In the control room the subspace radio and universal translator were silent. The red light on the call board continued to blink on and off; Bones turned it off with the snap of a toggle switch. "Here's the message that just came in, as near as I can make out," he said, "I---I don't know what it means, and, Val, if you don't know what it means, we're in deep, dark trouble."
It was a one-word message, E-typed in the middle of a blue flimsiplast sheet:
"That's it?" Christine said. "What's a---Ganavar?"
"Beats me.. They repeated that word six times, just like that."
"The question is: who are they?" Valeris asked. "Any identification symbols?"
"Nope," said Bones. "Our own computer designated 42 Messler based on the direction and intensity of the signal. Val, Christine, any suggestions?"
The one-word message stared up at them cryptically. Valeris shook her head. "It doesn't give us much to go on, that's for sure. Even the location could be wrong if the signal came in on an odd frequency or from a long distance. Let's beam back at the same direction and intensity and see what we get."
Bones took the earphones and speaker, and turned the subspace beam to coincide with the direction of the strange incoming message.
"We've got your contact. Ganavar. Do you read me? What is your situation?"
There was a long delay and they thought the contact was lost. Then a voice came whispering through the static. "Where is your ship now? Are you close to us?"
"We need your co-ordinates in order to tell," Tiger said. "Who are you? Are you Ganavar?"
There was once again a long pause and a howl of static. Then: "Gavanar is the name of my planet, not me. And if you are far away it will be too late. We have no time left, we are dying...."
Abruptly the voice message ceased and the co-ordinates began coming through between bursts of static. Bones jotted them down, piecing them together through several repetitions. "Get these checked out, and fast," he told Christine. "It sounds like serious trouble." He tossed Valeris another pair of earphones and turned back to the speaker. "Is Ganavar a contract planet?" he signaled. "Do we have a survey on you?"
A much longer pause followed Bones's question. Then the alien voice returned, "No, we have no contract with you. We are all dying, I tell you. Does a planet require a contract with you to come?"
"No," Bones sent back. "We will come. Just keep your frequency open. We'll be in touch again when we're closer."
He tossed down the earphones and looked excitedly at Valeris. "You hear that, girl? A planet with no Hospital Earth contract---and they're calling us for help!"
"They sound pretty desperate," Valeris said. "I'm for going there right now, and contract be damned."
"You bet. See if Christine's got those co-ordinates charted, and start digging up information on them, everything you can get your hands on. We need all of the data we can get and we need it, like, five minutes ago. This is a golden opportunity to seal a contract with a new planet."
All three doctors fell to work trying to identify the mysterious caller. Valeris began searching all the E-files for data on 42 Messler, entering all the keywords she could think of, as well as the galactic coordinates of the planet called Ganavar She could barely control her fingers as the E-tapes with all the possible references started plopping down into the slots. Bones was right; this was almost too good to be true. true. Whenever a planet without a medical service contract called a GPP Ship for help, there was always a chance that a brand new contract might be signed if the call was successful. There was no greater honor for a patrol craft crew than to be the progenitors of a new contract for Hospital Earth.
Of course there were problems anytime a crew had to deal with an uncontacted planet. Many star systems had never been explored by ships of the Federation. Many races, like Terrans at the time their warp-drive was invented, had no inkling of the existence of a Federation of Planets. Sometimes there was no information at all about the special anatomical and physiological characteristics of the inhabitants of an uncontacted planet, and often some patrol crews faced insurmountable difficulties, coming in blind to resolve a medical crisis.
Valeris had her information gathered first—a disappointingly small amount, unfortunately. Among the trillions of notes on file in the Raphael's data bank, there were just two bits of data available on the 42 Messler system.
"This all you could find?" Bones said, staring at the information slips.
"There's just nothing else there," Valeris said. "This one's a description and classification of the star. I'm betting the one wrote it had never been within light years of it."
