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.
"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."
"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?"
"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.