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Authors: John Brunner

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BOOK: Bedlam Planet
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Almost everyone else was in place before she caught sight of Hassan; she was beginning to worry, wondering why he was delayed. On the basis of the favourable reports she had been reading since breakfast-time, she would have expected the expressions before her to be uniformly contented ones. Instead, she saw a very high proportion of frowns, and there was a distinct trace of nervousness in the way people fidgeted on their seats.

Her relief at seeing Hassan finally approach, from the direction of the ship, lasted only a moment. He was positively scowling, and so was Tai Men, following a couple of paces behind. It was not good for him to be seen with such a look. His moods were contagious.

Seeming to recollect himself with an effort, he smoothed his beak-nosed face with its close-cropped beard into a more neutral expression as he moved around the table to take his place.

“Something wrong?” she whispered under cover of a smile of welcome. Almost without moving his lips, he answered equally softly.

“I’m afraid so. Do we get it out of the way at once or build up the atmosphere with our success story first?”

Parvati weighed the alternatives, wishing that the death of Max Ulfilas aboard the
Pinta
had not robbed her of the insight of the only other person gifted with her particular talents. “Successes first, I think,” she said at last. “That is, unless whatever is wrong is going to make us cancel some of the projects which the reports propose?”

“It’s not likely to be that bad,” Hassan assured her, and rose to confront the colony. Turning in her own chair, Parvati saw that Dennis Malone had appeared at the last moment, as usual, and parked his gangling frame on the extreme end of the rearmost bench.

“Good morning!” Hassan said, his deep voice much too resonant to need the aid of microphones. “This is the fifth of our monthly progress meetings which we’ve been able to hold out of doors, but I ought to warn you that Kitty says we may have to have the next one in the mess-hall. The fall rains are due to break some time fairly soon, probably in thirty to thirty-five days. But that’s about the worst news you have for us, isn’t it, Kitty?”

The Greek girl rose, preening herself very slightly as always. “More or less. Temperatures will remain high for probably about another two months, but you’ll see from the programme Dan Sakky has prepared that we need to put storm precautions in hand shortly. We’re buying our summer comfort for the usual price—the turn of the season is likely to be accompanied by gales which may peak at eighty or ninety miles an hour. However, we can milk them for winter power, I believe. And we designed from the beginning with this risk in mind.”

“Dan?” Hassan said.

The big Negro rose in his turn. “Yes, our site here is high enough and sufficiently sheltered by the ridges either side”—he gestured, and heads turned—”to escape the worst we foresee. This morning I’ve been laying out some boat-sheds down by the harbour, which we can knock together during the next week or two and which will resist any gales. I’m proposing to anchor our houses a little more securely, with guys bedded in heavy concrete blocks, and it looks as though we shall need to fit cyclone shutters over the doors and windows. But in general we ought to ride out the gale period with a minimum of trouble, provided people take the proper care over what they’re doing.”

“How about the effect on our crops?” Hassan demanded.
In answer, Silvana Borelli rose, the husky North Italian girl who specialised in agronomic chemistry and agriculture, one of Tai Men’s staff.

“Since we selected crops which normally grow in climatic regions similar to this at home, we don’t foresee very serious trouble. We’re going to stake and wire the most vulnerable plants, and we’re laying out some faired wind-deflectors on the windward slopes. It should be all under control.”

“Are the crops coming on satisfactorily?” Hassan asked. Parvati, intently watching the reactions betrayed by their audience, noted a slight tension developing. Hassan knew the answer, of course, and so did she, but it was psychologically better for the colonists at large to hear the spoken assurance of the expert responsible than to read an impersonal written document.

“Yes, the soil is proving perfectly suitable for root and leaf vegetables. It’s a trifle early to be sure about the fruits—even the plants we transferred from the ship’s own hydroponic trays into the local soil are still showing the shock-effect of the move. But generally speaking all our results are promising, and for the past three weeks a control group of our experimental animals have been living exclusively off native-grown fodder.”

