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Authors: John Brunner

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BOOK: Bedlam Planet
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He said harshly, “I think we shall have to call for volunteers!”

There was a long pause. Parvati winced, but only on the inside of her mind, wishing Tai had consulted her before making the announcement. The pivotal psychological element of their success, it seemed to her, was the way they had totally eliminated conflict among the group; they were all collaborators in a single venture. Splitting them into “test subjects” and “others” could easily be disastrous.
Any
division implied a threat. Always hovering over her estimates and predictions there loomed the stormcloud of what had happened to Dennis
Malone on his first visit to Asgard—that instant of insanity which might have killed him and Sigrid by letting in infection, or poison. That it had not done so made no difference in principle. And there was Dennis himself, now, rising to his feet, thrusting his fingers through his tousled brown hair, almost defiantly addressing the rest of the audience.

“Sure, I’ll volunteer!”

Martyr complex.
Parvati nudged Hassan, whose skill in controlling the massed individualities of the colony was instinctive rather than trained, and found he was already rapping for attention.

“Just a moment, Dennis,” he said mildly, and continued, addressing Tai. “You’ll have to give us a few more data, I’m afraid, before we can reasonably decide on that proposal of yours. Have you asked the computers to weigh the alternatives?”

“Yes, naturally.” Tai wiped his face with a fluttering handkerchief. “Unfortunately the incidence of this scurvy has gone from zero ten days ago to twenty-two cases today. That’s a rate of increase which they are ordered to regard as a major threat. So they recommend diverting our entire resources to eliminating the bacterium and synthesising ascorbic acid. Which of course we can’t do. Not without the
Pinta.”

One or two people were starting to tremble, Parvati’s keen gaze informed her. This was worse than she had anticipated.

“The next best possibility is the one I’ve mentioned,” Tai went on. “That’s to supplement our diet with the native-grown plants. But I can’t hide the element of risk which doing that entails. Some animals, as you heard, are now living exclusively off local fodder without visible ill effects. But this has only been the case for three weeks, and there are compounds which accumulate in the body, and we—well, again thanks to the loss of the
Pinta,
we need to keep alive as many of the test animals as possible, for breeding, so we can’t kill enough of them to carry out daily analyses of their tissue. We’re relying
on blood and serum samples mainly, which are excellent in their way, but not infallible.”

“How long before we run out of ready-made ascorbic acid?” Hassan demanded.

“I don’t want to run out,” Tai grunted. “I want to keep enough in reserve to tide us over the winter, when we may not be able to go out and gather even hardy leaf-vegetables, let alone citrus fruits or any other highly concentrated sources of the stuff. And that means we ought to start supplementing our diet at once.”

“I said I’d volunteer!” Dennis Malone called out again, and several people frowned at him for interrupting. Parvati was debating whether to cut in herself, when Ulla spoke up with admirable timeliness.

“I need you to go and find me some diamonds, Dennis! I told you this morning! Tai, while I’m on my feet: can’t you locate a native source of this compound which we might extract—say, with some of our fractional distillation rigs?”

“We may be able to,” Tai Men conceded. “But I don’t think there’s any hope of getting the quantities we’d need. In your terms, I guess it would be as difficult as separating a rare-earths sample, perhaps even worse because since this damnable local bug can use ascorbic acid, the native compound is chemically very close indeed to it. If only it were close enough for us to utilise it too … But it’s not. We’re more complicated organisms; we’re much more choosy.”

“Shall I assign you some fractionating columns anyway?” Ulla offered.

“Yes!”

The single word came from Hassan, before Tai Men could answer.

“Tai, as a matter of policy, we’re going to exhaust every other alternative before we start risking irreplacable human lives on this problem.” Very stern, very paternal, Hassan glowered across the close-packed audience towards the biologist. “And that goes for your offer, too, Dennis!” he added sharply. “I’m sure everyone admires
and appreciates it, but it’s premature. This is an order, Tai: you’re to do your best to isolate concentrated ascorbic acid, free from any local contaminant, from the Earthly plants you’ve got growing. You’re also to go out and test every promising local plant to see whether ascorbic acid occurs here naturally along with the compound which you say is analogous to it. I’m not a specialist, but that seems conceivable to me.”

