Beyond all doubt, it was a virus. The powerful covalatron microscope told them that, now that they had the substance isolated and could examine it. In the culture tubes of the Raphael's incubators, it would begin to grow nicely, then falter and die, but when Tobraran snow pigs were inoculated in the spaceship's lab, the substance proved its virulence. The animals injected with tiny bits of the substance grew sick within hours and died very quickly .
The call to the Hospital Ship was canceled as the three doctors worked in eager excitement. Here at last was something they could deal with, something so typical among the races of the galaxy that the doctors felt sure that they could confront it. Few, if any, higher life forms existed that didn't have at least one kind of submicroscopic parasite afflicting them. Bacterial infection was a threat on every inhabited world, and the viruses—the tiniest of all diminutive organisms—were the hardest and dangerous of them all.
Yet virus plagues had been stopped before, and they would be stopped again.
Christine radioed down to the planet's surface that the diagnosis had been made; as soon as the proper medications could be prepared, the doctors would land to start treatment. A new flicker of hopefulness permeated the Gavaranians' response, and an appeal to hurry. With renewed energy the doctors returned to the lab to begin working on the new data.
Still, trouble continued dogging them. This was not an ordinary virus. It proved resistant to each one of the antibiotics and antiviral agents in the Raphael's storeroom. No drug seemed to affect it, and its molecular structure was radically different from any virus that had ever been recorded before.
"If one of the drugs would only just slow it up a little, we'd be ahead," Bones said in perplexity. "We haven't got anything that even touches it, not even the purified globulins."
"We might be able to use antibodies from the infected people," Christine suggested. "In every virus disease I've ever heard of, the victim's own body will make antibodies against the invading virus. If enough antibodies are made quickly enough, the virus dies and the patient is immune from that time forward."
"Unfortunately these people don't seem to be making any antibodies at all," Bones said. "At least not as far as I can tell. If they were, at least some of them would be recovering from the disease. So far not a single one of them has recovered once the thing started. They all just die."
"I wonder if Blob had any defense," Valeris said.
Christine looked up. "What do you mean?"
"Blob was infected, we know that. He might have died too, if we hadn't got it in time....but as it worked out, he didn't. In fact, he looks pretty healthy right now."
"It might be all right for Blob," Christine said impatiently, "but, Valeris, we can't push the whole population of Ganavar through a virus filter. They're flesh-and-blood creatures."
"That isn't what I mean," Valeris said. "Maybe Blob's body developed antibodies against the virus while he was infected. Remember, he doesn't have a fixed body structure like we do. He's mostly just basic protein, and that lets him synthesize pretty much anything he wants or needs to."
Bones blinked. "That's food for thought, I will admit. Say, is there any way we can extract some of his body fluid? Without getting bit, that is?"
"No problem," Valeris said. "He can regenerate pretty fast if he's got enough of the right kind of food. He won't miss an ounce, perhaps two, of excess tissue."
She took a beaker over to Blob's platform and started squeezing off a little blob of pink material. Blob seemed to sense what Valeris wanted; obligingly he thrust out a little pseudopod that Valeris pinched off into the beaker. With the addition of a small amount of saline solution, the tissue dissolved into thin, pink suspension.
In the lab they found two or three of the snow pigs in the final stages of the infection, and injected them with a little bit of the pink solution. The effect was almost unbelievable. Within twenty minutes all of the injected animals began to perk up, their eyes brighter, nibbling at the food in their cages, while the ones that had not been injected got sicker and sicker.
"Case closed," Christine said eagerly. "Now, if we can get some of this stuff injected into our buddies down there, we might be able to protect the healthy ones from getting the plague, and cure the sick ones as well---if we still have enough time."
Within minutes of the announcement, they had permission from the Ganavarian spokesman, and one hour later the Raphael made an incident-free landing on a newly-repaved landing field near one of the major cities on Ganavar.