Eyebrows rose, and impressed nods made the ranked heads move like grass under a light breeze. Parvati concealed a smile. Trivial little tricks, such as keeping secrets within one specialised section of the community and making announcements like this one, were working magnificently to buoy up the colonists’ morale.

So it progressed, through Hassan’s own summary of the stores position—better than they had allowed for, so that they were becoming able to divert some of the scrap from the
Niña
to a reserve instead of putting it straight to work—and Ulla’s enthusiastic report on mineral resources, to her own psychological report.

Rising, she said, “All I need to do is congratulate you, friends. Maybe you recall, back on Earth, that some people expressed doubts about the ability of our team to
start on a new world from scratch. It was said that after so many generations in a technological society, where everyone specialised to the point of depending on millions of others to stay alive, no group as small as ours could make out. Well, we’re even smaller than was expected, aren’t we?”

That reference to the loss of the
Pinta
was deliberate, too, and produced a stir of reaction.

“And in spite of that,” Parvati continued, “we’re doing
better
than was expected. Keep it up!”

As she sat down again, she noted that she had provoked precisely the kind of response she wanted: not smugness, but self-approbation.

Now the question remained—was this bad news from Tai Men going to wipe out the good atmosphere the consistent record of success so far had created?

Hassan called on the blocky medical biologist, who got up wearing the same scowl as when he arrived, although it had momentarily disappeared while he was listening to the reports from the other sections.

“Most of you probably know this by now,” he said. “We have a problem. It’s not

as far as I can tell at the moment-a major setback. But it’s indubitably going to be a damned nuisance. Anybody here not know what scurvy is?”

He glanced around. Unable to tell whether everyone knew or not, he amplified.

“It’s a deficiency condition, like pellagra and beri-beri. It stems from a shortage of ascorbic acid-what some people still know by the ancient name of vitamin C. When I started getting computer printouts suggesting that was what people were complaining of, a few days ago, I didn’t believe it, because we’ve been eating as balanced a diet since we got here as we were aboard the ships. I think I’ve finally established why we have the trouble, though.

Remember we had that epidemic diarrhoea on our first arrival

a kind of interplanetary
turismo?
Well, as you know, most of the bacteria here are used to protoplasm
in their hosts which is different enough from ours to mean we can’t fall sick from them. However, we always carry around with us certain bacteria from which we don’t fall ill, but actually derive benefit. And from analysing and culturing stool-samples we’ve found that since we got over that diarrhoea epidemic all of us have been carrying around a variety of local bugs which like the hospitable environment of the human bowel. They don’t cause any trouble so we needn’t bother about them, bar one crucial factor. One of them tends to make ascorbic acid metabolically inaccessible to us. It knocks the molecule about in a way which our bodies aren’t accustomed to. So in spite of eating a balanced diet we’re developing a deficiency.”

Parvati saw with dismay that expressions of gloom—perhaps even of doom—were appearing among the audience. She called out to Tai Men.

“Tai! We can get around this, can’t we?”

“Oh, sure, but it’ll take time. And scurvy is a very lowering condition. Saps your energy. If we let it spread through the whole colony we’re going to fall badly behind schedule. I’ve set computers to work on the problem of finding a specific to clear these local bugs out of the bowel, but re-infection is inevitable unless we go back to canned air. And although we can stave off the worst effects of the scurvy by taking massive doses of ascorbic acid, our resources of the ready-made are running low and we shan’t be capable of such complex chemical synthesis before next spring at the soonest. So I’m afraid it looks as though we’re going to have to take a pretty important gamble.”

“Spell it out, Tai,” Hassan invited.

The biologist drew a deep breath. “We’re going to have to switch from hydroponic vegetables to native-grown ones, as soon as possible. It’s the only way I can think of to provide the interfering bug with the local chemical for which it’s employing our vitamin as a second-best substitute.”

