Then there was a murmur of excitement outside the operating room, and word came in that another ship had been sighted making landing maneuvers. Dal clenched his fists, praying that the patient would last until the hospital ship crew arrived.
But the ship that was landing was not a hospital ship. Someone turned on a TV scanner and picked up the image of a small ship hardly larger than a patrol ship, with just two passengers stepping down the ladder to the ground. Then the camera went close-up. Dal saw the faces of the two men, and his heart sank.
One was a Four-star Surgeon, resplendent in flowing red cape and glistening silver insignia. Dal did not recognize the man, but the four stars meant that he was a top-ranking physician in the Red Service of Surgery.
The other passenger, gathering his black cloak and hood around him as he faced the blistering wind on the landing field, was Black Doctor Hugo Tanner.
* * * * *
Moments after the Four-star Surgeon arrived at the hospital, he was fully and unmistakably in command of the situation. He gave Dal an icy stare, then turned to the Moruan operating surgeon, whom he seemed to know very well. After a short barrage of questions and answers, he scrubbed and gowned, and stalked past Dal to the crude Moruan micro-surgical control table.
It took him exactly fifteen seconds to scan the entire operating field through the viewer, discussing the anatomy as the Moruan surgeon watched on a connecting screen. Then, without hesitation, he began manipulating the micro-instruments. Once or twice he murmured something to Tiger at the anaesthesia controls, and occasionally he nodded reassurance to the Moruan surgeon. He did not even invite Dal to observe.
Ten minutes later he rose from the control table and threw the switch to stop the heart-lung machine. The patient took a gasping breath on his own, then another and another. The Four-star Surgeon stripped off his gown and gloves with a flourish. "It will be all right," he said to the Moruan physician. "An excellent job, Doctor, excellent!" he said. "Your technique was flawless, except for the tiny matter you have just observed."
It was not until they were outside the operating room and beyond earshot of the Moruan doctors that the Four-star surgeon turned furiously to Dal. "Didn't you even bother to examine the operating field, Doctor? Where did you study surgery? Couldn't you tell that the fools had practically finished the job themselves? All that was needed was a simple great-vessel graft, which an untrained idiot could have done blindfolded. And for this you call me clear from Hospital Earth!"
The surgeon threw down his mask in disgust and stalked away, leaving Dal and Tiger staring at each other in dismay.
TIGER MAKES A PROMISE
"I think," Black Doctor Hugo Tanner said ominously, "that an explanation is in order. I would now like to hear it. And believe me, gentlemen, it had better be a very sensible explanation, too."
The pathologist was sitting in the control room of the Lancet, his glasses slightly askew on his florid face. He had climbed through the entrance lock ten minutes before, shaking snow off his cloak and wheezing like a boiler about to explode; now he faced the patrol ship's crew like a small but ominous black thundercloud. Across the room, Jack Alvarez was staring through the viewscreen at the blizzard howling across the landing field below, a small satisfied smile on his face, while Tiger sulked with his hands jammed into his trousers. Dal sat by himself feeling very much alone, with Fuzzy peering discreetly out of his jacket pocket.
He knew the Black Doctor was speaking to him, but he didn't try to reply. He had known from the moment the surgeon came out of the operating room that he was in trouble. It was just a matter of time before he would have to answer for his decision here, and it was even something of a relief that the moment came sooner rather than later.
And the more Dal considered his position, the more indefensible it appeared. Time after time he had thought of Dr. Arnquist's words about judgment and skill. Without one the other was of little value to a doctor, and whatever his skill as a surgeon might have been in the Moruan operating room, he now realized that his judgment had been poor. He had allowed himself to panic at a critical moment, and had failed to see how far the surgery had really progressed. By deciding to wait for help to arrive instead of taking over at once, he had placed the patient in even greater jeopardy than before. In looking back, Dal could see clearly that it would have been far better judgment to proceed on his own.
But that was how it looked now, not then, and there was an old saying that the "retrospectoscope" was the only infallible instrument in all medicine.
In any event, the thing was done, and couldn't be changed, and Dal knew that he could only stand on what he had done, right or wrong.
"Well, I'm waiting," Black Doctor Tanner said, scowling at Dal through his thick-rimmed glasses. "I want to know who was responsible for this fiasco, and why it occurred in the first place."
Dal spread his hands hopelessly. "What do you want me to say?" he asked. "I took a careful history of the situation as soon as we arrived here, and then I examined the patient in the operating room. I thought the surgery might be over my head, and couldn't see attempting it if a hospital ship could be reached in time. I thought the patient could be maintained safely long enough for us to call for help."
"I see," the Black Doctor said. "You've done micro-surgery before?"
"And organ transplant work?"
The Black Doctor opened a folder and peered at it over his glasses. "As a matter of fact, you spent two solid years in micro-surgical training in Hospital Philadelphia, with all sorts of glowing reports from your preceptors about what a flair you had for the work."
Dal shook his head. "I—I did some work in the field, yes, but not on critical cases under field conditions."
"You mean that this case required some different kind of technique than the cases you've worked on before?"
"No, not really, but—"
"But you just couldn't quite shoulder the responsibility the job involved when you got into a pinch without any help around," the Black Doctor growled.
"I just thought it would be safer to wait," Dal said helplessly.
"A good conservative approach," Dr. Tanner sneered. "Of course, you realized that prolonged anaesthesia in itself could threaten that patient's life?"
"And you saw the patient's condition steadily deteriorating while you waited, did you not?"
"It was too late to change my mind then," Dal said desperately. "We'd sent for you. We knew that it would be only a matter of hours before you arrived."
"Indeed," the Black Doctor said. "Unfortunately, it takes only seconds for a patient to cross the line between life and death, not hours. And I suppose you would have stood there quietly and allowed him to expire if we had not arrived at the time we did?"
Dal shook his head miserably. There was nothing he could answer to that, and he realized it. What could he say? That the situation seemed quite different now than it had under pressure in the Moruan operating room? That he would have been blamed just as much if he had gone ahead, and then lost the case? His fingers stole down to Fuzzy's soft warm body for comfort, and he felt the little creature cling closer to his side.
The Black Doctor looked up at the others. "Well? What do the rest of you have to say?"
Jack Alvarez shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not a surgeon," he said, "but even I could see that something should be done without delay."
"And what does the Green Doctor think?"
Tiger shrugged. "We misjudged the situation, that's all. It came out fortunately for the patient, why make all this fuss about it?"
"Because there are other things at stake than just medical considerations," the Black Doctor shot back. "This planet has a grade I contract with Hospital Earth. We guarantee them full medical coverage of all situations and promise them immediate response to any call for medical help that they may send us. It is the most favorable kind of contract we have; when Morua VIII calls for help they expect their call to be answered by expert medical attention, not by inept bungling."
The Black Doctor leafed through the folder in his hands. "We have built our reputation in the Galactic Confederation on this kind of contract, and our admission to full membership in the Confederation will ultimately depend upon how we fulfill our promises. Poor medical judgment cannot be condoned under any circumstances—but above all, we cannot afford to jeopardize a contract."
Dal stared at him. "I—I had no intention of jeopardizing a contract," he faltered.
"Perhaps not," the Black Doctor said. "But you were the doctor on the spot, and you were so obviously incompetent to handle the situation that even these clumsy Moruan surgeons could see it. Their faith in the doctors from Hospital Earth has been severely shaken. They are even talking of letting their contract lapse at the end of this term."
Tiger Martin jumped to his feet. "Doctor Tanner, even Four-star Surgeons lose patients sometimes. These people should be glad that the doctor they call has sense enough to call for help if he needs it."
"But no help was needed," the Black Doctor said angrily. "Any half-decent surgeon would have handled the case. If the Moruans see a patrol ship bring in one incompetent doctor, what are they going to expect the next time they have need for help? How can they feel sure that their medical needs are well taken care of?" He shook his head grimly. "This is the sort of responsibility that doctors on the patrol ships are expected to assume. If you call for help where there is need for help, no one will ever complain; but when you turn and run the moment things get tough, you are not fit for patrol ship service."
The Black Doctor turned to Dal Timgar. "You had ample warning," he said. "It was clearly understood that your assignment on this ship depended upon the fulfillment of the duties of Red Doctor here, and now at the first real test you turn and run instead of doing your job. All right. You had your opportunity. You can't complain that we haven't given you a chance. According to the conduct code of the General Practice Patrol, section XIV, paragraph 2, any physician in the patrol on probationary status who is found delinquent in executing his duties may be relieved of his assignment at the order of any Black Doctor, or any other physician of four-star rank." Doctor Tanner closed the folder with a snap of finality. "It seems to me that the case is clear. Dal Timgar, on the authority of the Code, I am now relieving you of duty—"
"Just a minute," Tiger Martin burst out.
The Black Doctor looked up at him. "Well?"
"This is ridiculous," Tiger said. "Why are you picking on him? Or do you mean that you're relieving all three of us?"
"Of course I'm not relieving all three of you," the Black Doctor snapped. "You and Dr. Alvarez will remain on duty and conduct the ship's program without a Red Doctor until a man is sent to replace this bungler. That also is provided for in the code."
"But I understood that we were operating as a diagnostic and therapeutic team," Tiger protested. "And I seem to remember something in the code about fixing responsibility before a man can be relieved."
"There's no question where the responsibility lies," the Black Doctor said, his face darkening. "This was a surgical problem, and Dal Timgar made the decisions. I don't see anything to argue."
"There's plenty to argue," Tiger said. "Dal, don't you see what he's trying to do?"
Across the room Dal shook his head wearily. "You'd better keep out of it, Tiger," he said.
"Why should I keep out of it and let you be drummed out of the patrol for something that wasn't even your fault?" Tiger said. He turned angrily to the Black Doctor. "Dal wasn't the one that wanted the hospital ship called," he said. "I was. If you're going to relieve somebody, you'd better make it me."
