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´╗┐Title: Operation Distress
Author: Del Rey, Lester
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 "Operation Distress" ***

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                          OPERATION DISTRESS

                           By LESTER DEL REY

                         Illustrated by WILLER

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                  Galaxy Science Fiction August 1951.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



       Explorers who dread spiders and snakes prove that heroism
       is always more heroic to outsiders. Then there's the case
       of the first space pilot to Mars who developed the itch--


Bill Adams was halfway back from Mars when he noticed the red rash on
his hands. He'd been reaching for one of the few remaining tissues to
cover a sneeze, while scratching vigorously at the base of his neck.
Then he saw the red spot, and his hand halted, while all desire to
sneeze gasped out of him.

He sat there, five feet seven inches of lean muscle and bronzed skin,
sweating and staring, while the blond hair on the back of his neck
seemed to stand on end. Finally he dropped his hand and pulled himself
carefully erect. The cabin in the spaceship was big enough to permit
turning around, but not much more, and with the ship cruising without
power, there was almost no gravity to keep him from overshooting his
goal.

He found the polished plate that served as a mirror and studied
himself. His eyes were puffy, his nose was red, and there were other
red splotches and marks on his face.

Whatever it was, he had it bad!

Pictures went through his head, all unpleasant. He'd been only a kid
when the men came back from the South Pacific in the last war; but an
uncle had spent years dying of some weird disease that the doctors
couldn't identify. That had been from something caught on Earth. What
would happen when the disease was from another planet?

It was ridiculous. Mars had no animal life, and even the thin
lichenlike plants were sparse and tiny. A man couldn't catch a disease
from a plant. Even horses didn't communicate their ills to men. Then
Bill remembered gangrene and cancer, which could attack any life,
apparently.

He went back to the tiny Geiger-Muller counter, but there was no sign
of radiation from the big atomic motor that powered the ship. He
stripped his clothes off, spotting more of the red marks breaking out,
but finding no sign of parasites. He hadn't really believed it, anyhow.
That wouldn't account for the sneezing and sniffles, or the puffed eyes
and burning inside his nose and throat.

Dust, maybe? Mars had been dusty, a waste of reddish sand and desert
silt that made the Sahara seem like paradise, and it had settled on
his spacesuit, to come in through the airlocks with him. But if it
contained some irritant, it should have been worse on Mars than now. He
could remember nothing annoying, and he'd turned on the tiny, compact
little static dust traps, in any case, before leaving, to clear the air.

He went back to one of the traps now, and ripped the cover off it.

The little motor purred briskly. The plastic rods turned against fur
brushes, while a wiper cleared off any dust they picked up. There was
no dust he could see; the traps had done their work.

Some plant irritant, like poison ivy? No, he'd always worn his
suit--Mars had an atmosphere, but it wasn't anything a man could
breathe long. The suit was put on and off with automatic machine
grapples, so he couldn't have touched it.

The rash seemed to get worse on his body as he looked at it. This
time, he tore one of the tissues in quarters as he sneezed. The little
supply was almost gone; there was never space enough for much beyond
essentials in a spaceship, even with the new atomic drive. As he looked
for spots, the burning in his nose seemed to increase.

He dropped back to the pilot seat, cursing. Two months of being cramped
up in this cubicle, sweating out the trip to Mars without knowing how
the new engine would last; three weeks on Mars, mapping frantically to
cover all the territory he could, and planting little flags a hundred
miles apart; now a week on the trip back at high acceleration most of
the way--and this! He'd expected adventure of some kind. Mars, though,
had proved as interesting as a sandpile, and even the "canals" had
proved to be only mineral striations, invisible from the ground.

He looked for something to do, but found nothing. He'd developed his
films the day before, after carefully cleaning the static traps and
making sure the air was dust-free. He'd written up the accounts. And
he'd been coasting along on the hope of getting home to a bath, a beer,
and a few bull sessions, before he began to capitalize on being the
first man to reach another planet beyond the Moon.