"You'd win that bet," Bones said. "This is a routine radio-telescopic survey report. The star is an M5 V red giant. Big and cold, with three—possibly four—planets inside the outer envelope of the star itself, and only one outside it. Nothing about satellites. None of the planets thought to be habitable. What's the other item?"
"This is an exploratory report on the outer planet----yes, its name is Ganavar----done eight hundred years ago. It says it's an Earth-type planet, but nothing else. It gives reference to the full report in the Federation files. The weirdest part is---there's no record of an intelligent race living on Ganavar."
"Well, maybe Christine's got a bit more for us," Tiger said. "If Ganavar has been explored, there's got to be some information about what lives there."
But Christine also came up dry. Central Archives on Hospital Earth sent back a physical description of Ganavar: a tiny outer planet of the star, with a thin oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, very little water, and enough methane mixed in to make the atmosphere toxic to Terrans.
"Then----there's no record of any medical service contract?" Bones asked.
"Contract?!" Christine said. "It doesn't even say there are any people there. Not a single word about any kind of lifeform."
"That's bullshit," Valeris said. "If we're getting messages from Ganavar, somebody's obviously sending them. But if a Federation ship actually explored there, then there's a way to find out. How soon can we go to warp-drive?"
"As soon as we can get ourselves strapped in," Tiger said.
"Then send our reconversion co-ordinates to the Federation High Command on Vulcan and request the Federation records on the place."
Bones stared at him. "You mean just ask to see Federation records? Val, they'd have our asses for it. You know those records are closed to everyone except full member planets of the Federation."
"Then tell them it's an emergency," Valeris said. "If they want to get technical about it, give them my Federation serial number. Vulcan is a member of the Federation, and I'm a Vulcan."
Bones fired off the request off while Christine and Valeris strapped down for the jump to Cochrane drive. Five minutes later Bones joined them, grinning from ear to ear. "I didn't even have to pull rank," he said. "When they started arguing, I just told them it was an emergency, and if they didn't let us see any records they had, we'd would file their refusal against future claims. That shut them down PDQ. We'll have the records as soon as we reconvert."
The star that they were seeking was a long distance from the current location of the Raphael. The spaceship stayed in Cochrane drive for several hours before it reconverted, and then even Valeris was starting to feel the first pangs of drive-sickness before they felt the usual jolting vibration of the change back to normal space, and they saw bright stars once again in the main viewscreen.
The star called 42 Messler was close then. Yes, it truly was a red giant; long tenuous plumes of gas spread out for hundreds of millions of miles on all sides of its glowing red core. This enormous star didn't look so cold now, as they stared at it in the viewscreen, yet among the stellar family it was a cold, dying giant with only a few moments of life left on the time scale of the universe. From the Raphael's position, there were no planets at all visible to the naked eye, but, using the powerful ipragyon telescope Christine soon found two inside the star's envelope of gas and one tiny one outside. They would have to be searched for, and the one that was likely Ganavar located before centering and landing maneuvers could be start.
Already the supspace radio was chattering with two powerful signals coming in. One came from the Federation High Command on Vulcan; the other was a good clear signal from very close range, unquestionably beamed to them from Ganavar.
They watched as the Federation report came ticking off the E-type, and they stared at it unbelieving.
"It doesn't make any damn sense," Christine said. "There must be intelligent beings down there. They're sending radio signals."
"Then why a report like this?" Bones said. "This was filed by a routine exploratory ship that came here eight hundred years ago. I refuse to believe that an intelligent race could develop from scratch in less than eight centuries' time."
Valeris picked up the report and read it again. "This red giant star," she read, "was studied in the usual way. It was found to have seven planets, all but one lying within the weak outer gas envelope of the star itself. The seventh planet, Ganavar, has its own atmosphere and travels an orbit well beyond the star surface. It was Ganavar that was selected for landing and exploration."