The Black Doctor pulled off his glasses and glared at Tiger. "Whatever are you talking about?" he said.
"Just what I said. We had a conference after he'd examined the patient in the operating room, and I insisted that we call the hospital ship. Why, Dal—Dal wanted to go ahead and try to finish the case right then, and I wouldn't let him," Tiger blundered on. "I didn't think the patient could take it. I thought that it would be too great a risk with the facilities we had here."
Dal was staring at Tiger, and he felt Fuzzy suddenly shivering violently in his pocket. "Tiger, don't be foolish—"
The Black Doctor slammed the file down on the table again. "Is this true, what he's saying?" he asked Dal.
"No, not a word of it," Dal said. "I wanted to call the hospital ship."
"Of course he won't admit it," Tiger said angrily. "He's afraid you'll kick me out too, but it's true just the same in spite of what he says."
"And what do you say?" the Black Doctor said, turning to Jack Alvarez.
"I say it's carrying this big brother act too far," Jack said. "I didn't notice any conferences going on."
"You were back at the ship getting the surgical pack," Tiger said. "You didn't know anything about it. You didn't hear us talking, and we didn't see any reason to consult you about it."
The Black Doctor stared from Dal to Tiger, his face growing angrier by the minute. He jerked to his feet, and stalked back and forth across the control room, glaring at them. Then he took a capsule from his pocket, gulped it down with some water, and sat back down. "I ought to throw you both out on your ears," he snarled. "But I am forced to control myself. I mustn't allow myself to get angry—" He crashed his fist down on the control panel. "I suppose that you would swear to this statement of yours if it came to that?" he asked Tiger.
Tiger nodded and swallowed hard. "Yes, sir, I certainly would."
"All right," the Black Doctor said tightly. "Then you win this one. The code says that two opinions can properly decide any course of action. If you insist that two of you agreed on this decision, then I am forced to support you officially. I will make a report of the incident to patrol headquarters, and it will go on the permanent records of all three of this ship's crew—including my personal opinion of the decision." He looked up at Dal. "But be very careful, my young friend. Next time you may not have a technicality to back you up, and I'll be watching for the first plausible excuse to break you, and your Green Doctor friend as well. One misstep, and you're through. And I assure you that is not just an idle threat. I mean every word of it."
And trembling with rage, the Black Doctor picked up the folder, wrapped his cape around him, and marched out of the control room.
* * * * *
"Well, you put on a great show," Jack Alvarez said later as they prepared the ship for launching from the snow-swept landing field on Morua VIII. An hour before the ground had trembled as the Black Doctor's ship took off with Dr. Tanner and the Four-star Surgeon aboard; now Jack broke the dark silence in the Lancet's control room for the first time. "A really great show. You missed your calling, Tiger. You should have been on the stage. If you think you fooled Dr. Tanner with that story for half a second, you're crazy, but I guess you got what you wanted. You kept your pal's cuff and collar for him, and you put a black mark on all of our records, including mine. I hope you're satisfied."
Tiger Martin took off his earphones and set them carefully on the control panel. "You know," he said to Jack, "you're lucky."
"You're lucky I don't wipe that sneer off your face and scrub the walls with it. And you'd better not crowd your luck, because all I need right now is an invitation." He stood up, towering over the dark-haired Blue Doctor. "You bet I'm satisfied. And if you got a black mark along with the rest of us, you earned it all the way."
"That still doesn't make it right," Dal said from across the room.
"You just keep out of this for a minute," Tiger said. "Jack has got to get a couple of things straight, and this is the time for it right now."
Dal shook his head. "I can't keep out of it," he said. "You got me off the hook by shifting the blame, but you put yourself in trouble doing it. Dr. Tanner could just as well have thrown us both out of the service as not."
Tiger snorted. "On what grounds? For a petty little error like this? He wouldn't dare! You ought to read the log books of some of the other GPP ships some time and see the kind of bloopers they pull without even a reprimand. Don't worry, he was mad enough to throw us both out if he thought he could make it stick, but he knew he couldn't. He knew the council would just review the case and reverse his decision."
"It was still my error, not yours," Dal protested. "I should have gone ahead and finished the case on the spot. I knew it at the time, and I just didn't quite dare."
"So you made a mistake," Tiger said. "You'll make a dozen more before you get your Star, and if none of them amount to any more than this one, you can be very happy." He scowled at Jack. "It's only thanks to our friend here that the Black Doctor heard about this at all. A hospital ship would have come to take the patient aboard, and the local doctors would have been quieted down and that would have been all there was to it. This business about losing a contract is a lot of nonsense."
"Then you think this thing was just used as an excuse to get at me?"
"Ask him," Tiger said, looking at Jack again. "Ask him why a Black Doctor and a Four-star Surgeon turned up when we just called for a hospital ship."
"I called the hospital ship," Jack said sullenly.
"But you called Dr. Tanner too," said Tiger. "Your nose has been out of joint ever since Dal came aboard this ship. You've made things as miserable for him as you could, and you just couldn't wait for a chance to come along to try to scuttle him."
"All right," Jack said, "but he was making a mistake. Anybody could see that. What if the patient had died while he was standing around waiting? Isn't that important?"
Tiger started to answer, and then threw up his hands in disgust. "It's important—but something else is more important. We've got a job to do on this ship, and we can't do it fighting each other. Dal misjudged a case and got in trouble. Fine, he won't make that mistake again. It could just as well have been you, or me. We'll all make mistakes, but if we can't work as a team, we're sunk. We'll all be drummed out of the patrol before a year is out." Tiger stopped to catch his breath, his face flushed with anger. "Well, I'm fed up with this back-stabbing business. I don't want a fight any more than Dal does, but if I have to fight, I'll fight to get it over with, and you'd better be careful. If you pull any more sly ones, you'd better include me in the deal, because if Dal goes, I go too. And that's a promise."
There was silence for a moment as Jack stared up at Tiger's angry face. He shook his head and blinked, as though he couldn't quite believe what he was hearing. He looked across at Dal, and then back at Tiger again. "You mean you'd turn in your collar and cuff?" he said.
"If it came to that."
"I see." Jack sat down at the control panel, still shaking his head. "I think you really mean it," he said soberly. "This isn't just a big brother act. You really like the guy, don't you?"
"Maybe I do," Tiger said, "but I don't like to watch anybody get kicked around just because somebody else doesn't happen to like him."
The control room was very quiet. Then somewhere below a motor clicked on, and the ventilation fan made a quiet whirring sound. The teletype clicked sporadically down the corridor in the communications room. Dal sat silently, rubbing Fuzzy between the eyes and watching the two Earthmen. It seemed suddenly as if they were talking about somebody a million miles away, as if he were not even in the room.
Then the Blue Doctor shrugged and rose to his feet. "All right," he said to Tiger. "I guess I just didn't understand where you stood, and I suppose it wasn't my job to let the Black Doctor know about the situation here. I don't plan to be making all the mistakes you think we're going to make, and I won't take the blame for anybody else's, but I guess we've got to work together in the tight spots." He gave Dal a lop-sided grin. "Welcome aboard," he said. "We'd better get this crate airborne before the people here come and cart it away."
They moved then, and the subject was dropped. Half an hour later the Lancet lifted through the atmospheric pull of the Moruan planet and moved on toward the next contact point, leaving the recovering patient in the hands of the native physicians. It was not until hours later that Dal noticed that Fuzzy had stopped quivering, and was resting happily and securely on his shoulder even when the Blue Doctor was near.
ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS
Once more the crew of the Lancet settled down to routine, and the incident on Morua VIII seemed almost forgotten.
But a change had come about in the relations between the three doctors, and in every way the change was for the better. If Jack Alvarez was not exactly cordial to Dal Timgar, at least he had dropped the open antagonism that he had shown before. Apparently Tiger's angry outburst had startled Jack, as though he had never really considered that the big Earthman might honestly be attached to his friend from Garv II, and the Blue Doctor seemed sincere in his agreement to work with Dal and Tiger as a team.
But bit by bit Dal could sense that the change in Jack's attitude went deeper than the surface. "You know, I really think he was scared of me," Dal said one night when he and Tiger were alone. "Sounds silly, but I think it's true. He pretends to be so sure of himself, but I think he's as worried about doing things wrong as we are, and just won't admit it. And he really thought I was a threat when I came aboard."
"He probably had a good thorough briefing from Black Doctor Tanner before he got the assignment," Tiger said grimly.
"Maybe—but somehow I don't think he cares for the Black Doctor much more than we do."
But whatever the reason, much of the tension was gone when the Lancet had left the Moruan system behind. A great weight seemed to have been lifted, and if there was not quite peace on board, at least there was an uneasy truce. Tiger and Jack were almost friendly, talking together more often and getting to know each other better. Jack still avoided Dal and seldom included him in conversations, but the open contempt of the first few weeks on the ship now seemed tempered somewhat.
Once again the Lancet's calls fell into a pattern. Landings on the outpost planets became routine, bright spots in a lonely and wandering existence. The calls that came in represented few real problems. The ship stopped at one contract planet to organize a mass inoculation program against a parasitic infestation resembling malaria. They paused at another place to teach the native doctors the use of some new surgical instruments that had been developed in Hospital Earth laboratories just for them. Frantic emergency calls usually proved to involve trivial problems, but once or twice potentially serious situations were spotted early, before they could develop into real trouble.
And as the three doctors got used to the responsibilities of a patrol ship's rounds, and grew more confident of their ability to handle the problems thrust upon them, they found themselves working more and more efficiently as a team.
This was the way the General Practice Patrol was supposed to function. Each doctor had unsuspected skills that came to light. There was no questioning Jack Alvarez's skill as a diagnostician, but it seemed uncanny to Dal the way the slender, dark-haired Earthman could listen carefully to a medical problem of an alien race on a remote planet, and then seem to know exactly which questions to ask to draw out the significant information about the situation. Tiger was not nearly as quick and clever as Jack; he needed more time to ponder a question of medical treatment, and he would often spend long hours poring over the data tapes before deciding what to do in a given case—but he always seemed to come up with an answer, and his answers usually worked. Above all, Tiger's relations with the odd life-forms they encountered were invariably good; the creatures seemed to like him, and would follow his instructions faithfully.
