“And that,” said Colonel Fennister glumly, “appears to be that.”
The pile of glowing coals that had been Storage Shed Number One was still sending up tongues of flame, but they were nothing compared with what they’d been half an hour before.
“The smoke smells good, anyway,” said Major Grodski, sniffing appreciatively.
The colonel turned his head and glowered at his adjutant.
“There are times, Grodski, when your sense of humor is out of place.”
“Yes, sir,” said the major, still sniffing. “Funny thing for lightning to do, though. Sort of a dirty trick, you might say.”
“You might,” growled the colonel. He was a short, rather roundish man, who was forever thankful that the Twentieth Century predictions of skin-tight uniforms for the Space Service had never come true. He had round, pleasant, blue eyes, a rather largish nose, and a rumbling basso voice that was a little surprising the first time you heard it, but which seemed to fit perfectly after you knew him better.
Right at the moment, he was filing data and recommendations in his memory, where they would be instantly available for use when he needed them. Not in a physical file, but in his own mind.
All right, Colonel Fennister, he thought to himself, just what does this mean--to me? And to the rest?
The Space Service was not old. Unlike the Air Service, the Land Service, or the Sea Service, it did not have centuries or tradition behind it. But it had something else. It had something that none of the other Services had--Potential.
In his own mind, Colonel Fennister spelled the word with an upper case P, and put the word in italics. It was, to him, a more potent word than any other in the Universe.
Because the Space Service of the United Earth had more potential than any other Service on Earth. How many seas were there for the Sea Service to sail? How much land could the Land Service march over? How many atmospheres were there for the Air Service to conquer?
Not for any of those questions was there an accurate answer, but for each of those questions, the answer had a limit. But how much space was there for the Space Service to conquer?
Colonel Fennister was not a proud man. He was not an arrogant man. But he did have a sense of destiny; he did have a feeling that the human race was going somewhere, and he did not intend that that feeling should become totally lost to humanity.
Definition: Potential; that which has a possibility of coming into existence.
No, more than that. That which has a--
He jerked his mind away suddenly from the thoughts which had crowded into his forebrain.
What were the chances that the first expedition to Alphegar IV would succeed? What were the chances that it would fail?
And (Fennister grinned grimly to himself) what good did it do to calculate chances after the event had happened?
Surrounding the compound had been a double-ply, heavy-gauge, woven fence. It was guaranteed to be able to stop a diplodocus in full charge; the electric potential (potential! That word again!) great enough to carbonize anything smaller than a blue whale. No animal on Alphegar IV could possibly get through it.
And none had.
Trouble was, no one had thought of being attacked by something immensely greater than a blue whale, especially since there was no animal larger than a small rhino on the whole planet. Who, after all, could have expected an attack by a blind, uncaring colossus--a monster that had already been dying before it made its attack?
Because no one had thought of the forest.
The fact that the atmospheric potential--the voltage and even the amperage difference between the low-hanging clouds and the ground below--was immensely greater than that of Earth, that had already been determined. But the compound and the defenses surrounding it had already been compensated for that factor.
Who could have thought that a single lightning stroke through one of the tremendous, twelve-hundred-foot trees that surrounded the compound could have felled it? Who could have predicted that it would topple toward the compound itself?
That it would have been burning--that was something that could have been guaranteed, had the idea of the original toppling been considered. Especially after the gigantic wooden life-thing had smashed across the double-ply fence, thereby adding man-made energy to its already powerful bulk and blazing surface.
But--that it would have fallen across Storage Shed Number One? Was that predictable?
Fennister shook his head slowly. No. It wasn’t. The accident was simply that--an accident. No one was to blame; no one was responsible.
Except Fennister. He was responsible. Not for the accident, but for the personnel of the expedition. He was the Military Officer; he was the Man In Charge of Fending Off Attack.
And he had failed.
Because that huge, blazing, stricken tree had toppled majestically down from the sky, crashing through its smaller brethren, to come to rest on Storage Shed Number One, thereby totally destroying the majority of the food supply.
