THIS WORLD IS TABOO
The little Med Ship came out of overdrive and the stars were strange and the Milky Way seemed unfamiliar. Which, of course, was because the Milky Way and the local Cepheid marker-stars were seen from an unaccustomed angle and a not-yet-commonplace pattern of varying magnitudes.
But Calhoun grunted in satisfaction. There was a banded sun off to port, which was good. A breakout at no more than sixty light-hours from one’s destination wasn’t bad, in a strange sector of the galaxy and after three light-years of journeying blind.
“Arise and shine, Murgatroyd,” said Calhoun. “Comb your whiskers. Get set to astonish the natives!”
A sleepy, small, shrill voice said: “Chee!“
Murgatroyd the tormal came crawling out of the small cubbyhole which was his own. He blinked at Calhoun.
“We’re due to land shortly,” Calhoun observed. “You will impress the local inhabitants. I will get unpopular. According to the records, there’s been no Med Ship inspection here for twelve standard years. And that was practically no inspection, to judge by the report.”
Murgatroyd said: “Chee-chee!“
He began to make his toilet, first licking his right-hand whiskers and then his left. Then he stood up and shook himself and looked interestedly at Calhoun. Tormals are companionable small animals. They are charmed when somebody speaks to them. They find great, deep satisfaction in imitating the actions of humans, as parrots and mynahs and parakeets imitate human speech. But tormals have certain valuable, genetically transmitted talents which make them much more valuable than mere companions or pets.
Calhoun got a light-reading for the banded sun. It could hardly be an accurate measure of distance, but it was a guide.
“Hold on to something, Murgatroyd!” he said.
Murgatroyd watched. He saw Calhoun make certain gestures which presaged discomfort. He popped back into his cubbyhole. Calhoun threw the overdrive switch and the Med Ship flicked back into that questionable state of being in which velocities of hundreds of times that of light are possible. The sensation of going into overdrive was unpleasant. A moment later, the sensation of coming out was no less so. Calhoun had experienced it often enough, and still didn’t like it.
The sun Weald burned huge and terrible in space. It was close, now. Its disk covered half a degree of arc.
“Very neat,” observed Calhoun. “Weald Three is our port, Murgatroyd. The plane of the ecliptic would be … Hm….”
He swung the outside electron telescope, picked up a nearby bright object, enlarged its image to show details, and checked it against the local star-pilot. He calculated a moment. The distance was too short for even the briefest of overdrive hops, but it would take time to get there on solar-system drive.
He thumbed down the communicator button and spoke into a microphone.
“Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty reporting arrival and asking coordinates for landing,” he said matter-of-factly. “Purpose of landing is planetary health inspection. Our mass is fifty tons, standard. We should arrive at a landing position in something under four hours. Repeat. Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty….”
He finished the regular second transmission and made coffee for himself while he waited for an answer. Murgatroyd came out for a cup of coffee for himself. Murgatroyd adored coffee. In minutes he held a tiny cup in a furry small paw and sipped gingerly at the hot liquid.
A voice came out of the communicator:
“Aesclipus Twenty, repeat your identification.”
Calhoun went to the control board.
“Aesclipus Twenty,” he said patiently, “is a Med Ship, sent by the Interstellar Medical Service to make a planetary health inspection on Weald. Check with your public health authorities. This is the first Med Ship visit in twelve standard years, I believe—which is inexcusable. But your health authorities will know all about it. Check with them.”
The voice said truculently:
“What was your last port?”
Calhoun named it. This was not his home sector, but Sector Twelve had gotten into a very bad situation. Some of its planets had gone unvisited for as long as twenty years, and twelve between inspections was almost commonplace. Other sectors had been called on to help it catch up.
Calhoun was one of the loaned Med Ship men, and because of the emergency he’d been given a list of half a dozen planets to be inspected one after another, instead of reporting back to sector headquarters after each visit. He’d had minor troubles before with landing-grid operators in Sector Twelve.
So he was very patient. He named the planet last inspected, the one from which he’d set out for Weald Three. The voice from the communicator said sharply:
“What port before that?”
“Don’t drive any closer,” said the voice harshly, “or you’ll be destroyed!”
Calhoun said coldly, “Listen, my fine feathered friend! I’m from the Interstellar Medical Service. You get in touch with planetary health services immediately! Remind them of the Interstellar Medical Inspection Agreement, signed on Tralee two hundred and forty standard years ago. Remind them that if they do not cooperate in medical inspection that I can put your planet under quarantine and your space commerce will be cut off like that!
“No ship will be cleared for Weald from any other planet in the galaxy until there has been a health inspection! Things have pretty well gone to pot so far as the Med Service in this sector is concerned, but it’s being straightened up. I’m helping straighten it! I give you twenty minutes to clear this! Then I am coming in, and if I’m not landed a quarantine goes on! Tell your health authorities that!”
Silence. Calhoun clicked off and poured himself another cup of coffee. Murgatroyd held out his cup for a refill. Calhoun gave it to him.
“I hate to put on an official hat, Murgatroyd,” he said, annoyed, “but there are some people who demand it. The rule is, never get official if you can help it, but when you must, out-official the official who’s officialing you.”
Murgatroyd said “Chee!” and sipped at his cup.
Calhoun checked the course of the Med Ship. It bore on through space. There were tiny noises from the communicator. There were whisperings and rustlings and the occasional strange and sometimes beautiful musical notes whose origin is yet obscure, but which, since they are carried by electromagnetic radiation of wildly varying wave lengths, are not likely to be the fabled music of the spheres.
“Med Ship Aesclipus! Med Ship Aesclipus!”
Calhoun answered and the voice said anxiously:
“Sorry about the challenge, but we have the blueskin problem always with us. We have to be extremely careful! Will you come in, please?”
“I’m on my way,” said Calhoun.
“The planetary health authorities,” said the voice, more anxiously still, “are very anxious to be cooperative. We need Med Service help! We lose a lot of sleep over the blueskin! Could you tell us the name of the last Med Ship to land here, and its inspector, and when that inspection was made? We want to look up the record of the event to be able to assist you in every possible way.”
“He’s lying,” Calhoun told Murgatroyd, “but he’s more scared than hostile.”
He picked up the order folio on Weald Three. He gave the information about the last Med Ship visit.
“What?” he asked, “is a blueskin?”
He’d read the folio on Weald, of course, but as the ship swam onward through emptiness he went through it again. The last medical inspection had been only perfunctory. Twelve years earlier—instead of three—a Med Ship had landed on Weald. There had been official conferences with health officials. There was a report on the birth rate, the death rate, the anomaly rate, and a breakdown of all reported communicable diseases. But that was all. There were no special comments and no overall picture.
Presently Calhoun found the word in a Sector dictionary, where words of only local usage were to be found:
“Blueskin: Colloquial term for a person recovered from a plague which left large patches of blue pigment irregularly distributed over the body. Especially, inhabitants of Dara. The condition is said to be caused by a chronic, nonfatal form of Dara plague and has been said to be noninfectious, though this is not certain. The etiology of Dara plague has not been worked out. The blueskin condition is hereditary but not a genetic modification, as markings appear in non-Mendelian distributions.”
Calhoun puzzled over it. Nobody could have read the entire Sector directory, even with unlimited leisure during travel between solar systems. Calhoun hadn’t tried. But now he went laboriously through indices and cross-references while the ship continued to travel onward.
He found no other reference to blueskins. He looked up Dara. It was listed as an inhabited planet, some four hundred years colonized, with a landing-grid and, at the time the main notice was written out, a flourishing interstellar commerce. But there was a memo, evidently added to the entry in some change of editions: “Since plague, special license from Med Service is required for landing.“
That was all. Absolutely all.
The communicator said suavely:
“Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty! Come in on vision, please!”
Calhoun went to the control board and threw on vision.
“Well, what now?” he demanded.
His screen lighted. A bland face looked out at him.
“We have—ah—verified your statements,” said the third voice from Weald. “Just one more item. Are you alone in your ship?”
“Of course,” said Calhoun, frowning.
“Quite alone?” insisted the voice.
“Obviously!” said Calhoun.
Murgatroyd hopped to his lap and gazed interestedly at the screen. The bland face changed remarkably. The voice changed even more.
“Very good!” it said. “Very, very good! Blueskins do not have tormals! You are Med Service! By all means come in! Your coordinates will be….”
Calhoun wrote them down. He clicked off the communicator again and growled to Murgatroyd, “So I might have been a blueskin, eh? And you’re my passport, because only Med Ships have members of your tribe aboard! What the hell’s the matter, Murgatroyd? They act like they think somebody’s trying to get down on their planet with a load of plague germs!”
He grumbled to himself for minutes. The life of a Med Ship man is not exactly a sinecure, at best. It means long periods in empty space in overdrive, which is absolute and deadly tedium. Then two or three days aground, checking official documents and statistics, and asking questions to see how many of the newest medical techniques have reached this planet or that, and the supplying of information about such as have not arrived.
Then the lifting out to space for long periods of tedium, to repeat the process somewhere else. Med Ships carry only one man because two could not stand the close contact without quarreling with each other. But Med Ships do carry tormals, like Murgatroyd, and a tormal and a man can get along indefinitely, like a man and a dog. It is a highly unequal friendship, but it seems to be satisfactory to both.
Calhoun was very much annoyed with the way the Med Service had been operated in Sector Twelve. He was one of many men at work to correct the results of incompetence in directing Med Service in this sector. But it is always disheartening to have to labor at making up for somebody else’s blundering, when there is so much new work that needs to be done.
The condition shown by the landing-grid suspicions was a case in point. Blueskins were people who inherited a splotchy skin pigmentation from other people who’d survived a plague. Weald plainly maintained a one-planet quarantine against them. But a quarantine is normally an emergency measure. The Med Service should have taken over, wiped out the need for a quarantine, and then lifted it. It hadn’t been done.
Calhoun fumed to himself.
The world of Weald Three grew brighter and brighter and became a disk. The disk had icecaps and a reasonable proportion of land and water surface. The ship decelerated, voices notifying observation from the surface, and the little ship came to a stop some five planetary diameters out from solidity. The landing field’s force-field locked on to it, and its descent began.
The business of landing was all very familiar, from the blue rim which appeared at the limb of the planet from one diameter out, to the singular flowing-apart of the surface features as the ship sank still lower. There was the circular landing-grid, rearing skyward for nearly a mile. It could let down interstellar liners from emptiness and lift them out to emptiness again, with great convenience and economy for everyone.
It landed the Med Ship in its center, and there were officials to greet Calhoun, and he knew in advance the routine part of his visit. There would be an interview with the planet’s chief executive, by whatever title he was called. There would be a banquet. Murgatroyd would be petted by everybody. There would be painful efforts to impress Calhoun with the splendid conduct of public health matters on Weald. He would be told much scandal.
He might find one man, somewhere, who passionately labored to advance the welfare of his fellow humans by finding out how to keep them well or, failing that, how to make them well when they got sick. And in two days, or three, Calhoun would be escorted back to the landing-grid, and lifted out to space, and he’d spend long empty days in overdrive and land somewhere else to do the whole thing all over again.
It all happened exactly as he expected, with one exception. Every human being he met on Weald wanted to talk about blueskins. Blueskins and the idea of blueskins obsessed everyone. Calhoun listened without asking questions until he had the picture of what blueskins meant to the people who talked of them. Then he knew there would be no use asking questions at random.
Nobody mentioned ever having seen a blueskin. Nobody mentioned a specific event in which a blueskin had at any named time taken part. But everybody was afraid of blueskins. It was a patterned, an inculcated, a stage-directed fixed idea. And it found expression in shocked references to the vileness, the depravity, the monstrousness of the blueskin inhabitants of Dara, from whom Weald must at all costs be protected.
It did not make sense. So Calhoun listened politely until he found an undistinguished medical man who wanted some special information about gene selection as practised halfway across the galaxy. He invited that man to the Med Ship, where he supplied the information not hitherto available. He saw his guest’s eyes shine a little with that joyous awe a man feels when he finds out something he has wanted long and badly to know.
“Now,” said Calhoun, “tell me something? Why does everybody on this planet hate the inhabitants of Dara? It’s light-years away. Nobody claims to have suffered in person from them. Why make a point of hating them?”
The Wealdian doctor grimaced.
“They’ve blue patches on their skins. They’re different from us. So they can be pictured as a danger and our political parties can make an election issue out of competing for the privilege of defending us from them. They had a plague on Dara, once. They’re accused of still having it ready for export.”
“Hm,” said Calhoun. “The story is that they want to spread contagion here, eh? Doesn’t anybody”—his tone was sardonic—”doesn’t anybody urge that they be massacred as an act of piety?”
“Yes-s-s-s,” admitted the doctor reluctantly. “It’s mentioned in political speeches.”
“But how’s it rationalized?” demanded Calhoun. “What’s the argument to make pigment-patches involve moral and physical degradation, as I’m assured is the case?”
“In the public schools,” said the doctor, “the children are taught that blueskins are now carriers of the disease they survived—three generations ago! That they hate everybody who isn’t a blueskin. That they are constantly scheming to introduce their plague here so most of us will die and the rest will become blueskins. That’s beyond rationalizing. It can’t be true, but it’s not safe to doubt it.”
“Bad business,” said Calhoun coldly. “That sort of thing usually costs lives in the end. It could lead to massacre!”
“Perhaps it has, in a way,” said the doctor unhappily. “One doesn’t like to think about it.” He paused. “Twenty years ago there was a famine on Dara. There were crop failures. The situation must have been very bad: They built a spaceship.
“They’ve no use for such things normally, because no nearby planet will deal with them or let them land. But they built a spaceship and came here. They went in orbit around Weald. They asked to trade for shiploads of food. They offered any price in heavy metals—gold, platinum, irridium, and so on. They talked from orbit by vision communicators. They could be seen to be blueskins. You can guess what happened!”
“Tell me,” said Calhoun.
“We armed ships in a hurry,” admitted the doctor. “We chased their spaceship back to Dara. We hung in space off the planet. We told them we’d blast their world from pole to pole if they ever dared take to space again. We made them destroy their one ship, and we watched on visionscreens as it was done.”
“But you gave them food?”
“No,” said the doctor ashamedly. “They were blueskins.”
“How bad was the famine?”
