Trouble with lichen, p.6
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.6

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘Nor do I quite. It was like one of those puzzle things. He gave it a twist the right way, and it all slipped together quite suddenly.’

  ‘What slipped together?’

  ‘Oh, things. Lots of little things.’

  ‘But, I don’t get it. All he said was –’

  He broke off as the door opened and Francis returned.

  ‘Diana won’t be coming down after all,’ Francis said. ‘The emergency is over, she says.’

  ‘What emergency?’ Zephanie asked.

  ‘I’m not altogether clear about that yet – except that she thought there might be publicity, and that she ought to warn me. That decided me that it was time you were told.’

  ‘But I don’t understand. Where does Diana come into. it? Is she acting as your agent, or something?’ Zephanie wanted to know.

  Francis shook his head.

  ‘She is not my agent. Until a couple of days ago I’d no idea that anybody but me knew anything about it. However, she made it quite clear that she does, and has done for some time.’

  Paul frowned.

  ‘I still don’t – Do you mean she’s stolen your work?’

  ‘No,’ Francis told him. ‘I don’t think that. She says she worked it out for herself, and can show me her notes to prove it. I’m willing to believe that. Whether, even as her own work, it is her rightful property or not, is a different matter.’

  ‘But what is the emergency about?’ Zephanie asked.

  ‘As I understand it, she has been using the lichenin. Something went wrong, and now she is being sued for damages. She’s afraid that unless she can keep it out of court the whole thing may be shown in the evidence.’

  ‘And she can’t, or doesn’t want to, pay, so she’d like to borrow from you to keep it from coming to court?’ Paul suggested.

  ‘I wish you wouldn’t keep on jumping to conclusions, Paul. You don’t remember Diana, I do. It’s some firm she’s in that is being sued. They can pay, all right, she says, but they are caught in a cleft. The damages claimed are so high as to amount to blackmail. If they pay, it will encourage other people to try outrageous claims; if they don’t, there’ll be publicity. It’s a very awkward situation.’

  ‘I don’t see –’ Zephanie began. Then she stopped. Her eyes widened. ‘Oh – you mean she’s been giving this stuff –’

  ‘Lichenin, Zephanie.’

  ‘Lichenin. She’s been giving it to people without their knowing?’

  ‘But of course she must have been. Do you think, if they did know, that the news wouldn’t have been all round the world in about five minutes? Why do you think I was so careful that I’ve not even told you two about it until now?… In order to use it at all with safety I had to resort to a subterfuge; so, obviously, must she.’

  ‘Our immunization!’ Paul exclaimed suddenly. ‘That’s what it was.’

  He recalled a day soon after his seventeenth birthday when Francis had told him at some length about the resistance that certain bacteria had developed to the usual antibiotics, and had urged him to take advantage of a new immunizing agent that would not be generally available for a couple of years yet. There had been no reason why Paul should not agree, so they had gone up to the lab. There his father had made an incision in his arm, inserted a pellet shaped like a miniature whetstone, then closed the wound with a couple of stitches, and put a bandage on it.

  ‘That’ll last you a year,’ Francis had said, and ever since then it had become an annual event somewhere about the date of his birthday. Later on, when Zephanie was sixteen, he had done the same for her.

  ‘Exactly. The immunization,’ Francis agreed.

  They both sat staring at him for several seconds. Then Zephanie frowned.

  ‘That’s all very well, Daddy. We’re us, and you’re you, so it wasn’t very difficult really. But it would be quite different for Diana. How on earth could she –?’

  She broke off, struck by a sudden memory of Diana leaning back against a haycock and laughing so hysterically. What was it she had said? ‘… I’ve found out what I’m going to do….’

  ‘What is this firm of Diana’s?’ she asked.

  Francis looked uncertain.

  ‘Something odd,’ he said. ‘Egyptian – ridiculous sort of name – not Cleopatra.’

  ‘No – not Nefertiti?’ suggested Zephanie.

  ‘Yes, that’s it. Nefertiti Ltd.’