There were eighty-five men on Alphegar IV, and they would have to wait another six months before the relief ship came.
And they didn’t have food enough to make it, now that their reserve had been destroyed.
Fennister growled something under his breath.
“What?” asked Major Grodski, rather surprised at his superior’s tone.
“I said: ‘Water, water, everywhere--’, that’s what I said.”
Major Grodski looked around him at the lush forest which surrounded the double-ply fence of the compound.
“Yeah,” he said. “‘Nor any drop to drink.’ But I wish one of those boards had shrunk--say, maybe, a couple hundred feet.”
“I’m going back to my quarters,” Fennister said. “I’ll be checking with the civilian personnel. Let me know the total damage, will you?”
The major nodded. “I’ll let you know, sir. Don’t expect good news.”
“I won’t,” said Colonel Fennister, as he turned.
The colonel let his plump bulk sag forward in his chair, and he covered his hands with his eyes. “I can imagine all kinds of catastrophes,” he said, with a kind of hysterical glumness, “but this has them all beat.”
Dr. Pilar stroked his, short, gray, carefully cultivated beard. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. We could all have been killed.”
The colonel peeked one out from between the first and second fingers of his right hand. “You think starving to death is cleaner than fire?”
Pilar shook his head slowly. “Of course not. I’m just not certain that we’ll all die--that’s all.”
Colonel Fennister dropped his hands to the surface of his metal desk. “I see,” he said dryly. “Where there’s life, there’s hope. Right? All right, I agree with you.” He waved his hand around, in an all-encompassing gesture. “Somewhere out there, we may find food. But don’t you see that this puts us in the Siege Position?”
Dr. Francis Pilar frowned. His thick salt-and-pepper brows rumpled in a look of puzzlement. “Siege Position? I’m afraid--”
Fennister gestured with one hand and leaned back in his chair, looking at the scientist across from him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve let my humiliation get the better of me.” He clipped his upper lip between his teeth until his lower incisors were brushed by his crisp, military mustache, and held it there for a moment before he spoke.
“The Siege Position is one that no military commander of any cerebral magnitude whatever allows himself to get into. It is as old as Mankind, and a great deal stupider. It is the position of a beleaguered group which lacks one simple essential to keep them alive until help comes.
“A fighting outfit, suppose, has enough ammunition to stand off two more attacks; but they know that there will be reinforcements within four days. Unfortunately, the enemy can attack more than twice before help comes. Help will come too late.
“Or, it could be that they have enough water to last a week, but help won’t come for a month.
“You follow me, I’m sure. The point, in so far as it concerns us, is that we have food for about a month, but we won’t get help before six months have passed. We know help is coming, but we won’t be alive to see it.”
Then his eyes lit up in a kind of half hope. “Unless the native flora--”
But even before he finished, he could see the look in Dr. Pilar’s eyes.
Broderick MacNeil was a sick man. The medical officers of the Space Service did not agree with him in toto, but MacNeil was in a position to know more about his own state of health than the doctors, because it was, after all, he himself who was sick.
Rarely, of course, did he draw the attention of the medical officers to his ever-fluctuating assortment of aches, pains, signs, symptoms, malaises, and malfunctions. After all, it wouldn’t do for him to be released from the Service on a Medical Discharge. No, he would suffer in silence for the sake of his chosen career--which, apparently, was to be a permanent Spaceman 2nd Class.
Broderick MacNeil had never seen his medical record, and therefore did not know that, aside from mention of the normal slight defects which every human body possesses, the only note on the records was one which said: “Slight tendency toward hypochondria, compensated for by tendency to immerse self in job at hand. According to psych tests, he can competently handle positions up to Enlisted Space Officer 3rd Class, but positions of ESO/2 and above should be carefully considered. (See Psych Rept. Intelligence Sectn.)”