“Who knows? Any number may have starved! And we kept a squadron of armed ships in their skies for years—to keep them from spreading the plague, we said. And some of us believed it!”
The doctor’s tone was purest irony.
“Lately,” he said, “there’s been a move for economy in our government. Simultaneously, we began to have a series of overabundant crops. The government had to buy the excess grain to keep the price up. Retired patrol ships, built to watch over Dara, were available for storage space. We filled them up with grain and sent them out into orbit. They’re there now, hundreds of thousands or millions of tons of grain!”
The doctor shrugged. He stood up.
“Our hatred of Dara,” he said, again ironically, “has produced one thing. Roughly halfway between here and Dara there’s a two-planet solar system, Orede. There’s a usable planet there. It was proposed to build an outpost of Weald there, against blueskins. Cattle were landed to run wild and multiply and make a reason for colonists to settle there.
“They did, but nobody wants to move near to blueskins! So Orede stayed uninhabited until a hunting party, shooting wild cattle, found an outcropping of heavy-metal ore. So now there’s a mine there. And that’s all. A few hundred men work the mine at fabulous wages. You may be asked to check on their health. But not Dara’s!”
“I see,” said Calhoun, frowning.
The doctor moved toward the Med Ship’s exit port.
“I answered your questions,” he said grimly. “But if I talked to anyone else as I’ve done to you, I’d be lucky only to be driven into exile!”
“I shan’t give you away,” said Calhoun. He did not smile.
When the doctor had gone, Calhoun said deliberately, “Murgatroyd, you should be grateful that you’re a tormal and not a man. There’s nothing about being a tormal to make you ashamed!”
Then he grimly changed his garments for the full-dress uniform of the Med Service. There was to be a banquet at which he would sit next to the planet’s chief executive and hear innumerable speeches about the splendor of Weald. Calhoun had his own, strictly Med Service opinion of the planet’s latest and most boasted-of achievement. It was a domed city in the polar regions, where nobody ever had to go outdoors.
He was less than professionally enthusiastic about the moving streets, and much less than approving of the dream broadcasts which supplied hypnotic, sleep-inducing rhythms to anybody who chose to listen to them. The price was that while asleep one would hear high praise of commercial products, and might believe them when awake.
But it was not Calhoun’s function to criticize when it could be avoided. Med Service had been badly managed in Sector Twelve. So at the banquet Calhoun made a brief and diplomatic address in which he temperately praised what could be praised, and did not mention anything else.
The chief executive followed him. As head of the government he paid some tribute to the Med Service. But then he reminded his hearers proudly of the high culture, splendid health, and remarkable prosperity of the planet since his political party took office. This, he said, despite the need to be perpetually on guard against the greatest and most immediate danger to which any world in all the galaxy was exposed.
He referred to the blueskins, of course. He did not need to tell the people of Weald what vigilance, what constant watchfulness was necessary against that race of deprived and malevolent deviants from the norm of humanity. But Weald, he said with emotion, held aloft the torch of all that humanity held most dear, and defended not alone the lives of its people against blueskin contagion, but their noble heritage of ideals against blueskin pollution.
When he sat down, Calhoun said very politely, “It looks as if some day it should be practical politics to urge the massacre of all blueskins. Have you thought of that?”
The chief executive said comfortably, “The idea’s been proposed. It’s good politics to urge it, but it would be foolish to carry it out. People vote against blueskins. Wipe them out, and where’d you be?”
Calhoun ground his teeth—quietly.
There were more speeches. Then a messenger, white-faced, arrived with a written note for the chief executive. He read it and passed it to Calhoun. It was from the Ministry of Health. The spaceport reported that a ship had just broken out from overdrive within the Wealdian solar system. Its tape-transmitter had automatically signaled its arrival from the mining planet Orede.
But, having sent off its automatic signal, the ship lay dead in space. It did not drive toward Weald. It did not respond to signals. It drifted like a derelict upon no course at all. It seemed ominous, and since it came from Orede, the planet nearest to Dara of the blueskins, the health ministry informed the planet’s chief executive.
“It’ll be blueskins,” said that astute person firmly. “They’re next door to Orede. That’s who’s done this. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’d seeded Orede with their plague, and this ship came from there to give us warning!”
“There’s no evidence for anything of the sort,” protested Calhoun. “A ship simply came out of overdrive and didn’t signal further. That’s all!”
“We’ll see,” said the chief executive ominously. “We’ll go to the spaceport. There we’ll get the news as it comes in, and can frame orders on the latest information.”
He took Calhoun by the arm. Calhoun said sharply, “Murgatroyd!”
During the banquet, Murgatroyd had been visiting with the wives of the higher-up officials. They had enough of their husbands normally, without listening to their official speeches. Murgatroyd was brought, his small paunch distended with cakes and coffee and such delicacies as he’d been plied with. He was half comatose from overfeeding and overpetting, but he was glad to see Calhoun.
Calhoun held the little creature in his arms as the official groundcar raced through traffic with screaming sirens claiming the right of way. It reached the spaceport, where enormous metal girders formed a monster frame of metal lace against a star-filled sky. The chief executive strode magnificently into the spaceport offices. There was no news; the situation remained unchanged.
A ship from Orede had come out of overdrive and lay dead in emptiness. It did not answer calls. It did not move in space. It floated eerily in no orbit, going nowhere, doing nothing. And panic was the consequence.
It seemed to Calhoun that the official handling of the matter accounted for the terror that he could feel building up. The unexplained bit of news was on the air all over the planet Weald. There was nobody awake of all the world’s population who did not believe that there was a new danger in the sky. Nobody doubted that it came from blueskins. The treatment of the news was precisely calculated to keep alive the hatred of Weald for the inhabitants of the world Dara.
Calhoun put Murgatroyd into the Med Ship and went back to the spaceport office. A small spaceboat, designed to inspect the circling grain ships from time to time, was already aloft. The landing-grid had thrust it swiftly out most of the way. Now it droned and drove on sturdily toward the enigmatic ship.
Calhoun took no part in the agitated conferences among the officials and news reporters at the spaceport. But he listened to the talk about him. As the investigating small ship drew nearer to the deathly-still cargo vessel, the guesses about the meaning of its breakout and following silence grew more and more wild.
But, singularly, there was no single suggestion that the mystery might not be the work of blueskins. Blueskins were scape-goats for all the fears and all the uneasiness a perhaps over-civilized world developed.
Presently the investigating spaceboat reached the mystery ship and circled it, beaming queries. No answer. It reported the cargo ship dark. No lights anywhere on or in it. There were no induction-surges from even pulsing, idling engines. Delicately, the messenger craft maneuvered until it touched the silent vessel. It reported that microphones detected no motion whatever inside.
“Let a volunteer go aboard,” commanded the chief executive. “Let him report what he finds.”
A pause. Then the solemn announcement of an intrepid volunteer’s name, from far, far away. Calhoun listened, frowning darkly. This pompous heroism wouldn’t be noticed in the Med Service. It would be routine behavior.
Suspenseful, second-by-second reports. The volunteer had rocketed himself across the emptiness between the two again separated ships. He had opened the airlock from outside. He’d gone in. He’d closed the outer airlock door. He’d opened the inner. He reported—
The relayed report was almost incoherent, what with horror and incredulity and the feeling of doom that came upon the volunteer. The ship was a bulk-cargo ore-carrier, designed to run between Orede and Weald with cargos of heavy-metal ores and a crew of no more than five men. There was no cargo in her holds now, though.
Instead, there were men. They packed the ship. They filled the corridors. They had crawled into every space where a man could find room to push himself. There were hundreds of them. It was insanity. And it had been greater insanity still for the ship to have taken off with so preposterous a load of living creatures.
But they weren’t living any longer. The air apparatus had been designed for a crew of five. It would purify the air for possibly twenty or more. But there were hundreds of men in hiding as well as in plain view in the cargo ship from Orede. There were many, many times more than her air apparatus and reserve tanks could possibly have taken care of. They couldn’t even have been fed during the journey from Orede to Weald.
But they hadn’t starved. Air-scarcity killed them before the ship came out of overdrive.
A remarkable thing was that there was no written message in the ship’s log which referred to its takeoff. There was no memorandum of the taking on of such an impossible number of passengers.
“The blueskins did it,” said the chief executive of Weald. He was pale. All about Calhoun men looked sick and shocked and terrified. “It was the blueskins! We’ll have to teach them a lesson!” Then he turned to Calhoun. “The volunteer who went on that ship—he’ll have to stay there, won’t he? He can’t be brought back to Weald without bringing contagion.”
Calhoun raged at him.
There was a certain coldness in the manner of those at the Weald spaceport when the Med Ship left next morning. Calhoun was not popular because Weald was scared. It had been conditioned to scare easily, where blueskins might be involved. Its children were trained to react explosively when the word blueskin was uttered in their hearing, and its adults tended to say it when anything causing uneasiness entered their minds. So a planet-wide habit of irrational response had formed and was not seen to be irrational because almost everybody had it.
The volunteer who’d discovered the tragedy on the ship from Orede was safe, though. He’d made a completely conscientious survey of the ship he’d volunteered to enter and examine. For his courage, he’d have been doomed but for Calhoun.
The reaction of his fellow citizens was that by entering the ship he might have become contaminated by blueskin infectious material of the plague still existed, and if the men in the ship had caught it (but they certainly hadn’t died of it), and if there had been blueskins on Orede to communicate it (for which there was no evidence), and if blueskins were responsible for the tragedy. Which was at the moment pure supposition. But Weald feared he might bring death back to Weald if he were allowed to return.
Calhoun saved his life. He ordered that the guardship admit him to its airlock, which then was to be filled with steam and chlorine. The combination would sterilize and even partly eat away his spacesuit, after which the chlorine and steam should be bled out to space, and air from the ship let into the lock.
If he stripped off the spacesuit without touching its outer surface, and reentered the investigating ship while the suit was flung outside by a man in another spacesuit, handling it with a pole he’d fling after it, there could be no possible contamination brought back.
Calhoun was quite right, but Weald in general considered that he’d persuaded the government to take an unreasonable risk.
There were other reasons for disapproving of him. Calhoun had been unpleasantly frank. The coming of the death-ship stirred to frenzy those people who believed that all blueskins should be exterminated as a pious act. They’d appeared on every vision screen, citing not only the ship from Orede but other incidents which they interpreted as crimes against Weald.
They demanded that all Wealdian atomic reactors be modified to turn out fusion-bomb materials while a space fleet was made ready for an anti-blueskin crusade. They confidently demanded such a rain of fusion bombs on Dara that no blueskin, no animal, no shred of vegetation, no fish in the deepest ocean, not even a living virus particle of the blueskin plague could remain alive on the blueskin world.
One of these vehement orators even asserted that Calhoun agreed that no other course was possible, speaking for the Interstellar Medical Service. And Calhoun furiously demanded a chance to deny it by broadcast, and he made a bitter and indiscreet speech from which a planet-wide audience inferred that he thought them fools.
So he was definitely unpopular when his ship lifted from Weald. He’d curtly given his destination as Orede, from which the death-ship had come. The landing-grid locked on, raised the small spacecraft until Weald was a great shining ball below it, and then somehow scornfully cast him off. The Med Ship was free, in clear space where there was not enough of a gravitational field to hinder overdrive.
He aimed for his destination, his face very grim. He said savagely, “Get set, Murgatroyd! Overdrive coming!”
He thumbed down the overdrive button. The universe of stars went out, while everything living in the ship felt the customary sensations of dizziness, of nausea, and of a spiraling fall to nothingness. Then there was silence.
The Med Ship actually moved at a rate which was a preposterous number of times the speed of light, but it felt absolutely solid, absolutely firm and fixed. A ship in overdrive feels exactly as if it were buried deep in the core of a planet. There is no vibration. There is no sign of anything but solidity and, if one looks out a port, there is only utter blackness plus an absence of sound fit to make one’s eardrums crack.
But within seconds random tiny noises began. There was a reel and there were sound-speakers to keep the ship from sounding like a grave. The reel played and the speakers gave off minute creakings, and meaningless hums, and very tiny noises of every imaginable sort, all of which were just above the threshold of the inaudible.
Calhoun fretted. Sector Twelve was in very bad shape. A conscientious Med Service man would never have let the anti-blueskin obsession go unmentioned in a report on Weald. Health is not only a physical affair. There is mental health, also. When mental health goes a civilization can be destroyed more surely and more terribly than by any imaginable war or plague germs. A plague kills off those who are susceptible to it, leaving immunes to build up a world again. But immunes are the first to be killed when a mass neurosis sweeps a population.
Weald was definitely a Med Service problem world. Dara was another. And when hundreds of men jammed themselves into a cargo spaceship which could not furnish them with air to breathe, and took off and went into overdrive before the air could fail…. Orede called for no less of worry.
“I think,” said Calhoun dourly, “that I’ll have some coffee.”
Coffee was one of the words that Murgatroyd recognized. Ordinarily he stirred immediately on hearing it, and watched the coffeemaker with bright, interested eyes. He’d even tried to imitate Calhoun’s motions with it, once, and had scorched his paws in the attempt. But this time he did not move.
“Murgatroyd,” said Calhoun. “I mentioned coffee!”
“Chee!” shrilled Murgatroyd.
But he continued to look at the door. The temperature was kept lower in the other cabin, and the look of things was different than the control compartment. The difference was part of the means by which a man was able to be alone for weeks on end—alone save for his tormal—without becoming ship-happy.
There were other carefully thought out items in the ship with the same purpose. But none of them should cause Murgatroyd to stare fixedly and fascinatedly at the sleeping cabin door. Not when coffee was in the making!
Calhoun considered. He became angry at the immediate suspicion that occurred to him. As a Med Service man, he was duty-bound to be impartial. To be impartial might mean not to side absolutely with Weald in its enmity to blueskins.
And the people of Weald had refused to help Dara in a time of famine, and had blockaded that pariah world for years afterward. And they had other reasons for hating the people they’d treated badly. It was entirely reasonable for some fanatic on Weald to consider that Calhoun must be killed lest he be of help to the blueskins Weald abhorred.
In fact, it was quite possible that somebody had stowed away on the Med Ship to murder Calhoun, so that there would be no danger of any report favorable to Dara ever being presented anywhere. If so, such a stowaway would be in the sleeping cabin now, waiting for Calhoun to walk in unsuspiciously, only to be shot dead.
