Authors: John Brunner
“For all our skills, the scale of what we’re trying to do dwarfs us to the condition of Bushmen,” Dennis said. “And I include myself, and say ‘us’, because I’m the odd-job man in our microcosmic culture. True or false?”
“So what are these traps most likely to consist in? I was victim of one, and since I’m not getting my heart’s desire by being here, I might well be victim of another.”
Parvati turned her large dark eyes upward. Tonight the moon was not yet high enough to be seen over the nearby roofs; there were only the stars overhead.
“The kind we’ve guarded against, with luck. Two kinds, rather. Being dwarfed exemplifies one of them. But we’ve made such headway with the sort of tools a single pair of hands can wield, we ought very rapidly to get away from the risk that we can be caved in and made to despair by the sheer size of the project we’ve undertaken. Ideally, if we were reduced to an Adam and Eve, they wouldn’t need to quit; they could still hope to establish humanity permanently on Asgard. But the ideal case won’t arise, of course—though something like it might.”
“Yes. Well, if it was the scale of a whole new world which affected me and Sigrid, that’s a point I can understand.” Dennis rubbed his chin. “What’s the second kind of danger?”
“The second kind of precaution, you mean,” Parvati
corrected. “Why, you gave an example yourself just now, when you mentioned the Cerberus of your subconscious. We don’t know precisely what kind of cultural frame a human being needs to keep his sanity. At best we can make enlightened guesses. That’s why we brought as much personal contact with as many areas of Earthly tradition as we could arrange. You had this before the first expedition, didn’t you?”
“Sigrid reciting from the Kalevala when none of the rest of us spoke a word of Finnish! Sure we did. But …” Dennis broke off. “Hell, of course! Before the trip was out, I’d learned enough to understand most of it, and I’d taught her to carry on a simple conversation in Erse. And Pyotr used to tell us stories from
Igor’s Campaign …
Is that why you’re a dancer?”
“Naturally. Hadn’t it struck you before?”
“Not quite in that way. I mean, of course I’d recognised the value of having creative and artistic people along, but I’d assumed it was only to guard against boredom. You’re implying it’s guarding against something more serious.”
“There isn’t anything more serious than boredom, Dennis. Not when you have to concentrate every waking hour of your life on not doing things which came automatically to you at home, because you don’t yet know if they’re safe.” Parvati made a gesture as though trying to seize an example from the air. “Ah yes! You like to swim, don’t you?”
“I thought so. Almost all spacemen do. But would you walk down that beach now and into the warm, clear ocean?”
Dennis shook his head vigorously. “I’d love to. I won’t until Tai says it’s safe. But the temptation has been pretty fierce lately. Is that what you mean when you say there’s nothing worse than boredom?”
“Of course. Coming from a leisured society as we do, we’re used to certain activities which keep up our interest in being alive. Here, some of them are going to
have to wait; meantime we must make do with work, and our work is going so incredibly well we may even have to advance the schedule and over-extend ourselves simply because we know the work is safe while the play may not be.”
She sighed. “It’s wearing, but it has to be done!”
Dennis looked at her thoughtfully for long seconds. Suddenly he said, “Parvati, come with me tomorrow.”
She smiled. “Dennis, I’d like to very much. But I can’t. Things are going to get very difficult here for the next few weeks, thanks to this scurvy problem Tai turned up. I’ll be needed. But I’d like to come to your room with you now, if that’s okay.”
Dennis kept his eyes fixed on her face. In a tone of near despair he said, “I wish it could be okay. But I’m afraid it wouldn’t be. You see … Well, whether it’s due to the first time it happened here or not, it doesn’t seem as though it could mean anything unless it was part of my striking roots on Asgard, and that means it’s got to be tied up with doing the only thing I can find to do here. If anyone can understand that, you must. Good night, Parvati.”
With a thought I took for Maudlin
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall (sky bless you all)
I fell into this dotage.
I slept not since the conquest—
Till then I never wakéd
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stripped me naked
And made me sing, “Any food, any feeding,
Money, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, be not afraid—
Poor Tom will injure nothing.”
—Tom o’ Bedlams Song
, the rangy Australian who had been selected as their shipwright and harbourmaster because his long experience of wandering around the islands of the Pacific had prepared him for conditions on Asgard, was at the little natural wharf next morning to see Dennis off. But he was in the forefront of the minds of many, many other people.
Paradoxically, they were jealous of him.
The planners of the Asgard colony had always taken the worst assumptions for granted when deciding what equipment to stock the ships with. It was far faster to move around any planet through its atmosphere rather than in contact with its land and water surfaces, so they might have opted for two or three compact, powerful airplanes or helicopters to furnish the colony with long-range transport. Instead they provided cushionfoils. Between island and island they could speed along on their
underwater wings, and if necessary they could cross land or sandbars by means of their hoverducts. But most important of all, if their engines failed they could be stripped of their foils and still serve for inter-island transport with oars or sails. It was not by any means certain that the colonists could pass on working engines to their descendants, but seamanship
be passed on because it could equally be applied to a dugout canoe.
Spacemanship, on the other hand, could wait—as Dennis had often cynically reminded himself. Possibly the
might lift to space again, to explore the nearer planets. But if a ship went from here to Earth again in his lifetime, it would be owing to an irremediable disaster.
Is there any point to all this, really? So there are human beings under two suns instead of one
But the impulses which led human beings off on crazy ventures like this were too far below the conscious level for even the finest modern psychologists to do more than hint at explanations.
