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To Choke an Ocean

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Title: To Choke an Ocean
Author: Jesse Franklin Bone,
Summary: Gourmets all agree that nothing can beat oysters on the half-shell—not even the armed might of the Terran Confederation!
Word count:  8713
Public Domain Mark (PDM)

Image:  September 1960, issue of If.

 

“Nice that you dropped in,” the man in the detention room said. “I never expected a visit from the Consul General. It makes me feel important.”

“The Confederation takes an interest in all of its citizens’ welfare,” Lanceford said. “You are important! Incidentally, how is it going?”

“Not too bad. They treat me all right. But these natives sure are tough on visitors. I’ve never been checked so thoroughly in all my life—and now this thirty day quarantine! Why, you’d think I was carrying the plague instead of a sample case!”

The chubby little commercial traveller probably had a right to complain, Lanceford thought. After all, a Niobian quarantine station isn’t the pleasantest sort of environment. It’s not meant to be comfortable, physical discomfort being as good a way as any to discourage casual visitors. The ones who have fortitude enough to stand the entry regulations can get in, but tourists seldom visit Niobe. However, the planet’s expanding economy offered a fertile field for salesmen, and men of that stripe would endure far worse hardships than a port of entry in pursuit of the Almighty Credit.

Now this fellow, George Perkins, was a typical salesman. And despite his soft exterior there was a good hard core inside.

Lanceford looked him over and decided that he would last. “You came here of your own free will, didn’t you?” he asked.

“If you call a company directive free will,” Perkins answered. “I wouldn’t come here for a vacation, if that’s what you mean. But the commercial opportunities can’t be ignored.”

“I suppose not, but you can hardly blame the Niobians for being suspicious of strangers. Perhaps there’s no harm in you. But they have a right to be sure; they’ve been burned before.” Lanceford uncoiled his lean gray length from the chair and walked over to the broad armorglas window. He stared out at the gloomy view of Niobe’s rainswept polar landscape. “You know,” he continued, “you might call this Customs Service a natural consequence of uninvestigated visitors.” He brooded over the grayness outside. A polar view was depressing—scrubby vegetation, dank grassland, the eternal Niobian rain. He felt sorry for Perkins. Thirty days in this place would be sheer torture.

“It must have been quite some disturbance to result in this.” Perkins waved his hand at the barren room. “Sounds like you know something about it.”

“I do. In a way you might say that I was responsible for it.”

“Would you mind telling me?”

“I wouldn’t mind at all.” Lanceford looked at his watch. “If I have the time, that is. I’m due to be picked up in an hour, but Niobians have some quaint conceptions of time. So if you want to take a chance that I won’t finish—”

“Go ahead.”

“To start with, take a look at that insigne over the door. The whole story’s right there.”

Perkins eyed the emblem of the Niobian Customs Service. It was a five-pointed star surrounding a circle, superimposed over the typically Terran motto: “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Safety.” He nodded.

“How come the Terran style?” he asked.

“That’s part of the story. Actually that insigne’s a whole chapter of Niobe’s history. But you have to know what it stands for.” Lanceford sighed reminiscently. “It began during the banquet that celebrated the signing of the Agreement which made Niobe a member of the Confederation. I was the Director of the BEE’s Niobe Division at that time. As a matter of fact, I’d just taken the job over from Alvord Sims. The Old Man had been ordered back to Terra, to take over a job in the Administration, and I was the next man in line.

“The banquet was a flop, of course. Like most mixed gatherings involving different races, it was a compromise affair. Nobody was satisfied. It dragged along in a spirit of suffering resignation—the Niobians quietly enduring the tasteless quality of the food, while the Confederation representatives, wearing unobtrusive nose plugs, suffered politely through the watered-down aroma and taste of the Niobian delicacies. All things being considered, it was moving along more smoothly than it had any right to, and if some moron on the kitchen staff hadn’t used tobasco sauce instead of catsup, we’d probably have signed the Agreement and gone on happily ever after.

“But it didn’t work out that way.

“Of course it wasn’t entirely the kitchen’s fault. There had to be some damn fool at the banquet who’d place the bomb where it would do some good. And of course I had to be it.” Lanceford grinned. “About the only thing I have to say in my defense is that I didn’t know it was loaded!”

