Authors: Brian Stableford
Copyright Â© 1976, 2011 by Brian Stableford
Published by Wildside Press LLC
It was late September, the trees shedding their useless leaves, stripping down for the winter with the aid of a hurried, anxious wind. A man and a boy were walking along the river bank. The river was dark and turbid, and despite the waves fluttering its surface it seemed heavy and sluggish. The banks on either side, where the frail trees still eked out their lives despite the shadows which hid them from the sun for most of the day, were flanked with high, smooth faces of concrete. The living city, where windowed buildings blossomed from the roofs of the labyrinthine catacombs, was high in the sky. Its sounds filtered down into the deep crack where the river ran, but they were distant, muted. The place where the man walked with his son was part of an older, forgotten world: a world where privacy remained.
The man wore a coat, and his hands were buried in his pockets as he cowered from the chilly gusts. His head was held at an angle, turned away from the dust which the wind picked up and threatened to hurl into his eyes. The boy was more lightly dressed, but he seemed accustomed to the wind, oblivious to its hostilities. He walked with a lighter step, but slowlyâas though uncertain of his direction.
The man had just passed forty, the age at whichâby the tradition of common parlanceâlife may begin again, changing direction and entering a new phase. The boy was stranded in the ambiguous years between youth and maturityâperhaps seventeen, or a year to either side. They were both tall, lanky, dark haired. The man wore a heavy tanâthe legacy of time recently spent in the tropics, which had not had time to fade. The boy, beside him, seemed unnaturally pale of skin.
They were talking, one to another, but an interested observer might have noted the way that their eyes flickered from side to side, and the fact that they always walked slightly apart. Despite their blood relationship, they seemed to be strangers, lost in the desert of their conversation, unable to meet and exchange any real confidence. They did not know what to say, or how.
“I'm sorry there isn't more time,” said the man. His name was Alexis Alexander. His son's name was Peter. “The schedule is tight. And the operation...well, it isn't exactly secret, but there's to be no publicity. The political situation you know better than I...it's delicate.”
“Slipping quietly away into the depths of space,” said the boy. “Behind the nation's back.”
“It's nothing to do with the nation,” said the man. “It's the whole world.”
the nations' backs,” amended the boy.
They said more with the manner of their speaking than with the words they used. The man was reluctantly defensive. He chose his words carefully, not because he was undecided in his thoughts, but because he knew that what he said was offensive to the boy. The boy was doubtful and unhappy. He was also resentfulâdetermined to place the responsibility for his doubt and unhappiness on his father's shoulders.
“You know that I believe in this,” said the man. “I've worked for it all my life. I believe that this is something which must be done, for historical as well as moral reasons. All my life I've wanted the chance I have now. Please try to understand that.”
“I don't understand,” said the boy. “I can't understand how anyone can condoneâlet alone participate inâsuch a criminal waste of effort, of resources, of money. What's the purpose of history if we can't and won't learn from our mistakes? When the last starship carried colonists into space seventy-five years ago the Earth was in ruins. Seven billion people were left with the wreck of a world which had used up everything it had to send seven million people to alien planets. For every man that went out, a thousand were left behind. And for every dollar spent on the men who stayed, a thousand were spent on the ones who left. And yet it took years of fighting, civil war endemic over ninety percent of the globe, to get the lunacy stopped. Now youâand people like youâwant to start it all again. You want to bring back the space age. You want to bring back the world where people's needs were met with hopeless dreams. Even in seventy-five years, we haven't begun to sort out the problems which the human race faces here on Earth, and you want to put the clock back, to forget all the real problems and put all our efforts into denying a thousand men so that one can take a crazy chance in space. What's the use of a new worldâa hundred new worldsâwhen we can't even look after the one we've got?”
The man picked up a loose stone from the earth beside the towpath, held it crooked between thumb and forefinger, and then sent it spinning out across the wave-flecked surface. It skipped once, twice, and then disappeared a foot or two short of the opposite bank. The waves scurrying upstream against the current hungrily absorbed the ripples which spread out from each point of contact.
“There'll always be problems on Earth,” said the man simply. He didn't want to argue.
“But we don't always have to turn our backs on them.”
“We can't wait for Utopia,” said the man. “It's like tomorrowâforever in the future.”
The boy resented the lightness of the remark, but he relaxed nevertheless. He let a few seconds pass by, while the wind drained the tension from the air. Then, in a quiet voice, he said, “Where did the money come from?”
The man almost smiled. He made a sound halfway between a cough and a laugh. “It came in. Covertly. We didn't get any vast handouts. No government voted us a share of its gross national product. But the UN has some first-class beggars. It was borrowed, stolen, extorted...whatever you care to call it. I don't know how it shows up in the books when governments publish their accounts. Long-term investment, research, contribution to international project workâthere are a million euphemisms to excuse the way taxpayers' money is spent. It took years, mind you, to get the
fitted out, and more years while it sat idle until they could pay for its first run. There were scandals, but over the years these things get forgotten. There was no big splash when the ship came back after the first run, and there'll be no big splash when she takes off again. It's not secretâit's just that the story's been dragged out so long people are past caring.”
“That's not true,” said the boy, with a bitterness in his voice which made it clear that it was true. “There are people who care. There are people who'd like to blow that ship to kingdom come if they could only get to it. You know what they call you...the men who ride that ship? Rat-catchers. That's what they say you areâinterplanetary rat-catchers.”
The man smiled bleakly.
“I know,” he replied. “And it's true. We're rat-catchers. Only I don't take the word as an insult. It needn't be said in a derisory way. There are nicer ways of describing our mission, but rat-catcher is good enough for me. Do you know why they call us rat-catchers?”
