Half of the Harron fields had died before the locals asked for outside help. Looking at the dead plants depressed Ecotech Cha Hao Chan as he knelt and pulled out his pocketcomp. Iler, the local who had brought him out to the field, fell silent and looked both worried and distrustful.
The world had lived well enough to transport grain to other settlements for more than a century but now couldn't feed themselves. The colonists had been prosperous, happy, and even helpful to other worlds in trouble. This blight would affect a half dozen worlds in this sector.
"We had other scientists check things," Iler suddenly said. His voice had softened. "We tried to fix it before we bothered the IWC. We didn't want to worry other colonies who depend on us, but we're starting to miss shipments. This will be out in the open soon anyway."
"Ah," Cha said and stood. They'd handled this well enough -- he'd seen the local reports. "I hope I can find a way to help."
"You are from Earth, aren't you?" Iler asked.
"Yes, I was born and raised there."
"Most Earthers don't like the colonists, from what I've seen," Iler replied. He looked out over the field with a mournful shake of his head. "But you work for the Inner Worlds Council?"
"I do." Cha dared a hand on Iler's arm and looked into his face. "I don't want to give you false hope, but I am the top eco scientist the Inner Worlds Council has on staff. I can already see odd things, but I don't know how they add up. I need to look at all the import invoices for the year before you saw this begin. Also, any strange observations say within a few months of --"
"Meteor shower," Iler said suddenly. "It was an odd one. We saw it in the evening, and some pretty good-sized chunks came down -- but we had a storm that night, and by the next day, we didn't find more than a few hand-sized pieces. We did tests, but nothing odd came up, though."
Cha nodded and frowned. "Do you still have some of those pieces?"
"Yeah, I've got one at home."
"I wouldn't mind taking a look at it if you don't mind?"
"I'll pick it up on the way back when I drop you off at the hotel."
Cha nodded. "I don't expect this to be the answer, but I have to start somewhere. I'll still need all those invoices for materials brought to Harron."
"I can do that," Iler agreed. He even sounded oddly hopeful now.
Maybe that came from Cha's position with the Inner Worlds Council, or perhaps because Cha already began looking at new avenues others hadn't suggested before now.
He gathered a few samples of wheat and soybean crops, the plants whithered for no reason. They looked burnt, some with noticeable spots where something had seemed to eat through the leaves. There were no signs of new pests, local adaptations, or something mutated from either native or imported insects.
And it wasn't as easy as a meteorite shower, of course. Cha spent days going over the early reports of crop failure, but it all kept coming back to that meteorite shower, though he could find nothing on the remaining debris --
The rains had come.
It couldn't be that easy.
He looked at the weather reports again. The storm came up from the south --
Most storms came from the north.
What was to the south?
By the next morning, Cha -- who hadn't slept at all -- had a fair idea of what had happened. The southern half of the continent with an alkaline desert -- uninhabitable and ignored. Rain rarely came from that direction precisely because of the desert.
But on that night, meteorites had fallen. He studied the maps and the weather reports. A few more massive strikes had been in the south where plumes of dust had risen, swept over the mountains, helped to fuel the storm. It wasn't much of one, but it brought dangers with it.
The rain drove much of the alkaline dust deep into the porous soil. The testing had not noticed more than a trace amount in and around the fields.
"So, what can we do?" Iler asked the next day. He looked as tired as Cha felt. "We can't get it back out, can we? The ground is ruined."
"There are ways to nullify the effects," Cha reassured him. "It may be that it will disappear on its own, but I don't think we want to take that chance. We need something -- elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate, iron sulfate, or even acidifying nitrogen."
"Do we have such things?" he said, looking around as though he would spot it stacked up along the walls.
"I've already sent out notices that I want them shipped here as fast as they can be found or mined," Cha assured him. "Along with food supplies to hold you over and grain to start again. This may not be an easy fix, but I think we have a good step in the right direction."
In fact, it took him over another 300 days standard before Cha Hao Chan became convinced that the next crop would survive. By then, he had also overhauled their irrigation system, set up a contingency plan for another such event. He also began a long-term project to rehabilitate the alkaline desert so that they would have even more farmland in a few generations.
By the end, they gave him a party.
"I wish you'd stay. We'd pay whatever you want --" Iler said.
"Sorry, can't do it," he said between sips of excellent local wine. "There are other places that need help. But if you need me -- I'll be back."