He tapped on the sleeping cabin door, standing aside lest a blaster-bolt come through it.
“Coffee’s ready,” he said sardonically. “Come out and join us.”
There was a long pause. Calhoun rapped again.
“You’ve a seat at the captain’s table,” he said more sardonically still. “It’s not polite to keep me waiting!”
He listened, alert for a rush which would be a fanatic’s desperate attempt to do murder despite premature discovery. He was prepared to shoot quite ruthlessly, because he was on duty and the Med Service did not approve of the extermination of populations, however justified another population might consider it.
But there was no rush. Instead, there came hesitant foot-falls whose sound made Calhoun start. The door of the cabin slid slowly aside. A girl appeared in the opening, desperately white and desperately composed.
“H-how did you know I was there?” she asked shakily. She moistened her lips. “You didn’t see me! I was in a closet, and you didn’t even enter the room!”
Calhoun said grimly, “I’ve sources of information. Murgatroyd told me this time. May I present him? Murgatroyd, our passenger. Shake hands.”
Murgatroyd moved forward, stood on his hind legs and offered a skinny, furry paw. She did not move. She stared at Calhoun.
“Better shake hands,” said Calhoun, as grimly as before. “It might relax the tension a little. And do you want to tell me your story? You have one ready, I’m sure.”
The girl swallowed. Murgatroyd shook hands gravely. He said, “Chee-chee!” in the shrillest of trebles and went back to his former position.
“There—there isn’t any,” said the girl unsteadily. “Just that I—I need to get to Orede, and you’re going there. There’s no other way to go, now.”
“To the contrary,” said Calhoun. “There’ll undoubtedly be a fleet heading for Orede as soon as it can be assembled and armed. But I’m afraid that as a story yours isn’t good enough. Try another.”
She shivered a little.
“I’m running away….”
“Ah!” said Calhoun. “In that case I’ll take you back.”
“No!” she said fiercely. “I’ll—I’ll die first! I’ll wreck this ship first!”
Her hand came from behind her. There was a tiny blaster in it. But it shook visibly as she tried to aim it.
“I’ll shoot out the controls!”
Calhoun blinked. He’d had to make a drastic change in his estimate of the situation the instant he saw that the stowaway was a girl. Now he had to make another when her threat was not to kill him but to disable the ship. Women are rarely assassins, and when they are they don’t use energy weapons. Daggers and poisons are more typical. But this girl threatened to destroy the ship rather than its owner, so she was not actually an assassin at all.
“I’d rather you didn’t do that,” said Calhoun dryly. “Besides, you’d get deadly bored if we were stuck in a derelict waiting for our air and food to give out.”
Murgatroyd, for no reason whatever, felt it necessary to enter the conversation:
“I have a sweetheart there….”
Calhoun shook his head.
“No,” he said reprovingly. “Nearly all the mining colony had packed itself into the ship that came into Weald with everybody dead. But not all. And there’s been no check of what men were in the ship and what men weren’t. You wouldn’t go to Orede if it were likely your sweetheart had died on the way to you. Here’s your coffee. Sugar or saccho, and do you take cream?”
She trembled a little, but she took the cup.
“I don’t understand.”
“Murgatroyd and I,” explained Calhoun—and he did not know whether he spoke out of anger or something else—”we are do-gooders. We go around trying to keep people from getting sick or dying. Sometimes we even try to keep them from getting killed. It’s our profession. We practise it even on our own behalf. We want to stay alive. So since you make such drastic threats, we will take you where you want to go. Especially since we’re going there anyhow.”
“You don’t believe anything I’ve said!” It was a statement.
“Not a word,” admitted Calhoun. “But you’ll probably tell us something more believable presently. When did you eat last?”
“Would you rather do your own cooking?” asked Calhoun politely. “Or would you permit me to ready a snack?”
“I—I’ll do it,” she said.
She drank her coffee first, however, and then Calhoun showed her how to punch the readier for such-and-such dishes, to be extracted from storage and warmed or chilled, as the case might be, and served at dialed-for intervals. There was also equipment for preparing food for oneself, in one’s own chosen manner—again an item to help make solitude not unendurable.
Calhoun deliberately immersed himself in the Galactic Directory, looking up the planet Orede. He was headed there, but he’d had no reason to inform himself about it before. Now he read with every appearance of absorption.
The girl ate daintily. Murgatroyd watched with highly amiable interest. But she looked acutely uncomfortable.
Calhoun finished with the Directory. He got out the micro-film reels which contained more information. He was specifically after the Med Service history of all the planets in this sector. He went through the filmed record of every inspection ever made on Weald and on Dara.
But Sector Twelve had not been run well. There was no adequate account of a plague which had wiped out three-quarters of the population of an inhabited planet! It had happened shortly after one Med Ship visit, and was over before another Med Ship came by.
There should have been a painstaking investigation, even after the fact. There should have been a collection of infectious material and a reasonably complete identification and study of the agent. It hadn’t been made. There was probably some other emergency at the time, and it slipped by. Calhoun, whose career was not to be spent in this sector, resolved on a blistering report about this negligence and its consequences.
He kept himself casually busy, ignoring the girl. A Med Ship man has resources of study and meditation with which to occupy himself during overdrive travel from one planet to another. Calhoun made use of those resources. He acted as if he were completely unconscious of the stowaway. But Murgatroyd watched her with charmed attention.
Hours after her discovery, she said uneasily, “Please?”
“I don’t know exactly how things stand.”
“You are a stowaway,” said Calhoun. “Legally, I have the right to put you out the airlock. It doesn’t seem necessary. There’s a cabin. When you’re sleepy, use it. Murgatroyd and I can make out quite well out here. When you’re hungry, you now know how to get something to eat. When we land on Orede, you’ll probably go about whatever business you have there. That’s all.”
She stared at him.
“But you don’t believe what I’ve told you!”
“No,” agreed Calhoun, but didn’t add to the statement.
“But—I will tell you,” she offered. “The police were after me. I had to get away from Weald! I had to! I’d stolen—”
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “If you were a thief, you’d say anything in the world except that you were a thief. You’re not ready to tell the truth yet. You don’t have to, so why tell me anything? I suggest that you get some sleep. Incidentally, there’s no lock on the cabin door because there’s only supposed to be one person on this ship at a time. But you can brace a chair to fasten it somehow or other. Good night.”
She rose slowly. Twice her lips parted as if to speak again, but then she went into the other cabin and closed herself in. There was the sound of a chair being wedged against the door.
Murgatroyd blinked at the place where she’d disappeared and then climbed up into Calhoun’s lap, with complete assurance of welcome. He settled himself and was silent for moments. Then he said, “Chee!“
“I believe you’re right,” said Calhoun. “She doesn’t belong on Weald, or with the conditioning she’d have had, there’d be only one place she’d dread worse than Orede, which would be Dara. But I doubt she’d be afraid to land even on Dara.”
Murgatroyd liked to be talked to. He liked to pretend that he carried on a conversation, like humans.
“Chee-chee!” he said with conviction.
“Definitely,” agreed Calhoun. “She’s not doing this for her personal advantage. Whatever she thinks she’d doing, it’s more important to her than her own life. Murgatroyd….”
“Chee?” said Murgatroyd in an inquiring tone.
“There are wild cattle on Orede,” said Calhoun. “Herds and herds of them. I have a suspicion that somebody’s been shooting them. Lots of them. Do you agree? Don’t you think that a lot of cattle have been slaughtered on Orede lately?”
Murgatroyd yawned. He settled himself still more comfortably in Calhoun’s lap.
“Chee,” he said drowsily.
He went to sleep, while Calhoun continued the examination of highly condensed information. Presently he looked up the normal rate of increase, with other data, among herds of bovis domesticus in a wild state, on planets where there are no natural enemies.
It wasn’t unheard-of for a world to be stocked with useful types of Terran fauna and flora before it was attempted to be colonized. Terran life-forms could play the devil with alien ecological systems—very much to humanity’s benefit. Familiar microorganisms and a standard vegetation added to the practicality of human settlements on otherwise alien worlds. But sometimes the results were strange.
They weren’t often so strange, however, as to cause some hundreds of men to pack themselves frantically aboard a cargo ship which couldn’t possibly sustain them, so that every man must die while the ship was in overdrive.
Still, by the time Calhoun turned in on a spare pneumatic mattress, he had calculated that as few as a dozen head of cattle, turned loose on a suitable planet, would have increased to herds of thousands or tens or even hundreds of thousands in much less time than had probably elapsed.
The Med Ship drove on in seemingly absolute solidity, with no sound from without, with no sight to be seen outside, with no evidence at all that it was not buried in the heart of a planet instead of flashing through emptiness at a speed so great as to have no meaning.
Next ship-day the girl looked oddly at Calhoun when she appeared in the control room. Murgatroyd regarded her with great interest. Calhoun nodded politely and went back to what he’d been doing before she appeared.
“Shall I have breakfast?” she asked uncertainly.
“Murgatroyd and I have,” he told her. “Why not?”
Silently, she operated the food-readier. She ate. Calhoun gave a very good portrayal of a man who will respond politely when spoken to, but who was busy with activities remote from stowaways.
About noon, ship-time, she asked, “When will we get to Orede?”
Calhoun told her absently, as if he were thinking of something else.
“What—what do you think happened there? I mean, to make that tragedy in the ship.”
“I don’t know,” said Calhoun. “But I disagree with the authorities on Weald. I don’t think it was a planned atrocity of the blueskins.”
“Wh-what are blueskins?” asked the girl.
Calhoun turned around and looked at her directly.
“When lying,” he said mildly, “you tell as much by what you pretend isn’t, as by what you pretend is. You know what blueskins are!”
“There used to be a human disease called smallpox,” said Calhoun. “When people recovered from it, they were usually marked. Their skin had little scar pits here and there. At one time, back on Earth, it was expected that everybody would catch smallpox sooner or later, and a large percentage would die of it.
“And it was so much a matter of course that if they printed a picture of a criminal they never mentioned it if he were pock-marked. It was no distinction. But if he didn’t have the markings, they’d mention that!” He paused. “Those pock-marks weren’t hereditary, but otherwise a blueskin is like a man who had them. He can’t be anything else!”
“Then you think they’re human?”
“There’s never yet been a case of reverse evolution,” said Calhoun. “Maybe Pithecanthropus had a monkey uncle, but no Pithecanthropus ever went monkey.”
She turned abruptly away. But she glanced at him often during that day. He continued to busy himself with those activities which make Med Ship life consistent with retained sanity.
Next day she asked without preliminary, “Don’t you believe the blueskins planned for the ship with the dead men to arrive at Weald and spread plague there?”
“No,” said Calhoun.
“It couldn’t possibly work,” Calhoun told her. “With only dead men on board, the ship wouldn’t arrive at a place where the landing-grid could bring it down. So that would be no good. And plague-stricken living men wouldn’t try to conceal that they had the plague. They might ask for help, but they’d know they’d instantly be killed on Weald if they were found to be plague victims. So that would be no good, either! No, the ship wasn’t intended to land plague on Weald.”
“Are you friendly to blueskins?” she asked uncertainly.
“Within reason,” said Calhoun, “I am a well-wisher to all the human race. You’re slipping, though. When using the word blueskin you should say it uncomfortably, as if it were a word no refined person liked to pronounce. You don’t. We’ll land on Orede tomorrow, by the way. If you ever intend to tell me the truth, there’s not much time left.”
She bit her lips. Twice, during the remainder of the day, she faced him and opened her mouth as if to speak, and then turned away again. Calhoun shrugged. He had fairly definite ideas about her, by now. He carefully kept them tentative, but no girl born and raised on Weald would willingly go to Orede, with all of Weald believing that a shipload of miners preferred death to remaining there. It tied in, like everything else that was unpleasant, to blueskins. Nobody from Weald would dream of landing on Orede! Not now!
A little before the Med Ship was due to break out from overdrive, the girl said very carefully, “You’ve been very kind. I’d like to thank you. I—I didn’t really believe I would live to get to Orede.”
Calhoun raised his eyebrows.
“I wish I could tell you everything you want to know,” she added regretfully. “I think you’re … really decent. But some thing….”
Calhoun said caustically, “You’ve told me a great deal. You weren’t born on Weald. You weren’t raised there. The people of Dara—notice that I don’t say blueskins, though they are—the people of Dara have made at least one space ship since Weald threatened them with extermination. There is probably a new food shortage on Dara now, leading to pure desperation. Most likely it’s bad enough to make them risk landing on Orede to kill cattle and freeze beef to help. They’ve worked out—”
She gasped and sprang to her feet. She snatched out the tiny blaster in her pocket. She pointed it waveringly at him.
“I have to kill you!” she cried desperately. “I—I have to!”
Calhoun reached out. She tugged despairingly at the blaster’s trigger. Nothing happened. Before she could realize that she hadn’t turned off the safety, Calhoun twisted the weapon from her fingers. He stepped back.
“Good girl!” he said approvingly. “I’ll give this back to you when we land. And thanks. Thanks very much!”
She wrung her hands. Then she stared at him.
“Thanks? When I tried to kill you?”
“Of course!” said Calhoun. “I’d made guesses. I couldn’t know that they were right. When you tried to kill me, you confirmed every one. Now, when we land on Orede I’m going to get you to try to put me in touch with your friends. It’s going to be tricky, because they must be pretty well scared about that ship. But it’s a highly desirable thing to get done!”
He went to the ships’ control board and sat down before it.
“Twenty minutes to breakhour,” he observed.
Murgatroyd peered out of his little cubbyhole. His eyes were anxious. Tormals are amiable little creatures. During the days in overdrive, Calhoun had paid less than the usual amount of attention to Murgatroyd, while the girl was fascinating.
They’d made friends, awkwardly on the girl’s part, very pleasantly on Murgatroyd’s. But only moments ago there had been bitter emotion in the air. Murgatroyd had fled to his cubbyhole to escape it. He was distressed. Now that there was silence again, he peered out unhappily.
“Chee?” he queried plaintively. “Chee-chee-chee?“
The statement was hopelessly inaccurate.
