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´╗┐Title: Contamination Crew
Author: Nourse, Alan Edward, 1928-1992
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Contamination Crew" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration: Illustrated by Ed Emsh]


CONTAMINATION CREW

BY ALAN E. NOURSE


    _Orders were orders! The creature had to be killed. But just how
    does one destroy the indestructible?_


(_The following is taken from the files of the Medical Disciplinary
Board, Hospital Earth, from the preliminary hearings in re: The
Profession vs. Samuel B. Jenkins, Physician; First Court of Medical
Affairs, final action pending._)

 COM COD S221VB73 VOROCHISLOV SECTOR; 4th GALACTIC PERIOD 22, 2341
     GENERAL SURVEY SHIP MERCY TO HOSPITAL EARTH

 VIA: FASTEST POSSIBLE ROUTING, PRIORITY UNASSIGNED

 TO: Lucius Darby, Physician Grade I, Black Service Director of Galactic
     Periphery Services, Hospital Earth

 FROM: Samuel B. Jenkins, Physician Grade VI, Red Service General
     Practice Patrol Ship _Lancet_ (Attached GSS _Mercy_ pro tem)

SIR: The following communication is directed to your attention in hopes
that it may anticipate various charges which are certain to be placed
against me as a Physician of the Red Service upon the return of the
General Survey Ship _Mercy_ to Hospital Earth (expected arrival four
months from above date).

These charges will undoubtedly be preferred by one Turvold Neelsen,
Physician Grade II of the Black Service, and Commander of the _Mercy_ on
its current survey mission into the Vorochislov Sector. Exactly what the
charges will be I cannot say, since the Black Doctor in question refuses
either audience or communication with me at the present time; however,
it seems likely that treason, incompetence and mutinous insubordination
will be among the milder complaints registered. It is possible that even
Malpractice might be added, so you can readily understand the reasons
for this statement--

The following will also clarify my attached request that the GSS
_Mercy_, upon arrival in orbit around Hospital Earth, be met immediately
by a decontamination ship carrying a vat of hydrochloric acid,
concentration 3.7%, measuring no less than twenty by thirty by fifty
feet, and that Quarantine officials be prepared to place the entire crew
of the _Mercy_ under physical and psychiatric observation for a period
of no less than six weeks upon disembarkation.

The facts, in brief, are as follows:

Three months ago, as crew of the General Practice Patrol Ship _Lancet_,
my colleague Green Doctor Wallace Stone and myself began investigating
certain peculiar conditions existing on the fourth planet of Mauki,
Vorochislov Sector (Class I Medical Service Contract.) The entire
population of that planet was found to be suffering from a mass
psychotic delusion of rather spectacular proportions: namely, that they
and their entire planet were in imminent danger of being devoured, in
toto, by an indestructible non-humanoid creature which they called a
_hlorg_. The Maukivi were insistent that a _hlorg_ had already totally
consumed a non-existent outer planet in their system, and was now hard
at work on neighboring Mauki V. It was their morbid fear that Mauki IV
was next on its list. No amount of reassurance could convince them of
the foolishness of these fears, although we exhausted our energy, our
patience, and our food and medical supplies in the effort. Ultimately we
referred the matter to the Grey Service, feeling confident that it was a
psychiatric problem rather than medical or surgical. We applied to the
GSS _Mercy_ to take us aboard to replenish our ship's supplies, and
provide us a much-needed recovery period. The Black Doctor in command
approved our request and brought us aboard.

The trouble began two days later....

       *       *       *       *       *

There were three classes of dirty words in use by the men who travelled
the spaceways back and forth from Hospital Earth.

There were the words you seldom used in public, but which were colorful
and descriptive in private use.

Then there were the words which you seldom used even in private, but
which effectively relieved feelings when directed at mirrors, inanimate
objects, and people who had just left the room.

Finally, there were the words that you just didn't use, period. You knew
they existed; you'd heard them used at one time or another, but to hear
them spoken out in plain Earth-English was enough to rock the most
space-hardened of the Galactic Pill Peddlers back on his well-worn
heels.

Black Doctor Turvold Neelsen's Earth-English was spotty at best, but the
word came through without any possibility of misinterpretation. Red
Doctor Sam Jenkins stared at the little man and felt his face turning as
scarlet as the lining of his uniform cape.

"But that's ridiculous!" he finally stammered. "Quite aside from the
language you use to suggest it."

