Trouble with lichen, p.9
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.9

           John Wyndham
 
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  For some moments they looked at one another without speaking.

  Diana was almost exactly as Zephanie remembered her. She must, she knew, be very nearly forty now; she looked – well, perhaps twenty-eight, certainly no more. Zephanie smiled, with a touch of uncertainty.

  ‘This makes me feel like a little girl again,’ she said.

  Diana smiled back.

  ‘You still only just manage to look like a bigger girl now,’ she told Zephanie.

  They went on looking at one another.

  ‘It is true. It really does work,’ Zephanie murmured, half to herself.

  ‘You have only to look in a mirror,’ said Diana.

  ‘That’s not quite enough. It might be simply me. But you – you’re just as lovely, Diana – and no older at all.’

  Diana took both her hands, and then put one arm round her.

  ‘It’s been a bit of a shock, I suspect,’ she said.

  Zephanie nodded.

  ‘It was rather, at first,’ she admitted. ‘I felt so terribly alone with it. I’m getting over that now, though.’

  ‘You sounded a bit tense on the telephone. I thought it would be best to meet here where we can talk,’ Diana explained. ‘But we’ll come to that. First, I want to hear what’s been happening to you, and to your Father, and all about Darr, too.’

  They talked. Diana gradually smoothed away Zephanie’s nervousness and the sense of unreality that had been overhanging her. By the time luncheon was over she felt more at ease than she had at any time since Francis had sprung his news. Back in the sitting-room, however, Diana steered round to the reason for her call.

  ‘Well now, what do you want me to do, my dear? What’s the trouble? – From your angle, I mean.’

  Zephanie said, uncertainly:

  ‘You’ve done some of it already. You’ve reassured me. I’d got to feeling I was a kind of freak – I don’t know. But I do want to understand what’s going on. I’m in such a muddle. Here’s Daddy made a discovery that’s going to – to, well, sort of ring down the ages. I mean, it’ll make him like Newton, and Jenner, and Einstein, won’t it? And instead of being acclaimed as a wonderful discoverer he’s gone all hole-in-corner. And then he thinks he’s the only one who knows, and it turns out you’ve known about it all the time – but you’ve kept it quiet, too. I don’t understand. I know Daddy says there isn’t enough of the lichenin to do much with, but that’s very often so with a new thing. Once it’s known to be possible it’s half the battle: everybody starts researching madly, and people come up with alternative methods. After all, if there isn’t much of that actual lichen it can’t do so very much harm, so why not publish, and give people the incentive to find another antigerone, as he calls it? So then I began to wonder if there are some side-effects, things like – well, if you have lichenin you can’t have babies, or something of that kind.’

  ‘You can set your mind at rest over that, at any rate,’ Diana assured her. ‘It makes no difference – only, naturally, you don’t want to gestate like an elephant, so you lay off the lichenin, and return to normal rate. As for other side-effects, there aren’t any hidden ones that I know. There’s an infinitesimal slowing of the response rate just detectable by measurement, less than you get after one gin. The rest are obvious – to yourself, that is.’

  ‘Good,’ said Zephanie, ‘that’s one worry less. But, Diana, I feel in the half-dark about the whole thing. I mean, where you came into it, and about Nefertiti and the beauty business, and this crisis that blew up and then disappeared, and so on.’

  Diana reached for a cigarette, rapped it, and regarded it thoughtfully for a moment.

  ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Half-knowledge is precarious, anyway. I’d better begin at the beginning.’ She lit a cigarette, and started from the time Francis brought in the saucer of milk, and the consequences.

  ‘So, legally,’ she concluded, ‘I’m in the wrong, though morally I’ve just as much right to it as your father has, but never mind about that now. The point is that where both of us got stuck was the handling of it. It took me some time to realize how stuck I was. I thought I’d soon see a way out, but then the more I thought about it the more difficulties there were. And it was only then that I began to understand just how important it was.

