Authors: John Brunner
He had walked and lain down, slept and eaten—that much was clear. But the few rational-seeming images he could recover to correspond with his deductions, such as the one of vomiting, were embedded in a matrix of confusion. He could tell that something had happened which must in its way be as pregnant with unspeakable meaning as the fit of madness that caused him to throw Sigrid down naked on an alien beach. But his conscious awareness seemed to have been disconnected. Fragments of legend came to him, isolated, in response to the mental clues which had always before conjured up sane memories, as though his experience had been so fearful
he was compelled to interpret it to himself in parables drawn from the ancient lore in which he had been steeped at home on Earth: tales of the great heroes like Finn and Cú Chulainn.
Had he now, again, collapsed under the pressure of a strange world? To use the comparison he had employed when talking to Parvati, had Asgard sprung another trap for him? Or was there some physical cause, perhaps some poison which the sea-beast had injected into his bloodstream?
It was useless to try and guess, he decided. He was going to have to wait until Tai and Parvati could take him apart for inspection.
It was in the cool pale light of dawn that he woke from uneasy slumber, dogged by random pictures from his weird experience, to find he was in sight of the base island and the automatics were buzzing to alert him. He knuckled his eyes and peered through the morning twilight.
Starting, he realised something was wrong. His boat was lying to off the south of the small harbour, and it was unchanged. But by now Dan Sakky’s boat-sheds should have been completed. The whole aspect of the harbour should have changed. But there was nothing new—correction: there was only a line of foundations, with nothing on them.
And beyond, up the hill towards the
things were subtly amiss. A solar collector had been knocked down and lay draped over a woodplant, randomly. Someone had decorated a power-line with knotted rags, like the paper shreds on the tail of a kite.
He rose in the boat as it bore him into the harbour, a great shadow of fear overcoming him, and called out loudly. From a hiding-place among rocks a figure rose, levelling a gun, and he recognised Saul Carpender.
“Saul! It’s me—Dennis!” he cried. “What’s wrong? Something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Unshaven, red-eyed, marked with scurvy bruises, Saul peered down at him as though struggling to convince
himself that the new arrival was indeed a friend. Eventually he lowered the gun and rubbed his bristly chin with the back of his hand.
“Oh, it’s you,” he muttered. “More or less given you up for lost, I guess … Well, come ashore, and help us sort out the mess we’re in, hm? Abdul’s gone crazy, and Parvati, and Dan and Tai and Ulla and Kitty—mad as hatters, the lot of them!”
The palsy plague these pounces
I prig your pigs or pullen,
Your culvers take, or mateless make
Your Chanticleer, and sullen.
When I want provant with Humphrey
I sup, and when benighted
To repose in Paul’s with waking souls
I never am affrighted.
But still do I sing, “Any food, any feeding,
Money, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, be not afraid—
Poor Tom will injure nothing.”
—Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song
the moment of truth to come upon her, Parvati was nervous: felt her palms moist, her belly taut with apprehension. Yet the anxiety was impersonal. It had little to do with the idea that she might be due to swallow a poisoned draught, though intellectually she was calculating with that possibility. What disturbed her far more deeply was that if the computers had been deliberately trying to sabotage the colony, they could hardly have picked a less expendable group of test subjects.
Kitty we could manage without; most of her work is done. And, without being slighting, Dan Sakky too. We could cobble makeshifts together without Dan’s capacity for visualising unbuilt structures, though it would take longer and lead to great wastes of effort. But how could we manage without Ulla to lead us to mineral deposits like a diviner sensing water, or Tai to watch our first
babies from embryo to delivery, or Abdul to ride our fractious team, resentful of harness, or—or me?
Should the crucial event have been a solemn affair, watched over by the entire band of colonists? The possibility only occurred to her when the test group had assembled in the biolab of the
among racked experimental tanks and creeper-like festoons of translucent plastic piping along which bubbled noisy nutrient solutions. It was due to the remarkable ordinariness of the circumstances.
With astonishment she realised:
I never consciously risked my life and health before! Even when I stepped out on the surface of Asgard for the first time, I knew that it had been proved superficially safe by the first visitors. How did Dennis feel, the first to take an unfiltered breath of Asgard air?
But she couldn’t ask him. He wasn’t here, and no one knew what had become of him except that he must be at a place they could locate on a map, tomorrow at latest, and go to in search of him.
Meantime, she had this obscure annoying feeling that there should be a kind of ceremony to mark this commitment she was making. Life was a precious and irreplaceable possession. If she was going to gamble it, ought there not to be some special ritual to mark the moment forever?
She kept that to herself, however, for when she glanced at her companions she found they were all—at least outwardly—composed. They were tense, like her, but what betrayed the fact was no more than, for example, Kitty’s uncharacteristic silence, a frown on Dan’s broad ebony brow.
For better or worse, it was going to be a very unremarkable occurrence, this test on which the future of the Asgard colony might depend. They had all been here scores of times, in exactly similar surroundings, during the first month after landing. Then, Tai had conducted daily tests on members of the group, studying water and stool samples, blood and serum samples, nail
parings, hair-clippings, reflexes, everything which might indicate danger to their health. During the outbreak of acute diarrhoea which had afflicted them all, without exception, for up to a week, she had been left with the impression that this biolab was the centre of the whole venture, but that scare had proved groundless and they had adjusted happily to their alien intestinal flora.
Or so we all thought …
But everything was so familiar and ordinary! Under Tai’s directions, a couple of his aides were dropping round golden oranges into a conventional juice-extractor, leaves of spinach and spikes of red carrot into a big blender from the kitchens, adding sugar to one and salt to the other, for palatability! It seemed absurd!