"Ah! So the word still has some punch left, eh? At least you puppies
bring something away from your Medical Training, even if it's only
taboos." The Black Doctor scowled across the desk at Jenkins' lanky
figure. "But sometimes, my good Doctor, it is better to face a fact than
to wait for the fact to face you. Sometimes we have to crawl out of our
ivory towers for a minute or two--you know?"

Jenkins reddened again. He had never had any great love for physicians
of the Black Service--who did?--but he found himself disliking this
short, blunt-spoken man even more cordially than most. "Why implicate
the _Lancet_?" he burst out. "You've landed the _Mercy_ on plenty of
planets before we brought the _Lancet_ aboard her--"

"But we did not have it with us before the _Lancet_ came aboard, and we
do have it now. The implication is obvious. You have brought aboard a
contaminant."

He'd said it again.

Red Doctor Jenkins' face darkened. "The Green Doctor and I have
maintained the _Lancet_ in perfect conformity with the Sterility Code.
We've taken every precaution on both landing and disembarking
procedures. What's more, we've spent the last three months on a planet
with _no_ mutually compatible flora or fauna. From Hospital Earth
viewpoint, Mauki IV is sterile. We made only the briefest check-stop on
Mauki V before joining you. It was a barren rock, but we decontaminated
again after leaving. If you have a--a _contaminant_ on board your ship,
sir, it didn't come from the _Lancet_. And I won't be held responsible."

It was strong language to use to a Black Doctor, and Sam Jenkins knew
it. There were doctors of the Green and Red Services who had spent their
professional lives on some god-forsaken planetoid at the edge of the
Galaxy for saying less. Red Doctor Sam Jenkins was too near the end of
his Internship, too nearly ready for his first Permanent Planetary
Appointment with the rank, honor, and responsibility it carried to
lightly risk throwing it to the wind at this stage--

But a Red Doctor does not bring a contaminant aboard a survey ship, he
thought doggedly, no matter what the Black Doctor says--

Neelsen looked at the young man slowly. Then he shrugged. "Of course,
I'm merely a pathologist. I realize that we know nothing of medicine,
nor of disease, nor of the manner in which disease is spread. All this
is beyond our scope. But perhaps you'll permit one simple question from
a dull old man, just to humor him."

Jenkins looked at the floor. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Just so. You've had a very successful cruise this year with the
_Lancet_, I understand."

Jenkins nodded.

"A most successful cruise. Four planets elevated from Class IV to Class
II contracts, they tell me. Morua II elevated from Class VI to Class I,
with certain special riders. A plague-panic averted on Setman I, and a
very complex virus-bacteria symbiosis unravelled on Orb III. An
illustrious record. You and your colleague from the Green Service are
hoping for a year's exemption from training, I imagine--" The Black
Doctor looked up sharply. "You searched your holds after leaving the
Mauki planets, I presume?"

Jenkins blinked. "Why--no, sir. That is, we decontaminated according
to--"

"I see. You didn't search your holds. I suppose you didn't notice your
food supplies dwindling at an alarming rate?"

"No--" The Red Doctor hesitated. "Not really."

"Ah." The Black Doctor closed his eyes wearily and flipped an activator
switch. The scanner on the far wall buzzed into activity. It focussed on
the rear storage hold of the _Mercy_ where the little _Lancet_ was
resting on its landing rack. "Look closely, Doctor."

At first Jenkins saw nothing. Then his eye caught a long, pink
glistening strand lying across the floor of the hold. The scanner picked
up the strand, followed it to the place where it emerged from a neat
pencil-sized hole in the hull of the _Lancet_. The strand snaked
completely across the room and disappeared through another neat hole in
the wall into the next storage hold.

Jenkins shook his head as the scanner flipped back to the hole in the
_Lancet's_ hull. Even as he watched, the hole enlarged and a pink blob
began to emerge. The blob kept coming and coming until it rested soggily
on the edge of the hole. Then it teetered and fell _splat_ on the floor.

"Friend of yours?" the Black Doctor asked casually.

It was a pink heap of jelly just big enough to fill a scrub bucket. It
sat on the floor, quivering noxiously. Then it sent out pseudopods in
several directions, probing the metal floor. After a few moments it
began oozing along the strand of itself that lay on the floor, and
squeezed through the hole into the next hold.

"Ugh," said Sam Jenkins, feeling suddenly sick.