Bones and Christine had obviously not exaggerated the bizarre appearance of the towns and cities on this plague-torn planet, and Valeris was sickened by the ravages of the disease that they had come to fight. Only one in ten Gavanarians was still uninfected, and another three out of the ten were clearly in the final stages of the disease, walking about blankly and blindly, stumbling into objects in their paths, falling to the ground and lying mute and helpless until death came to set them free. Under the glaring red sun, weary parties of stretcher bearers went about the quiet streets, moving their sad cargo out to the mass graves at the edge of the city.
The original representative who had come up to the Raphael was dead, but another had taken his place as liaison to the doctors----an older, thinner Ganavarian who looked as if he were juggling the total burden of his people in all six of his hands. He greeted them eagerly at the landing field. "You have found a solution!" he cried. "You have found a way to defeat the scourge---but hurry! Every moment now is precious."
During the landing procedures, Valeris had worked to prepare enough of the precious antibody suspension, with Blob's cooperation, to handle a large number of inoculations. By the time the spaceship touched down, she had twelve flasks and several hundred syringes ready. Hundreds of the unafflicted people were crowding around the ship, staring in childlike wonder as Valeris, Christine, and Bones came down the ladder and went into close conference with the representative.
It took a while to explain to the representative why they couldn't begin then and there with the mass inoculations against the plague. First, they needed test cases, in order to make sure that what they thought would work in theory actually produced the correct results. Controls were needed, to make sure that the antibody suspension alone was bringing out the changes seen and not something else. At last, orders went out from the representative. Two hundred uninfected Ganavarians were admitted to a large roped-off area near the ship, and another two hundred in late stages of the disease were led stumbling into another closed area. Preliminary skin-tests of the antibody suspension showed no sign of untoward reaction. Valeris started filling syringes while Bones and Christine started inoculating the two groups.
"If it works with these cases, it'll be easy to immunize the whole population," Bones said. From the amounts we used on the guinea pigs, it looks as if only tiny amounts are needed. We may even be able to train the Ganavarians to administer the injections themselves."
"Think bigger than that, Valeris!" Christine urged eagerly. "If it works we'll have a brand new medical service contract ready for signature with Hospital Earth. It won't be long before we get our Stars, you wait and see!" If we can just get this done fast enough...."
They worked feverishly, particularly with the group of terminal cases. Many were dying even as the shots were being administered, while the first symptoms of the disease were appearing in some of the unafflicted ones. Swiftly Bones and Christine went from one patient to the next while Valeris kept track of the names, numbers and locations of those that were inoculated.
And even before they were through with the inoculations, it was apparent that they were taking effect. Not one of the infected patients died after inoculation was completed. The series took three hours, and by the time the four hundred doses were administered, one thing seemed sure: that the antibody was somehow checking the deadly march of the disease.
The Ganavarian spokesman was so excited he could barely control himself; he wanted to start bringing in the rest of the population at once. "We've almost exhausted this first batch of the material," Valeris told him. "We'll have to prepare more---but we'll waste time trying to move a whole planet's population here. Get a dozen aircraft ready, and a dozen healthy, intelligent workers to help us. We can show them how to use the material, and let them go out to the other population centers immediately."
Back aboard the spaceship they began preparing a larger quantity of the antibody suspension. Blob had regenerated back to normal weight again, and much to Valeris's delight had been splitting off small segments of pink protoplasm in a circle all around him, as if anticipating further demands on his resources. A quick test-run showed that the antibody was also being regenerated. Blob was voraciously hungry, but the material in the second batch was still as dynamic as the first.
The doctors were almost ready to go back down, loaded with inoculum and syringes to equip themselves and a dozen field workers when Christine suddenly stopped what she was doing and cocked an ear toward the entrance lock.
"What's the matter?" Valeris said.
"Listen a minute."
They stopped to listen. "I don't hear anything," Bones said.
Christine nodded. "That's just it. They were cheering themselves hoarse when we came back aboard. Why are they so quiet now?"
