Competition - Cover


by James Causey

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: They would learn what caused the murderous disease--if it was the last thing they did!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  


January 18, Earth Time

I wish Max would treat me like a woman.

An hour ago, at dinner, John Armitage proposed a toast, especially for my benefit. He loves to play the gallant. Big man, silver mane, very blue eyes, a porcelain smile. The head of WSC, the perfect example of the politician-scientist.

“To the colony,” he announced, raising his glass. “May Epsilon love them and keep them. May it only be transmittal trouble.”

“Amen,” Max said.

We drank. Taylor Bishop put down his glass precisely. Bishop is a gray little man with a diffident voice that belies his reputation as the best biochemist in the system. “Has Farragut hinted otherwise?” he asked mildly.

Armitage frowned. “It would be scarcely prudent for Senator Farragut to alarm the populace with disaster rumors.”

Bishop looked at him out of his pale eyes. “Besides, it’s an election year.”

The silence was suddenly ugly.

Then Armitage chuckled. “All right,” he said. “So the Senator wants to be a national hero. The fact still remains that Epsilon had better be habitable or Pan-Asia will scream we’re hogging it. They want war anyway. Within a month--boom.”

For a moment, I was afraid he was going to make a speech about Earth’s suffocating billions, the screaming tension of the cold war, and the sacred necessity of Our Mission. If he had, I’d have gotten the weeping shrieks. Some responsibilities are too great to think about. But instead he winked at me. For the first time, I began to realize why Armitage was the Director of the Scientists’ World Council.

“Hypothesis, Greta,” he said. “Epsilon is probably a paradise. Why should the test colony let the rest of the world in on it? They’re being selfish.”

I giggled. We relaxed.

After supper, Armitage played chess with Bishop while I followed Max into the control room.

“Soon?” I said.

“Planetfall in eighteen hours, Doctor.” He said it stiffly, busying himself at the controls. Max is a small dark man with angry eyes and the saddest mouth I’ve ever seen. He is also a fine pilot and magnificent bacteriologist. I wanted to slap him. I hate these professional British types that think a female biochemist is some sort of freak.

“Honestly,” I said. “What do you think?”

“Disease,” he said bitterly. “For the first six months they reported on schedule, remember? A fine clean planet, no dominant life-forms, perfect for immigration; unique, one world in a billion. Abruptly they stopped sending. You figure it.”

I thought about it.

“I read your thematic on Venusian viruses,” he said abruptly. “Good show. You should be an asset to us, Doctor.”

“Thanks!” I snapped. I was so furious that I inadvertently looked into the cabin viewplate.

Bishop had warned me. It takes years of deep-space time to enable a person to stare at the naked Universe without screaming.

It got me. The crystal thunder of the stars, that horrible hungry blackness. I remember I was sort of crying and fighting, then Max had me by the shoulders, holding me gently. He was murmuring and stroking my hair. After a time, I stopped whimpering.

[Illustration: Illustrated by STONE]

“Thanks,” I whispered.

“You’d better get some sleep, Greta,” he said.

I turned in.

I think I’m falling in love.

January 19

Today we made planetfall. It took Max a few hours to home in on the test colony ship. He finally found it, on the shore of an inland sea that gleamed like wrinkled blue satin. For a time we cruised in widening spirals, trying to detect some signs of life. There was nothing.

We finally landed. Max and Armitage donned spacesuits and went toward the colony ship. They came back in a few hours, very pale.

“They’re dead.” Armitage’s voice cracked as he came out of the airlock. “All of them.”

“Skeletons,” Max said.

“How?” Bishop said.

Armitage’s hands were shaking as he poured a drink. “Looks like civil war.”

“But there were a hundred of them,” I whispered. “They were dedicated--”

“I wonder,” Bishop said thoughtfully. “White and brown and yellow. Russian and British and French and German and Chinese and Spanish. They were chosen for technical background rather than emotional stability.”