Dal, too, had opportunities to demonstrate that his surgical skill and judgment was not universally faulty in spite of the trouble on Morua VIII. More than once he succeeded in almost impossible surgical cases where there was no time to call for help, and little by little he could sense Jack's growing confidence in his abilities, grudging though it might be.
Dal had ample time to mull over the thing that had happened on Morua VIII and to think about the interview with Black Doctor Tanner afterward. He knew he was glad that Tiger had intervened even on the basis of a falsehood; until Tiger had spoken up Dal had been certain that the Black Doctor fully intended to use the incident as an excuse to discharge him from the General Practice Patrol. There was no question in his mind that the Black Doctor's charges had been exaggerated into a trumped-up case against him, and there was no question that Tiger's insistence on taking the blame had saved him; he could not help being thankful.
Yet there was something about it that disturbed Dal, nibbling away persistently at his mind. He couldn't throw off the feeling that his own acceptance of Tiger's help had been wrong.
Part of it, he knew, was his native, inbred loathing for falsehood. Fair or unfair, Dal had always disliked lying. Among his people, the truth might be bent occasionally, but frank lying was considered a deep disgrace, and there was a Garvian saying that "a false tongue wins no true friends." Garvian traders were known throughout the Galaxy as much for their rigid adherence to their word as they were for the hard bargains they could drive; Dal had been enormously confused during his first months on Hospital Earth by the way Earthmen seemed to accept lying as part of their daily life, unconcerned about it as long as the falsehood could not be proven.
But something else about Tiger's defense of him bothered Dal far more than the falsehood—something that had vaguely disturbed him ever since he had known the big Earthman, and that now seemed to elude him every time he tried to pinpoint it. Lying in his bunk during a sleep period, Dal remembered vividly the first time he had met Tiger, early in the second year of medical school. Dal had almost despaired by then of making friends with his hostile and resentful classmates and had begun more and more to avoid contact with them, building up a protective shell and relying on Fuzzy for company or comfort. Then Tiger had found him eating lunch by himself in the medical school lounge one day and flopped down in the seat beside him and began talking as if Dal were just another classmate. Tiger's open friendliness had been like a spring breeze to Dal who was desperately lonely in this world of strangers; their friendship had grown rapidly, and gradually others in the class had begun to thaw enough at least to be civil when Dal was around. Dal had sensed that this change of heart was largely because of Tiger and not because of him, yet he had welcomed it as a change from the previous intolerable coldness even though it left him feeling vaguely uneasy. Tiger was well liked by the others in the class; Dal had been grateful more than once when Tiger had risen in hot defense of the Garvian's right to be studying medicine among Earthmen in the school on Hospital Earth.
But that had been in medical school, among classmates. Somehow that had been different from the incident that occurred on Morua VIII, and Dal's uneasiness grew stronger than ever the more he thought of it. Talking to Tiger about it was no help; Tiger just grinned and told him to forget it, but even in the rush of shipboard activity it stubbornly refused to be forgotten.
One minor matter also helped to ease the tension between the doctors as they made their daily rounds. Tiger brought a pink dispatch sheet in to Dal one day, grinning happily. "This is from the weekly news capsule," he said. "It ought to cheer you up."
It was a brief news note, listed under "incidental items." "The Black Service of Pathology," it said, "has announced that Black Doctor Hugo Tanner will enter Hospital Philadelphia within the next week for prophylactic heart surgery. In keeping with usual Hospital Earth administrative policy, the Four-star Black Doctor will undergo a total cardiac transplant to halt the Medical education administrator's progressively disabling heart disease." The note went on to name the surgeons who would officiate at the procedure.
Dal smiled and handed back the dispatch. "Maybe it will improve his temper," he said, "even if it does give him another fifty years of active life."
"Well, at least it will take him out of our hair for a while," Tiger said. "He won't have time to keep us under too close scrutiny."
Which, Dal was forced to admit, did not make him too unhappy.
Shipboard rounds kept all three doctors busy. Often, with contact landings, calls, and studying, it seemed only a brief time from sleep period to sleep period, but still they had some time for minor luxuries. Dal was almost continuously shivering, with the ship kept at a temperature that was comfortable for Tiger and Jack; he missed the tropical heat of his home planet, and sometimes it seemed that he was chilled down to the marrow of his bones in spite of his coat of gray fur. With a little home-made plumbing and ingenuity, he finally managed to convert one of the ship's shower units into a steam bath. Once or twice each day he would retire for a blissful half hour warming himself up to Garv II normal temperatures.
Fuzzy also became a part of shipboard routine. Once he grew accustomed to Tiger and Jack and the surroundings aboard the ship, the little creature grew bored sitting on Dal's shoulder and wanted to be in the middle of things. Since the early tension had eased, he was willing to be apart from his master from time to time, so Dal and Tiger built him a platform that hung from the ceiling of the control room. There Fuzzy would sit and swing by the hour, blinking happily at the activity going on all around him.
But for all the appearance of peace and agreement, there was still an undercurrent of tension on board the Lancet which flared up from time to time when it was least expected, between Dal and Jack. It was on one such occasion that a major crisis almost developed, and once again Fuzzy was the center of the contention.
Dal Timgar knew that disaster had struck at the very moment it happened, but he could not tell exactly what was wrong. All he knew was that something fearful had happened to Fuzzy.
There was a small sound-proof cubicle in the computer room, with a chair, desk and a tape-reader for the doctors when they had odd moments to spend reading up on recent medical bulletins or reviewing their textbooks. Dal spent more time here than the other two; the temperature of the room could be turned up, and he had developed a certain fondness for the place with its warm gray walls and its soft relaxing light. Here on the tapes were things that he could grapple with, things that he could understand. If a problem here eluded him, he could study it out until he had mastered it. The hours he spent here were a welcome retreat from the confusing complexities of getting along with Jack and Tiger.
These long study periods were boring for Fuzzy who wasn't much interested in the oxygen-exchange mechanism of the intelligent beetles of Aldebaran VI. Frequently Dal would leave him to swing on his platform or explore about the control cabin while he spent an hour or two at the tape-reader. Today Dal had been working for over an hour, deeply immersed in a review of the intermediary metabolism of chlorine-breathing mammals, when something abruptly wrenched his attention from the tape.
It was as though a light had snapped off in his mind, or a door slammed shut. There was no sound, no warning; yet, suddenly, he felt dreadfully, frighteningly alone, as if in a split second something inside him had been torn away. He sat bolt upright, staring, and he felt his skin crawl and his fingers tremble as he listened, trying to spot the source of the trouble.
And then, almost instinctively, he knew what was wrong. He leaped to his feet, tore open the door to the cubicle and dashed down the hallway toward the control room. "Fuzzy!" he shouted. "Fuzzy, where are you?"
Tiger and Jack were both at the control panel dictating records for filing. They looked up in surprise as the Red Doctor burst into the room. Fuzzy's platform was hanging empty, gently swaying back and forth. Dal peered frantically around the room. There was no sign of the small pink creature.
"Where is he?" he demanded. "What's happened to Fuzzy?"
Jack shrugged in disgust. "He's up on his perch. Where else?"
"He's not either! Where is he?"
Jack blinked at the empty perch. "He was there just a minute ago. I saw him."
"Well, he's not there now, and something's wrong!" In a panic, Dal began searching the room, knocking over stools, scattering piles of paper, peering in every corner where Fuzzy might be concealed.
For a moment the others sat frozen, watching him. Then Tiger jumped to his feet. "Hold it, hold it! He probably just wandered off for a minute. He does that all the time."
"No, it's something worse than that." Dal was almost choking on the words. "Something terrible has happened. I know it."
Jack Alvarez tossed the recorder down in disgust. "You and your miserable pet!" he said. "I knew we shouldn't have kept him on board."
Dal stared at Jack. Suddenly all the anger and bitterness of the past few weeks could no longer be held in. Without warning he hurled himself at the Blue Doctor's throat. "Where is he?" he cried. "What have you done with him? What have you done to Fuzzy? You've done something to him! You've hated him every minute just like you hate me, only he's easier to pick on. Now where is he? What have you done to him?"
Jack staggered back, trying to push the furious little Garvian away. "Wait a minute! Get away from me! I didn't do anything!"
"You did too! Where is he?"
"I don't know." Jack struggled to break free, but there was powerful strength in Dal's fingers for all his slight body build. "I tell you, he was here just a minute ago."
Dal felt a hand grip his collar then, and Tiger was dragging them apart like two dogs in a fight. "Now stop this!" he roared, holding them both at arm's length. "I said stop it! Jack didn't do anything to Fuzzy, he's been sitting here with me ever since you went back to the cubicle. He hasn't even budged."
"But he's gone," Dal panted. "Something's happened to him. I know it."
"How do you know?"
"I—I just know. I can feel it."
"All right, then let's find him," Tiger said. "He's got to be somewhere on the ship. If he's in trouble, we're wasting time fighting."
Tiger let go, and Jack brushed off his shirt, his face very white. "I saw him just a little while ago," he said. "He was sitting up on that silly perch watching us, and then swinging back and forth and swinging over to that cabinet and back."
"Well, let's get started looking," Tiger said.
They fanned out, with Jack still muttering to himself, and searched the control room inch by inch. There was no sign of Fuzzy. Dal had control of himself now, but he searched with a frantic intensity. "He's not in here," he said at last, "he must have gone out somewhere."
"There was only one door open," Tiger said. "The one you just came through, from the rear corridor. Dal, you search the computer room. Jack, check the lab and I'll go back to the reactors."