Perkins looked at him expectantly as Lanceford paused. “Well, don’t stop there,” he said. “You’ve got me interested.”

Lanceford smiled good-naturedly and went on.

We held the banquet in the central plaza of Base Alpha. It was the only roofed area on the planet large enough to hold the crowd of high brass that had assembled for the occasion. We don’t do things that way now, but fifty years ago we had a lot to learn. In those days, the admission of a humanoid planet into the Confederation was quite an event. The VIP’s thought that the native population should be aware of it.

I was sitting between Kron Avar and one of the high brass from the Bureau of Interstellar Trade, a fellow named Hartmann. I had no business being in that rarefied air, since Kron was one of the two First Councilors and Hartmann ranked me by a couple of thousand files on the promotion list. But I happened to be a friend of Kron’s, so protocol got stretched a bit in the name of friendship. He and I had been through a lot together when I was a junior explorer with the BEE some ten years before. We’d kept contact with each other ever since. We had both come up the ladder quite a ways, but a Planetary Director, by rights, belonged farther down the table. So there I was, the recipient of one of the places of honor and a lot of dirty looks.

Hartmann didn’t think much of being bumped one seat away from the top. He wasn’t used to associating with mere directors, and besides, I kept him from talking with Kron about trade relations. Kron was busy rehashing the old days when we were opening Niobe to viscayaculture. Trade didn’t interest him very much, and Hartmann interested him less. Niobians are never too cordial to strangers, and he had never seen the BIT man before this meeting.

Anyway, the talk got around to the time he introduced me to vorkum, a native dish that acts as a systemic insect repellant—and tastes like one! And right then I got the bright idea that nearly wrecked Niobe.

As I said, there was both Niobian and Confederation food at the banquet, so I figured that it was a good time as any to get revenge for what my dog-headed friend did to my stomach a good decade before.

So I introduced him to Terran cooking.

Niobians assimilate it all right, but their sense of taste isn’t the same as ours. Our best dishes are just mush to their palates, which are conditioned to sauces that would make the most confirmed spice lover on Earth run screaming for the water tap. They have a sense of the delicate, too, but it needs to be stimulated with something like liquid fire before they can appreciate it. For instance, Kron liked Earth peaches, but he spiced them with horseradish and red pepper.

I must admit that he was a good sport. He took the hors d’oeuvres in stride, swallowing such tasteless things as caviar, Roquefort and anchovy paste without so much as a grimace. Of course, I was taking an unfair advantage of Kron’s natural courtesy, but it didn’t bother me too much. He had rubbed that vorkum episode in for years. It was nice to watch him squirm.

When I pressed him to try an oyster cocktail, I figured things had gone far enough.

He took it, of course, even though anyone who knew Niobians could see that he didn’t want any part of it. There was a pleading look in his eye that I couldn’t ignore. After all, Kron was a friend. I was actually about to stop him when he pulled an oyster from its red bath and popped it into his mouth. There was a ‘you’ll be sorry’ look on his face. I gestured to a waiter to remove the cocktail as he bit into the oyster, figuring, somewhat belatedly, that I had gone too far.

The grateful look I got from him was sufficient reward. But then it happened. Kron stopped looking grateful and literally snatched the cocktail back from the startled waiter!

He looked at me with an expression of disgust. “The first decent food thus far,” he said, “and you attempt to send it away!”

“Huh?” I exclaimed stupidly. “I didn’t want to make you miserable.”

“Miserable! Hah! This dish is wonderful! What in the name of my First Ancestor is it?” His pleased grin was enough like a snarl to make Hartmann cringe in his chair. Since Kron and I were both speaking Niobian rather than Confed, he didn’t understand what was happening. I suppose he thought that Kron was about to rip my throat out. It was a natural error, of course. You’ve seen a dog smile, and wondered what was going on behind the teeth? Well, Kron looked something like that. A Niobian with his dog-headed humanoid body is impressive under any conditions. When he smiles he can be downright frightening.

I winked at Hartmann. “Don’t worry, sir,” I said. “Everything’s all right.”

