The Margenes by De Ford, Miriam Allen

THE margenes

BY MIRIAM ALLEN DE FORD

_The tiny, live, straw-colored circles were mysterious but definitely harmless. Yet they were directly responsible for riots, revolution and an atomic war...._

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Worlds of If Science Fiction, February 1956. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

There is a small striped smelt called the grunion which has odd egglaying habits. At high tide, on the second, third, and fourth nights after the full of the moon from March to June, thousands of female grunions ride in on the waves to a beach in southern California near San Diego, dig tail-first into the soft sand, deposit their eggs, then ride back on the wash of the next wave. The whole operation lasts about six seconds.

On the nights when the grunion are running, hordes of people used to come to the beach with baskets and other containers, and with torches to light the scene, and try to catch the elusive little fish in their hands.

They were doing that on an April night in 1960. In the midst of the excitement of the chase, only a few of them noticed that something else was riding the waves in with the grunions.

Among the few who stopped grunion-catching long enough to investigate were a girl named Marge Hickin and a boy named Gene Towanda. They were UCLA students, "going together", who had come down on Saturday from Los Angeles for the fun.

"What on earth do you think these can be, Gene?" Marge asked, holding out on her palms three or four of the little circular, wriggling objects, looking like small-size doughnuts, pale straw in color.

"Never saw anything like them," Gene admitted. "But then my major's psychology, not zoology. They don't seem to bite, anyway. Here let's collect some of them instead of the fish. That dingus of yours will hold water. We can take them to the Marine Biology lab tomorrow and find out what they are."

Marge Hickin and Gene Towanda had started a world-wide economic revolution.

None of the scientists at the university laboratory knew what the little live straw-colored circles were, either. In fact, after a preliminary study they wouldn't say positively whether the creatures were animal or vegetable; they displayed voluntary movement, but they seemed to have no respiratory or digestive organs. They were completely anomalous.

The grunion ran again that night, and Gene and Marge stayed down to help the laboratory assistants gather several hundred of the strange new objects for further study. They were so numerous that they were swamping the fish, and the crowds at the beach began to grumble that their sport was being spoiled.

Next night the grunion stopped running--but the little doughnuts didn't. They never stopped. They came in by hundreds of thousands every night, and those which nobody gathered wriggled their way over the land until some of them even turned up on the highways (where a lot of them were smashed by automobiles), on the streets and sidewalks of La Jolla, and as far north as Oceanside and as far south as downtown San Diego itself.

The things were becoming a pest. There were indignant letters to the papers, and editorials were written calling on the authorities to do something. Just what to do, nobody knew; the only way to kill the circular little objects from the sea seemed to be to crush them--and they were too abundant for that to be very effective.

Meanwhile, the laboratory kept studying them.

Marge and Gene were interested enough to come down again the next weekend to find out what, if anything, had been discovered. Not much had: but one of the biochemists at the laboratory casually mentioned that chemically the straw-colored circles seemed to be almost pure protein, with some carbohydrates and fats, and that apparently they contained all the essential vitamins.

College student that he was, Gene Towanda immediately swallowed one of the wriggling things down whole, as a joke.

It tickled a little, but that wasn't what caused the delighted amazement on his face.

"Gosh!" he exclaimed. "It's delicious!"

He swallowed another handful.

That was the beginning of the great _margene_ industry.

It was an astute reporter, getting a feature story on the sensational new food find, who gave the creatures their name, in honor of the boy and girl who had first brought the things to the attention of the scientists. He dubbed them margenes, and margenes they remained.

"Dr. O. Y. Willard, director of the laboratory," his story said in part, "thinks the margenes may be the answer to the increasing and alarming problem of malnutrition, especially in undeveloped countries.

"'For decades now,' he said, 'scientists have been worried by the growing gap between world population and world food facilities. Over-farming, climatic changes caused by erosion and deforestation, the encroachment of building areas on agricultural land, and above all the unrestricted growth of population, greatest in the very places where food is becoming scarcest and most expensive, have produced a situation where, if no remedy is found, starvation or semi-starvation may be the fate of half the Earth's people. The ultimate result would be the slow degeneration and death of the entire human race.

"'Many remedies have been suggested,' Dr. Willard commented further. 'They range from compulsory birth control to the production of synthetic food, hydroponics, and the harvesting of plankton from the oceans. Each of these presents almost insuperable difficulties.

"'The one ideal solution would be the discovery of some universal food that would be nourishing, very cheap, plentiful, tasty, and that would not violate the taboos of any people anywhere in the world. In the margenes we may have discovered that food.'

"'We don't know where the margenes came from,' the director went on to say, 'and we don't even know yet what they are, biologically speaking. What we do know is that they provide more energy per gram than any other edible product known to man, that everyone who has eaten them is enthusiastic about their taste, that they can be processed and distributed easily and cheaply, and that they are acceptable even to those who have religious or other objections to certain other foods, such as beef, among the Hindus or pork among the Jews and Mohammedans.

"'Even vegetarians can eat them,' Dr. Willard remarked, 'since they are decidedly not animal in nature. Neither, I may add, are they vegetable. They are a hitherto utterly unknown synthesis of chemical elements in living form. Their origin remains undiscovered.'"

Naturally, there was no thought of feeding people on raw margenes. Only a few isolated places in either hemisphere would have found live food agreeable. Experiment showed that the most satisfactory way to prepare them was to boil them alive, like crabs or lobsters. They could then be ground and pressed into cakes, cut into convenient portions. One one-inch-square cube made a nourishing and delicious meal for a sedentary adult, two for a man engaged in hard physical labor.

