Copyright 1998 Robert G. Ferrell

A soft, persistent beeping insinuated itself into his awareness and nudged him gently towards waking. He snapped awake and immediately regretted having fallen asleep in his command chair, a piece of furniture designed to discourage inattention to duty. With exaggerated care he swiveled his head around in search of the thing which had awakened him. Burdened as he was with bleary vision and the fuzzy disorientation of the recently and involuntarily conscious, it took some time before he could focus well enough to pinpoint the source of the innocuous little chirpings, but finally his gaze came to rest on a squat whitish cuboidal box which sat on a counter to his left and steamed, cheerfully, as it beeped to indicate that the liquid within was ready.

The coffee was a bit on the thin side this morning, and he made a fuzzy mental note to do something about that after his dexterity had a chance to catch up to the rest of him. It was something of a miracle that the Potable Liquid Dispenser had been able to synthesize this particular beverage at all, however, so he really had no complaint. Coffee was quite obscure in this day and age; he had acquired a taste for it while on assignment to an old Earth colony whose inhabitants had managed to establish Coffea on some nearby tropical hillsides. So far as he knew, the plant had become extinct on its native planet when the last of its South American habitat had been cleared for an Environmental Impact Documents storage facility.

This morning he was well disposed toward the PLD anyway, as it had succeeded in waking him where his ultratech biochronometer had failed utterly. The panmetallic composite disc implanted at the base of his skull was not only demonstrably unreliable as an alarm clock, it was also a constant source of vague physical irritation, despite the unctuous assurances of CENSRAD that such discomfort was an impossibility. Their Bioaugmentation Surgical Team had taken great pains to ensure that each and every one of the surrounding nerves was within the paresthetic continuity field; no sensation of the device was therefore medically possible. They wouldn't listen to his protestations to the contrary.

The failure of the implant was therefore a source of satisfaction to him, especially with the vast array of other CENSRAD technology surrounding him. "Up to my navel in Biometrics," he said aloud to no one, "And the only thing around here that works worth a donkey's backside is the damned digital coffeepot." He smiled a smug smile and punched up something for breakfast.

He finished his coffee and the thoroughly tasteless freeze-dried eggs and bacon he had made a determined effort to enjoy, and reached across to switch on the Implementation Scheduling display. It silently flashed his mission for him (he had disconnected the voice module, which he found patronizing):

ASSIGNMENT:

PRIVATE COLONY JS42719-13

STATUS:

NO COMMUNICATION WITH COLONY SINCE 2215.12.3
PRESUMED EXTINCT

RECOMMENDED ACTION:

FULL PRECAUTION PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATORY PROCEDURE

"Oh, no," he groaned dismally. Despite the undeniable wisdom of taking every precaution against unknown and potentially fatal circumstances, he really despised the FPPIP. After a brief and pointless argument with himself over whether or not to disregard the computer recommendation, he sighed and gave in. You can't fight city hall, he thought, especially when you live there.

After a quick sonic shower (he wished old-fashioned water were available; this thing left him for hours with the macabre impression that his skin was trying to inch its way off his body), he started putting on the Self-Contained Organism-Neutralizing Environmental Suit, which he would not be able to remove until the computer had determined that any artifacts or samples he retrieved from the colony were harmless. This, he decided, would not be a lot of fun.

The several concentric layers of the Suit fit rather loosely over his frame, but when it was entirely assembled he snapped on the power cell, donned a more rigid helmet of the same material, and stepped into the Suit Integrity Chamber. A soft blue light enveloped him, and he felt the suit fabric contract. When he stepped out of the Chamber, he was covered in a tight gray sheath which was in effect a second skin. The ovoid helmet had melded with the suit collar, leaving only a thick transparent rectangle over his face to interrupt the ubiquitous gray. The suit protected him from everything, even his own tactile impressions; he felt, as usual, like a sensory deprivation experiment in progress. It matched his skin temperature precisely, and generated a thin but formidable bioprotective field which made the universe indistinct. CENSRAD propaganda said that the suit would protect him from anything smaller and less powerful than a terrestrial timber wolf, a limitation he hoped never to put to the test. The suit was new technology, and his experience in it was limited to training exercises, where he had sloshed through seemingly endless Toxic Organisms and Substances Tests. This was his (and, in fact, the suit's) first field assignment. He found himself longing for the old, cumbersome, shoulder-harnessed Cocoon Generator.

After checking the efficacy of his precautionary measures by subjecting himself and his suit to a Laminar Flow Simulated Severe Hazards Integrity Test, he slid open a panel and removed a large Mass-Negating Instrument Case, whose surface repellor field activated automatically, giving the bulky MANIC the apparent mass of a few dozen neutrinos. He grasped the small yellow handle which protruded conspicuously from a recessed area in one end of the MANIC and drew out a synthfiber strap about a meter long. He walked through the shimmering airlock boundary membrane, tugging the weightless MANIC along behind. "Come on, Rover," he said to the silent metal box, "Let's go find you a fire hydrant."

