Astounding Science Fiction/Volume 44/Number 05/Ole Mother Methuselah
|OLE MOTHER METHUSELAH
BY RENÉ LAFAYETTE
Old Doc had his hands full. The attendant had made a mistake, it seemed—raising human embryos in lion-embryo serums produced the most inhuman bratlings!
Illustrated by Cartier
Bucketing along at a hundred and fifty light-years, just entering the Earth Galaxy, the Morgue, decrepit pride of the Universal Medical Society, was targeted with a strange appeal.
ANY UMS SHIP ANY UMS SHIP ANY DOCTOR ANYONE EMERG EMERG EMERG PLEASE CONTACT PLEASE CONTACT UNITED STATES EXPERIMENTAL STATION THREE THOUSAND AND TWO PLANET GORGON BETA URSUS MAJOR. RELAY RELAY EMERG.
Ole Doc was in his salon, boots on a gold-embroidered chair, head reclined against a panel depicting the Muses crowning a satyr, musing upon the sad and depleted state of his wine "cellar" which jingled and rattled, all two bottles of it, on a shelf above the coffeemaker. He heard the tape clicking but he had heard tapes click before. He heard it clicking the distinctive three dots of an emergency call but he had heard that before also."Hippocrates!" he bellowed. And after a silence of two days the loudness and suddenness of this yell brought the little slave out of his galley as though shot from a gun. Four-armed, antennaed and indestructible, little Hippocrates was not
easily dismayed. But now he was certain that they were hard upon a dead star—nay, already struck.
"Hippocrates," said Ole Doc, "we've only got two bottles of wine left!"
Hippocrates saw that the ship was running along on all drives, that the instrument panel, which he could see from where he stood in the passage, half a ship length forward from the salon, was burning green on all registers, that they were on standard speed and that, in short, all was well. He wiped a slight smear of mustard and gypsum from his mouth with a guilty hand—for his own supplies of delicacy were so low that he had stolen some of Ole Doc's plaster for casts.
"The formula for making wine," began Hippocrates with his phonograph record-wise mind, "consists of procuring grapes. The grapes are then smashed to relieve them of juice and the juice is strained and set aside to ferment. At the end of—"
"We don't have any grapes," said Ole Doc. "We don't have any fuel. We have no food beyond ham and powdered eggs. All my shirts are in ribbons—"
"If you would stop writing on the cuffs," said Hippocrates, "I might—"
"—and I have not been fishing for a year. See what's on that tape. If it's good fishing and if they grow grapes, we'll land."
Hippocrates knew something had been bothering him. It was the triple click of the recording receiver. Paper was coming out of it in a steady stream. Click, click, click. Emerg. Emerg. Emerg!
Ole Doc looked musingly at the Muses and slowly began to relax. That was a good satyr Joccini had done, even if it was uncomfortably like—
"United States Experimental Station on Gorgon Beta Ursus Major," said Hippocrates. "Direct call to UMS, master." He looked abstractedly at the dark port beyond which the stars flew by. Through his mind was running the "Star Pilot for Ursus Major." Pie never forgot anything, Hippocrates, and the eighteen thousand close-packed pages whirred by, stopped, turned back a leaf and then appeared in his mind. "It's jungle and rivers.. Wild game. Swamps." And he brightened. "No women."
"What?" said Ole Doc incuriously.
"Gorgon of Beta Ursus Major. Lots of fish. Lots of them. And wine. Lots of fish and wine."
Ole Doc got up, stretched and went forward. He punched a pneumatic navigator and after divers whirs and hisses a light flashed on a screen giving him a new course departing from a point two light-years in advance of the reading. He could not turn any sooner. He settled himself under the familiar controls, disconnected the robot and yawned.
Two days later they were landing on Field 1,987,806 United States Army Engineers, Unmanned, half an hour's jaunt from United States Experimental Station 3,002.
Ole Doc let Hippocrates slide the ladder out and stood for a moment in the air lock, black kit in hand. The jungle was about three hundred feet above the edges of the field, a wild and virulent jungle, dark green with avid growing and yellow with its rotting dead. For a little space there was complete silence while the chattering gusts of the landing jets echoed out and left utter stillness. And then the jungle came awake once more with screams and catcalls and a ground-shaking aa-um.
Hippocrates skittered back up the ladder. Pie stopped at the top. Again sounded the aa-um and the very plates of the old ship shook with it. Hippocrates went inside and came back with a hundred and ten millimeter turret cannon cradled comfortably over his two right arms.
Ole Doc threw a switch which put an alpha force field around the ship to keep wild animals off and, with a final glance at the tumbled wrecks of buildings which had once housed a military post, descended the ladder and strolled after Plippocrates into the thick growth.
Now and then Hippocrates cocked an antenna at the towering branches overhead and stopped suspiciously. But he could see nothing threatening and he relieved his feelings occasionally by sending a big gout of fire from the 110 to sizzle them out a straight trail and calcine the mud to brick hardness.
Aa-um shook the jungle. And each time it sounded the myriad of animal and bird noises fell still for a moment.
Hippocrates was about to send another shot ahead when Ole Doc stopped him. An instant later a gray-faced Irishman with wild welcome in his eyes broke through the sawtrees to clasp Ole Doc in emotional arms.
"I'm O'Hara. Thank God I got through. Receiver's been out for six months. Didn't know if I was getting a signal out. Thank God you've come!" And he closed for another embrace but Ole Doc forestalled him by calling attention to the aa-um which had just sounded once more.
"Oh that!" said O'Hara. "That's a catbeast. Big and worry enough when I've got time to worry about them. Oh, for the good old days when all I had to worry about was catbeast getting my cattle and mesohawks my sheep. But now—" And he started off ahead of them at a dead run, beckoning them to hasten after him.
They had two close calls from swooping birds as big as ancient bombers and almost took a header over a tree trunk ten feet through which turned out to be a snake rising from the ooze with big, hungry teeth. But they arrived in a moment at the station all in one piece.
"You've got to understand," panted O'Hara when he found Ole Doc wouldn't run any faster, "that I'm the only man here. I have some Achnoids, of course, but you would not call those octopi company even if they can talk and do manual labor. But I've been here on Gorgon for fifteen years and I never had anything like this happen before. I am supposed to make this planet habitable in case Earth ever wants a colony planted. This is an agricultural and animal husbandry station. I'm supposed to make things easy for any future colonist. But no colonists have come so far and I don't blame them. This Savannah here is the coolest place on the planet and yet it's hot enough. But I haven't got an assistant or anyone and so when this happened—"
"Well, come on, man," said Ole Doc. "What has happened."