And they kept coming in from the Pacific Ocean nightly, by the million.

By this time none of them had to be swept off streets or highways. The beach where for nearly a century throngs had gathered for the sport of catching grunion was off bounds now; it was the property of California Margene, Inc., a private corporation heavily subsidized by the Federal Government as an infant industry. The grunions themselves had to find another place to lay their eggs, or die off--nobody cared which. The sand they had used for countless millennia as an incubator was hemmed in by factory buildings and trampled by margene-gatherers. The whole beautiful shore for miles around was devastated; the university had to move its marine biological laboratory elsewhere; La Jolla, once a delightful suburb and tourist attraction, had become a dirty, noisy honkytonk town where processing and cannery workers lived and spent their off-hours; the unique Torrey Pines had been chopped down because they interfered with the erection of a freight airport.

But half the world's people were living on margenes.

The sole possession of this wonderful foodstuff gave more power to the United States than had priority in the atomic bomb. Only behind the Iron Curtain did the product of California Margene, Inc. fail to penetrate. _Pravda_ ran parallel articles on the same day, one claiming that margenes--_brzdichnoya_--had first appeared long ago on a beach of the Caspian Sea and had for years formed most of the Russian diet; the other warning the deluded nations receiving free supplies as part of American foreign aid that the margenes had been injected with drugs aimed at making them weak and submissive to the exploitation of the capitalist-imperialists.

There was a dangerous moment at the beginning when the sudden sharp decline in stocks of all other food products threatened another 1929. But with federal aid a financial crash was averted and now a new high level of prosperity had been established. Technological unemployment was brief, and most of the displaced workers were soon retained for jobs in one of the many ramifications of the new margene industry.

Agriculture, of course, underwent a short deep depression, not only in America but all over the world; but it came to an end as food other than margenes quickly became a luxury product. Farmers were able to cut their production to a small fraction of the former yield, and to get rich on the dizzying prices offered for bread, apples, or potatoes. And this increased the prosperity of the baking and other related industries as well.

In fact, ordinary food costs (which meant margene costs) were so low that a number of the larger unions voluntarily asked for wage decreases in their next contracts. California Margene, Inc. was able to process, pack, and distribute margene cakes at an infinitesimal retail price, by reason of the magnitude of the output.

An era of political good feeling fell upon the western world, reflected from the well-fed comfort of vast populations whose members never before in their lives had had quite enough to eat. The fear of famine seemed to be over forever, and with it the fear of the diseases and the social unrest that follow famine. Even the U.S.S.R. and its satellites, in a conciliatory move in the United Nations Assembly, suggested that the long cold war ought to be amenable to a reasonable solution through a series of amicable discussions. The western nations, assenting, guessed shrewdly that the Iron Curtain countries "wanted in" on the margenes.

Marge Hickin and Gene Towanda, who had started it all, left college for copywriting jobs with the agency handling the enormous margene publicity; they were married a few months later.

And the margenes continued to come in from the sea in countless millions. They were being harvested now from the Pacific itself, near the shoreline, before they reached the beach. Still no research could discover their original source.

Only a few scientists worried about what would happen if the margenes should disappear as suddenly as they had arrived. Attempts at breeding the creatures had failed completely. They did not undergo fission, they did not sporulate, they seemed to have no sex. No methods of reproduction known in the plant or animal kingdom seemed to apply to them. Hundreds of them were kept alive for long periods--they lived with equal ease in either air or water, and they did not take nourishment, unless they absorbed it from their environment--but no sign of fertility ever appeared. Neither did they seem to die of natural causes. They just kept coming in....

On the night of May 7, 1969, not a single margene was visible in the ocean or on the beach.

They never came again.

What happened as a result is known to every student of history. The world-wide economic collapse, followed by the fall of the most stable governments, the huge riots that arose from the frantic attempts to get possession of the existing stocks of margene cakes or of the rare luxury items of other edibles, the announcement by the U.S.S.R. that it had known from the beginning the whole thing was a gigantic American hoax in the interests of the imperialistic bloodsuckers, the simultaneous atomic attacks by east and west, the Short War of 1970 that ruined most of what bombs had spared of the Earth, the slow struggle back of the remnant of civilization which is all of existence you and I have ever known--all these were a direct outgrowth of that first appearance of the margenes on the beach near San Diego on an April night in 1960.

Marge and Gene Towanda were divorced soon after they had both lost their jobs. She was killed in the hydrogen blast that wiped out San Diego; he fell in the War of 1970. "Margene" became a dirty word in every language on Earth. What small amount of money and ability can be spared is, as everyone knows, devoted today to a desperate international effort to reach and colonize another habitable planet of the Solar System, if such there be.

* * * * *

As for the margenes, themselves, out of the untold millions that had come, only a few thousand were lucky enough to survive and find their way back to their overcrowded starting-point. In their strange way of communication--as incomprehensible to us as would be their means of nourishment and reproduction, or their constitution itself--they made known to their kin what had happened to them. There is no possibility, in spite of the terrific over-population of their original home and of the others to which they are constantly migrating, that they will ever come here again.

There has been much speculation, particularly among writers of science fiction, on what would happen if aliens from other planets should invade Earth. Would they arrive as benefactors or as conquerors? Would we welcome them or would we overcome and capture them and put them in zoos and museums? Would we meet them in friendship or with hostility?

The margenes gave us the answer.

Beings from outer space came to Earth in 1960.

And we ate them.