The Civilian Outpost Permit Application and File for Colony JS42719-13 glowed before him in miniature on the MANIC's Remote Data Acquisition screen:

DATE OF APPLICATION:

2208.8.21

DATE OF FINAL APPROVAL:

2209.1.18

REGISTERED NAME:

CAER ANNWEN

MINIMUM TECHNOLOGY LEVEL OUTPOST ESTABLISHED ABOUT 2210.2 BY A GROUP OF WEALTHY CITIZENS WHO WERE APPARENTLY THE REMNANTS OF A LATE-TWENTIETH CENTURY SOCIAL EXPERIMENT IN WHICH SUBJECTS UNDERWENT VOLUNTARY RETROGRADE SOCIAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT FOR REASONS UNKNOWN. THE GROUP POSSESSED ONLY PRIMITIVE COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT AND VIRTUALLY NO TECHNOLOGICAL CAPABILITY. THEIR DECLARATION OF INTENT TO EMIGRATE STATED UNDER JUSTIFICATION FOR NONSTANDARD EQUIPMENT MANIFEST THAT THE MAJORITY OF THE RECOMMENDED PIECES OF SURVIVAL GEAR WERE BEING DELETED FROM SHIPBOARD STORES BECAUSE SUCH EQUIPMENT WAS 'TOO TECHNOLOGICAL.' SINCE EMIGRATION STATUTES DID NOT AT THAT TIME REQUIRE STANDARD MANIFESTS, THE APPLICATION WAS EVENTUALLY APPROVED. THE COMMUNIQUES ISSUED BY THE COLONY WERE BRIEF AND WIDELY SPACED. ALTHOUGH SOME TELEMETRY DATA WERE RECEIVED UNTIL 2215.12.3, THE LAST VOICE TRANSMISSION WAS RECORDED 2215.5.1; CONTENT FOLLOWS: 'HAPPY NEW YEAR.' THIS COLONY WAS DESIGNATED 'ECCENTRIC BUT NOT THREATENING' BY THE BUREAU OF SPACE DEMOGRAPHICS AND ITS FILE CLOSED ON 2217.4.30.

He shook his head. "What a bunch of card-carrying weirdos," he muttered.

The Surface Configuration Analysis computer had landed his beetle of a ship about fifty meters from the periphery of the principal settlement of the lost colony. The settlement consisted, he noted derisively into the voice data recorder of the MANIC, of crumbling wooden buildings, rotted canvas shelters, and a fairly impressive structure of native stone he dubbed 'the Castle.' He decided to start his survey at the edge of the settlement and work his way systematically toward the center, which was dominated by this rock edifice.

"An interesting collection of antiques here, some of them probably valuable," he dictated in his detached, professional voice. He wiped off an astonishing stratum of dust from a table in one of the decrepit buildings and was taken aback by a fleeting shimmer of gold. He blew off the rest of the fine powder with a compressed air nozzle and discovered a half-finished illuminated page of stained and crumbling parchment. He had heard of such artifacts through ancient history holotapes; a few related items had escaped the ravages of man and time and were carefully preserved in regional museums. As a child, he recalled visiting the Bloomington International Gardens and Museum of Culture, or something to that effect. There he had seen a vast array of more-or-less wondrous examples of art and the craft of making things for both beauty and utility's sake before the advent of mechanized aesthetics. He felt, in viewing them and even at his tender age, that here was something quite remarkable, quite without equivalence in his modern world. His awe was evoked most especially by his discovery in that atavistic maze of a large flexiglass display case of various hand-produced documents. The only one he could clearly recall was a sheet marked "Ramsey Psalter c. 1300," with the words "Pierpont Morgan" stamped at an angle along one margin. He never expected to see anything like that delicate flower of antiquity on this remote rock. He reverently ran his fingers very lightly around the raised gold letters and wondered at the inscription "Geoffrey d' Avalon, scripsit" at the bottom of the page. A quick check of the emigration file showed no one by that name on the personnel manifest. He slid the sheet carefully into an artifact pouch, evacuated it, and placed it in the storage compartment of the quietly hovering MANIC. He grabbed the tote strap. "Here, boy!" he said, then whistled between his teeth. The MANIC followed with mute obedience.

After several hours of exploring and cataloguing findings, including some odd wooden frames with pegs set into them, various unusual stringed musical instruments, and a number of strange garments made partially of steel plates or interlocking metal rings, he finally reached the castle. "Actually," he noted to the MANIC's data recorder, "The edifice consists of an arched entryway through an incomplete rectangular stone wall enclosing several wooden buildings and a circular stonework structure about..," he glanced at his inclinometer and made a quick mental calculation, "Ten meters high and fifteen meters in diameter." He cleared his throat with just a trace of nervousness and continued, "Several more of the skeletal remains seen in the outer village are present here, in apparently random locations." His preliminary analyses of remains had failed to pinpoint any probable cause of death, but that wasn't surprising considering the age of the remains and the limited analytical capability of the survey instruments in the MANIC. There were no broken bones or punctured skulls in evidence, so he concluded that whatever had killed them had indeed been smaller than a timber wolf, or at least not similarly predaceous. He was relieved and vaguely anxious, at the same time.