Tai Men gave a grudging shrug.

“Give me the equipment I’ll need to make the right tests, and I’ll see if I can find some in another climatic zone,” Dennis called. “I’m going off to find Ulla’s diamonds—I might as well make the most of the chance.”

“Yes, certainly,” Hassan nodded. “In fact, I think we’d better declare this a priority. Co-opt anyone who can be spared from the other sections, Tai, show them how to make the tests, and if you don’t come up with anything on this island, see what you can locate on islands a bit further afield.”

“It may not help much,” Tai said dampingly.

“Why not?”

“This place is like Earth in that once a particular compound has been shown to fill a metabolic niche, it tends to recur whenever the equivalent need arises again. Some of the local counterparts of vitamins run clear through the biological gamut from unicellular bacteria to large mobile animals. If organisms exist here which use ascorbic acid by choice, they’ll be relatively as rare as—well, let’s say creatures on Earth which use copper instead of iron in their blood.”

He shrugged. “One can’t have it both ways. The fact that there’s this marginal chemical difference between the local life-forms and ourselves means that we don’t immediately catch all the infectious bacteria and viruses there are going. On the other hand …
this.”

He sat down, and as though a cloud had crossed the sun Parvati felt the chill of anticipated doom settle on the assembly.

VI

C
OMPELLED BY
her speciality to think about the deep implications of such phenomena, Parvati had always regarded it as a promising sign that the colony had developed a few of its own customs almost directly after the landing. When the reports rendered to the first monthly progress meeting showed that nothing had gone seriously wrong, a celebration had developed spontaneously. The next month, it had been repeated because people had so much enjoyed the first one, and thereafter it was a tradition.

Under the stringent conditions of shipboard life, there had been little opportunity for simply enjoying oneself. Finding that the reservoir of relaxation could be tapped so easily, she had been pleased. It would be an excellent augury for the colony’s stability if, instead of carrying over Earthly festivals, the settlers were to develop their own from such simple beginnings.

Not until this evening had she entertained the idea that celebrations established by tradition themselves masked a subtle danger.

Like its predecessors, this took the form of a party, a little different from an Earthly party but not much. There was a minimum of alcohol or any other drug—if, despite all their precautions, someone with a latent tendency to alcoholism had slipped through the psychological net they had used to sift the volunteers, he or she might too easily die when drunk merely because of not knowing Asgard instinctively. The same went for the popular mild hallucinogens and other aids to merriment. But there was plenty of good food, over which the kitchen staff had spent several hours, and there were various juices and light wines which could be produced in quantity from their hydroponic fruits, and there was home-made entertainment ranging from the formal chamber music of the string quartet led by Ulla Berzelius, through the electronic colour-music which had been a
lifetime hobby for Saul Carpender, their shipwright, to her own repertoire of ancient Indian temple dances performed before a light gauze screen on which were back-projected pictures of the temples at Konarak and Kajuraho, symbols of the power of man’s handiwork to survive against the random incursions of Nature.

Tonight, though, she hoped to avoid being called on to perform. It seemed that her hope was going to be fulfilled. It was still early, but there were fewer couples than usual dancing on the level section of their single street which they used for their parties. She had the impression that, as always, they were slipping away to make love—which was a good thing, in the sense that the planners of the colony had realised promiscuity must be made a virtue for the sake of mixing the gene-pool they disposed of when it came time to start their first pregnancies, and a bad thing because it brought back to her mind the curious experience which Dennis had undergone on his first visit to Asgard, when he found himself overcome by lust for Sigrid.

Neither Sigrid nor Carmen had consented to accompany the colonists. But that wasn’t really surprising. Both of them, after their fantastic adventure, had been able to choose from a thousand or more eligible prospective husbands, and uncountable generations of natural selection had ensured that the male sex of humanity was temperamentally the more inclined to rove.

