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To Choke an Ocean

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“Oysters?” I asked, turning one over in my hand.

“Yep. Nice little O. lurida. About three years old, I’d guess, and just ripe for breeding. You know, I’ve never seen them growing so close to the shore. They must be stacked on top of each other out there a ways. There’s probably millions of them in this lagoon alone!”

“Well, we’ve found where they’re coming from. Now all that’s left is to figure out what to do about it.”

“We’d still better check Beta. They might possibly have reached there.”

“Not unless someone’s planted them,” I said. “You’re forgetting the ocean currents.”

“No. I was thinking of planted areas.”

“Well, think again. You may know your biology, but I know Niobians. They’re too suspicious to bring untried things too close to where they live. They’ve been that way as long as I can remember them, and I don’t think that anything—even something as delightful as an oyster—would make them change overnight.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Oh, we’ll check Beta, all right,” I said. “But you can send a couple of your boys to do it. There’s no sense in our wasting time with it.”

I heard the noise behind us before Bergdorf did. We turned in time to see four Niobians emerge from the jungle and glide purposefully toward us. The tribal tattoos on their chests identified them as members of Tovan Harl’s commune. I nudged Heinz and murmured, “We’ve got company.”

The natives approached to within a few paces. They stood politely to leeward while one of their number approached. “I’m sorry,” he said without the normal introduction, “but this is leased land. You will have to leave at once. And you will please return the oysters to the lagoon. It is not permitted to remove them.”

“Oh, all right,” I said. “We’re through here anyway. We’ll visit the other islands and then be off.”

“The other islands are also leased property. When you leave I will radio the other guards, and you will not be permitted to land.”

“This is not according to your customs,” I protested.

“I realize that, Mr. Lanceford,” the native said. “But I have given oath to keep all trespassers out.”

I nodded. It wasn’t usual. I wondered what Harl had in mind—possibly a planetary monopoly. If that was his plan, he was due for a surprise.

“That’s very commendable,” Bergdorf said, “but these oysters are going with me. They are needed as evidence.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the native said. “The oysters stay here.”

“Don’t be a fool, Heinz,” I interjected. “They’re in the right. The oysters are their property. If you try to take them you’ll be in trouble up to your ears.”

“But I need those oysters, Arthur! Probably the only adult oyster tissue on Niobe is on these islands. I need a sample of it.”

“Well, it’s your neck.” I turned to the native. “Don’t be too hard on him,” I said. “He’s quite an important man.”

The Niobian nodded and grinned. “Don’t worry, sir. He won’t feel a thing. But I really wish to apologize for our rudeness. If conditions were different—”

He paused and turned toward Bergdorf who was climbing into the ‘copter with the oysters still in his hand.

I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t make it. In fact, I’d have been more surprised if he had. Heinz crumpled to the ground beside the ship. One of the natives came forward, took the oysters from his limp hand and threw them back into the lagoon.

“All right,” I said to the spokesman. “You fellows clobbered him, so now you can get him into the ship.”

“That is only fair,” the native said. “We do not want to cause you any extra inconvenience.” He gestured to his companions. Between them they got Bergdorf’s limp body into the ship and strapped into one of the seats. They got out, I got in, and in a minute the two of us got out of there, going straight up through to overcast to get a celestial bearing for home.

I kept looking at Bergdorf’s limp body and grinning.

It was nearly an hour later before Bergdorf woke up. “What hit me?” he asked fuzzily.

“Subsonics,” I said. “They should have scared you to death.”

“I fainted?”

“Sure you did. You couldn’t help it. They hit like a ton of brick.”

“They certainly do,” he said ruefully.

“They can kill,” I said. “I’ve seen them do it. The Niobians generate them naturally, and they can focus them fairly well. Probably this quality was one of their forms of defense against predators in their early days. It’s a survival trait; and when there are enough natives present to augment the impulses they can be downright nasty.”

Bergdorf nodded. “I know,” he said. He stopped talking and looked out over the sun-drenched top of the overcast. “It looks like Tovan Harl wants to keep this oyster farm a private matter. In a way he’s doing us a favor, but I’d still feel happier if I had one or two of those oysters.”

“Why do you need them?”

“Well, I figured on getting a couple of the Navy’s organic detectors and setting them for oyster protoplasm. You know how sensitive those gadgets are. There might be a small but significant change in oyster protoplasm since it has arrived here.”

