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DOCTOR ***




Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net









DOCTOR

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 preƫmpted, 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 the
ultimate reason for the inspection. Nobody liked to think about it. But
if a particular kind of bleaching appeared, as if the chlorophyll of
the leaves were being devoured by something too small to be seen by an
optical microscope - why, that would be chlorophage. It would also be a
death sentence for the _Star Queen_ and everybody in her.

But the jungle passed medical inspection. The plants grew lushly in
soil which periodically was flushed with hydroponic solution and
then drained away again. The UV lamps were properly distributed and
the different quarters of the air room were alternately lighted and
darkened. And there were no colorless patches. A steady wind blew
through the air room and had its excess moisture and unpleasing smells
wrung out before it recirculated through the ship. Doctor Nordenfeld
authorized the trimming of some liana-like growths which were
developing woody tissue at the expense of leaves.

The air officer also told him about the reason for the turning off of
the interplanetary drive. He considered it a very curious happening.

The doctor left the air room and passed the place where the little
girl - the last passenger to board the _Star Queen_ - waited patiently
for somebody to arrange something. Doctor Nordenfeld took a lift to the
fourth level and went into the bar where Jensen should be waiting.

He was. He had an empty glass before him. Nordenfeld sat down and
dialed for a drink. He had an indefinite feeling that something was
wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it. There are always things
going wrong for a ship's doctor, though. There are so many demands on
his patience that he is usually short of it.

Jensen watched him sip at his drink.

"A bad day?" he asked. He'd gotten over his own tension.

* * * * *

Nordenfeld shrugged, but his scowl deepened. "There are a lot of new
passengers." He realized that he was trying to explain his feelings to
himself. "They'll come to me feeling miserable. I have to tell each one
that if they feel heavy and depressed, it may be the gravity-constant
of the ship, which is greater than their home planet. If they feel
light-headed and giddy, it may be because the gravity-constant of
the ship is less than they're used to. But it doesn't make them feel
better, so they come back for a second assurance. I'll be overwhelmed
with such complaints within two hours."

Jensen waited. Then he said casually - too casually, "Does anybody ever
suspect chlorophage?"

"No," said Nordenfeld shortly.

Jensen fidgeted. He sipped. Then he said, "What's the news from
Kamerun, anyhow?"

"There isn't any," said Nordenfeld. "Naturally! Why ask?"

"I just wondered," said Jensen. After a moment: "What was the last
news?"

"There hasn't been a message from Kamerun in two years," said
Nordenfeld curtly. "There's no sign of anything green anywhere on the
planet. It's considered to be - uninhabited."

Jensen licked his lips. "That's what I understood. Yes."

Nordenfeld drank half his drink and said unpleasantly, "There were
thirty million people on Kamerun when the chlorophage appeared. At
first it was apparently a virus which fed on the chlorophyll of
plants. They died. Then it was discovered that it could also feed on
hemoglobin, which is chemically close to chlorophyll. Hemoglobin is the
red coloring matter of the blood. When the virus consumed it, people
began to die. Kamerun doctors found that the chlorophage virus was
transmitted by contact, by inhalation, by ingestion. It traveled as
dust particles and on the feet of insects, and it was in drinking water
and the air one breathed. The doctors on Kamerun warned spaceships
off and the Patrol put a quarantine fleet in orbit around it to keep
anybody from leaving. And nobody left. And everybody died. _And_ so did
every living thing that had chlorophyll in its leaves or hemoglobin in
its blood, or that needed plant or animal tissues to feed on. There's
not a person left alive on Kamerun, nor an animal or bird or insect,
nor a fish nor a tree, or plant or weed or blade of grass. There's no
longer a quarantine fleet there. Nobody'll go there and there's nobody
left to leave. But there are beacon satellites to record any calls and
to warn any fool against landing. If the chlorophage got loose and was
carried about by spaceships, it could kill the other forty billion
humans in the galaxy, together with every green plant or animal with
hemoglobin in its blood."

"That," said Jensen, and tried to smile, "sounds final."

"It isn't," Nordenfeld told him. "If there's something in the
universe which can kill every living thing except its maker, that
something should be killed. There should be research going on about
the chlorophage. It would be deadly dangerous work, but it should be
done. A quarantine won't stop contagion. It can only hinder it. That's
useful, but not enough."

Jensen moistened his lips.

Nordenfeld said abruptly, "I've answered your questions. Now what's on
your mind and what has it to do with chlorophage?"

Jensen started. He went very pale.

"It's too late to do anything about it," said Nordenfeld. "It's
probably nonsense anyhow. But what is it?"

Jensen stammered out his story. It explained why there were so many
passengers for the _Star Queen_. It even explained his departure from
Altaira. But it was only a rumor - the kind of rumor that starts up
untraceably and can never be verified. This one was officially denied
by the Altairan planetary government. But it was widely believed by the
sort of people who usually were well-informed. Those who could sent
their families up to the _Star Queen_. And that was why Jensen had been
tense and worried until the liner had actually left Altaira behind.
Then he felt safe.