There was no answer from the ground when breakout came and Calhoun drove the Med Ship to a favourable position for a call. He patiently repeated, over and over again, that the Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty notified its arrival and requested coordinates for landing. He added that its mass was fifty standard tons and that the purpose of its visit was a planetary health inspection.
But there was no reply. There should have been a crisp description of the direction from the planet’s center at which, a certain time so many hours or minutes later, the force-fields of the grid would find it convenient to lock onto and lower the Med Ship. But the communicator remained silent.
“There is a landing-grid,” said Calhoun, frowning, “and if they’re using it to load fresh meat for Dara, from the herds I’m told about, it should be manned. But they don’t seem to intend to answer. Maybe they think that if they pretend I’m not here I’ll go away.”
He reflected, and his frown deepened.
“If I didn’t know what I know, I might. So if I land on emergency rockets the blueskins down below may decide that I come from Weald. And in that case it would be reasonable to blast me before I could land and unload some fighting men. On the other hand, no ship from Weald would conceivably land without impassioned assurance that it was safe. It would drop bombs.” He turned to the girl. “How many Darians down below?”
She shook her head.
“You don’t know,” said Calhoun, “or won’t tell, yet. But they ought to be told about the arrival of that ship at Weald, and what Weald thinks about it! My guess is that you came to tell them. It isn’t likely that Dara gets news directly from Weald. Where were you put ashore from Dara, when you set out to be a spy?”
Her lips parted to speak, but she compressed them tightly. She shook her head again.
“It must have been plenty far away,” said Calhoun restlessly. “Your people would have built a ship, and made fine forged papers for it, and they’d travel so far from this part of space that when they landed nobody would think of Dara. They’d use make-up to cover the blue spots, but maybe it was so far away that blueskins had never been heard of!”
Her face looked pinched, but she did not reply.
“Then they’d land half a dozen of you, with a supply of make-up for the blue patches. And you’d separate, and take ships that went various roundabout ways, and arrive on Weald one by one, to see what could be done there to—” He stopped. “When did you find out positively that there wasn’t any plague any more?”
She began to grow pale.
“I’m not a mind reader,” said Calhoun. “But it adds up. You’re from Dara. You’ve been on Weald. It’s practically certain that there are other … agents, if you like that word better, on Weald. And there hasn’t been a plague on Weald so you people aren’t carriers of it. But you knew it in advance, I think. How’d you learn? Did a ship in some sort of trouble land there, on Dara?”
“Y—yes,” said the girl. “We wouldn’t let it go again. But the people didn’t catch—they didn’t die. They lived—”
She stopped short.
“It’s not fair to trap me!” she cried passionately. “It’s not fair!”
“I’ll stop,” said Calhoun.
He turned to the control board. The Med Ship was only planetary diameters from Orede, now, and the electron telescope showed shining stars in leisurely motion across its screen. Then a huge, gibbous shining shape appeared, and there were irregular patches of that muddy color which is seabottom, and varicolored areas which were plains and forests. Also there were mountains. Calhoun steadied the image, and squinted at it.
“The mine,” he observed, “was found by members of a hunting party, killing wild cattle for sport.”
Even a small planet has many millions of square miles of surface, and a single human installation on a whole world will not be easy to find by random search. But there were clues to this one. Men hunting for sport would not choose a tropic nor an arctic climate to hunt in. So if they found a mineral deposit, it would have been in a temperate zone.
Cattle would not be found deep in a mountainous terrain. The mine would not be on a prairie. The settlement on Orede, then, would be near the edge of mountains, not far from a prairie such as wild cattle would frequent, and it would be in a temperate climate.
Forested areas could be ruled out. And there would be a landing-grid. Handling only one ship at a time, it might be a very small grid. It could be only hundreds of yards across and less than half a mile high. But its shadow would be distinctive.
Calhoun searched among low mountains near unforested prairie in a temperate zone. He found a speck. He enlarged it manyfold. It was the mine on Orede. There were heaps of tailings. There was something which cast a long, lacy shadow: the landing-grid.
“But they don’t answer our call,” observed Calhoun, “so we go down unwelcomed.”
He inverted the Med Ship and the emergency rockets boomed. The ship plunged planetward.
A long time later it was deep in the planet’s atmosphere. The noise of its rockets had become thunderous, with air to carry and to reinforce the sound.
“Hold on to something, Murgatroyd,” commanded Calhoun. “We may have to dodge some ack.”
But nothing came up from below. The Med Ship again inverted itself, and its rockets pointed toward the planet and poured out pencil-thin, blue-white, high-velocity flames. It checked slightly, but continued to descend. It was not directly above the grid.
It swept downward until almost level with the peaks of the mountains in which the mine lay. It tilted again, and swept onward over the mountaintops, and then tilted once more and went racing up the valley in which the landing-grid was plainly visible. Calhoun swung it on an erratic course, lest there be opposition.
But there was no sign. Then the rockets bellowed, and the ship slowed its forward motion, hovered momentarily, and settled to solidity outside the framework of the grid. The grid was small, as Calhoun reasoned. But it reached interminably toward the sky.
The rockets cut off. Slender as the flames had been, they’d melted and bored thin drill-holes deep into the soil. Molten rock boiled and bubbled down below. But there seemed no other sound. There was no other motion. There was absolute stillness all around. But when Calhoun switched on the outside microphones a faint, sweet melange of high-pitched chirpings came from tiny creatures hidden under the vegetation of the mountainsides.
Calhoun put a blaster in his pocket and stood up.
“We’ll see what it looks like outside,” he said with a certain grimness. “I don’t quite believe what the vision screens show.”
Minutes later he stepped down to the ground from the Med Ship’s exit port. The ship had landed perhaps a hundred feet from what once had been a wooden building. In it, ore from the mines was concentrated and the useless tailings carried away by a conveyer belt to make a monstrous pile of broken stone. But there was no longer a building.
Next to it there had been a structure containing an ore-crusher. The massive machinery could still be seen, but the structure was in fragments. Next to that, again, had been the shaft-head shelters of the mine. They also were shattered practically to matchsticks.
The look of the ground about the building sites was simply and purely impossible. It was a mass of hoofprints. Cattle by thousands and tens of thousands had trampled everything. Cattle had burst in the wooden sides of the buildings. Cattle had piled themselves up against the beams upholding roofs until the buildings collapsed.
Then cattle had gone plunging over the wrecked buildings until there was nothing left but indescribable chaos. Many, many cattle had died in the crush. There were heaps of dead beasts about the metal girders which were the foundation of the landing-grid. The air was tainted by the smell of carrion.
The settlement had been destroyed, positively by stampeded cattle in tens or hundreds of thousands charging blindly through and over and upon it. Senselessly, they’d trampled each other to horrible shapelessness. The mine shaft was not choked, because enormously strong timbers had fallen across and blocked it. But everything else was pure destruction.
Calhoun said evenly, “Clever! Very clever! You can’t blame men when beasts stampede. We should accept the evidence that some monstrous herd, making its way through a mountain pass, somehow went crazy and bolted for the plains. This settlement got in the way and it was too bad for the settlement! Everything’s explained, except the ship that went to Weald.
“A cattle stampede, yes. Anybody can believe that! But there was a man stampede. Men stampeded into the ship as blindly as the cattle trampled down this little town. The ship stampeded off into space as insanely as the cattle. But a stampede of men and cattle, in the same place? That’s a little too much!”
“How,” asked Calhoun directly, “do you intend to get in touch with your friends here?”
“I—I don’t know,” she said, distressed. “But if the ship stays here, they’re bound to come and see why. Won’t they? Or will they?”
“If they’re sane, they won’t,” said Calhoun. “The one undesirable thing, here, would be human footprints on top of cattle tracks. If your friends are a meat-getting party from Dara, as I believe, they should cover up their tracks, get off-planet as fast as possible, and pray that no signs of their former presence are ever discovered. That would be their best first move, certainly!”
“What should I do?” she asked helplessly.
“You can leave me here….”
He grunted and turned away. It was naturally unthinkable that he should leave another human being on a supposedly uninhabited planet, with the knowledge that it might actually be uninhabited, and the future knowledge that any visitors would have the strongest of possible reasons to hide themselves away.
He believed that there were Darians here, and the girl in the Med ship, so he also believed, was also a Darian. But any who might be hiding had so much to lose if they were discovered that they might be hundreds or even thousands of miles from anywhere a space ship would normally land—if they hadn’t fled after the incident of the spaceship’s departure with its load of doomed passengers.
Considered detachedly, the odds were that there was again a food shortage on Dara; that blueskins, in desperation, had raided or were raiding or would raid the cattle herds of Orede for food to carry back to their home planet; that somehow the miners on Orede had found that they had blueskin neighbors, and died of the consequences of their terror. It was a risky guess to make on such evidence as Calhoun considered he had, but no other guess was possible.
If his guess were right, he was under some obligation to do exactly what he believed the girl considered her mission—to warn all blueskins that Weald would presently try to find them on Orede, when all hell must break loose upon Dara for punishment. But if there were men here, he couldn’t leave a written warning for them in default of friendly contact.
They might not find it, and a search party of Wealdians might. All he could possibly do was try to make contact and give warning by such means as would leave no evidence behind that he’d done so. Weald would consider a warning sure proof of blueskin guilt.
It was not satisfactory to be limited to broadcasts which might or might not be picked up, and were unlikely to be acknowledged. But he settled down with the communicator to make the attempt.
He called first on a GC wave length and form. It was unlikely that blueskins would use general communication bands to keep in touch with each other, but it had to be tried. He broadcast, tuned as broadly as possible, and went up and down the GC spectrum, repeating his warning painstakingly and listening without hope for a reply.
He did find one spot on the dial where there was re-radiation of his message, as if from a tuned receiver. But he could not get a fix on it: nobody might be listening. He exhausted the normal communication pattern. Then he broadcast on old-fashioned amplitude modulation which a modern communicator would not pick up at all, and which therefore might be used by men in hiding.
He worked for a long time. Then he shrugged and gave it up. He’d repeated to absolute tedium the facts that any Darians—blueskins—on Orede ought to know. There’d been no answer. And it was all too likely that if he’d been received, that those who heard him took his message for a trick to discover if there were any hearers.
He clicked off at last and stood up, shaking his head. Suddenly the Med Ship seemed empty. Then he saw Murgatroyd staring vexedly at the exit port. The inner door of that small airlock was closed. The telltale light said the outer door was not locked. Someone had gone out quietly. The girl. Of course.
Calhoun said angrily, “How long ago, Murgatroyd?”
It wasn’t an answer, but it showed that Murgatroyd was vexed that he’d been left behind. He and the girl were close friends, now. If she’d left Murgatroyd in the ship when he wanted to go with her, then she wasn’t coming back.
Calhoun swore. He made certain she was not in the ship. He flipped the outside-speaker switch and said curtly into the microphone, “Coffee! Murgatroyd and I are having coffee. Will you come back, please?”
He repeated the call, and repeated it again. Multiplied as his voice was by the speakers, she should hear him within a mile. She did not appear. He went to a small and inconspicuous closet and armed himself. A Med Ship man was not ever expected to fight, but there were blast-rifles available for extreme emergency.
When he’d slung a power-pack over his shoulder and reached the airlock, there was still no sign of his late stowaway. He stood in the airlock door for long minutes, staring angrily about. Almost certainly she wouldn’t be looking in the mountains for men of Dara come here for cattle. He used a pair of binoculars, first at low-magnification to search as wide an area down-valley as possible, and then at highest power to search the most likely routes.
He found a small, bobbing speck beyond a faraway hill crest. It was her head. It went down below the hilltop.
He snapped a command to Murgatroyd, and when the tormal was on the ground outside, he locked the port with that combination that nobody but a Med Ship man was at all likely to discover or use.
“She’s an idiot!” he told Murgatroyd sourly. “Come along! We’ve got to be idiots too!”
He set out in pursuit.
There was blue sky overhead, as was inevitable on any oxygen-atmosphere planet of a Sol-type yellow sun. There were mountains, as is universal in planets whose surface rises and falls and folds and bends from the effects of weather or vulcanism. There were plants, as has come about wherever microorganisms have broken down rock to a state where it can nourish vegetation. And naturally there were animals.
There were even trees of severely practical design, and underbrush and ground-cover equivalent to grass. There was, in short, a perfectly predictable ecological system on Orede. The organic molecules involved in life here would be made up of the same elements in the same combinations as elsewhere where the same conditions of temperature and moisture and sunshine obtained.
It was a distinctly Earthlike world, as it could not help but be, and it was reasonable for cattle to thrive and increase here. Only men’s minds kept it from being a place where humans would thrive, too.
But only Calhoun would have considered the splintered settlement a proof of that last.
The girl had a long start. Twice Calhoun came to places where she could have chosen either of two ways onward. Each time he had to determine which she’d followed. That cost time. Then the mountains abruptly ended and a vast undulating plain stretched away to the horizon. There were at least two large masses and many smaller clumps of what could only be animals gathered together. Cattle.
But here the girl was plainly in view. Calhoun increased his stride. He began to gain on her. She did not look behind.
Murgatroyd said “Chee!” in a complaining tone.
“I should have left you behind,” agreed Calhoun dourly, “but there was and is a chance I won’t get back. You’ll have to keep on hiking.”
He plodded on. His memory of the terrain around the mining settlement told him that there was no definite destination in the girl’s mind. But she was in no such despair as to want deliberately to be lost. She’d guessed, Calhoun believed, that if there were Darians on the planet, they’d keep the landing-grid under observation.
If they saw her leave that area and could see that she was alone, they should intercept her to find out the meaning of the Med Ship’s landing. Then she could identify herself as one of them and give them the terribly necessary warning of Weald’s suspicions.
“But,” said Calhoun sourly, “if she’s right, they’ll have seen me marching after her now, which spoils her scheme. And I’d like to help it, but the way she’s going is too dangerous!”
He went down into one of the hollows of the uneven plain. He saw a clump of a dozen or so cattle a little distance away. The bull looked up and snorted. The cows regarded him truculently. Their air was not one of bovine tranquility.
He was up the farther hillside and out of sight before the bull worked himself up to a charge. Then Calhoun suddenly remembered one of the items in the data about cattle he’d looked into just the other day. He felt himself grow pale.
“Murgatroyd!” he said sharply. “We’ve got to catch up! Fast! Stay with me if you can, but—” he was jog-trotting as he spoke—”even if you get lost I have to hurry!”
