- Author: Murray Leinster
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by MURRAY LEINSTER
ACE BOOKS, INC. 23 West 47th Street, New York 36, N. Y. THIS WORLD IS TABOO
The little Med Ship came out of overdrive and the stars were strange and the Milky Way seemed unfamiliar. Which, of course, was because the Milky Way and the local Cepheid marker-stars were seen from an unaccustomed angle and a not-yet-commonplace pattern of varying magnitudes.
But Calhoun grunted in satisfaction. There was a banded sun off to port, which was good. A breakout at no more than sixty light-hours from one's destination wasn't bad, in a strange sector of the galaxy and after three light-years of journeying blind.
"Arise and shine, Murgatroyd," said Calhoun. "Comb your whiskers. Get set to astonish the natives!"
A sleepy, small, shrill voice said: "Chee!"
Murgatroyd the tormal came crawling out of the small cubbyhole which was his own. He blinked at Calhoun.
"We're due to land shortly," Calhoun observed. "You will impress the local inhabitants. I will get unpopular. According to the records, there's been no Med Ship inspection here for twelve standard years. And that was practically no inspection, to judge by the report."
Murgatroyd said: "Chee-chee!"
He began to make his toilet, first licking his right-hand whiskers and then his left. Then he stood up and shook himself and looked interestedly at Calhoun. Tormals are companionable small animals. They are charmed when somebody speaks to them. They find great, deep satisfaction in imitating the actions of humans, as parrots and mynahs and parakeets imitate human speech. But tormals have certain valuable, genetically transmitted talents which make them much more valuable than mere companions or pets.
Calhoun got a light-reading for the banded sun. It could hardly be an accurate measure of distance, but it was a guide.
"Hold on to something, Murgatroyd!" he said.
Murgatroyd watched. He saw Calhoun make certain gestures which presaged discomfort. He popped back into his cubbyhole. Calhoun threw the overdrive switch and the Med Ship flicked back into that questionable state of being in which velocities of hundreds of times that of light are possible. The sensation of going into overdrive was unpleasant. A moment later, the sensation of coming out was no less so. Calhoun had experienced it often enough, and still didn't like it.
The sun Weald burned huge and terrible in space. It was close, now. Its disk covered half a degree of arc.
"Very neat," observed Calhoun. "Weald Three is our port, Murgatroyd. The plane of the ecliptic would be ... Hm...."
He swung the outside electron telescope, picked up a nearby bright object, enlarged its image to show details, and checked it against the local star-pilot. He calculated a moment. The distance was too short for even the briefest of overdrive hops, but it would take time to get there on solar-system drive.
He thumbed down the communicator button and spoke into a microphone.
"Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty reporting arrival and asking coordinates for landing," he said matter-of-factly. "Purpose of landing is planetary health inspection. Our mass is fifty tons, standard. We should arrive at a landing position in something under four hours. Repeat. Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty...."
He finished the regular second transmission and made coffee for himself while he waited for an answer. Murgatroyd came out for a cup of coffee for himself. Murgatroyd adored coffee. In minutes he held a tiny cup in a furry small paw and sipped gingerly at the hot liquid.
A voice came out of the communicator:
"Aesclipus Twenty, repeat your identification."
Calhoun went to the control board.
"Aesclipus Twenty," he said patiently, "is a Med Ship, sent by the Interstellar Medical Service to make a planetary health inspection on Weald. Check with your public health authorities. This is the first Med Ship visit in twelve standard years, I believe—which is inexcusable. But your health authorities will know all about it. Check with them."
The voice said truculently:
"What was your last port?"
Calhoun named it. This was not his home sector, but Sector Twelve had gotten into a very bad situation. Some of its planets had gone unvisited for as long as twenty years, and twelve between inspections was almost commonplace. Other sectors had been called on to help it catch up.
Calhoun was one of the loaned Med Ship men, and because of the emergency he'd been given a list of half a dozen planets to be inspected one after another, instead of reporting back to sector headquarters after each visit. He'd had minor troubles before with landing-grid operators in Sector Twelve.
So he was very patient. He named the planet last inspected, the one from which he'd set out for Weald Three. The voice from the communicator said sharply:
"What port before that?"
Calhoun named the one before the last.
"Don't drive any closer," said the voice harshly, "or you'll be destroyed!"
Calhoun said coldly, "Listen, my fine feathered friend! I'm from the Interstellar Medical Service. You get in touch with planetary health services immediately! Remind them of the Interstellar Medical Inspection Agreement, signed on Tralee two hundred and forty standard years ago. Remind them that if they do not cooperate in medical inspection that I can put your planet under quarantine and your space commerce will be cut off like that!
"No ship will be cleared for Weald from any other planet in the galaxy until there has been a health inspection! Things have pretty well gone to pot so far as the Med Service in this sector is concerned, but it's being straightened up. I'm helping straighten it! I give you twenty minutes to clear this! Then I am coming in, and if I'm not landed a quarantine goes on! Tell your health authorities that!"
Silence. Calhoun clicked off and poured himself another cup of coffee. Murgatroyd held out his cup for a refill. Calhoun gave it to him.
"I hate to put on an official hat, Murgatroyd," he said, annoyed, "but there are some people who demand it. The rule is, never get official if you can help it, but when you must, out-official the official who's officialing you."
Murgatroyd said "Chee!" and sipped at his cup.