He opened a door in the main building and discovered a circular platform, about half a meter high and the same in diameter, with a round hole cut neatly out of its center, leaving a ten centimeter rim around the outer perimeter. A metal cannister could be seen under the platform, which was supported by three stone blocks. He realized with a start that this was a crude toilet. On a small shelf to one side was a roll of decomposing paper, of a loosely woven, flimsy manufacture that stood in stark contrast to the finely executed handmade papers he had found in the room with the illuminated parchment. The rough paper was a strangely familiar muted blue color, that he couldn't exactly place.

He found even more items for his curious collection in the main room of the castle. Ornately carved and upholstered chairs, round metal table ornaments. utensils, elegant drinking vessels, jewelry of diverse construction, and a sealed box of intact rolls of the same pale blue paper he had found previously. His stomach told him that it was time for lunch, so he returned to the ship, MANIC and arcane treasure in tow.

After lunch he sat contentedly at his sorting table, examining his booty under different wavelengths of light. One of the items he had recovered was a small wooden box, locked with a tiny brass padlock. He carefully pried the hinges off of the box and opened the lid. The box contained a rectangular object wrapped in some sort of smooth, fragile fabric which dropped away in tatters as with gloved hands he lifted the object and set it on the table. With exaggerated care he spread the wispy fabric to reveal a number of lavishly decorated cards, each boasting a different gold-highlighted painting. He was chortling with barely repressed excitement now, as he came to realize the market value such objets d'art would command on Earth. They were all hand painted on hand manufactured plaques, exquisite in every detail. No one on Earth had bothered to keep alive the techniques of hand painting, not when multidimensional graphics were merely a matter of calling up any of several hundred thousand existing ArtiFex modules and routing the output through a decent lithographic plastigenesis unit.

He spread out the cards and picked one, at random. He turned it over after marveling for a moment at its intricately intertwined knotwork back, and was greeted by a stone column apparently in the midst of being struck by an electrical discharge from some unseen source. Figures and debris were being flung haphazardly out in all directions from the top of the stricken structure, as well they might. "THE TOWER," it read in gothic letters at the bottom. He studied it for amoment then set it aside, strangely disturbed, and selected another card. He turned it over with less enthusiasm and a bit of apprehension. This card showed a figure prone on a bunk, partially covered with fabric, cradling its head in two gaunt hands. Nine meter-length slivers of sharply pointed metal hung suspended above the distressed figure. He stared dolefully at the portrait then dropped it nervelessly, uncomfortable at the obviously dolorous symbolism.

He sat staring off into space for a moment, blankly, then with a sudden resolve he picked up the deck and rifled through it. He saw pictures of smiling men and women, dancing and celebrating gaily. There were lovers, merchants, mounted warriors, and triumphal processions. Reassured that there were positive images in the deck, he returned it face down to the table and prepared to try again.

He hesitated, trying to 'feel' for the correct card, then turned over one to which his hand seemed drawn. It portrayed a strangely dressed figure carrying a thin pole over one shoulder, from which hung a small sack. An animal of the small, furry, and devoted variety postured at the figure's feet, which were about to step over the edge of a considerable precipice. "THE FOOL," it was labeled. He slowly returned it to its place in the deck, puzzled and vaguely uneasy, although he had no identifiable reason to be concerned. He went over to watch some humorous holotapes and tried to relax. A few minutes under the neuromuscular relaxation field and he slept, unaccountably exhausted. His dreams were uneasy and distinctly foreboding.

He awoke just before planetary dusk when the ship's lights switched on. He stood up groggy and disoriented, then felt nature's call and staggered to the toilet. After relieving himself, he pressed the floor switch and waited for the sonic waste residue unit to activate. It didn't. He pressed the switch again, harder, then bent down and hit it sharply with his clenched fist. Nothing happened. The red overload indicator on the status panel near the lav station glowed brightly. He had always meant to rewire it so that it spelled out 'TILT,' since that was essentially what it was intended to indicate. "Damn and damn!" he muttered under his breath. The last thing he wanted to do in his indisposed condition was dig around in the wall circuits with a diagnostic probe. He thought about cleansing himself with a bit of his clothing, but he was still encased in the stupid 'germ suit.' Only a field neutralizing grid, such as the one surrounding the toilet seat, could penetrate that bioprotective field while he wore the suit. Instead, he swore energetically.

He could reach down through that field to clean himself, he reasoned, if he could find something to do it with. Taking off the suit without first dealing with his problem would be a messy proposition, details of which he found it best not to contemplate. Sometimes technology just got in its own way, he thought, "No backup system for this scenario, is there, you CENSRAD geniuses?" He snarled derisively at the lav station mirror.