But, if MacNeil did not know what the medics thought of him, neither did the medics know what he thought of them. Nor did they know that MacNeil carried a secret supply of his own personal palliatives, purgatives and poly-purpose pills. He kept them carefully concealed in a small section of his space locker, and had labeled them all as various vitamin mixtures, which made them seem perfectly legal, and which was not too dishonest, since many of them were vitamins.
On the morning after the fire, he heaved his well-muscled bulk out of bed and scratched his scalp through the close-cropped brown hair that covered his squarish skull. He did not feel well, and that was a fact. Of course, he had been up half the night fighting the blaze, and that hadn’t helped any. He fancied he had a bit of a headache, and his nerves seemed a little jangled. His insides were probably in their usual balky state. He sighed, wished he were in better health, and glanced around at the other members of the company as they rose grumpily from their beds.
He sighed again, opened his locker, took out his depilator, and ran it quickly over his face. Then, from his assortment of bottles, he began picking over his morning dosage. Vitamins, of course; got to keep plenty of vitamins in the system, or it goes all to pot on you. A, B1, B2, B12, C, ... and on down the alphabet and past it to A-G. All-purpose mineral capsules, presumably containing every element useful to the human body and possibly a couple that weren’t. Two APC capsules. (Aspirin-Phenacetin-Caffeine. He liked the way those words sounded; very medicinal.) A milk-of-magnesia tablet, just in case. A couple of patent-mixture pills that were supposed to increase the bile flow. (MacNeil wasn’t quite sure what bile was, but he was quite sure that its increased flow would work wonders within.) A largish tablet of sodium bicarbonate to combat excess gastric acidity--obviously a horrible condition, whatever it was. He topped it all off with a football-shaped capsule containing Liquid Glandolene--”Guards the system against glandular imbalance!_”--and felt himself ready to face the day. At least, until breakfast.
He slipped several bottles into his belt-pak after he had put on his field uniform, so that he could get at them at mealtimes, and trudged out toward the mess hall to the meager breakfast that awaited him.
“Specifically,” said Colonel Fennister, “what we want to know is: What are our chances of staying alive until the relief ship comes?”
He and most of the other officers were still groggy-eyed, having had too much to do to even get an hour’s sleep the night before. Only the phlegmatic Major Grodski looked normal; his eyes were always about half closed.
Captains Jones and Bellwether, in charge of A and B Companies respectively, and their lieutenants, Mawkey and Yutang, all looked grim and irritable.
The civilian components of the policy group looked not one whit better. Dr. Pilar had been worriedly rubbing at his face, so that his normally neat beard had begun to take on the appearance of a ruptured mohair sofa; Dr. Petrelli, the lean, waspish chemist, was nervously trimming his fingernails with his teeth: and the M.D., Dr. Smathers, had a hangdog expression on his pudgy face and had begun drumming his fingers in a staccato tattoo on his round belly.
Dr. Pilar tapped a stack of papers that lay before him on the long table at which they were all seated. “I have Major Grodski’s report on the remaining food. There is not enough for all of us to live, even on the most extended rations. Only the strongest will survive.”
Colonel Fennister scowled. “You mean to imply that we’ll be fighting over the food like animals before this is over? The discipline of the Space Service--”
His voice was angry, but Dr. Pilar cut him off. “It may come to fighting, colonel, but, even if perfect discipline is maintained, what I say will still be true. Some will die early, leaving more food for the remaining men. It has been a long time since anything like this has happened on Earth, but it is not unknown in the Space Service annals.”
The colonel pursed his lips and kept his silence. He knew that what the biologist said was true.
“The trouble is,” said Petrelli snappishly, “that we are starving in the midst of plenty. We are like men marooned in the middle of an ocean with no water; the water is there, but it’s undrinkable.”
“That’s what I wanted to get at,” said Colonel Fennister. “Is there any chance at all that we’ll find an edible plant or animal on this planet?”
The three scientists said nothing, as if each were waiting for one of the others to speak.