They started searching the compartments off the rear corridor. For ten minutes there was no sound in the ship but the occasional slamming of a hatch, the grate of a desk drawer, the bang of a cabinet door. Dal worked through the maze of cubby-holes in the computer room with growing hopelessness. The frightening sense of loneliness and loss in his mind was overwhelming; he was almost physically ill. The warm, comfortable feeling of contact that he had always had before with Fuzzy was gone. As the minutes passed, hopelessness gave way to despair.
Then Jack gave a hoarse cry from the lab. Dal tripped and stumbled in his haste to get down the corridor, and almost collided with Tiger at the lab door.
"I think we're too late," Jack said. "He's gotten into the formalin."
He lifted one of the glass beakers down from the shelf to the work bench. It was obvious what had happened. Fuzzy had gone exploring and had found the laboratory a fascinating place. Several of the reagents bottles had been knocked over as if he had been sampling them. The glass lid to the beaker of formalin which was kept for tissue specimens had been pushed aside just enough to admit the little creature's two-inch girth. Now Fuzzy lay in the bottom of the beaker, immersed in formalin, a formless, shapeless blob of sickly gray jelly.
"Are you sure it's formalin?" Dal asked.
Jack poured off the fluid, and the acrid smell of formaldehyde that filled the room answered the question. "It's no good, Dal," he said, almost gently. "The stuff destroys protein, and that's about all he was. I'm sorry—I was beginning to like the little punk, even if he did get on my nerves. But he picked the one thing to fall into that could kill him. Unless he had some way to set up a protective barrier...."
Dal took the beaker. "Get me some saline," he said tightly. "And some nutrient broth."
Jack pulled out two jugs and poured their contents into an empty beaker. Dal popped the tiny limp form into the beaker and began massaging it. Layers of damaged tissue peeled off in his hand, but he continued massaging and changing the solutions, first saline, then nutrient broth. "Get me some sponges and a blade."
Tiger brought them in. Carefully Dal began debriding the damaged outer layers. Jack and Tiger watched; then Jack said, "Look, there's a tinge of pink in the middle."
Slowly the faint pink in the center grew more ruddy. Dal changed solutions again, and sank down on a stool. "I think he'll make it," he said. "He has enormous regenerative powers as long as any fragment of him is left." He looked up at Jack who was still watching the creature in the beaker almost solicitously. "I guess I made a fool of myself back there when I jumped you."
Jack's face hardened, as though he had been caught off guard. "I guess you did, all right."
"Well, I'm sorry. I just couldn't think straight. It was the first time I'd ever been—apart from him."
"I still say he doesn't belong aboard," Jack said. "This is a medical ship, not a menagerie. And if you ever lay your hands on me again, you'll wish you hadn't."
"I said I was sorry," Dal said.
"I heard you," Jack said. "I just don't believe you, that's all."
He gave Fuzzy a final glance, and then headed back to the control room.
* * * * *
Fuzzy recovered, a much abashed and subdued Fuzzy, clinging timorously to Dal's shoulder and refusing to budge for three days, but apparently basically unharmed by his inadvertent swim in the deadly formalin bath. Presently he seemed to forget the experience altogether, and once again took his perch on the platform in the control room.
But Dal did not forget. He said little to Tiger and Jack, but the incident had shaken him severely. For as long as he could remember, he had always had Fuzzy close at hand. He had never before in his life experienced the dreadful feeling of emptiness and desertion, the almost paralyzing fear and helplessness that he had felt when Fuzzy had lost contact with him. It had seemed as though a vital part of him had suddenly been torn away, and the memory of the panic that followed sent chills down his back and woke him up trembling from his sleep. He was ashamed of his unwarranted attack on Jack, yet even this seemed insignificant in comparison to the powerful fear that had been driving him.
Happily, the Blue Doctor chose to let the matter rest where it was, and if anything, seemed more willing than before to be friendly. For the first time he seemed to take an active interest in Fuzzy, "chatting" with him when he thought no one was around, and bringing him occasional tid-bits of food after meals were over.
Once more life on the Lancet settled back to routine, only to have it shattered by an incident of quite a different nature. It was just after they had left a small planet in the Procyon system, one of the routine check-in points, that they made contact with the Garvian trading ship.
Dal recognized the ship's design and insignia even before the signals came in, and could hardly contain his excitement. He had not seen a fellow countryman for years except for an occasional dull luncheon with the Garvian ambassador to Hospital Earth during medical school days. The thought of walking the corridors of a Garvian trading ship again brought an overwhelming wave of homesickness. He was so excited he could hardly wait for Jack to complete the radio-sighting formalities. "What ship is she?" he wanted to know. "What house?"
Jack handed him the message transcript. "The ship is the Teegar," he said. "Flagship of the SinSin trading fleet. They want permission to approach us."
Dal let out a whoop. "Then it's a space trader, and a big one. You've never seen ships like these before."
Tiger joined them, staring at the message transcript. "A SinSin ship! Send them the word, Jack, and be quick, before they get disgusted and move on."
Jack sent out the approach authorization, and they watched with growing excitement as the great trading vessel began its close-approach maneuvers.
The name of the house of SinSin was famous throughout the galaxy. It was one of the oldest and largest of the great trading firms that had built Garv II into its position of leadership in the Confederation, and the SinSin ships had penetrated to every corner of the galaxy, to every known planet harboring an intelligent life-form.
Tiger and Jack had seen the multitudes of exotic products in the Hospital Earth stores that came from the great Garvian ships on their frequent visits. But this was more than a planetary trader loaded with a few items for a single planet. The space traders roamed from star system to star system, their holds filled with treasures beyond number. Such ships as these might be out from Garv II for decades at a time, tempting any ship they met with the magnificent variety of wares they carried.
Slowly the trader approached, and Dal took the speaker, addressing the commander of the Teegar in Garvian. "This is the General Practice Patrol Ship Lancet," he said, "out from Hospital Earth with three physicians aboard, including a countryman of yours."
"Is that Dal Timgar?" the reply came back. "By the Seven Moons! We'd heard that there was now a Garvian physician, and couldn't believe our ears. Come aboard, all of you, you'll be welcome. We'll send over a lifeboat!"
The Teegar was near now, a great gleaming ship with the sign of the house of SinSin on her hull. A lifeboat sprang from a launching rack and speared across to the Lancet. Moments later the three doctors were climbing into the sleek little vessel and moving across the void of space to the huge Garvian ship.
It was like stepping from a jungle outpost village into a magnificent, glittering city. The Garvian ship was enormous; she carried a crew of several hundred, and the wealth and luxury of the ship took the Earthmen's breath away. The cabins and lounges were paneled with expensive fabrics and rare woods, the furniture inlaid with precious metals. Down the long corridors goods of the traders were laid out in resplendent display, surpassing the richest show cases in the shops on Hospital Earth.
They received a royal welcome from the commander of the Teegar, an aged, smiling little Garvian with a pink fuzz-ball on his shoulder that could have been Fuzzy's twin. He bowed low to Tiger and Jack, leading them into the reception lounge where a great table was spread with foods and pastries of all varieties. Then he turned to Dal and embraced him like a long-lost brother. "Your father Jai Timgar has long been an honored friend of the house of SinSin, and anyone of the house of Timgar is the same as my own son and my son's son! But this collar! This cuff! Is it really possible that a man of Garv has become a physician of Hospital Earth?"
Dal touched Fuzzy to the commander's fuzz-ball in the ancient Garvian greeting. "It's possible, and true," he said. "I studied there. I am the Red Doctor on this patrol ship."
"Ah, but this is good," the commander said. "What better way to draw our worlds together, eh? But come, you must look and see what we have in our storerooms, feast your eyes on the splendors we carry. For all of you, a thousand wonders are to be found here."
Jack hesitated as the commander led them back toward the display corridors. "We'd be glad to see the ship, but you should know that patrol ship physicians have little money to spend."
"Who speaks of money?" the commander cried. "Did I speak of it? Come and look! Money is nothing. The Garvian traders are not mere money-changers. Look and enjoy; if there is something that strikes your eye, something that would fulfill the desires of your heart, it will be yours." He gave Dal a smile and a sly wink. "Surely our brother here has told you many times of the wonders to be seen in a space trader, and terms can be arranged that will make any small purchase a painless pleasure."
He led them off, like a head of state conducting visiting dignitaries on a tour, with a retinue of Garvian underlings trailing behind them. For two delirious hours they wandered the corridors of the great ship, staring hungrily at the dazzling displays. They had been away from Hospital Earth and its shops and stores for months; now it seemed they were walking through an incredible treasure-trove stocked with everything that they could possibly have wanted.
For Jack there was a dress uniform, specially tailored for a physician in the Blue Service of Diagnosis, the insignia woven into the cloth with gold and platinum thread. Reluctantly he turned away from it, a luxury he could never dream of affording. For Tiger, who had been muttering for weeks about getting out of condition in the sedentary life of the ship, there was a set of bar bells and gymnasium equipment ingeniously designed to collapse into a unit no larger than one foot square, yet opening out into a completely equipped gym. Dal's eyes glittered at the new sets of surgical instruments, designed to the most rigid Hospital Earth specifications, which appeared almost without his asking to see them. There were clothes and games, precious stones and exotic rings, watches set with Arcturian dream-stones, and boots inlaid with silver.
They made their way through the corridors, reluctant to leave one display for the next. Whenever something caught their eyes, the commander snapped his fingers excitedly, and the item was unobtrusively noted down by one of the underlings. Finally, exhausted and glutted just from looking, they turned back toward the reception room.
"The things are beautiful," Tiger said wistfully, "but impossible. Still, you were very kind to take your time—"
"Time? I have nothing but time." The commander smiled again at Dal. "And there is an old Garvian proverb that to the wise man 'impossible' has no meaning. Wait, you will see!"
They came out into the lounge, and the doctors stopped short in amazement. Spread out before them were all of the items that had captured their interest earlier.
"But this is ridiculous," Jack said staring at the dress uniform. "We couldn't possibly buy these things, it would take our salaries for twenty years to pay for them."
