Authors: John Brunner
Worst, though, was the lethargy she could sense. No one was talking. People had barely responded to Hassan’s rising.
Soldiers that took no notice of the approach of the enemy …
She stifled that, and forced herself to concentrate.
“You know by now that the news is not good,” Hassan said bluntly. “Tai, will you give us the details, please?”
Looking very weary, the biologist rose. His voice was quieter than usual, and several people distant from him had to strain to catch what he said.
“Yes, we’re in trouble,” he muttered. “Since I first announced the occurrence of scurvy among us, and explained what it was due to, we’ve had practically no success in developing the cures we hoped for. Meantime, the damnable bug we’re all playing host to is no longer simply depleting our intake of ascorbic acid—in some of us, it’s preventing our absorbing any at all. There’s none left after the bug has finished.
“We tried to find a specific for the bug, which would reduce the infestation rate. We think we have one at long last—at any rate, since yesterday evening a culture of it in our biolab has been stabilised by a local antibiotic extracted from a sort of mould we found on a dead fish. We’ve got to find more of that mould, quickly, but even so that’s not the half of the problem. Without the equipment we need to synthesise complex organics, we’ll have to rely on extraction from a natural source, and we haven’t even got our big fractionator, which could do the job on the scale we need.
“Still, that is a ray of hope at last. And there’s another crumb of comfort for us, too. The bacteria we’re carrying don’t multiply indefinitely; there’s a stable population level for the conditions in a human gut, and we’ve reached it. We won’t get any worse. Or rather, the only
way we’ll get worse is through deprivation of ascorbic acid. If we increase our intake above the level which the bug requires, it won’t bother us any further.
“The snag is still what it was before, though. The only source from which we can draw extra ascorbic acid is in the leaves and fruit of our soil-grown crops. We’ve not yet had any animals fall ill from eating them, which is reassuring, but I’m afraid we are going to have to have human tests before we can be sure that food is safe. Our metabolism is far more sensitive than any of our surviving equipment. Parvati, will you put my idea to the meeting, please?”
He sat down, and Parvati rose, hoping her voice would remain steady. She said, “If we’re going to maintain our schedule until the winter, we need to be more vigorous than we are right now. I’m sure you can feel the bad effects of the deficiency already. I certainly can. Tai recommends, and Abdul and I agree reluctantly, that we should pick six test subjects, completely at random, in the following way.” She laid her hand on a computer remote before her.
“The computers will punch out a random series of six numbers between 1 and 180. We’ll toss a coin to decide whether we go through the alphabetical list of our names from the beginning or the end of the alphabet. The six names which correspond to the random numbers will be those of the test subjects. Is that a reasonable suggestion?”
She waited. She could almost see the sluggish minds of her listeners examining and discarding the alternatives:
Volunteers better, so that I can hang back? But wouldn’t I feel ashamed? Then they’d have to choose among the volunteers anyway, and if I were one I’d know I could have opted to be left out, and the odds this way are thirty to one against it being me, the best I can hope for …
There were nods, and not a single voice raised in dissent. Hassan spread out the list of the survivors, produced a coin—a souvenir belonging to someone, presumably,
for it would be a long time before money was useful on Asgard—and tossed it for Parvati to call.
“Heads at the beginning!” she said. It fell tails, and Hassan punched the computer remote. In less than a second the numbers rattled out, and in a dry voice he began to recite the names.
“Tai Men. Dan Sakky.”
She saw the big African’s face fall, unashamedly, but a moment later he gave a shrug and leaned back in his seat.
“Kitty Minakis. Abdul Hassan.”
Is that damned computer plotting against us? It’s naming key personnel, section chiefs, not aides! And Abdul himself! Preserve us, preserve us!
“Parvati Chandra. Ulla Berzelius. And that’s the six.” Hassan folded the list and resumed his seat.
“Me?” Parvati said to him faintly.
