Friday, September 25, 2015

Ole Mother Methuselah - Part Two - An Unearthly Child

O'Hara leads Ole Doc and Hippocrates to a fortified compound in the middle of a clearing, full of corrals, sheds and greenhouses.  We also get our first look at those Achnoids, octopi aliens or something that bear more resemblance to "a blue pinwheel than a man," which are as Ole Doc sees it weeding medically-useful herbs from a bunch of "worthless carrots."  I guess our protagonist has so much Science available that he doesn't have to consider nutrition when he eats, he can just shove all the vitamins and whatnot through his skin when he gets those healing ray treatments from Hippocrates.

They arrive at Shed Thirteen, significant because

"This is the lion shed," said O'Hara.

"Interesting," said Ole Doc disinterestedly.

It's not a shed where lions are stored, it's where lions are grown - O'Hara gets shipments of sperm cells and ova held in "static ray preservation," puts them in a bunch of birthing vats, feeds the young animals with artificial udders, and... well, that's all you need, isn't it?  Being born in a sterile lab environment without any parental figures to teach social skills worked out for the raptors in Jurassic Park, right?

The installation has similar set-ups for cattle and whatnot, but they - or maybe it's just O'Hara - decided to introduce lions to Gorgon, to cut down on the number of native catbeasts with some "properly evoluted" Terran catbeasts.

"And then you'll have lions," said Ole Doc.

"Oh no," said O'Hara impatiently.  "Then we'll bacteriacide the lions with a plague.

I think what the author is trying to say is 'bactericide,' except that would be something that kills bacteria, not something that kills with bacteria.  Much like how "evoluted" is probably meant to be 'evolved.'  Look, germ theory and evolution were brand new fields back in 1950, so we have to cut the author some slack for not getting the terminology quite right.

Which is to say, I will.  There isn't any we.  I've been here for fifteen years-"

"Well, maybe you've been here for fifteen years," said Ole Doc without much sympathy, "but why am I here?"

Because there's a chance that you could wrap this little crisis up fast enough to have some fun impaling the local aquatic lifeforms on metal hooks and turning the native flora into drugs.  Dick.

O'Hara gets to his problem.  Because his colonization program is important enough to support but not important enough to properly support, he gets his supply shipments from tramp freighters, and the one that came last year had engine problems and jettisoned its cargo, in the compound apparently.  And of course there's no one to move stuff but O'Hara and those Achnoids, so the crates got left in the rain and the labels came off.  And evidently Achnoids are such creatures of habit that they went and took those crates' contents into the birthing vats, because

"Well, come down to it," said Ole Doc.  "WHAT is your problem?"

Dramatically O'Hara approached the first vat and gave the cover a yank.  The pulleys creaked.  Lights went on and the glass bowls within glowed.

In this one vat there were five human babies.

This raises some very interesting questions about what kind of research goes on at other US Army Corps of Engineers research stations.  Excuse me, "United States Army Engineers" research stations.

At any rate, there's eighteen thousand little babies now growing in the base's artificial wombs.  Ole Doc's suggestion is to send a message to the Department of Agriculture asking for "half an army crops of nurses."  And we can't be sure whether he's being sarcastic or not, because this universe is crazy.

What follows are two pages' worth of rambling exposition, as O'Hara goes on about how their installation can pump out seventy-two thousand lions every year, his specialized coding system doesn't mesh with the records on Earth, there's only three billion people on humanity's homeworld and a third of them work for the government, and when he sent them some "urgents" about the situation they only said that the proper channels had been notified.

Now, O'Hara doesn't know a thing about child illnesses, but when he thought he was just dealing with five kids he figured he could pull this off - after all, he has three thousand Achnoids around to help, "and I can always take a hunting rifle and go grab a chief hostage until I get two or three thousand more."

"And now you don't?" said Ole Doc.

"Now I don't. Now this whole thing has got me. I may be indulging in mass murder or something. Will hey hang me if any of these kids die or something?"

"Well, I expect that a small loss would be excusable," said Ole Doc.

A "small loss" ...this guy is a doctor, right?  Someone who sees the value in preserving human life?  Someone we can root for?

Anyway, O'Hara thought he was fine until he found that shed full of thousands of gestating human embryos.  To make matters worse, evidently those stupid Achnoids had been adding the "lion fluid" meant for other genetic projects, so these babies are gestating in three months' time!  And then O'Hara decides to show Ole Doc the real problem facing him, as he leads the doctor and presumably Hippocrates, who hasn't said anything for pages now, into an improvised arena of sorts, where he can test his augmented lions against captured catbeasts and... you know, maybe we should come up with better names for extraterrestrial creatures than [Earth animal]beast.

The Achnoids turn out to have names like Mookah, and O'Hara orders one to release a catbeast through a gate in the wall.

An Achnoid pinwheeled into view, cast respectful eyes at the observer's box and began to take the pins out of a door.  There were eight pins and he removed them all at once, one hand to a pin.

No automatic door openers in the future, I guess.

"Monstrosity," sniffed Hippocrates.

Oh, there he is.

The Achnoid went sailing to safety over the wall and the cage door crashed open with a bang.  Out of it stalked a beast with a purple hide and enormous, sharp-fanged jaws.  It bounded into the arena, reared up on its hind legs to stand ten feet tall, waltzed furiously as it looked around for enemies and then settled back with a vicious, tail-thrashing snarl.