About the time he was considering dismantling the nearby environmental maintenance unit to get at its fibrous filter jackets, he remembered the sealed box of paper in the next room. With a sudden burst of logic, he deduced the function of the pale blue paper next to the crude toilet. "Of course that's what it's for!" he fairly shouted, "Not a sonic transducer in the whole bloody village, was there?" He felt a pang of disdain for modern technology and those who live solely by its dicta. "At least," he observed wryly, "They didn't have to have a Level II Certification in Spacecraft Avionics to take a dump."

The paper was in quite good shape, and it fulfilled its function admirably. His journey to the flight deck had been a little grim, though, because the suit had sealed up the moment he left the toilet seat, trapping the offending residue in situ, as it were, and making his halfcrouched ambulation an adventure in unwanted lubrication. Once returned to his seat with the now-precious paper, he pondered again the maddening familiarity of the bluish color, grasping ineffectually at some salient memory just beyond his mental reach.

He deactivated his soiled environmental suit, climbed into his favorite old coveralls, and studied his treasures (pointedly avoiding the depressing cards) until he could stay awake no longer.

The next morning he woke before the dawn, a persistent headache having lent a bizarre texture to his dreams, which, though forgotten, lingered on in a diffuse feeling of unease and dread. He stumbled to the command chair and pushed the timer override button on the PLD. A ready light and the pleasant little beeping came on in about fifteen seconds, and the weak coffee dribbled out into his new cup (one of the ceramic cups from the castle). "Damn and damn!" he croaked,"Forgot to adjust the mixture again." He took cup in hand and plopped tiredly into the command chair. He decided to skip breakfast at the behest of his gastrointestinal system. Feeling as though he needed to vomit, he struggled into a fresh germ suit and returned to the castle.

The only significant find of that day was a small hand-written journal, kept by someone apparently in a position of authority. Most of the references made no sense to him, but occasionally there would be mention of subjects he understood, such as the status of the shipboard reactor (still functioning, he noted, so these people probably hadn't succumbed to radiation sickness) and lists of necessary supplies. As the original stores had been depleted, the colonists were forced to make increasing use of the native resources. Food seemed not to have been a problem -- none of the remains had shown any sign of nutritional deficiencies under his most sophisticated autopsy scanner. In fact, the colonists seemed to have made their way with remarkably little difficulty, in all respects save one: every last one of them was dead. It bothered him more than he cared to admit that he still hadn't the faintest clue why.

He spent the rest of that day trying diligently to find an answer to that question, when he wasn't on the toilet, that is. He for the first time in his life understood the simple truth in the expression 'having the runs,' and he was not enjoying the experience. He still hadn't located the problem with his own toilet, so he continued to make use of the salvaged paper.

He collected, between visits to the bathroom, every scrap of human remains he could locate and fed them to the biomedical pathology analyzer, which received and catalogued without comment the bones and mummified flesh of these 'eccentric' colonists of one and one-half centuries ago.

His condition steadily worsened, to the point where he decided to submit himself to the degradation and damned inconvenience of a complete physical exam. The medanalysis computer in the infirmary told him to strip, in the tradition of examining physicians throughout history, then proceeded, using remotely manipulated diagnostic appendages, to probe, sense, prod, and sample him for almost an hour. He lay quietly in the suspensor field, trying not to squirm, confronted by yet another medical tradition. "Watch where you're ... hey, that's cold, dammit!"

The final diagnosis by the computer was,

PROGRESSIVE COLONIC EPITHELIAL CELL EXFOLIATION WITH CONCURRENT DEHYDRATION AND ELECTROLYTE IMBALANCE

RECOMMENDED COURSE OF TREATMENT: MAINTAIN FLUID AND ELECTROLYTE BALANCE; NEUTRALIZE CAUSATIVE AGENT

He stared incredulously at the display for a moment.

"Neutralize causative agent? I need a computer programmed by the Spanish Inquisition with diagnostic software worth more than the average planet's yearly gross product to tell me that?!!"

He stood very still in front of the terminal and quivered with anger. He closed his eyes, regulated his breathing, and slowly unclenched his fists. Then he walked calmly over to the keyboard and typed, politely,

specify causative agent

The computer seemed to consider for a moment, then blithely reported,

MOLECULAR STRUCTURE NOT IN CATALOGUE

He stopped short and inhaled sharply, "Not in catalogue?" he breathed in disbelief and wonder. Over one hundred billion compounds were stored in that onboard database.

list analogues or related compounds

The computer again paused slightly, then answered

POLYPEPTIDE COMPLEX WITH UNIDENTIFIABLE MOLECULAR CONSTITUENTS. APPROXIMATE MOLECULAR WETGHT 2.5 X 104 AMU. RESEMBLES CROTOXIN, MAY BE ANALOGUE

Patiently, he called up the organic analysis program and requested the toxicology database.

inquiry

COMPOUND?

crotoxin

There was a long pause, during which he imagined the computer idly flipping through a few billion cards in a huge index file.

COMPOUND INFORMATION REQUEST: CROTOXIN

SOURCE: TERRESTRIAL TOXIC SUBSTANCES ENTRY #2588

DESCRIPTION: PRINCIPLE COMPONENT OF RATTLESNAKE (CROTALUS) VENOM. ISOLATED C. 1956

DETAILED ANALYSIS FOLLOWS

He hit the 'end session' key in disgust.