“It certainly is,” Kron said in Confed. “This dish is delicious. Incidentally, friend Lanceford, what is it? It tastes something like our Komal, but with a subtle difference of flavor that is indescribable!”

“It’s called an oyster cocktail, Kron,” I said.

“This is a product of your world we would enjoy!” Kron said. “Although the sauce is somewhat mild, the flavor of the meat is exquisite!” He closed his eyes, savoring the taste. “It would be somewhat better with vanka,” he said musingly. “Or perhaps with Kala berries.”

I shuddered. I had tried those sauces once. Once was enough! I could still feel the fire.

“I wonder if you could ship them to us,” Kron continued.

Hartmann’s ears pricked up at the word “ship.” It looked like an opening gambit for a fast sales talk on behalf of interstellar trade, a subject dear to his heart.

But I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure it out until I tried one of the oysters—after which I knew! Some fool had dished them up in straight tobasco sauce! It took some time before I could talk, what with trying to wash the fire out of my mouth, and during the conversational hiatus Hartmann picked up the ball where I dropped it. So I sat by and listened, my burned mouth being in no condition for use.

“I’m afraid that we couldn’t ship them,” Hartmann said. “At least not on a commercial basis. Interstellar freight costs are prohibitive where food is concerned.”

Kron nodded sadly. He passed the oysters to Tovan Harl, his fellow First Councilor. Harl went through the same reaction pattern Kron had shown.

“However,” Hartmann continued, “we could send you a few dozen. Perhaps you could start a small oyster farm.”

“Is this a plant?” Kron asked curiously.

“No, it’s a marine animal with a hard outer shell.”

“Just like our Komal. We could try planting some of them in our oceans. If they grow, we will be very obliged to you Terrans for giving us a new taste sensation.”

“Since my tribe is a seafaring one,” Harl interjected, “they can be raised under my supervision until we find the exact methods to propagate them in our seas.”

Hartmann must have been happy to get off the hook. It was a small request, one that was easy to fulfill. It was a good thing that the Niobians didn’t realize what concessions they could wring from the BIT. The Confederation had sunk billions into Niobe and was prepared to sink many more if necessary. They would go to almost any lengths to keep the natives happy. If that meant star-freighter loads of oysters, then it would be star-freighter loads of oysters. The Confederation needed the gerontin that grew on Niobe.

The commercial worlds needed the anti-aging drug more and more as the exploration of space continued—not to mention the popular demand. Niobe was an ideal herbarium for growing the swampland plant from which the complex of alkaloids was extracted.

So Hartmann made a note of it, and the subject was dropped.

I didn’t think anything more about it. Kron was happy, Harl was happy, and Hartmann was feeling pleased with himself. There was no reason to keep the oyster question alive.

But it didn’t die there. By some sort of telepathy the Niobians scattered along the long tables found out what had been getting talked about at the upper end.

By this time I was on the ball again. When the orders went in I slipped a note to the cooks to use tabasco or vanaka on the Niobian orders. It was fortunate that there was an ample supply of oysters available, because the banquet dissolved shortly thereafter into an outright oyster feed. The Niobians dropped all pretense. They wanted oysters—with vanaka, with tabasco or with Kala berries. The more effete Earth preparations didn’t rouse the slightest enthusiasm, but the bivalve found its place in the hearts and stomachs of the natives. The oysters ultimately ran out, but one thing was certain. There was a definite bond of affection between our two utterly dissimilar species.

The era of good feeling persisted for several hours. There was no more quiet undertone of polite suffering among our guests. They were enjoying themselves. The Agreement was signed with hardly an exception being taken to its clauses and wording.

Niobe became a full member of the Confederation, with sovereign planetary rights, and the viscaya concentrate began flowing aboard the ships waiting at the polar bases.

A day later I got orders to start winding up the BEE’s installations on Niobe. The consular service would take over after I had finished….

Lanceford looked at his watch. “Well, we’re going to have time. It looks like they’ll be late. Want to hear the rest of it?”

“Naturally,” Perkins said. “I certainly wouldn’t want you to stop here.”

“Well,” Lanceford continued, “the next four years weren’t much.”

