Authors: John Brunner
Pausing to watch Dennis’s boat as it skimmed towards the horizon, he wished that he too could find a brief respite. He had spent too long with abstracts, and abstracts were soft, easy, frustrating. Already in his spare time he had designed a gloriously functional city to occupy this island, capable of housing and servicing half a million people in enormous comfort. But all that was a game.
And, although it was certainly good to wrestle with the obdurate material he used for his creations, at the back of his mind sniggered the suspicion that it might all go for nothing because the people to use what he built might be too sick to enjoy what he gave them. Over that, as a construction man, he had no control.
Standing on the dam which held back their reservoir of fresh water, Ulla Berzelius glanced up from the dials of her portable analyser, and spotted Dennis’s boat as it vanished. She had just discovered that the indium she was looking for was present in adequate quantities.
Hell! What’s the use of a
world which gives you exactly what you think you want, then takes away, mocking, something you didn’t know you needed? I wish I
could be going off like Dennis, not in search of these damned dull minerals that we already knew from the astronomers must exist, but looking for jewels—enormous, lovely, absolutely useless jewels!
I wonder how many more of us are sick of things we need, and desperate for things we’d simply enjoy.
had furnished Dennis with a shortest course taking in all the promising areas where the local geology hinted at diamond deposits. It had also indicated that by following the tide-run he could keep his time away from the island down to a maximum of nine days.
Perversely, he elected to follow the charted course in precisely the opposite direction. He felt that if he could not stretch his absence to the point where before he turned for home he was hungry for company, he was never going to rid himself of his craving for Earth.
Isn’t it curious that the explorer, not the settlers, should be homesick?
Resting easily in the open cockpit of the boat, its foils holding it level four feet above the peaks of the gentle summer waves, he considered that paradox, and decided that it wasn’t a paradox at all. Asgard was a very beautiful world—more so than Earth, indeed, for man’s callousness and stupidity had not raped its plains into deserts nor smeared its rich valleys with ugly, monotonous townscapes. He yearned symbolically for Earth simply because that was the place from which he had set out, the place where he had been given the chance to gratify his explorer’s urge. Exploration for its own sake was a luxury Asgard would not be able to afford for generations.
He thought about the people among whom he was seemingly stranded for the rest of his life, when he had meant at most to spend a year with them and then return taking whichever of them had proved unable to endure the stress of the new world. Was he not fortunate to have escaped that duty? By the time they caved in and abandoned their self-respect to the point of creeping home, whipped-dog-fashion, the failed colonists would have been abominable travelling companions, most likely needing to be kept tranked to their eyeballs for the entire duration of the voyage.
And were these people not as stimulating, as intelligent, as talented, as might have been found in any city on Earth to which he could have retired? Maybe more so, for in a city they would be diluted among a vast horde of nonentities, needing to be sought out and put in touch with one another, whereas here they were concentrated and united.
Yes, all that is true. But somehow it doesn’t reach me where it counts.
He felt he was groping towards the recognition of an important truth, which perhaps no one else among the colonists except Parvati would have reached. The day was bright and warm again, with a breeze just vigorous enough to cream the occasional wavetop into foam, so that the deep emerald sea was touched with a veining of white, as though it were all one flowing gemstone; the sun gleamed on the polished nodules of the wood-plants which decorated the crowns of the nearby islands, a warm red-brown between the colours of mahogany and sequoia-bark, and lay like warm syrup among the close-set shrubs and bushes which filled the intervening valleys. To many human beings, could they have been snatched forward from barbarous ages in the past, the mere sight would have suggested paradise.
And still ought to. Only …
The formulation of the concept he sensed, but could not pin down, was like trying to mould wisps of smoke
into a statue. Sighing, he made the usual automatic check of his instruments and found nothing was wrong—that also being usual—before starting a fresh attempt to sort out his ideas.
He spread out one of his charts across his knees and studied it, because of a point which looking at the nearby islands had brought to mind.
I wonder if our skills are too great? It took men a hundred thousand years to go from grunts and fire-hardened sticks to adequate maps of their home planet. This map took about a hundred hours: photographs from space, collated to eliminate the fuzziness which cloud-cover imposed on the image, converted automatically into contoured equivalents, and printed by the score.
And yet that wasn’t what he was after, either. The skills of any given moment were the product of human thinking, whether they were on the Neolithic level or the Nuclear. His voyage in the
was about as remarkable, in perspective, as the travels of its legendary namesake, although, given modern longevity treatments, he had devoted less of his lifespan to his travels than those ancient Greeks.
On the other hand, of course, one might argue that the scale of the challenges men faced had not kept pace with their ingenuity. He glanced up from the map to identify an island which, by his chart, should just be passing on his starboard side, and noticed how very closely it resembled the one where men had settled. This he had been struck by on his first visit, though. When they moved about the planet’s surface, staying briefly in each of the climatic zones from polar to tropical in order to assess the habitability of each, they had chosen their landing-sites more or less randomly within each zone.
There was much less variety here than on Earth, one had to concede that, even though the total effect was un-Earthly. For instance, their base island was hexagonal and spined with ridges radiating from a central peak;
the contours on the chart he held made it look like an X-ray photograph of an Earthly sea-star.
But so was that island yonder, whose appearance he had just glanced up to verify. The lines suggested by the ridges of one could be traced across the seabed to the termini of others like them on another island. There was a web of wrinkles all over the planet, and wherever you went you found much the same physical features shading gradually from one area to another. Under the sea, of course, one inevitably found a geology more like Earth’s. But men were surface-living creatures. They could learn from their submarine survey remotes that the equivalent of continents existed on Asgard; with their own eyes and the touch of their bare hands, however, they could detect only a sort of vast Pacific. There was not even an Australia to provide contrast; the largest island on the whole planet was smaller than Britain.