"Have we mentioned price even once?" the commander protested. "You are the crewmates of one of our own people! We would not dream of setting prices that we would normally set for such trifles as these. And as for terms, you have no worry. Take the goods aboard your ship, they are already yours. We have drawn up contracts for you which require no payment whatever for five years, and then payments of only a fiftieth of the value for each successive year. And for each of you, with the compliments of the house of SinSin, a special gift at no charge whatever."
He placed in Jack's hands a small box with the lid tipped back. Against a black velvet lining lay a silver star, and the official insignia of a Star Physician in the Blue Service. "You cannot wear it yet, of course," the commander said. "But one day you will need it."
Jack blinked at the jewel-like star. "You are very kind," he said. "I—I mean perhaps—" He looked at Tiger, and then at the display of goods on the table. "Perhaps there are some things—"
Already two of the Garvian crewmen were opening the lock to the lifeboat, preparing to move the goods aboard. Then Dal Timgar spoke up sharply. "I think you'd better wait a moment," he said.
"And for you," the commander continued, turning to Dal so smoothly that there seemed no break in his voice at all, "as one of our own people, and an honored son of Jai Timgar, who has been kind to the house of SinSin for many years, I have something out of the ordinary. I'm sure your crewmates would not object to a special gift at my personal expense."
The commander lifted a scarf from the table and revealed the glittering set of surgical instruments, neatly displayed in a velvet-lined carrying case. The commander took it up from the table and thrust it into Dal's hands. "It is yours, my friend. And for this, there will be no contract whatever."
Dal stared down at the instruments. They were beautiful. He longed just to touch them, to hold them in his hands, but he shook his head and set the case back on the table. He looked up at Tiger and Jack. "You should be warned that the prices on these goods are four times what they ought to be, and the deferred-payment contracts he wants you to sign will permit as much as 24 per cent interest on the unpaid balance, with no closing-out clause. That means you would be paying many times the stated price for the goods before the contract is closed. You can go ahead and sign if you want but understand what you're signing."
The Garvian commander stared at him, and then shook his head, laughing. "Of course your friend is not serious," he said. "These prices can be compared on any planet and you will see their fairness. Here, read the contracts, see what they say and decide for yourselves." He held out a sheaf of papers.
"The contracts may sound well enough," Dal said, "but I'm telling you what they actually say."
Jack looked stricken. "But surely just one or two things—"
Tiger shook his head. "Dal knows what he's talking about. I don't think we'd better buy anything at all."
The Garvian commander turned to Dal angrily. "What are you telling them? There is nothing false in these contracts!"
"I didn't say there was. I just can't see them taking a beating with their eyes shut, that's all. Your contracts are legal enough, but the prices and terms are piracy, and you know it."
The commander glared at him for a moment. Then he turned away scornfully. "So what I have heard is true, after all," he said. "You really have thrown in your lot with these pill-peddlers, these idiots from Earth who can't even wipe their noses without losing in a trade." He signaled the lifeboat pilot. "Take them back to their ship, we're wasting our time. There are better things to do than to deal with traitors."
The trip back to the Lancet was made in silence. Dal could sense the pilot's scorn as he dumped them off in their entrance lock, and dashed back to the Teegar with the lifeboat. Gloomily Jack and Tiger followed Dal into the control room, a drab little cubby-hole compared to the Teegar's lounge.
"Well, it was fun while it lasted," Jack said finally, looking up at Dal. "But the way that guy slammed you, I wish we'd never gone."
"I know," Dal said. "The commander just thought he saw a perfect setup. He figured you'd never question the contracts if I backed him up."
"It would have been easy enough. Why didn't you?"
Dal looked at the Blue Doctor. "Maybe I just don't like people who give away surgical sets," he said. "Remember, I'm not a Garvian trader any more. I'm a doctor from Hospital Earth."
Moments later, the great Garvian ship was gone, and the red light was blinking on the call board. Tiger started tracking down the call while Jack went back to work on the daily log book and Dal set up food for dinner. The pleasant dreams were over; they were back in the harness of patrol ship doctors once again.
Jack and Dal were finishing dinner when Tiger came back with a puzzled frown on his face. "Finally traced that call. At least I think I did. Anybody ever hear of a star called 31 Brucker?"
"Brucker?" Jack said. "It isn't on the list of contracts. What's the trouble?"
"I'm not sure," Tiger said. "I'm not even certain if it's a call or not. Come on up front and see what you think."
In the control room the interstellar radio and teletype-translator were silent. The red light on the call board was still blinking; Tiger turned it off with a snap. "Here's the message that just came in, as near as I can make out," he said, "and if you can make sense of it, you're way ahead of me."
The message was a single word, teletyped in the center of a blue dispatch sheet:
"This is all?" Jack said.
"That's every bit of it. They repeated it half a dozen times, just like that."
"Who repeated it?" Dal asked. "Where are the identification symbols?"
"There weren't any," said Tiger. "Our own computer designated 31 Brucker from the direction and intensity of the signal. The question is, what do we do?"
The message stared up at them cryptically. Dal shook his head. "Doesn't give us much to go on, that's certain. Even the location could be wrong if the signal came in on an odd frequency or from a long distance. Let's beam back at the same direction and intensity and see what happens."
Tiger took the earphones and speaker, and turned the signal beam to coincide with the direction of the incoming message.
"We have your contact. Can you hear me? Who are you and what do you want?"
There was a long delay and they thought the contact was lost. Then a voice came whispering through the static. "Where is your ship now? Are you near to us?"
"We need your co-ordinates in order to tell," Tiger said. "Who are you?"
Again a long pause and a howl of static. Then: "If you are far away it will be too late. We have no time left, we are dying...."
Abruptly the voice message broke off and co-ordinates began coming through between bursts of static. Tiger scribbled them down, piecing them together through several repetitions. "Check these out fast," he told Jack. "This sounds like real trouble." He tossed Dal another pair of earphones and turned back to the speaker. "Are you a contract planet?" he signaled. "Do we have a survey on you?"
There was a much longer pause. Then the voice came back, "No, we have no contract. We are all dying, but if you must have a contract to come...."
"Not at all," Tiger sent back. "We're coming. Keep your frequency open. We will contact again when we are closer."
He tossed down the earphones and looked excitedly at Dal. "Did you hear that? A planet calling for help, with no Hospital Earth contract!"
"They sound desperate," Dal said. "We'd better go there, contract or no contract."
"Of course we'll go there, you idiot. See if Jack has those co-ordinates charted, and start digging up information on them, everything you can find. We need all of the dope we can get and we need it fast. This is our golden chance to seal a contract with a new planet."
All three of the doctors fell to work trying to identify the mysterious caller. Dal began searching the information file for data on 31 Brucker, punching all the reference tags he could think of, as well as the galactic co-ordinates of the planet. He could hardly control his fingers as the tapes with possible references began plopping down into the slots. Tiger was right; this was almost too good to be true. When a planet without a medical service contract called a GPP Ship for help, there was always hope that a brand new contract might be signed if the call was successful. And no greater honor could come to a patrol craft crew than to be the originators of a new contract for Hospital Earth.
But there were problems in dealing with uncontacted planets. Many star systems had never been explored by ships of the Confederation. Many races, like Earthmen at the time their star-drive was discovered, had no inkling of the existence of a Galactic Confederation of worlds. There might be no information whatever about the special anatomical and physiological characteristics of the inhabitants of an uncontacted planet, and often a patrol crew faced insurmountable difficulties, coming in blind to solve a medical problem.
Dal had his information gathered first—a disappointingly small amount indeed. Among the billions of notes on file in the Lancet's data bank, there were only two scraps of data available on the 31 Brucker system.
"Is this all you could find?" Tiger said, staring at the information slips.
"There's just nothing else there," Dal said. "This one is a description and classification of the star, and it doesn't sound like the one who wrote it had even been near it."
"He hadn't," Tiger said. "This is a routine radio-telescopic survey report. The star is a red giant. Big and cold, with three—possibly four—planets inside the outer envelope of the star itself, and only one outside it. Nothing about satellites. None of the planets thought to be habitable by man. What's the other item?"
"An exploratory report on the outer planet, done eight hundred years ago. Says it's an Earth-type planet, and not much else. Gives reference to the full report in the Confederation files. Not a word about an intelligent race living there."
"Well, maybe Jack's got a bit more for us," Tiger said. "If the place has been explored, there must be some information about the inhabitants."
But Jack also came up with a blank. Central Records on Hospital Earth sent back a physical description of a tiny outer planet of the star, with a thin oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, very little water, and enough methane mixed in to make the atmosphere deadly to Earthmen.
"Then there's never been a medical service contract?" Tiger asked.
"Contract!" Jack said. "It doesn't even say there are any people there. Not a word about any kind of life form."
"Well, that's ridiculous," Dal said. "If we're getting messages from there, somebody must be sending them. But if a Confederation ship explored there, there's a way to find out. How soon can we convert to star-drive?"
"As soon as we can get strapped down," Tiger said.
"Then send our reconversion co-ordinates to the Confederation headquarters on Garv II and request the Confederation records on the place."
Jack stared at him. "You mean just ask to see Confederation records? We can't do that, they'd skin us alive. Those records are closed to everyone except full members of the Confederation."
"Tell them it's an emergency," Dal said. "If they want to be legal about it, give them my Confederation serial number. Garv II is a member of the Confederation, and I'm a native-born citizen."
Tiger got the request off while Jack and Dal strapped down for the conversion to Koenig drive. Five minutes later Tiger joined them, grinning from ear to ear. "Didn't even have to pull rank," he said. "When they started to argue, I just told them it was an emergency, and if they didn't let us see any records they had, we would file their refusal against claims that might come up later. They quit arguing. We'll have the records as soon as we reconvert."