He ran fifty paces and walked fifty paces. He ran fifty and walked fifty. He saw her, atop a rolling of the ground. She came to a full stop. He ran. He saw her turn to retrace her steps. He flung off the safety of the blast-rifle and let off a roaring blast at the ground for her to hear.
Suddenly she was fleeing desperately, toward him. He plunged on. She vanished down into a hollow. Horns appeared over the hillcrest she’d just left. Cattle appeared. Four, a dozen fifteen, twenty! They moved ominously in her wake.
He saw her again, running frantically over another upward swell of the prairie. He let off another blast to guide her. He ran on at top speed with Murgatroyd trailing anxiously behind. From time to time Murgatroyd called “Chee-chee-chee!” in frightened pleading not to be abandoned.
More cattle appeared against the horizon. Fifty or a hundred. They came after the first clump. The first group of a bull and his harem were moving faster, now. The girl fled from them, but it is the instinct of beef-cattle on the open range—Calhoun had learned it only two days before—to charge any human they find on foot. A mounted man to their dim minds is a creature to be tolerated or fled from, but a human on foot is to be crushed and stamped and gored.
Those in the lead were definitely charging now, with heads bent low. The bull charged furiously with shut eyes, as bulls do, but the cows, many times more deadly, charged with their eyes wide open and wickedly alert, and with a lumbering speed much greater than the girl could manage.
She came up over the last rise, chalky-white and gasping, her hair flying, in the last extremity of terror. The nearest of the pursuing cattle were within ten yards when Calhoun fired from twenty yards beyond. One creature bellowed as the blast-bolt struck.
It went down and others crashed into it and swept over it, and more came on. The girl saw Calhoun now, and ran toward him, panting. He knelt very deliberately and began to check the charge by shooting the leading animals.
He did not succeed. There were more cattle following the first, and more and more behind them. It appeared that all the cattle on the plain joined in the blind and senseless charge. The thudding of hoofs became a mutter and then a rumble and then a growl.
Plunging, clumsy figures rushed past on either side. But horns and heads heaved up over the mound of animals Calhoun had shot. He shot them too. More and more cattle came pounding past the rampart of his victims, but always, it seemed, some elected to climb the heap of their dead and dying fellows, and Calhoun shot and shot….
But he split the herd. The foremost animals had been charging a sighted human enemy. Others had followed because it is the instinct of cattle to join their running fellows in whatever crazed urgency they feel. There was a dense, pounding, wailing, grunting, puffing, raising thick and impenetrable clouds of dust which hid everything but galloping beasts going past on either side.
It lasted for minutes. Then the thunder of hoofs diminished. It ended abruptly, and Calhoun and the girl were left alone with the gruesome pile of animals which had divided the charging herd into two parts. They could see the rears of innumerable running animals, stupidly continuing the charge, hardly different, now, from a stampede, whose original objective none now remembered.
Calhoun thoughtfully touched the barrel of his blast-rifle and winced at its scorching heat.
“I just realized,” he said coldly, “that I don’t know your name. What is it?”
“Maril,” said the girl. She swallowed. “Th—thank you.”
“Maril,” said Calhoun, “you are an idiot! It was half-witted at best to go off by yourself! You could have been lost! You could have cost me days of hunting for you, days badly needed for more important matters!”
He stopped and took breath. “You may have spoiled what little chance I’ve got to do something about the plans Weald’s already making! You have just acted with the most concentrated folly, and the most magnificent imbecility that you or anybody else could manage!”
He turned away from her and said dourly, “All right! Come on back to the ship. We’ll go to Dara. We’d have to, anyhow. But Murgatroyd—”
Then he heard a very small sneeze. Out of a rolling wall of still-roiling dust, Murgatroyd appeared forlornly. He was dust-covered, and draggled, and his tail dropped, and he sneezed again. He moved as if he could barely put one paw before another, but at sight of Calhoun he sneezed yet again and said “Chee!” in a disconsolate voice. Then he sat down and waited for Calhoun to come and pick him up.
When Calhoun did so, Murgatroyd clung to him pathetically and said “Chee-chee!” and again “Chee-chee!” with the intonation of one telling of incredible horrors and disasters endured. And as a matter of fact the escape of a small animal like Murgatroyd was remarkable. He’d escaped the trampling hoofs of at least hundreds of charging animals. Luck must have played a great part in it, but an hysterical agility in dodging must have been required, too.
Calhoun headed back for the valley where the settlement had been, and the Med Ship was. Murgatroyd clung to his neck. The girl Maril followed discouragedly. She was at that age when girls—and men of corresponding type—can grow most passionately devoted to ideals or causes in default of a promising personal romance. When concerned with such causes they become splendidly confident that whatever they decide to do is sensible if only it is dramatic. But Maril was shaken, now.
Calhoun did not speak to her again. He led the way. A mile back toward the mountains, they began to see stragglers from the now-vanished herd. A little farther, those stragglers began to notice them. It would have been a matter of no moment if they’d been domesticated dairy cattle, but these were range cattle gone wild. Twice, Calhoun had to use his blast-rifle to discourage incipient charges by irritated bulls or even more irritated cows. Those with calves darkly suspected Calhoun of designs upon their offspring.
It was a relief to enter the valley again. But it was two miles more to the landing-grid with the Med Ship beside it and the reek of carrion in the air.
They were perhaps two hundred feet from the ship when a blast-rifle crashed and its bolt whined past Calhoun so close that he felt the monstrous heat. There had been no challenge. There was no warning. There was simply a shot which came horribly close to ending Calhoun’s career in a completely arbitrary fashion.
Five minutes later Calhoun had located one would-be killer behind a mass of splintered planking that once had been a wall. He set the wood afire by a blaster-bolt and then viciously sent other bolts all around the man it had sheltered when he fled from the flames. He could have killed him ten times over, but it was more desirable to open communication. So he missed intentionally.
Maril had cried out that she came from Dara and had word for them, but they did not answer. There were three men with heavy-duty blast-rifles. One was the one Calhoun had burned out of his hiding place. That man’s rifle exploded when the flames hit it. Two remained.
One, so Calhoun presently discovered—was working his way behind underbrush to a shelf from which he could shoot down at Calhoun. Calhoun had dropped into a hollow and pulled Maril to cover at the first shot. The second man happily planned to get to a point where he could shoot him like a fish in a barrel.
The third man had fired half a dozen times and then disappeared. Calhoun estimated that he intended to get around to the rear, hoping there was no protection from that direction for Calhoun. It would take some time for him to manage it.
So Calhoun industriously concentrated his fire on the man trying to get above him. He was behind a boulder, not too dissimilar to Calhoun’s breastwork. Calhoun set fire to the brush at the point at which the other man aimed. That, then, made his effort useless.
Then Calhoun sent a dozen bolts at the other man’s rocky shield. It heated up. Steam rose in a whitish mass and blew directly away from Calhoun. He saw that antagonist flee. He saw him so clearly that he was positive that there was a patch of blue pigment on the right-hand side of the back of his neck.
He grunted and swung to find the third. That man moved through thick undergrowth, and Calhoun set it on fire in a neat pattern of spreading flames. Evidently, these men had had no training in battle tactics with blast-rifles. The third man also had to get away. He did. But something from him arched through the smoke. It fell to the ground directly upwind from Calhoun. White smoke puffed up violently.
It was instinct that made Calhoun react as he did. He jerked the girl Maril to her feet and rushed her toward the Med Ship. Smoke from the flung bomb upwind barely swirled around him and missed Maril altogether. Calhoun, though, got a whiff of something strange, not scorched or burning vegetation at all. He ceased to breathe and plunged onward. In clear air he emptied his lungs and refilled them. They were then halfway to the ship, with Murgatroyd prancing on ahead.
But then Calhoun’s heart began to pound furiously. His muscles twitched and tensed. He felt extraordinary symptoms like an extreme of agitation. He swore, but a Med Ship man would not react to such symptoms as a non-medically-trained man would have done. Calhoun was familiar enough with tear gas, used by police on some planets.
But this was different and worse. Even as he helped and urged Maril onward, he automatically considered his sensations, and had it—panic gas. Police did not use it because panic is worse than rioting. Calhoun felt all the physical symptoms of fear and of gibbering terror.
A man whose mind yields to terror experiences certain physical sensations: wildly beating heart, tensed and twitching muscles, and a frantic impulse to convulsive action. A man in whom those physical sensations are induced by other means will, ordinarily, find his mind yielding to terror.
Calhoun couldn’t combat his feelings, but his clinical attitude enabled him to act despite them. The three from Weald reached the base of the Med Ship. One of their enemies had lost his rifle and need not be counted. Another had fled from flames and might be ignored for some moments, anyhow. But a blast-bolt struck the ship’s metal hull only feet from Calhoun, and he whipped around to the other side and let loose a staccato rat-tat-tat of fire which emptied the rifle of all its charges.
“They—they don’t realize,” said Maril desperately. “If they only knew….”
“Talk to them, if you like,” said Calhoun. His teeth chattered and he raged, because the symptom was of terror he denied.
He pushed a button on the control board. He pointed to a microphone. He got at an oxygen bottle and inhaled deeply. Oxygen, obviously, should be an antidote for panic, since the symptoms of terror act to increase the oxygenation of the bloodstream and muscles, and to make superhuman exertion possible if necessary.
Breathing ninety-five percent oxygen produced the effect the terror-inspiring gas strove for, so his heart slowed nearly to normal and his body relaxed. He held out his hand and it did not tremble. He’d been affronted to see it shake uncontrollably when he pushed the microphone button for Maril.
He turned to her. She hadn’t spoken into the mike.
“They may not be from Dara!” she said shakily. “I just thought! They could be somebody else, maybe criminals who planned to raid the mine for a shipload of its ore.”
“Nonsense,” said Calhoun. “I saw one of them clearly enough to be sure. But they’re skeptical characters. I’m afraid there may be more on the way here from wherever they keep themselves. Anyhow, now we know some of them are in hearing! I’ll take advantage of that and we’ll go on.”
He took the microphone. An instant later his voice boomed in the stillness outside the ship, cutting through the thin shrill whirring of invisible small creatures.
“This is the Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty,” said Calhoun’s voice, amplified to a shout. “I left Weald four days ago, one day after the cargo ship from here arrived with everybody on board dead. On Weald they don’t know how it happened, but they suspect blueskins. Sooner or later they’ll search here.
“Get away! Cover up your tracks! Hide all signs that you’ve ever been here! Get the hell away, fast! One more warning! There’s talk of fusion-bombing Dara. They’re scared! If they find your traces, they’ll be still more scared! So cover up your tracks and get away from here!”
The many-times-multiplied voice rolled and echoed among the hills. But it was very clear. Where it could be heard it could be understood, and it could be heard for miles.
But there was no response to it. Calhoun waited a reasonable time. Then he shrugged and seated himself at the control board.
“It isn’t easy,” he observed, “to persuade desperate men that they’ve outsmarted themselves! Hold hard, Murgatroyd!”
The rockets bellowed. Then there was a tremendous noise to end all noises, and the ship began to climb. It sped up and up and up. By the time it was out of atmosphere it had velocity enough to coast to clear space and Calhoun cut the rockets altogether.
He busied himself with those astrogational chores which began with orienting oneself to galactic directions after leaving a planet which rotates at its own individual speed. Then one computes the overdrive course to another planet, from the respecting coordinates of the world one is leaving and the one one aims for.
Then, in this case at any rate, there was the very finicky task of picking out a fourth-magnitude star of whose planets one was his destination. He aimed for it with ultra-fine precision.
“Overdrive coming,” he said presently. “Hold on!”
Space reeled. There was nausea and giddiness and a horrible sensation of falling in a wildly unlikely spiral. Then stillness, and solidity, and the blackness outside the Med Ship. The little craft was in overdrive again.
After a long while, the girl Maril said uneasily, “I don’t know what you plan now—”
“I’m going to Dara,” said Calhoun. “On Orede I tried to get the blueskins there to get going, fast. Maybe I succeeded. I don’t know. But this thing’s been mishandled! Even if there’s a famine people shouldn’t do things out of desperation! Being desperate jogs the brain off-center. One doesn’t think straight!”
“I know now that I was … very foolish.”
“Forget it,” commanded Calhoun. “I wasn’t talking about you. Here I run into a situation that the Med Service should have caught and cleaned up generations ago! But it’s not only a Med Service obligation; it’s a current mess! Before I could begin to get at the basic problem, those idiots on Orede—It’d happened before I reached Weald! An emotional explosion triggered by a ship full of dead men that nobody intended to kill.”
Maril shook her head.
“Those Darian characters,” said Calhoun, annoyed, “shouldn’t have gone to Orede in the first place. If they went there, they should at least have stayed on a continent where there were no people from Weald digging a mine and hunting cattle for sport on their off days! They could be spotted! I believe they were.
“And again, if it had been a long way from the mine installation, they could probably have wiped out the people who sighted them before they could get back with the news! But it looks like miners saw men hunting, and got close enough to see they were blueskins, and then got back to the mine with the news!”
She waited for him to explain.
“I know I’m guessing, but it fits!” he said distastefully. “So something had to be done. Either the mining settlement had to be wiped out or the story that blueskins were on Orede had to be discredited. The blueskins tried for both. They used panic gas on a herd of cattle and it made them crazy and they charged the settlement like the four-footed lunatics they are!
“And the blueskins used panic gas on the settlement itself as the cattle went through. It should have settled the whole business nicely. After it was over every man in the settlement would believe he’d been out of his head for a while, and he’d have the crazy state of the settlement to think about.
“He wouldn’t be sure of what he’d seen or heard before-hand. They might try to verify the blueskin story later, but they wouldn’t believe anything with certainty. It should have worked!”
Again she waited.
“Unfortunately, when the miners panicked, they stampeded into the ship. Also unfortunately, panic gas got into the ship with them. So they stayed panicked while the astrogator—in panic!—took off. They headed for Weald and threw on the overdrive—which would be set for Weald anyhow—because that would be the fastest way to run away from whatever he imagined he feared. But he and all the men on the ship were still crazy with panic from the gas they kept breathing until they died!”
Silence. After a long interval, Maril asked, “You don’t think the Darians intended to kill?”