We spent most of the time closing down the outpost and regional installations, but it took longer than I expected what with the difficulty in getting shipping space to move anything but viscaya concentrate off the planet. Of course, like any of the Confederation bureaus, the BEE died hard. With one thing and another, there were still a lot of our old people left. We still had the three main bases on the continental land masses in operating condition, plus a few regional experiment stations on Alpha Continent and the Marine Biology Labs on Varnel Island. I’d just closed the last regional stations on Beta and Gamma when Heinz Bergdorf paid me an official call.

Heinz was the senior biologist on Varnel. He was a good looking lad of Teutonic ancestry, one of those big blond kids who fool you. He didn’t look like a scientist, but his skull held more knowledge of Niobe’s oceans than was good for a man. He would have to unlearn a lot of it before he took his next job, or so I thought at the time.

Anyway, Heinz came into my office looking like someone had stolen his favorite fishnet. The expression of Olympian gloom on his beak-nosed face would have done credit to Zeus. It didn’t take any great amount of brains to see that Heinz was worried. It stuck out all over him. He draped himself limply in the chair beside my desk.

“We’ve got troubles, Chief,” he announced.

I grinned at him. I knew perfectly well why he was here. Something had come up that was too big for him to handle. That was Heinz’s only fault, a belief in the omnipotence of higher authority. If he couldn’t handle it, it was a certainty that I could—even though I knew nothing of either his specialty or his problems. However, I liked the man. I did my best to give him the fatherly advice he occasionally needed, although he would have been better off half the time if he hadn’t taken it.

“Well, what’s the trouble now?” I asked. “From the look on your face it must be unpleasant. Or maybe you’re just suffering from indigestion.”

“It’s not indigestion, Chief.”

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. Tell me so I can worry too.”

I didn’t like the way he looked. Of course, I’d been expecting trouble for the past year. Things had been going far too smoothly.

“Oysters!” Bergdorf said laconically.

“Oysters?”

I looked at him incredulously. Bergdorf sat straight up in his chair and faced me. There was no humor in his eyes. “For God’s sake! You frightened me for a moment. You’re joking, I hope.”

“Far from it,” Bergdorf replied. “I said oysters and I mean oysters. It’s no joke! Just who was the unutterable idiot who planted them here?”

It took a minute before I remembered. “Hartmann,” I said. “Of the BIT. He ordered them delivered at the request of Kron Avar and Tovan Harl. I suppose Harl planted them. I never paid very much attention to it.”

“You should have. It would have been better if they had imported Bengal tigers! How long ago did this infernal insanity happen?”

“Right after the Agreement was signed, I guess. I’m sure it was no earlier than that, because Niobians met up with oysters for the first time at that affair.” I still didn’t get it, but there was no doubt that Heinz was serious. I tried to remember something about oysters, but other than the fact that they were good to eat and produced pearls I could think of nothing. Yet Bergdorf looked like the end of the world was at hand. There was something here that didn’t add up. “Well, get on with it,” I said. “As far as marine biology is concerned I’m as innocent as a Lyranian virgin. Tell me—what’s wrong with the oysters?”

“Nothing! That’s the trouble. They’re nice healthy specimens of terrestrial Ostrea lurida. We found a floating limb with about a dozen spat clinging to it.”

“Spat?”

“Immature oysters.”

“Oh. Is that bad?”

“Sure it’s bad. I suppose I’d better explain,” Bergdorf said. “On Earth an oyster wouldn’t be anything to worry about, even though it produces somewhere between sixteen and sixty million fertile eggs every year. On Earth this tremendous fertility is necessary for survival, but here on Niobe where there are no natural enemies to speak of, it’s absolutely deadly!

“Just take these dozen spat we found. Year after next, they’d be breeding size, and would produce about three hundred million larvae. If everything went right, some three years later those three hundred million would produce nine thousand trillion baby oysters! Can you image how much territory nine thousand trillion oysters would cover?”

I stopped listening right then, and started looking at the map of Niobe pinned on the wall. “Good Lord! They’d cover the whole eastern seaboard of Alpha from pole to pole.”

