The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 78

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Collins left Gordon's office in Administration moving slowly, one arm hanging loosely by his side, the other clutching the book. The corridor stretched ahead into B Wing with its laboratories flooded with the glow of mid-morning suns.h.i.+ne, bright and unreal. His mind was dazed, his thinking processes stopped in a kind of stunned unbelief. He could not even quit now. An undercurrent of fear ran close to the surface of his confused mind. It was the end of science, the end of all his work. All of the stifling, strangling restrictions of security on his work, on his private life, came whirling back as a monstrous, formless threat, something unspeakably big and powerful and unbeatable against which he could not fight.

To his right as he moved slowly down the hall the double doors of the main library reading room were open with the stacks and study cubicles beyond, silent and restful. He paused and then entered crossing into the maze of the stacks through a grilled iron doorway. The important thing now was not to meet anyone, not to have to speak or smile or think. It was very important now to be alone and quiet.

He walked until he found an empty cubicle, the endless walls of books, repositories of knowledge, silent and reproachful around him. Knowledge and books such as these would soon be added to no longer. He slumped into the chair and gazed at the tiny reading desk with its softly glowing lamp and the small stack of volumes on the rack left by previous users. Absently he stared for a long time at the volume Gordon had given him as if seeing it for the first time. Then with a deliberate effort he opened it and thumbed through slowly only half seeing its pages. The Journal of Botanical Research.

The pages in the Journal were like a look through an open window. Outside of cla.s.sified projects in "harmless" fields of research the work of science went on, papers were published, reputations were made, freedom still existed. He remembered Gordon's sleek smile and advice to relax and read in other fields. This stupid useless advice still rankled. Of course, he probably was stale, but to read junk like this!

Silently and in his mind, he cursed the day he had studied physics, better archeology or zoology, anything. Suddenly he stopped riffling the pages and leaned forward, rapidly turning back to something that had caught his eye. It was a three and one-half page paper on "The Statistical Probability of Chromosome Crossover" written in neat sections with several charts and references. It was by M. Mason.



Something clicked in Collins' mind--read the journals--Mason's unconcern with security, the botany books on his desk the night before. It didn't make sense, but it added up to something. Mason knew something and so did Gordon. He half rose. He had to get to the bottom of it. Clutching the bound Journal Collins turned and weaved through the stacks and out of the library waving the protesting librarian aside and strode down the corridor toward the laboratories.

The door to Mason's lab was partially open, and he looked up quizzically from taking an instrument reading as Collins burst in.

"Mason, I--" he planked the bound volume of the Botanical Journal on the lab bench beside the instrument ignoring Mason's wince as the instrument needle quivered with the jar. "Did you write this?" His finger jabbed at the open page.

Mason glanced at Collins, removed a pair of gla.s.ses from his white lab coat pocket, and putting them on leaned forward and studied the page for a moment.

"Yes. Not bad either though I shouldn't say it. I didn't know you were interested in Botany." His voice was casual with a slight questioning note.

Collins suddenly felt ridiculous. What was he accusing the man of? Mason had a right to publish on anything he wanted to, still a muddled series of half facts, incidents and suspicions chased through his mind.

Mason walked over to his desk and filling his pipe sat down thoughtfully and leaned back motioning Collins into a nearby chair.

"I think I know what is on your mind, Milt. Maybe I can straighten this out. Gordon told me a little while ago that you wanted to resign."

Collins stiffened. So, these two were working together.

"Milt, did you ever stop to think how lucky we are? Where can you get better equipment, help, cooperation in the country than here?" Collins leaned forward to speak, but Mason went on. "Oh, I know all the problems of security and how it strangles work." He paused for a moment as though trying to grasp the right words.

"Look, Milt, what's the basic problem? Why do security measures strangle research? Isn't it a matter basically of a breakdown in the interchange of ideas? Sure, and it has come about because there has been no method of communication which would not get to and be used by our enemies. So, like yourself, I'm forbidden to publish the results of my work here in the journals. Why? Because those results are in my field of study, chain reactions.