  ‘I couldn’t see a way of dealing with it at all – and then something you said suddenly put me on the track.’

  ‘Something I said?’ Zephanie repeated.

  ‘Yes. We were talking about women being diddled, you remember?’

  ‘I remember. It was rather a theme of yours,’ Zephanie said, with a smile.

  ‘It still is,’ Diana told her. ‘But that time you said you’d mentioned it to one of your teachers, and she’d said we must do our best to live in the circumstances we found because life was too short to put the world to rights, or words to that effect.’

  ‘I’m not sure that I do remember that.’

  ‘Well, that was the gist of it. Of course it had been in my mind all along, in a way. What we’ve really found, your father and I, is a step in evolution, a kind of synthetic evolution – and the only evolutionary advance by man in a million years. It is going to change the whole of future history completely. Oh yes, I’d realized that if life weren’t so short it would be worth people’s while to do more to put the world to rights. But, when you said it as you did, I suddenly saw, in a kind of flash, how it could be put across.’

  ‘Put across?’ Zephanie said in a bewildered tone.

  ‘Yes. I saw how women could be started on longer lives without even knowing it, at first. Later on, they would find out, and by that time I hoped there would be enough of them, and enough of the right kind, to wield real influence. What was necessary was somehow to collect a group of people – any group of people – convince them that extended life was practicable, and make them fight for the acceptance of homo superior. And, suddenly, I saw how to do it. People who have been given long-life are not going to renounce it. They are going to fight hard for their right to retain it.’

  Zephanie frowned a little.

  ‘I don’t think I quite follow,’ she said.

  ‘You should do,’ Diana told her. ‘You feel a bit confused and upset now, but you wouldn’t exactly go to the length of renouncing a longer life, would you? And you’d maintain your right to it if anyone wanted to take it away, wouldn’t you?’

  ‘Yes – I suppose so. But there’s the shortage of supply…’

  ‘Oh, research will soon clear that up, as you said yourself, once there is the demand. Get enough money to put enough people on the job, that’s ail.’

  ‘But according to Daddy there’ll be a state of chaos.’

  ‘Of course there’ll be chaos. We shan’t get homo superior without any birth-pangs. But that’s not important. What is important is to stop him being strangled at birth. That’s the problem.’

  ‘I just don’t see that. Once it’s known about, people will be fighting to get it and have longer lives.’

  ‘You’re talking about individuals, my dear, but individuals are subject to institutions. And the crux of the whole thing is, as I see it, that institutions will very definitely not want it.

  ‘After all, most institutions have two main reasons for existence; one is to make large scale administration possible, the other is to preserve continuity, and so dodge some of the difficulties which arise from the shortness of our individual lives. Our institutions are a product of our circumstances, and they are designed to survive our own limitations by continual replacement of worn-out parts, or, if you prefer a different view, by a system of promotion.

  ‘All right? Very well, then, now try asking yourself how many people are going to favour the prospect of long life at the cost of, say, two or three hundred years as an underling? Is anybody going to welcome the thought of the same managing director, president, judge, ruler, party-leader, pope, police-chief, or leading dressmaker going on for a couple of centuries? You think it over, and you’ll see that in
stitutions are what they are, and as they are, because behind them all is the assumption that the days of our age are threescore years and ten, or thereabouts. Take that away, and they won’t work, most of them will even lose their whole raison d’être.’

  ‘That’s very sweeping,’ Zephanie said doubtfully.

  ‘You think it over. Just take an example. You are a junior grade civil servant; of course you’d like a longer life – until you realize that it means polishing your pants on that same junior grade seat for the next fifty or sixty years: then you’re not quite so sure.

  ‘Or you are one of those little girls who rush lemming-like into marriage at the first chance – well, the death-do-us-part view is beginning to wear pretty thin even now; I don’t think it’s going to stand up at all well to the prospect of a hundred and fifty years to be spent with a partner grabbed in adolescence.