"The hydroponic tanks are in there," the Black Doctor said. "You've seen
one of those before?"

"Not in person." Jenkins shook his head weakly. "Only pictures. It's a
_hlorg_. We thought it was only a Maukivi persecution fantasy."

"This thing is growing pretty fast for a persecution fantasy. We spotted
it eight hours ago, demolishing what was left of your food supply. It's
twice as big now as it was then."

"Well, we've got to get rid of it," said Jenkins, suddenly coming to
life.

"Amen, Doctor."

"I'll get the survey crew alerted right away. We won't waste a minute.
And my apologies." Jenkins was hurrying for the door. "I'll get it
cleared out of here fast."

"I do hope so," said the Black Doctor. "The thing makes me ill just to
think about."

"I'll give you a clean-ship report in twenty-four hours," the Red Doctor
said as confidently as he could and beat a hasty retreat down the
corridor. He was wishing fervently that he felt as confident as he
sounded.

The Maukivi had described the _hlorg_ in excruciating detail. He and
Green Doctor Stone had listened, and smiled sadly at each other, day
after day, marvelling at the fanciful delusion. _Hlorgs_, indeed! And
such creatures to dream up--eating, growing, devouring plant, animal and
mineral without discrimination--

And the Maukivi had stoutly maintained that this _hlorg_ of theirs was
indestructible--

       *       *       *       *       *

Green Doctor Wally Stone, true to his surgical calling, was a man of
action.

"You mean there _is_ such a thing?" he exploded when his partner
confronted him with the news. "For real? Not just somebody's pipe
dream?"

"There is," said Jenkins, "and we've got it. Here. On board the _Mercy_.
It's eating like hell-and-gone and doubling its size every eight hours."

"Well what are you waiting for? Toss it overboard!"

"Fine! And what happens to the next party it happens to land on? We're
supposed to be altruists, remember? We're supposed to worry about the
health of the Galaxy." Jenkins shook his head. "Whatever we do with it,
we have to find out just what we're tossing before we toss."

The creature had made itself at home aboard the _Mercy_. In the spirit
of uninvited guests since time immemorial, it had established a toehold
with remarkable asperity, and now was digging in for the long winter.
Drawn to the hydroponic tanks like a flea to a dog, the _hlorg_ had
settled its bulbous pink body down in their murky depths with a
contented gurgle. As it grew larger the tank-levels grew lower, the
broth clearer.

The fact that the twenty-five crewmen of the _Mercy_ depended on those
tanks for their food supply on the four-month run back to Hospital Earth
didn't seem to bother the _hlorg_ a bit. It just sank down wetly and
began to eat.

Under Jenkins' whip hand, and with Green Doctor Stone's assistance, the
Survey Crew snapped into action. Survey was the soul and lifeblood of
the medical services supplied by Hospital Earth to the inhabited planets
of the Galaxy. Centuries before, during the era of exploration, every
Earth ship had carried a rudimentary Survey Crew--a physiologist, a
biochemist, an immunologist, a physician--to determine the safety of
landings on unknown planets. Other races were more advanced in
technological and physical sciences, in sales or in merchandising--but
in the biological sciences men of Earth stood unexcelled in the Galaxy.
It was not surprising that their casual offerings of medical services
wherever their ships touched had led to a growing demand for those
services, until the first Medical Service Contract with Deneb III had
formalized the planetary specialty. Earth had become Hospital Earth,
physician to a Galaxy, surgeon to a thousand worlds, midwife to those
susceptible to midwifery and psychiatrist to those whose inner lives
zigged when their outer lives zagged.

In the early days it had been a haphazard arrangement; but gradually
distinct Services appeared to handle problems of medicine, surgery,
radiology, psychiatry and all the other functions of a well-appointed
medical service. Under the direction of the Black Service of Pathology,
Hospital ships and Survey ships were dispatched to serve as bases for
the tiny General Practice Patrol ships that answered the calls of the
planets under Contract.

But it was the Survey ships that did the basic dirty-work on any new
planet taken under Contract--outlining the physiological and biochemical
aspects of the races involved, studying their disease patterns, their
immunological types, their susceptibility to medical, surgical, or
psychiatric treatment. It was an exacting service to perform, and Survey
did an exacting job.

Now, with their own home base invaded by a hungry pink jelly-blob, the
Survey Crew of the _Mercy_ dug in with all fours to find a way to
exorcise it.

The early returns were not encouraging.