"I'm frustrated just as you have been and science suffers. What do I do? I write articles in a field that isn't restricted, botany. It's a new field of interest to me, a hobby if you like. The stuff is published and gets wide distribution. Every decent library in the country gets it. Every scientist all over the country can read the papers if he cares to. Then the word gets around, by the scientific grapevine, with a little judicious ear-bending. I get a reputation--in Botany.

"Now the botanists know that I am not a botanist. They understand what I am doing. The word spreads, and they leave my stuff alone. The physicists in my specialty know my name, and they get the word, and pretty soon they are glancing over certain botany journals apparently for relaxation. They read my papers. It's slow, but it works." Mason leaned forward and struck a large stick match under the lab bench top. Drawing several puffs through his pipe his eyes were on Collins' confused face. Then he laid the pipe down.

"The enemy botanists may read the botany journals, sure, but the enemy physicists don't. Their totalitarian training has made them inflexible in their thinking, besides they have their hands full trying to keep up in their own fields. The curse of specialization is a blessing to us. When the enemy botanists read it, it makes sense, but it doesn't help them much in their work--more or less innocuous." He waved toward the botany texts on his desk. "It took me six months to learn enough about it to do the job." As he spoke Mason untangled his legs and brought the open journal over to his desk.

"All right, notice in my article I am writing on chromosomes--chains of genes, and my field is--?"

"Chain reactions," Collins finished softly, "but--"

"The article itself is well disguised, but it's a parable. It's botany on the surface, but it gets over enough chain-reaction theory to be good physics, if you read it right. You see botany is what you might call my code field."

The bright light of noon s.h.i.+mmered on the white buildings and green lawns beyond the lab windows. Collins was silent and thoughtful.

"Well, that's about all. Gordon knows. He's in with us, but the Government doesn't suspect--yet. Oh, they may catch on to us. Information may leak out to the enemy. There's some chance, but when we're caught we'll think of something else. Most of us believe it's worth the chance. There's a risk in anything."

Suddenly all the pieces fell into place, and Collins' anger and confusion melted away. In its place was a sense of relief and hope, hope for the future. It wasn't the final answer, but it was a way to keep going. He was not alone any longer. He had friends who understood, who had been through what he had been through. It was a good feeling. He heard Mason's voice again.

"Milt, why don't you do some library work? Botany's my code field. I don't know what yours is, but you've got some catching up to do. There may be some interesting stuff published already in your code field."

Collins did, and he developed his new interest enthusiastically. Gordon had been right. He had been getting stale. Besides, astronomy was a fascinating field, and suns with their revolving planets in some respects are very like atomic systems, if you look at it that way.

THE END.

THE MAD PLANET.

by Murray Leinster

In his lifetime of 20 years, Burl had never wondered what his grandfather had thought about his surroundings. The grandfather had suffered an untimely, unpleasant end, which Burl remembered vaguely as a fading succession of screams as he was carried away at his mother's top speed.

Burl had rarely thought of the old man since. Surely he had never wondered what his great-grandfather thought, and there certainly never entered his head such a hypothetical question as what his many-times-great-grandfather--say of the year 1920--would have thought of Burl's world.

He was treading cautiously over a brownish carpet of fungus growth, creeping furtively toward the stream he generically called "water". Towering overhead, three man-heights high, great toadstools hid the grayish sky from sight. Clinging to their foot-thick stalks were other fungi, parasites on growths that had once been parasites themselves.

Burl was a slender young man wearing a single garment twisted about his waist, made from the wing-fabric of a great moth his tribesmen had slain as it emerged from its coc.o.o.n. His fair skin showed no trace of sunburn. He had never seen the sun, though the sky was rarely hidden from view save by the giant fungi which, along with monster cabbages, were the only growing things he knew. Clouds usually spread overhead, and when they did not, perpetual haze made the sun but an indefinitely brighter part of the sky, never a sharply edged ball of fire. Fantastic mosses, misshapen fungi, colossal molds and yeasts, comprised the landscape about him.

