* * * * *
The booming voice of the Planetary President went on and on and on. Memoranda of events taking place were handed to him, and he read them and argued with the paras who had tried to rush the north gate of Government Center, to make its inhabitants paras like themselves. But the Planetary President tried to make oratory a weapon against madness.
Calhoun grimaced at the voice. He said fretfully:
"There's a molecule which has to exist because it can. It's a part of a normal environment, but it doesn't normally produce paras. Now it does! Why? What is the compound or the condition that controls its abundance? Why is it missing here? What is lacking? What?"
The police-frequency speaker suddenly rattled, as if someone shouted into a microphone.
"All police cars! Paras have broken through a building wall on the west side! They're pouring into the Center! All cars rush! Set blasters at full power and use them! Drive them back or kill them!"
The grid operator turned angry, bitter eyes upon Calhoun.
"The paras—we paras!—don't want to be cured!" he said fiercely. "Who'd want to be normal again and remember when he ate scavengers? I haven't yet, but—who'd be able to talk to a man he knew had devoured ... devoured—" The grid operator swallowed. "We paras want everybody to be like us, so we can endure being what we are! We can't take it any other way—except by dying!"
He stood up. He reached for the blaster Calhoun had put aside when he changed from the clothes he'd worn in the city.
"...And I'll take it that way!"
Calhoun whirled. His fist snapped out. The grid operator reeled out. The blaster dropped from his hand. Murgatroyd cried out shrilly, from his cubbyhole. He hated violence, did Murgatroyd.
Calhoun stood over the operator, raging:
"It's not that bad yet! You haven't yawned once! You can stand the need for monstrousness for a long while yet! And I need you!"
He turned away. The President's voice boomed. It cut off abruptly. Another voice took its place. And this was the bland and unctuous voice of Dr. Lett.
"My friends! I am Dr. Lett! I have been entrusted with all the powers of the government because I, and I alone, have all the power over the cause of the para condition. From this moment I am the government! To paras—you need not be cured unless you choose. There will be places and free supplies for you to enjoy the deep satisfactions known only to you! To nonparas—you will be protected from becoming paras except by your own choice. In return, you will obey! The price of protection is obedience. The penalty for disobedience will be loss of protection. But those from whom protection is withdrawn will not be supplied with their necessities! Paras, you will remember this! Nonparas, do not forget it!" His voice changed. "Now I give an order! To the police and to nonparas: You will no longer resist paras! To paras: You will enter Government Center quietly and peacefully. You will not molest the nonparas you come upon. I begin at once the organization of a new social system in which paras and nonparas must co-operate. There must be obedience to the utmost—"
* * * * *
The grid operator cursed as he rose from the floor. Calhoun did not notice. The computer had finally delivered a strip of paper on which was the answer he had demanded. And it was of no use. Calhoun said tonelessly:
"Turn that off, will you?"
While the grid operator obeyed, Calhoun read and reread the strip of tape. He had lacked something of good color before, but as he reread, he grew paler and paler. Murgatroyd got down restlessly from his cubbyhole. He sniffed. He went toward the small locked chest in which Calhoun had put away the plastic container of living scavengers. He put his nose to the crack of that chest's cover.
"Chee!" he said confidently. He looked at Calhoun. Calhoun did not notice.
"This," said Calhoun, completely white, "This is bad! It's ... it's an answer, but it would take time to work it out, and we haven't got the time! And to make it and to distribute it—"
The grid operator growled. Dr. Lett's broadcast had verified everything Calhoun said. Dr. Lett was now the government of Tallien Three. There was nobody who could dare oppose him. He could make anybody into a para, and then deny that para his unspeakable necessities. He could turn anybody on the planet into a madman with ferocious and intolerable appetites, and then deny them their satisfaction. The people of Tallien Three were the slaves of Dr. Lett. The grid operator said in a deadly voice:
"Maybe I can get to him and kill him before—"
Calhoun shook his head. Then he saw Murgatroyd sniffing at the chest now holding the container of live scavengers. Open, it had had a faint but utterly disgusting odor. Locked up, Calhoun could not smell it. But Murgatroyd could. He sniffed. He said impatiently to Calhoun:
Calhoun stared. His lips tightened. It was the function of the tormal members of the Med Service to react to any infection more swiftly than humans could do, and to develop antibodies which destroyed that infection and could be synthesized to cure it in humans. But Murgatroyd was immune only to infections. To toxins. He was not immune to an appetite-causing molecule demanding more of itself on penalty of madness. Murgatroyd had no more inherent resistance than a man.
"Chee-chee!" he chattered urgently. "Chee-chee-chee!"
"It's got him," said Calhoun. He felt sickened. "It'll have me. Because I can't synthesize anything as complex as the computer says is needed to control the molecular population that makes paras!"