* * * * *
The star that they were seeking was a long distance from the current location of the Lancet. The ship was in Koenig drive for hours before it reconverted, and even Dal was beginning to feel the first pangs of drive-sickness before they felt the customary jolting vibration of the change to normal space, and saw bright stars again in the viewscreen.
The star called 31 Brucker was close then. It was indeed a red giant; long tenuous plumes of gas spread out for hundreds of millions of miles on all sides of its glowing red core. This mammoth star did not look so cold now, as they stared at it in the viewscreen, yet among the family of stars it was a cold, dying giant with only a few moments of life left on the astronomical time scale. From the Lancet's position, no planets at all were visible to the naked eye, but with the telescope Jack soon found two inside the star's envelope of gas and one tiny one outside. They would have to be searched for, and the one that they were hoping to reach located before centering and landing maneuvers could be begun.
Already the radio was chattering with two powerful signals coming in. One came from the Galactic Confederation headquarters on Garv II; the other was a good clear signal from very close range, unquestionably beamed to them from the planet in distress.
They watched as the Confederation report came clacking off the teletype, and they stared at it unbelieving.
"It just doesn't make sense," Jack said. "There must be intelligent creatures down there. They're sending radio signals."
"Then why a report like this?" Tiger said. "This was filed by a routine exploratory ship that came here eight hundred years ago. You can't tell me that any intelligent race could develop from scratch in less than eight centuries' time."
Dal picked up the report and read it again. "This red giant star," he read, "was studied in the usual fashion. It was found to have seven planets, all but one lying within the tenuous outer gas envelope of the star itself. The seventh planet has an atmosphere of its own, and travels an orbit well outside the star surface. This planet was selected for landing and exploration."
Following this was a long, detailed and exceedingly dull description of the step-by-step procedure followed by a Confederation exploratory ship making a first landing on a barren planet. There was a description of the atmosphere, the soil surface, the land masses and major water bodies. Physically, the planet was a desert, hot and dry, and barren of vegetation excepting in two or three areas of jungle along the equator. "The planet is inhabited by numerous small unintelligent animal species which seem well-adapted to the semi-arid conditions. Of higher animals and mammals only two species were discovered, and of these the most highly developed was an erect biped with an integrated central nervous system and the intelligence level of a Garvian drachma."
"How small is that?" Jack said.
"Idiot-level," Dal said glumly. "I.Q. of about 20 on the human scale. I guess the explorers weren't much impressed; they didn't even put the planet down for a routine colonization survey."
"Well, something has happened down there since then. Idiots can't build interstellar radios." Jack turned to Tiger. "Are you getting them?"
Tiger nodded. A voice was coming over the speaker, hesitant and apologetic, using the common tongue of the Galactic Confederation. "How soon can you come?" the voice was asking clearly, still with the sound of great reticence. "There is not much time."
"But who are you?" Tiger asked. "What's wrong down there?"
"We are sick, dying, thousands of us. But if you have other work that is more pressing, we would not want to delay you—"
Jack shook his head, frowning. "I don't get this," he said. "What are they afraid of?"
Tiger spoke into the microphone again. "We will be glad to help, but we need information about you. You have our position—can you send up a spokesman to tell us your problem?"
A long pause, and then the voice came back wearily. "It will be done. Stand by to receive him."
Tiger snapped off the radio receiver and looked up triumphantly at the others. "Now we're getting somewhere. If the people down there can send a ship out with a spokesman to tell us about their troubles, we've got a chance to sew up a contract, and that could mean a Star for every one of us."
"Yes, but who are they?" Dal said. "And where were they when the Confederation ship was here?"
"I don't know," Jack said, "but I'll bet you both that we have quite a time finding out."
"Why?" Tiger said. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we'd better be very careful here," Jack said darkly. "I don't know about you, but I think this whole business has a very strange smell."
* * * * *
There was nothing strange about the Bruckian ship when it finally came into view. It was a standard design, surface-launching interplanetary craft, with separated segments on either side suggesting atomic engines. They saw the side jets flare as the ship maneuvered to come in alongside the Lancet.
Grapplers were thrown out to bind the emissary ship to the Lancet's hull, and Jack threw the switches to open the entrance lock and decontamination chambers. They had taken pains to describe the interior atmosphere of the patrol ship and warn the spokesman to keep himself in a sealed pressure suit. On the intercom viewscreens they saw the small suited figure cross from his ship into the Lancet's lock, and watched as the sprays of formalin washed down the outside of the suit.
Moments later the creature stepped out of the decontamination chamber. He was small and humanoid, with tiny fragile bones and pale, hairless skin. He stood no more than four feet high. More than anything else, he looked like a very intelligent monkey with a diminutive space suit fitting his fragile body. When he spoke the words came through the translator in English; but Dal recognized the flowing syllables of the universal language of the Galactic Confederation.
"How do you know the common tongue?" he said. "There is no record of your people in our Confederation, yet you use our own universal language."
The Bruckian nodded. "We know the language well. My people dread outside contact—it is a racial characteristic—but we hear the Confederation broadcasts and have learned to understand the common tongue." The space-suited stranger looked at the doctors one by one. "We also know of the good works of the ships from Hospital Earth, and now we appeal to you."
"Why?" Jack said. "You gave us no information, nothing to go on."
"There was no time," the creature said. "Death is stalking our land, and the people are falling at their plows. Thousands of us are dying, tens of thousands. Even I am infected and soon will be dead. Unless you can find a way to help us quickly, it will be too late, and my people will be wiped from the face of the planet."
Jack looked grimly at Tiger and Dal. "Well," he said, "I guess that answers our question, all right. It looks as if we have a plague planet on our hands, whether we like it or not."
THE INCREDIBLE PEOPLE
Slowly and patiently they drew the story from the emissary from the seventh planet of 31 Brucker.
The small, monkey-like creature was painfully shy; he required constant reassurance that the doctors did not mind being called, that they wanted to help, and that a contract was not necessary in an emergency. Even at that the spokesman was reluctant to give details about the plague and about his stricken people. Every bit of information had to be extracted with patient questioning.
By tacit consent the doctors did not even mention the strange fact that this very planet had been explored by a Confederation ship eight hundred years before and no sign of intelligent life had been found. The little creature before them seemed ready to turn and bolt at the first hint of attack or accusation. But bit by bit, a picture of the current situation on the planet developed.
Whoever they were and wherever they had been when the Confederation ship had landed, there was unquestionably an intelligent race now inhabiting this lonely planet in the outer reaches of the solar system of 31 Brucker. There was no doubt of their advancement; a few well-selected questions revealed that they had control of atomic power, a working understanding of the nature and properties of contra-terrene matter, and a workable star drive operating on the same basic principle as Earth's Koenig drive but which the Bruckians had never really used because of their shyness and fear of contact with other races. They also had an excellent understanding, thanks to their eavesdropping on Confederation interstellar radio chatter, of the existence and functions of the Galactic Confederation of worlds, and of Hospital Earth's work as physician to the galaxy.
But about Bruckian anatomy, physiology or biochemistry, the little emissary would tell them nothing. He seemed genuinely frightened when they pressed him about the physical make-up of his people, as though their questions were somehow scraping a raw nerve. He insisted that his people knew nothing about the nature of the plague that had stricken them, and the doctors could not budge him an inch from his stand.
But a plague had certainly struck.
It had begun six months before, striking great masses of the people. It had walked the streets of the cities and the hills and valleys of the countryside. First three out of ten had been stricken, then four, then five. The course of the disease, once started, was invariably the same: first illness, weakness, loss of energy and interest, then gradually a fading away of intelligent responses, leaving thousands of creatures walking blank-faced and idiot-like about the streets and countryside. Ultimately even the ability to take food was lost, and after an interval of a week or so, death invariably ensued.
Finally the doctors retired to the control room for a puzzled conference. "It's got to be an organism of some sort that's doing it," Dal said. "There couldn't be an illness like this that wasn't caused by some kind of a parasitic germ or virus."
"But how do we know?" Jack said. "We know nothing about these people except what we can see. We're going to have to do a complete biochemical and medical survey before we can hope to do anything."
"But we aren't equipped for a real survey," Tiger protested.
"We've got to do it anyway," Jack said. "If we can just learn enough to be sure it's an infectious illness, we might stand a chance of finding a drug that will cure it. Or at least a way to immunize the ones that aren't infected yet. If this is a virus infection, we might only need to find an antibody for inoculation to stop it in its tracks. But first we need a good look at the planet and some more of the people—both infected and healthy ones. We'd better make arrangements as fast as we can."
An hour later they had reached an agreement with the Bruckian emissary. The Lancet would be permitted to land on the planet's surface as soon as the doctors were satisfied that it was safe. For the time being the initial landings would be made in the patrol ship's lifeboats, with the Lancet in orbit a thousand miles above the surface. Unquestionably the first job was diagnosis, discovering the exact nature of the illness and studying the afflicted people. This responsibility rested squarely on Jack's shoulders; he was the diagnostician, and Dal and Tiger willingly yielded to him in organizing the program.
It was decided that Jack and Tiger would visit the planet's surface at once, while Dal stayed on the ship and set up the reagents and examining techniques that would be needed to measure the basic physical and biochemical characteristics of the Bruckians.
Yet in all the excitement of planning, Dal could not throw off the lingering shadow of doubt in his mind, some instinctive voice of caution that seemed to say watch out, be careful, go slowly! This may not be what it seems to be; you may be walking into a trap....
But it was only a faint voice, and easy to thrust aside as the planning went ahead full speed.
* * * * *
It did not take very long for the crew of the Lancet to realize that there was something very odd indeed about the small, self-effacing inhabitants of 31 Brucker VII.
In fact, "odd" was not really quite the proper word for these creatures at all. No one knew better than the doctors of Hospital Earth that oddness was the rule among the various members of the galactic civilization. All sorts and varieties of life-forms had been discovered, described and studied, each with its singular differences, each with certain similarities, and each quite "odd" in reference to any of the others.
