Operation Distress

by Lester Del Rey

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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.

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