V

T
AI
M
EN
didn’t need to consult Parvati, with whom he inevitably worked more closely than anyone else in the colony simply because the interaction of mind with body made both the psychologist and the medical biologist necessary whenever a complex problem developed—and there had been no shortage of those, despite their all having been solved up until today. He could see for himself that his bombshell had struck deep among his listeners.

Why not? It upsets me pretty badly, too, and I’m supposed to be the dispassionate analyst—the metabolic engineer!

Everyone who had joined the Draco expedition had had to be a specialist; it was essential that the best available skills of Earth should be available to draw on when required. On the other hand, all of the colonists were likewise dilettanti. They had to be able to talk to each other and understand the key concepts in every other discipline besides their own. Well, that was a simple enough matter when it came to doing things like roping in volunteer help to string power and phone lines. You couldn’t live on modern Earth without using power-grids and communications networks.

But faced with the idea that this awareness inside the skull—this ego, this creature called “I”—actually depended on processes which could be extracted and isolated in a lab experiment, most people tended to shy off. While being dutifully aware of the way in which potassium cyanide halted metabolism, or the carriage of oxygen by the oxyhaemoglobin of the red cells, they still preferred in the ultimate resort to think in subjective terms: “hungry, I eat; tired, I rest.”

Cogito, ergo sum.

It was one thing to come out of the sanctuary of the ship, peel down the soft bark layers of a woodplant, saw the harder xylem beneath into planks and beams which
could be dried stiffly into place and form shelters. That was akin to going camping, a sort of flirtation with the primitive, and implied adventure. It overlaid the crude facts of survival with a gloss of play.

But when it came to risking the delicate balance of their very bodies on the assurance of someone whose data they could not fully understand, it was different.

Yet, for all he had struggled to find one, he could propose no alternative to the suggestion he had already voiced. The crash of the
Pinta
had deprived the colony of irreplaceable biological resources. Each ship’s computer memories had been assigned a speciality, and what survived included little more than an abstract of certain key areas of modern biographical knowledge. Similarly, although each ship had been allotted a complete cross-section of essential equipment, so that if two ships had been lost the crew of the third could live in he remaining ship and tackle the problem of moving out on the new world’s surface by slow degrees, no one of the three was intended to carry out the complete job at the original rate. There simply wasn’t any cargo capacity. The colony was likely to have to survive independently of help from Earth for about a century; it would take that long, said the economists, to make up the fantastic drain on terrestrial resources caused by the first expedition. You could have built fifty cities with the materials absorbed in the project; you could have populated an ancient empire with the people who became directly or indirectly involved.

That meant that a choice between duplicating a certain item of equipment or including another couple in the crew must always be resolved in favour of the crew. To spread out and populate the new world without risking the consequences of inbreeding, the colonists needed a gene-pool as large as could be made available. And so far tectogenetic modification was only an experimental technique, not one which people struggling to stay alive on an alien world could expect to be employing within one generation.

On the other hand—and here he shared the instant, frightened resentment of the non-biologists who had heard his explanation—it seemed incredibly frustrating that an organism far too small to be visible should now threaten their success not with some spectacular illness, but simply with a process of undermining their welfare.

It would be intolerable to see the vigour and enthusiasm of the colonists drained away by the insidious leech of scurvy. But at the edge of his mind the shadow lurked, which was Death. He was as sure as he could be that Earthly plants grown in Asgard soil contained a substance which would negate the impact of the local bacterium on the human metabolism. It didn’t really want ascorbic acid; that was merely the compound which came most readily to it in a human gut. It was more accustomed to utilise a chemical analogue which human digestion passed through the system, disregarded.

But there were many, many possible compounds which the interaction of Earthly vegetables with Asgard soil might produce, and he lacked the stored computer-data which would have listed them for him—or rather, for the computer which he could later have asked whether they would also affect human metabolism. So far none of the control animals fed on locally grown plants had shown signs of disease, but a man was not a pig or a rat.

BOOK: Bedlam Planet
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