “coincidental synchronous evolution” (which may also have helped precipitate the initial ridicule and rejection of the Solomani hypothesis). As more and more planets were found and their plant life and fauna gene-analysed, though, it became obvious that the skivashi had no genetic relation to any other flora found on the same world. On the other hand, all skivashi plants found had a common genetic ancestor and could be cross-bred with ease. Although conservative Vilani academics fought tooth and nail to preserve the original theory, it finally collapsed under the weight of genetic evidence.
“Skivashi” is a Solomani rendering of the original Bilanidin name akugibashu—“wayfarer plant”. Found in a wide range of climates from -20°C to +50°C, the plant has low nutritional needs and prefers slightly sandy or loess-containing soils. It is unusual in that it has no annual cycle, “blooming” year round. It is surmised by scholars that it is this peculiarity that helped the plant adapt to the different circadian and annual rhythms of so many different planets.
Skivashi grows sparsely, but spreads over all of the hospitable land area on nearly every planet it has been found on. It is encountered in small stands of four to ten plants each. Where it has been introduced to other ecosystems, it only rarely caused trouble with the overall balance, usually blending in swiftly and efficiently with the local flora and fauna.
The plant grows to a maximum of 1m high, with those in arid climates growing taller and more spindly than in humid areas, and some planets producing stunted or giant variants. The hard, tough, dark green central stem is surrounded by lighter-coloured secondary stems branching outward like the arms of a chandelier. Those branches are covered in upward-pointing, needle-shaped leathery leaves and terminate in a rudimentary blossom at the top, little more than a small four-pointed star.
Growing out of the blossoms are wads of a creamy-white fluffy substance that has been described (by Solomani taxonomists) as “candy floss condensed to the texture of marshmallow”. Vilani explorers have their own analogy with luk-amgim, whitish cookies made of partially hardened froth that are a Vilani delicacy, and often called (some say, mis-called) “meringue” by Solomani.
Similarities to confectionary aside, this “wayfarer’s bread” (akugiilama, often slurred to skillam in spacer slang) is universally described as some of the blandest food imaginable. It is, however, highly nutritious and rich in proteins, and can be easily digested by all major races and their domesticated animals without preparation. Embedded in the fluff are many small black kernels, about a millimeter in length. The self-pollinating plant uses wandering animals to spread its population; the animals swallow the (indigestible) kernels with the skillam and excrete them wherever they happen to be at the time. The leaves are slightly poisonous and do not provide much in the way of nutrition in any case.
Ever since their discovery in the days of the First Imperium, skivashi have been the subject of much academic scrutiny and speculation. They appear tailor-made for new colonies: non-upsetting to the ecosystem, providing a reliable year-round source of nutrition, fertilising the soil for other imported food plants, not reliant on a certain species of pollinators. This has led some scientists to theorise that they may have been engineered and spread by the Ancients to prepare colonies for settlement by their offspring or client races. Whole reams have been published with statistics about the spread of skivashi, with more or less stringent theories about the distribution patterns through space. (One work, by Dr Mashliimga Enda, claims that star systems along a complex fractal spiral path in space were successively settled with skivashi, and that the distribution pattern itself is an as-yet-undeciphered message by the Ancients to their creation.) So far, scholars have not been able to agree on anything definitive, other than a very slight bias in distribution towards worlds originally settled by Droyne—which may be due to nothing more significant than simple statistical uncertainty.
If there ever was an original pattern, the First and Third Imperium have watered it down and obscured it irretrievably by deliberately introducing skivashi to a huge number of worlds. Often, this was a humanitarian measure to provide a reliable food source on worlds with recurring periods of famine; on others, poorer communities were encouraged to grow skivashi in their backyards to supplement their meager fare. Before preservation protocols were finally established at the height of the Third Imperium, Scout Service first survey teams on newly discovered worlds would also often drop pods of skivashi seeds across a wide area so successive expeditions could live off the land in case they were stranded. The practice was common enough to enter common parlance as “skivashing”. Today, the word means roughly, “smoothing the way for negotiations by greasing a few palms or kissing up to the right people”.
Be that as it may, wherever there is a planet in the Imperium in danger of famine or humanitarian disaster, chances are that free traders and bulk freighters will already be on their way with cargo holds full of skivashi. The Aslan Ya’soisthea clans in the Hlaoiroahaurl (Trojan Reach) sector have also reluctantly adopted skivashi plants to feed their surplus population on densely settled worlds, although the food is considered good only for the poorest of Outcasts. No self-respecting Aslan would shame xirself by eating “grass fluff”, and there are quite a few who believe skillam (and, in fact, all vegetarian food) poisonous.
Many worlds that fell into barbarism during the Long Night survived only by foraging for skillam, and to those tribesmen, skivashi has taken a mystical significance—a sign that the Gods still wanted the humans to survive and prosper. As such, the plants are often credited with a merciful and helpful spirit of their own, and there may be severe cultural taboos against harming them.