Calhoun checked the course of the Med Ship. It bore on through space. There were tiny noises from the communicator. There were whisperings and rustlings and the occasional strange and sometimes beautiful musical notes whose origin is yet obscure, but which, since they are carried by electromagnetic radiation of wildly varying wave lengths, are not likely to be the fabled music of the spheres.
In fifteen minutes a different voice came from the speaker.
"Med Ship Aesclipus! Med Ship Aesclipus!"
Calhoun answered and the voice said anxiously:
"Sorry about the challenge, but we have the blueskin problem always with us. We have to be extremely careful! Will you come in, please?"
"I'm on my way," said Calhoun.
"The planetary health authorities," said the voice, more anxiously still, "are very anxious to be cooperative. We need Med Service help! We lose a lot of sleep over the blueskin! Could you tell us the name of the last Med Ship to land here, and its inspector, and when that inspection was made? We want to look up the record of the event to be able to assist you in every possible way."
"He's lying," Calhoun told Murgatroyd, "but he's more scared than hostile."
He picked up the order folio on Weald Three. He gave the information about the last Med Ship visit.
"What?" he asked, "is a blueskin?"
He'd read the folio on Weald, of course, but as the ship swam onward through emptiness he went through it again. The last medical inspection had been only perfunctory. Twelve years earlier—instead of three—a Med Ship had landed on Weald. There had been official conferences with health officials. There was a report on the birth rate, the death rate, the anomaly rate, and a breakdown of all reported communicable diseases. But that was all. There were no special comments and no overall picture.
Presently Calhoun found the word in a Sector dictionary, where words of only local usage were to be found:
"Blueskin: Colloquial term for a person recovered from a plague which left large patches of blue pigment irregularly distributed over the body. Especially, inhabitants of Dara. The condition is said to be caused by a chronic, nonfatal form of Dara plague and has been said to be noninfectious, though this is not certain. The etiology of Dara plague has not been worked out. The blueskin condition is hereditary but not a genetic modification, as markings appear in non-Mendelian distributions."
Calhoun puzzled over it. Nobody could have read the entire Sector directory, even with unlimited leisure during travel between solar systems. Calhoun hadn't tried. But now he went laboriously through indices and cross-references while the ship continued to travel onward.
He found no other reference to blueskins. He looked up Dara. It was listed as an inhabited planet, some four hundred years colonized, with a landing-grid and, at the time the main notice was written out, a flourishing interstellar commerce. But there was a memo, evidently added to the entry in some change of editions: "Since plague, special license from Med Service is required for landing."
That was all. Absolutely all.
The communicator said suavely:
"Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty! Come in on vision, please!"
Calhoun went to the control board and threw on vision.
"Well, what now?" he demanded.
His screen lighted. A bland face looked out at him.
"We have—ah—verified your statements," said the third voice from Weald. "Just one more item. Are you alone in your ship?"
"Of course," said Calhoun, frowning.
"Quite alone?" insisted the voice.
"Obviously!" said Calhoun.
"No other living creature?" insisted the voice again. "Of—oh!" said Calhoun, annoyed. He called over his shoulder. "Murgatroyd! Come here!"
Murgatroyd hopped to his lap and gazed interestedly at the screen. The bland face changed remarkably. The voice changed even more.
"Very good!" it said. "Very, very good! Blueskins do not have tormals! You are Med Service! By all means come in! Your coordinates will be...."
Calhoun wrote them down. He clicked off the communicator again and growled to Murgatroyd, "So I might have been a blueskin, eh? And you're my passport, because only Med Ships have members of your tribe aboard! What the hell's the matter, Murgatroyd? They act like they think somebody's trying to get down on their planet with a load of plague germs!"
He grumbled to himself for minutes. The life of a Med Ship man is not exactly a sinecure, at best. It means long periods in empty space in overdrive, which is absolute and deadly tedium. Then two or three days aground, checking official documents and statistics, and asking questions to see how many of the newest medical techniques have reached this planet or that, and the supplying of information about such as have not arrived.
Then the lifting out to space for long periods of tedium, to repeat the process somewhere else. Med Ships carry only one man because two could not stand the close contact without quarreling with each other. But Med Ships do carry tormals, like Murgatroyd, and a tormal and a man can get along indefinitely, like a man and a dog. It is a highly unequal friendship, but it seems to be satisfactory to both.
Calhoun was very much annoyed with the way the Med Service had been operated in Sector Twelve. He was one of many men at work to correct the results of incompetence in directing Med Service in this sector. But it is always disheartening to have to labor at making up for somebody else's blundering, when there is so much new work that needs to be done.
The condition shown by the landing-grid suspicions was a case in point. Blueskins were people who inherited a splotchy skin pigmentation from other people who'd survived a plague. Weald plainly maintained a one-planet quarantine against them. But a quarantine is normally an emergency measure. The Med Service should have taken over, wiped out the need for a quarantine, and then lifted it. It hadn't been done.
Calhoun fumed to himself.
The world of Weald Three grew brighter and brighter and became a disk. The disk had icecaps and a reasonable proportion of land and water surface. The ship decelerated, voices notifying observation from the surface, and the little ship came to a stop some five planetary diameters out from solidity. The landing field's force-field locked on to it, and its descent began.
The business of landing was all very familiar, from the blue rim which appeared at the limb of the planet from one diameter out, to the singular flowing-apart of the surface features as the ship sank still lower. There was the circular landing-grid, rearing skyward for nearly a mile. It could let down interstellar