“I think they were stupid!” said Calhoun angrily. “Somebody’s always urging the police to use panic gas in case of public tumult. But it’s too dangerous. Nobody knows what one man will do in a panic. Take a hundred or two or three and panic them all, and there’s no limit to their craziness! The whole thing was handled wrong!”
“For being stupid, yes,” said Calhoun fretfully. “But if I’d been in their place, perhaps—”
“Where were you born?” asked Maril suddenly.
Calhoun jerked his head around. “No! Not where you’re guessing, or hoping. Not on Dara. Just because I act as if Darians were human doesn’t mean I have to be one! I’m a Med Service man, and I’m acting as I think I should.” His tone became exasperated.
“Dammit, I’m supposed to deal with health situations, actual, and possible causes of human deaths! And if Weald thinks it finds proof that blueskins are in space again and caused the death of Wealdians, it won’t be healthy! They’re halfway set anyhow to drop fusion-bombs on Dara to wipe it out!”
Maril said fiercely, “They might as well drop bombs. It’ll be quicker than starvation, at least!”
Calhoun looked at her, more exasperated than before.
“It is a crop failure again?” he demanded. When she nodded he said bitterly, “Famine conditions already?” When she nodded again he said drearily, “And of course famine is the great-grandfather of health problems! And that’s right in my lap with all the rest!”
He stood up. Then he sat down again.
“I’m tired!” he said flatly. “I’d like to get some sleep. Would you mind taking a book or something and going into the other cabin? Murgatroyd and I would like a little relaxation from reality. With luck, if I go to sleep, I may only have a nightmare. It’ll be a terrific improvement on what I’m in now!”
Alone in the control compartment, he tried to relax, but it was not possible. He flung himself into a comfortable chair and brooded. There is brooding and brooding. It can be a form of wallowing in self-pity, engaged in for emotional satisfaction. But it can be, also, a way of bringing out unfavorable factors in a situation. A man in optimistic mood can ignore them. But no awkward situation is likely to be remedied while any of its elements are neglected.
Calhoun dourly considered the situation of the people of the planet Dara, which it was his job as a Med Service man to remedy or at least improve. Those people were marked by patches of blue pigment as an inherited consequence of a plague of three generations past. Because of the marking, which it was easy to believe a sign of continuing infection, they were hated and dreaded by their neighbors. Dara was a planet of pariahs—excluded from the human race by those who feared them.
And now there was famine on Dara for the second time, and they were of no mind to starve quietly. There was food on the planet Orede, monstrous herds of cattle without owners. It was natural enough for Darians to build a ship or ships and try to bring food back to its starving people. But that desperately necessary enterprise had now roused Weald to a frenzy of apprehension.
Weald was, if possible, more hysterically afraid of blueskins than ever before, and even more implacably the enemy of the starving planet’s population. Weald itself prospered. Ironically, it had such an excess of foodstuffs that it stored them in unneeded spaceships in orbits about itself.
Hundreds of thousands of tons of grain circled Weald in sealed-tight hulks, while the people of Dara starved and only dared try to steal—if it could be called stealing—some of the innumerable wild cattle of Orede.
The blueskins on Orede could not trust Calhoun, so they pretended not to hear. Or maybe that didn’t hear. They’d been abandoned and betrayed by all of humanity off their world. They’d been threatened and oppressed by guardships in orbit about them, ready to shoot down any spacecraft they might send aloft….
So Calhoun brooded, while Murgatroyd presently yawned and climbed to his cubbyhole and curled up to sleep with his furry tail carefully adjusted over his nose.
A long time later Calhoun heard small sounds which were not normal on a Med Ship in overdrive. They were not part of the random noises carefully generated to keep the silence of the ship endurable. Calhoun raised his head. He listened sharply. No sound could come from outside.
He knocked on the door of the sleeping cabin. The noises stopped instantly.
“Come out,” he commanded through the door.
“I’m—I’m all right,” said Maril’s voice. But it was not quite steady. She paused. “Did I make a noise? I was having a bad dream.”
“I wish,” said Calhoun, “that you’d tell me the truth just occasionally! Come out, please!”
There were stirrings. After a little it opened and Maril appeared. She looked as if she’d been crying. She said, quickly, “I probably look queer, but it’s because I was asleep.”
“To the contrary,” said Calhoun, fuming. “You’ve been lying awake crying. I don’t know why. I’ve been out here wishing I could, because I’m frustrated. But since you aren’t asleep maybe you can help me with my job. I’ve figured some things out. For some others I need facts. Will you give them to me?”
She swallowed. “I’ll try.”
“Coffee?” he asked.
Murgatroyd popped his head out of his miniature sleeping cabin.
“Chee?” he asked interestedly.
He began to pace back and forth.
“I need to know something about the pigment patches,” he said jerkily. “Maybe it sounds crazy to think of such things now—first things first, you know. But this is a first thing! So long as Darians don’t look like the people of other worlds, they’ll be believed to be different. If they look repulsive, they’ll be believed to be evil.
“Tell me about those patches. They’re different sizes and different shapes and they appear in different places. You’ve none on your face or hands, anyhow.”
“I haven’t any at all,” said the girl reservedly.
“Not everybody,” she said defensively. “Nearly, yes. But not all. Some people don’t have them. Some people are born with bluish splotches on their skin, but they fade out while they’re children. When they grow up they’re just like the people of Weald or any other world. And their children never have them.”
“You couldn’t possibly be proved to be a Darian, then?”
She shook her head. Calhoun remembered, and started the coffee.
“When you left Dara,” he said, “you were carried a long, long way, to some planet where they’d practically never heard of Dara, and where the name meant nothing. You could have settled there, or anywhere else and forgotten about Dara. But you didn’t. Why not, since you’re not a blueskin?”
“But I am!” she said fiercely. “My parents, my brothers and sisters, and Korvan—”
Then she bit her lip. Calhoun took note but did not comment on the name she’d mentioned.
“Then your parents had the splotches fade, so you never had them,” he said absorbedly. “Something like that happened on Tralee, once! There’s a virus, a whole group of virus particles! Normally we humans are immune to them. One has to be in terrifically bad physical condition for them to take hold and produce whatever effects they do. But once they’re established they’re passed on from mother to child. And when they die out it’s during childhood, too!”
He poured coffee for the two of them. Murgatroyd swung down to the floor and said, impatiently, “Chee! Chee! Chee!“
Calhoun absently filled Murgatroyd’s tiny cup and handed it to him.
“But this is marvellous!” he said exuberantly. “The blue patches appeared after the plague, didn’t they? After people recovered—when they recovered?”
Maril stared at him. His mind was filled with strictly professional considerations. He was not talking to her as a person. She was purely a source of information.
“So I’m told,” said Maril reservedly. “Are there any more humiliating questions you want to ask?”
He gaped at her. Then he said ruefully, “I’m stupid, Maril, but you’re touchy. There’s nothing personal—”
“There is to me!” she said fiercely. “I was born among blueskins, and they’re of my blood, and they’re hated and I’d have been killed on Weald if I’d been known as … what I am! And there’s Korvan, who arranged for me to be sent away as a spy and advised me to do just what you said: abandon my home world and everybody I care about! Including him! It’s personal to me!”
Calhoun wrinkled his forehead helplessly.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “Drink your coffee!”
“I don’t want it,” she said bitterly. “I’d like to die!”
She turned and moved toward the door to the cabin. Calhoun looked after her.
“Why were you crying?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said evenly.
Calhoun shrugged his shoulders almost up to his ears. He was a professional man. In his profession he was not incompetent. But there is no profession in which a really competent man tries to understand women. Calhoun, annoyed, had to let fate or chance or disaster take care of Maril’s personal problems. He had larger matters to cope with.
But he had something to work on, now. He hunted busily in the reference tapes. He came up with an explicit collection of information on exactly the subject he needed. He left the control room to go down into the storage areas of the Med Ship’s hull. He found an ultra frigid storage box, whose contents were kept at the temperature of liquid air.
He donned thick gloves, used a special set of tongs, and extracted a tiny block of plastic in which a sealed-tight phial of glass was embedded. It frosted instantly he took it out, and when the storage box was closed again the block was covered with a thick and opaque coating of frozen moisture.
He went back to the control room and pulled down the panel which made available a small-scale but surprisingly adequate biological laboratory. He set the plastic block in a container which would raise it very, very gradually to a specific temperature and hold it there. It was, obviously, a living culture from which any imaginable quantity of the same culture could be bred. Calhoun set the apparatus with great exactitude.
Then, for a long while, there was no sound or movement in the Med Ship. The girl may have slept, or maybe not. Calhoun lay relaxed in a chair which at the touch of a button became the most comfortable of sleeping places. Murgatroyd remained in his cubbyhole, his tail curled over his nose.
There were comforting, unheard, easily dismissable murmurings now and again. They kept the feeling of life alive in the ship. But for such infinitesimal stirrings of sound, carefully recorded for this exact purpose, the feel of the ship would have been that of a tomb.
But it was quite otherwise when another ship-day began with the taped sounds of morning activities as faint as echoes but nevertheless establishing an atmosphere of their own.
Calhoun examined the plastic block and its contents. He read the instruments which had cared for it while he slept. He put the block—no longer frosted—in the culture microscope and saw its enclosed, infinitesimal particles of life in the process of multiplying on the food that had been frozen with them when they were reduced to the spore condition. He beamed. He replaced the block in the incubation oven and faced the day cheerfully.
Maril greeted him with great reserve. They breakfasted, with Murgatroyd eating from his own platter on the floor, a tiny cup of coffee alongside.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Maril evenly. “I think I can get you a hearing for whatever ideas you may have to help Dara.”
“Kind of you,” murmured Calhoun.
In theory, a Med Service man had all the authority needed for this or any other emergency. The power to declare a planet in quarantine, so cutting it off from all interstellar commerce, should be enough to force cooperation from any world’s government. But in practice Calhoun had exactly as much power as he could exercise.
And Weald could not think straight where blueskins were concerned, and certainly the authorities on Dara could not be expected to be levelheaded. They had a history of isolation and outlawry, and long experience of being regarded as less than human. In cold fact, Calhoun had no power at all.
“May I ask whose influence you’ll exert?” asked Calhoun.
“There’s a man,” said Maril reservedly, “who thinks a great deal of me. I don’t know his present official position, but he was certain to become prominent. I’ll tell him how you’ve acted up to now, and your attitude, and of course that you’re Med Service. He’ll be glad to help you, I’m sure.”
“Splendid!” said Calhoun, nodding. “That will be Korvan.”
She started. “How did you know?”
“Intuition,” said Calhoun dryly. “All right. I’ll count on him.”
But he did not. He worked in the tiny biological lab all that ship-day and all the next. The girl was very quiet. Murgatroyd tried to enter into pretended conversation with her, but she was not able to match his pretense.
On the ship-day after, the time for breakout approached. While the ship was practically a world all by itself, it was easy to look forward with confidence to the future. But when contact and, in a fashion, conflict with other and larger worlds loomed nearer, prospects seemed less bright. Calhoun had definite plans, now, but there were so many ways in which they could be frustrated.
Calhoun sat down at the control board and watched the clock.
“I’ve got things lined up,” he told Maril, “if only they work out. If I can make somebody on Dara listen, which is unlikely, and follow my advice, which they probably won’t; and if Weald doesn’t get the ideas it probably will get; and isn’t doing what I suspect it is—why, maybe something can be done.”
“I’m sure you’ll do your best,” said Maril politely.
Calhoun managed to grin. He watched the clock. There was no sensation attached to overdrive travel except at the beginning and the end. It was now time for the end. He might find most anything having happened. His plans might immediately be seen to be hopeless. Weald could have sent ships to Dara, or Dara might be in such a state of desperation….
As it turned out, Dara was desperate. The Med Ship came out nearly a light-month from the sun about which the planet Dara revolved. Calhoun went into a short hop toward it. Then Dara was on the other side of the blazing yellow star. It took time to reach it.
He called down, identifying himself and the ship and asking for coordinates so his ship could be brought to ground. There was confusion, as if the request were so unusual that the answers were not ready. The grid, too, was on the planet’s night side. Presently the ship was locked onto by the grid’s force-fields. It went downward.
Calhoun saw that Maril sat tensely, twisting her fingers within each other, until the ship actually touched ground.
Then he opened the exit port—and faced armed men in the darkness, with blast-rifles trained on him. There was a portable cannon trained on the Med Ship itself.
“Come out!” rasped a voice. “If you try anything you get blasted! Your ship and its contents are seized by the planetary government!”
It seemed that the smell of hunger was in the air. The armed men were emaciated. Lights came on, and stark, harsh shadows lay black upon the ground. Calhoun’s captors were uniformed, but the uniforms hung loosely upon them. Where the lights struck upon their faces, their cheeks were hollow. They were cadaverous. And there were the splotches of pigment of which Calhoun had heard.
The man nearest the Med Ship’s port had a monstrous, irregular dull-blue marking over half of one side of his face and up upon his forehead. The man next to him had a blue throat. The next man again was less marked, but his left ear was blue and there was what seemed a splashing of the same color on the skin under his hair.
The leader of the truculent group—it might have been a firing squad—made an imperious gesture with his hand. It was blue, except for two fingers which in the glaring illumination seemed whiter than white.
“Out!” said that man savagely. “We’re taking over your stock of food. You’ll get your share of it, like everybody else, but—”
Maril spoke over Calhoun’s shoulder. She uttered a cryptic sentence or two. It should have amounted to identification but there was skepticism in the armed party.
“Oh, you’re one of us, eh?” said the guard leader sardonically. “You’ll have a chance to prove that. Come out of there!”
The man with the blue hand said as sardonically as before, “I said the government was taking over your ship! It won’t be looted. But you’re not taking a full cargo of food away! In fact, it’s not likely you’re leaving!”
“And I want to speak to someone in authority,” snapped Calhoun. “We’ve just come from Weald.” He felt bristling hatred all about him as he named Weald. “There’s tumult there. They’re talking about dropping fusion-bombs here. It’s important that I talk to somebody with the authority to take a few sensible precautions!”
He descended to the ground. There was a panicky “Chee! Chee!” from behind him, and Murgatroyd came dashing to swarm up his body and cling apprehensively to his neck.