All life thus far found in the galaxy had had a carbon-hydrogen-oxygen base. Nobody’d yet found any silicon based life, although a good many organisms used the element. No one yet had found a planet with a halogen atmosphere, and, although there might be weird forms of life at the bottom of the soupy atmospheres of the methane-ammonia giants, no brave soul had ever gone down to see--at least, not on purpose, and no information had ever come back.
But such esoteric combinations are not at all necessary for the postulation of wildly variant life forms. Earth itself was prolific in its variations; Earthlike planets were equally inventive. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, plus varying proportions of phosphorus, potassium, iodine, nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and strontium, plus a smattering of trace elements, seem to be able to cook up all kinds of life under the strangest imaginable conditions.
Alphegar IV was no different than any other Earth-type planet in that respect. It had a plant-dominated ecology; the land areas were covered with gigantic trees that could best be described as crosses between a California sequoia and a cycad, although such a description would have made a botanist sneer and throw up his hands. There were enough smaller animals to keep the oxygen-carbon-dioxide cycle nicely balanced, but the animals had not evolved anything larger than a rat, for some reason. Of course, the sea had evolved some pretty huge monsters, but the camp of the expedition was located a long way from the sea, so there was no worry from that quarter.
At the time, however, the members of the expedition didn’t know any of that information for sure. The probe teams had made spot checks and taken random samples, but it was up to the First Analytical Expedition to make sure of everything.
And this much they had discovered: The plants of Alphegar IV had a nasty habit of killing test animals.
“Of course,” said Dr. Pilar, “we haven’t tested every plant yet. We may come across something.”
“What is it that kills the animals?” asked young Captain Bellwether.
“Poison,” said Major Grodski.
Pilar ignored him. “Different things. Most of them we haven’t been able to check thoroughly. We found some vines that were heavily laced with cyanide, and there were recognizable alkaloids in several of the shrubs, but most of them are not that direct. Like Earth plants, they vary from family to family; the deadly nightshade is related to both the tobacco plant and the tomato.”
He paused a moment, scratching thoughtfully at his beard.
“Tell you what; let’s go over to the lab, and I’ll show you what we’ve found so far.”
Colonel Fennister nodded. He was a military man, and he wasn’t too sure that the scientists’ explanations would be very clear, but if there was information to be had, he might as well make the most of it.
SM/2 Broderick MacNeil kept a firm grip on his blast rifle and looked around at the surrounding jungle, meanwhile thanking whatever gods there were that he hadn’t been put on the fence-mending detail. Not that he objected violently to work, but he preferred to be out here in the forest just now. Breakfast hadn’t been exactly filling, and he was hungry.
Besides, this was his pet detail, and he liked it. He had been going out with the technicians ever since the base had been finished, a couple of weeks before, and he was used to the work. The biotechnicians came out to gather specimens, and it was his job, along with four others, to guard them--make sure that no wild animal got them while they were going about their duties. It was a simple job, and one well suited to MacNeil’s capacities.
He kept an eye on the technicians. They were working on a bush of some kind that had little thorny-looking nuts on it, clipping bits off here and there. He wasn’t at all sure what they did with all those little pieces and bits, but that was none of his business, anyway. Let the brains take care of that stuff; his job was to make sure they weren’t interrupted in whatever it was they were doing. After watching the three technicians in total incomprehension for a minute or so, he turned his attention to the surrounding forest. But he was looking for a plant, not an animal.
And he finally saw what he was looking for.
The technicians paid him no attention. They rarely did. They had their job, and he had his. Of course, he didn’t want to be caught breaking regulations, but he knew how to avoid that catastrophe. He walked casually toward the tree, as though he were only slightly interested in it.
He didn’t know what the name of the tree was. He’d asked a technician once, and the tech had said that the tree didn’t have any name yet. Personally, MacNeil thought it was silly for a thing not to have a name. Hell, everything had a name.
But, if they didn’t want to tell him what it was, that was all right with him, too. He called it a banana-pear tree.
Because that’s what the fruit reminded him of.