In Dal this awareness of the oddness and difference of other races was particularly acute. He knew that to Tiger and Jack he himself seemed odd, both anatomically and in other ways. His fine gray fur and his four-fingered hands set him apart from them—he would never be mistaken for an Earthman, even in the densest fog. But these were comprehensible differences. His close attachment to Fuzzy was something else, and still seemed beyond their ability to understand.
He had spent one whole evening patiently trying to make Jack understand just how his attachment to the little pink creature was more than just the fondness of a man for his dog.
"Well, what would you call it, then?"
"Symbiosis is probably the best word for it," Dal had replied. "Two life-forms live together, and each one helps the other—that's all symbiosis is. Together each one is better off than either one would be alone. We all of us live in symbiosis with the bacteria in our digestive tracts, don't we? We provide them with a place to live and grow, and they help us digest our food. It's a kind of a partnership—and Fuzzy and I are partners in the same sort of way."
Jack had argued, and then lost his temper, and finally grudgingly agreed that he supposed he would have to tolerate it even if it didn't make sense to him.
But the creatures on 31 Brucker VII were "odd" far beyond the reasonable limits of oddness—so far beyond it that the doctors could not believe the things that their eyes and their instruments were telling them.
When Tiger and Jack came back to the Lancet after their first trip to the planet's surface, they were visibly shaken. Geographically, they had found it just as it had been described in the exploratory reports—a barren, desert land with only a few large islands of vegetation in the equatorial regions.
"But the people!" Jack said. "They don't fit into any kind of pattern. They've got houses—at least I guess you'd call them houses—but every one of them is like every other one, and they're all crammed together in tight little bunches, with nothing for miles in between. They've got an advanced technology, a good communications system, manufacturing techniques and everything, but they just don't use them."
"It's more than that," Tiger said. "They don't seem to want to use them."
"Well, it doesn't add up, to me," Jack said. "There are thousands of towns and cities down there, all of them miles apart, and yet they had to go dig an old rusty jet scooter out of storage and get the motor rebuilt just specially to take us from one place to another. I know things can get disorganized with a plague in the land, but this plague just hasn't been going on that long."
"What about the sickness?" Dal asked. "Is it as bad as it sounded?"
"Worse, if anything," Tiger said gloomily. "They're dying by the thousands, and I hope we got those suits of ours decontaminated, because I don't want any part of this disease."
Graphically, he described the conditions they had found among the stricken people. There was no question that a plague was stalking the land. In the rutted mud roads of the villages and towns the dead were piled in gutters, and in all of the cities a deathly stillness hung over the streets. Those who had not yet succumbed to the illness were nursing and feeding the sick ones, but these unaffected ones were growing scarcer and scarcer. The whole living population seemed resigned to hopelessness, hardly noticing the strangers from the patrol ship.
But worst of all were those in the final stages of the disease, wandering vaguely about the street, their faces blank and their jaws slack as though they were living in a silent world of their own, cut off from contact with the rest. "One of them almost ran into me," Jack said. "I was right in front of him, and he didn't see me or hear me."
"But don't they have any knowledge of antisepsis or isolation?" Dal asked.
Tiger shook his head. "Not that we could see. They don't know what's causing this sickness. They think that it's some kind of curse, and they never dreamed that it might be kept from spreading."
Already Tiger and Jack had taken the first routine steps to deal with the sickness. They gave orders to move the unaffected people in every town and village into isolated barracks and stockades. For half a day Tiger tried to explain ways to prevent the spread of a bacteria or virus-borne disease. The people had stared at him as if he were talking gibberish; finally he gave up trying to explain, and just laid down rules which the people were instructed to follow. Together they had collected standard testing specimens of body fluids and tissue from both healthy and afflicted Bruckians, and come back to the Lancet for a breather.
Now all three doctors began work on the specimens. Cultures were inoculated with specimens from respiratory tract, blood and tissue taken from both sick and well. Half a dozen fatal cases were brought to the ship under specially controlled conditions for autopsy examination, to reveal both the normal anatomical characteristics of this strange race of people and the damage the disease was doing. Down on the surface Tiger had already inoculated a dozen of the healthy ones with various radioactive isotopes to help outline the normal metabolism and biochemistry of the people. After a short sleep period on the Lancet, he went back down alone to follow up on these, leaving Dal and Jack to carry on the survey work in the ship's lab.
It was a gargantuan task that faced them. They knew that in any race of creatures they could not hope to recognize the abnormal unless they knew what the normal was. That was the sole reason for the extensive biomedical surveys that were done on new contract planets. Under normal conditions, a survey crew with specialists in physiology, biochemistry, anatomy, radiology, pharmacology and pathology might spend months or even years on a new planet gathering base-line information. But here there was neither time nor facilities for such a study. Even in the twenty-four hours since the patrol ship arrived, the number of dead had increased alarmingly.
Alone on the ship, Dal and Jack found themselves working as a well organized team. There was no time here for argument or duplicated efforts; everything the two doctors did was closely co-ordinated. Jack seemed to have forgotten his previous antagonism completely. There was a crisis here, and more work than three men could possibly do in the time available. "You handle anatomy and pathology," Jack told Dal at the beginning. "You can get the picture five times as fast as I can, and your pathology slides are better than most commercial ones. I can do the best job on the cultures, once I get the growth media all set up."
Bit by bit they divided the labor, checking in with Tiger by radio on the results of the isotopes studies he was running on the planet's surface. Bit by bit the data was collected, and Earthman and Garvian worked more closely than ever before as the task that faced them appeared more and more formidable.
But the results of their tests made no sense whatever. Tiger returned to the ship after forty-eight hours with circles under his eyes, looking as though he had been trampled in a crowd. "No sleep, that's all," he said breathlessly as he crawled out of his decontaminated pressure suit. "No time for it. I swear I ran those tests a dozen times and I still didn't get any answers that made sense."
"The results you were sending up sounded plenty strange," Jack said. "What was the trouble?"
"I don't know," Tiger said, "but if we're looking for a biological pattern here, we haven't found it yet as far as I can see."
"No, we certainly haven't," Dal exploded. "I thought I was doing something wrong somehow, because these blood chemistries I've been doing have been ridiculous. I can't even find a normal level for blood sugar, and as for the enzyme systems...." He tossed a sheaf of notes down on the counter in disgust. "I don't see how these people could even be alive, with a botched-up metabolism like this! I've never heard of anything like it."
"What kind of pathology did you find?" Tiger wanted to know.
"Nothing," Dal said. "Nothing at all. I did autopsies on the six that you brought up here and made slides of every different kind of tissue I could find. The anatomy is perfectly clear cut, no objections there. These people are very similar to Earth-type monkeys in structure, with heart and lungs and vocal cords and all. But I can't find any reason why they should be dying. Any luck with the cultures?"
Jack shook his head glumly. "No growth on any of the plates. At first I thought I had something going, but if I did, it died, and I can't find any sign of it in the filtrates."
"But we've got to have something to work on," Tiger said desperately. "Look, there are some things that always measure out the same in any intelligent creature no matter where he comes from. That's the whole basis of galactic medicine. Creatures may develop and adapt in different ways, but the basic biochemical reactions are the same."
"Not here, they aren't," Dal said. "Take a look at these tests!"
They carried the heap of notes they had collected out into the control room and began sifting and organizing the data, just as a survey team would do, trying to match it with the pattern of a thousand other living creatures that had previously been studied. Hours passed, and they were farther from an answer than when they began.
Because this data did not fit a pattern. It was different. No two individuals showed the same reactions. In every test the results were either flatly impossible or completely the opposite of what was expected.
Carefully they retraced their steps, trying to pinpoint what could be going wrong.
"There's got to be a laboratory error," Dal said wearily. "We must have slipped up somewhere."
"But I don't see where," Jack said. "Let's see those culture tubes again. And put on a pot of coffee. I can't even think straight any more."
Of the three of them, Jack was beginning to show the strain the most. This was his special field, the place where he was supposed to excel, and nothing was happening. Reports coming up from the planet were discouraging; the isolation techniques they had tried to institute did not seem to be working, and the spread of the plague was accelerating. The communiques from the Bruckians were taking on a note of desperation.
Jack watched each report with growing apprehension. He moved restlessly from lab to control room, checking and rechecking things, trying to find some sign of order in the chaos.
"Try to get some sleep," Dal urged him. "A couple of hours will freshen you up a hundred per cent."
"I can't, I've already tried it," Jack said.
"Go ahead. Tiger and I can keep working on these things for a while."
"No, no, it's not that," Jack said. "Without a diagnosis, we can't do a thing. Until we have that, our hands are tied, and we aren't even getting close to it. We don't even know whether this is a bacteria, or a virus, or what. Maybe the Bruckians are right. Maybe it's a curse."
"I don't think the Black Service of Pathology would buy that for a diagnosis," Tiger said sourly.
"The Black Service would choke on it—but what other answer do we have? You two have been doing all you can, but diagnosis is my job. I'm supposed to be good at it, but the more we dig into this, the farther away we seem to get."
"Do you want to call for help?" Tiger said.
Jack shook his head helplessly. "I'm beginning to think we should have called for help a long time ago," he said. "We're into this over our heads now and we're still going down. At the rate those people are dying down there, we don't have time to call for help now." He stared at the piles of notes on the desk and his face was very white. "I don't know, I just don't know," he said. "The diagnosis on this thing should have been duck soup. I thought it was going to be a real feather in my cap, just walking in and nailing it down in a few hours. Well, I'm whipped. I don't know what to do. If either of you can think of an answer, it's all yours, and I'll admit it to Black Doctor Tanner himself."
* * * * *
It was bitter medicine for Blue Doctor Jack Alvarez to swallow, but that fact gave no pleasure to Dal or Tiger now. They were as baffled as Jack was, and would have welcomed help from anyone who could offer it.
And, ironically, the first glimpse of the truth came from the direction they least expected.