Murgatroyd chattered again. He was indignant. He wanted something and Calhoun didn't give it to him. He could not understand so preposterous a happening. He reached up and tugged at Calhoun's trouser-leg. Calhoun picked him up and tossed him the width of the control room. He'd done it often, in play, but this was somehow different. Murgatroyd stared incredulously at Calhoun.
"To break it down," said Calhoun bitterly, "I need aromatic olefines and some acetone, and acetic-acid radicals and methyl submolecular groups. To destroy it absolutely I need available unsaturated hydrocarbons—they'll be gases! And it has to be kept from reforming as it's broken up, and I may need twenty different organic radicals available at the same time! It's a month's work for a dozen competent men just to find out how to make it, and I'd have to make it in quantity for millions of people and persuade them of its necessity against all the authority of the government and the hatred of the paras, and then distribute it—"
* * * * *
Murgatroyd was upset. He wanted something that Calhoun wouldn't give him. Calhoun had shown impatience—almost an unheard-of thing! Murgatroyd squirmed unhappily. He still wanted the thing in the chest. But if he did something ingratiating....
He saw the blaster, lying on the floor. Calhoun often petted him when, imitating, he picked up something that had been dropped. Murgatroyd went over to the blaster. He looked back at Calhoun. Calhoun paced irritably up and down. The grid operator stood with clenched hands, contemplating the intolerable and the monstrous.
Murgatroyd picked up the blaster. He trotted over to Calhoun. He plucked at the man's trouser-leg again. He held the blaster in the only way his tiny paw could manage it. A dark, sharp-nailed finger rested on the trigger.
"Chee-chee!" said Murgatroyd.
He offered the blaster. Calhoun jumped when he saw it in Murgatroyd's paw. The blaster jerked, and Murgatroyd's paw tightened to hold it. He pulled the trigger. A blaster-bolt crashed out of the barrel. It was a miniature bolt of ball-lightning. It went into the floor, vaporizing the surface and carbonizing the multi-ply wood layer beneath it. The Med Ship suddenly reeked of wood smoke and surfacer. Murgatroyd fled in panic to his cubbyhole and cowered in its farthest corner.
But there was a singular silence in the Med Ship. Calhoun's expression was startled; amazed. He was speechless for long seconds. Then he said blankly:
"Damnation! How much of a fool can a man make of himself when he works at it? Do you smell that?" He shot the question at the grid operator. "Do you smell that? It's wood smoke! Did you know it?"
Murgatroyd listened fearfully, blinking.
"Wood smoke!" said Calhoun between his teeth. "And I didn't see it! Men have had fires for two million years and electricity for half a thousand. For two million years there was no man or woman or child who went a full day without breathing in some wood smoke! And I didn't realize that it was so normal a part of human environment that it was a necessary one!"
There was a crash. Calhoun had smashed a chair. It was an oddity because it was make of wood. Calhoun had owned it because it was odd. Now he smashed it to splinters and piled them up and flung blaster-bolt after blaster-bolt into the heap. The air inside the Med Ship grew pungent; stinging; strangling. Murgatroyd sneezed. Calhoun coughed. The grid operator seemed about to choke. But in the white fog Calhoun cried exultantly:
"Aromatic olefines! Acetone! Acetic acid radicals and methyl submolecular groups! And smoke has unsaturated hydrocarbon gases. This is the stuff our ancestors have breathed in tiny quantities for a hundred thousand generations! Of course it was essential to them! And to us! It was a part of their environment, so they had to have a use for it! And it controlled the population of certain molecules...."
The air system gradually cleared away the smoke, but the Med Ship still reeked of wood-smoke smells.
"Let's check on this thing!" snapped Calhoun. "Murgatroyd!"
* * * * *
Murgatroyd came timidly to the door of his cubbyhole. He blinked imploringly at Calhoun. At a repeated command he came unhappily to his master. Calhoun petted him. Then he opened the chest in which a container held living scavengers which writhed and swam and seemed to seethe. He took out that container. He took off the lid.
Murgatroyd backed away. His expression was ludicrous. There was no question but that his nose was grievously offended. Calhoun turned to the grid operator. He extended the sample of scavengers. The grid man clenched his teeth and took it. Then his face worked. He thrust it back into Calhoun's hand.
"It's—horrible!" he said thickly. "Horrible!" Then his jaw dropped. "I'm not a para! Not ... a para—" Then he said fiercely. "We've got to get this thing started! We've got to start curing paras—"
"Who," said Calhoun, "will be ashamed of what they remember. We can't get co-operation form them! And we can't get co-operation from the government! The men who were the government are paras and they've given their authority to Dr. Lett. You don't think he'll abdicate, do you? Especially when it's realized that he was the man who developed the strain of scavengers that secrete this modified butyl mercaptan that turns men into paras!"
Calhoun grinned almost hysterically.
"Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he found himself the first para and was completely astonished. But he couldn't be alone in what he knew was—degradation. He wanted others with him in that ghastly state. He got them. Then he didn't want anybody not to be like himself.... We can't get help from him!"
Exultantly, he flipped switches to show on vision screens what went on in the world outside the ship. He turned on all the receivers that could pick up sounds and broadcasts. Voices came in:
"There's fighting everywhere! Normals won't accept paras among them! Paras won't leave normals alone.... They touch them; breathe on them—and laugh! There's fighting—" The notion that the para state was contagious was still cherished by paras. It was to be preferred to the notion that they were possessed by devils. But there were some who gloried in the more dramatic opinion. There were screamings on the air, suddenly, and a man's voice panting: "Send police here fast! The paras have gone wild. They're—"
Calhoun seated himself at the control desk. He threw switches there. He momentarily touched a button. There was a slight shock and the beginning of a roar outside. It cut off. Calhoun looked at the vision plates showing outside. There was swirling smoke and steam. There were men running in headlong flight, leaving their ground cars behind them.
"A slight touch of emergency rocket," said Calhoun. "They've run away. Now we end the plague on Tallien Three."
The grid operator was still dazed by the continued absence of any indication that he might ever become a para. He said unsteadily:
"Sure! Sure! But how?"
"Wood smoke," said Calhoun. "Emergency rockets. Roofs! There's been no wood smoke in the air on this planet because there are no forest fires and people don't burn fuel. They use electricity. So we start the largest production of wood smoke that we find convenient, and the population of a certain modified butyl mercaptan molecule will be reduced. Down to a normal level. Immediately!"
The emergency rocket bellowed thunderously and the little Med Ship rose.
* * * * *
There have been, of course, emergency measures against contagion all through human history. There was a king of France, on Earth, who had all the lepers in his kingdom killed. There have been ships and houses burned to drive out plague, and quarantines which simply interfered with human beings were countless. Calhoun's measure on Tallien was somewhat more dramatic than most, but it had good justification.
He set fire to the planet's capital city. The little Med Ship swept over the darkened buildings. Her emergency rockets made thin pencils of flame two hundred feet long. She touched off roofs to the east, and Calhoun rose to see which way the wind blew. He descended and touched here and there....
Thick, seemingly suffocating masses of wood smoke flowed over the city. They were not actually strangling, but they created panic. There was fighting in Government Center, but it stopped when the mysterious stuff—not one man in a hundred had ever seen burning wood or smelled its smoke—the fighting stopped and all men fled when a choking, reeking blanket rolled over the city and lay there.
It wasn't a great fire, considering everything. Less than ten per cent of the city burned, but ninety-odd per cent of the paras in it ceased to be paras. More, they had suddenly regained an invincible aversion to the smell of butyl mercaptan—even a modified butyl mercaptan—and it was promptly discovered that no normal who had smelled wood smoke became a para. So all the towns and even individual farmhouses would hereafter make sure that there was pungent wood smoke to be smelled from time to time by everybody.
But Calhoun did not wait for such pleasant news. He could not look for gratitude. He'd burned part of the city. He'd forced paras to stop being paras and become ashamed. And those who hadn't become paras wanted desperately to forget the whole matter as soon as possible. They couldn't, but gratitude to Calhoun would remind them. He took appropriate action.
With the grid operator landed again, and after the grid was operable once more and had sent the Med Ship a good five planetary diameters into space—some few hours after the ship was in overdrive again—Calhoun and Murgatroyd had coffee together. Murgatroyd zestfully licked his emptied tiny mug, to get the last least taste of the beverage. He said happily, "Chee!" He wanted more.
"Coffee," said Calhoun severely, "has become a habit with you, Murgatroyd! If this abnormal appetite develops too far, you might start yawning at me, which would imply that your desire for it was uncontrollable. A yawn caused by what is called a yen has been known to make a man dislocate his jaw. You might do that. You wouldn't like it!"
Murgatroyd did not reply.
"You don't believe it, eh?" said Calhoun. Then he said: "Murgatroyd, I'm going to spend odd moments all the rest of my life wondering about what happens to Dr. Lett! They'll kill him, somehow. But I suspect they'll be quite gentle with him. There's no way to imagine a punishment that would really fit! Isn't that more interesting than coffee?"
"Chee! Chee! Chee!" said Murgatroyd insistently.
"It wasn't wise to stay and try to make an ordinary public-health inspection. We'll send somebody else when things are back to normal."
"Chee!!!" said Murgatroyd loudly.
"Oh, all right!" said Calhoun. "If you're going to be emotional about it, pass you cup!"
He reached out his hand, Murgatroyd put his tiny mug in it. Calhoun refilled it. Murgatroyd sipped zestfully.
The Med Ship Esclipus Twenty went on in overdrive, back toward sector headquarters of the Interstellar Medical Service.
* * * * *