He cut on full acceleration again, more certain of his motors than
of himself. He'd begun to notice the itching yesterday; today he was
breaking out in the rash. How long would whatever was coming take? Good
God, he might die--from something as humiliating and undramatic as this!

It hadn't hit him before, fully. There was no knowing about diseases
from other planets. Men had developed immunity to the germs found on
Earth; but just as smallpox had proved so fatal to the Indians and
syphilis to Europe when they first hit, there was no telling how wildly
this might progress. It might go away in a day, or it might kill him
just as quickly.

He was figuring his new orbit on a tiny calculator. In two days at this
acceleration, he could reach radar-distance of Earth; in four, he could
land. The tubes might burn out in continuous firing. But the other way,
he'd be two weeks making a landing, and most diseases he could remember
seemed faster than that.

Bill wiped the sweat off his forehead, scratched at other places that
were itching, and stared down at the small disk of Earth. There were
doctors there--and, brother, he'd need them fast!

Things were a little worse when the first squeals came from the radar
two days later. He'd run out of tissues, and his nose was a continual
drip, while breathing seemed almost impossible. He was running some
fever, too, though he had no way of knowing how much.

He cut his receiver in, punched out the code on his key. The receiver
pipped again at him, bits of message getting through, but unclearly.
There was no response to his signals. He checked his chronometer and
flipped over the micropages of his _Ephemeris_; the big radar at
Washington was still out of line with him, and the signals had to cut
through too much air to come clearly. It should be good in another hour.

But right now, an hour seemed longer than a normal year. He checked the
dust tray again, tried figuring out other orbits, managed to locate
the Moon, and scratched. Fifteen minutes. There was no room for pacing
up and down. He pushed the back down from the pilot seat, lowered the
table, and pulled out his bunk; he remade it, making sure all the
corners were perfect. Then he folded it back and lifted the table and
seat. That took less than five minutes.

His hands were shaking worse when the automatic radar signals began
to come through more clearly. It wasn't an hour, but he could wait
no longer. He opened the key and began to send. It would take fifteen
seconds for the signal to reach Earth, and another quarter minute for
an answer, even if an operator was on duty.

Half a minute later, he found one was. "Earth to Mars Rocket I. Thank
God, you're ahead of schedule. If your tubes hold out, crowd them. Two
other nations have ships out now. The U. N. has ruled that whoever
comes back first with mapping surveys can claim the territory mapped.
We're rushing the construction, but we need the ship for the second run
if we're to claim our fair territory. Aw, hell--congratulations!"

He'd started hammering at his key before they finished, giving the
facts on the tubes, which were standing up beyond all expectations.
"And get a doctor ready--a bunch of them," he finished. "I seem to have
picked up something like a disease."

There was a long delay before an answer came this time--more than five
minutes. The hand on the key was obviously different, slower and not as
steady. "What symptoms, Adams? Give all details!"

He began, giving all the information he had, from the first itching
through the rash and the fever. Again, longer this time, the main
station hesitated.

"Anything I can do about it now?" Bill asked, finally. "And how about
having those doctors ready?"

"We're checking with Medical," the signals answered. "We're.... Here's
their report. Not enough data--could be anything. Dozens of diseases
like that. Nothing you can do, except try salt water gargle and spray;
you've got stuff for that. Wash off rash with soap and hot water,
followed by some of your hypo. We'll get a medical kit up to the Moon
for you."

He let that sink in, then clicked back: "The _Moon_?"

"You think you can land here with whatever you've got, man? There's no
way of knowing how contagious it is. And keep an hourly check with us.
If you pass out, we'll try to get someone out in a Moon rocket to pick
you up. But we can't risk danger of infecting the whole planet. You're
quarantined on the Moon--we'll send up landing instructions later--not
even for Luna Base, but where there will be no chance of contamination
for others. You didn't really expect to come back here, did you, Adams?"

He should have thought of it. He knew that. And he knew that the words
from Earth weren't as callous as they sounded. Down there, men would
be sweating with him, going crazy trying to do something. But they were
right. Earth had to be protected first; Bill Adams was only one out of
two and a half billions, even if he had reached a planet before any
other man.