She crossed over to the viewscreen scanning the field below, and flipped on the switch. For one moment she just stared. Then she said. "Come here a minute. I don't like the looks of this, not one bit."
Valeris and Bones crowded up to the screen. "Hmm," Bones said. "I don't see...hold on!"
"Yeah, you'd better take a look again," Christine said. "What do you think, Valeris?"
"I think we'd better get the hell down there fast," Valeris said, "and see what's going on. It looks to me like we've got a tiger by the tail!"
They climbed down the ladder once again, with the antibody flasks and sterile syringes strapped to their backs. This time the greeting was different from before.
The Gavanarian spokesman and the others who hadn't yet been inoculated drew back from them in horror as they stepped to the ground. Before, the people on the field had crowded in eagerly around the ship; now they stood in silent groups staring at the doctors fearfully and nattering among themselves.
But the doctors could see only the inoculated people in the two roped-off areas. Off to the right among the infected Ganavarians who had received the antibody there were no new dead—but then, no change for the better, either. The seriously ill beings drifted about aimlessly, milling like animals in a cage, their faces blank, their jaws slack, tails wagging, hands (all six) wandering foolishly. Not one of them had started reacting normally, not one showed any sign of recognition or recovery.
The true horror, however, lay on the other side of the field. Here were the healthy ones, the uninfected ones who had received the preventative inoculations. Some hours earlier they had been left standing in quiet, happy groups, nattering among themselves, laughing, joking.....
But now they weren't talking anymore. They stared across the field at the doctors with slack faces and dazed eyes, their feet shuffling aimlessly in the dust. All were alive, yet somehow, not alive. The intelligence and alertness had disappeared from their faces; they were like the empty shells of the creatures they had been just a few hours before, indivisible from the infected creatures in the other compound.
Christine turned to the Ganavarian representative in alarm. "What's going on here?" she asked. "What have you done with the ones we inoculated? Where did you take them?"
The representative shrank back as if afraid Christine might reach out to touch him. "What have we done with them?" he cried. "We have done nothing with them! Those are the ones you poisoned with your needles. Why are they like this? Tell me now!"
"Well----it must be some kind of temporary reaction to the injection," Christine faltered. "I promise you, we haven't used anything that could possibly have given them the disease, only a substance to help them fight it off."
The Ganavarian was shaking his clenched fist, from his fourth arm on the left side of his body, irately. "It's no reaction, it is simply the plague! What kind of killers do you pretend to be? You came here to help us, and you bring more misery and death instead! Have we not had enough of that to satisfy you?"
Swiftly the doctors began examining the patients in both enclosures. On each side they found the same thing. One by one they checked the ones that had previously been spared by the plague, only to find the sagging jaws and idiotic stares."
"There's no use examining each one," Bones said at last. "They're all the same, every damn one of them!"
"I don't get it," Christine said, glancing apprehensively at the growing mob of angry Ganavarians outside the stockades. "What happened? What did we do wrong?"
"I don't know," Bones said. "But whatever we did, it's turned into a boomerang. We knew that the antibody might not work, and the disease might just go right ahead, but we never anticipated anything like this."
"My guess would be that some foreign protein got into the batch," Valeris said.
Bones shook his head. "Even if it did, it wouldn't behave like this. And we were careful getting it ready. All we've done was inject an antibody against a specific virus. All it could have done was kill the virus, but these people act as if they're infected now."
"But they're not dying," Valeris said. "And the sick ones we injected stopped dying, too."
"Well, what do we do now?" Christine said.
"Get one of these that changed like this aboard ship and go over him with a fine-toothed comb. We've got to find out what happened."
She led one of the stricken Ganavarians by one of its hands like a mindless dummy across the field toward the little group where the representative and his party stood. The crowd on the field were moving in closer; an angry cry went up when Valeris touched the sick creature.
"We need you to get this crowd under control," Valeris said to the spokesman. "We're going to take this one aboard the ship and examine him to see what this reaction could be, but this mob is starting to sound dangerous."