He nodded, maintaining his outward calm but failing to prevent a tremor in his voice when he answered, “Yes, you, Parvati. And me.”
as though he found his body again piecemeal: his left hand being thrust into the burrow of some sand-living creature, to be withdrawn with a moue and a grunt of disgust; the hollow drum of his belly as it gave back
turned to a foul slimy liquid; his eyes separately but both as hot prickling globes, jamming in their orbits on the friction of intangible sand; the dry tube that formerly had been a mouth and throat, inhabited by a fearful independent worm that he had to take between finger and thumb before he could recognise it as a tongue.
But there were gaps. Nothing from wrist to shoulder, nothing from hip to knee.
Until, completely without warning, like the implosion
of a galaxy, he reassembled from all the scattered directions in which he had been hurled and was—
Surrounded by diamonds!
He gazed uncomprehending at the torrent of sparkling gems that passed before his eyes, and began to count his heart-beats to see how long they would go on flowing. The idea of diamonds gave way little by little, and he was able to conceive of them being something else.
Bits of sunlight broken up on water.
He was squatting cross-legged over his hips in a narrow stream, cool from the waist down, but his back and shoulders hot with the sun. He had a vague memory of thirst, but when he attended to the conditions of his mouth, to see if it was dry, he discovered it was fresh and moist, and there was a coolness inside him as well as outside.
I’ve been drinking unpurified water!
From wherever it had been driven, his power of judgment returned, and on the instant he wished it had not. Appalled, he leapt to his feet, almost losing his balance as a large round pebble turned under his weight, and stared down at his body. On his calf, where he had brushed against the water-creature while swimming, there was a fading reddish patch traversed by three parallel dotted lines of scabs. Reflexively he touched them with his fingertips as though to scratch an intolerable itch, and found exact correspondence.
That apart, however, to his amazement he felt well. Here and there he had grazed or cut himself; there was one cut in particular, under the arch of his right foot, which was tender and made him limp a trifle, but like all the other wounds it was perfectly clean and healing normally. His left shoulder ached very slightly, from a mending sprain, he concluded. It was past the stage of inconveniencing him. He swung the arm experimentally to prove it.
Damnation, though … Oughtn’t I to be dead?
Well—maybe I am!
The two ideas surfaced simultaneously in his mind:
one rational, due to awareness of the fearful risks he must have run while deprived of reason, the other plainly absurd yet carrying an aura of truth because somewhere in the vague, dream-like memories he could recall a similar notion had appeared to make excellent sense.
Absently he reached up to his nape, and gave a start. His hair had grown noticeably.
How long have I been … away?
He stared about him, looking for landmarks, and spotted one of the blazes he had cut on the track connecting the diamond deposit with the beach on which he had left his boat. With great concentration, trying to prevent himself from panicking, he picked his way in the indicated direction. A few minutes, and he was in sight of the beach where he had enjoyed his brief and calamitous bathe.
The boat was still there, unharmed, although a great many small creatures had invaded it: a glutinous mess of egg-cases adhered to the instrument board, which he had to scrape clean with a stick before he could read the dials.
What must they be thinking, back at the base island? Were they wasting precious time and energy on hunting him? But that didn’t make sense. They had a record of his search-pattern, and he had called in as usual the night before he found the diamonds, so they would have been able to locate him within a hundred miles or so—they should have found him and carried him back to the
sick-bay within at most three days.
Why hadn’t they done so?
Beginning to be really frightened now, he turned to the radio and hit the call switch. Nothing happened. Yet he knew there was a monitor permanently on his frequency; he should at once have heard the high sweet hum of the emergency recorder. Briefly puzzled, he gazed blankly at the set. Abruptly he realised what might have happened, unclipped the front panel, and
saw with a sinking heart that one of the native fauna had settled here, too. A creature five or six inches long, armed with erosive limbs hooked like a snail’s rasping tongue, had cleared itself a vacant spot in the heart of the mechanism.