"You'll see!" cried O'Hara, getting wild-eyed with excitement and concern once more. "Come along."
They entered a compound which looked like a fortress. It sat squarely in the center of a huge grassy field, the better to have its animal targets in the open when they attacked and the better to graze its livestock. As they passed through the gate, O'Hara carefully closed it behind him.
Ole Doc looked incuriously at the long lines of sheds, at the helio motors above each and the corrals where fat cattle grazed. A greenhouse caught his interest because he saw that an Achnoid, who more closely resembled a blue pinwheel than a man, was weeding valuable medicinal herbs from out of, as Ole Doc saw it, worthless carrots. But O'Hara dragged him on through the noisy heat and dust of the place until they stood at Shed Thirteen.
"This is the lion shed," said O'Hara.
"Interesting," said Ole Doc disinterestedly.
O'Hara opened the door. A long row of vats lined each side of the passage and the sound of trickling fluid was soothing as it ran from one to the next. A maze of intricate glass tubing interconnected one vat to the next and a blank-beaked Achnoid was going around twiddling valves and reading temperatures.
"Hm-m-m," said Ole Doc. "Artificial birthing vats."
"Yes, yes. To be sure!" cried O'Hara in wild agreement, happy that he was getting some understanding. "That's the way we get our stock. Earth sends me sperm and ovums in static ray preservation and I put them into the vats and bring them to maturity. Then we take them out of the vats and put them on artificial udders and we have calves and lambs and such. But this is the lion shed."
"The what?" said Ole Doc.
"For the lions," said O'Hara. "We find that carefully selected and properly evoluted Earth lions kill catbeasts and several other kinds of vermin. I've got the deserts to the south of here crawling with lions and some day we'll be rid of catbeasts."
"And then you'll have lions," said Ole Doc.
"Oh no," said O'Hara impatiently. "Then we'll bacteriacide the lions with a plague. Which is to say I will. There isn't any we. I've been here for fifteen years—"
"Well, maybe you've been here for fifteen years," said Ole Doc without much sympathy, "but why am I here?"
"Oh. It's the last cargo. They send my stuff up here in tramps. Unreliable freight. Last year a tramp came in with a cargo for me and she had some kind of director trouble and had to jettison all her freight. Well, I didn't have any stevedores and they just left it in the rain and the labels came off a lot of the boxes—"
"Ah!" said Ole Doc. "You want me to reclassify sperm—"
"No, no, no!" said O'Hara. "Some of these cargoes were intended for some other experimental station I am sure. But I have no lading bills for the stuff. I don't know. And I'm frantic! I—"
"Well come down to it," said Ole Doc. "WHAT is your problem?"
Dramatically O'Hara approached the first vat and gave the cover a yank. The pulleys creaked. Lights went on and the glass bowls within glowed.
In this one vat there were five human babies.
Ole Doc pushed the cover up further and looked. These babies were near the end of their gestation period and were, in other words, about ready to be born. They seemed to be all complete, hair, fingernails, with the proper number of fingers and toes and they were obviously very comfortable.
"Well?" said Ole Doc, looking down the endless rows of vats.
"All of them," said O'Hara weakly.
"And they number—?" said Ole Doc.
"About eighteen thousand," said O'Hara.
"Well, if THIS is your problem," said Ole Doc, "I would suggest a hurry-up to the Department of Agriculture back on Earth. You need, evidently, half an army corps of nurses. But as for the problem of getting these babies—"
"Oh, that isn't it !" said O'Hara. "You see, it's these condemned Achnoids. "They're so confounded routine in everything they do. And I guess maybe its my fault, too, because there are so many details on this station that if one Earthman had to listen to them all and arrange them every day he would go crazy. So I guess I'm pretty humpy with them— the ambulating pinwheels! Well, this is the lion shed. We turn out eighteen thousand lions every three months, that being our charted gestation period. Then they go into the pits where they are fed by a facsimile lionness udder and finally they are booted out into the wilderness to go mop up catbeasts. All that is very simple. But these Achnoids—"
"When did you learn about this?"
"Oh, almost six months ago. But I wasn't terribly bothered. Not right then. I just sent a routine report through to Earth. But these Achnoids go right on with routine work unless something stops them. And the labels were all mixed up on that jettison shipment and they picked up phials marked with our code number for lions and dumped them into these vats. That's their routine work in this department. That's the only way we could ship cattle and such things, you see, because I don't think you'd like to travel on a cattle spaceship, would you? And it would be expensive, what with the price of freight. And we need lots of stock. So to avoid shipping such things as these lions—"
"I'd think it was to be avoided," said Ole Doc wryly,
"—we've developed a very highly specialized system of handling and marking. And evidently our codes aren't identical with the codes at the intended destination of these babies. There's an awful lot of paper work comes off Earth about this sort of thing and frankly I didn't even know they were shipping babies by this system. I went back through all my reports but I must have misfiled something because there isn't anything on it which I've received. Well—"
"You said you messaged the department," said Ole Doc.
"Oh, heck. You know government like it is these days. Earth has three billion inhabitants and one and three quarters billion are working for the government and they still can't keep up with the administration of colonies and stations in space."
"One billion," corrected Ole Doc.
"Well, one billion. And they still can't get our work out. So they just said that the matter had been referred through the proper channels. Then I sent them a couple urgents and they still said it was being referred to proper channels. Maybe they forgot to dig those channels. Well anyway, that isn't what I'm getting at. By some means or other I may be able to devise ways of raising up these infants. I've got three thousand Achnoids and I can always take a hunting rifle and go grab a chief hostage until I get two or three thousand more. They train quick. I haven't got any nurses and none in sight and I have no doctors and what I know about infant maladies is zero. But six months ago I figured I could pull through."
"And now you don't?" said Ole Doc.
"Now I don't. Now this whole thing has got me. I may be indulging in mass murder or something. Will they hang me if any of these kids die or something?"
"Well, I expect that a small loss would be excusable," said Ole Doc.
