For a moment the others just stared at their Vulcan crewmate. Then Christine Chapel snorted. "You better go back and hit the hay, girl," she said. "It's been a tougher grind than I thought and you're beginning to crack under the strain."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡFloMHciCUb
"Seriously," Valeris said earnestly. "I think that's exactly what's been happening."
Bones looked at her with some concern. "Val, this is no time for flights of fancy."
"It's not a flight of fancy," Valeris said. "It's the answer, if you'll just stop and think."
"An intelligent virus?" Christine said. "I don't think so. There's never been a lifeform like that reported since the start of galactic exploration."
"That doesn't mean there couldn't be one," Valeris said. "And how would an exploratory crew identify it, if it did exist? How would they ever even suspect it? They'd overlook it completely—unless it happened to get into trouble itself and tried calling for help!" Valeris jumped up in excitement.
"Look, I've read dozens of E-articles showing how such a thing is theoretically possible ... a virus life-form with billions of submicroscopic parts acting together to form one intelligent colony. All a virus-being would need that other intelligent being don't would be a host of some kind, an animal body to live in so that it could use its intelligence."
"It's not possible," Christine said scornfully. "Give it up and get some rest, dammit! We're sitting with our asses in sling and all you can do is think up idiocy like this!"
"Maybe it's not idiocy," Bones McCoy said slowly. "Christine, I think she might be on to something. It would explain a couple of things that don't make sense at all."
"It would explain all kinds of things," Valeris said. "Viruses have to have hosts---some other lifeform to live in. Usually they're parasites, damaging or destroying their hosts and giving nothing back, but some set up real partnership housekeeping with their hosts so that both entities are better off."
"You're talking about symbiotic relationship," Christine said.
"Damn right," Valeris said. "What if our virus-creatures were intelligent, and came from another galaxy, or a plane of existence we don't understand, in search of a new host they could live with. They wouldn't look for an intelligent creature, they would look for some unintelligent creature with a good strong body that would be capable of doing all kinds of things if it only had an intelligence to guide it. What if these virus-beings found a simple-minded, unintelligent species here on Gavanar and tried to set up a symbiotic relationship wiht it. The virus-beings would need a host to provide a home and a food supply. Maybe they in turn could supply the intelligence to elevate the host to civilized levels of life and performance. Wouldn't that be a fair basis for a sound partnership?"
Christine scratched her head doubtfully. "You're saying that these virus-beings arrived after the survey ship had come and gone?"
"They must have! Maybe they came only a few years ago, maybe only months ago. But when they tried to invade the unintelligent beings the survey ship found here, they found that the new host's body could tolerate them. His body reacted as if they were parasitic invaders, and built up antibodies against them. And those bodily defenses were too much for the virus to deal with."
Valeris pointed to the notes on the screen of her PC Tablet. "Don't you see how it adds up? Right from the start we've been assuming that these walking pillbugs here on Gavanar were the dominant, intelligent species. Anatomically they were ordinary cellular creatures like you and me, and when we examined them we expected to find the same kind of biochemical reactions we'd find with any such beings. And all our results came out wrong, because we were dealing with not one, but two, creatures---the host and a virus. Maybe the creatures on Gavanar were naturally blank-faced morons before the virus came, or maybe the virus was forced to damage some vital organ in order to defend itself---but it was the virus that was being killed by its own host, not the other way around."
Christine studied the idea, no longer scornful. "You think the virus-beings called for help, hoping we could find some way to free them from the hosts that were killing them. And when Blob developed a powerful antibody against them, and we started using the stuff...." Christine broke off, shaking her head in horror. "Valeris, if you're right, we've been slaughtering our own patients by administering those injections down there!"
"Unfortunately, that's right," Valeris said. "Can you blame them for being so scared of us now? It must have looked like a deliberate attempt to wipe them out, and now they're afraid that we'll go get help and really move in against them."
Bones nodded. "And that, Val, is exactly what we were planning, if you think about it. Maybe that was why they were so reluctant to tell us anything about themselves. Maybe they've already been mistaken for parasitic invaders before, wherever in the universe they came from."
"If that's true, then we're really up the creek without a paddle," Christine said. "How can we possibly help them? We can't even fix the damage we've already done. What kind of treatment can we use?"