Bowman, the anatomist, spent six hours with the creature. He'd go after
the functional anatomy first, he thought, as he approached the task with
gusto. Special organs, vital organ systems--after all, every Achilles
had his heel. Functional would spot it if anything would--

Six hours later he rendered a preliminary report. It consisted of a
blank sheet of paper and an expression of wild frustration.

"What's this supposed to mean?" Jenkins asked.

"Just what it says."

"But it says nothing!"

"That's exactly what it means." Bowman was a thin, wistful-looking man
with a hawk nose and a little brown mustache. He subbed as ship's cook
when things were slow in his specialty. He wasn't a very good cook, but
what could anyone do with the sludge from the harvest shelf of a
hydroponic tank? Now, with the _hlorg_ incumbent, there wasn't even any
sludge.

"I drained off a tank and got a good look at it before it crawled over
into the next one," Bowman said. "Ugly bastard. But from a strictly
anatomical standpoint I can't help you a bit."

Green Doctor Stone glowered over Jenkins' shoulder at the man. "But
surely you can give us _something_."

Bowman shrugged. "You want it technical?"

"Any way you like."

"Your _hlorg_ is an ideal anamorph. A nothing. Protoplasm, just
protoplasm."

Jenkins looked up sharply. "What about his cellular organization?"

"No cells," said Bowman. "Unless they're sub-microscopic, and I'd need
an electron-peeker to tell you that."

"No organ systems?"

"Not even an integument. You saw how slippery he looked? That's why.
There's nothing holding him in but energy."

"Now, look," said Stone. "He eats, doesn't he? He must have waste
materials of some sort."

Bowman shook his head unhappily. "Sorry. No urates. No nitrates. No
CO{2}. Anyway, he doesn't eat because he has nothing to eat with. He
absorbs. And that includes the lining of the tanks, which he seems to
like as much as the contents. He doesn't _bore_ those holes he makes--he
_dissolves_ them."

They sent Bowman back to quarters for a hot bath and a shot of Happy-O
and looked up Hrunta, the biochemist.

Hrunta was glaring at paper electrophoretic patterns and pulling out
chunks of hair around his bald spot. He gave them a snarl and shoved a
sheaf of papers into their hands.

"Metabolic survey?" Jenkins asked.

"Plus," said Hrunta. "You're not going to like it, either."

"Why not? If it grows, it metabolizes. If it metabolizes, we can kill
it. Axiom number seventeen, paragraph number four."

"Oh, it metabolizes, all right, but you'd better find yourself another
axiom, pretty quick."

"Why?"

"Because it not only metabolizes, it _consumes_. There's no sign of the
usual protein-carbohydrate-fat metabolism going on here. This baby has
an enzyme system that's straight from hell. It bypasses the usual
metabolic activities that produce heat and energy and gets right down to
basic-basic."

Jenkins swallowed. "What do you mean?"

"It attacks the nuclear structure of whatever matter the creature comes
in contact with. There's a partial mass-energy conversion in its rawest
form. The creature goes after carbon-bearing substances first, since the
C seems to break down more easily than anything else--hence its
preference for plant and animal material over non-C stuff. But it can
use anything if it has to--"

Jenkins stared at the little biochemist, an image in his mind of the
pink creature in the hold, growing larger by the minute as it ate its
way through the hydroponics, through the dry stores, through--

"Is there anything it _can't_ use?"

"If there is, I haven't found it," Hrunta said sadly. "In fact, I can't
see any reason why it couldn't consume this ship and everything in it,
right down to the last rivet--"

       *       *       *       *       *

They walked down to the hold for another look at their uninvited guest,
and almost wished they hadn't.

It had reached the size of a small hippopotamus, although the
resemblance ended there. Twenty hours had elapsed since the survey had
begun. The _hlorg_ had used every minute of it, draining the tanks,
engulfing dry stores, devouring walls and floors as it spread out in
search of food, leaving trails of eroded metal wherever it went.

It was ugly--ugly in its pink shapelessness, ugly in its slimy
half-sentient movements, in its very _purposefulness_. But its ugliness
went even deeper, stirring primordial feelings of revulsion and loathing
in their minds as they watched it oozing implacably across the hold to
another dry-storage bin.

Wally Stone shuddered. "It's _grown_."

"Too fast. Bowman charts it as geometric progression."

Stone scratched his jaw as a lone pink pseudopod pushed out on the floor
toward him. Then he leaped forward and stamped on it, severing the
strand from the body.