Following this was a long, detailed and exceedingly dull boring description of the step-by-step procedure followed by a Vulcan exploration ship making a first landing on a barren planet. There was a description of the atmosphere, the soil composition, the continents and major water bodies. Physically, the planet was a desert, hot, dry, and barren of vegetation except in two or three areas of rainforest along the equator. "Ganavar is inhabited by numerous small nonsentient animal species which seem well-adapted to the semi-arid conditions. Of higher animals and mammals only two species were discovered, and of the two, the most highly evolved was an insectoid biped with an integrated central nervous system and the intelligence level of a Vulcan askor."
"And how small is that?" Christine said.
"Idiot-level," Valeris said glumly. "I.Q. of about 20 on the human scale. I guess the explorers weren't much impressed; they didn't even put the Ganavar down for a routine colonization survey."
"Well, something has happened down there since then. Morons can't build subspace radios." Bones turned to Christine. "You getting them?"
Christine nodded. A hesitant and apologetic voice was coming over the speaker, speaking in the common tongue of the Federation of Planets. "How soon can you come?" the voice was asking clearly, still with the sound of great reticence. "There is not much time."
"But who are you?" Bones asked. "What's the nature of your problem?"
"What does who we are truly matter? We are sick, dying, thousands of us. But---if you have other work that is more pressing, we will not delay you—"
Christine shook her head, frowning. "Weird," she said. "What are they so scared of?"
Bones spoke into the microphone again. "All right, we'll do what we can, but we need information about you. You've got our position—can you send up a representative to explain the problem to us?"483Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡNKwt5qnU8g
There was a long pause, and then the voice came back wearily. "It will be done. Stand by to receive him."
Bones snapped off the radio receiver and looked up triumphantly at the others. "Well, now we're getting somewhere. If those people can send a ship out with a representative to tell us about their troubles, we've got a chance to sew up a contract, and that could mean a Star for each of us."
"But who are they?" Valeris said. "And where were they when the Federation ship was here?"
"I don't know," Christine said, "but I'll bet you both that we'll have the time of our lives finding out."
"What do you mean?" Bones said.
"I mean that we'd better look before we leap on this planet," Christine said darkly. "I don't want to scare you guys, but this whole business feels like some kind of death trap."
There was nothing truly alien the Ganavarian ship when it finally came into view. It was a standard design, surface-to-space interplanetary spacecraft, with separated segments on either side suggesting nuclear engines. They saw the side jets flare as the spaceship maneuvered to come in alongside the Raphael.
Grapplers were thrown out to bind the emissary ship to the Raphael's hull, and Christine threw the switches to open the entrance lock and decontamination chambers. They had taken great pains to describe the interior atmosphere of the patrol ship and warn the representative to keep himself in a sealed pressure suit. On the intercom viewscreens they saw the small suited figure cross from his ship into the Raphael's lock, and watched as the jet-sprays of glaumaline washed down the outside of the suit.
Moments later the being stepped out of the decontamination chamber. He was a small, frail-looking insectoid/crustacean with six arms, pale green skin, two legs, and a wide tail.He stood no more than four feet high. More than anything else, he looked like a sad-faced pillbug with a diminutive space suit fitting his scaly body. When he spoke the words came through the translator in English; but Valeris recognized the flowing syllables of the universal language of the Federation of Planets.
"How do you know our common tongue?" she said. "There is no record of your people in our Federation, yet you speak our own universal language."
The Ganavarian nodded. "We know your language well. We are a cautious people with an aversion to outside contact—it is a racial characteristic—but we hear the Federation broadcasts and have learned to speak the common tongue." The space-suited stranger looked at the doctors one by one. "We also know of the good works of the ships from Hospital Earth, and now we appeal to you."
"Then why didn't you give us something to go on?" said Christine.
"There was no time," the being said. "Death is stalking our planet, and the people are falling at their plows. Thousands of us are dying, tens of thousands. I, too, am infected and will soon be dead. Unless you can find a way to help us quickly, it will be too late, and my people, my society, will be no more."
Christine looked grimly at Valeris and Bones. "Well," she said, "There you have it, folks. We've got ourselves a plague planet. See what I meant about it being a death trap?"ns 18.104.22.168da2