Valeris shook her head. "I don't know the answer to that one, but I do know we've got to find out if we're right. A sentient virus-being has as much right to life as any other intelligent life-form. If we've guessed right, then there's a lot that our sentient friends down there haven't told us. Maybe there'll be some clue there. We've just got to face them with it, and see what they say."
Christine looked at the viewscreen, at the angry mob milling around on the ground, held back from the ship by the energy screen. "You mean just go out there and say, "Look, you guys, it was all a mistake, we didn't really mean to do it?" She shook his head. "Maybe you want to tell them, but I sure as hell don't!"
"Val's right, though," Bones said. "We've got to contact them somehow. They're not even responding to planetside radio communication, and they've scrambled our subspace radio and fouled our warp engines somehow. We've got to settle this while we still have a deflector shield."
There was a long silence as the three doctors looked at each other. Then Valeris stood up and walked over to the swinging platform. She lifted Blob down onto her shoulder. "It'll be all right," she said to Bones and Christine. "I'll go out."
"They'll tear the shit out of you!" Bones protested.
Valeris shook her head. "No, they won't," she said quietly. "They won't even touch me. They'll greet me with open arms when I go down there, and they'll be eager to talk to me."
"You're space happy!" Christine cried, leaping to her feet. "For God's sake, don't go out there!"
"Christine, please," Valeris said. "I know exactly what I'm doing. I'll be able to handle the situation, trust me."
She hesitated a moment, and gave Blob a final nervous pat, setting him more firmly on her shoulder. Then she started down the corridor for the entrance lock.
She had promised himself long before ... many years before ... that she would never do what she planned to do now, but now she knew that there was no choice. The only alternative was to wait helplessly until the power failed and the protective screen vanished and the creatures on the ground outside ripped the spaceship apart.
As she stood in the airlock waiting for the pressure to shift to outside normal, she lifted Blob down into the crook of her arm and rubbed the little being between the shoe-button eyes. "You've got to back me up now," she whispered softly. "It's been a long time, I know that, but I need your help now. It's all up to you."
Valeris knew the subtle strength of her people's odd talent. From the first time she had stepped down to the ground, to the second time with Bones and Christine, even with Blob waiting back on the spaceship, she had felt the powerful wave of horror, fear and anger rising up from the Ganavarians, and she had glimpsed the awful idiotic vacancy in the minds of the creatures in the enclosure, in whom the intelligent virus was already dead. This had needed no effort; it just came naturally into her mind, and she had known instantly that something had gone horribly wrong.
In the years on Hospital Earth, she had carefully forced herself never to think in terms of her special talent. She had scrupulously screened off the impressions and emotions that struck at her constantly from her classmates and from others that she came in contact with. Above all, she had fought down the temptation to turn her power the other way, to use it to her own advantage.
But now, as the lock opened and she started down the ladder, she closed her mind to everything else. Hugging Blob close to her side, she turned her mind into a single tight channel. She drove the thought out to the Ganavarians with all the power she could summon: I come in peace. I mean you no harm. I have good news, joyful news. You must be happy to see me, eager to bid me welcome...
She could feel the tsunami of anger and fear strike her like a physical blow as soon as she appeared in the entrance lock. The cries rose up in a wave, and the crowd surged in toward the ship. With the deflector shield released, there was nothing to stop them; they were tripping over each other to reach the bottom of the ladder first, shouting threats and waving angry fists, reaching up to grab at Valeris's ankles as she descended....
And then as if by magic the cries died in the throats of the ones closest to the ladder. The angry fists unclenched, and extended into outstretched hands to help her down to the ground. As if an ever-widening wave was spreading out around her, the aura of peace and tolerance struck the people in the crowd. And as it spread, the anger faded from the faces; the hard lines gave away to puzzled frowns, then to smiles. Valeris channeled her thoughts more rigidly, and watched the effect spread out from her like ripples in a pool of water, as anger and suspicion and fear melted away to be replaced by confidence and trust.