Music recorded far away on Earth welled from the speakers hung under the eaves of the nearest houses. A little soothed by it, despite her worries, Parvati looked around and realised that Dennis had come to sit a few places away from her along the row of chairs which fronted the mess-hall. On impulse, she said, “Dennis, do you believe the theory we psychologists dreamed up to explain what happened to you and Sigrid?”

He stared at her blankly for a moment, and she was afraid she had offended him. Suddenly, however, his day-long look of veiled depression vanished, and he grinned.

“Well, well,
well!
I never thought the day would arrive when a shrinker would ask me whether she was right!”

A little crossly, she said, “Please, Dennis, we’re in a terrible corner, you know. Talk about the observer affecting the results—we
are
the results, aren’t we?”

Looking contrite, he moved to take the chair next to her and laid his hand briefly on her knee. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “Yes, I do appreciate what a load you’re carrying. It makes us—well, you might almost say it makes us colleagues, doesn’t it? After all, we’re the only two people who are carrying unique loads.”

She pondered that for a second, then saw what he meant. “Yes, I guess we are,” she agreed. “Though if I still had Max Ulfilas to turn to …”

“And if I still had Pyotr.”

The words hung heavy on the warm evening air. He ended the pause by saying in a brisker tone, “Do I believe the suggestion that Sigrid and I needed to put some kind of symbolic mark on this planet by making love on one of its beaches? I suppose I do.” Pie was frowning as he spoke. “After all, there are two points which at the time worried me terribly. The first was that this wasn’t the kind of casual coupling we’d enjoyed on the way out, and there’d been plenty of those, although I preferred Carmen and she Pyotr. We liked the occasional change well enough. But this was …”

“Unique?”

“Of course. And that’s the second point. When we came back to the ship and admitted rather shamefacedly to Carmen and Pyotr what we’d done—I say ‘we’ because although I’d started it she was overtaken by the same need within a few minutes—then, of course, there was the dreadful period of anxiety while they made certain we hadn’t picked up a germ or poisoned ourselves or anything. But later on, because the work-schedule demanded it, Pyotr and Carmen were away from the ship together for much longer than Sigrid and I had been. And they never felt the same impulse. It
was as though once was enough. But that once was indispensable.”

There was another pause. During it Parvati found herself looking at him speculatively, and he diagnosed the thoughts which lay behind her expression with unerring accuracy. He touched her leg again.

“I’m sorry, Parvati. You’re a lovely woman, but—but I feel doomed to be alone for a while longer yet.”

With an effort she recovered her detachment. She said, “Yes, Dennis. And in spite of what I said to you this morning, please don’t think that I don’t recognise what a tremendous amount of effort it’s costing you to damp down your frustration. It must be pure hell to find yourself among so many other people who have got exactly what they want, when you never wanted it in your life.”

“I couldn’t have put it more neatly myself,” Dennis said with a wry twist of his mouth. He hesitated. “I think I may get over it, though, provided I can manage to give the right sops to the Cerberus of my subconscious by going off on trips like the one I’m going to start tomorrow for Ulla. I know I shan’t ever be able to indulge my urge to explore on the scale I was used to when I was—well,
before.
But I guess maybe I can learn to make do with half a loaf. There is one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, though.”

“Ask away.”

“It’s hard to put into words, but what it amounts to is this: Asgard sprang a trap on me once, when this really was an alien planet and there were only two couples here. Are there likely to be any other traps, when there are hundreds or maybe even thousands of people here?”

“Yes,” Parvati said. “But who can say what they will be?”

Dennis licked his lips and glanced around to see whether anyone else might have overheard the remark. Parvati had timed it, however, for a moment when a dance had ended and the couples nearby had started
to surge towards the bar. He said, “Thanks. I don’t suppose that’s a point you make to many of us.”

“It’s good to hear you say ‘us’,” Parvati countered dryly. “But you’re right, of course. The information to draw the conclusion exists and is available. But we shall have to work our way through a lot of tribal stages, including the one where you have an in-group which constitutes a repository of traditional wisdom, before we can attempt the kind of free educational structure that exists on Earth. You see why?”

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