"Rattlesnake venom? Where in the infinite cosmos could I possibly have picked up rattlesnake venom?"

He called up the biosciences database and selected the vertebrate species zoogeography section.

genus crotalus

GENUS CROTALUS: SEVERAL SPECIES OF PIT VIPERS FOUND ON EARTH, WESTERN HEMISPHERE. RELATED TO GENUS SISTRURUS, Q.V.

SPECIES ACCOUNTS FOLLOW

He switched impatiently to the comparative toxicology section.

show distribution of animals producing crotoxin or analogues

CROTOXIN: PRODUCED BY TERRESTRIAL SNAKES IN THE SUBFAMILY CROTALINAE, PRINCIPALLY THE GENERA CROTALUS AND SISTRURUS

ANALOGUES: RELATED COMPOUNDS SECRETED BY GIANT BLADDERWORMS (MACROCELLATA) OF GAMMA OPHIUCHUS II

He stared blankly at the wall and spoke quietly, as if from a great distance, "It's thirty light years to Gamma Ophiuchus." He finally snapped back into real space and time, but before he could pursue the giant bladderworm, of which he had never heard, he felt that old familiar feeling. He almost didn't make it in time.

He spent the remainder of the day on or near the toilet, and started on his second roll of blue paper. He wondered what he would do when the case ran out, but decided that there wouldn't be much left of him to wipe, by that time. For some reason, this thought triggered a memory of an ancient folk song he had heard a primitive recording of in his youth. He hummed fragments of it, but couldn't remember what it was called.

'Oh well,' he thought, 'I'll think of it eventually...'

He finally decided, as he continued to weaken despite massive vitamin supplements and a portable IV unit for pushing fluids and salts, to try taking rattlesnake antivenin. He went to the organic reagent dispenser console and typed in

synthesis feasibility inquiry

COMPOUND?

crotoxin antivenin, 20 units

ANTIVENIN, CROTALINAE, POLYVALENT

FEASIBILITY STATUS: FEASIBLE

SYNTHESIS TIME : APPROXIMATELY SIX (6) HOURS

PROCEED? Y OR N

y

Five hours and forty-eight minutes later his twenty units dripped out into a small plastic vial. The medical computer said,

INFUSE WITH SALINE AND ADD ONE STANDARD DOSE OMNIMYCIN,

ADMINISTER VIA IV DRIP FOR FOUR (4) HOURS

NOTE: ANTIVENIN IS OF QUESTIONABLE THERAPEUTIC VALUE IF MORE THAN TWENTY-FOUR (24) HOURS HAVE ELAPSED SINCE ENVENOMATION

"Yeah?" he answered the monitor, "So is dying."

When the four hours were up he felt no different than before he had started the treatment, but he staggered to his feet nonetheless and tried to convince himself that the crisis was past. He watched a few holotapes and ate a freeze-dried candy bar. He felt very tired, and dragged himself finally to bed, wondering whether he would wake up.

He did wake up, the biochronometer implant doing its job for once, and he lay quietly on his disheveled bunk, testing his body, trying to predict how it would feel to get up out of bed. He eventually decided to damn the torpedoes and swung his feet over the edge of the suspensor mattress. He was momentarily light-headed, but then the room stabilized and he felt surprisingly well, considering his condition of late. He stood up gingerly and waited for the floor to sink. It was a very solid floor, and when it had made no move to fall out from under him after a minute or two, he relaxed and started to plan his day. Things seemed to be improving.

He was fine until, after a lunch of solid food for the first time in two days, he had to go to the toilet. He was still producing prodigious amounts of liquid and some little blood, but he didn't at least feel the gut-wrenching pain he had previously experienced each time he had emptied his bowels. He absentmindedly pressed the sonic waste removal switch, more out of habit than anything, and was puzzled for a moment until he remembered the paper. Smiling at his lapse of memory, he reached for the roll and cleaned himself thoroughly. He even whistled a little.

About an hour later he was sitting at the work table on the flight deck, idly examining his collection with some idea of starting to catalogue them, when his glance fell on the wooden box. He stared at it for several minutes, dreading what he knew he was going to do, then his hand reached out for it, as if of its own volition. He folded back the brittle cloth and removed the cards. Once again he fanned them out on the table before him and closed his eyes. His fingers chose one without hesitation, and he turned it slowly over. It showed a figure lying prostrate in a pool of dark liquid, presumably blood, with ten of the sharpened metal blades protruding from its back. He stared at this apparition in fear and anger for a brief moment, then swept the cards from the table with one enraged motion of his arm. He sat there shaking, restraining the sudden unexplainable urge to cry. Finally the effort proved too much for him; big streaming tears ran wetly down his face and splashed silently onto the table. Much later he fell asleep, head on folded arms. His dreams were grotesque, tormenting monsters that leapt at him from redly pulsing cards, wielding terrible bright weapons of steel.