  ‘Good heavens! And Diana is – No wonder she laughed,’ Zephanie exclaimed.

  ‘A firm called Nefertiti sounds more preposterous than laughable to me,’ her father said. ‘What does it do?’

  ‘Oh, dear, Daddy. Really! Where do you live? It just happens to be one of the – well, the beauty place in London. Terribly expensive and exclusive.’

  The implication did not reach Francis at once, but as it sank in a series of emotions began to conflict in his expression. He stared back at his daughter, bereft of speech. Then his eyes unfocused. He leant suddenly forward, put his face in his hands, and began to laugh with a queer jerky sobbing.

  Zephanie and Paul looked at one another for a startled moment. Paul hesitated. Then he went across to Francis, and put his hands on his shoulders. Francis seemed not to notice. Paul took a firmer hold, and gave a jerk.

  ‘Father!’ he said. ‘Stop it!’

  Zephanie crossed to the cupboard and poured some brandy into a glass, with a shaky hand. She took it back. Francis was sitting up now, tears on his cheeks and a half-vacant expression in his eyes. He took the glass and drank half the contents at a gulp. Gradually his eyes lost their empty look.

  ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But it is funny, isn’t it? All these years. All these years a secret. Greatest discovery in centuries. Too big a secret. Say nothing to anybody. Too dangerous. And now this! A beauty treatment…. It is funny, isn’t it? Don’t you think it’s funny?’ He started to laugh again.

  Zephanie put her arm round him, and held him to her.

  ‘Sh! – Daddy. Lie back now, and try to relax. That’s it, darling. Take another drink now. You’ll feel better.’

  He leant back in the corner of the couch, looking up into her face. He dropped the empty glass on to the floor and reached for her free hand. He raised it and looked at it for a moment. He kissed it, and then lifted his eyes to his wife’s portrait. ‘Oh, God!’ he said, and wept.

  ∗

  After an hour and a half, and a good luncheon, Francis, quite restored, led them back to his study to continue his disquisition.

  ‘As I told you,’ he said, ‘I take little credit for finding lichenin – it started from an accident, and Diana appears to have taken advantage of the same accident. The difficult part began when I realized what it was that I had found.

  ‘There are quite half-a-dozen major discoveries only just below the horizon at this moment: and nobody is making the least attempt to prepare for any of them. An antigerone of some kind, possibly of several kinds, was virtually certain to show up before long, but I’d never heard of anyone who had given any serious thought to the problems it would raise. I had not the least idea how to deal with it myself, and the more I thought about it, the more alarmed I felt, because I began to appreciate that this thing is in the megaton range. It isn’t as spectacular as the nuclear boys’ fireworks, but it’s more important – in its way it is more disruptive, but it is potentially a great deal more beneficial….

  ‘But just imagine the result of a public announcement… simply the superficial result of knowing that the means to extend one’s term of life exists. The thing would be off like a prairie fire. Think of the newspapers fawning on it. One of the great wish-dreams of mankind come true at last. Think of twenty million copies of the Reader’s Compact telling everyone in half-a-dozen languages: “You, Too, Can Be Methuselah!” The contriving, the intriguing, the bribery – perhaps fighting, even – that would come of people trying to get in first to grab even a few extra years, and the chaos that would follow in a world which is already overpopulated, with a birth
-rate far too high. The whole prospect was – and is – quite appalling. Three or four centuries ago perhaps we could have absorbed the impact, and controlled it, but now, in the modern world…. Well, it gave me nightmares…. It still does, sometimes….

  ‘But that wasn’t the worst of it, by any means. Discovering it in the wrong century is bad enough, but I had done worse than that: I had discovered the wrong antigerone.

  ‘I’m convinced that, since there is one, there must be others. They may be less efficient, or more efficient, but others there must be. The basic trouble with lichenin is that it is derived from a particular species of lichen that was sent to us by a roving botanist called Macdonald, and it exists in colonies which, as far as he knows, are restricted to a few square miles of territory. In other words there’s precious little of it. What there is has to be conserved, and mustn’t be cropped too heavily. According to my information it would yield enough to keep up the treatment for, say, three or four thousand people, but not many more.