Yeah, it was fine to be a hero. But heroes shouldn't menace the rest of
the world.

Logically, he knew they were right. That helped him get his emotions
under control. "Where do you want me to put down?"

"Tycho. It isn't hard to spot for radar-controlled delivery of
supplies to you, but it's a good seven hundred miles from Lunar Base.
And look--we'll try to get a doctor to you. But keep us informed if
anything slips. We need those maps, if we can find a way to sterilize
'em."

"Okay," he acknowledged. "And tell the cartographers there are no
craters, no intelligence, and only plants about half an inch high. Mars
stinks."

They'd already been busy, he saw, as he teetered down on his jets for a
landing on Tycho. Holding control was the hardest job he'd ever done.
A series of itchings cropped out just as the work got tricky, when he
could no longer see the surface, and had to go by feel. But somehow he
made it. Then he relaxed and began an orgy of scratching.

And he'd thought there was something romantic about being a hero!

The supplies that had already been sent up by the superfast unmanned
missiles would give him something to do, at least. He moved back the
two feet needed to reach his developing tanks and went through the
process of spraying and gargling. It was soothing enough while it went
on, but it offered only momentary help.

Then his stomach began showing distress signs. He fought against it,
tightening up. It did no good. His hasty breakfast of just black coffee
wanted to come up--and did, giving him barely time to make the little
booth.

He washed his mouth out and grabbed for the radar key, banging out a
report on this. The doctors must have been standing by down at the big
station, because there was only a slight delay before the answering
signal came: "Any blood?"

Another knot added itself to his intestines. "I don't know--don't think
so, but I didn't look."

"Look, next time. We're trying to get this related to some of the
familiar diseases. It must have some relation--there are only so many
ways a man can be sick. We've got a doctor coming over, Adams. None
on the Moon, but we're shipping him through. He'll set down in about
nine hours. And there's some stuff to take on the supply missiles. May
not help, but we're trying a mixture of the antibiotics. Also some ACS
and anodynes for the itching and rash. Hope they work. Let us know any
reaction."

Bill cut off. He'd have to try. They were as much in the dark about
this as he was, but they had a better background for guessing and trial
and error. And if the bugs in him happened to like tachiomycetin, he
wouldn't be too much worse off. Damn it, _had_ there been blood?

He forced his mind off it, climbed into his clothes and then into the
spacesuit that hung from the grapples. It moved automatically into
position, the two halves sliding shut and sealing from outside. The big
gloves on his hands were too clumsy for such operations.

Then he went bounding across the Moon. Halfway to the supplies he felt
the itching come back, and he slithered and wriggled around, trying
to scratch his skin against his clothing. It didn't help much. He was
sweating harder, and his eyes were watering. He manipulated the little
visor-cleaning gadget, trying to poke his face forward to brush the
frustration tears from his eyes. He couldn't quite reach it.

There were three supply missiles, each holding about two hundred
pounds, Earth weight. He tied them together and slung them over his
back, heading toward his ship. Here they weighed only a hundred pounds,
and with his own weight and the suit added, the whole load came to
little more than his normal weight on Earth.

He tried shifting the supplies around on his back, getting them to
press against the spots of torment as he walked. It simply unbalanced
him, without really relieving the itching. Fortunately, though, his
eyes were clearing a little. He gritted his teeth and fought back
through the powdery pumice surface, kicking up clouds of dust that
settled slowly but completely--though the gravity was low, there was no
air to hold them up.

Nothing had ever looked better than the airlock of the ship. He let the
grapples hook the suit off him as soon as the outer seal was shut and
went into a whirling dervish act. Aches and pains could be stood--but
_itching_!

Apparently, though, the spray and gargle had helped a little, since
his nose felt somewhat clearer and his eyes were definitely better. He
repeated them, and then found the medical supplies, with a long list of
instructions.

They were really shooting the pharmacy at him. He injected himself,
swallowed things, rubbed himself down with others, and waited. Whatever
they'd given him didn't offer any immediate help. He began to feel
worse. But on contacting Earth by radar, he was assured that that might
be expected.