The severed member quivered and lay still for a moment. Then it flowed
back to rejoin the body with a wet gurgle.

Stone looked at his half-dissolved shoe.

"Egotropism," Jenkins said. "Bowman played around with that, too. A
severed piece will rejoin if it can. If it can't it just takes up
independent residence and we have two _hlorgs_."

"What happens to it outside the ship?" Stone wanted to know.

"It falls dormant for several hours, and then splits up into a thousand
independent chunks. One of the boys spent half of yesterday out there
gathering them up. I tell you, this thing is equipped to _survive_."

"So are we," said Green Doctor Stone grimly. "If we can't outwit this
free-flowing gob of obscenity, we deserve anything we get. Let's have a
conference."

They met in the pilot room. The Black Doctor was there; so were Bowman
and Hrunta. Chambers, the physiologist, was glumly clasping and
unclasping his hands in a corner. The geneticist, Piccione, drew symbols
on a scratch pad and stared blankly at the wall.

Jenkins was saying: "Of course, these are only preliminary reports, but
they serve to outline the problem. This is not just an annoyance any
longer, it's a crisis. We'd all better understand that."

The Black Doctor cut him off with a wave of his hand, and glowered at
the papers as he read them through minutely. As he sat hunched at the
desk with the black cowl of his office hanging down from his shoulders
he looked like a squat black judge, Jenkins thought, a shadow from the
Inquisition, a Passer of Spells. But there was no medievalism in Black
Doctor Neelsen. In fact, it was for that reason, and only that reason,
that the Black Service had come to be the leaders and the whips, the
executors and directors of all the manifold operations of Hospital
Earth.

       *       *       *       *       *

The physicians of the General Practice Patrol were fledglings, newly
trained in their specialties, inexperienced in the rigorous discipline
of medicine that was required of the directors of permanent Planetary
Dispensaries in the heavily populated systems of the Galaxy. On outlying
worlds where little was known of the ways of medicine, the temptation
was great to substitute faith for knowledge, cant for investigation,
nonsense rituals for hard work. But the physicians of the Black Service
were always waiting to jerk wandering neophytes back to the scientific
disciplines that made the service of Hospital Earth so effective. The
Black Doctors would not tolerate sloppiness. "Show me the tissue,
Doctor," they would say. "Prove to me that what you say is so. Prove
that what you did was valid medicine...." Their laboratories were the
morgues and autopsy rooms of a thousand planets, the Temples of Truth
from which no physician since the days of Pasteur and Lister could
escape for long and retain his position.

The Black Doctors were the pragmatists, the gadflies of Hospital Earth.

For this reason it was surprising to hear Black Doctor Neelsen saying,
"Perhaps we are being too scientific, just now. When the creature has
exhausted our food stores, it will look elsewhere for food. Perhaps we
must cut at the tree and not at the root."

"A frontal attack?" said Jenkins.

"Just so. Its enzyme system is its vulnerability. Enzyme systems operate
under specific optimum conditions, right? And every known enzyme system
can be inactivated by adverse conditions of one sort or another. A
physical approach may tell us how in this case. Meanwhile we will be on
emergency rations, and hope that we don't starve to death finding out."
The Black Doctor paused, looking at the men around him. "And in case you
are thinking of enlisting help from outside, forget it. I've sent
plague-warnings out for Galactic relay. We have this thing isolated, and
we're going to keep it that way as long as I command this ship."

They went gloomily back to their laboratories to plan their frontal
attack.

That was the night that Hrunta disappeared.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was gone when they came to wake him from his sleep period. His bunk
had been slept in, but he wasn't in it. In fact, he wasn't anywhere on
the ship.

"But he couldn't just vanish!" the Black Doctor burst out when they told
him the news. "Maybe he's hiding somewhere. Maybe this business was
working on his mind."

Green Doctor Stone took a crew of men to search the ship again, even
though he considered it a waste of precious time. He had his private
convictions about where Hrunta had gone.

So did every other man on the ship, including Jenkins.

The _hlorg_ had stopped eating. Huge and round and wet and ugly, it
squatted in the after-hold, quivering gently, without any other sign of
life.

Surfeited. Like a fat man after a turkey dinner.

Jenkins reviewed progress with the others. No stone had been left
unturned. They had sliced the _hlorg_, and squeezed it. They had boiled
it and frozen it. They had dropped chunks of it in acid vats and covered
other chunks with desiccants and alkalis. Nothing seemed to bother it.