"They're frightened," the spokesman said. "They want to know what you've done to them, what new curse is that you bring in your syringes."
"Nothing like a curse, but something's certainly gone wrong. We need to find out what, in order to deal with it."
Indeed, the attitude of the crowd around the ship was very strange. They were not just fearful; they were terrified. As the doctors walked back to the ship leading the stricken Ganavarian behind them, the people shrank back with dreadful cries, holding up their hands as if warding away some hideous evil. Before, in the worse throes of the plague, there had been no sign of this kind of reaction. The people had seemed apathetic and miserable, resigned hopelessly to their fate, but now they were reacting in abject horror. It almost seemed that they were more afraid of these walking shells of their former selves than they were of the disease itself.
But as the doctors started up the ladder toward the entrance lock the crowd surged in toward them with fists raised in anger. "We'd better get help, fast," Christine said as she slammed the entrance lock closed behind them. "I don't like the looks of this one bit, Valeris, we'd better see what we can learn from this poor creature here."
As Bones headed for the earphones, Valeris and Christine went to work once again, checking the blood and other bodily fluids from the stricken Ganavarian. But now, incredibly, the results of their tests were quite different from those they had originally expected for a creature of this kind. Even more surprising, the level of the antibody against the plague virus was high---far higher than it could have been from the tiny amount that was injected into the alien being.
"They must've been making it themselves," Valeris said, "and our inoculation was just the straw that broke the camel's back. All of those people must have been on the brink of symptoms of the infection, and all we did was supplement the natural defenses they were already making."
"Then why did the symptoms appear?" Christine said. "If that's the case, we should've been helping them. My God, girl---look at them now!"
Bones appeared at the door, scowling. "We're in deep, dark trouble, folks," he said. "I can't get through to a Hospital Ship. In fact, I can't get a message out at all. These people are jamming our radios."
"Why?" Valeris said.
"I don't know, but take a look outside there."
Through the viewscreen it seemed like the whole field surrounding the ship had filled up with the crowd. The first reaction of terror now seemed to have given way to blind fury; the people were shouting angrily, waving their clenched fists at the ship as the representative tried to restrain them.
Then there was a resounding bang from somewhere below, and the ship lurched, throwing the doctors to floor. They staggered to their feet as another blow jolted the ship, and another.
"Shields up," Bones shouted. "Christine, engage the engines. They're trying to board us, and I don't think we'll have the time of our lives if, God forbid, they break in."
In the control room they threw the switches that activated a powerful protective energy field around the ship. It was a device that was carried by all General Practice Patrol Ships as a means of protection against physical attack. When activated, an energy screen was virtually impregnable, but it could only be used briefly; the power it required placed an enormous strain on a ship's power supply, and a year's nuclear fuel could be exhausted in a few hours.
Now the screen served its purpose. The ship steadied, still vibrating from the last assault, and the noise from below quit abruptly. But when Christine threw the switches to start the engines, nothing happened at all.
"Will you look at that!" she cried, staring at the motionless dials. "Those bastards are jamming our electrical system somehow. I can't get any turnover."
"Try again," Bones said. "We've got to get out of here. If they break in, we're finished."
"They can't break through the screen," Valeris said.
"Not as long as it lasts. But we can't keep it up indefinitely."
Once again they tried the subspace radio. There was no response but the harsh static of the jamming signal from the ground below. "No good," Bones said finally. "We're stuck here, and we can't even call for help. You'd think if they were so scared of us they'd be happy to see us go."
"I think it's more involved than that," Valeris said thoughtfully. "This whole business has been wacky from the start. This just fits in with all the rest." She picked Blob off his perch and set him on her shoulder as if protecting him from some unsuspected threat. "Maybe they're scared of us, I don't know. But I think they're afraid of something worse, a whole lot worse."
There was nothing they could do but wait and stare hopelessly at their PC Tablets, all containing the masses of notes and records that they'd collected on the people of Ganavar and the plague that afflicted them.