"Yes, but you see I didn't pay any attention to these Achnoids. And now I think there's the devil to pay. You see, all the fluids used and the strengths used and all were for lions. And that has radically altered things. At least something has. I thought that just a couple had got here by mistake and I didn't know how and I got them born all right. But three days ago when I sent that emerg two things had happened. I found this whole shed full of babies and I found that they were all set to be born. And they have gestated only three months!"
"Hm-m-m," said Ole Doc, getting faintly interested. "Well, I see what you're excited about. A three months' gestation on lion fluid would be liable to upset anyone I suppose. So—"
"Wait!" said the wild-eyed O'Hara. "That isn't the problem. I haven't showed you the problem yet!"
"Not yet!" Ole Doc blinked in astonishment.
O'Hara led them rapidly out of the shed and into a big concrete compound. There was a trapdoor in one concrete wall at the far end. O'Hara closed the gate behind them and got them into an observer's box.
"This is where I test the fighting qualities of lions," he said. "I go get a catbeast and turn him loose in here and I let a young lion in on him. It's a control test on the batch. I pick a lion at random by number and let him in. Mookah! Hey there. Mookah! Let go one catbeast!"
An Achnoid pinwheeled into view, cast respectful eyes at the observer's box and began to take the pins out of a door. There were eight pins and he removed them all at once, one hand to a pin.
"Monstrosity," sniffed Hippocrates.
The Achnoid went sailing to safety over the wall and the cage door crashed open with a bang. Out of it stalked a beast with a purple hide and enormous, sharp-fanged jaws. It bounded into the arena, reared up on its hind legs to stand ten feet tall, waltzed furiously as it looked around for enemies and then settled back with a vicious, tail-lashing snarl.
"Pleasant character," said Ole Doc.
"That's a small one," said O'Hara. "We couldn't capture any large ones if we tried. Lost about fifty Achnoids to them already, I guess. O.K., Mookah! Let her go!"
Mookah wasn't going to be down on the ground for this one. Pie had a wire attached to the door release which led into a shed. He pulled the wire. And out sauntered a cocky half-pint of a kid, about half the height of Plippocrates but of the physiological structure of a ten-yearold. He was clad in a piece of hide which was belted around his waist and he had a pair of furred buskins on his feet. His hair was wild and long and his eyes were wild and intelligent. Pugnacity was stamped upon him but there was a jauntiness as well. In his hand he carried a sling and on his wrist, hung by a thong, a knife.
"Whoa!" said Ole Doc. "Wait a minute! You're not sacrificing that kid just for my amusement." And he had a blaster up so fast that only a lunge by O'Hara deflected his aim at the catbeast.
The kid looked curiously at the plowed hole the blast had made and then glanced disdainfully at the box. O'Hara, recovered from the lunge hastily pushed a button and got a bulletproof shield in place.
"All right, all right," said Ole Doc. "I'll stand here and watch murder." But he held the blaster ready just in case.
The catbeast had scented the enemy. He got up now and began his waltz, going rapidly forward, his teeth audibly gnashing, his tail kicking up a cloud of dust. On he came. The kid stood where he was, only shifting his sling and putting something into its pocket.
The catbeast was hungry. It began to rave and its sides puffed like bellows. The stench of decayed meat floated up from it as it exhaled its breath in a thundering aa-um.
Hippocrates was decidedly interested. He glanced excitedly at Ole Doc and then back at the kid. But that glance had cost Hippocrates the best part of the show.
The kid let the sling spin and go. There was a sickening crunch of pierced and battered bone and the top of the catbeast's head vanished in a fountain of blood and leaping brains.
Down went the catbeast.
The kid walked forward, kicked the still gnashing jaw, grabbed what was left of an ear and hacked it off. He put the ear in his pocket, booted the convulsing catbeast in his expiring guts and turned to face the observation platform. Then, in a flash, he put a chunk of steel into his sling and whipped it at the glass. The bulletproof shield crawled with cracks and a shower of chips went forward from it.
The kid gave his "pants" a hitch, turned on his heel and strode back into the shed. The door dropped. Mookah dropped into the arena and began to call for help to get the catbeast en route to the cookshack.
"I knew he'd shoot at us," said O'Hara. "The shield was for him, not for you, sir."
Ole Doc let out his breath with the realization that he must have been holding it for some time. "Well!"
"Now that's my problem," said O'Hara. "There are eighteen thousand of them and they are all males. Sir, what in the name of all that's holy have I done wrong?"
"Took a job with the United States Department of Agriculture," said Ole Doc.
"First I was very loving," said O'Hara. "There were only two of them in the lion shed and I thought they'd been overlooked somehow by these condemned Achnoids. I didn't know what had happened. I was puzzled but not really upset. Strange things occur out here on these far stations. So I took them into the house as soon as they were "born" and had a female Achnoid feed them with good cow's milk. And they laid and cooed and I figured out life was a fine thing. And then I was gone on a month's trip to the next continent to see how my plant culture was doing there—planted a million square miles in redwoods—and when I came back I couldn't find the Achnoid nurse and the house was in shreds. So they been out here ever since, confound them. For a while I thought they'd eaten the nurse but she finally came whimpering back home after two weeks lying in the bayonet grass. So here they are. They evidently mature quick."
"Evidently," said Ole Doc.
"Maybe they won't be full grown for several years," said O'Hara. "But every day they get worse. That concrete blockhouse you see down there is just in case."
Ole Doc glanced down to where a dozen Achnoids were slaving in the harsh daylight, building what seemed an impregnable fortress. "Prison?" said Ole Doc.
"Refuge!" said O'Hara. "In six months or less this planet won't be safe for Achnoids, catbeasts, scumsnakes, gargantelephants, pluseagles or me!"
Ole Doc looked amusedly back at the Achnoids who were carting away the catbeast's body. "Well, you've got one consolation—"
An Achnoid had come up from another shed labeled "Horses" and was giving O'Hara an excited account of something. O'Hara looked pale and near a swoon.
"I said," said Ole Doc, "that you at least have the consolation that it's one generation only. With no females—""That's just it," said O'Hara,
tottering toward the horse incubation shed.
They went in and found a cluster of Achnoids standing around the first vat. O'Hara thrust them aside and looked and grew even paler. He barked a question and was answered.