He awoke with a pressing need to relieve himself and struggled to his feet. He took two steps in the direction of the toilet and suddenly the floor leapt at him in earnest. He willed his arms to extend themselves and cushion his fall, but they were deeply asleep and refused his bidding. He therefore landed rather hard, scraping his right cheek roughly on an equipment station support tongue, and lay there for a long moment, too stunned to move. Finally he made an attempt to struggle the rest of the way to his destination, but his sphincter muscles were tired of the uneven struggle and surrendered to incontinence. He collapsed onto his forehead and lay there whimpering feverishly, as he fouled himself and the floor.

It took about fifteen minutes for him to be able to rally enough courage and strength to get up. The increasingly uncomfortable state of his posterior region was at least partially responsible for his return to action. He ripped off his cherished coveralls and tossed them summarily into the disposal unit, not without a pang of regret. He touched a series of buttons on a panel near the door and the floor panels underneath his refuse glowed momentarily, then faded, leaving behind a thin layer of ash. He picked up the cards and other objects from the floor, then hit another button. A sudden thin sheet of high velocity gas streamed across the floor, carrying the ash with it as it whooshed out through small vents on the bottom of the far wall.

Later that evening he began to pass noticeable traces of fresh blood. The flow increased with time, and he mused grimly that this must be what menstruation was like. He was decidedly weaker by the next morning, and he realized that he was running out of time and options.

He decided to put the computers to work again. Damn little use they would be to anyone if he died out here. He tied all satellite data systems into the mainframe and brought the Principal Analysis Program to bear on his problem. It would retrieve, correlate, and analyze all available data relevant to his condition, at considerable expense to all other instrumentation and power systems, in a last ditch effort to save his hide.

RETRIEVAL COMPLETE.

FUNCTION?

multiple factors analysis

MULTIPLE FACTORS ANALYSIS SELECTED

UTILIZATION FACTOR? 100

100 PERCENT UTILIZATION REQUESTED.

**WARNING**

TOTAL COMMITMENT RENDERS ALL DATA SYSTEMS USER INACCESSIBLE UNTIL ANALYSIS IS COMPLETED.

AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED.

ENTER CODE WITHIN FIFTEEN (15) SECONDS.

ce-es2-00a

CODE ACCEPTED.

TOTAL COMMITMENT OPTION SELECTED.

The entire ship seemed to shudder. All ancillary displays and systems went to standby as all instrument power was diverted to the central processing circuits.

He made his way to the toilet and sat there, waiting. He had little will left for anything else. He leaned back against the thinly padded panel above and behind the toilet assembly and closed his eyes, fighting off vertigo and nausea. He listened to the unnatural silence of the ship around him, stilled by the diversion of the vessel's life blood to the computer. A cold fear crept over him as he began to consider the very real possibility that he could die before the computer could finish its analysis. There was no guarantee that even the PAP could come up with anything to save him.

The prospect of his death, here, on a planet about which he knew next to nothing, seemed somehow especially wrong to him. He tried to remember what little he had noticed about the planet on the trip in. The planet was rather small, green and white, and had the most interesting oceans he had seen in a long while. They were apparently possessed of a high concentration of magnesium and copper, which lent to them a very striking greenish hue, as richly green as the oceans of Earth were blue. He hadn't investigated the coloration any further, because the computer had not deemed it threatening or otherwise noteworthy. He decided that he was beginning to rely too much on the damned computer, at the expense of his own formerly considerable scientific curiousity. Interest in his surroundings had slowly eroded into blind trust of his array of sensors and probes, which were supposed to be extensions of his own senses, not replacements for them, he reminded himself.

He had noted the usual physiographic features as the ship descended: land masses, mountains, plains, forests, and bodies of water. All standard fare for civilian-colony-approved planets. The ship had been guided by the computer over a narrow belt of trees which bordered the settlement to the southeast; bizarre trees with smooth silvery bark and, as revealed in one smoothly couped trunk, unexpectedly pale blue wood. The same pale blue as the paper....

Finally understanding why that shade of blue had seemed familiar to him was a relief, trivial though the knowledge might be in his present situation. He reasoned that the colonists must have used up their stock of paper and begun manufacturing their own from pulp derived from the silvery trees. They hadn't bothered too much with high quality manufacture, but what was the point in making tightly-woven bond for use as toilet paper? It would probably be less absorbent, anyway. He was forming a solid admiration for these resourceful and talented people who not only disdained computers and technology, but got along perfectly well without them. Well, except for one problem, perfectly well.

He drifted in and out of delirium for an infinity. He fell from a vivid dream of large, blubbery creatures in colorful ballerina outfits (from an ancient holotape he had once seen) into sudden, crisp lucidity. He opened his eyes and looked around with eyes sharply in focus, alert to the smallest details, as if he were examining the universe for the first time. His gaze came to rest on the roll of paper by his right hand, and he began softly to chuckle. He saw tiny yellow faces, each wearing a bright smile, rise up from the paper and swirl around in the air before his face, joining into short chains which sometimes closed, forming small circles which floated lazily through the ceiling when he tried to follow their paths with his eyes. He laughed out loud at this phantasmagoria and thought about a chemist; a man who, centuries before, had deciphered the structure of the benzene molecule by dreaming about six carbon atoms, which linked together into the now-familiar circular molecule in his nocturnal vision. Or so the story went.