Up until now, the Raphael's crew had been too busy to stop and assemble the data, to try to see the picture as a whole. But now there was sufficient time, and the realization of what had been happening here began to dawn on them.
They'd followed the well-established principles step by step in studying these amazing people, yet nothing had come out as it should. Theoretically, the steps they'd taken should've yielded the answer. They had come to a planet where an entire race was threatened with a terrible disease. They'd identified the disease, found and isolated the virus that caused it, and then devised an antibody that effectively decimated the virus—at least, in the laboratory. But when they'd tried to apply the antibody to the infected patients, the response had been totally unexpected. They'd halted the progression of death among those inoculated, and instead had produced a condition that the people seemed to fear far more than death.
"All right," Valeris said, "somewhere along the line we've screwed up. We should've had help right here from the beginning. I don't know where we went wrong, but we've done something."
"Don't blame yourself," Christine said gloomily. "If we had the correct diagnosis, this wouldn't have happened. Trouble is---I still can't see the diagnosis. All I've been able to come up with is a nice mess."
"We're missing something, that's all," Valeris said. "The information's all here. We're just not reading it right, somehow. Somewhere in here is the key to the whole thing, and we're just not seeing it."
They went back to the data again, going through it step by step. This was Christine Chapel's specialty—the art of diagnosis, the ability to take all the available information about a race and about its illness and piece it together into a pattern that made sense. Valeris could see that Christine was now bitterly angry with herself, yet at every turn she seemed to strike yet another obstacle—some fact that didn't jibe, a missing fragment there, a wrong answer here. Even with Valeris and Bones helping she started back over the sequence of events, trying to make sense out of them, yet still coming squarely up against blank walls.
All of the things they'd done should have worked, but instead, they'd failed. A specific antibody used against a specific virus should have decimated the virus or otherwise impeded its progress, and there seemed to be no rational explanation for the horrific response of the uninfected ones, those who had been inoculated for protection.
As the doctors sifted through the data, the Ganavarian they had brought up from the enclosure sat staring off into space, making small noises with his mouth and moving all six of his arms aimlessly. After a while they led him back to a bunk, gave him a sedative for sleeping and left him snoring gently. Yet another hour passed as they stared at the data scrolling by on the screens of their PC Tablets, with Bones stopping from time to time to mop perspiration from his forehead. All three of them were aware of the moving clock hands, marking off the minutes that the force field could hold out.
And then Valeris scrolling through frantically through her data files, searching for something that evidently was not there. "That first report we got," she said hoarsely. "There was something in the very first information we ever saw on this planet...."
"You mean the Federation's data? You need to open file number 3354016816." Bones directed her to a file located on the right hand corner of her Tablet's screen. "That's the subspace radio log. But what...."
"It's there, plain as day, I'm sure of it," Valeris said. She tapped on the screen to open the file, then she scrolled through the report swiftly, until at last she came to the final paragraph—a two-line description of the largest creatures the original Exploration Ship had found on Gavanar, described by them as totally unintelligent and only observed on a few occasions in the course of the exploration. Valeris read it, and her hands were trembling as she handed her Tablet to Christine. "I knew the answer was in there!" she said. "Take a look at that again and think about it for a minute."
Christine read it through. "I'm afraid I'm don't follow you," she said.
"We've made a horrific mistake, my friends," Valeris said, "and I think I see now what it was. We've had this whole thing exactly 100% backwards from the start, and that explains everything we've seen happening here!"
Bones peered over Jack's shoulder at the report. "Backwards?"
"As backward as we could get it," Valeris said. "We've assumed all along that these flesh-and-blood creatures down there were the ones that were calling us for help because of a virus plague that was attacking and killing them. Now, consider this: what if the intelligent creature that called us for help was the virus, and those six-armed, flesh-and-blood creatures down there with the blank, dumb faces are the real plague we should have been fighting all along!"ns 184.108.40.206da2