  ‘So one can see what would happen – or at least one can form some idea. You announce the discovery – and then qualify it by saying that only these three or four thousand can be treated. Well, my God, it’s a matter of life and death – Who are going to be the lucky ones that are allowed to live longer? And Why? Worse still, the value of the lichen would at once become astronomical. The stampede for it would be like a gold-rush – only swifter. In a week or two, perhaps even a few days, it would all be gone, wiped out And that would be the end of lichenin. Finish!

  ‘To get anything like the quantities of the derivative that would be needed, you’d have to cultivate the lichen over thousands of square miles, and it could not be done. Apart from acquiring the vast acreage of land that was suitable, you’d never be able to raise it because you’d never be able to guard it efficiently – the value would be too high.

  ‘For nearly fifteen years now I’ve seen only one way out, and that is to find a method of synthesizing it – and that, I have so far failed to do….

  ‘The other possibility was that if one waited long enough somebody would almost certainly come up with another kind of antigerone, perhaps one derived from a plentiful source. But that was, and still is, one of those things that could happen tomorrow, or might take quite a long time….

  ‘Meanwhile, what was I to do? I badly needed someone to confide in. I wanted assistants to help me work on the synthesis. But the trouble was, who? How do you select people who are proof against temptation – temptation that could run into millions – for just a few key sentences? And even if you could, there’s the other leakage problem – just a careless word or two, perhaps a mere hint that we were on to something of the kind would be enough to start some people speculating and investigating, and then, before long they’d be after it – then, as I said, poof – no more lichen…!

  ‘I simply could not think of anyone I could bring myself to trust entirely. Probably in a situation like that one becomes somewhat obsessed. But, you see, get the most reliable fellow you know, then on one occasion he drops just one critical clue, and the damage is done… It came down to the fact that there was only one person I could have full control over, and that was myself. As long as I took all the care I could think of, and told no one at all, then it couldn’t leak – that that was the only way I could be sure that it couldn’t leak…

  ‘But, on the other hand, if no one is to benefit from a discovery, it might as well not be made. I was entirely satisfied with my results on lab animals. The next stage was to try it on myself. I did that, and found the results just as satisfactory. Then came the question of you two.

  ‘If anyone was entitled to the benefit of your father’s discovery, surely it was you. But there, again, was the security problem. You were young. Keeping the secret would have been a great strain on you. And still there was the chance of a slip – and a small slip by either of you, coupled with the Saxover name, would be quite disastrous. The only thing seemed to be to contrive some way of doing it without your knowledge.

  ‘Now, I realized that that was bound to be self-defeating in the end. There must come a time when you would notice it yourselves, and when other people would notice it, and start putting two and two together. But, with luck, it would still give me a number of years in hand. It did. It’s getting on for ten years now since I gave Paul his first implant. Unfortunately, for all the progress I have been able to make, it might as well have been six months ago….

  ‘So, there it is. I’ve done my best, and that hasn’t been good enough. As for this business of Diana Brackley’s, whether her particular emergency is really over, or not, doesn’t greatly matter. It couldn’t be so very long now until someone says: “Strange how all three of those Saxovers look so young for their ages,” and sets someone else wondering about it. One day it’ll start as simply as that – so it is perhaps time for you to know. All the same, it is best for everybody that it should be kept quiet as long as possible – something may yet turn up to make the crisis less critical, so we must give it all the time we can.’

  Zephanie did not speak for a little while, then she said:

  ‘Daddy, what do you really feel about Diana and this?’

  ‘Very complex, my dear.’

  ‘You seem to take that part of it so calmly – except when I told you about Nefertiti.’