There didn't seem to be anything particularly relevant about smiley faces, however, so he closed his eyes and tried to ignore them, fearing vaguely for his sanity. The faces were still there, in his mind's eye. No, they weren't faces any longer,.just little groups of concentric rings that he abruptly recognized as ion crystallographic images of atoms. This was going to be a revelation of some sort, he thought; it's a pity it has to be so trite. The first images to appear he decided were carbon atoms. They wheeled and whirled in a spectral ballet across his circumambient mental stage, some of them metamorphosing into other elements: nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, then hydrogen. This was beginning to resemble some extremely well-orchestrated organic chemistry lecture. He wondered if every sentient being, upon the hour of its death, were treated to a similarly animated vision.

The images were following an increasingly complex alchemical choreography, groups joining with other groups, twisting around themselves, spiraling into helices, then folding back upon themselves into more complicated patterns, which linked with other such creations to form even higher ordered structures. The sheer poetry of it all was overwhelming to him; it seemed to him an important and previously unimagined synthesis of art and science. He thought about how he would report it to CENSRAD:

TO: THE CENTER FOR SPACE RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

FROM: EXPLORATIONS SCIENTIST II GERRAN SYMONS

PRESENT ASSIGNMENT: INVESTIGATION OF COLONY JS42719-13

STATUS: FINAL REPORT

DETAILS FOLLOW

HONORED DOCTORS,

AM SITTING ON MY HOPELESSLY CLOGGED WASTE REMOVAL UNIT WATCHING THE RISE AND FALL OF BIOCHEMISTRY. MY COMPUTERS ARE BUSILY CONTEMPLATING THEIR EVENTUAL POWER DEATH AFTER I AM NOT HERE TO RECYCLE THEIR REACTOR. HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, WISH ANYTHEHELLBODY ELSE WERE HERE. MUST TERMINATE REPORT NOW, AS I WANT TO CATCH THE OPENING OF THE NEXT SHOW. SOMETHING ABOUT PROTEINS ON BROADWAY.

NO LONGER YOURS,

G.S., ESII

Proteins on Broadway. He snickered at the reaction that would surely provoke back at CENSRAD.

"Yes," he continued, out loud, "I've been wiping my butt with smiley faces which turn out to be Thespians Extraordinaire, song and dance atoms of the highest caliber. Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting the incomparable Polly and the amazing Peptides...

Throughout his recent ravings, he had been aware of a nagging feeling of having missed something; this blossomed now into full scale how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid revelation. With a hoarse whisper intended as a shout of triumph, he fell forward onto his knees and crawled painfully over to the materials analysis substation, paper roll in hand. He tore off a piece, wadded it up, and tossed it weakly into the receptacle. He reached up, with effort, as if he were trying to change a light bulb in the ceiling while standing on tiptoe, and hit the ANALYZE button with the heel of his hand. He stopped moving for a moment to keep the room from spinning too violently, then dragged himself over to the computer console. He crawled very gingerly, to reduce his intense desire to lose consciousness.

He willed himself to stand, but the muscles required would not respond. He tried pulling himself up by grasping the edge of the console, but he was too weak. He knelt there, panting, maddeningly unable to reach the keyboard which seemed his only chance for survival. In inspired desperation he picked up a shoe and heaved it toward the housekeeping control panel. It fell short and bounced into the adjacent room. He located the other shoe, after a brief, frantic search, and took careful aim. With an effort that left him exhausted and trembling, he flung the shoe in a soaring arc. It reached apogee and seemed to fall toward the panel very slowly, as if the density of the air had suddenly increased a hundredfold. After what he imagined were eons, the shoe finally struck, depressing several buttons as it did so. The floor began to glow in several spots, one of them under his left knee. His pants and outer layers of skin charred instantly, but the pain enabled him to leap to his feet long enough to catch himself on the edge of the console and lock his elbows. He reached up with his traumatized knee and hit the chair release button. The swivel chair emerged from beneath a floor panel and he fell heavily into it. His sorely injured knee sent waves of pain through him, a teeth-grinding agony that shot through every sensate cubic centimeter of his body. He bit through his upper lip as he typed in the command to append new data. Nothing happened. Puzzled, he called up the biosciences database to find out more about the giant bladderworm. No response. He hit the master override key, in growing alarm and frustration. Still nothing. In one awful moment, he remembered.the total commitment option. This was the last straw, the final indignity, he thought bitterly.

Despite years of training in observation and procedure, he had made an embarrassingly obvious connection between the blue paper and his medical problem too late. The only thing which had penetrated his bioshield had been the paper. He had been unforgiveably sloppy; he hadn't analyzed the paper for anything, not even gross contamination. He had quite probably introduced the agent of his own demise. He had to admit, there was a certain poetic justice here.