The fruit that hung from the tree were six or eight inches long, fat in the middle, and tapering at both ends. The skin was a pale chartreuse in color, with heliotrope spots.
MacNeil remembered the first time he’d seen one, the time he’d asked the tech what its name was. The tech had been picking some of them and putting them into plastic bags, and the faint spark of MacNeil’s dim curiosity had been brought to feebly flickering life.
“Hey, Doc,” he’d said, “whatcha gonna do with them things?”
“Take ‘em to the lab,” said the technician, engrossed in his work.
MacNeil had digested that carefully. “Yeah?” he’d said at last. “What for?”
The technician had sighed and popped another fruit into a bag. He had attempted to explain things to Broderick MacNeil before and given it up as a bad job. “We just feed ‘em to the monkeys, Mac, that’s all.”
“Oh,” said Broderick MacNeil.
Well, that made sense, anyhow. Monkeys got to eat something, don’t they? Sure. And he had gazed at the fruit in interest.
Fresh fruit was something MacNeil missed. He’d heard that fresh fruit was necessary for health, and on Earth he’d always made sure that he had plenty of it. He didn’t want to get sick. But they didn’t ship fresh fruit on an interstellar expedition, and MacNeil had felt vaguely apprehensive about the lack.
Now, however, his problems were solved. He knew that it was strictly against regulations to eat native fruit until the brass said so, but that didn’t worry him too much. He’d heard somewhere that a man can eat anything a monkey can, so he wasn’t worried about it. So he’d tried one. It tasted fine, something like a pear and something like a banana, and different from either. It was just fine.
Since then, he’d managed to eat a couple every day, so’s to get his fresh fruit. It kept him healthy. Today, though, he needed more than just health; he was hungry, and the banana-pears looked singularly tempting.
When he reached the tree, he turned casually around to see if any of the others were watching. They weren’t, but he kept his eye on them while he picked several of the fruit. Then he turned carefully around, and, with his back to the others, masking his movements with his own body, he began to munch contentedly on the crisp flesh of the banana-pears.
“Now, take this one, for instance,” said Dr. Pilar. He was holding up a native fruit. It bulged in the middle, and had a chartreuse rind with heliotrope spots on it. “It’s a very good example of exactly what we’re up against. Ever since we discovered this particular fruit, we’ve been interested in it because the analyses show that it should be an excellent source of basic food elements. Presumably, it even tastes good; our monkeys seemed to like it.”
“What’s the matter with it, then?” asked Major Grodski, eying the fruit with sleepy curiosity.
Dr. Pilar gave the thing a wry look and put it back in the specimen bag. “Except for the fact that it has killed every one of our test specimens, we don’t know what’s wrong with it.”
Colonel Fennister looked around the laboratory at the cages full of chittering animals--monkeys, white mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, and the others. Then he looked back at the scientist. “Don’t you know what killed them?”
Pilar didn’t answer; instead, he glanced at Dr. Smathers, the physician.
Smathers steepled his fingers over his abdomen and rubbed his fingertips together. “We’re not sure. Thus far, it looks as though death was caused by oxygen starvation in the tissues.”
“Some kind of anemia?” hazarded the colonel.
Smathers frowned. “The end results are similar, but there is no drop in the hemoglobin--in fact, it seems to rise a little. We’re still investigating that. We haven’t got all the answers yet, by any means, but since we don’t quite know what to look for, we’re rather hampered.”
The colonel nodded slowly. “Lack of equipment?”
“Pretty much so,” admitted Dr. Smathers. “Remember, we’re just here for preliminary investigation. When the ship brings in more men and equipment--”
His voice trailed off. Very likely, when the ship returned, it would find an empty base. The first-string team simply wasn’t set up for exhaustive work; its job was to survey the field in general and mark out the problems for the complete team to solve.
Establishing the base had been of primary importance, and that was the sort of equipment that had been carried on the ship. That--and food. The scientists had only the barest essentials to work with; they had no electron microscopes or any of the other complex instruments necessary for exhaustive biochemical work.