Nordenfeld's jaw set as Jensen told his tale. He made no comment, but
when Jensen was through he nodded and went away, leaving his drink
unfinished. Jensen couldn't see his face; it was hard as granite.

And Nordenfeld, the ship's doctor of the _Star Queen_, went into the
nearest bathroom and was violently sick. It was a reaction to what he'd
just learned.

* * * * *

There were stars which were so far away that their distance didn't
mean anything. There were planets beyond counting in a single star
cluster, let alone the galaxy. There were comets and gas clouds in
space, and worlds where there was life, and other worlds where life was
impossible. The quantity of matter which was associated with life was
infinitesimal, and the quantity associated with consciousness - animal
life - was so much less that the difference couldn't be expressed.
But the amount of animal life which could reason was so minute by
comparison that the nearest ratio would be that of a single atom to
a sun. Mankind, in fact, was the least impressive fraction of the
smallest category of substance in the galaxy.

But men did curious things.

There was the cutting off of the _Star Queen's_ short-distance drive
before she'd gotten well away from Altaira. There had been a lift-ship
locked to the liner's passenger airlock. When the last passenger
entered the big ship - a little girl - the airlocks disconnected and the
lift-ship pulled swiftly away.

It was not quite two miles from the _Star Queen_ when its emergency
airlocks opened and spacesuited figures plunged out of it to emptiness.
Simultaneously, the ports of the lift-ship glowed and almost
immediately the whole plating turned cherry-red, crimson, and then
orange, from unlimited heat developed within it.

The lift-ship went incandescent and ruptured and there was a spout
of white-hot air, and then it turned blue-white and puffed itself to
nothing in metallic steam. Where it had been there was only shining
gas, which cooled. Beyond it there were figures in spacesuits which
tried to swim away from it.

The _Star Queen's_ control room, obviously, saw the happening. The
lift-ship's atomic pile had flared out of control and melted down the
ship. It had developed something like sixty thousand degrees Fahrenheit
when it ceased to flare. It did not blow up; it only vaporized. But
the process must have begun within seconds after the lift-ship broke
contact with the _Star Queen_.

In automatic reaction, the man in control of the liner cut her drive
and offered to turn back and pick up the spacesuited figures in
emptiness. The offer was declined with almost hysterical haste. In
fact, it was barely made before the other lift-ships moved in on rescue
missions. They had waited. And they were picking up castaways before
the _Star Queen_ resumed its merely interplanetary drive and the
process of aiming for a solar system some thirty light-years away.

When the liner flicked into overdrive, more than half the floating
figures had been recovered, which was remarkable. It was almost as
remarkable as the flare-up of the lift-ship's atomic pile. One has
to know exactly what to do to make a properly designed atomic pile
vaporize metal. Somebody had known. Somebody had done it. And the other
lift-ships were waiting to pick up the destroyed lift-ship's crew when
it happened.

The matter of the lift-ship's destruction was fresh in Nordenfeld's
mind when Jensen had told his story. The two items fitted together with
an appalling completeness. They left little doubt or hope.

* * * * *

Nordenfeld consulted the passenger records and presently was engaged in
conversation with the sober-faced, composed little girl on a sofa in
one of the cabin levels of the _Star Queen_.

"You're Kathy Brand, I believe," he said matter-of-factly. "I
understand you've been having a rather bad time of it."

She seemed to consider.

"It hasn't been too bad," she assured him. "At least I've been seeing
new things. I got dreadfully tired of seeing the same things all the
time."

"What things?" asked Nordenfeld. His expression was not stern now,
though his inner sensations were not pleasant. He needed to talk to
this child, and he had learned how to talk to children. The secret is
to talk exactly as to an adult, with respect and interest.

"There weren't any windows," she explained, "and my father couldn't
play with me, and all the toys and books were ruined by the water. It
was dreadfully tedious. There weren't any other children, you see. And
presently there weren't any grownups but my father."

Nordenfeld only looked more interested. He'd been almost sure ever
since knowing of the lift-ship's destruction and listening to Jensen's
account of the rumor the government of Altaira denied. He was horribly
sure now.

"How long were you in the place that hadn't any windows?"

"Oh, dreadfully long!" she said. "Since I was only six years old!
Almost half my life!" She smiled brightly at him. "I remember looking
out of windows and even playing out-of-doors, but my father and mother
said I had to live in this place. My father talked to me often and
often. He was very nice. But he had to wear that funny suit and keep
the glass over his face because he didn't live in the room. The glass
was because he went under the water, you know."

Nordenfeld asked carefully conversational-sounding questions. Kathy
Brand, now aged ten, had been taken by her father to live in a big room
without any windows. It hadn't any doors, either. There were plants in
it, and there were bluish lights to shine on the plants, and there was
a place in one corner where there was water. When her father came in to


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