“A tormal” said Calhoun. “He’s not a pet. Your medical men will know something about him. This is a Med Ship and I’m a Med Ship man, and he’s an important member of the crew. He’s a Med Ship tormal and he stays with me!”
The man with the blue hand said harshly, “There’s somebody waiting to ask you questions. Here!”
A groundcar came rolling out from the side of the landing-grid enclosure. The groundcar ran on wheels, and wheels were not much used on modern worlds. Dara was behind the times in more ways than one.
“This car will take you to Defense and you can tell them anything you want. But don’t try to sneak back in this ship! It’ll be guarded!”
The groundcar was enclosed, with room for a driver and the three from the Med Ship. But armed men festooned themselves about its exterior and it went bumping and rolling to the massive ground-layer girders of the grid. It rolled out under them and onto a paved highway. It picked up speed.
There were buildings on either side of the road, but few showed lights. This was night, and the men at the landing-grid had set a pattern of hunger, so that the silence and the dark buildings did not seem a sign of tranquility and sleep, but of exhaustion and despair.
The highway lamps were few, by comparison with other inhabited worlds, and the groundcar needed lights of its own to guide its driver over a paved surface that needed repair. By those moving lights other depressing things could be seen: untidiness, buildings not kept up to perfection, evidences of apathy, the road, which hadn’t been cleaned lately, litter here and there.
Even the fact that there were no stars added to the feeling of wretchedness and gloom and, ultimately, of hunger.
Maril spoke nervously to the driver.
“The famine isn’t any better?”
He moved his head in negation, but did not speak. There was a splotch of blue pigment at the back of his neck. It extended upward into his hair.
“I left two years ago,” said Maril. “It was just beginning then. Rationing hadn’t started.”
The driver said evenly, “There’s rationing now!”
The car went on and on. A vast open space appeared ahead. Lights about its perimeter seemed few and pale.
“Everything seems worse. Even the lights.”
“Using all the power,” said the driver, “to warm up ground to grow crops where it ought to be winter. Not doing too well, either.”
Calhoun knew, somehow, that Maril moistened her lips.
“I was sent,” she explained to the driver, “to go ashore on Trent and then make my way to Weald. I mailed reports of what I found out back to Trent. Somebody got them back to here whenever it was possible.”
Calhoun found himself wincing a little. The driver was not angry. He was hopeless. But men should not despair. They shouldn’t accept hostility from those about them as a device of fate for their destruction.
Maril said quickly to Calhoun, “You understand? Dara’s a heavy-metals planet. There aren’t many light elements in our soil. Potassium is scarce. So our ground isn’t very fertile. Before the Plague we traded metals and manufactured products for imports of food and potash. But since the Plague we’ve had no off-planet commerce. We’ve been quarantined.”
“I gathered as much,” said Calhoun. “It was up to Med Service to see that that didn’t happen. It’s up to Med Service now to see that it stops.”
“Too late now for anything,” said the driver. “Whatever Med Service may be! They’re talking about cutting down our population so there’ll be food enough for some to live. There are two questions about it. One is who’s to be kept alive, and the other is why.”
The groundcar aimed now for a cluster of faintly brighter lights on the far side of the great open space. They enlarged as they grew nearer. Maril said hesitantly, “There was someone, Korvan—” Calhoun didn’t catch the rest of the name. Maril said hesitantly, “He was working on food plants. I thought he might accomplish something….”
The driver said caustically, “Sure! Everybody’s heard about him! He came up with a wonderful thing! He and his outfit worked out a way to process weeds so they can be eaten. And they can. You can fill your belly and not feel hungry, but it’s like eating hay. You starve just the same. He’s still working. Head of a government division.”
The groundcar passed through a gate. It stopped before a lighted door. The armed men hanging to its outside dropped off. They watched Calhoun closely as he stepped out with Murgatroyd riding on his shoulder.
Minutes later they faced a hastily summoned group of officials of the Darian government. For a ship to land on Dara was so remarkable an event that it called practically for a cabinet meeting. And Calhoun noted that they were no better fed than the guards at the spaceport.
They regarded Calhoun and Maril with oddly burning, eyes. It was, of course, because the two of them showed no signs of hunger. They obviously had not been on short rations. Darians had this, now, to increase a hatred which was inevitable anyhow, directed at all peoples off their own planet.
“My name is Calhoun,” said Calhoun briskly. “I’ve the usual Med Service credentials. Now—”
He did not wait to be questioned. He told them of the appalling state of things in the Twelfth Sector of the Med Service, so that men had been borrowed from other sectors to remedy the intolerable, and he was one of them. He told of his arrival at Weald and what had happened there, from the excessively cautious insistence that he prove he was not a Darian, to the arrival of the death-ship from Orede.
He was giving them the news affecting them, as they had not heard it before. He went on to tell of his stop at Orede and his purpose, and his encounter with the men he found there. When he finished there was silence. He broke it.
“Now,” he said, “Maril’s an agent of yours. She can add to what I’ve told you. I’m Med Service. I have a job to do here to carry out what wasn’t done before. I should make a planetary health inspection and make recommendations for the improvement of the state of things. I’ll be glad if you’ll arrange for me to talk to your health officials. Things look bad, and something should be done.”
Someone laughed without mirth.
“What will you recommend for long-continued undernourishment?” he asked derisively. “That’s our health problem!”
“I recommend food,” said Calhoun.
“Where’ll you fill the prescription?”
“I’ve the answer to that, too,” said Calhoun curtly. “I’ll want to talk to any space pilots you’ve got. Get your astrogators together and I think they’ll approve my idea.”
The silence was totally skeptical.
“Not Orede,” said Calhoun. “Weald will be hunting that planet over for Darians. If they find any, they’ll drop bombs here.”
“Our only space pilots,” said a tall man, presently, “are on Orede now. If you’ve told the truth, they’ll probably head back because of your warning. They should bring meat.”
His mouth worked peculiarly, and Calhoun knew that it was at the thought of food.
“Which,” said another man sharply, “goes to the hospitals! I haven’t tasted meat in two years!”
“Nobody has,” growled another man still. “But here’s this man Calhoun. I’m not convinced he can work magic, but we can find out if he lies. Put a guard on his ship. Otherwise let our health men give him his head. They’ll find out if he’s from this Medical Service he tells of! and this Maril….”
“I can be identified,” said Maril. “I was sent to gather information and send it in secret writing to one of us on Trent. I have a family here. They’ll know me! And I—there was someone who was working on foods, and I believe he made it possible to use … all sorts of vegetation for food. He will identify me.”
Someone laughed harshly.
“I’d like to see him,” she repeated. “And my family.”
Some of the blue-splotched men turned away. A broad-shouldered man said bluntly, “Don’t look for them to be glad to see you. And you’d better not show yourself in public. You’ve been well fed. You’ll be hated for that.”
Maril began to cry. Murgatroyd said bewilderedly, “Chee! Chee!“
Calhoun held him close. There was confusion. And Calhoun found the Minister of Health at hand. He looked most harried of all the officials gathered to question Calhoun. He proposed that he get a look at the hospital situation right away.
It wasn’t practical. With all the population on half rations or less, when night came people needed to sleep. Most people, indeed, slept as many hours out of the traditional twenty-four as they could manage. It was much more pleasant to sleep than to be awake and constantly nagged at by continued hunger.
And there was the matter of simple decency. Continuous gnawing hunger had an embittering effect upon everyone. Quarrelsomeness was a common experience. And people who would normally be the leaders of opinion felt shame because they were obsessed by thoughts of food. It was best when people slept.
Still, Calhoun was in the hospitals by daybreak. What he found moved him to savage anger. There were too many sick children. In every case undernourishment contributed to their sickness. And there was not enough food to make them well. Doctors and nurses denied themselves food to spare it for their patients. And most of that self-denial was doubtless voluntary, but it would not be discreet for anybody on Dara to look conspicuously better fed than his fellows.
Calhoun brought out hormones and enzymes and medicaments from the Med Ship while the guard in the ship looked on. He demonstrated the processes of synthesis and auto-catalysis that enabled such small samples to be multiplied indefinitely. He was annoyed by a clamorous appetite. There were some doctors who ignored the irony of medical techniques being taught to cure nonnutritional disease, when everybody was half-fed, or less. They approved of Calhoun. They even approved of Murgatroyd when Calhoun explained his function.
He was, of course, a Med Service tormal, and tormals were creatures of talent. They’d originally been found on a planet in the Deneb area, and they were engaging and friendly small animals. But the remarkable fact about them was that they couldn’t contract any disease. Not any.
They had a built-in, explosive reaction to bacterial and viral toxins, and there hadn’t yet been any pathogenic organism discovered to which a tormal could not more or less immediately develop antibody resistance. So that in interstellar medicine tormals were priceless.
Let Murgatroyd be infected with however localized, however specialized an inimical organism, and presently some highly valuable defensive substance could be isolated from his blood and he’d remain in his usual exuberant good health.
When the antibody was analyzed by those techniques of microanalysis the Service had developed, that was that. The antibody could be synthesized and one could attack any epidemic with confidence.
The tragedy for Dara was, of course, that no Med Ship had come to Dara three generations ago, when the Dara plague raged. Worse, after the plague Weald was able to exert pressure which only a criminally incompetent Med Service director would have permitted. But criminal incompetence and its consequences was what Calhoun had been loaned to Sector Twelve to help remedy. He was not at ease, though. No ship arrived from Orede to bear out his account of an attempt to get that lonely world evacuated before Weald discovered it had blueskins on it. Maril had vanished, to visit or return to her family, or perhaps to consult with the mysterious Korvan who’d arranged for her to leave Dara to be a spy, and had advised her simply to make a new life somewhere else, abandoning a famine-ridden, despised, and out-caste world.
Calhoun had learned of two achievements the same Korvan had made for his world. Neither was remarkably constructive. He’d offered to prove the value of the second by dying of it. Which might make him a very admirable character, or he could have a passion for martyrdom, which is much more common than most people think. In two days Calhoun was irritable enough from unaccustomed hunger to suspect the worst of him.
Meanwhile Calhoun worked doggedly; in the hospitals while the patients were awake and in the Med Ship, under guard, afterward. He had hunger cramps now, but he tested a plastic cube with a thriving biological culture in it.
He worked at increasing his store of it. He’d snipped samples of pigmented skin from dead patients in the hospitals, and examined the pigmented areas, and very, very painstakingly verified a theory. It took an electron microscope to do it, but he found a virus in the blue patches which matched the type discovered on Tralee.
The Tralee viruses had effects which were passed on from mother to child, and heredity had been charged with the observed results of quasi-living viral particles. And then Calhoun very, very carefully introduced into a virus culture the material he had been growing in a plastic cube. He watched what happened.
He was satisfied, so much so that immediately afterward he yawned and yawned and barely managed to stagger off to bed. The watching guard in the Med Ship watched him in amazement.
That night the ship from Orede came in, packed with frozen bloody carcasses of cattle. Calhoun knew nothing of it. But next morning Maril came back. There were shadows under her eyes and her expression was of someone who has lost everything that had meaning in her life.
“I’m all right,” she insisted, when Calhoun commented. “I’ve been visiting my family. I’ve seen Korvan. I’m quite all right.”
“You haven’t eaten any better than I have,” Calhoun observed.
“I couldn’t!” admitted Maril. “My sisters, my little sisters so thin…. There’s rationing for everybody and it’s all efficiently arranged. They even had rations for me. But I couldn’t eat! I gave most of my food to my sisters and they—they squabbled over it!”
Calhoun said nothing. There was nothing to say. Then she said, in a no less desolate tone, “Korvan said I was foolish to come back.”
“He could be right,” said Calhoun.
“But I had to!” protested Maril. “And now I—I’ve been eating all I wanted to, in Weald and in the ship, and I’m ashamed because they’re half-starved and I’m not. And when you see what hunger does to them…. It’s terrible to be half-starved and not able to think of anything but food!”
“The ship that was on Orede came in during the night,” Maril told him shakily. “It was loaded with frozen meat, but one load’s not enough to make a difference on a whole planet! And if Weald hunts for us on Orede, we daren’t go back for more meat.”
She said abruptly, “There are some prisoners. They were miners. They were crowded out of the ship. The Darians who’d stampeded the cattle took them prisoners. They had to!”
“True,” said Calhoun. “It wouldn’t have been wise to leave Wealdians around on Orede with their throats cut. Or living, either, to tell about a rumor of blueskins. Even if their throats will be cut now. Is that the program?”
“No. They’ll be put on short rations like everybody else. And people will watch them. The Wealdians expect to die of plague any minute because they’ve been with Darians. So people look at them and laugh. But it’s not very funny.”
“It’s natural,” said Calhoun, “but perhaps lacking in charity. Look there! How about those astrogators? I need them for a job I have in mind.”
Maril wrung her hands.
“C—come here,” she said in a low tone.
There was an armed guard in the control room of the ship. He’d watched Calhoun a good part of the previous day as Calhoun performed his mysterious work. He’d been off-duty and now was on duty again. He was bored. So long as Calhoun did not touch the control board, though, he was uninterested. He didn’t even turn his head when Maril led the way into the other cabin and slid the door shut.
“The astrogators are coming,” she said swiftly. “They’ll bring some boxes with them. They’ll ask you to instruct them so they can handle our ship better. They lost themselves coming back from Orede. No, they didn’t lose themselves, but they lost time, enough time almost to make an extra trip for meat. They need to be experts. I’m to come along, so they can be sure that what you teach them is what you’ve been doing right along.”
Calhoun said, “Well?”
“They’re crazy!” said Maril vehemently. “They knew Weald would do something monstrous sooner or later. But they’re going to try to stop it by being more monstrous sooner! Not everybody agrees, but there are enough. So they want to use your ship—it’s faster in overdrive and so on. And they’ll go to Weald in this ship and—they say they’ll give Weald something to keep it busy without bothering us!”
Calhoun said dryly, “This pays me off for being too sympathetic with blueskins! But if I’d been hungry for a couple of years, and was despised to boot by the people who kept me hungry, I suppose I might react the same way. No,” he said curtly as she opened her lips to speak again, “don’t tell me the trick. Considering everything, there’s only one trick it could be. But I doubt profoundly that it would work. All right.”
He slid the door back and returned to the control room. Maril followed him. He said detachedly, “I’ve been working on a problem outside of the food one. It isn’t the time to talk about it right now, but I think I’ve solved it.”