"Pleasant character," said Ole Doc.

And so cat-like too, what with the rearing back on its hind legs and everything.

O'Hara explains that this is actually a small catbeast - they've lost about fifty Achnoids trying and failing to capture the big ones.  Then he orders Mooklah to release another specimen, this time via a pulled wire.  And so an apparent ten-year-old boy walks into the arena, only half as tall as Hippocrates and clad in a fur loincloth and buskins.  Though the kid is only carrying a sling and a simple knife, he's quite confident, and his eyes are "wise and intelligent" under his unruly hair.

Turns out Ole Doc does have some scruples - he objects to little kids being killed in front of him, at least...

"Whoa!" said Ole Doc.  "Wait a minute!  You're not sacrificing that kid just for my amusement."  And he had a blaster up so fast that only a lunge by O'Hara deflected his aim at the catbeast.

The kid looked curiously at the plowed hole the blaster had made and then glanced disdainfully at the box.  O'Hara recovered from the lunge, hastily pushed a button and got a bulletproof shield in place.

"All right, all right," said Ole Doc.  "I'll stand here and watch murder."  But he held the blaster ready just in case.

...But not too strenuously.

Hippocrates is "decidedly interested" in what's sure to happen, but as he glances over at Ole Doc misses the fight.  The kid blurs his sling, there's a crunch, and the catbeast goes down with its brains and blood shooting from its skull in a plume.  Then Bamm-Bamm walks over to tear the thing's ear off as a trophy and give it one last kick, before firing a chunk of steel from his sling at the observation box hard enough to crack the bulletproof glass.  With that he adjusts his "pants" and saunters back through the door from whence he came.

So there's the biggest part of the problem - it's not just that there's thousands of kids about to be born from the birthing vats, it's that if they turn out like the first batch, they'll be thousands of freakishly strong, hyper-aggressive kids.  O'Hara describes how, back when he had only found two of them, he was "puzzled but not upset.  Strange things occur out here on these far stations."  He set up a home and an Achnoid nurse to feed them cow's milk and care for them, left on a month-long trip to check on the million squares miles of redwood forest he'd singlehandedly planted, and by the time he returned the house was in ruins and the Achnoid nurse only reappeared two weeks later, having lain out in the "bayonet grass."  The little monsters grow up quick, which is why O'Hara is already constructing (or ordering the Achnoids to construct) a hardened refuge.  "In six months or less this planet won't be safe for Achnoids, catbeasts, scumsnakes, gargantelephants, pluseagles or me!"

I'm starting to think O'Hara was the only one assigned to the taxonomy team, too.

Ole Doc looks on the bright side - sure, there's a horde of Superbabies about to run loose on the planet, but at least they're all males, so there will only be one generation of them.  But then O'Hara shows him the horse incubation shed, where there's twenty thousand vats containing females now in their third week of development.

The situation is dire indeed.  And at a time like this, there's only one course of action.

Ole Doc looked around and found Hippocrates.  "Saw a couple lakes coming in.  With all the other fauna you have on this planet, fishing ought to be interesting."

O'Hara straightened as though he had had an electric shock.  "Fishing!"

"Fishing," said Ole Doc.  "You are the man who is in charge here.  I'm just an innocent bystander."

Damn straight.  Just because you belong to an untouchable elite organization with a stranglehold on advanced medical science doesn't mean you're obligated to use that knowledge to help people.

"Now look!" said O'Hara in horror.  "You've got to help me."  He tried to clutch Ole Doc's cape as the Soldier of Light moved away.  "You've got to answer some riddles for me!  Why is the gestation period three months?  Why do they develop in six months to raging beasts?  Why are they so antisocial?  What have I done wrong in these vats and what can I do to correct it?  You've got to help me!"

"I," said Ole Doc, "am going fishing.  No doubt to a bacteriologist, a biochemist or a mutologist your problem would be fascinating.  But after all, it's just a problem.  I am afraid it is not going to upset the Universe.  Good day."

Yeah, it's not that Ole Doc doesn't value human life, it's just that he has much bigger things to worry about, like the fate of the entire universe.  And whether the local fishing is any good.  And the state of his wine cellar.

O'Hara can only tremble in disbelief as the one person most qualified to solve his problems coldly turns his back on him, and tries to protest that "It's thirty-eight thousand human beings!" and he can't just kill them, or unleash them upon the planet.  Ole Doc advises him to abandon the research station, leaves the man weeping in the dust behind them, and has Hippocrates fetch his fishing gear.

And that's it.  We've had the story's main conflict laid out to us and to our protagonist, and the supposed hero doesn't consider it his concern.  So he's going to let thousands of unnaturally-modified human children run wild on an untamed planet, pitting freakishly strong and aggressive tots against the local apex predators.  Because he's more interested in fishing.

Comparing this to previous Ole Doc stories, it looks like, when the title character blunders into an emergency situation while trying to enjoy himself, he will only willingly get involved if there's a possibility he'll get laid at some point.  If only this O'Hara bloke had been an O'Hara sheila, then this story would be a few pages shorter.

Back to Part One

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