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To Choke An Ocean Part 4

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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?"

"Yes."

"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.

The Niobians held the emergency session at Base Alpha, where our radio could carry the proceedings to the entire planet. Whatever else they may be, Niobian government sessions are open to the public. Since the advent of radio, practically the entire public listens in.

Like the natives, I listened too. I wasn't surprised when Kron appeared in my office, his eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep, but with a big grin on his face that exposed his sharp sectorial teeth. "Well, that's over, friend Lanceford. Now send us your starfish."

"That's easier said than done," I replied gloomily. "I've contacted the Confederation. They won't ship twenty pounds of starfish--let alone the twenty thousand tons Bergdorf says we'll need!"

"Why not? Are they crazy? Or do they want to destroy us?"

"Neither. This is just a sample of bureaucracy at work. You see, the starfish is classed as a pest on Earth. Confederation regulations forbid the exportation of pests to member planets."

"But we need them!"

"I realize that, but the fact hasn't penetrated to the highest brass." I laughed humorlessly. "The big boys simply can't see it. By the time we marshal enough evidence to convince them, it will be too late. Knowing how Administration operates, I'd say that it'd take at least a year for them to become convinced. And another two months for them to act."

"But we simply can't wait that long! Your man Bergdorf has convinced me.

We're in deadly danger!"

"You're going to have to wait," I said grimly. "Unless you can find some way to jar them out of their rut."

Kron looked thoughtful. "I think that can be done, friend Lanceford. As I recall, your bureaus are timid things. Furthermore, we have something they want pretty bad. I think we can apply pressure."

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