From the very beginning Fuzzy had been watching the proceedings from his perch on the swinging platform in the control room. If he sensed that Dal Timgar was ignoring him and leaving him to his own devices much of the time, he showed no sign of resentment. The tiny creature seemed to realize that something important was consuming his master's energy and attention, and contented himself with an affectionate pat now and then as Dal went through the control room. Everyone assumed without much thought that Fuzzy was merely being tolerant of the situation. It was not until they had finally given up in desperation and Tiger was trying to contact a Hospital Ship for help, that Dal stared up at his little pink friend with a puzzled frown.
Tiger put the transmitter down for a moment. "What's wrong?" he said to Dal. "You look as though you just bit into a rotten apple."
"I just remembered that I haven't fed him for twenty-four hours," Dal said.
"Who? Fuzzy?" Tiger shrugged. "He could see you were busy."
Dal shook his head. "That wouldn't make any difference to Fuzzy. When he gets hungry, he gets hungry, and he's pretty self-centered. It wouldn't matter what I was doing, he should have been screaming for food hours ago."
Dal walked over to the platform and peered down at his pink friend in alarm. He took him up and rested him on his shoulder, a move that invariably sent Fuzzy into raptures of delight. Now the little creature just sat there, trembling and rubbing half-heartedly against Dal's neck.
Dal held him out at arm's length. "Fuzzy, what's the matter with you?"
"Do you think something's wrong with him?" Jack said, looking up suddenly. "Looks like he's having trouble keeping his eyes open."
"His color isn't right, either," Tiger said. "He looks kind of blue."
Quite suddenly the little black eyes closed and Fuzzy began to tremble violently. He drew himself up into a tight pink globule as the fuzz-like hair disappeared from view.
Something was unmistakably wrong. As he held the shivering creature, Dal was suddenly aware that something had been nibbling at the back of his mind for hours. Not a clear-cut thought, merely an impression of pain and anguish and sickness, and now as he looked at Fuzzy the impression grew so strong it almost made him cry out.
Abruptly, Dal knew what he had to do. Where the thought came from he didn't know, but it was crystal clear in his mind. "Jack, where is our biggest virus filter?" he asked quietly.
Jack stared at him. "Virus filter? I just took it out of the autoclave an hour ago."
"Get it," Dal said, "and the suction machine too. Quickly!"
Jack went down the corridor like a shot, and reappeared a moment later with the big porcelain virus filter and the suction tubing attached to it. Swiftly Dal dumped the limp little creature in his hand into the top of the filter jar, poured in some sterile saline, and started the suction.
Tiger and Jack watched him in amazement. "What are you doing?" Tiger said.
"Filtering him," Dal said. "He's infected. He must have been exposed to the plague somehow, maybe when our little Bruckian visitor came on board the other day. And if it's a virus that's causing this plague, the virus filter ought to hold it back and still let Fuzzy's molecular structure through."
They watched and sure enough a bluish-pink fluid began moving down through the porcelain filter, and dripping through the funnel into the beaker below. Each drop coalesced in the beaker as it fell until Fuzzy's whole body had been sucked through the filter and into the jar below. He was still not quite his normal pink color, but as the filter went dry, a pair of frightened shoe-button eyes appeared and he poked up a pair of ears. Presently the fuzz began appearing on his body again.
And on the top of the filter lay a faint gray film. "Don't touch it!" Dal said. "That's real poison." He slipped on a mask and gloves, and scraped a bit of the film from the filter with a spatula. "I think we have it," he said. "The virus that's causing the plague on this planet."
THE BOOMERANG CLUE
It was a virus, beyond doubt. The electron microscope told them that, now that they had the substance isolated and could examine it. In the culture tubes in the Lancet's incubators, it would begin to grow nicely, and then falter and die, but when guinea pigs were inoculated in the ship's laboratory, the substance proved its virulence. The animals injected with tiny bits of the substance grew sick within hours and very quickly died.
The call to the Hospital Ship was canceled as the three doctors worked in feverish excitement. Here at last was something they could grapple with, something so common among the races of the galaxy that the doctors felt certain that they could cope with it. Very few, if any, higher life forms existed that did not have some sort of submicroscopic parasite afflicting them. Bacterial infection was a threat on every inhabited world, and the viruses—the tiniest of all submicroscopic organisms—were the most difficult and dangerous of them all.
And yet virus plagues had been stopped before, and they could be stopped again.
Jack radioed down to the planet's surface that the diagnosis had been made; as soon as the proper medications could be prepared, the doctors would land to begin treatment. There was a new flicker of hopefulness in the Bruckian's response, and an appeal to hurry. With renewed energy the doctors went back to the lab to start working on the new data.
But trouble continued to dog them. This was no ordinary virus. It proved resistant to every one of the antibiotics and antiviral agents in the Lancet's stockroom. No drug seemed to affect it, and its molecular structure was different from any virus that had ever been recorded before.
"If one of the drugs would only just slow it up a little, we'd be ahead," Tiger said in perplexity. "We don't have anything that even touches it, not even the purified globulins."
"What about antibodies from the infected people?" Jack suggested. "In every virus disease I've ever heard of, the victim's own body starts making antibodies against the invading virus. If enough antibodies are made fast enough, the virus dies and the patient is immune from then on."
"Well, these people don't seem to be making any antibodies at all," Tiger said. "At least not as far as I can see. If they were, at least some of them would be recovering from the disease. So far not a single one has recovered once the thing started. They all just go ahead and die."
"I wonder," Dal said, "if Fuzzy had any defense."
Jack looked up. "How do you mean?"
"Well, Fuzzy was infected, we know that. He might have died too, if we hadn't caught it in time—but as it worked out, he didn't. In fact, he looks pretty healthy right now."
"That's fine for Fuzzy," Jack said impatiently, "but I don't see how we can push the whole population of 31 Brucker VII through a virus filter. They're flesh-and-blood creatures."
"That's not what I mean," Dal said. "Maybe Fuzzy's body developed antibodies against the virus while he was infected. Remember, he doesn't have a rigid body structure like we do. He's mostly just basic protein, and he can synthesize pretty much anything he wants to or needs to."
Jack blinked. "It's an idea, at least. Is there any way we can get some of his body fluid away from him? Without getting bit, I mean?"
"No problem there," Dal said. "He can regenerate pretty fast if he has enough of the right kind of food. He won't miss an ounce or two of excess tissue."
He took a beaker over to Fuzzy's platform and began squeezing off a little blob of pink material. Fuzzy seemed to sense what Dal wanted; obligingly he thrust out a little pseudopod which Dal pinched off into the beaker. With the addition of a small amount of saline solution, the tissue dissolved into thin, pink suspension.
In the laboratory they found two or three of the guinea pigs in the last stages of the infection, and injected them with a tiny bit of the pink solution. The effect was almost unbelievable. Within twenty minutes all of the injected animals began to perk up, their eyes brighter, nibbling at the food in their cages, while the ones that had not been injected got sicker and sicker.
"Well, there's our answer," Jack said eagerly. "If we can get some of this stuff injected into our friends down below, we may be able to protect the healthy ones from getting the plague, and cure the sick ones as well. If we still have enough time, that is."
They had landing permission from the Bruckian spokesman within minutes, and an hour later the Lancet made an orderly landing on a newly-repaved landing field near one of the central cities on the seventh planet of 31 Brucker.
Tiger and Jack had obviously not exaggerated the strange appearance of the towns and cities on this plague-ridden planet, and Dal was appalled at the ravages of the disease that they had come to fight. Only one out of ten of the Bruckians was still uninfected, and another three out of the ten were clearly in the late stages of the disease, walking about blankly and blindly, stumbling into things in their paths, falling to the ground and lying mute and helpless until death came to release them. Under the glaring red sun, weary parties of stretcher bearers went about the silent streets, moving their grim cargo out to the mass graves at the edge of the city.
The original spokesman who had come up to the Lancet was dead, but another had taken his place as negotiator with the doctors—an older, thinner Bruckian who looked as if he carried the total burden of his people on his shoulders. He greeted them eagerly at the landing field. "You have found a solution!" he cried. "You have found a way to turn the tide—but hurry! Every moment now is precious."
During the landing procedures, Dal had worked to prepare enough of the precious antibody suspension, with Fuzzy's co-operation, to handle a large number of inoculations. By the time the ship touched down he had a dozen flasks and several hundred syringes ready. Hundreds of the unafflicted people were crowding around the ship, staring in open wonder as Dal, Jack and Tiger came down the ladder and went into close conference with the spokesman.
It took some time to explain to the spokesman why they could not begin then and there with the mass inoculations against the plague. First, they needed test cases, in order to make certain that what they thought would work in theory actually produced the desired results. Controls were needed, to be certain that the antibody suspension alone was bringing about the changes seen and not something else. At last, orders went out from the spokesman. Two hundred uninfected Bruckians were admitted to a large roped-off area near the ship, and another two hundred in late stages of the disease were led stumbling into another closed area. Preliminary skin-tests of the antibody suspension showed no sign of untoward reaction. Dal began filling syringes while Tiger and Jack started inoculating the two groups.
"If it works with these cases, it will be simple to immunize the whole population," Tiger said. "From the amounts we used on the guinea pigs, it looks as if only tiny amounts are needed. We may even be able to train the Bruckians to give the injections themselves."
"And if it works we ought to have a brand new medical service contract ready for signature with Hospital Earth," Jack added eagerly. "It won't be long before we have those Stars, you wait and see! If we can only get this done fast enough."
They worked feverishly, particularly with the group of terminal cases. Many were dying even as the shots were being given, while the first symptoms of the disease were appearing in some of the unafflicted ones. Swiftly Tiger and Jack went from patient to patient while Dal kept check of the names, numbers and locations of those that were inoculated.
And even before they were finished with the inoculations, it was apparent that they were taking effect. Not one of the infected patients died after inoculation was completed. The series took three hours, and by the time the four hundred doses were administered, one thing seemed certain: that the antibody was checking the deadly march of the disease in some way.