"Twenty thousand vats," said O'Hara. "In the third week."
"Babies?" said Ole Doc.
"Females," said O'Hara, and then more faintly, "Females."
Ole Doc looked around and found Hippocrates. "Saw a couple lakes coming in. With all the other fauna you have on this planet, fishing ought to be interesting."
O'Hara straightened as though he had had an electric shock. "Fishing!"
"Fishing," said Ole Doc. "You are the man who is in charge here. I'm just an innocent bystander."
"Now look!" said O'Hara in horror. "You've got to help me." He tried to clutch Ole Doc's cape as the Soldier of Light moved away. "You've got to answer some riddles for me! Why is the gestation period three months? Why do they develop in six months to raging beasts! Why are they so antisocial? What have I done wrong in these vats and what can I do to correct it! You've got to help me?"
"I," said Ole Doc, "am going fishing. No doubt to a bacteriologist, a biochemist or a mutologist your problem would be fascinating. But after all, it's just a problem. I am afraid it is not going to upset the Universe. Good day."
O'Hara stood in trembling disbelief. Here was a Soldier of Light, the very cream of the medical profession, a man who, although he looked thirty was probably near a thousand years old in medical practice of jail kinds. Here was a member of the famous Seven Hundred, the Universal Medical Society who had taken the new and dangerous developments out of political hands centuries ago and had made the universe safe for man's dwelling and who patrolled it now. Here he was, right here in O'Hara's sight. Here was succor. Here was the lighthouse, the panacea, the miracle he needed.
He ran beside Ole Doc's rapid striding toward the compound gate. "But sir! It's thirty-eight thousand human beings! It's my professional reputation. I can't kill them. I don't dare turn them loose on this planet! I'll have to desert this station!"
"Desert it then," said Ole Doc. "Open the gate, Hippocrates."
And they left the distracted O'Hara weeping in the dust. "Get my fishing gear," said Ole Doc.
Hippocrates lingered. It was not unlike him to linger when no emergency was in the wind. His antennae felt around in the air and he hefted the 110 mm. with three hands while he scratched his head with the fourth.
"Well?" barked Ole Doc.
Hippocrates looked straight at him. He was somewhat of a space lawyer, Hippocrates. "Article 726 of Code 2, paragraph 80, third from the top of page 607 of the Law Regulating the Behavior of Members of the Universal Medical Society to wit: 'It shall also be unlawful for the Soldier of Light to desert a medical task of which he has been apprised when it threatens the majority of the human population of any planet.'"
Ole Doc looked at his little slave in some annoyance. "Are you going to get my fishing gear?"
"Well?" said Hippocrates.
Ole Doc glared. "Did I invent the Department of Agriculture? Am I accountable for their mistakes? And are they so poor they can't send their own man relief?"
"Well—" said Hippocrates. "No."
"Then you still expect me to spend a year here nursing babies?"
Hippocrates spun his antennae around thoughtfully and then brightened up. He put down the 110 mm. and there was a blur and a big divot in the mud where he had been. Ole Doc kept walking toward the lake he had seen at the far end of the Savannah and exactly three minutes and eight seconds later by his chronograph, Hippocrates was back beside him with about a thousand pounds of rods, tackle, and lunch carried in two hands and a force umbrella and the 110 mm. carried in another. With his fourth hand he held a book on lures and precautions for strange planets and from this he was busily absorbing whole pages at a glance.
In this happy holiday mood they came to the lake, dried up a half acre of mud with one blast of the 110, pitched a canopy at the water's edge complete with table and chairs, made a wharf by extending a log over the water and generally got things ready to fish.
Hippocrates mixed a cool drink and baited a hook while Ole Doc took his ease and drank himself into a comfortable frame of mind.
"Wonder what I'll get," said Ole Doc. He made his first cast, disposed himself comfortably on the log to watch the motor lure tow its bait around the surface of the lake.
The huge jungle trees reared over the water and the air was still and hot. The yellow lake glowed like amber under a yellow sky. And they began to catch a strange assortment of the finny tribes.
Hippocrates swatted at the mosquitoes for a while. Their beaks got dented against his hide but they annoyed him with their high whine. Finally he was seized with inspiration—direct from "Camping and Hiking Jaunts on Strange Worlds"—and unfolded the force umbrella. It was no more than a stick with a driver in it but its directional lobes could be changed in intensity and area until they covered half a square mile. It was a handy thing to have in a rainstorm on such planets as Sargo where the drops weigh two pounds. And it was handy here where it pushed, on low intensity, the mosquitoes out from the canopy and put them several hundred yards away where they could asst in impotent frenzy and thwarted rage. Hippocrates put the stick on full so its beams, leaning against the surrounding trees, would keep it in place, and devoted himself to another book he brought out of his knapsack, "Wild Animals I Wish I Hadn't Known."
And into this quiet and peaceful scene moved a jetbomb at the silent speed of two thousand miles an hour. It came straight down from a silver speck which hung in the saffron sky. It had enough explosive in it to knock a house flat. And it was armed.
Ole Doc had just hooked a popeyed monstrosity, Hippocrates had just reached the place where Daryl van Daryl was being swallowed alive by a ramposaurus on Ranameed, and the bomb hit.
It struck the top of the force screen and detonated. The lobes of the screen cantilevered against the trees and kicked six down so hard their roots stuck quivering in the air. The canopy went flat. The log went into the water and the jug of rumades leaped sideways and smote Hippocrates on the back of the neck.
For an instant neither Hippocrates nor Ole Doc had any idea of what had happened. It might have been a fish or a ramposaurus. But in a moment, from the smell in the air, they knew it was a bomb.
Hippocrates instantly went into Chapter Twenty-one paragraph nine of "Tales of the Space Pioneers," socked the butt of the 110 mm. into the ground, looked at the silver image in the magnetosight and let drive with two thumbs on the trips.
The whole air over them turned flaming red. Another half dozen trees collapsed from concussion. Ole Doc dragged himself out of the water and looked up through the haze at the target.
"Train right!" he said. "Up six miles. Now left!"
But although they kept firing, the silver speck had picked up enough speed toward the zenith to parallel the sizzling, murderous charges and in a moment Hippocrates, with the sight flashing green for out-of-range, stopped shooting.
Ole Doc looked at the upset rumade. He looked at his rod being towed aimlessly across the lake. He looked at Hippocrates.
