For a moment the others just stared at their Garvian crewmate. Then Jack Alvarez snorted. "You'd better go back and get some rest," he said. "This has been a tougher grind than I thought. You're beginning to show the strain."
"No, I mean it," Dal said earnestly. "I think that is exactly what's been happening."
Tiger looked at him with concern. "Dal, this is no time for double talk and nonsense."
"It's not nonsense," Dal said. "It's the answer, if you'll only stop and think."
"An intelligent virus?" Jack said. "Who ever heard of such a thing? There's never been a life-form like that reported since the beginning of the galactic exploration."
"But that doesn't mean there couldn't be one," Dal said. "And how would an exploratory crew ever identify it, if it existed? How would they ever even suspect it? They'd miss it completely—unless it happened to get into trouble itself and try to call for help!" Dal jumped up in excitement.
"Look, I've seen a dozen articles showing how such a thing was theoretically possible ... a virus life-form with billions of submicroscopic parts acting together to form an intelligent colony. The only thing a virus-creature would need that other intelligent creatures don't need would be some kind of a host, some sort of animal body to live in so that it could use its intelligence."
"It's impossible," Jack said scornfully. "Why don't you give it up and get some rest? Here we sit with our feet in the fire, and all you can do is dream up foolishness like this."
"I'm not so sure it's foolishness," Tiger Martin said slowly. "Jack, maybe he's got something. A couple of things would fit that don't make sense at all."
"All sorts of things would fit," Dal said. "The viruses we know have to have a host—some other life-form to live in. Usually they are parasites, damaging or destroying their hosts and giving nothing in return, but some set up real partnership housekeeping with their hosts so that both are better off."
"You mean a symbiotic relationship," Jack said.
"Of course," Dal said. "Now suppose these virus-creatures were intelligent, and came from some other place looking for 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 sorts of things if it only had an intelligence to guide it. Suppose these virus-creatures found a simple-minded, unintelligent race on this planet and tried to set up a symbiotic relationship with it. The virus-creatures would need a host to provide a home and a food supply. Maybe they in turn could supply the intelligence to raise the host to a civilized level of life and performance. Wouldn't that be a fair basis for a sound partnership?"
Jack scratched his head doubtfully. "And you're saying that these virus-creatures came here after the exploratory ship had come and gone?"
"They must have! Maybe they only came a few years ago, maybe only months ago. But when they tried to invade the unintelligent creatures the exploratory ship found here, they discovered that the new host's body couldn't tolerate them. His body reacted as if they were parasitic invaders, and built up antibodies against them. And those body defenses were more than the virus could cope with."
Dal pointed to the piles of notes on the desk. "Don't you see how it adds up? Right from the beginning we've been assuming that these monkey-like creatures here on this planet were the dominant, intelligent life-forms. Anatomically they were ordinary cellular creatures like you and me, and when we examined them we expected to find the same sort of biochemical reactions we'd find with any such creatures. And all our results came out wrong, because we were dealing with a combination of two creatures—the host and a virus. Maybe the creatures on 31 Brucker VII were naturally blank-faced idiots before the virus came, or maybe the virus was forced to damage some vital part just in order to fight back—but it was the virus that was being killed by its own host, not the other way around."
Jack studied the idea, no longer scornful. "So you think the virus-creatures called for help, hoping we could find some way to free them from the hosts that were killing them. And when Fuzzy developed a powerful antibody against them, and we started using the stuff—" Jack broke off, shaking his head in horror. "Dal, if you're right, we were literally slaughtering our own patients when we gave those injections down there!"
"Exactly," Dal said. "Is it any wonder they're 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."
Tiger nodded. "Which was precisely what we were planning, if you stop to 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."
"But if this is true, then we're really in a jam," Jack said. "What can we possibly do for them? We can't even repair the damage that we've already done. What sort of treatment can we use?"
Dal shook his head. "I don't know the answer to that one, but I do know we've got to find out if we're right. An intelligent virus-creature has as much right to life as any other intelligent life-form. If we've guessed right, then there's a lot that our intelligent 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."
Jack 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 fellows, it was all a mistake, we didn't really mean to do it?'" He shook his head. "Maybe you want to tell them. Not me!"
"Dal's right, though," Tiger said. "We've got to contact them somehow. They aren't even responding to radio communication, and they've scrambled our outside radio and fouled our drive mechanism somehow. We've got to settle this while we still have an energy screen."