  ‘Or think of education. The sort of smattering that’s been good enough to tide most of us over fifty years isn’t going to give us a full life for two hundred, or more.

  ‘So what we’ll have is Individual Man in a life-and-death tussle with Institutional Man – and a fine crop of schizophrenia that ought to raise.

  ‘And you can’t make it a matter of personal choice, either, if only because any man who chooses long life would block any promotion of the men who did not.

  ‘So, as institutions are greater than the sum of their parts, and everyone is a part of some social and professional institutions, it follows that institutions, working desperately to survive, would stand a good chance of bringing about the rejection of lichenin altogether.’

  Zephanie shook her head.

  ‘Oh, no, I can’t believe that. It’s absolutely contrary to our natural survival instincts.’

  ‘That scarcely counts. All civilized behaviour has had to suppress god knows how many instincts. I put the possibility of rejection very high indeed.’

  ‘But – well, even if there were official rejection, it would be made quite ineffective by hundreds of thousands of people privately flouting the law,’ Zephanie maintained.

  ‘I’d not be at all sure of that, either. A small privileged class might try, at great expense. A sort of black-market longer life. But I can’t see it working very well – scarcely the kind of illegality one could hide, is it? – not for long, anyway.’

  Zephanie turned towards the window. For some moments she watched the small sunlit clouds drifting in a blue sky.

  ‘I came here still a bit frightened – for myself,’ she said. ‘But excited, too, because I thought I was beginning to understand that Daddy’s discovery – well, yours and Daddy’s discovery – was one of the greatest steps ever made; one of the oldest dreams come true; something that was going to change all history, and bring us into a wonderful new era…. But he thinks people will be fighting one another for it – and you think they’ll be fighting one another to stop it, so what’s the use? If it isn’t going to bring anything but fighting and wretchedness, then it would be better if neither of you had ever found it.’

  Diana looked at her thoughtfully.

  ‘You don’t mean that, my dear. You know as well as I do that the world is in a mess, and floundering deeper every day. We have only a precarious hold on the forces we do liberate – and problems that we ought to be trying to solve, we neglect. Look at us – thousands more of us every day…. In a century or so, we shall be in the Age of Famines. We shall manage to postpone the worst one way and another, but postponement isn’t solution, and when the breakdown comes there’ll be something so ghastly that the hydrogen-bomb will seem humane by comparison.

  ‘I’m not romancing. I’m talking about the inevitable time when, unless we do something to stop it, men will be hunting men through the ruins, for food. We’re letting it drift towards that, with an evil irresponsibility, because with our ordinary short lives we shan’t be here to see it. Does our generation care about the misery it is bequeathing? Not it. “That’s their worry,” we say. “Damn our children’s children; we’re all right.”

  ‘And there’s only one thing I can see that will stop it happening. That is that some of us, at least, should be going to live long enough to be afraid of it for ourselves. And also that we should live long enough to know more. We simply cannot afford to go on any longer attaining wisdom only half a step before we achieve senility. We need the time to acquire wisdom that we can use to clear up the mess. If we don’t get it, then like any other animal that overbreeds we shall starve; we shall starve in our millions, in the blackest of all dark ages.

  ‘That’s why we need longer life, before it is too late. To give us time to acquire the wisdom to control our destiny; to get us beyond this state of acting like animal prodigies, and let us civilize ourselves.’

  She broke off, and smiled ruefully at Zephanie.

  ‘Sorry for the tub-thumping, my dear. It’s such a relief to be able to say it to someone. All it really means is that however much chaos this may cause now, the alternative would be infinitely worse.’

  Zephanie made no reply for some minutes, then she said:

  ‘Is this the way you saw it all that time ago when you were at Darr, Diana?’

  Diana shook her head.

  ‘No, this is how I’ve come to see it. In those days, I saw it as a gift we must use because it seemed to me to be, as I said, a step in evolution, a new development that would lift us one more plane above the animals. It was only later that I began to understand the urgency, the real need for it. If I’d felt that at first, well, I don’t suppose I should ever have gone about things as I did. I should probably have tried to publish in the orthodox way – and, I think, have been suppressed….