Valeris had seen it happen a thousand times before. She could remember her trips on Vulcan trading ships with her father, when the traders with their slimy pink friends on their shoulders faced cold, hostile, suspicious customers. It had seemed almost miraculous the way the suspicions melted away and the hostile faces became friendly as the customers' minds became opening to bargaining and trading. She had even seen it happen on the D'vahl with Bones and Christine, and it was no coincidence that throughout the galaxy the Vulcans---always accompanied by their slimy friends---had assumed the position of wealth and power and leadership that they enjoyed.
Now the pattern was being repeated once again. The Ganavarians who surrounded Valeris were smiling and talking eagerly; they made no move to touch or harm her.
The representative they had spoken to before was there at her elbow, and Valeris heard herself saying, "We have found the answer to your problem. We know now the true nature of your race, and the nature of your intelligence. You feared that we would find out, but your fears were---are---groundless. We won't turn our knowledge against you. We will use it to help you."
An expression nearly like despair had crossed the representative's face as Valeris spoke. Now he said, "It would be good---if we could believe you. Why should we? We have been driven for so long and come so far, and now you would seek to destroy us as parasites and disease-bearers."
Valeris saw the Ganavarian creature's eyes upon her, saw the chitinous body tremble and the lips move, but she knew now that the intelligence that formed the words and the thoughts behind them, the intelligence that made the mouth speak the words, was the intelligence of a being far different from the one she was looking at---a being formed of billions of microscopic units, imbedded in every one of the Ganavarian's body cells, trapped there now and helpless against the antibody reaction that sought to destroy them. This was the intelligence that had called for help in its desperate plight, but had not quite dared to trust its rescuers with the whole truth.
But was this strange virus creature good or evil, hostile or friendly? Valeris's hand lay on Blob's little body, but she felt neither a quiver nor a vibration of fear. She looked across the face of the crowd, trying with all her might to open her mind to the feelings and emotions of these people. Often enough, with Blob nearby, she had felt the harsh impact of hostile, cruel, brutal minds, even when the owners of those minds had tried to hide their feelings behind smiles and pleasant words. But here there was no sign of the sickening feeling that kind of mind produced, no hint of hostility or evil.
She shook her pretty head. "Why should we wish to destroy you?" she said. "You are good and peaceful. We know that; why should we harm you? All you want is a place to live, and a host to join wiht you in a mutually valuable partnership. But you didn't tell us everything you could about yourselves, and as a consequence we've destroyed some of you in our clumsy attempts to learn your true nature."
They talked then, and little by little the story came out. The lifeform was indeed a virus, unimaginably ancient, and intelligent throughout millions of years of its history. Driven by overpopulation, a pure culture of the virus-beings had long ago departed from their original native hosts and traveled like encapsulated spores across space from the Draco Hyeres Galaxy. The trip had been long and exhausting; the virus-beings had retained only the minimum strength needed to establish themselves in a new host, some unintelligent creature living on an uninhabited planet, a creature that could benefit by the great intelligence of the virus-beings, and provide food and shelter for both. Finally, after thousands of years of searching, they had found Ganavar, with its dull-minded, fruit-gathering inhabitants. These creatures had seemed perfect as hosts, and the virus-beings had thought their long quest for a perfect partner was finally over.
It was not until they had expended the remaining dregs of their energy in anchoring themselves into the cells and tissues of their new hosts that they discovered to their horror that the host-beings could not tolerate them. Unlike their original hosts, the bodies of these creatures began developing deadly antibodies that attacked the virus invaders. In their desperate attempts to hold on and fight back, the virus-beings had destroyed vital organs in the new hosts, and one by one they had begun to die. There was not enough energy left for the virus-beings to detach themselves and move on, without some way to stem the onslaught of the antibodies, they were doomed to total destruction.
"We simply couldn't tell you doctors the truth," the representative said. "As we wandered and searched we discovered that beings like ourselves were extreme rarities in the universe, that most beings similar to us were mindless, nonsentient parasites that struck down and killed their host bodies. Wherever we went, lifeforms of your kind regarded us as disease-bearers, and their doctors taught them ways to destroy us. We had hoped that you might find a way to save ourselves---then you unleashed upon us the one weapon we could not fight."