Maril turned her head, listening. There were footsteps on the tarmac outside the ship. Both doors of the airlock were open. Four men came in. They were young men who did not look quite as hungry as most Darians, but there was a reason for that. Their leader introduced himself and the others. They were the astrogators of the ship Dara had built to try to bring food from Orede. They were not, said their self-appointed leader, good enough. They’d overshot their destination. They came out of overdrive too far off line. They needed instruction.
Calhoun nodded, and observed that he’d been asking for them. They were, of course, blueskins. On one the only visible disfigurement was a patch of blue upon his wrist. On another the appearance of a blue birthmark appeared beside his eye and went back and up his temple. A third had a white patch on his temple, with all the rest of his face a dull blue. The fourth had blue fingers on one hand.
“We’ve got orders,” said their leader, steadily, “to come on board and learn from you how to handle this ship. It’s better than the one we’ve got.”
“I asked for you,” repeated Calhoun. “I’ve an idea I’ll explain as we go along…. Those boxes?”
Someone was passing in iron boxes through the airlock. One of the four very carefully brought them inside.
“They’re rations,” said a second young man. “We don’t go anywhere without rations, except Orede.”
“Orede, yes. I think we were shooting at each other there,” said Calhoun pleasantly. “Weren’t we?”
“Yes,” said the young man.
He was neither cordial nor antagonistic. He was impassive. Calhoun shrugged.
“Then we can take off immediately. Here’s the communicator and there’s the button. You might call the grid and arrange for us to be lifted.”
The young man seated himself at the control board. Very professionally, he went through the routine of preparing to lift by landing-grid, which routine has not changed in two hundred years. He went briskly ahead until the order to lift. Then Calhoun stopped him.
The ship lifted. Calhoun watched with seeming negligence. But he found occasion for a dozen corrections of procedure. This was presumably a training voyage of his own suggestion. Therefore, when the blueskin pilot would have flung the Med Ship into undirected overdrive, Calhoun grew stern. He insisted on a destination. He suggested Weald.
The young men glanced at each other and accepted the suggestion. He made the acting pilot look up the intrinsic brightness of its sun and measure its apparent brightness from just off Dara. He made him estimate the change in brightness to be expected after so many hours in overdrive, if one broke out to measure.
The first blueskin student pilot ended a Calhoun-determined tour of duty with more respect for Calhoun then he’d had at the beginning. The second was anxious to show up better than the first. Calhoun drilled him in the use of brightness-charts, by which the changes in apparent brightness of stars between overdrive hops could be correlated with angular changes to give a three-dimensional picture of the nearer heavens.
It was a highly necessary art which had not been worked out on Dara, and the prospective astrogators became absorbed in this and other fine points of space-piloting. They’d done enough, in a few trips to Orede, to realize that they needed to know more. Calhoun showed them.
Calhoun did not try to make things easy for them. He was hungry and easily annoyed. It was sound training tactics to be severe, and to phrase all suggestions as commands. He put the four young men in command of the ship in turn, under his direction. He continued to use Weald as a destination, but he set up problems in which the Med Ship came out of overdrive pointing in an unknown direction and with a precessory motion.
He made the third of his students identify Weald in the celestial globe containing hundreds of millions of stars, and get on course in overdrive toward it. The fourth was suddenly required to compute the distance to Weald from such data as he could get from observation, without reference to any records.
By this time the first man was chafing to take a second turn. Calhoun gave each of them a second gruelling lesson. He gave them, in fact, a highly condensed but very sound course in the art of travel in space. His young students took command in four-hour watches, with at least one breakout from overdrive in each watch.
He built up enthusiasm in them. They ignored the discomfort of being hungry—though there had been no reason for them to stint on food on Orede—in growing pride in what they came to know.
When Weald was a first-magnitude star, the four were not highly qualified astrogators, to be sure, but they were vastly better spacemen than at the beginning. Inevitably, their attitude toward Calhoun was respectful. He’d been irritable and right. To the young, the combination is impressive.
Maril had served as passenger only. In theory she was to compare Calhoun’s lessons with his practise when alone. But he did nothing on this journey which, teaching considered, was different from the two interstellar journeys Maril had made with him.
She occupied the sleeping cabin during two of the six watches of each ship-day. She operated the food-readier, which was almost completely emptied of its original store of food, it having been confiscated by the government of Dara. That amount of food would make no difference to the planet, but it was wise for everyone on Dara to be equally ill-fed.
On the sixth day out from Dara, the sun of Weald had a magnitude of minus five-tenths. The electron telescope could detect its larger planets, especially a gas-giant fifth-orbit world of high albedo. Calhoun had his four students estimate its distance again, pointing out the difference that could be made in breakout position if the Med Ship were mis-aimed by as much as one second of arc.
“And now,” he said briskly, “we’ll have coffee. I’m going to graduate you as pilots. Maril, four cups of coffee, please.”
Murgatroyd said “Chee?” The Med Ship was badly crowded with six humans and Murgatroyd in a space intended for Calhoun and Murgatroyd alone. The little tormal had spent most of his time in his cubbyhole, watching with beady eyes as so many people moved about on what had been a spacious ship before.
“No coffee for you, Murgatroyd,” said Calhoun. “You didn’t do your lessons. This is for the graduating class only.”
Murgatroyd came out of his miniature den. He found his little cup and offered it insistently, saying, “Chee! Chee! Chee!“
“No!” said Calhoun firmly. He regarded his class of four young men with their blueskin markings. “Drink it down!” he commanded. “That’s the last order I’ll give you. You’re graduate pilots, now!”
They drank the coffee with a flourish. There was not one who did not admire Calhoun for having made them admire themselves. They were, actually, almost as much better pilots as they believed.
“And now,” said Calhoun, “I suppose you’ll tell me the truth about those boxes you brought on board. You said they were rations, but they haven’t been opened in six days. I have an idea what they mean, but you tell me.”
The four looked uncomfortable. There was a long pause.
“They could be,” said Calhoun detachedly, “cultures to be dumped on Weald. Weald is making plans to wipe out Dara. So some fool has decided to get Weald too busy fighting a plague of its own to bother with you. Is that right?”
The young men stirred unhappily. Young men can very easily be made into fanatics. But they have to be kept stirred up. They can’t be provided with sound reason for self-respect. On the Med Ship there’d not been a single reference to Weald except as an object toward which the Med Ship was being astrogated. There’d been no reference to blueskins or enemies or threats or anything but space-piloting. The four young men were now fanatical about the proper handling of a ship in emptiness.
“Well, sir,” said one of them, unhappily, “that’s what we were ordered to do.”
“I object,” said Calhoun. “It wouldn’t work. I just left Weald a little while back, remember. They’ve been telling themselves that some day Dara would try that. They’ve made preparations to fight any imaginable contagion you could drop on them. Every so often somebody claims it’s happening. It wouldn’t work. I object!”
“In fact,” said Calhoun, “I forbid it. I shall prevent it. You shan’t do anything of the kind.”
One of the young men, staring at Calhoun, nodded suddenly. His eyes closed. He jerked his head erect and looked bewildered. A second sank heavily into a chair. He said remotely, “Thish sfunny!” and abruptly went to sleep. The third found his knees giving way. He paid elaborate attention to them, stiffening them. But they yielded like rubber and he went slowly down to the floor. The fourth said thickly and reproachfully, “Thought y’were our frien’!”
Calhoun very soberly tied them hand and foot and laid them out comfortably on the floor. Maril watched, white-faced, her hand to her throat. Murgatroyd looked agitated. He said anxiously, “Chee? Chee?“
“No,” said Calhoun. “They’ll wake up presently.”
Maril said in a tense and desperate whisper, “You’re betraying us! You’re going to take us to Weald!”
“No,” said Calhoun. “We’ll only orbit around it. First, though, I want to get rid of those damned packed-up cultures. They’re dead, by the way. I killed them with super-sonics a couple of days ago, while a fine argument was going on about distance-measurements by variable Cepheids of known period.”
He put the four boxes carefully in the disposal unit. He operated it. The boxes and their contents streamed out to space in the form of metallic and other vapors. Calhoun sat at the control desk.
“I’m a Med Service man,” he said detachedly. “I couldn’t cooperate in the spread of plagues, anyhow, though a useful epidemic might be another matter. But the important thing right now is not keeping Weald busy with troubles to increase their hatred of Dara. It’s getting some food for Dara. And driblets won’t help. What’s needed is thousands of tons, or tens of thousands.” Then he said, “Overdrive coming, Murgatroyd! Hold fast!”
The universe vanished. The customary unpleasant sensations accompanied the change. Murgatroyd burped.
A large part of the firmament was blotted out by the blindingly bright half-disk of Weald, as it shone in the sunshine. It had icecaps at its poles, and there were seas, and the mottled look of land which had that carefully maintained balance of woodland and cultivated areas which was so effective in climate control. The Med Ship floated free, and Calhoun fretfully monitored all the beacon frequencies known to man.
There was relative silence inside the ship. Maril watched Calhoun in a sort of despairing indecision. The four young blueskins still slept, still bound hand and foot upon the control room floor. Murgatroyd regarded them, and Maril, and Calhoun in turn, and his small and furry forehead wrinkled helplessly.
“They can’t have landed what I’m looking for!” protested Calhoun as his search had no result. “They can’t! It would be too sensible for them to have done it!”
Murgatroyd said “Chee!” in a subdued voice.
“But where the devil did they put them?” demanded Calhoun. “A polar orbit would be ridiculous! They—” Then he grunted in disgust. “Oh! Of course! Now, where’s the landing-grid?”
He worked busily for minutes, checking the position of the Wealdian landing-grid, which was mapped in the Sector Directory, against the look of continents and seas on the half-disk so plainly visible outside. He found what he wanted. He put on the ship’s solar system drive.
“I wish,” he complained to Maril, “I wish I could think straight the first time! And it’s so obvious! If you want to put something out in space, and not have it interfere with traffic, in what sort of orbit and at what distance will you put it?”
Maril did not answer.
“Obviously,” said Calhoun, “you’ll put it as far as possible from the landing-pattern of ships coming in to the spaceport. You’ll put it on the opposite side of the planet. And you’ll want it to stay out of the way, where anybody can know it is at any time of the day or night without having to calculate anything.
“So you’ll put it out in orbit so it will revolve around Weald in exactly one day, neither more nor less, and you’ll put it above the equator. And then it will remain quite stationary above one spot on the planet, a hundred and eighty degrees longitude away from the landing-grid and directly over the equator.”
He scribbled for a moment.
“Which means forty-two thousand miles high, give or take a few hundred, and—here! And I was hunting for it in a close-in orbit!”
He grumbled to himself. He waited while the solar-system drive pushed the Med Ship a quarter of the way around the bright planet below. The sunset line vanished and the planet’s disk became a complete circle. Then Calhoun listened to the monitor earphones again, and grunted once more, and changed course, and presently made a noise indicating satisfaction.
He abandoned instrument control and peered directly out of a port, handling the solar system drive with great care. Murgatroyd said depressedly, “Chee!“
“Stop worrying,” commanded Calhoun. “We haven’t been challenged, and there is a beacon transmitter at work, just to make sure that nobody bumps into what we’re looking for. It’s a great help, because we do want to bump, but gently.”
Stars swung across the port out of which he looked. Something dark appeared, and then straight lines and exact curvings. Even Maril, despairing and bewildered as she was, caught sight of something vastly larger than the Med Ship, floating in space. She stared. The Med Ship maneuvered very cautiously. She saw another large object. A third. A fourth. There seemed to be dozens of them.
They were spaceships, huge by comparison with Aesclipus Twenty. They floated as the Med Ship did. They did not drive. They were not in formation. They were not at even distances from each other. They did not point in the same direction. They swung in emptiness like derelicts.
Calhoun jockeyed his small ship with infinite care. Presently there came the gentlest of impacts and then a clanking sound. The appearance out the vision port became stationary, but still unbelievable. The Med Ship was grappled magnetically to a vast surface of welded metal.
Calhoun relaxed. He opened a wall panel and brought out a vacuum suit. He began briskly to get it on.
“Things moving smoothly,” he commented. “We weren’t challenged. So it’s extremely unlikely that we were spotted. Our friends on the floor ought to begin to come to shortly. And I’m going to find out now whether I’m a hero or in sure-enough trouble!”
Maril said drearily, “I don’t know what you’ve done, except—”
Calhoun blinked at her, in the act of hauling the vacuum suit up his chest and over his shoulders.
“Isn’t it self-evident?” he demanded. “I’ve been giving astrogation lessons to these characters. I certainly didn’t do it to help them dump germ-cultures on Weald! I brought them here! Don’t you see the point? These are space ships. They’re in orbit around Weald. They’re not manned and they’re not controlled. In fact, they’re nothing but sky-riding storage bins!”
He seemed to consider the explanation complete. He wriggled his arms into the sleeves and gloves of the suit. He slung the air tanks over his shoulder and hooked them to the suit.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “I hope with good news. I’ve reason to be hopeful, though, because these Wealdians are very practical men. They have things all prepared and tidy. I suspect I’ll find these ships with stores of air and fuel, maybe even food, so that if Weald should manage to make a deal for the stuff stored out here in them, they’d only have to bring out crews.”
He lifted the space helmet down from its rack and put it on. He tested it, reading the tank air-pressure, power-storage, and other data from the lighted miniature instruments visible through pinholes above his eye-level. He fastened a space rope about himself, speaking through the helmet’s opened faceplate.
“If our friends should wake up before I get back,” he added, “please restrain them. I’d hate to be marooned.”
He went waddling into the airlock with the coil of space rope over one vacuum-suited arm. The inner lock door closed behind him. A little later Maril heard the outer lock open. Then silence.
Murgatroyd whimpered a little. Maril shivered. Calhoun had gone out of the ship to nothingness. He’d said that what he was looking for, and what he’d found, was forty-two thousand miles from Weald. One could imagine falling forty-two thousand miles, where one couldn’t imagine falling a light-year.
Calhoun was walking on the steel plates of a gigantic spaceship which floated among dozens of its fellows, all seeming derelicts and seemingly abandoned. He was able to walk on the nearest because of magnetic-soled shoes. He trusted his life to them and to a