Once, as he dodged through the forest of huge toadstools, his shoulder touched a cream-colored stalk, giving the whole fungus a tiny shock. Instantly, from the umbrellalike ma.s.s of pulp overhead, a fine, impalpable powder fell on him like snow. It was the season when toadstools sent out their spores, dropping them at the first disturbance.

Furtive as he was, he paused to brush them from his head and hair. He knew they were deadly poison.

Burl would have been a curious sight to a 20th century man. His skin was pink, like a child's, and sported little hair. Even that atop his head was soft and downy. His chest was larger than his forefathers', and his ears were capable of independent movement, to catch threatening sounds from any direction. The pupils of his large, blue eyes could dilate to extreme size, allowing him to see in almost complete darkness.

He was the result of 30,000 years of human adaptation to changes begun in the latter half of the 20th century.

Then, civilization had been high and apparently secure. Mankind had reached permanent accord, and machinery performed all labor; men needed only supervise its operation. Everyone was well-fed and well-educated, and it seemed that until the end of time Earth would be home to a community of comfortable human beings, pursuing their studies and diversions, illusions and truths. Peace, privacy, and freedom were universal.

But just when men were congratulating themselves on this new Golden Age, fissures opened slowly in the Earth's crust, and carbon dioxide began pouring out into the atmosphere. That gas had long been known to be present in the air, and necessary to plant life. Plants absorbed its carbon, releasing the oxygen for use again in a process called the "carbon cycle".

Scientists noted the Earth's increased fertility, but discounted it as the effect of carbon dioxide released by man's burning of fossil fuels. For years the continuous exhalation from the world's interior went unnoticed.

Constantly, however, the volume increased. New fissures opened, pouring into the already laden atmosphere more carbon dioxide--beneficial in small amounts, but as the world learned, deadly in quant.i.ty.

The entire atmosphere grew heavy. It absorbed more moisture and became humid. Rainfall increased. Climates warmed. Vegetation became more luxuriant--but the air gradually became less exhilarating.

Soon mankind's health was affected. Accustomed through long ages to breathing air rich in oxygen and poor in carbon dioxide, men suffered. Only those living on high plateaus or mountaintops remained unaffected. All the world's plants, though nourished and growing to unprecedented size, could not dispose of the continually increasing flood of carbon dioxide.

By the middle of the 21st century it was generally recognized that a new carboniferous period was beginning, when Earth's atmosphere would be thick and humid, unbreathable by man, when giant gra.s.ses and ferns would form the only vegetation.

As the 21st century closed, the human race began reverting to savagery. The lowlands were unbearable, the air depressing and enervating. Life there became a sickly, fever-ridden existence. All mankind desired the highlands, and men forgot their two centuries of peace.

They fought destructively, each for a bit of land where he might live and breathe. Those forced to remain at sea level died in the poisonous air. Meanwhile, the danger zone crept up as the earth fissures tirelessly poured out steady streams of foul gas. Soon men could not live within 500 feet of sea level. The lowlands went uncultivated, becoming jungles unparalleled since the first carboniferous period.

Then men died of sheer inanition at 1,000 feet. The plateaus and mountaintops were crowded with folk struggling for footholds and food beyond the invisible menace that crept up, and up-- These events occured over many years, several generations. Between the announcement of the International Geophysical Inst.i.tute that carbon dioxide in the air had increased from .04% to .1% and the time when at sea level 6% of the atmosphere was the deadly gas, more than 200 years intervened.

Coming gradually as it did, the poisonous effect of the deadly stuff increased insidiously. First la.s.situde, then heaviness of brain, then weakness of body. The human population of the entire world slowly declined to a fraction of its former size. At last there was room in plenty on the mountaintops--but the danger level continued to rise.