The room began to blur around the edges as he slipped into comatose oblivion. His head slid forward and he hit the keyboard with his forehead. Still possessed of a marginal awareness, he had the surreal impression that the keyboard had materialized suddenly and maliciously a few microns from his nose. He stared at it obtusely, too close to actually focus on it. After a few seconds he became dimly aware of a diffuse greenish glow coming from somewhere above his eyelashes. With great effort he twisted his head to the left, so that his angle of vision shifted upwards. He squinted, then began to make out words printed on the screen. This is no big deal, he thought, there are almost always words being displayed on a monitor screen while a computer is running a normal routine... He realized that any readout on this particular screen by this particular computer was vastly significant, and forced himself into a relatively alert state. He saw a string of seemingly unconnected statements, then remembered the various abortive commands he had issued while the PAP had control of the system:

MULTIPLE FACTORS ANALYSIS COMPLETE

+++ INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR PROXIMATE RESOLUTION +++

COMMAND OVERRIDE ACCEPTED

BIOSCIENCES DATABASE, VERSION 2363.5

FUNCTION?

He stared at the screen for a minute or two, trying to force comprehension into his neural pathways. Eventually he watched as one finger slowly typed in

general zoology section

inquiry: giant bladderworm

GIANT BLADDERWORM: VERNACULAR DESIGNATION FOR BLADDER-LIKE ORGANISMS FOUND IN TEMPERATE WETLAND HABITATS ON GAMMA OPHIUCHUS II. ACTUALLY STAGES IN THE DECAY OF MACROUNICELLULAR PLANTS OF THE GENUS MACROCELLATA INFESTED WITH THE PANSPERMIC VIROID TRANSMOGRUS, WHICH PRODUCES VARIOUS PROTEIN-BASED VIROTOXINS DURING THE DIGESTION OF GENETIC MATERIAL IN PLANTS AND PLANT-LIKE ORGANISMS. ESTIMATED RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CREATION OF OVER 105 NEW ORGANIC COMPOUNDS EVERY TERRESTRIAL SOLAR DAY WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THE EXPLORED GALAXY.

He reached across the console and pressed the instrument data input button. The data transfer link between the materials analyzer and the computer blinked rapidly. The screen flared after a furious moment of transmission and assimilation,

DATA RECEIVED

He typed unsteadily

append last input to MFA; run

After a few seconds of activity, a message appeared. It took considerable effort for him to focus on and actually comprehend it,

***REVISION TO PROXIMATE SOLUTION***

PROXIMATE SOLUTION REACHED, DETAILS FOLLOW

TOXIN IS POLYPEPTIDE WITH TWO ACTIVE MOIETIES. TOXIC FRACTION MAY BE NEUTRALIZED WITH BIVALENT CATIONIC BINDER.

SITE OF MOST EFFECTIVE TREATMENT IS DESCENDING COLON.

RECOMMENDED AGENT: WHEAT BRAN/LEGUMINOUS PROTEIN COLLOIDAL MATRIX.

PREFERRED ROUTE: ORAL INGESTION.

ENTER "MFA PROCEED" FOR SYNTHETIC PREPARATION OF AGENT.

He shrugged, weakly, and followed the instructions. It took him three times to reproduce the necessary command, but he finally got it right. After about two minutes the dietary preparation module produced a small, rectangular covered dish. He lifted the cover and discovered two slices of a brownish bread enclosing a layer of viscous material, also brownish and with an odd odor to it. He sniffed tentatively at the thing, then took a small bite. He found it difficult to chew, but fairly pleasant tasting. It took him about fifteen minutes to consume the entire sandwich, but at last he finished and, still chewing, crawled back over to the toilet.

It seemed to tower above him like some mighty mountain peak, and he realized that actually propelling himself up onto that lofty seat in his condition would be a feat roughly equivalent to escaping the planet's gravitational pull on horseback. He contented himself therefore with collapsing noisily in front of it; as it happened, on the sonic cleanser switch. A small metallic ring, about one centimeter in diameter, popped out from under the switch and clattered across the floor. The cleanser hummed into life. He smiled faintly as the irony of the event registered itself in his rapidly fading consciousness. The ring which had disabled his high-tech toilet and very nearly himself was one of the hand-forged links from the strange colonial garments he had salvaged. A last swipe, as it were, at the modern world by a group which chose to secede from it. Acknowledging the intrinsic paradox of existence in this least possible of all impossible universes, he slept.

A sudden shift in the footing of the ship jolted the sorting table. From it flutterd a beautifully painted plaque, which landed with a soft ploof on the clean steel floor. On it was a circular structure, surrounded by a number of figures and objects. Below it was a caption, which read, THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE. The fall and impact proved too much for a small section of the paint decorating the plaque, and the pigment on that corner flaked away, revealing a familiar pale blue beneath.

Around the corner in the command cabin, a small white cube began softly to steam.

Back