Even the unaccustomed presence of Tibor Gyorgy, overseeing the medical test equipment in his capacity as their chief electronicist, wasn’t enough to provide the symbolism she wanted, which would have made her feel she was really committing herself. She was going to go through it without involvement, detached, distant from reality.
And there, now, was Tai himself raising a glass of the first juice to emerge from the extractor and gulping it down. Saying, “Tastes okay, that’s for sure! Right, mark the precise time down, will you? Urine tests at one hour and three hours, blood tests at one, two and four, absolutely without fail. I’ll have my stomach pumped after the next batch, but there’s no need to inflict that on everybody. Who’s next—you, Parvati? Fruit or vegetable juice?”
And she heard herself choose the latter, and could tell no difference as the cool dark fluid slipped past her teeth and into the darkness without recall of her mysterious metabolism.
Exactly what everyone had expected to see by way of result, she couldn’t tell. It was clear from the covert glances her companions who had not sampled the native-grown juices gave whenever they thought she
wouldn’t notice that they were unconsciously looking for some outward clue to what had happened. Outward or inward, she could detect none herself, except that by the second day of the trial she seemed to have lost a grey depression so subtle she had barely been aware that she was suffering from it—the penumbra of scurvy, presumably. She deliberately pinched a generous fold of her forearm as hard as she could between finger and thumb, and looked again after half an hour. There was no trace of the darkening which would follow the rupture of scurvy-weakened capillaries.
We’re going to make it,
she decided with premature optimism. And, as she went on her rounds of the base island, saw nothing to convince her otherwise. All the test subjects were as fit as she was, so far, and that meant a trifle fitter than many of their companions. Her duties took her to every corner of their microcosm of mankind’s world at least once every day, and as she went from the kilns where they were firing their own clay dishes to the miniature furnace that produced steel reinforcement rods for Dan, from the sawmill stacking up its supplies of planks to the scrap-reclaiming team denuding the
she noted everywhere the insidious lethargy and barely-controlled irritability which Tai had warned against.
There was one additional problem, however, which remained in the forefront of her mind. What about Dennis Malone?
The evening when he had failed to call in, for the first time this trip though not the first time ever, she had begun to worry, but on his last trip he had, admittedly, missed one call and reported in on schedule the next day, not bothering to apologise. According to Ulla, moreover, by now he should be in the most promising of all the suspected locations where diamonds might be found. It was entirely possible he had wandered a long distance from his boat and the radio in it, been overtaken by nightfall close to a site he wanted to investigate by daylight, and decided to camp where he was.
When he failed to call in the next day as well, she grew really alarmed, but by then the need to undergo all Tai’s metabolic tests—a total of eighteen of them in every twenty-four hour period—and the demands of her routine work which must be kept up at all costs conspired to make her and Abdul put off the dispatch of a search-party until the day following, although they were both agreed on the importance of it. It took time to select a group who could be spared, too. But in the end one of Ulla’s aides, one of Dan’s, and Yoko, were chosen and briefed. The colony’s second-line cushionfoil was checked out by Saul, stocked for the trip, which would be short because it would only need to include a straight-line leg out and back, and programmed appropriately.
So, first thing in the morning, the rescue party would set off. And would find …
Restless, she lay on her bunk and listened to the sounds of their village settling down for the night: doors closing, people calling good night to one another, the crunching noise of footsteps as the two colonists on overnight watch in the ship went up to relieve the evening pair. Two people were always stationed aboard the
from sunset to midnight and midnight to dawn, on guard against the emergency which had not materialised.
The nights were still warm well into the small hours, although the first hints of fall could be detected now. A revised wind-forecast had caused Kitty to ask Dan to attend to the securing of the houses with guys before, instead of after, building his boat-sheds, and that encouraged a tremor of apprehension. But in general things were going well, as before. Certainly she and the other five test subjects were showing only good effects from their trial diet-additives.
She tossed and turned, inexplicably unable to relax and sleep though she was feeling healthily tired after another long day. Saul had asked if he could join her for the night, but Tai had suggested that none of the test
subjects kiss anyone until the results were all in—transfer of saliva was potentially liable to skew his instrument readings. Was that why she was so restless? She liked Saul well; his dry personality appealed to her, perhaps because his background made him more at home than most of the colonists on this world of widely scattered islands. Being used to an environment resembling this, he was relaxed.
Lying on her back, gazing up at the exposed ceiling-joists and overlapping shingles of her room—the kind of thing she had never seen at home on Earth, which no one saw to pay attention to unless like Dan they were involved in the actual construction of a building before the finish was fitted to it—she began to wonder absently why the planners of the Asgard colony had been so insistent on complex, relatively inefficient designs like this, with its flat roof and four-square layout. Granted, the right angle was an intellectual achievement, symbolising man’s intervention. But would it not have been better to employ, say, Dymaxion domes, which could equally have been built from local materials and afforded them greater privacy, better insulation during the coming winter, more space to move around in for a given quantity of effort?
Yes, certainly that roof should be domed. She bulged it upward in her imagination, and it receded from her. Passive, she watched it balloon out, noting also:
I feel very giddy.
Indeed, suddenly her head was swimming. The roof came down again, rose, came down, like the pulsing of a vast heart. Its latest descent threatened to crush her. Alarmed, she rolled off the bunk and crouched on the floor, on hands and knees, gazing upwards with her mouth ajar.
Something’s happening to me. What—?
She clawed to her feet, clutching the edge of the bunk. The floor rose and fell under her like a stormy sea. Uttering a faint moan, she put one foot before the other until she reached the door and was able to fumble
it open. Across the threshold: the sights and sounds and smells of an alien world.
The thought of death became real to her, and she tried to run from it, quite naked, into the alien night.