There was but one solution. The human body would have to inure itself to the poison, or face extinction. It finally developed a toleration for the gas that had wiped out entire races and nations, but at a terrible cost. Lungs increased in size to secure the oxygen of life, but the poison, inhaled at every breath, left the few survivors sickly and perpetually weary. Their minds lacked energy to cope with new problems or communicate knowledge.

So after 30,000 years, Burl crept through a forest of toadstools and fungus growths. He was ignorant of fire, metals, or the uses of stone and wood. A single garment covered him. His language was a meager group of a few hundred l.a.b.i.al sounds, conveying no abstractions and few concrete things.

There was no wood in the scanty territory his tribe furtively inhabited. With the increase in heat and humidity the trees had died out. Those of northern climes went first: oaks, cedars, and maples. Then pines, beeches, cypresses, and finally even jungle forests vanished. Only gra.s.ses and reeds, bamboos and their kin, flourished in the new, steaming atmosphere. The jungles gave place to dense thickets of gra.s.ses and ferns, now become treeferns again.

Then fungi took their place. Flouris.h.i.+ng as never before on a planet of torrid heat and perpetual miasma, on whose surface the sun never shone directly because of an ever-thickening bank of clouds hanging sullenly overhead, the fungi sprang up. About the dank pools festering over the earth's surface, fungus growths cl.u.s.tered. Of every imaginable shade and color, of all monstrous forms and malignant purposes, of huge size and flabby volume, they spread over the land.

The gra.s.ses and ferns gave way to them. Squat footstools, flaking molds, evil-smelling yeasts, vast mounds of fungi inextricably mingled as to species, but growing, forever growing and exhaling an odor of dark places.

The strange growths grouped themselves in forests, horrible travesties of the vegetation they had succeeded. They grew and grew with feverish intensity, while above them fluttered gigantic b.u.t.terflies and huge moths, sipping daintily of their corruption.

Of the animal world above water, insects alone endured the change. They multiplied, and enlarged in the thickened air. The sole surviving vegetation--as distinct from fungi--was a degenerate form of the cabbages that had once fed peasants. On those rank, colossal ma.s.ses of foliage, stolid grubs and caterpillars ate themselves to maturity, then swung below in strong coc.o.o.ns to sleep the sleep of metamorphosis from which they emerged to spread their wings and fly.

The tiniest b.u.t.terflies of former days grew until their gaily colored wings measured in terms of feet, while the larger emperor moths extended their purple sails to a breadth of yards upon yards. The overshadowing fabric of their wings would have dwarfed Burl.

Fortunately, they, the largest flying creatures, were harmless. Burl's fellow tribesmen sometimes found a coc.o.o.n ready to open, and waited patiently until the beautiful creature within broke through its matted sh.e.l.l and emerged into the sunlight.

Then, before it could gather energy from the air, or its wings swell to strength and firmness, the tribesmen attacked, tearing the filmy, delicate wings from its body and the limbs from its carca.s.s. And when it lay helpless before them, they carried away the juicy, meat-filled limbs to be eaten, leaving the still living body to stare helplessly at this strange world through multifaceted eyes, and become prey to voracious ants who would soon clamber upon it and carry it in fragments to their underground city.

Not all insects were so helpless or harmless. Burl knew of wasps, almost the length of his own body, with instantly fatal stings. To all wasps, however, some other insect is predestined prey. The sphex feeds solely on gra.s.shoppers; other wasps eat flies only. Burl's furtive tribe feared them but little.

Bees were similarly aloof. They were hard-pressed for survival, those bees. Few flowers bloomed, and they were reduced desperate expedients: bubbling yeasts and fouler things, occasionally the nectarless blooms of rank, giant cabbages. Burl knew the bees. They droned overhead nearly as large as he, bulging eyes gazing at him with abstracted preoccupation. And crickets, beetles, spiders-- Burl knew spiders! His grandfather had fallen prey to a hunting tarantula, which had leaped with incredible ferocity from its excavated tunnel in the earth. The vertical pit, two feet in diameter, went down 20 feet. At the bottom, the black-bellied monster waited for the tiny sounds that would warn it of approaching prey (Lycosa fasciata).