"Missed," said Hippocrates brightly.
"Is there a force screen over the Morgue?" snapped Ole Doc.
"Well, it probably need reinforcing. Grab up the remains here and be quick about it."
While Ole Doc strode rapidly through the jungle to the old landing field, blasting his way through the creepers with a gun in each hand, Hippocrates hastily bundled the remains and scurried along at his heels.
They entered the corridor through the Morgue's force field and came to the side of the ship. "At least she's all right," said Ole Doc.
Hippocrates bounced in and stowed the tattered gear while Ole Doc pulled down the switches on the battle panel. After a few minor accidents he had had a complete band of force fields installed and he turned them all on now.
He went forward to the control room and was, as usual, startled by the dulcet tones of his audio recorder. It never seemed right to him that the Morgue should talk soprano but he liked soprano and he'd never had it changed.
"There was a battle cruiser overhead eighteen minutes ago," said the Morgue complacently. "It dropped a bomb."
"Are you hurt?" said Ole Doc to the board.
"Oh, it didn't drop a bomb on me. It dropped a bomb on you."
"Dimensions and armament?"
"It isn't friendly," said the Morgue. "I recorded no data on it except hostility. Advice."
"Turn on invisio screens and move me into the jungle cover."
Ole Doc threw off the switch. Even his ship was ordering him around these days.
He turned to the remote control battle panel and punched the button marked "Invisible" and a moment later a series of light-baffling planes, acting as reflectors for the ground below and so making the Morgue disappear from the outside except to detectors, hid them entirely. He rang "underweigh" so that Hippocrates would have warning to grab something and, without seating himself in the control chair, shot the Morgue toward the only hole in the towering jungle trees, a thousand yards from her former location. Lights flashed as the force screen went out and then re-adjusted itself to the natural contour of the landscape, and obstacles. Ole Doc dusted his hands. The ship was safe for a moment. Now if that battle cruiser wanted to come low enough to prowl it would get a most frightening surprise. Leaving the fire panel tuned to shoot down anything which did not clip back a friendly recognition signal, Ole Doc moved toward the salon.
But as he passed a port something caught his eye. And it also caught the eye of the alert autoturret on the starboard side. He heard the wheels spinning over his head as the single gun came down to bear on an object in the jungle and he only just made the battle panel to isolate the quadrant from fire.
There was a dead spaceship in there.
Ole Doc checked both blasters and jumped out of the air lock. He went up to his boot tops in muck but floundered ahead toward the grisly thing.
It was crashed and well sunk in the mud and over it had grown a thick coating of slime from which fed countless creepers and vines. It was not only dead. It was being buried by greedy life.
His space boots clung magnetically to the hull as he pushed his way up through the slimy growths and then he was standing at a broken port which stared up at him like an eyeless socket. He stabbed a light into it. What had been an Earthman was tangled amongst the stanchions of a bunk. What had been another was crushed against a bulkhead. Small, furry things scuttled out of these homes as Ole Doc dropped down.
The ship had been there, probably, a year. It had ended its life from heavy explosive and had been skewered through and through by five charges.
Ole Doc burned through a jammed door, going forward to get to the control room. He stumbled over some litters of boxes and his playing light showed up their mildewed lettering:
Department of Agriculture.
Keep under Preservative Rays.
Ole Doc frowned and picked his way through this decaying litter. In the control room he found what seepage and bacteria had left of the log. The ship was the Wanderho out of Boston, a tramp under charter to the government, delivering perishables, supplies and mail to Department of Agriculture Experimental Stations.
With sudden decision Ole Doc blew his way out through the bow and walked on logs back to the Morgue. He had headed for the only opening he had seen in the jungle wall ahead and that opening had been made by a killed ship.
He came back up through the air lock and opened all the switches on the battle panel except the screens.
"We can go now, master," said Hippocrates brightly. "Scanner shows nothing to stop us."
"Shut that off and fix me a biological kit," said Ole Doc.
"You're not going?" gaped Hippocrates.
"According to article something or other when the majority of a human population on a planet is threatened a soldier has to stay on the job."
"But I said that," said Hippocrates.
"When?" said Ole Doc.
Hippocrates retreated hurriedly into the operating room and began to throw together the hundred and seventy-two items which made up a bacteriological kit and when he had them in cases on his back he shot after Ole Doc who was already a quarter of the way back to the compound.
Ole Doc walked up the steps of O'Hara's bungalow, thrust open the office door and walked in. O'Hara looked up and gaped.
"Why didn't you tell me?" snapped Ole Doc.
"You have an accident with some animal?" said O'Hara. "I heard some shots but I knew you were armed. I thought—"
"About this jettisoned cargo!" said Ole Doc impatiently.
"What about it?" said O'Hara. "They just stacked it up and left."
"You saw them leave?"
"Well, no. The captain was in here telling me he was having trouble with his ship and when I saw they were gone in the morning I went over to see if he'd left our supplies in good shape and I found his cargo. It'd rained and the labels—"
"Was it scattered around?" demanded Ole Doc.
"Why would he scatter it around?" said O'Hara.
"What was the name of that ship?"
"The Wanderho," said O'Hara. "Same old tub. The only one which ever comes. Undependable. She's about a month overdue now—"
"O'Hara, you won't ever see that ship again. She's lying over there in the jungle shot full of holes and her crew dead inside. You didn't hear a take-off a year ago. You heard a ship being shot to pieces."
O'Hara looked a little white. "But the cargo ! It was all stacked up in a neat pile—"
"You mean—I don't follow this!"
"Neither do I," said Ole Doc. "Have you got any force screen protection?"
"No? Why should I have? Who'd want to trouble an experimental station? We haven't got anything, not even money."
"No screen," said Ole Doc. "Then we may have to work fast. Can you arm these Achnoids?"
"No! And my only weapon is a hunting rifle and a sidearm. I haven't got anything."
"Hippocrates," said Ole Doc, "dismount two turrets and have them set in towers here. They won't do much but they'll stop an attack from land. And, if I'm right, that's all we have to fear."
Hippocrates looked helplessly around for a place to put down the half ton of equipment he was lugging like a mountain above him.
"Just drop it," said Ole Doc. "We're making a lab right here on the porch where it's cool."