“Well, you don’t need to worry,” I said. “I put one of your pets in my pocket before the natives showed up, so you’ve got what you need.” I pulled the oyster out and handed it to him. It didn’t look any the worse for its recent rough treatment.

Bergdorf grinned. “I knew I could trust you, Chief. You’re sneaky!”

I laughed at him.

We arrived back at Alpha without trouble. I shooed Bergdorf back to Varnel with the one oyster and a promise that I’d back him up in any requisitions he cared to make. After that I checked up on the BEE business I had neglected for the past couple of days and, finally, late that night took one of the Base’s floaters and drove slowly down the trail to Kron’s village.

While Earth-style civilization had done much to improve transport and communication on Niobe, it hadn’t—and still hasn’t for that matter—produced a highway that can stand up to the climate. Roads simply disappear in the bottomless mud. So whatever vehicular transport exists on Niobe is in the form of floaters, whose big sausage-shaped tires give enough flotation to stay on top of the ooze, and sufficient traction to move through the morass that is Niobe’s surface. They’re clumsy, slow and hard to steer. But they get you there—which is something you can’t say about other vehicles.

Kron’s village had changed somewhat since I first visited it. The industrial section was new. The serried ranks of low dural buildings gleamed metallically in the glare of the floater’s lights, glistening with the sheets of water that ran from their roofs and sides. The power-broadcast station that stood in the center of the village hadn’t been there either. But other than that everything was pretty much the same as it always had been, an open space in the jungle filled with stone-walled, thatch-roofed houses squatting gloomily in the endless rain.

The industry, such as it was, was concentrated solely upon the production of viscaya concentrate. It had made little difference in the Niobian way of life, which was exactly as the natives wanted it.

It was odd, I reflected, how little change had taken place in Niobian society despite better than two decades of exposure to Confederation technology. Actually, the Confederation could leave tomorrow, and would hardly be missed. There would be no cultural vacuum. The strangers would simply be gone. Possibly some of our artifacts would be used. The atomic power-broadcast station would possibly stay, and so would the high-powered radio. Perhaps some of the gadgetry the natives had acquired from us would be used until it was worn out, but the pattern of the old ways would stay pretty much as it had always been. For Niobian culture was primarily philosophical rather than technological, and it preferred to remain that way.

I parked my floater beside the house that had sheltered Kron as long as I had known him. I entered without announcing myself.

As an old friend I had this privilege, although I seldom used it. But if I had come formally there would have been an endless rigmarole of social convention that would have had to be satisfied before we could get down to business. I didn’t want to waste the time.

Kron was seated behind a surprisingly modern desk, reading a book by the light of a Confederation glowtube. I looked at its title—The Analects of Confucius—and blinked. I’d heard of it. It and Machiavelli’s Prince are classics on governmental personality and philosophy, but I had never read it. Yet here, hundreds of light years from the home world, this naked alien was reading and obviously enjoying that ancient work. It made me feel oddly ashamed of myself.

He looked up at me, nodded a greeting and laid the book down with a faint expression of regret on his doglike face. I found a chair and sat down silently. I wondered how he found time to read. My job with the BEE kept me busy every day of the 279-day year. And his, which was more important and exacting than mine, gave him time to read philosophy! I sighed. It was something I could never understand.

I waited for him to speak. As host, it was his duty to open the wall of silence which separated us.

“Greetings, friend Lanceford,” Kron said. “My eyes are happy with the pleasure of beholding you.” He spoke in the ancient Niobian formula of hospitality. But he made it sound as though he really meant it.

“It’s a double joy to behold the face of my friend and to hear his voice,” I replied in the same language. Then I switched to Confed for the business I had in mind. Their polite forms are far too clumsy and uncomfortable for business use; it takes half a day to get an idea across. “It seems as though I’m always coming to you with trouble,” I began.

“What now?” Kron asked. “Every time I see you, I hope that we can relax and enjoy our friendship, but every time you are burdened. Are you Earthmen forever filled with troubles or does my world provoke them?” He smiled at me.

“A little of both, I suppose,” I said.

Kron hummed—the Niobian equivalent of laughter. “I’ve been observing you Earthmen for the past twenty years, and I have yet to see one of you completely relaxed. You take yourselves much too seriously. After all, my friend, life is short at best. We should enjoy some of it. Now tell me your troubles, and perhaps there is no cause to worry.”

“You’re wrong, Kron. There is plenty of cause to worry. This can affect the well-being of everything on this world.”

Kron’s face sharpened into lines of interest. “Continue, friend Lanceford.”

