Med Ship Man
Calhoun regarded the communicator with something like exasperation as his taped voice repeated a standard approach-call for the twentieth time. But no answer came, which had become irritating a long time ago. This was a new Med Service sector for Calhoun. He’d been assigned to another man’s tour of duty because the other man had been taken down with romance. He’d gotten married, which ruled him out for Med Ship duty. So now Calhoun listened to his own voice endlessly repeating a call that should have been answered immediately.
Murgatroyd the tormal watched with beady, interested eyes. The planet Maya lay off to port of the Med Ship Esclipus Twenty. Its almost circular disk showed full size on a vision screen beside the ship’s control board. The image was absolutely clear and vividly colored. There was an ice cap in view. There were continents. There were seas. The cloud system of a considerable cyclonic disturbance could be noted off at one side, and the continents looked reasonably as they should, and the seas were of that muddy, indescribable tint which indicates deep water.
Calhoun’s own voice, taped an hour earlier, sounded in a speaker as it went again to the communicator and then to the extremely visible world a hundred thousand miles away.
“Calling ground,” said Calhoun’s recorded voice. “Med Ship Esclipus Twenty calling ground to report arrival and ask coordinates for landing. Our mass is fifty standard tons. Repeat, five-oh tons. Purpose of landing, planetary health inspection.“
The recorded voice stopped. There was silence except for the taped random noises which kept the inside of the ship from feeling like the inside of a tomb.
Murgatroyd said: “Chee?“
Calhoun said ironically, “Undoubtedly, Murgatroyd. Undoubtedly! Whoever’s on duty at the spaceport stepped out for a moment, or dropped dead, or did something equally inconvenient. We have to wait until he gets back or somebody else takes over.”
Murgatroyd said “Chee!“ again and began to lick his whiskers. He knew that when Calhoun called on the communicator, another human voice should reply. Then there should be conversation, and shortly the force-fields of a landing-grid should take hold of the Med Ship and draw it planet-ward. In time it ought to touch ground in a spaceport with a gigantic, silvery landing-grid rising skyward all about it. Then there should be people greeting Calhoun cordially and welcoming Murgatroyd with smiles and petting.
“Calling ground,” said the recorded voice yet again. “Med Ship Esclipus Twenty--”
It went on through the formal notice of arrival. Murgatroyd waited in pleasurable anticipation. When the Med Ship arrived at a port of call humans gave him sweets and cakes, and they thought it charming that he drank coffee just like a human, only with more gusto. Aground, Murgatroyd moved zestfully in society while Calhoun worked. Calhoun’s work was conferences with planetary health officials, politely receiving such information as they thought important, and tactfully telling them about the most recent developments in medical science as known to the Interstellar Medical Service.
“Somebody,” said Calhoun darkly, “is going to catch the devil for this!”
The communicator loudspeaker spoke abruptly.
“Calling Med Ship,” said a voice. “Calling Med Ship Esclipus Twenty! Liner Candida calling. Have you had an answer from ground?”
Calhoun blinked. Then he said curtly:
“Not yet. I’ve been calling all of half an hour, and never a word out of them!”
“We’ve been in orbit twelve hours,” said the voice from emptiness. “Calling all the while. No answer. We don’t like it.”
Calhoun flipped a switch that threw a vision screen into circuit with the ship’s electron telescope. A starfield appeared and shifted wildly. Then a bright dot centered itself. He raised the magnification. The bright dot swelled and became a chubby commercial ship, with the false ports that passengers like to believe they looked through when in space. Two relatively large cargo ports on each side showed that it carried heavy freight in addition to passengers. It was one of those workhorse intra-cluster ships that distributed the freight and passengers the long-haul liners dumped off only at established transshipping ports.
Murgatroyd padded across the Med Ship’s cabin and examined the image with a fine air of wisdom. It did not mean anything to him, but tormals imitate human actions as parrots and parrakeets imitate human speech. He said, “Chee!“ as if making an observation of profound significance, then went back to the cushion and again curled up.
“We don’t see anything wrong aground,” the liner’s voice complained, “but they don’t answer calls! We don’t get any scatter-signals either. We went down to two diameters and couldn’t pick up a thing. And we have a passenger to land. He insists on it!”
By ordinary, communications between different places on a planet’s surface use frequencies the ion-layers of the atmosphere either reflect or refract down past the horizon. But there is usually some small leakage to space, and line-of-sight frequencies are generally abundant. It is one of the annoyances of a ship coming in to port that space near most planets is usually full of local signals.
“I’ll check,” said Calhoun curtly. “Stand by.”