  ‘As thing were, I saw no great hurry. What was important was to build up a body of people, long-livers without their knowing it, but who would have a vested interest in fighting for it, and some influence, when the time should come.’

  She gave a little smile again.

  ‘I know the way I did it can look funny. To your father I’m sure it’s outrageous – like putting fizzy lemonade in the Holy Grail, or something – but I still can’t think of any other way I could have managed it successfully. I’ve got them, you see. Almost a thousand women, nearly all of them either married to, or related to, people of influence. Once they understand the situation, I shall be extremely sorry for anyone who tries to legislate them out of their extra years of life.’

  ‘How did you do it?’ Zephanie wanted to know.

  ‘Once I had the idea, and turned it over, the better it seemed to look. I remember about someone who’d been caught smuggling pearls, and the way he’d done it was to hide the strings of real pearls in consignments of imitation pearls….

  ‘Well, after all, every woman’s paper is littered with offers to “preserve your youth”, “keep those youthful contours”, and all the rest. Nobody really believes a word of it, of course, but it’s a sort of sure-fire dream appeal, and people seem to have developed an unbreakable habit of hoping and trying. So, if I could show results, well, they’d be delighted, but at the same time they’ve been bitten so often they’d never really believe it was the genuine thing, not for years and years. They’d congratulate themselves on being more favoured than others. They’d ascribe it to diet. They’d go so far as to concede that I must have something a bit better than my competitors had, perhaps. But actually believe that it was the genuine article, after thousands of years of phoney recipes for youth! No, no, not they.

  ‘I won’t say I wasn’t a bit shocked by the idea myself at first. But I told myself: “This is the twentieth century, for what it’s worth. It’s not the age of reason, or even the nineteenth century, it’s the era of flummery, and the day of the devious approach. Reason’s gone into the backrooms where it works to devise means by which people can be induced to emote in the desired direction. And when I say people I mean women. To hell with reason. The thing is to jockey them some way or other into buying what you want them to buy. So it turned out I was pre
tty well in tune with modern salesmanship, really.

  ‘Once I had decided it could be done, the first thing was to make sure of my resources. I had to be certain of a steady supply of what your father calls lichenin – which I called tertianin. So I announced that I was going on a round-the-world trip for a year.

  ‘I did, too – though nearly all the time was actually spent in East Asia. First I went to Hong Kong, and made contact with your father’s shipping agent there. He introduced me to a Mr Craig. Mr Craig had been a friend of the Mr Macdonald who sent the shipments which had the Tertius lichen in them, but Mr Macdonald himself had died nearly a year before. However, Mr Craig put me on to several people who had worked with Mr Macdonald, and eventually I met a Mr McMurtie who had been on the expedition that found the first lot of lichens. So I engaged Mr McMurtie, and he made arangements, and got permits somehow from the Chinese.

  ‘I expect your father told you that I put Mongolensis into the name I gave the first batch, but that turned out to be a misnomer. The stuff really comes from Hokiang which is a province of Manchuria, and lies north of Vladivostock. Fortunately, the permits came through in the spring, so were able to start off right away.

  ‘Mr McMurtie got us to the place without much difficulty, but it was very disappointing. There wasn’t much of the Tertius there. It was practically restricted to a thousand acres or so where it grew in patches around a small lake. That was worse than I had thought. We found the man and his family who collect it and send it off, and when we’d talked to him it was pretty clear that if I arranged to have it collected from there, there soon wouldn’t be any left. However, the man did not think this was the only lot, so we organized a search over quite an area around – nobody interfered; it’s a kind of marshy moorland country with bits of very rough grazing. Altogether we discovered five more Tertius sites; three somewhat bigger than your father’s source, two smaller, all within a radius of about twenty-five miles.

 
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