“It’s those oysters the BIT sent you a few years ago. They’re getting out of hand.”

Kron hummed. “I was afraid that it—”

“—was something serious!” I finished. “That’s what I told Heinz Bergdorf when he came to me with this story. Now sober down and listen! This is serious!”

“It sounds pretty grim,” Kron said after I had finished. “But how is it that your people didn’t foresee the danger? Something as viciously reproductive as the oyster should be common knowledge.”

“Not on our world. You see, the study of sea life is a specialized science on Earth. It is one of the faults of our technological civilization that almost everyone must specialize from the time he enters secondary school. Unless one specializes in marine biology, one generally knows little or nothing about it.”

“Odd. Very odd. But then, you Earthmen always were a peculiar race. Now, if I heard you right, I believe that you said there is an animal on your world which preys upon these oysters. A starfish?”

“Yes.”

“Won’t this animal be as destructive as the oyster?”

“Bergdorf doesn’t think so, and I trust his judgment.”

“Won’t this animal also kill our Komal? They are like these oysters of yours in a way.”

“But they burrow, and the starfish doesn’t. They’ll be safe enough.”

Kron sighed. “I knew that association with you people would prove to be a mixed blessing.” He shrugged his shoulders and turned his chair to his desk. A Niobian face appeared on the screen. “Call a Council meeting and let me know when it is ready,” Kron ordered.

“Yes, Councilor,” the face replied.

“Well, that’s that. Now we can relax until the Council manages to get together.”

“How long will that take?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” Kron said. “Several days—several weeks. It all depends upon how soon we can get enough Council members together to conduct business.”

I said unhappily, “I’d like to have your outlook but we’re fighting against time!”

“You Earthmen pick the most impossible opponents. You should learn to work with time rather than against it.” He pulled at one ear reflectively. “You know, it is strange that your race could produce ethical philosophers like this one.” He tapped the Analects with a webbed forefinger. “Such contrast of thought on a single world is almost incredible!”

“You haven’t seen the half of it!” I chuckled. “But I’m inclined to agree with you. Earth is an incredible world.”

Fortunately there was a battle cruiser in the Polar spaceport on a goodwill mission. We had no trouble about getting the detectors Bergdorf needed, plus a crew to run them. The Navy is co-operative about such things, and every officer knows the importance of the BEE on a planetary operation. We could have had the entire cruiser if we had wanted it.

A week later the four Marine Lab ships, each equipped with a detector, started a search of Niobe’s oceans. Their atomic powerplants could drive them along at a respectable speed. Bergdorf and I expected a preliminary report within a month.

We weren’t disappointed.

The results were shocking, but not unexpected. Preliminary search revealed no oysters in the other two major oceans, but the Baril Ocean was badly infested. There were groups and islands of immature oysters along the entire course of the Equatorial current and the tropical coast of Alpha. Practically every island group in the central part of the ocean showed traces of the bivalves. It was amazing how far they had spread. Even the northern shallows had a number of thriving young colonies.

Bergdorf was right. Another year and we’d have been swamped. As it was it was nothing to laugh about.

The news reached Kron just before the Council meeting, which, like most of Niobe’s off-season politics, had been delayed time after time. Since a Council meeting requires an attendance of ninety per cent of the Council, it had been nearly impossible to schedule an assembly where a quorum could be present. But our news broadcasts over the BEE radio reached every corner of the planet, and the note of urgency in them finally produced results.

The Niobians held the emergency session at Base Alpha, where our radio could carry the proceedings to the entire planet. Whatever else they may be, Niobian government sessions are open to the public. Since the advent of radio, practically the entire public listens in.

Like the natives, I listened too. I wasn’t surprised when Kron appeared in my office, his eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep, but with a big grin on his face that exposed his sharp sectorial teeth. “Well, that’s over, friend Lanceford. Now send us your starfish.”

“That’s easier said than done,” I replied gloomily. “I’ve contacted the Confederation. They won’t ship twenty pounds of starfish—let alone the twenty thousand tons Bergdorf says we’ll need!”

“Why not? Are they crazy? Or do they want to destroy us?”

“Neither. This is just a sample of bureaucracy at work. You see, the starfish is classed as a pest on Earth. Confederation regulations forbid the exportation of pests to member planets.”

“But we need them!”

“I realize that, but the fact hasn’t penetrated to the highest brass.” I laughed humorlessly. “The big boys simply can’t see it. By the time we marshal enough evidence to convince them, it will be too late. Knowing how Administration operates, I’d say that it’d take at least a year for them to become convinced. And another two months for them to act.”

