- Author: Murray Leinster
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BY MURRAY LEINSTER
Illustrated by FINLAY
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Magazine February 1961.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Suddenly the biggest thing in the
universe was the very tiniest.
There were suns, which were nearby, and there were stars which were so far away that no way of telling their distance had any meaning. The suns had planets, most of which did not matter, but the ones that did count had seas and continents, and the continents had cities and highways and spaceports. And people.
The people paid no attention to their insignificance. They built ships which went through emptiness beyond imagining, and they landed upon planets and rebuilt them to their own liking. Suns flamed terribly, renting their impertinence, and storms swept across the planets they preëmpted, but the people built more strongly and were secure. Everything in the universe was bigger or stronger than the people, but they ignored the fact. They went about the businesses they had contrived for themselves.
They were not afraid of anything until somewhere on a certain small planet an infinitesimal single molecule changed itself.
It was one molecule among unthinkably many, upon one planet of one solar system among uncountable star clusters. It was not exactly alive, but it acted as if it were, in which it was like all the important matter of the cosmos. It was actually a combination of two complicated substances not too firmly joined together. When one of the parts changed, it became a new molecule. But, like the original one, it was still capable of a process called autocatalysis. It practiced that process and catalyzed other molecules into existence, which in each case were duplicates of itself. Then mankind had to take notice, though it ignored flaming suns and monstrous storms and emptiness past belief.
Men called the new molecule a virus and gave it a name. They called it and its duplicates "chlorophage." And chlorophage was, to people, the most terrifying thing in the universe.
In a strictly temporary orbit around the planet Altaira, the Star Queen floated, while lift-ships brought passengers and cargo up to it. The ship was too large to be landed economically at an unimportant spaceport like Altaira. It was a very modern ship and it made the Regulus-to-Cassim run, which is five hundred light-years, in only fifty days of Earthtime.
Now the lift-ships were busy. There was an unusual number of passengers to board the Star Queen at Altaira and an unusual number of them were women and children. The children tended to pudginess and the women had the dieted look of the wives of well-to-do men. Most of them looked red-eyed, as if they had been crying.
One by one the lift-ships hooked onto the airlock of the Star Queen and delivered passengers and cargo to the ship. Presently the last of them was hooked on, and the last batch of passengers came through to the liner, and the ship's doctor watched them stream past him.
His air was negligent, but he was actually impatient. Like most doctors, Nordenfeld approved of lean children and wiry women. They had fewer things wrong with them and they responded better to treatment. Well, he was the doctor of the Star Queen and he had much authority. He'd exerted it back on Regulus to insist that a shipment of botanical specimens for Cassim travel in quarantine—to be exact, in the ship's practically unused hospital compartment—and he was prepared to exercise authority over the passengers.
He had a sheaf of health slips from the examiners on the ground below. There was one slip for each passenger. It certified that so-and-so had been examined and could safely be admitted to the Star Queen's air, her four restaurants, her two swimming pools, her recreation areas and the six levels of passenger cabins the ship contained.
He impatiently watched the people go by. Health slips or no health slips, he looked them over. A characteristic gait or a typical complexion tint, or even a certain lack of hair luster, could tell him things that ground physicians might miss. In such a case the passenger would go back down again. It was not desirable to have deaths on a liner in space. Of course nobody was ever refused passage because of chlorophage. If it were ever discovered, the discovery would already be too late. But the health regulations for space travel were very, very strict.
He looked twice at a young woman as she passed. Despite applied complexion, there was a trace of waxiness in her skin. Nordenfeld had never actually seen a case of chlorophage. No doctor alive ever had. The best authorities were those who'd been in Patrol ships during the quarantine of Kamerun when chlorophage was loose on that planet. They'd seen beamed-up pictures of patients, but not patients themselves. The Patrol ships stayed in orbit while the planet died. Most doctors, and Nordenfeld was among them, had only seen pictures of the screens which showed the patients.
He looked sharply at the young woman. Then he glanced at her hands. They were normal. The young woman went on, unaware that for the fraction of an instant there had been the possibility of the landing of the Star Queen on Altaira, and the destruction of her space drive, and the establishment of a quarantine which, if justified, would mean that nobody could ever leave Altaira again, but must wait there to die. Which would not be a long wait.
A fat man puffed past. The gravity on Altaira was some five per cent under ship-normal and he felt the difference at once. But the veins at his temples were ungorged. Nordenfeld let him go by.
There appeared a white-haired, space-tanned man with a briefcase under his arm. He saw Nordenfeld and lifted a hand in greeting. The doctor knew him. He stepped aside from the passengers and stood there. His name was Jensen, and he represented a fund which invested the surplus money of insurance companies. He traveled a great deal to check on the business interests of that organization.
The doctor grunted, "What're you doing here? I thought you'd be on the far side of the cluster."
"Oh, I get about," said Jensen. His manner was not quite normal. He was tense. "I got here two weeks ago on a Q-and-C tramp from Regulus. We were a ship load of salt meat. There's romance for you! Salt meat by the spaceship load!"