The Candida would have arrived off Maya as the Med Ship had done, and called down as Calhoun had been doing. It was very probably a ship on schedule and the grid operator at the spaceport should have expected it. Space commerce was important to any planet, comparing more or less with the export-import business of an industrial nation in ancient times on Earth. Planets had elaborate traffic-aid systems for the cargo-carriers which moved between solar systems as they’d once moved between continents on Earth. Such traffic aids were very carefully maintained. Certainly for a spaceport landing-grid not to respond to calls for twelve hours running seemed ominous.
“We’ve been wondering,” said the Candida querulously, “if there could be something radically wrong below. Sickness, for example.”
The word “sickness” was a substitute for a more alarming word. But a plague had nearly wiped out the population of Dorset, once upon a time, and the first ships to arrive after it had broken out most incautiously went down to ground, and so carried the plague to their next two ports of call. Nowadays quarantine regulations were enforced very strictly indeed.
“I’ll try to find out what’s the matter,” said Calhoun.
“We’ve got a passenger,” repeated the Candida aggrievedly, “who insists that we land him by space-boat if we don’t make a ship landing. He says he has important business aground.”
Calhoun did not answer. The rights of passengers were extravagantly protected, these days. To fail to deliver a passenger to his destination entitled him to punitive damages which no spaceline could afford. So the Med Ship would seem heaven-sent to the Candida’s skipper. Calhoun could relieve him of responsibility.
The telescope screen winked and showed the surface of the planet a hundred thousand miles away. Calhoun glared at the image on the port screen and guided the telescope to the spaceport city--Maya City. He saw highways and blocks of buildings. He saw the spaceport and its landing-grid. He could see no motion, of course.
He raised the magnification. He raised it again. Still no motion. He upped the magnification until the lattice-pattern of the telescope’s amplifying crystal began to show. But at the ship’s distance from the planet, a ground-car would represent only the fortieth of a second of arc. There was atmosphere, too, with thermals; anything the size of a ground-car simply couldn’t be seen.
But the city showed quite clearly. Nothing massive had happened to it. No large-scale physical disaster had occurred. It simply did not answer calls from space.
Calhoun flipped off the screen.
“I think,” he said irritably into the communicator microphone, “I suspect I’ll have to make an emergency landing. It could be something as trivial as a power failure--” but he knew that was wildly improbable--”or it could be--anything. I’ll land on rockets and tell you what I find.”
The voice from the Candida said hopefully:
“Can you authorize us to refuse to land our passenger for his own protection? He’s raising the devil! He insists that his business demands that he be landed.”
A word from Calhoun as a Med Service man would protect the spaceliner from a claim for damages. But Calhoun didn’t like the look of things. He realized, distastefully, that he might find practically anything down below. He might find that he had to quarantine the planet and himself with it. In such a case he’d need the Candida to carry word of the quarantine to other planets and thus to Med Service sector headquarters.
“We’ve lost a lot of time,” insisted the Candida. “Can you authorize us--”
“Not yet,” said Calhoun. “I’ll tell you when I land.”
“I’m signing off for the moment,” said Calhoun. “Stand by.”
He headed the little ship downward, and as it gathered velocity he went over the briefing sheets covering this particular world. He’d never touched ground here before. His occupation, of course, was seeing to the dissemination of medical science as it developed under the Med Service. The Service itself was neither political nor administrative. But it was important. Every human-occupied world was supposed to have a Med Ship visit at least once in four years to verify the state of public health.
Med Ship men like Calhoun offered advice on public-health problems. When something out of the ordinary turned up, the Med Service had a staff of researchers who hadn’t been wholly baffled yet. There were great ships which could carry the ultimate in laboratory equipment and specialized personnel to any place where they were needed. Not less than a dozen inhabited worlds in this sector alone owed the survival of their populations to the Med Service, and the number of those which couldn’t have been colonized without Med Service help was legion.
Calhoun reread the briefing. Maya was one of four planets in this general area whose life systems seemed to have had a common origin, suggesting that the Arrhenius theory of space-traveling spores was true in some limited sense. A genus of ground-cover plants with motile stems and leaves and cannibalistic tendencies was considered strong evidence of common origin.
The planet had been colonized for two centuries now, and produced organic compounds of great value from indigenous plants, most of which were used in textile manufacture. There were no local endemic infections to which men were susceptible. A number of human-use crops were grown. Cereals, grasses and grains, however, could not be grown because of the native ground-cover motile-stem plants. All wheat and cereal food had to be imported, which fact severely limited Maya’s population. There were about two million people on the planet, settled on a peninsula in the Yucatan Sea and a small area of mainland. Public-health surveys had shown a great many things about a great many subjects ... but there was no mention of anything to account for the failure of the spaceport to respond to arrival calls from space. Naturally!