"But not deliberately," Valeris said. "Only because we didn't understand. And now that we do, there might be a way to help. A hard way, but at least a way. The antibodies themselves can be neutralized, but it may take our biochemists and virologists and all their equipment months, perhaps years, to develop and synthesize the proper antidote."
The representative looked at Valeris, and turned away with a hopeless gesture. "Then it's too late, after all," he said. "We're dying too fast. Even those of us who have not been affected thus far are starting to feel the early symptoms of the antibody attack." He smiled sadly and reached out with one of his six hands to stroke the little pink being on Valeris's arm. "Your people, too, have a partner, I see. We envy you."
Valeris felt a movement on her arm and looked down at Blob. She had always taken her little friend for granted, but now she thought of the feeling of emptiness and loss that had come across her when Blob had almost been killed. She had often wondered just what Blob might be like if his almost-fluid, infinitely adaptable physical body had only been endowed with intelligence. She had wondered what kind of a being Blob might be if he were able to use his remarkable structure with the guidance of an intelligent mind behind it....
She felt another movement on her arm, and her eyes widened as she stared down at her friend.
One moment before, there had been a single 3-inch pink being on her elbow. But now there were two, each one just 1/2 the size of the original. As Valeris watched, one of the two drew away from the other, creeping in to snuggle closer to Valeris's side, and a pair of shoe-button eyes appeared and blinked up at her trustingly. But the other creature was moving down her arm, straining out toward the Gavanarian spokesman....
Valeris instantly realized what was happening. She started to draw back, but something stopped her. Deep in her mind she could sense a gentle voice reassuring her, saying, It's all right, there is nothing to fear, no harm will come to me. These creatures need help, and this is the way to help them.
She saw the Gavanarian reach out a trembling hand. The tiny pink creature that had separated from Blob seemed almost to leap across to the outstretched hand. And then the spokesman held him closed, and the new Blob shivered happily.
The virus-beings had at last found a host. Here was the ideal kind of body for their intelligence to work with and mold, a host where the antibody-formation could be perfectly controlled. Valeris knew now that the problem had almost been solved once before, when the virus-creature had reached Blob on the ship; if they had only waited a little longer they would have seen Blob recover from his illness a different creature entirely than before.
Already the new creature was dividing again, with half going to the next of the Ganavarians. To a submicroscopic virus, the body of the host would not have to be large; soon there would be a sufficient number of hosts to serve the virus-beings' needs forever. As she started back up the ladder to the ship, Valeris knew that the crisis on Ganavar had found a happy and permanent solution.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡLNpiOwkxm9
Back in the control room Valeris related what had happened from start to finish. There was just one detail that she kept hidden. She could not bring herself to tell Bones and Christine about the true nature of her relationship with Blob, of the strange power over the emotions of others that Blob's presence gave her. She could tell by their faces that they realized that she was leaving something out; they had watched her go down to face a bloodthirsty mob, and had seen that mob become docile as lambs as if by magic. Clearly they could not understand what had happened, yet they refrained from asking her.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡiwnPSv1Iz0
"So it was Blob's idea to volunteer as a new host for the creatures," Christine said.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡL2FagpfHiE
Valeris nodded. "I knew that he could reproduce, of course," she said. "Every Vulcan has a Blob, and whenever a new Vulcan is born, the father's Blob always splits so that half can join the newborn child. It's just like the division of a cell; within hours the Blob that stayed down there will have divided to provide sufficient protoplasm for every one of the surviving intelligent Ganavarians."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡBMhd9tijlb
"And your diagnosis was the right one," Christine said.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡBY3HqtMapK
"We'll see," Valeris said. "We'll know better tomorrow."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡdmoeGaSEfb
But clearly the problem had been solved. The following day there was an excited conference between the representative and the doctors on the Raphael. The Gavanarians had elected to maintain the same host body as before. They had gotten accustomed to it; with the small pink creatures serving as a shelter to guard them against the harmful antibodies, they could live in peace and harmony. But they were eager, before the Raphael disembarked, to sign a full medical service contract with the doctors from Hospital Earth. A contract was signed, subject only to final acceptance and ratification by the Hospital Earth officials.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡTkXyeeB7za