Burl's grandfather had been careless, and his terrible shrieks as the horrible monster darted from the pit and seized him had lingered vaguely in Burl's mind ever since. Burl had seen, too, the monster webs of another species of spider, and watched from afar as the huge, misshapen creature sucked juices from a three-foot cricket entangled in its trap.

Burl remembered the stripes of yellow, black, and silver crossing its abodomen (Epiera fasciata). He had been fascinated by the struggles of the imprisoned insect, coiled in a hopeless tangle of sticky, gummy ropes the thickness of Burl's finger, cast about its body before the spider attempted to approach.

Burl knew these dangers. They were part of his life. It was his and his ancestors' accustomedness to them that made his existence possible. He evaded them, and survived. A moment of carelessness, an instant's relaxation of his habitual caution, and he would be one with his forebears, forgotten meals of long-dead, inhuman monsters.

Three days before, Burl had crouched behind a bulky, shapeless fungus, watching a furious duel between two huge horned beetles. Their jaws, gaping wide, clicked and clashed on each other's armor. Their legs crashed like cymbals as their polished surfaces ground and struck each other. They fought over some particularly attractive bit of carrion.

Burl had watched until a gaping orifice appeared in the armor of the smaller beetle. It uttered a shrill cry, or seemed to. The noise was, actually, the tearing of the h.o.r.n.y stuff beneath the jaws of its victorious adversary.

The wounded beetle's struggles weakened. At last it collapsed, and the conqueror placidly began to eat the conquered--alive.

After the meal was finished, Burl approached the scene with caution. An ant, forerunner of many, was already inspecting the carca.s.s.

Burl usually ignored ants. They were stupid, shortsighted insects, not hunters. Save when attacked, they offered no injury. They were scavengers, seeking the dead and dying, but became dangerous, vicious opponents if their prey were questioned. They measured from three inches, for tiny black ants, to a foot for large termites.

Burl heard the tiny clickings of their limbs as they approached. He hastily seized the detached, sharp-pointed snout of the victim, and fled.

Later, he inspected his find curiosly. The victim had been a minotaur beetle, with a sharp-pointed horn like that of a rhinocerous to reinforce its offensive armament, already dangerous because of its wide jaws. A beetle's jaws work side to side, instead of up and down, making its protection complete in no less than three directions.

Burl examined the sharp, daggerlike instrument. He p.r.i.c.ked his finger on its point, and flung it aside as he crept to the hiding-place of his tribe. They numbered only 20: four men, six women, the rest adolescents and children.

Burl had wondered at the strange feelings that came over him when he looked at one of the girls. She was younger--perhaps 18--and fleeter of foot than he. They talked, sometimes, and Burl occasionally shared with her an especially succulent find of foodstuffs.

The next morning Burl found the horn where he had thrown it, sticking in the flabby side of a toadstool. He retrieved it, and gradually, far back in his mind, an idea began to form. He sat awhile with the thing in his hand, considering it with a faraway look in his eyes. From time to time he stabbed at a toadstool, awkwardly, but with gathering skill. His imagination began to work fitfully. He visualized himself stabbing food as the larger beetle had stabbed the former owner of the weapon he now possessed.

Burl could not imagine attacking one of the fighting insects. He could only picture himself, dimly, stabbing something that was food with this death-dealing thing. It was no longer than his arm and though clumsy to the hand, an effective and terribly sharp implement.

He thought: Where was there food, food that lived, that would not fight back? Presently he rose and made his way toward the tiny river. Yellow-bellied newts swam in its waters. Aquatic larvae of a thousand insects floated about its surface or crawled along its bottom.

Death lived there, too. Giant crayfish snapped h.o.r.n.y claws at the unwary. Mosquitos of four-inch wingspread sometimes hummed above the river. They were dying out for lack of the plant juices on which males of the species lived, but even so they were formidable. Burl had learned to crush them with fragments of fungus.