He seized it and hurled it towards the sea in a burst of futile fury. Calming almost at once, he turned to look for his suit, discovered it partly hidden by wind-drifted sand, shook all the tunnelling creatures out of it and made sure his sealed gun and medikit were undamaged. From the latter he extracted a diagnostic chew and placed it in his mouth. He counted for the requisite thirty seconds, his jaw going mechanically, then withdrew it and placed it in the appropriate slot on the lid of the kit.
After a further half-minute, there was a click and the dial reported that he was apparently in good health, with one qualification. But the portable device wasn’t sensitive enough to tell him what that was.
Somewhat cheered, because the clean diagnosis implied that whatever else might have happened during his fit of insanity the principle that Earthly creatures didn’t pick up Asgard diseases still held good, he piled the kit, suit, and gun on the passenger seat of the boat and scrambled into the pilot seat himself. Gingerly, because if that animal had wrecked the radio one of its cousins might have ruined another and more essential piece of equipment, he checked the drive. The engine emitted a normal throbbing drone, and all the instruments read as they should.
He was on the point of feeding power to the drive and heading for base, when he halted his hand an inch from the main control lever.
He twisted around in the seat and stared over his shoulder at the rack of cartoned meals within arm’s reach. They looked as he remembered, and as they should have looked, after he had drawn thirteen days’ allowance. One carton had suffered the attentions of a
local animal, and its corner was torn, but the thief had clearly found the contents inedible and left them alone after a few bites.
ought to be hungry.
He switched off the power and sat shivering as a vivid, revolting memory came clear in his mind. He had vomited, and spewed a great gout of liquid all over himself. What had been in him, that his stomach rejected so violently? And more alarming still: what was in him now, that he did not feel hungry despite not touching his packaged stores for ten mortal days …?
He closed his eyes for a moment, for the world was tilting dizzily. He clutched the reassuring hardness of the control lever until his thinking calmed and he was able to face the important point that if he had managed to live by eating Asgard foodstuffs he must try and work out what they were. So far as he knew, Tai Men had not even begun a programme to determine whether native plants were nutritious. Possibly he had even chanced—blindly, crazily—across a key to the scurvy problem which had still been plaguing the colony the last time he spoke on the radio.
He wanted desperately to head for the base island to see another human face, hear a voice and lie under a roof again. But he steeled himself against the impulse to leave right away. He gathered a camera and a biological sampling kit, and got out of the boat.
For the best part of three hours he trudged back and forth around the island, trying to reconstruct his movements. He took a sample of water from the stream in which he had found himself when he recovered. Clearly, he had drunk from it without purifying it, and was none the worse. That was significant. So, too, were the gnaw-marks he spotted on the cabbagy stem of one of the shrubs, that at first he mistook for a blaze he had cut to show the trail. But those were the traces of teeth, not a machete.
He collected samples of his own excrement, which he had dropped like an animal wherever the need over
took him, and sealed them in airtight bags. They were unattacked by the native scavengers—one of the reasons why sewage disposal was likely to become a major problem on Asgard, requiring all-chemical treatment without aid from bacteria—and he saw in them shreds of tough bark-like material, small round objects resembling tomato-pips, and other substances that had apparently gone through his bowel unaltered. Yet he had incontestably been nourished by his improbable diet. He was fit and strong, as though he had been under the supervision of an expert dietitian.
Shaking his head, he returned to the boat with his load of samples. Having stowed them, he turned on the power for the second time, eased his craft up on its hoverducts, and set the automatics to take him back to the base at maximum speed, regardless of wasted power.
During the terrible day and a half of suspense which he had to endure while the boat carried him along, he struggled to make sense out of the experience he had undergone. The ten missing days of his life were not wholly blank, though that would have been alarming enough. What frightened him was that most of the memories, elusive as dreams, which he could recapture didn’t match the objective traces of his activities that he had found when he went back to collect those samples.