Bergdorf said smugly, “Actually, you’re a bit over on your guess. Considering the short free swimming stage of the larvae, the slow eastern seaboard currents, poor bottom conditions and overcrowding, I doubt if they would cover more than a thousand miles of coastline by the fourth year. Most of them would die from environmental pressures.

“But that isn’t the real trouble. Niobe’s oceans aren’t like Earth’s. They’re shallow. It’s a rare spot that’s over forty fathoms deep. As a result, oysters can grow almost anywhere. And that’s what’ll happen if they aren’t stopped. Inside of two decades they’ll destroy this world!”

“You’re being an alarmist,” I said.

“Not so much as you might think. I don’t suppose that the oysters will invade dry land and chase the natives from one rain puddle to another, but they’ll grow without check, build oyster reefs that’ll menace navigation, change the chemical composition of Niobe’s oceans, pollute the water with organic debris of their rotting bodies, and so change the ecological environment of this world that only the hardiest and most adaptable life forms will be able to survive this!”

“But they’ll be self-limiting,” I protested.

“Sure. But by the time they limit themselves, they will eliminate about everything else.”

“If you’re right, then, there’s only one thing to do. We’ll have to let the natives know what the score is and start taking steps to get rid of them.”

“Oh, I’m right. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’ll disagree with me. We kicked this around at the Lab for quite a spell before I came up here with it.”

“Then you’ve undoubtedly thought of some way to get rid of them.”

“Of course. That was one of the first things we did. The answer’s obvious.”

“Not to me.”

“Sure. Starfish. They’ll swamp up the extra oysters in jig time.”

“But won’t the starfish get too numerous?”

“No. They die off pretty fast without a source of food supply. From what we can find out about Niobe’s oceans, there is virtually no acceptable food for starfish other than oysters and some microscopic animal life that wouldn’t sustain an adult.”

“Okay, I believe you. But you still leave me cold. I can’t remember anything about a starfish that would help him break an oyster shell.”

Bergdorf grinned. “I see you need a course in marine biology. Here’s a thumbnail sketch. First, let’s take the oyster. He has a big muscle called an adductor that closes his shell. For a while he can exert a terrific pull, but a steady tension of about nine hundred grams tires him out after an hour or so. Then the muscle relaxes and the shell gapes open. Now the starfish can exert about thirteen hundred grams of tension with his sucker-like tube feet, and since he has so many of them he doesn’t have to use them all at one time. So, by shifting feet as they get tired, he can exert this pull indefinitely.

“The starfish climbs up on the oyster shell, attaches a few dozen tube feet to the outside of each valve and starts to pull. After a while the oyster gets tired, the shell opens up, and the starfish pushes its stomach out through its mouth opening, wraps the stomach around the soft parts of the oyster and digests it right in the shell!”

I shuddered.

“Gruesome, isn’t it?” Bergdorf asked happily. “But it’s nothing to worry about. Starfish have been eating oysters on the half shell for millions of years. In fact I’ll bet that a starfish eats more oysters in its lifetime than does the most confirmed oyster-addict.”

“It’s not the fact that they eat them,” I said feebly. “It’s the way they do it. It makes me ill!”

“Why should it? After all a starfish and a human being have a lot in common. Like them, you have eaten oysters on the half shell, and they’re usually alive when you gulp them down. I can’t see where our digestive juices are any easier on the oyster than those of a starfish.”

“Remind me never to eat another raw oyster,” I said. “On second thought you won’t have to. You’ve ruined my appetite for them forever.”

Bergdorf chuckled.

“Well, now that you’ve disposed of one of my eating habits,” I said bitterly, “let’s get back to the problem. I presume that you’ll have to find where the oysters are before you start in working them over with starfish.”

“You’ve hit the reason why I’m here. That’s the big problem. I want to find their source.”

“Don’t you know?”

“I can make a pretty good guess. You see, we picked this limb out of the Equatorial current. As you know, Varnel Island is situated right at the western termination of the current. We don’t get much littoral stuff unless it comes from the Islands or West Beta. And as far as I can figure the islands are the best bet. These spat probably came from the Piralones, that island group in the middle of the current about halfway across.”