Now, he realised, he was getting somewhere with his meditations. It was a wonderful thing to conquer a whole new world under an alien sun by the pure power of reason—analysing, testing, drawing conclusions, and acting on them—but for him at least the mere solving of problems was not enough justification to stay alive. When all the factors were known before you committed yourself, no external influence could surprise you. He remembered Kitty Minakis rising at their first monthly progress meeting, the only one they had held inside the ship, to answer some questions about the weather the colony would have to contend with. She had said something to the effect that the temperature of Asgard was not actually higher than Earth’s, in the sense that its distance from the sun gave it a comparable quantity of solar radiation. But owing to the seasonal nature of the icecaps, less heat was reflected from snow and ice, and the annual melting produced little more than an aberration in the ocean temperature—it didn’t give rise to huge cold currents like the polar waters of Earth.
What was the image she used? “The typical polar
phenomenon here is not snow, as it is at home, but merely fog.”
There was something definite about snow: water after a change of state, abruptly differentiated into white flakes. But fog was merely a clammy nuisance.
Somewhere in there was—
The boat changed course abruptly, snatching him out of his brown study and back to awareness. Instantly he was alert to danger, one hand slapping down to the pocket where he kept his bolt-gun, the other poised to hit the emergency manual controls. There was no need. All that had happened was that the sonar had detected a large water-creature surfacing from the bottom—here, there was a channel nearly five hundred feet deep—and swerved to miss it.
Excited, he saw it as it broke amid a vast bubble, a burp of stored air which it had used to go gathering its food on the lowermost slopes of the submarine mountains among which it roved. He had seen such a beast before, though only once, and swung his camera for Yoko to catch a few seconds of it before it had drawn a fresh breath and vanished.
Now if only I were a xenobiologist … I can’t imagine Yoko losing her interest in this world before she’s very old.
Why were there air-breathing herbivores in the oceans of this watery world? During what glacial period had their ancestors abandoned gills for lung-equivalents, and what upheaval had subsequently driven them back, like Earthly whales, to browse with their enormous comb-like lips on the deep-sea plants? Although the tumult on the water had lasted only moments, his memory retained the vivid picture of the beast: a thing like a carrot, to use a crude but exact comparison, frilled around its body with dozens of fins, bearing specialised sense-organs ranging from pressure-detectors to olfactory glands, its mouth where an Earthly creature’s tail would be, furnished with lips which served the double purpose of
flukes and food-gatherers, upon which the comb-like serrations could open and shut as the feathers of a bird’s wing do.
But his excitement was superficial. Sighing, settling back in his seat as the boat automatically resumed its course, he admitted to himself that what he felt on seeing that alien beast come charging up for air was exactly what a hunter might have felt on spotting his first elephant. Beyond the—well, literally, the
of seeing it, what was there to gratify him? Merely the recounting of a fabulous tale to envious stay-at-homes. His temperament had never involved him in what he had imagined, a minute earlier, as furnishing Yoko with a lifetime interest: the patient dissection of a whole new biological system.
Naturally, before being sent here for the first time, he like all his companions had been taught to use the instruments with which the
was equipped, and those included biological analysers. After their five months’ stay, at least half of what they now knew about Asgard’s animal and vegetable life had already been established, or at least could be guessed with reasonable certainty by comparing it with Earth’s. Gathering this huge mass of data, though, had been a matter of rote-following for him. It was the computers that took it in and understood it. All he did was feed them.
He knew a little about a vast number of subjects. The first visitors to Asgard might have been confronted with any sort of emergency from man-eating monsters to plague. They might even have wrecked their ship and been compelled to colonise the planet involuntarily. Accordingly, they had to have a grasp of the outline of any given area of knowledge, so that they could ask the proper questions when they needed to extract more specific guidance from the computers—or guess.
But knowing a little about many subjects was dilettantism. He had no all-absorbing passion to satisfy him. He was an observer, an explorer, a …
“Hell, I’m a
he said to the uncaring air. And, as though that fit of gloomy cynicism had somehow relieved his intolerable mental burden, he turned to break out his noon meal from the rack of cartons behind his seat. By this evening he would have reached the first island which promised a chance of diamonds, according to the computers.
It would be good to have work to do, real genuine valuable work which would contribute to the welfare and success of the colony. It would buy him a sort of personal stake.
But finding diamonds wouldn’t be what he needed. He wouldn’t know a diamond in the uncut state if he kicked it on the path! The credit would belong to Ulla and the computers!
Ripping the top from his meal-carton with a savage gesture, he muttered, “I never dreamed anybody—I or anybody else—could wind up in a state where everything was going perfectly and he was going out of his mind with frustration in spite of it!”
very strange to come back inside the ship after living for so long in the village below, Parvati noticed. No sooner had she become aware of the reaction than her mind was away in search of possible reasons.
It was as though she were being screened from exterior reality, perhaps, as a metal box will screen a receiver from a broadcast. And, of course, there were metal boxes around her—from the hull of the ship itself successively reducing to the scale of the automatic elevator which was carrying her up to the computer levels, with its padded walls of a soothing dark blue.
The ship is of Earth,
It seems marginally unreal, because Earth is out of reach for good and all.
The elevator stopped. Waiting to enter it and go down was Yoko, clutching a thick wad of computer printouts.
They exchanged greetings, and Parvati walked forward across the floor of the computer-room. It had been the bridge too, when the ship was in flight, and someone had draped cloths over the astrogation inputs.