There was a long silence as the three doctors looked at each other. Then Dal stood up and walked over to the swinging platform. He lifted Fuzzy down onto his shoulder. "It'll be all right," he said to Jack and Tiger. "I'll go out."
"They'll tear you to ribbons!" Tiger protested.
Dal shook his head. "I don't think so," he said quietly. "I don't think they'll touch me. They'll greet me with open arms when I go down there, and they'll be eager to talk to me."
"Are you crazy?" Jack cried, leaping to his feet. "We can't let you go out there."
"Don't worry," Dal said. "I know exactly what I'm doing. I'll be able to handle the situation, believe me."
He hesitated a moment, and gave Fuzzy a last nervous pat, settling him more firmly on his shoulder. Then he started down the corridor for the entrance lock.
He had promised himself long before ... many years before ... that he would never do what he planned to do now, but now he knew that there was no alternative. The only other choice was to wait helplessly until the power failed and the protective screen vanished and the creatures on the ground outside tore the ship to pieces.
As he stood in the airlock waiting for the pressure to shift to outside normal, he lifted Fuzzy down into the crook of his arm and rubbed the little creature between the shoe-button eyes. "You've got to back me up now," he whispered softly. "It's been a long time, I know that, but I need help now. It's going to be up to you."
Dal knew the subtle strength of his people's peculiar talent. From the moment he had stepped down to the ground the second time with Tiger and Jack, even with Fuzzy waiting back on the ship, he had felt the powerful wave of horror and fear and anger rising up from the Bruckians, and he had glimpsed the awful idiot vacancy of the minds of the creatures in the enclosure, in whom the intelligent virus was already dead. This had required no effort; it just came naturally into his mind, and he had known instantly that something terrible had gone wrong.
In the years on Hospital Earth, he had carefully forced himself never to think in terms of his special talent. He had diligently screened off the impressions and emotions that struck at him constantly from his classmates and from others that he came in contact with. Above all, he had fought down the temptation to turn his power the other way, to use it to his own advantage.
But now, as the lock opened and he started down the ladder, he closed his mind to everything else. Hugging Fuzzy close to his side, he turned his mind into a single tight channel. He drove the thought out at the Bruckians with all the power he could muster: I come in peace. I mean you no harm. I have good news, joyful news. You must be happy to see me, eager to welcome me....
He could feel the wave of anger and fear strike him like a physical blow as soon as he appeared in the entrance lock. The cries rose up in a wave, and the crowd surged in toward the ship. With the energy field 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 Dal's ankles as he came down....
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 him down to the ground. As though an ever-widening wave was spreading out around him, the aura of peace and good will struck the people in the crowd. And as it spread, the anger faded from the faces; the hard lines gave way to puzzled frowns, then to smiles. Dal channeled his thoughts more rigidly, and watched the effect spread out from him like ripples in a pond, as anger and suspicion and fear melted away to be replaced by confidence and trust.
Dal had seen it occur a thousand times before. He could remember his trips on Garvian trading ships with his father, when the traders with their fuzzy pink friends on their shoulders faced cold, hostile, suspicious buyers. It had seemed almost miraculous the way the suspicions melted away and the hostile faces became friendly as the buyers' minds became receptive to bargaining and trading. He had even seen it happen on the Teegar with Tiger and Jack, and it was no coincidence that throughout the galaxy the Garvians—always accompanied by their fuzzy friends—had assumed the position of power and wealth and leadership that they had.
And now once again the pattern was being repeated. The Bruckians who surrounded Dal were smiling and talking eagerly; they made no move to touch him or harm him.
The spokesman they had talked to before was there at his elbow, and Dal heard himself 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 were afraid that we would find out, but your fears were groundless. We will not turn our knowledge against you. We only want to help you."
An expression almost like despair had crossed the spokesman's face as Dal spoke. Now he said, "It would be good—if we could believe you. But how can we? We have been driven for so long and come so far, and now you would seek to wipe us out as parasites and disease-carriers."