"We've got another missile coming, with metal foil for the maps and
photos--plus a small copying camera. You can print them right on the
metal, seal that in a can, and leave it for the rocket that's bringing
the doctor. The pilot will blast over it--that should sterilize it--and
pick it up when it cools."

Bill swore, but he was in his suit when the missile landed, heading out
across the pumice-covered wastes toward it. The salves had helped the
itching a little, but not much. And his nose had grown worse again.

He jockeyed the big supply can out of the torpedo-shaped missile,
packed it on his back, and headed for his ship. The itching was acting
up as he sweated--this made a real load, about like packing a hundred
bulky pounds over his normal Earth weight through the soft drift of the
pumice. But his nose was clearing again; it was apparently becoming
cyclic. He'd have to relay that information back to the medics. And
where were they getting a doctor crazy enough to take a chance with him?

He climbed out of the suit and went through the ritual of scratching,
noticing that his fever had gone up, and that his muscles were shaking.
His head seemed light, as if he were in for a spell of dizziness.
They'd be interested in that, back on Earth, though it wouldn't do much
good. He couldn't work up a clinical attitude about himself. All he
wanted was a chance to get over this disease before it killed him.

He dragged out the photo and copying equipment, under a red light.
It filled what little space was left in his cubbyhole cabin. Then he
swore, gulping down more of the pills where they were waiting for him.
The metal sheets were fine. They were excellent. The only thing wrong
was that they wouldn't fit his developing trays--and they were tough
enough to give him no way of cutting them to size.

He stuffed them back in their container and shoved it into the
airlock. Then his stomach kicked up again. He couldn't see any blood in
the result, but he couldn't be sure--the color of the pills might hide
traces. He flushed it down, his head turning in circles, and went to
the radar. This time he didn't even wait for a reply; let them worry
about their damned maps. They could send cutting equipment with the
doctor and pick up the things later. They could pick up his corpse and
cremate it at the same time, for all he cared right now.

He yanked out his bunk and slumped into it, curling up as much as the
itching would permit. And finally, for the first time in over fifty
hours, he managed to doze off, though his sleep was full of nightmares.

It was the sound of the bull-throated chemical rocket that brought him
out of it--the sound traveling along the surface through the
rocks and up through the metal ship, even without air to carry it.

He could feel the rumble of its takeoff later, but he waited long after
that for the doctor. There was no knock on the port. Finally he pulled
himself up from the bunk, sweating and shaken, and looked out.

The doctor was there--or at least a man in a spacesuit was. But
somebody had been in a hurry for volunteers, and given the man no
basic training at all. The figure would pull itself erect, make a few
strides that were all bounce and no progress, and then slide down into
the pumice. Moon-walking was tricky until you learned how.

Bill sighed, scratching unconsciously, and made his way somehow out to
his suit, climbing into it. He paused for a final good scratch, and
then the grapples took over. This time, he stumbled also as he made his
way across the powdery rubble. But the other man was making no real
progress at all.

Bill reached him, and touched helmets long enough to issue simple
instructions through metal sound conduction. Then he managed to guide
the other's steps; there had been accounts of the days of learning
spent by the first men on the Moon, but it wasn't that bad with an
instructor to help. The doctor picked up as they went along. Bill's
legs were buckling under him by then, and the itches were past
endurance. At the end, the doctor was helping him. But somehow they
made the ship, and were getting out of the suits--Bill first, then the
doctor, using the grapples under Bill's guidance.

The doctor was young, and obviously scared, but fighting his fear. He'd
been picked for his smallness to lighten the load on the chemical
rocket, and his little face was intent. But he managed a weak grin.

"Thanks, Adams. I'm Doctor Ames--Ted to you. Get onto that cot. You're
about out on your feet."

The test he made didn't take long, but his head was shaking at the
conclusion.

"Your symptoms make no sense," he summarized. "I've got a feeling some
are due to one thing, some to another. Maybe we'll have to wait until I
come down with it and compare notes."