O'Hara suddenly flamed brightly. "You mean," he cried in sudden hope, "that you're going to help me? You mean it?"
Ole Doc paid him no attention. He was already fishing in the pile of equipment for a portable ultraelectron microscope and a box of slides. He put them on the table. "Have somebody start bringing me phials out of that preservation room. One sample from every box you've got!"
In the many, many weeks which followed there was no wine, there was only work. And over Ole Doc hung two intelligences which made him very skeptical of his chances of getting out of this one alive. First was the fact that something or somebody had now supercharged the planet's ionosphere thoroughly enough to damp every outgoing and incoming message and as Ole Doc's last reported whereabouts was many a light-year from Gorgon, the chances of any relief were slender to the vanishing point—for a search party would have to look over at least a hundred planets and a nearly infinite cube of sky. Second was the sporadic presence of a silver dot in the sky, the battle cruiser, out of range, unfriendly, waiting. Waiting for what?
"I guess this is a pretty tight spot," grinned Hippocrates, all four arms deep in research assistance. "In 'Tales of the Early Space Pioneers'—"
"Condemn the early space pioneers," said Ole Doc, his eyes aching and his back cricked with weeks of this constant peering. "Give me another phial."They had made some progress along one line. Ole Doc had taken time off to make sure he could communicate with the "infants terrible" who swarmed now, thirty-eight thousand of them, in the lion and horse pens. He had concocted a series of two thousand slides, based on the methods used for teaching alien intelligences lingua spacia, except he was teaching English. Asleep and awake, the horde of precocious "babies" were confronted by projected pictures and dinned with explanation. The projectors had to be very carefully protected and even then blastproof shields had to be renewed every few days when some
enthusiastic kid bunged a slingshot pebble into it. But they couldn't hurt the screens. Those were simply the concrete walls. So willy-nilly, they learned "horse" and "cow" and "man" and "I am hungry" and "How far is it to the nearest post office?".
It was not safe to approach the pens now unless one wanted a short trip to eternity. But Ole Doc, with a force screen, managed occasional inspections. And on these he was jeered with singsong English, phrases such as, "Go soak your head. Go soak your head. Go soak your head," which, when squalled from a few thousand throats, was apt to give one, if not a soaked head, at least a headache.
On the very first day he had built five gestation vats in the bungalow and had started two females and three males on their way. And all but two of these now born, had been hurriedly taken down to the main herd before they got ideas about mayhem. The remaining pair, a boy and a girl, remained in iron cages on the porch while Hippocrates took notes on their behavior. The notes were not flattering but they were informative.
When two months had passed after the birth of, the experimental five from the vats, the three, properly tagged, in the lion pens and horse pens, had learned to use a small sling. But the two on the porch had not.
Ole Doc's notebook was getting crammed with facts. And now and then he saw a glimmer of knowledge about them. He had ruled out several things, amongst them the unusual radiations which might be present, but weren't, on Gorgon. Next he had crossed off machinery radiation and fluid activity.
And then, on this afternoon, little Hippocrates saw him squint, stand up and thoughtfully snap a slide into small bits.
"Maybe solution?" said Hippocrates and O'Hara in different ways but almost in the same instant.
Ole Doc didn't hear them. He turned to the racks of paraphernalia and began to drag down several bottles which he began to treat with pharmaceutical ray rods.
"You maybe poison the whole batch?" said Hippocrates hopefully.
Ole Doc didn't pay him any heed. He ordered up several flasks and put his weird stew into them and then he drew a sketch.
"Make a catapult like this," said Ole Doc. "One on every corner of the pens. That's eight. With eight flasks, one for each. Trigger them with a magnet against this remote condenser so that when it is pushed, off they go into the compounds."
"And everybody dies?" said Hippocrates expectantly, thoughtful of the bruises he had had wrestling these "babies".
"Rig them up," said Ole Doc. Because the rest of this is going to take another day or two."
"What's the sudden rush?" said O'Hara.
Ole Doc jerked a thumb at the sky. "They were about a hundred miles lower today."
"They were?" said O'Hara anxiously. "I didn't see them."
"You missed a lot of things," said Ole Doc dryly. And he picked up a bundle of rayrods and began to sort them. He took a look into the yard and saw a chicken contentedly pecking at the dirt.
"Bring me that," he said. "By the way, where's Mookah?"
O'Hara looked around as though expecting the overseer to be right behind him. Then, suddenly, "Say, he hasn't been around for three days. He's supposed to make his report at two o'clock every afternoon and that's an hour ago."
"Uhuh," said Ole Doc.
"Golly, no wonder you guys live so long," said O'Hara. He climbed off the porch and came back with the chicken.
Ole Doc took the bird, pointed a rod at it and the chicken flopped over on its side, dead. Presently it was under a belljar with more rays playing on it. And then before the astonished gaze of O'Hara the chicken began to change form. The feathers vanished, the shape vanished and within ten minutes there was nothing under the jar but a blob of cellular matter. Ole Doc grunted in satisfaction and tipped the mass into a huge graduate. He stuffed a rayrod into the middle of the mass and left it.
"Another chicken," he said. O'Hara closed his mouth and ran into the yard to scoop up another one. It squawked and beat its wings until a rayrod was aimed at it. Then, tike its relative, it went under the belljar, became jellylike, turned into a translucent mass and got dumped into another graduate.
Five chickens later there were seven graduates full of cells, each with a different kind of rayrod sticking out.
"Now," said Ole Doc, "we take that first baby. The boy."
O'Hara repressed a shudder. He knew that medicine could not make scruples when emergency was present, but there was something about putting a baby, a live, cooing little baby—if a trifle energetic—under a belljar and knocking it into a shapeless nothingness. But at that instant a howl sounded from the pens and O'Hara was happy to assist the now returned Hippocrates in slapping the vigorous infant on the face of the operating table.
O'Hara expected to see the belljar come down and a rayrod go to work. He was somewhat astonished when Ole Doc began to strap the baby to the board and he began to fear that it was going to be a knife job.
But Ole Doc didn't reach for a scalpel. He picked up a big hypo syringe, fitted an antisepticizing needle to it and took two or three cells out of the first graduate. Ide checked it and then turned to the child.
