Captives of the Flame
Chapter 7

Public Domain

The news service of Toromon in the city of Toron was a public address system that flooded the downtown area, and a special printed sheet that was circulated among the upper families of the city. On the mainland it was a fairly accurate brigade of men and women who transported news orally from settlement to settlement. All announced simultaneously that morning:



In the military ministry, directives were issued in duplicate and redelivered in triplicate. At eight-forty, the 27B Communications Sector became hopelessly snarled. This resulted in the shipment of a boatload of prefabricated barracks foundations to a port on the mainland sixty-two miles from the intended destination.

Let, Jon, and Arkor were just mounting the private yacht of the Duchess of Petra which was waiting for them at the end of the harbor. Later, as the island of Toron slipped across the water, Let mentioned to Jon, leaning against the railing, that there was an awful lot of commotion on the docks.

“It’s always like that,” Jon told him, remembering the time he’d gone with his father in the morning to the pier. “They’re inspecting cargoes. But it does look awfully busy.”

Which was a euphemism. One group of military directives which had been quite speedily and accurately delivered were the offers of contracts, primarily for food, and secondarily for equipment. Two of the distributors of imported fish who had absolutely no chance of receiving the contracts sent in a bid accompanied by a letter which explained (with completely fraudulent statistics) how much cheaper it would be to use imported fish rather than those from the aquariums. Then they commandeered a group of ruffians who broke into the house of old Koshar’s personal secretary, who was still sleeping after the previous night’s party which he had helped out with. (So far he has appeared in this story only as a hand seen around the edge of a storage cabinet door, a broad hand, with wiry black hair, on which there was a cheap, wide, brass ring in which was set an irregular shape of blue glass.)

They tied him to a chair, punched him in the stomach, and in the head, and in the mouth until there was blood running down his trimmed, black beard; and he had given the information they wanted--information that enabled them to sink three of the Koshar cargo fleet that was just coming into dock.

The Duchess’ private yacht made contact with a tetron-tramp returning to the mainland and Let, Jon, and Arkor changed ships. Coming from the yacht in bare feet and rags gave them an incongruous appearance. But on the tramp, among those passengers who were returning for their families, they quickly became lost.

On Toron, the pilot of the shuttle boat that took workers from the city to the aquariums found a clumsily put-together, but nevertheless unmistakable, bomb hidden in the lavatory. It was dismantled. There was no accident. But an authority, Vice-Supervisor Nitum of Koshar Synthetic Food Concerns (whose name you do not need to remember, as he was killed three days later in a street brawl) clenched his jaw (unshaven; he had been called to the office a half an hour early over the sunken cargo boats), nodded his head, and issued a few non-official directives himself. Twenty minutes later, Koshar Synthetic Food Concerns was officially given the government contract to supply the armies of Toromon with food. Because the two rival bidders, the import merchants, had ceased to exist about twelve minutes previously, having suddenly been denied warehouse space, and their complete storage dumped into the streets to rot (nearly seven tons of frozen fish) because the refrigeration lockers, and the refrigeration buildings, and the refrigeration trucks had all been rented from Rahsok Refrigeration, and nobody had ever thought of spelling Rahsok backwards.

In the military ministry, Captain Clemen, along with Major Tomar, was called away from his present job of completing the evacuation of the top four floors of an adjacent office building to accommodate the new corps of engineers, mathematicians, and physicists that the army had just enlisted. Apparently riots had started in the streets around the old Rahsok Refrigeration Houses. The warehouses were just a few blocks away from the official boundary of the Devil’s Pot.

They got there ten minutes after the report came in. “What the hell is going on?” Clemen demanded, from the head of the City Dispersal Squad. Behind the line of uniformed men, masses of people were pushing and calling out. “And what’s that stench?” added Clemen. He was a tiny man, exactly a quarter of an inch over the minimum for military acceptance--4’ 10”.

“Fish, sir,” the Dispersal Chief told him. “There’s tons of it all over the street. The people are trying to take it away.”

“Well, let them have it,” Clemen said. “It’ll clear the streets of the mess and maybe do some good.”

“You don’t understand, sir,” the head of Dispersal explained. “It’s been poisoned. Just before it was dumped, it was soaked with buckets of barbitide. Half a ton of the stuff’s already been carried away.”

Clemen turned. “Tomar,” he said. “You get back to headquarters and see personally that a city-wide announcement goes out telling about the poisoned fish. Call General Medical, find out the antidote, and get the information all over the city. See to it personally, too.”

Tomar got back to headquarters, got General Medical, got the antidote, which was expensive, complicated, and long, and drafted his announcement.

WARNING! Any citizen who has taken fish from the street in the area

of Rahsok Refrigeration is in immediate danger of death. The fish

has been treated with the fatal poison barbitide. No fish other

than that directly traceable to the Synthetic Markets should be

eaten. WARN YOUR NEIGHBORS! If fish has been eaten, go directly to

the General Medical building (address followed). Symptoms of

barbitide poisoning: intense cramps about two hours after

ingestion, followed by nausea, fever, and swollen lymph nodes.

Death results in twenty minutes after onset of cramps under normal

conditions. Foods with high calcium contents prolong spasms to a

maximum hour and a half (foods such as milk, ground egg shell).