His grin was wry, but Bill was vaguely glad that he wasn't trying
any bedside manner. There wasn't much use in thanking the man for
volunteering--Ames had known what he was up against, and he might be
scared, but his courage was above thanks.

"What about the maps?" Bill asked. "They tell you?"

"They've left cutters outside. I started to bring them. Then the pumice
got me--I couldn't stand upright in it. They'll pick up the maps later,
but they're important. The competing ships will claim our territory if
we don't file first."

He knocked the dust off his instrument, and wiped his hands. Bill
looked down at the bed to see a fine film of Moon silt there. They'd
been bringing in too much on the suits--it was too fine, and the traps
weren't getting it fast enough.

He got up shakily, moving toward the dust trap that had been running
steadily. But now it was out of order, obviously, with the fur brushes
worn down until they could generate almost no static against the rod.
He groped into the supplies, hoping there would be replacements.

Ames caught his arm. "Cut it out, Adams. You're in no shape for this.
Hey, how long since you've eaten?"

Bill thought it over, his head thick. "I had coffee before I landed."

Doctor Ames nodded quickly. "Vomiting, dizziness, tremors, excess
sweating--what did you expect, man? You put yourself under this strain,
not knowing what comes next, having to land with an empty stomach,
skipping meals and loading your stomach with pills--and probably no
sleep! Those symptoms are perfectly normal."

He was at the tiny galley equipment, fixing quick food as he spoke. But
his face was still sober. He was probably thinking of the same thing
that worried Bill--an empty stomach didn't make the itching rash, the
runny nose and eyes, and the general misery that had begun the whole
thing.

He sorted through the stock of replacement parts, a few field-sistors,
suit wadding, spare gloves, cellophane-wrapped gadgets. Then he had it.
Ames was over, urging him toward the cot, but he shook him off.

"Got to get the dust out of here--dust'll make the itching worse.
Moon dust is sharp, Doc. Just install new brushes.... Where are those
instructions? Yeah, insert the cat's fur brushes under the.... _Cat_'s
fur? Is _that_ what they use, Doc?"

"Sure. It's cheap and generates static electricity. Do you expect
sable?"

Bill took the can of soup and sipped it without tasting or thinking,
his hand going toward a fresh place that itched. His nose began
running, but he disregarded it. He still felt lousy, but strength was
flowing through him, and life was almost good again.

He tossed the bunk back into its slot, lifted the pilot's stool, and
motioned Ames forward. "You operate a key--hell, I _am_ getting slow.
You can contact Luna Base by phone, have them relay. There. Now tell
'em I'm blasting off pronto for Earth, and I'll be down in four hours
with their plans."

"You're crazy." The words were flat, but there was desperation on the
little doctor's face. He glanced about hastily, taking the microphone
woodenly. "Adams, they'll have an atomic bomb up to blast you out
before you're near Earth. They've got to protect themselves. You
can't...."

Bill scratched, but there was the beginning of a grin on his face.
"Nope, I'm not delirious now, though I damn near cracked up. You
figured out half the symptoms. Take a look at those brushes--cat's fur
brushes--and figure what they'll do to a man who was breathing the air
and who is allergic to cats! All I ever had was some jerk in Planning
who didn't check my medical record with trip logistics! I never had
these symptoms until I unzipped the traps and turned 'em on. It got
better whenever I was in the suit, breathing canned air. We should have
known a man can't catch a disease from plants."

The doctor looked at him, and at the fur pieces he'd thrown into a
wastebin, and the whiteness ran from his face. He was seeing his own
salvation, and the chuckle began weakly, gathering strength as he
turned to the microphone.

"Cat asthma--simple allergy. Who'd figure you'd get that in deep space?
But you're right, Bill. It figures."

Bill Adams nodded as he reached for the controls, and the tubes began
firing, ready to take them back to Earth. Then he caught himself and
swung to the doctor.

"Doc," he said quickly, "just be sure and tell them this isn't to get
out. If they'll keep still about it, so will I."

He'd make a hell of a hero on Earth if people heard of it, and he could
use a little of a hero's reward.

No catcalls, thanks.





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