He made a pass with a glowing button and then plunged the needle into the baby's spine. He withdrew it and made a second pass with the button. Rapidly, in six separate places, he injected cells into the infant anatomy. And then O'Hara's eyes bulged and he went a little sick. For the seventh shot was rammed straight into the child's eye and deep into its brain.
Ole Doc pulled out the needle, made a pass with the button again, and stood back. O'Hara expected a dead baby. After all it had had needles stuck in the back of its head, its spine, its heart and its brain. But the baby cooed and went to sleep.
"Next one," said Ole Doc.
"There isn't going to be a next one," said a cool voice behind them. They whirled to find a leathery-faced, short-statured character in leather garb who stood indolently leaning against a porch post with an undoubtedly lethal weapon aimed in their general direction.
"And who are you?" said Ole Doc.
"The name is Smalley. Not that you'll be very interested for long. All done playing with the kids? Well, stand away so you're not in line with those cages and we'll get this over with."
Ole Doc looked at Hippocrates and Hippocrates looked at Ole Doc. It would have taken a very good poker player to have told what passed between them. But Ole Doc knew what he wanted to know. During his chicken treatments his orders had been carried out. He laid his hypo on the table with an histrionic sigh and carelessly thumbed the button on the magnetic release. Very small in the distance there were slight, pinging sounds.
"You know," said Ole Doc, "I wouldn't be too much in a hurry, Smalley."
"And why not?"
Because I was just giving this kid a treatment to save his life."
"Yeah. I believe you."
"Happens to be the truth," said Ole Doc. "Of course I didn't have any idea that their friends would be along so soon, but I just didn't like to see kids die wholesale. If you'll call up your medico, I'll show him what's to be done—"
"About this illness," said Ole Doc. "Strange thing. Must be a lion disease or something. Very rare. Affects all the nerve centers."
"Those two kids look all right to me!" said Smalley, getting alert and peering at the cages on the porch.
"These I've practically cured, although the girl there still wants her final treatment. But down at the pens—"
"What about the pens?" demanded Smalley.
"There's thirty-eight thousand mighty sick babies. And it's going to take a lot of know-how to heal them. Left untreated, they'll die. But, as you're the one who's interested—"
"Say, how do you know so much?" snarled Smalley.
"I happen to be a doctor," said Ole Doc.
"He is Ole Doc Methuselah!" said Hippocrates with truculence. "He is a Soldier of Light!"
"What's that?" said Smalley.
"A doctor," said Ole Doc. "Now if you'll bring your medico here—"
"And if I don't have one?"
"Why, that's surprising," said Ole Doc. "How do you expect to keep thirty-eight thousand kids whole without a doctor?"
"We'll manage! Now get this, doc. You're going to unbuckle that blaster belt right where you stand and you're going to walk ahead of me slow to the pens. And you'd better lie telling the truth."
Ole Doc dropped his belt, made a sign to Llippocrates to gather up the graduates and stepped out toward the pens.
Here, under the slanting yellow rays of the afternoon sun it became very obvious that there wasn't an Achnoid in sight. Instead there were various beings in disordered dress who held carefully ordered weapons commanding all avenues of escape.
"Thought you'd land tomorrow," said Ole Doc.
"How is that?" snapped Smalley.
"Oh, the way the Achnoids acted. And a detector that's part of my operating kit which said you'd already come down twice before last week to the south of here."
"Just keep walking," said Smalley. "You might get past me but you won't get past the gate or get near your ship. We've had that guarded for two months hoping you'd show up."
"Lucky I didn't, eh?" said Ole Doc. "Your harvest here would be dead."
They stood now near the concrete wall of one pen. Smalley, keeping an eye out behind him and walking with caution, mounted up the ramp. But contrary to Hippocrates' fond expectation, no pellet knocked the top of his head off. He stiffened and stared.
Ole Doc went up beside him and looked down. As far as these pens reached they could see kids lying around, some inert, some twitching, some struggling but all very, very ill. And obvious on the first of them were big red splotches.
Smalley yelled a warning to his guards to stay clear and then faced Ole Doc.
"All right. They're sick. How they goin' to get cured?"
"Why, I was all set to cure them right here," said Ole Doc. "But if you're so anxious to shoot me—"
"That can wait! Cure them! Cure them, you hear me?"
Ole Doc shrugged. "Have it any way you like, Smalley. But I'll need the rest of my equipment over here."
"All right, you'll get it!"
Ole Doc dropped down into the first pen and Hippocrates handed him equipment. From his cloak pocket Ole Doc took a gun hypo which did not need a needle to penetrate. He fitted a charge in this and shot the first kid. Then he rolled the infant over and got to work with his hypo needle.
Smalley looked suspicious. He kept his place at a distance and kept down the visor of his space helmet. Two of his guards came up and, some distance from him, received further orders and went back to watch from the gate.
The first kid got seven shots and then another charge from the hypo gun. The red splotches began to vanish and the child was asleep.
It was assembly line work after that with O'Hara and Hippocrates slinging kids into place and holding them and Hippocrates quadridextrously administering the before and after gun shots.
Night came and they lighted the pens and the work went on. Ole Doc stopped for food after he reached the thousand mark and came back to where Smalley was watching.
"Give me a hand up," said Ole Doc.
Smalley had watched child after child go peacefully to sleep and the blotches vanish and despite his air, he was too confused about Ole Doc not to obey the order. Ole Doc gripped the offered hand and came up over the ramp.
He was nearly back to the bungalow, with one of the guards tagging him when Smalley screamed. Ole Doc went back.
"What's the matter?" he asked solicitously.
"I'm poisoned!" screamed Smalley, sagging down and clawing at his helmet. His face was already turning red, his hands were covered with blotches.
"Well, before you pass out," said Ole Doc, "you'd better tell your guards that I'll have to treat you so they won't think I'm killing you and shoot me out of enthusiasm for their commander."
"Don't shoot him! Don't shoot him whatever he does!" screamed Smalley.
The guards stood well back, eight of them. It made them very nervous when Ole Doc had Hippocrates pass up a hypo gun and a syringe. It made them more nervous when Ole Doc started to ram Smalley's spine and brain with that long, glittering point.
The first gun cured the blotches, the last gun put Smalley to sleep. And then Ole Doc went on into the bungalow to get himself some food and a little rest.