The Med Ship drove on down, and the planet revolved beneath it.
As Maya’s sunlit hemisphere enlarged, Calhoun kept the telescope’s field wide. He saw cities, and vast areas of cleared land where native plants were grown as raw materials for the organics’ manufacturies. He saw very little true chlorophyll green, though. Mayan foliage tended to a dark olive color.
At fifty miles he was sure that the city streets were empty even of ground-car traffic. There was no spaceship aground in the landing-grid. There were no ground-cars in motion on the splendid, multiple-lane highways.
At thirty miles altitude there were still no signals in the atmosphere, though when he tried amplitude-modulation reception he picked up static. But there was no normally modulated signal on the air at any frequency. At twenty miles--no. At fifteen miles, broadcast power was available, which proved that the landing-grid was working as usual, tapping the upper atmosphere for electric charges to furnish power for all the planet’s needs.
From ten miles down to ground-touch, Calhoun was busy.
It is not too difficult to land a ship on rockets, with reasonably level ground to land on. But landing at a specific spot is something else. Calhoun juggled the ship to descend inside the grid itself. His rockets burned out pencil-thin holes through the clay and stone beneath the tarmac. He cut them off.
Silence. Stillness. The Med Ship’s outside microphones picked up small noises of wind blowing over the city. There was no other sound at all.
--No. There was a singularly deliberate clicking sound, not loud and not fast. Perhaps a click--a double click--every two seconds. That was all.
Calhoun went into the airlock, with Murgatroyd frisking a little in the expectation of great social success among the people of this world. When Calhoun cracked the outer airlock door he smelled something. It was a faintly sour, astringent odor that had the quality of decay in it. But it was no kind of decay he recognized. Again stillness and silence. No traffic-noise; not even the almost inaudible murmur that every city has in all its ways at all hours. The buildings looked as buildings should look at daybreak, except that the doors and windows were open. It was somehow shocking.
A ruined city is dramatic. An abandoned city is pathetic. This was neither. It was something new. It felt as if everybody had walked away, out of sight, within the past few minutes.
Calhoun headed for the spaceport building with Murgatroyd ambling puzzledly at his side. Murgatroyd was disturbed. There should be people here! They should welcome Calhoun and admire him--Murgatroyd--and he should be a social lion with all the sweets he could eat and all the coffee he could put into his expandable belly. But nothing happened! Nothing at all.
“Chee?“ he asked anxiously.
“They’ve gone away,” growled Calhoun. “They probably left in ground-cars. There’s not one in sight.”
There wasn’t. Calhoun could look out through the grid foundations and see long, sunlit and absolutely empty streets. He arrived at the spaceport building. There was--there had been--a green area about the base of the structure. There was not a living plant left. Leaves were wilted and limp. The remains had become almost a jelly of collapsed stems and blossoms of dark olive-green. The plants were dead; but not long enough to have dried up. They might have wilted two or three days before.
Calhoun went in the building. The spaceport log lay open on a desk. It recorded the arrival of freight to be shipped away--undoubtedly--on the Candida now uneasily in orbit somewhere aloft. There was no sign of disorder. It was exactly as if the people here had walked out to look at something interesting, and hadn’t come back.
Calhoun trudged out of the spaceport and to the streets and buildings of the city proper. It was incredible! Doors were opened or unlocked. Merchandise in the shops lay on display, exactly as it had been spread out to interest customers. There was no sign of confusion anywhere. Even in a restaurant there were dishes and flatware on the tables. The food in the plates was stale, as if three days old, but it hadn’t yet begun to spoil. The appearance of everything was as if people at their meals had simply, at some signal, gotten up and walked out without any panic or disturbance.
Calhoun made a wry face. He’d remembered something. Among the tales that had been carried from Earth to the other worlds of the galaxy there was a completely unimportant mystery story which people still sometimes tried to write an ending to. It was the story of an ancient sailing ship called the Marie Celeste, which was found drifting aimlessly in the middle of the ocean. There was food on the cabin table, and the galley stove was still warm. There was no sign of any trouble, or terror, or disturbance which might cause the ship to be abandoned. But there was not a living soul on board. Nobody had ever been able to contrive a believable explanation.
“Only,” said Calhoun to Murgatroyd, “this is on a larger scale. The people of this city walked out about three days ago, and didn’t come back. Maybe all the people on the planet did the same, since there’s not a communicator in operation anywhere. To make the understatement of the century, Murgatroyd, I don’t like this. I don’t like it a bit!”