A cold environment slowed down its activity, true, but it also
stimulated the process of fission. Warmed up again, the portions sucked
back together again and resumed eating.

Heat was a little more effective, but not much. It stunned the creature
for a brief period, but it would not burn. It hissed frightfully and
gave off an overpowering stench, and curled up at the edges, but as soon
as the heat was turned off it began to recover.

In Hrunta's lab chunks of the _hlorg_ sat in a dozen vats on tables and
in sinks. Some contained antibiotics, some concentrated acids, some
desiccants. In each vat a blob of pink protoplasm wiggled happily,
showing no sign of discomfiture. On another table were the remains of
Hrunta's (unsuccessful) attempt to prepare an anti-_hlorg_ serum.

But no Hrunta.

"He was down there with the thing all day," Bowman said sadly. "He felt
it was his responsibility, really. Hrunta thought biochemistry was the
answer to all things, of course. Very conscientious man."

"But he was in _bed_."

"He claimed he did his best thinking in bed. Maybe he had a brainstorm
and went down to try it out, and--"

"Yes." Jenkins nodded sourly. "And." He walked down the row of vats.
"You'd think that at least concentrated sulphuric would dessicate it a
little. But it's just formed a crust of coagulated protein around
itself, and sits there--"

Bowman peered over his shoulder, his mustache twitching. "But it does
dessicate."

"If you use enough long enough."

"How about concentrated hydrochloric?"

"Same thing. Maybe a little more effective, but not enough to count."

"Okay. Next we try combinations. There's got to be _something_ the
wretched beast can't tolerate--"

There was, of course.

       *       *       *       *       *

Green Doctor Stone brought it to Jenkins as he was getting ready to turn
in for a sleep period. Jenkins had checked to make sure double guards
were posted in the _hlorg's_ vicinity, and jolted them with Sleep-Not to
keep them on their toes. All the same, he tied a length of stout cord
around his ankle just to make sure he didn't do any sleepwalking. He was
tying it to the bunk when Stone came in with a pan in his hand and a
peculiar look on his face.

"Take a look at this," he said.

Jenkins looked at the sickly brown mass in the tray, and then up at
Stone. "Where did you find it?"

"Down in the hold. Our _hlorg_ has broken precedent. It's _rejected_
something that it ate."

"Yeah. What is it?"

"I don't know. I'm taking it to Neelsen for paraffin sections. But I
know what it looks like to me."

"Mm. I know." Jenkins felt sick. Stone headed up to the path lab,
leaving the Red Doctor settled in his bunk.

Ten minutes later Jenkins sat bolt upright in the darkness. Frantically
he untied himself and slid into his clothes. "Idiot!" he growled to
himself. "Seventh son of a seventh son--"

Five minutes later he was staring at the vats in Hrunta's laboratory. He
found the one he was looking for. A pink blob of _hlorg_ wiggled slowly
around the bottom.

Jenkins drew a beaker of distilled water and added it to the fluid in
the vat. It hissed and sputtered and sent up quantities of acrid steam.
When the steam had cleared away, Jenkins peered in eagerly.

The pink thing in the bottom was turning a sickly violet. It had quit
wiggling. As Jenkins watched, the violet color changed to mud grey, then
to black. He prodded it with a stirring rod. There was no response.

With a whoop Jenkins buzzed Bowman and Stone. "We've got it!" he shouted
to them when they appeared. "Look! Look at it!"

Bowman poked and probed and broke into a wide grin. The piece of _hlorg_
was truly and sincerely dead. "It inactivates the enzyme system, and
renders the base protoplasm vulnerable to anything that normally attacks
it. What are we waiting for?"

They began tearing the laboratory apart, searching for the right
bottles. The supply was discouragingly small, but there was some in
stock. The three of them raced down the corridor for the hold where the
_hlorg_ was.

It took them three hours of angry work to exhaust the supply. They
whittled chunks off the _hlorg_, tossed them in pans of the deadly
fluid. With each slice they stopped momentarily to watch it turn violet,
then black, as it died. The _hlorg_, dwindling in size, sensed the
attack and slapped frantically at their ankles, sending out angry plumes
of wet jelly, but they ducked and dodged and whittled some more. The
_hlorg_ quivered and gurgled and wept pinkish goo all over the floor,
but it grew smaller and weaker with every whack.