The following many hours were hectic indeed for it was enough to simply treat thirty-eight thousand kids suffering from skin allergy without the other labors. And to complicate things, members of the hostile ship kept coming down with it, one by one. A scribbled message from Smalley's fourth successor, for instance, finally carried it back to the ship itself. And when the crew tried to bring up the ailing members for treatment, they came down.
Shoot with a hypo gun to cure the blotches. Shoot seven times with seven different things in seven different places for each patient. Shoot again to put them into a few hours slumber.
Ole Doc didn't sleep. He kept himself going on multithyroid, which Hippocrates said was very bad for him indeed. But O'Hara keeled over in nervous and physical exhaustion before they had reached the ten thousandth case. They put him under the influence of the second hypo gun and left him in his own lion pen to snooze it off.
And Hippocrates and Ole Doc went on.
It takes a long while to handle thirty-eight thousand babies and one hundred and ten crewmen, much less treat them. But within three days they were done.
Ole Doc stood up and looked at the still snoring acres of babies. And at the rows of sleeping crewmen. And at the five who, nervously aloof, still covered the gate with powerful weapons and barred any escape.
Ole Doc pondered giving them something. But he was too tired to take off. He went into the bungalow and stretched out and soon was sleeping the sleep of the innocent and just.
Eighteen hours later, fully refreshed, he rose and washed his face. He looked out of the window at the vigilant guards and sighed.
"Hippocrates, go gather up our gear."
"On the double," said Ole Doc.
With a swish and a swoosh the little being collected their scattered equipment into a portable pile.
"Now go gather up O'Hara and bring him along," said Ole Doc.
Hippocrates swept off to get the chief of the experimental station and came back lugging him with ease. Then he took up the mountain of heavy equipment in his other two hands and with O'Hara's heels trailing in the dust, tagged after Ole Doc, who walked, buckling on his blasters.
The five at the gate were wary. They had been on the post, in the two enfilading towers, when all the illness began and they weren't going to tolerate anything now. But they were apprehensive because they could not be sure that their leader and other people would wake up.
"Stop or we shoot!" barked their squad leader.
Ole Doc negligently fingered his first cloak button. It hummed a little. He kept on walking.
"Stop!" cried the squad leader. "Stop and go back until I'm sure they're going to recover or we'll kill you!"
Ole Doc stopped. He looked sadly at the five on the wall above him. And then he suddenly dived to the right and drew in a blur which flamed before it could be seen. He fired rapidly.
Three shots came at him. Three shots ricocheted off his portable force screen. Five guards went down in charred heaps where the ashes lay amid glowing bits of metal.
Ole Doc looked alertly across the Savannah, glanced back to make sure the screen had protected Hippocrates and then struck off for the Morgue.
There was no guard there now since that guard had been changed from the ship. Ole Doc swung in, indicated a couch where O'Hara was to be tossed and walked through the vessel to check her for ascent. But she had not been harmed and in a few' minutes he could sink with confidence behind his controls and buckle his belts.
He rang for take-off and got Hippocrates' cheery O.K. back. And then the Morgue hurtled upwards to an altitude of three miles.
It looked so peaceful down below. The dark green of the jungle bounding the silver of the lakes was pretty to his appreciative eye. And then he dived and put five big, solid charges into the battle cruiser and left her a curling, smoking mass of wreckage. And he dived again at another place to the south and slammed two shots into a mountainous stockpile of structural materials and munitions and saw how prettily their black smoke rose, interspersed red with exploding shells.
That gave him a great deal of satisfaction.
He skipped upwards then through the atmosphere and out into the black comfort of absolute zero and set his course and speed for home.
"Calling Center," he said into his mike. "Calling Center. Methuselah. Methuselah. Calling Center—"
"Come in! Hey! Come in!" said Center, a tenth of a galaxy away.
"Methuselah with a report."
"Methuselah is enough!" said Ole Doc Cautery at Center. "We have had five navies and the marines looking for you for months. We've had six empires scared 'til they can't spit. WHERE have you been?"
"Got a report," said Ole Doc. "Turn this on confidential."
"Circuits on. Begin report."
Ole Doc spoke into the five wave scramble which had defied cryptographers since the UMS had adopted it two hundred years before. "Alien extragalactic race attempted foothold for jump-off attacks on Earth. First independent space flight originators met so far. Stature about three-quarters Earth normal. Carbon people. Almost a duplicate of man but missing several tissues essential of emotional balance including one brain chord intimately related to kindness, worry and judgment. Established depot of supplies but unable to transport workmen and soldiers in quantity and so made use of Department of Agriculture Experimental Station vats on Gorgan, wrecking freighter and substituting its phials. Very sentient. Obviously well informed intelligence at work in this galaxy. Leaders conditioned to enterprise and spoke English. Detectable by uncommon strength. Life period very short reaching maturity at about six years of age due to emotional imbalances and early development of gonads and so easy to detect in society by rapid aging.
"Treatment and handling of case: Developed the formulae of their gene patterns and isolated missing development cells. Synthesized cells and injected them into proper areas where they will harmonize with bodies. They succumb easily to a strawberry allergy and are painfully affected by it. All beings so located and all artificial gestations infected so that they could be treated. All treated and left in Stupor except five who could not be reached with strawberries.
"Recommendations: That you get hold of the Department of Agriculture of the United States as soon as possible and inform them as follows: Their vessel Wanderho destroyed. Their station on Gorgon deserted but undamaged; the Achnoids there were bought by the aliens and are no longer to be trusted; inform them that the Gorgon Station is now inhabited by about thirty-eight thousand aliens converted to human beings and that a relief expedition should be sent to take care of them since they will none of them be found over twelve years of age and the bulk of them a human five or six months, needing care. Expedition should be armed but should also contain several dozen expert nurses. Gorgon can now be considered to be humanly populated.
"Proceeding at normal speed to base to refit. Please have somebody air out my quarters, preferably Miss Ellison. That is all."
As he threw the switch he heard a gasp behind him. "That's all!" said O'Hara. "You convert thirty-eight thousand one hundred and some odd extragalactic invaders to human beings and you say, 'that's all'! Man, I've heard legends about the Soldiers of Light, but I never realized what superboys you fellows really are."
Ole Doc gave him a very bored look and then and thereafter ignored him.
"Hippocrates," said Ole Doc, "we're almost home. Let's open those last two bottles of wine."