  ‘I don’t think I was ever very good at anti-climax. I’m sorry about the exhibition. As for the rest. Well, at first I was just plain angry. But I got over it. It was breach of contract, but it wasn’t theft – I am satisfied about that. I’ve had nearly fifteen years to decide what to do with it – and I’ve failed. That, I think, is a fair enough allowance. Now, just what Diana has been doing I don’t know, but she has had the sense to keep it quiet somehow. If she had not, it would have been tragic, but now… well, as I said, it can’t last very much longer. No, I’m not angry – in several ways it’s a relief not to be on one’s own any longer. But I still want as much time as we can get before it breaks….’

  ‘If what Diana said is right – if she’s got over the emergency safely – then things aren’t really much different, are they?’

  Francis shook his head.

  ‘Three days ago I was on my own. Now I know that Diana knows, and we’ve doubled the number of people who actually do know.’

  ‘But it’s only us, Daddy. Paul and me. Unless Diana has told someone…?’

  ‘She says not.’

  ‘There you are then. It’s practically as-you-were.’

  Paul sat forward in his chair.

  ‘That’s all very well,’ he put in, ‘things may be the same for you, but they aren’t for me. I have a wife.’

  His father and sister regarded him with little expression. He went on:

  ‘As long as I didn’t know – I didn’t know. But now that I do know, well, as my wife she has a right to know, too.’

  The other two made no reply. Zephanie sat still, her hair gleaming against the dark leather of the chair back. She appeared to be interested in the pattern of the carpet. Francis did not meet his son’s eye, either. The silence became awkward. It was Zephanie who broke it.

  ‘You don’t have to tell her at once, Paul. We need time to get used to the idea ourselves – to see it in proper perspective.’

  ‘You might try putting yourself in her place,’ Paul suggested. ‘What would you think of a husband who held out on you over a thing like this?’

  ‘There aren’t any things like this,’ Zephanie said. ‘It is a very particular and peculiar thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t tell her, but you can postpone it until we work out some kind of plan.’

  Paul said obstinately:

  ‘She has a right to expect her husband to play square with her.’

  Zephanie turned to Francis.

  ‘Tell him to wait a bit, Daddy – until we’ve had a chance to grasp what it’s really going to mean.’

  Francis did not respond immediately. He polished the bowl of his pipe in his h
and, regarded it thoughtfully for some moments, and then raised his eyes to meet his son’s.

  ‘This,’ he said, ‘is just what has hung over me for fourteen years. I told no one because I had no confidant I could really trust – never since your mother died.

  ‘Once an idea has been planted no one can tell when and where it will stop growing. The only safe way of controlling it is not to plant it, not to give it a chance to germinate, I thought. That, it seems, was even wiser than I knew.’ He glanced up at the clock.

  ‘It is now about three and a half hours since I let the idea out of its pod – since I confided it to you. Already it has germinated, and is struggling to grow….’

  He paused, and then went on:

  ‘If I could appeal simply to cool reason I don’t think we should be in difficulty. Unfortunately, however, husbands are seldom reasonable about wives, and wives are even less reasonable about husbands. You must not think I don’t see your problem.

  ‘Nevertheless, I shall say this: if you are willing to risk responsibility for precipitating a disaster on a scale you have never imagined, you will go ahead and do what seems to you the gentlemanly thing; but if you are wise you will tell no one, no one at all.’

  ‘And yet,’ said Paul, ‘you have just implied that if Mother had still been alive you would have confided in her.’

  Francis made no reply to that. He continued to regard his son steadily. Paul’s expression became a little pinched.

  ‘All right. I understand. You don’t need to say anything,’ he told them harshly. ‘I’m quite aware that you never really liked Jane, either of you. Now you’re telling me that you don’t trust her. That’s what it amounts to, isn’t it?’

  Zephanie made a slight movement as though she were about to speak, but changed her mind. Francis, too, said nothing.

  Paul got up. Without looking at them again, he left the room, slamming the door behind him. A few moments later they heard a car pass on its way down the drive.

  ‘I did not manage that well,’ Francis said. ‘I suppose he will tell her?’

 
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