“Because that's what you do,” said the boy. “You contact all the old coloniesâthe ones that were set up a couple of hundred years ago. And you clear out their vermin. Because that's all that you
The man nodded. “That's the trouble with a no-publicity policy,” he said. “You can't keep secrets, so people get to know anyhow, but they get the vulgarized version. Well...OK. We recontact the colonies, we offer them help, and the only help that's easy to offer is know-how. Scientific know-how. We ask them what sort of problems they have, and we try to help them solve the problems. If they have problems with vermin, we find them a way to exterminate the vermin. So we're rat-catchers.
“But you have to realize that that's the kind of problems the colonies
have. You have to remember that the old colony ships were built for the purpose of transporting as many people as possible from point A to point B. The ships were giant tin cans, with humans packed into them like sardines. The colonies started with virtually nothing in the way of resources. No continual contact with Earth was possibleâit's easy and cheap to build big ships that lift once and land once, but it's next to impossible to finance ships like
which can go in and out of gravity holes more or less at will. The colonies we're recontacting now have been out of touch with Earth for at least a century; some of them were never contacted at all, but just left to get on with things. The colony worlds had been passed as habitable, the colonists were given the barest elements of a civilization, and that was
They had to start in on their new worlds with very little else but bare hands. Now, three or four or seven generations later, we go back to them. What's the most important thing we can take them? What's the thing that they need most?
“We can no more send them equipment now than we could when they first went out. We can't take them anything material at all. So we take them the means to find answers to their problems. Individual colonies have individual problems, but we know damn well that they all have one general class of problems to face, and that's the class of
problems of co-adaptation.
“A colony is one life-system invading another. It's the seed of Earth trying to implant itself in alien soil. Sure, the worlds have been surveyed, the life-systems inspected, and the whole venture certified practical by men who are trained to guess and guess right. But it's not as simple as that. When a life-system in balance is invaded by another there are bound to be ecological repercussions, both short-term and long-term. The colonists have no way of analyzing the ecological effects of their invasion, let alone any capacity to mount a long-range scientific program to deal with them. Most problems can be dealt with at a superficial levelâtreatment of the symptoms, as you might sayâbut over a period of time there are bound to be permanent antagonisms developed between the two life-systems. The invasion will cause permanent changes in
systems, as they react to one another andâin the long termâ
to one another.
was designed to recontact colonies. It was built with the assumption that such colonies would, by now, be established to a certain degree. They would be technologically primitive even with a large reservoir of knowledge and information to draw upon. And they would be engaged in a constant battle with the alien life-system: a battle which had, itself, become a way of life. The purpose of the
is to help such colonies win such battles. It's a flying laboratory, fitted out for the specific tasks of genetic analysis and genetic engineering. Its job is to help resolve the antagonisms which inevitably develop between the life-systems. At a crude level, the means which the alien life-system evolves to attack the invading life-system have to be neutralized, and that's what the recontact mission is for. According to the vulgar metaphor, it's a matter of catching alien rats. Fair enoughâthe rats have to be caught.”
“I see,” said the boy flatly.
“It's necessary,” said the man, trying very hard to make his point. “Without such help, colonies may die. You complain about the waste of effort putting them there. But wouldn't the
waste be leaving them to die? Even if it was wrong to send the colony ships outâand I can't agree even with thatâsurely it can't be wrong to do what we have to in order to give them a reasonable chance of success. We're
now. We have to be.”
The boy stared steadfastly forward, watching the river as it flowed into the narrow crack that was the faraway horizon of the concrete walls. Though parallel, the walls did not appear to meet at infinity. There was a thin sliver of sky, out beyond the city's boundary.
“You don't have to convince me,” said the boy. “It's nothing to do with me. You've never pretended to be any different. You're an ecologist...all your life you've been involved in experiments with alien plants brought to Earth in the old days...that and trying to figure out how to help Earth's life-system survive the rape that the human race has subjected it to these last few hundred years. This
thing is made for you. It's the perfect opportunity for you to use your ability and your training. You don't need to justify yourself to me.”
“But you hate me for it,” said the man, the words slipping from momentarily unguarded lips.
“No,” said the boy. “Why should I?”
The man could find nothing to say for a few moments. When he began again it was a return to safer ground.
“The first run proved the thinking right,” he said, in a low, patient voice. “Of the five worlds contacted, four had the kind of problem the
personnel could attack in the lab. The rats were caughtâand you can't underestimate the significance of that. Those colonies were helped.”
“And what about the fifth?”
The man looked away, his gaze flickering across the water to the far bank, and on up the concrete face to the heights where the grimy windows gleamed with reflected light. He continued to scan the arrays of glass panes, as though trying to imagine the myriad private lives concealed behind them.
“The fifth colony had already failed,” the boy accused.
“The ship was too late,” said the man. “The political climate didn't improve fast enough for them. Mother Earth spent too long searching her pockets for the loose change.”
“Thousands of people,” said the boy. “They shipped out with promises of a garden of Eden. Out of the cesspit into the grave. A children's crusade. In pursuit of a crazy dream. Was it really worth it?”
“They could have succeeded.”
“If help had come sooner.”
“And what about the people here?” asked the boy. “Billions of people. Facing the third great plague. Facing starvation. Facing foul water and poisoned air. Who'd have helped them if all the money was spent on flying laboratories to help the colonies? Your ship may save thousands of lives. You and your mission may work wonders out there in space. But how many lives could the same money save right here? Even in this countryâthis cityâwhere, by the grace of God, things are supposed to be going just great...what
yesterday's death toll, incidentally?”