General Medical has been alerted. There you will receive injections

of Calcium Silicate and Atropayic Acid which can counteract the

effects of the poison up until the last five or ten minutes.

Tomar personally sent the directive through Communications Center 27B, marked urgent and emergency. Ten minutes later he received a visiphone call from the Communications Engineer saying that 27B had been hopelessly snarled all morning. In fact so had 26B, 25B. In further fact, said the engineer, the only available sectors open were 34A and 42A, none of which, incidentally, had access to complete city lines.

Tomar made a triplicate copy of the warning and sent it out, nonetheless, through Sectors 40A, 41A, and 42A. A half an hour later the secretary to the Communications Engineer called and said, “Major Tomar, I’m sorry, I just got back from my break and I didn’t see your message until just now. Because of the tie-ups, we’ve received instructions only to let authorized persons have access to the available sectors.”

“Well, who the hell is authorized,” Tomar bellowed. “If you don’t put that through and quick, half the city may be dead by this evening.”

The secretary paused a minute. Then he said, “I’m sorry, sir, but ... well, look. I’ll give it directly to the Communications Engineer when he gets back.”

“When is he getting back?” Tomar demanded.

“I ... I don’t know.”

“Who is authorized?”

“Only generals, sir, and only those directly concerned with the war effort.”

“I see,” Tomar said, and hung up.

He had just dispatched seven copies of the announcement with an explanatory note to seven of the fourteen generals in the ministry when the Communications Engineer called again. “Major, what’s all this about a bushel of fish?”

“Look, there are seven tons of the stuff all over the streets.”

“And poisoned?”

“Exactly. Will you please see that this message gets out over every available piece of city-wide communication as fast as possible? This is really life and death.”

“We’re just allowed to work on getting war messages through. But I guess this takes priority. Oh, that explains some of the messages we’ve been getting. I believe there’s even one for you.”

“Well?” asked Tomar after a pause.

“I’m not allowed to deliver it, sir.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not authorized, sir.”

“Look, damn it, get it right now and read it to me.”

“Well ... er ... it’s right here sir. It’s from the chief of the City Dispersal Squad.”

The message was, in brief, that twenty-three men, among them Captain Clemen, had been trampled to death by an estimated two and a half thousand hungry residents of the Devil’s Pot, most of them immigrants from the mainland.

A ton and a half of fish was finally removed from the streets and disposed of. But five and a half tons had made its way through the city. The Communications Engineer also added that while they’d been talking, a memorandum had come through that Sectors 34A to 42A were now out of commission, but that the major should try 27B again, because it might have cleared up.

The second shift of workers that day was arriving at the aquariums. In the great pontooned building, vast rows of transparent plastic tubes, three feet in diameter, webbed back and forth among the tetron pumps. Vibrator nets cut the tubes into twenty-foot compartments. Catwalks strung the six-story structure, all flooded with deep red light that came from the phosphor-rods that stuck up from the pumps. Light toward the blue end of the spectrum disturbed the fish, who had to be visible at all times, to be moved, or to be checked for any sickness or deformity. In their transparent tubes, the fish floated in a state near suspended animation, vibrated gently, were kept at a constant 82°, were fed, were fattened, were sorted according to age, size, and species; then slaughtered. The second shift of workers moved into the aquarium, relieving the first shift.

They had been on about two hours when a sweating hulk of a man who was an assistant feeder reported to the infirmary, complaining of general grogginess. Heat prostration was an occasional complaint in the aquarium.

The doctor told him to lie down for a little while. Five minutes later he went into violent cramps. Perhaps the proper attention would have been paid to him had not a few minutes later a woman fallen from a catwalk at the top of the aquarium and broken one of the plastic arteries and her skull, six stories below.

In the red light the workers gathered around her broken body that lay at the end of a jagged plastic tube. In the spread water, dozens of fish, fat and ruddy-skinned, flapped their gills weakly.

The woman’s co-workers said she had complained of not feeling well, when suddenly she went into convulsions while crossing one of the catwalks. By the time the doctor got back to the infirmary, the assistant feeder had developed a raging fever, and the nurse reported him violently nauseated. Then he died.

In the next two hours, out of the five thousand two hundred and eighty people who worked at the aquariums, three hundred and eighty-seven were taken with cramps and died in the next two hours, the only exception being an oddball physical culture enthusiast who always drank two quarts of milk for lunch; he lasted long enough to be gotten onto the shuttle and back to General Medical on Toron, where he died six minutes after admittance, one hour and seventeen minutes after the onset of the cramps. That was the first case that General Medical actually received. It was not until the sixteenth case that the final diagnosis of barbitide poisoning was arrived at. Then someone remembered the query that had come in by phone from the military ministry that morning about the antidote.

“Somehow,” said Chief Toxologist Oona, “the stuff has gotten into some food or other. It may be all over the city.” Then he sat down at his desk and drafted a warning to the citizens of Toron containing a description of the effects of barbitide poisoning, antidote, and instructions to come to the General Medical building, along with a comment on high calcium foods. “Send this to the Military Ministry and get it out over every available source of public communications, and quick,” he told his secretary.

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