Dal saw the Bruckian creature's eyes upon him, saw the frail body tremble and the lips move, but he knew now that the intelligence that formed the words and the thoughts behind them, the intelligence that made the lips speak the words, was the intelligence of a creature far different from the one he was looking at—a creature formed of billions of submicroscopic units, imbedded in every one of the Bruckian'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? Dal's hand lay on Fuzzy's tiny body, but he felt no quiver, no vibration of fear. He looked across the face of the crowd, trying with all his strength to open his mind to the feelings and emotions of these people. Often enough, with Fuzzy nearby, he had felt the harsh impact of hostile, cruel, brutal minds, even when the owners of those minds had tried to conceal 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.
He shook his head. "Why should we want to destroy you?" he 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 with you in a mutually valuable partnership. But you did not tell us everything you could about yourselves, and as a result we have destroyed some of you in our clumsy attempts to learn your true nature."
They talked then, and bit by bit the story came out. The life-form was indeed a virus, unimaginably ancient, and intelligent throughout millions of years of its history. Driven by over-population, a pure culture of the virus-creatures had long ago departed from their original native hosts, and traveled like encapsulated spores across space from a distant galaxy. The trip had been long and exhausting; the virus-creatures had retained only the minimum strength necessary 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-creatures, and provide food and shelter for both. Finally, after thousands of years of searching, they had found this planet with its dull-minded, fruit-gathering inhabitants. These creatures had seemed perfect as hosts, and the virus-creatures had thought their long search for a perfect partner was finally at an end.
It was not until they had expended the last 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-creatures 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-creatures had destroyed vital centers in the new hosts, and one by one they had begun to die. There was not enough energy left for the virus-creatures to detach themselves and move on; without some way to stem the onslaught of the antibodies, they were doomed to total destruction.
"We were afraid to tell you doctors the truth," the spokesman said. "As we wandered and searched we discovered that creatures like ourselves were extreme rarities in the universe, that most creatures similar to us were mindless, unintelligent parasites that struck down their hosts and destroyed them. Wherever we went, life-forms of your kind regarded us as disease-bearers, and their doctors taught them ways to destroy us. We had hoped that from you we might find a way to save ourselves—then you unleashed on us the one weapon we could not fight."
"But not maliciously," Dal said. "Only because we did not understand. And now that we do, there may be a way to help. A difficult 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 or even years to develop and synthesize the proper antidote."
The spokesman looked at Dal, and turned away with a hopeless gesture. "Then it is too late, after all," he said. "We are dying too fast. Even those of us who have not been affected so far are beginning to feel the early symptoms of the antibody attack." He smiled sadly and reached out to stroke the small pink creature on Dal's arm. "Your people too have a partner, I see. We envy you."
Dal felt a movement on his arm and looked down at Fuzzy. He had always taken his little friend for granted, but now he thought of the feeling of emptiness and loss that had come across him when Fuzzy had been almost killed. He had often wondered just what Fuzzy might be like if his almost-fluid, infinitely adaptable physical body had only been endowed with intelligence. He had wondered what kind of a creature Fuzzy might be if he were able to use his remarkable structure with the guidance of an intelligent mind behind it....
He felt another movement on his arm, and his eyes widened as he stared down at his little friend.
A moment before, there had been a single three-inch pink creature on his elbow. But now there were two, each just one-half the size of the original. As Dal watched, one of the two drew away from the other, creeping in to snuggle closer to Dal's side, and a pair of shoe-button eyes appeared and blinked up at him trustingly. But the other creature was moving down his arm, straining out toward the Bruckian spokesman....
Dal realized instantly what was happening. He started to draw back, but something stopped him. Deep in his mind he could sense a gentle voice reassuring him, 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.
He saw the Bruckian reach out a trembling hand. The tiny pink creature that had separated from Fuzzy seemed almost to leap across to the outstretched hand. And then the spokesman held him close, and the new Fuzzy shivered happily.
The virus-creatures had found a host. Here was the ideal kind of body for their intelligence to work with and mold, a host where antibody-formation could be perfectly controlled. Dal knew now that the problem had almost been solved once before, when the virus-creature had reached Fuzzy on the ship; if they had only waited a little longer they would have seen Fuzzy recover from his illness a different creature entirely than before.
Already the new creature was dividing again, with half going on to the next of the Bruckians. 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-creatures' needs forever. As he started back up the ladder to the ship, Dal knew that the problem on 31 Brucker VII had found a happy and permanent solution.