He finished checking the long manifest he had compiled for himself by adding Ulla’s and Tai’s new requirements to the one for his last trip and striking off what he had no need for this time. His boat, rocking gently on the outgoing tide, was mostly engine and cargo space anyway, and he had put in every possible additional item against emergencies that the spare passenger space could hold, as well. Successful explorers had vivid and pessimistic imaginations, or so he had always found. But he wasn’t taking anything which might be indispensable back here on the base island, apart from the jar of vitamin capsules Tai Men had insisted on slipping into his medikit. Since the alarming discovery that scurvy had already broken out, the biologist had become almost obsessed with deficiency diseases, and was ordering a complete check of their diet.
“How long are you going to be away?” Saul demanded, after a long thoughtful study of the loaded boat.
Dennis shrugged. “As long as seems to be useful. I’ll
keep in radio contact, of course. I arranged with Abdul to do the same as before—call up every evening at meal-time. And there’ll be a monitor on my frequency as well, naturally.”
“A week? Two weeks? A month?” Saul seemed to want a firm answer. Surprised, Dennis resorted to jocularity.
“Going to miss me, or something? That’s nice! But let’s just say that if you go ahead with Dan’s boat-sheds along here, I’m not likely to recognise the harbour when I get back.”
Saul didn’t respond to his light tone. He said with a sudden uncharacteristic burst of frankness, “Wish I could cut loose like that!”
“Why—?” Dennis had been about to say: “Why on earth?” He cancelled it, and substituted: “Why in the world?”
“Oh! I don’t know.” Saul shrugged helplessly. “I guess—yes, maybe this is why. If it was something I could do something about which had suddenly gone wrong with our plans, I wouldn’t be worried. I’d just buckle to and sort the problem out. Hell, we lost the
didn’t we? And you saw what happened: everyone sort of cursed the universe and put twice as much energy into everything to get their own back. But this scurvy bit is different. It’s something I only knew of as a word in a history book, before now.”
Pounding fist into palm, he concluded, “It’s ridiculous! Everything is going better than we expected bar this one thing which hasn’t even done us serious harm yet, and very well may not do harm at all—and here I am with my skin practically crawling! Does it hit you that way?”
“I guess it does,” Dennis admitted. “But I wish you hadn’t told me how you’re feeling. I hoped it was just me.”
High up on the skeletal web of naked girders which had been the bones of the Niña—still were, though now grotesquely revolting because they were being systematically
flayed of their hull-skin—Abdul Hassan saw the plume of steam that rose when Dennis fired the engines of his boat. He paused in the conversation he was having, which concerned the problem of which cannibalised parts should be held in reserve, which put straight to work, and repressed an unexpected shiver.
Tibor Gyorgy, who was responsible for their electronics systems, said in alarm, “Something wrong, Abdul?”
With some effort, the colony’s chairman recovered his self-possession. “No, nothing,” he lied, and went on talking in a perfectly normal tone. But behind the mask he was wishing there could be a way out for him, as there was for Dennis—wishing, in effect, that he was not indispensable.
All right, so it’s wonderful to be here on a strange new planet and find that outwardly it’s kindly, gentle, hospitable … But that’s only the way it looks. We know that it may injure us in some way we can’t suspect because we never lived on another planet before, at least not without canned air, spacegear, big obvious dangers like vacuum. So we must think, think, think and never ever stop!
How long can a human being manage to burden his mind with the need to make a conscious decision about every action he undertakes, even about his next breath? And I of all people dare not make even a single error.
I’m in a trap, and I don’t know what the trap is. I only know it’s there.
They had chosen Parvati Chandra for the colony, and Max Ulfilas who was dead, because they were not simply psychologists. They both had a rare, perhaps unprecedented, gift for extracting the pattern of a trend from actions they could see still going on. Asgard was sure to evolve its own kind of society, different from any on Earth—although since the raw material was human, there would be resemblances. It was necessary to provide that society with a sociology that did not
need the hindsight of history to know when it had gone astray.
Crossing a ridge on her way to one of the experimental vegetable-plots, she glanced back and saw Dennis’s boat as it rose on its foils after leaving the harbour. For an instant she was overwhelmed by a vain desire: that she could have accepted his invitation of last night to go with him on his exploring trip.
But I couldn’t desert the colony when it faces its first major crisis … Yet I want to. I want to desperately!
Dispassionately, she considered for the first time whether she might not have to recommend the abandonment of Asgard, and whether she could cope with the hysterical resentment of the would-have-been settlers.
Tai Men was again taking the morning sick call at the entrance to the
main lock. There were no new cases of scurvy today, and naturally all those to whom he had administered massive doses of ascorbic acid were instantly on the mend. But there remained the risk that no way would be found to cope with the recurrence of this trouble, or the development of another like it. In which case the resentment of the colonists would devolve on him, because the cause of their failure would lie in his area of responsibility.
I wish I could duck out like Dennis,
Tai Men thought.
And come back in a month’s time to find the problem solved…
For Kitty Minakis, launching the usual batch of high-altitude radiosondes, the envy she felt on noticing Dennis’s, boat stemmed chiefly from boredom. Once, long ago, she had thoroughly enjoyed the speciality to which she had committed her mathematical talents; she was a brilliant mental calculator capable of handling even such complex independent variables as were involved in weather forecasting with minimum recourse to computers.
But she had mastered that. Centuries of gathering information about Earth’s weather had reduced prediction to almost an exact discipline. She had offered herself for Asgard in the hope of finding new, tougher challenges.
Instead, she had found Asgard’s weather ridiculously simple. It was closer to the ideal case of a water-covered globe than Earth, hence everything was less complex.
Sighing, she wished she could escape, even for a few days, from what was becoming a dull, repetitious job.
Dan Sakky had seized gladly on the chance of assigning two of his team to help Tai Men, and today, in place of one of them, he was driving a powerdozer and levelling foundations. Getting to grips with the basics of his job—that was what he needed. He wanted the resistance of rock, the dull stolidity of clay. He would almost have preferred to be using a pick and shovel.