The doctor grunted again. All sorts of things moved through space, naturally. The Star Queen carried a botanical collection for a museum and pig-beryllium and furs and enzymes and a list of items no man could remember. He watched the passengers go by, automatically counting them against the number of health slips in his hand.
"Lots of passengers this trip," said Jensen.
"Yes," said the doctor, watching a man with a limp. "Why?"
Jensen shrugged and did not answer. He was uneasy, the doctor noted. He and Jensen were as much unlike as two men could very well be, but Jensen was good company. A ship's doctor does not have much congenial society.
The file of passengers ended abruptly. There was no one in the Star Queen's airlock, but the "Connected" lights still burned and the doctor could look through into the small lift-ship from the planet down below. He frowned. He fingered the sheaf of papers.
"Unless I missed count," he said annoyedly, "there's supposed to be one more passenger. I don't see—"
A door opened far back in the lift-ship. A small figure appeared. It was a little girl perhaps ten years old. She was very neatly dressed, though not quite the way a mother would have done it. She wore the carefully composed expression of a child with no adult in charge of her. She walked precisely from the lift-ship into the Star Queen's lock. The opening closed briskly behind her. There was the rumbling of seals making themselves tight. The lights flickered for "Disconnect" and then "All Clear." They went out, and the lift-ship had pulled away from the Star Queen.
"There's my missing passenger," said the doctor.
The child looked soberly about. She saw him. "Excuse me," she said very politely. "Is this the way I'm supposed to go?"
"Through that door," said the doctor gruffly.
"Thank you," said the little girl. She followed his direction. She vanished through the door. It closed.
There came a deep, droning sound, which was the interplanetary drive of the Star Queen, building up that directional stress in space which had seemed such a triumph when it was first contrived. The ship swung gently. It would be turning out from orbit around Altaira. It swung again. The doctor knew that its astrogators were feeling for the incredibly exact pointing of its nose toward the next port which modern commercial ship operation required. An error of fractional seconds of arc would mean valuable time lost in making port some ten light-years of distance away. The drive droned and droned, building up velocity while the ship's aiming was refined and re-refined.
The drive cut off abruptly. Jensen turned white.
The doctor said impatiently, "There's nothing wrong. Probably a message or a report should have been beamed down to the planet and somebody forgot. We'll go on in a minute."
But Jensen stood frozen. He was very pale. The interplanetary drive stayed off. Thirty seconds. A minute. Jensen swallowed audibly. Two minutes. Three.
The steady, monotonous drone began again. It continued interminably, as if while it was off the ship's head had swung wide of its destination and the whole business of lining up for a jump in overdrive had to be done all over again.
Then there came that "Ping-g-g-g!" and the sensation of spiral fall which meant overdrive. The droning ceased.
Jensen breathed again. The ship's doctor looked at him sharply. Jensen had been taut. Now the tensions had left his body, but he looked as if he were going to shiver. Instead, he mopped a suddenly streaming forehead.
"I think," said Jensen in a strange voice, "that I'll have a drink. Or several. Will you join me?"
Nordenfeld searched his face. A ship's doctor has many duties in space. Passengers can have many things wrong with them, and in the absolute isolation of overdrive they can be remarkably affected by each other.
"I'll be at the fourth-level bar in twenty minutes," said Nordenfeld. "Can you wait that long?"
"I probably won't wait to have a drink," said Jensen. "But I'll be there."
The doctor nodded curtly. He went away. He made no guesses, though he'd just observed the new passengers carefully and was fully aware of the strict health regulations that affect space travel. As a physician he knew that the most deadly thing in the universe was chlorophage and that the planet Kamerun was only one solar system away. It had been a stop for the Star Queen until four years ago. He puzzled over Jensen's tenseness and the relief he'd displayed when the overdrive field came on. But he didn't guess. Chlorophage didn't enter his mind.
Not until later.
He saw the little girl who'd come out of the airlock last of all the passengers. She sat on a sofa as if someone had told her to wait there until something or other was arranged. Doctor Nordenfeld barely glanced at her. He'd known Jensen for a considerable time. Jensen had been a passenger on the Star Queen half a dozen times, and he shouldn't have been upset by the temporary stoppage of an interplanetary drive. Nordenfeld divided people into two classes, those who were not and those who were worth talking to. There weren't many of the latter. Jensen was.
He filed away the health slips. Then, thinking of Jensen's pallor, he asked what had happened to make the Star Queen interrupt her slow-speed drive away from orbit around Altaira.
The purser told him. But the purser was fussily concerned because there were so many extra passengers from Altaira. He might not be able to take on the expected number of passengers at the next stop-over point. It would be bad business to have to refuse passengers! It would give the space line a bad name.
Then the air officer stopped Nordenfeld as he was about to join Jensen in the fourth-level bar. It was time for a medical inspection of the quarter-acre of Banthyan jungle which purified and renewed the air of the ship. Nordenfeld was expected to check the complex ecological system of the air room. Specifically, he was expected to look for and identify any patches of colorlessness appearing on the foliage of the jungle plants the Star Queen carried through space.
The air officer was discreet and Nordenfeld was silent about