Back in the control room Dal related what had happened from beginning to end. There was only one detail that he concealed. He could not bring himself to tell Tiger and Jack of the true nature of his relationship with Fuzzy, of the odd power over the emotions of others that Fuzzy's presence gave him. He could tell by their faces that they realized that he was leaving something out; they had watched him go down to face a blood-thirsty mob, and had seen that mob become docile as lambs as though by magic. Clearly they could not understand what had happened, yet they did not ask him.
"So it was Fuzzy's idea to volunteer as a new host for the creatures," Jack said.
Dal nodded. "I knew that he could reproduce, of course," he said. "Every Garvian has a Fuzzy, and whenever a new Garvian is born, the father's Fuzzy always splits so that half can join the new-born child. It's like the division of a cell; within hours the Fuzzy that stayed down there will have divided to provide enough protoplasm for every one of the surviving intelligent Bruckians."
"And your diagnosis was the right one," Jack said.
"We'll see," Dal said. "Tomorrow we'll know better."
But clearly the problem had been solved. The next day there was an excited conference between the spokesman and the doctors on the Lancet. The Bruckians had elected to maintain the same host body as before. They had gotten used to it; with the small pink creatures serving as a shelter to protect them against the deadly antibodies, they could live in peace and security. But they were eager, before the Lancet 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.
Now that their radio was free again, the three doctors jubilantly prepared a full account of the problem of 31 Brucker and its solution, and dispatched the news of the new contract to the first relay station on its way back to Hospital Earth. Then, 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.
"It ought to wipe out any black mark Dr. Tanner has against any of us," Jack said happily. "And especially in Dal's case." He grinned at the Red Doctor. "This one has been yours, all the way. You pulled it out of the fire after I flubbed it completely, and you're going to get the credit, if I have anything to say about it."
"We should all get credit," Dal 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."
But Dal knew that he 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 Dal had read the reports of other patrol ships that had secured new contracts with uncontacted planets, and he had seen the fanfare and honor that were heaped on the doctors from those ships. And for the first time since he had entered medical school years before, Dal now allowed himself to hope that his goal was in sight.
He wanted to be a Star Surgeon more than anything else. It was the one thing that he had wanted and worked for since the cruel days when the plague had swept his homeland, destroying his mother and leaving his father an ailing cripple. And since his assignment aboard the Lancet, one thought had filled his mind: to turn in the scarlet collar and cuff in return for the cape and silver star of the full-fledged physician in the Red Service of Surgery.
Always before there had been the half-conscious dread that something would happen, that in the end, after all the work, the silver star would still remain just out of reach, that somehow he would never quite get it.
But now there could be no question. Even Black Doctor Tanner could not deny a new contract. The crew of the Lancet would be called back 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.
After they had slept themselves out, the doctors prepared the ship for launching, and made their farewells to the Bruckian spokesman.
"When the contract is ratified," Jack said, "a survey ship will come here. They will have all of the information that we have gathered, and they will spend many months gathering more. Tell them everything they want to know. Don't conceal anything, because once they have completed their survey, any General Practice Patrol ship in the galaxy will be able to answer a call for help and have the information they need to serve you."
They delayed launching hour by hour waiting for a response from Hospital Earth, but the radio was silent. They thought of a dozen reasons why the message might have been delayed, but the radio silence continued. Finally they strapped down and lifted the ship from the planet, still waiting for a response.
When it finally came, there was no message of congratulations, nor even any acknowledgment of the new contract. Instead, there was only a terse message:
PROCEED TO REFERENCE POINT 43621 SECTION XIX AND STAND BY FOR INSPECTION PARTY
Tiger took the message and read it in silence, then handed it to Dal.
"What do they say?" Jack said.
"Read it," Dal said. "They don't mention the contract, just an inspection party."
"Inspection party! Is that the best they can do for us?"
"They don't sound too enthusiastic," Tiger said. "At least you'd think they could acknowledge receipt of our report."
"It's probably just part of the routine," Dal said. "Maybe they want to confirm our reports from our own records before they commit themselves."
But he knew that he was only whistling in the dark. The moment he saw the terse message, he knew something had gone wrong with the contract. There would be no notes of congratulation, no returning in triumph and honor to Hospital Earth.
Whatever the reason for the inspection party, Dal felt certain who the inspector was going to be.
It had been exciting to dream, but the scarlet cape and the silver star were still a long way out of reach.