Now that their subspace radio was free again, the three doctors jubilantly prepared a full account of the problem of Gavanar and its solution, then dispatched the news of the new contract to the first relay station on its way back to Hospital Earth. Later, weary to the point of collapse, they retired for the first good sleep in days, eagerly awaiting an official response from Hospital Earth on the completed case and the contract.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡrngP4wz1N5
"This should wipe away any black mark Dr. Chang has against any of us," Christine said happily. "Especially in Valeris's case." She grinned at the Red Doctor. "This one has been yours, all the way. You pulled it out of the fire after I flunked it miserably, and you're going to get the credit, I'll see to that."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡp14T4ByNW5
"The credit goes to all three of us," Valeris said. "A new contract isn't signed every day of the year. But the way we all fumbled our way into it, Hospital Earth shouldn't pay much attention to it anyway."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡvKwwbLmOh5
But Valeris knew that she was only throwing up his habitual shield to guard against disappointment. Traditionally, a new contract meant a Star rating for each of the crew that brought it in. All through medical school Valeris had read the reports of other patrol ships that had secured new contracts with uncontacted planets, and she had seen the fanfare and honor that were heaped on the doctors from those ships. For the first time since she had entered medical school years before, Valeris now allowed herself to hope that her goal was in sight.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ3mCsDzzU1B
She wanted to be a Star Surgeon more than anything else. It was the only thing that she'd wanted and worked for since the cruel days when the plague had swept her homeworld, killing her mother and leaving her father an ailing cripple. And since her assignment aboard the Raphael, one thought had filled her mind: to turn in the scarlet collar and cuff in return for the cape and golden star of the full-fledged physician in the Red Service of Surgery.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡyHnYs39tTc
Always before there had been the half-conscious dread that something would happen, that in the end, after all the work, the golden star would still remain just out of reach, that somehow she would never really get it.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡhkmAMuzgJI
But now there could be no question. Not even Black Doctor Chang could deny a new contract. The crew of the Raphael would be recalled to Hospital Earth for a full report on the newly contacted race, and their days as probationary doctors in the General Practice patrol would be over.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ0fqETAv9Da
After they had slept themselves out, the doctors prepared the ship for launching, and said their goodbyes to the Ganavarian representative.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ2bJwSYXCy5
"When the contract is ratified," Christine said, "a survey ship will come here. They'll have all of the information that we've amassed, and they'll spend many months amassing more. Tell them everything they want to know. Don't hold back anything, because once they've finished their survey, any General Practice Patrol ship in the galaxy will be able to answer a call for help and have the data they need to serve your people."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡl5NBOTS6ML
They delayed launching hour by hour waiting for a response from Hospital Earth, but the subspace radio stayed silent. They thought of a dozen reasons why the message might have been delayed, but the radio silence dragged on. Finally they strapped down and raised the ship from the planet, still waiting for a response.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ8MgeZzsJkX
When it finally came, there was no message of congratulations, nor even any acknowledgment of the new contract. Instead, there was only a stern message:431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡVMfAztmIFp
PROCEED TO COORDINATES weSw9s SECTION XXI. STAND BY FOR INVESTIGATION PARTY431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡesI8iKqqpK
Bones took the message and read it in silence, then handed it off to Valeris.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡHx3wU7txNz
"What did they say?" Christine said.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡWzJCJYPJ4o
"I--I don't get it," Valeris said. "There's no mention of the contract here, just an investigation party."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡuz9MgdZDhm
"Investigation party! What the hell are they talking about?"431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡlA9Axn5tlD
"Beats me," Bones said. "At the very least you'd think they'd acknowledge receipt of our report."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡJ2nEbkm79l
"Standard procedure, that'd be my guess," Valeris said. "They may want to confirm our reports from our own records before they commit themselves."431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡlThqbPFV5s
But she knew that he was only whistling in the dark. The moment he saw the stern message, she knew something had gone wrong with the contract. There would be no notes of congratulation, no returning in triumph and honor to Hospital Earth.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡvMcmn2vk2o
Whatever the reason for the investigation party, Valeris was damn sure she knew who the investigator was going to be.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡwxGYLAoM2O
It had been a wonderful dream, but the scarlet cape and the golden star were still light years out of reach.431Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ10q0ttK9yjns 22.214.171.124da2