I nodded. “It would be a good bet. They’re uninhabited. If Harl wanted an isolated spot to conduct oyster planting experiments, I couldn’t think of a better location. Nobody in his right mind would visit that place willingly. The islands support the damnedest assortment of siths you ever saw.”

“If that’s where it is,” Bergdorf said, “we can thank heaven for the natives’ suspicious nature. That location may help us save this world!”

I laughed at him. “Don’t be so grim, Heinz—or so godlike. We’re not going to save any worlds.”

“Someone has to save them.”

“We don’t qualify. What we’ll do is chase this business down. We’ll find out where the oysters come from, get an idea of how bad things are and then let the Niobians know about it. If anyone is going to save this planet it won’t be a bunch of Confederation exploration specialists.”

Bergdorf sighed. “You’re right, of course.”

I slapped him on the shoulder. “Cheer up, Heinz.” I turned to my appointment calendar and checked it over. There was nothing on it that couldn’t wait a few days. “Tell you what,” I continued. “I need a vacation from this place. We’ll take my atomic job and go oyster hunting. It ought to be fun.”

Bergdorf’s grin was like a sunrise on Kardon.

I brought the ‘copter down slowly through the overcast, feeling my way cautiously down to the ground that radar told me was somewhere below. We were hardly a hundred and fifty meters up before it became visible through the drenching tropic rain. Unless you’ve seen it you can’t imagine what rain is really like until you’ve been in the Niobian tropics. It literally swamps everything, including visibility.

It was the Piralones all right.

The last time I’d seen them was when I led the rescue party that pulled Wilson Chung and his passengers out of the Baril Ocean, but they were still the same, tiny deserted spots of land surrounded by coral reefs. We were over the biggest one of the group, a rounded hummock barely a kilometer in diameter, surrounded by a barrier reef of coral. Between the reef and the island a shallow lagoon lay in sullen grayness, its surface broken into innumerable tiny wavelets by the continual splash of rain. The land itself was a solid mass of olive-green vegetation that ended abruptly at a narrow beach.

“Well, we’re here,” I said. “Grim looking place, isn’t it?”

“Whoever spoke of the beauties of tropical islands didn’t have Niobe in mind,” Bergdorf agreed. “This place looks like something left behind by a cow.”

I couldn’t help the chuckle. The simile was too close for comfort. I tilted the rotors and we went down to hover about ten meters off the beach. Bergdorf pointed down the beach. I headed the ‘copter in that direction as Bergdorf looked out of the bubble, intently scanning the waters of the lagoon. Finally he looked up with an expression of understanding on his lean face.

“No wonder I missed them!” he murmured with awe. “There are so many that there’s no floor of the lagoon to spot them against. They cover the entire bottom! You might as well set her down here; it’s as good a place as any.”

I throttled back and landed the whirlybird on the beach. “You had your quota of vorkum?” I asked as Bergdorf reached for the door handle.

The biologist made a wry face. “Naturally. You think I’d be fool enough to go outside without it?”

“I wouldn’t know. All I’m sure of is that if you’re going to get out here, you’d better be loaded.” I followed after him as he opened the door and jumped down to the ground.

A small horde of siths instantly left the cover of the jungle and buzzed out to investigate. A few years ago, that would have been the signal for ray beams at fan aperture, but both Bergdorf and I ignored them, trusting in the protection of the vorkum. The beasties made a tactical pass at Heinz, thought the better of it and came wheeling over in my direction. I could almost see the disappointed look in their eyes as they caught my aura, put on the brakes and returned disappointed to their shelter under the broadleaves. Whatever vorkum did, it certainly convinced insects that we were inedible and antisocial.

One or two ventured back and buzzed hopefully around our heads before giving up in disgust.

“It beats me what they live on,” Bergdorf said, gesturing at the iridescent flash of the last bloodsucker as it disappeared beneath the broadleaves.

“As long as it isn’t us, I don’t give a damn,” I said. “Maybe they live on decaying vegetable matter until something live and bloody comes along. Anyway, they seem to get along.”

Bergdorf walked the few steps to the water’s edge. “I won’t even have to go swimming,” he said as he walked into the water a few steps, bent and came up with what looked like a handful of rocks.

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