He crept furtively through the forest of misshapen toadstools, brownish fungus underfoot. Strange orange, red, and purple molds cl.u.s.tered about the bases of the creamy toadstool stalks. Burl paused to run his sharp-pointed weapon through a fleshy stalk and rea.s.sure himself that his plan was practicable.

He heard a tiny clicking, and froze into stillness. It was a troop of five heavily laden ants, each eight inches long, returning to their city. They moved swiftly along the route marked with black, odorous formic acid exuded from the bodies of their comrades. Burl waited until they pa.s.sed, then went on.

He came to the bank of the river. Green sc.u.m covered much of its surface, occasionally broken by a slowly enlarging gas bubble released from decomposing matter on the bottom. In the center of the placid stream the current ran faster, and the water itself was visible.

Over the s.h.i.+ning current, water-spiders ran swiftly. They had not shared in the general increase in size of the insect world. Depending on surface tension to support them, an increase in size and weight would have deprived them of the means of locomotion.

From the spot where Burl peered at the water, green sc.u.m spread out many yards into the stream. He could not see what swam, wriggled, and crawled beneath the evil-smelling covering. He looked up and down the banks.

150 yards downstream, an outcropping of rock made a steep descent to the river, from which shelf-fungi stretched out. Dark red and orange above, light yellow below, they formed a series of platforms above the smoothly flowing stream. Burl moved cautiously toward them.

En route he saw one of the edible mushrooms that formed most of his diet, and paused to break from the flabby flesh an amount that would feed him for many days. Often, his people would find a store of food, carry it to their hiding place, then gorge themselves for days, eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping until all was gone.

Burl was tempted to abandon his plan. He would give Saya of this food, and they would eat together. Saya was the maiden who roused unusual emotions in Burl when she was near, strange impulses to touch and caress her. He did not understand.

He went on, after hesitating. If he brought her food, Saya would be pleased, but if he brought her of the things that swam in the stream, she would be more pleased. Degraded as his tribe had become, Burl was yet a little more intelligent. He was an atavism, a throwback to ancestors who had cultivated the earth and subjugated its animals. He had a vague remnant of pride, unformed but potent.

Burl's people herded together in a leaderless group, coming to the same hiding place to share the finds of the lucky and gather comfort in numbers. They had no weapons. They bashed stones against the limbs of insects they found partly devoured, cracking them open for what sc.r.a.ps of sweet meat remained inside, but sought safety from enemies solely in flight and hiding. If Burl did what no man before had done, if he brought a whole carca.s.s to his tribe, they would admire him.

He reached the rocky outcropping and lay prostrate, staring into the water's shallow depths. A huge crayfish, as long as Burl, leisurely crossed his vision. Small fishes and even huge newts fled before the voracious creature.

Eventually the tide of underwater life resumed its activity. The wriggling dragonfly grubs reappeared. Little flecks of silver swam into view--a school of tiny fish. A larger fish appeared, moving slowly.

Burl's eyes glistened; his mouth watered. He reached down with his long weapon. It barely touched the water. Disappointment filled him, yet the nearness and apparent practicability of his scheme spurred him on.

He considered the situation. The shelf-fungi were below him. He rose and moved to a point just above them, then thrust his spear down. They resisted its point. Burl tested them tentatively with his foot, then dared to trust his weight to them. They held firmly. He clambered onto them and lay flat, again peering over the edge.

The large fish, as long as Burl's arm, swam slowly to and fro below. Burl had seen the former owner of his spear strive to thrust it into an opponent. So when the fish swam by, he thrust sharply downward. To Burl's astonishment, the spear seemed to bend where it entered the water, and missed its mark by inches. He tried again and again.

He grew angry with the fish. Repeated strokes had left it untouched, and it was insultingly unwary, not even trying to flee.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 78

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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol X Part 78 summary

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