"Hrunta must have spotted it and come down here alone," Jenkins panted
between slices. "Maybe he slipped, lost his footing, I don't know--"

They continued to work until the supply was exhausted. They had reduced
the _hlorg_ to a quarter its previous size. "Check the other labs, see
if they have some more," said Stone.

"I already have," Bowman said. "They don't. This is it."

"But we haven't got it all killed. There's still--" He pointed to the
thing quailing in the corner.

"I know. We're licked, that's all. There isn't any more of the stuff on
the ship."

They stopped and looked at each other suddenly. Then Jenkins said: "Oh,
yes there is."

There was silence. Bowman looked at Stone, and Stone looked at Bowman.
They both looked at Jenkins. "Oh, no. Sorry. I decline." Stone shook his
head slowly.

"But we have to! There's no other way. If the enzyme system is
inactivated, it's just protoplasm--there's no physiological or
biochemical reason--"

"You know what you can do with your physiology and biochemistry," Bowman
said succinctly. "You can also count me out." He left them and the
hatchway clanged after him.

"Wally?"

"Yeah."

"It'll be months before we get back to Hospital Earth. We know how we
can hold it in check until we get there."

"Yeah."

"Well?"

Green Doctor Wally Stone sighed. "Greater love hath no man," he said
wearily. "We'd better go tell Neelsen, I guess."

       *       *       *       *       *

Black Doctor Turvold Neelsen's answer was a flat, unequivocal no. "It's
monstrous and preposterous. I won't stand for it. Nobody will stand for
it."

"But you have the proof in your own hands," Jenkins said. "You saw the
specimen that the Green Doctor brought you."

Neelsen hunched back angrily. "I saw it."

"And your impression of it? As a pathologist?"

"I fail to see how my impression applies one way or the other--"

"Doctor, sometimes we have to face facts. Remember?"

"All right." Neelsen seemed to curl up into himself still further. "The
specimen was stomach."

"Human stomach?"

"Human stomach."

"But the only human on this ship that doesn't have a stomach is Hrunta,"
said Jenkins.

"So the _hlorg_ ate him."

"_Most_ of him. Not quite all. It threw out the one part of him it
couldn't eat. The part containing a substance that inactivated its
enzyme system. Dilute hydrochloric acid, to be specific. We used the
entire ship's supply, and cut the _hlorg_ down to three-quarters size,
but we need a continuous supply to keep it whittled down until we get
home. And there's only one good, permanent, reliable source of dilute
hydrochloric acid on board this ship--"

The Black Doctor's face was purple. "I said no," he choked. "My answer
stands."

The Red Doctor sighed and turned to Green Doctor Stone. "All right,
Wally," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

(_From the files of the Medical Disciplinary Board, Hospital Earth, op.
cit._)

I am certain that you can see from the foregoing that a reasonable
effort was made by Green Doctor Stone and myself to put the plan in
effect peaceably and with full approval of our commander. It was our
conviction, however, that the emergency nature of the circumstances
required that it be done with or without his approval. Our subsequent
success in containing the _hlorg_ to at least reasonable and manageable
proportions should bear out the wisdom of our decision.

Actually, it has not been as bad as one might think. It has been
necessary to confine the crew to their quarters, and to restrain the
Black Doctor forcibly, but with liberal use of Happy-O we can
occasionally convince ourselves that it is rare beefsteak, and the Green
Doctor, our pro-tem cook has concocted several very tasty sauces, such
as mushroom, onion, etc. We reduce the _hlorg_ to half its size each
day, and if thoroughly heated the chunks lie still on the plate for
quite some time.

No physical ill effects have been noted, and the period of quarantine is
recommended solely to allow the men an adequate period for psychological
recovery.

I have only one further recommendation: that the work team from the Grey
Service be recalled at once from their assignment on Mauki IV. The
problem is decidedly not psychiatric, and it would be one of the
tragedies of the ages if our excellent psychiatric service were to
succeed in persuading the Maukivi out of their 'delusion'.

After all, Hospital Earth cannot afford to jeopardize a Contract--

                               (Signed) Samuel B. Jenkins,
                                        Physician Grade VI
                                        Red Service
                                        GPP Ship _Lancet_
                                        (Attached GSS _Mercy_ pro tem)


END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _If: Worlds of Science Fiction_
    February 1958. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
    the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling
    and typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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