“But we simply can’t wait that long! Your man Bergdorf has convinced me. We’re in deadly danger!”

“You’re going to have to wait,” I said grimly. “Unless you can find some way to jar them out of their rut.”

Kron looked thoughtful. “I think that can be done, friend Lanceford. As I recall, your bureaus are timid things. Furthermore, we have something they want pretty bad. I think we can apply pressure.”

“But won’t your people object? Doesn’t that deny your basic philosophy of non-interference with others?”

Kron grinned ferociously. “Not at all. Like others of your race, you have never understood the real significance of our social philosophy. What it actually boils down to is simply this—we respect the customs and desires of others but require in turn that they respect ours.”

“You mean that you will use force against the rest of the Confederation? But you can’t do that! You wouldn’t stand a chance against the Navy.”

“We will first try a method we have used with our own tribes who get out of line. I don’t think anything more will be necessary.” Kron’s voice was flat. “It goes against the grain to do this, but we are left no choice.” He turned and left the room without a farewell, which was a measure of his agitation.

I sat there behind my desk wondering what the Niobians could do. Like my ex-boss Alvord Sims, I had a healthy respect for them. It just could be that they could do plenty.

They could.

Organization! Man, you’ve never seen anything like what the Niobians tossed at our startled heads! We always thought the Planetary Council was a loose and ineffective sort of thing, but what happened within the next twenty hours had to be seen to be believed. I saw it. But it was days before I believed it.

Within a day the natives had whipped up an organization, agreed on a plan of action and put it into effect. By noon of the next day Niobe was a closed planet. A message was sent to the Confederation informing them that Niobe was withdrawing until the emergency was over. An embargo was placed on all movement of shipping.

And everything stopped.

No factories operated. The big starfreighters stood idle and empty at the polar bases. Not one ounce of gerontin or its concentrate precursor left Niobe. Smiling groups of Niobians, using subsonics to enforce their demands, paralyzed everything the Confederation had operated on the planet. No one was hurt. The natives were still polite and friendly. But Confederation business came to an abrupt halt, and stayed halted.

It was utterly amazing! I had never heard of a planet-wide boycott before. But Niobe was entirely within her rights. The Confederation had to accept it.

And, of course, the Confederation capitulated. If the Niobians were fools enough to want pests as a condition of resuming viscaya shipments—well, it was their affair. The Confederation needed viscaya. It was willing to do almost anything to assure its continued supply.

With the full power of the Confederation turned to giving Niobe what she wanted, it wasn’t long before the oysters were under control. We established a systematic seeding procedure for the starfish that kept arriving by the freighter load. In a few months Bergdorf reported that an ecological balance had been achieved.

“But didn’t the starfish create another pest problem?” Perkins asked.

“Not at all,” Lanceford said. “I told you that the Niobians had an odd sense of taste. Starfish proved to be quite acceptable to the Niobian palate. They merely added another item to Niobe’s food supply.”

Perkins shuddered delicately. “I wouldn’t eat one of those things in a million years.”

“You’re going to have to eat vorkum if you expect to survive on this world. Compared to vorkum, a starfish is sheer pleasure! But that wasn’t the end of it,” Lanceford added with a smile. “You see, shortly after things had simmered down to normal Kron dropped into my office.

“‘I think, friend Lanceford,’ he said, ‘that we are going to have to create a permanent organization to keep unwanted visitors out. This little affair has been a needed lesson. I have been reading about your planetary organization, and I think a thing like your Customs Service is vitally needed on our world to prevent future undesirable biological importations.’

“‘I agree,’ I replied. ‘Anything that would prevent a repetition of this business would be advisable.’

“So that was how the Customs Service started. The insigne you will recognize as a starfish opening an oyster. Unfortunately the Niobians are quite literal minded. When they say any biological importation will be quarantined and examined, they mean Confederation citizens too!

“And that, of course, was the entering wedge. You’ll find things quite homelike once you get out of here. The natives have developed an organization that’s a virtual copy of our Administrative Branch. Customs, as you know, is a triumph of the bureaucratic system, and naturally the idea spread. Once the natives got used to a permanent government organization that was available at all times, it was only a question of time before the haphazard tribal organization became replaced by a planetary union. You could almost say that it was an inevitable consequence.”

Lanceford grinned. “The Niobians didn’t realize that the importation of foreign Customs was almost as bad as the importation of foreign animals!” He chuckled at the unconscious pun.

 

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