“Rot!” Armitage said like drums beating. “It’s some alien bug, some toxin. We’ve got to isolate it, find an antibody.”

He went to work.

January 22

I’m scared.

It’s taken three days to finalize the atmospheric tests. Oxygen, nitrogen, helium, with trace gases. Those trace gases are stinkers. Bishop discovered a new inert gas, heavier than Xenon. He’s excited. I’m currently checking stuff that looks like residual organic, and am not too happy about it. Still, this atmosphere seems pure.

Armitage is chafing.

“It’s in the flora,” he insisted today. “Something, perhaps, that they ate.” He stood with a strained tautness, staring feverishly at the chronometer. “Senator Farragut’s due to make contact soon. What’ll I tell him?”

“That we’re working on it,” Bishop said dryly. “That the four best scientists in the Galaxy are working toward the solution.”

“That’s good,” Armitage said seriously. “But they’ll worry. You are making progress?”

I wanted to wrap a pestle around his neck.

We were all in the control room an hour later. Armitage practically stood at attention while Farragut’s voice boomed from the transmitter.

It was very emetic. The Senator said the entire hemisphere was waiting for us to announce the planet was safe for immigration. He said the stars were a challenge to Man. He spoke fearfully of the Coming World Crisis. Epsilon was Man’s last chance for survival. Armitage assured him our progress was satisfactory, that within a few days we would have something tangible to report. The Senator said we were heroes.

Finally it was over. Max yawned. “Wonder how many voters start field work at once.”

Armitage frowned. “It’s not funny, Cizon. Not funny at all. Inasmuch as we’ve checked out the atmosphere, I suggest we start field work at once.”

Taylor blinked. “We’re still testing a few residual--”

“I happen to be nominal leader of this party.” Armitage stood very tall, very determined. “Obviously the atmosphere is pure. Let’s make some progress!”

February 2

This is progress?

For the past ten days, we’ve worked the clock around. Quantitative analysis, soil, water, flora, fauna, cellular, microscopic. Nothing. Max has discovered a few lethal alkaloids in some greenish tree fungus, but I doubt if the colony were indiscriminate fungus eaters. Bishop has found a few new unicellular types, but nothing dangerous. There’s one tentacled thing that reminds me of a frightened rotifer. Max named it Armitagium. Armitage is pleased.

Perhaps the fate of the hundred colonists will remain one of those forever unsolved mysteries, like the fate of the Mary Celeste or the starship Prometheus.

This planet’s clean.

February 4

Today Max and I went specimen-hunting.

It must be autumn on Epsilon. Everywhere the trees are a riot of scarlet and ocher, the scrubby bushes are shedding their leaves. Once we came upon a field of thistlelike plants with spiny seed-pods that opened as we watched, the purple spores drifting afield in an eddy of tinted mist. Max said it reminded him of Scotland. He kissed me.

On the way back to the ship we saw two skeletons. Each had its fingers tightly locked about the other’s throat.

February 20

We have, to date, analyzed nine hundred types of plant life for toxin content. Bishop has tested innumerable spores and bacteria. Our slide file is immense and still growing. Max has captured several insects. There is one tiny yellow bush-spider with a killing bite, but the species seem to be rare. Bishop has isolated a mold bacterium that could cause a high fever, but its propagation rate is far too low to enable it to last long in the bloodstream.

The most dangerous animal seems to be a two-foot-tall arthropod. They’re rare and peaceable. Bishop vivisected one yesterday and found nothing alarming.

Last night I dreamed about the first expedition. I dreamed they all committed suicide because Epsilon was too good for them.

This is ridiculous!

We’re working in a sort of quiet madness getting no closer to the solution.

Armitage talked to Senator Farragut yesterday and hinted darkly that the first ship’s hydroponics system went haywire and that an improper carbohydrate imbalance killed the colony. Pretty thin. Farragut’s getting impatient. Bishop looks haggard. Max looks grim.

February 23

Our quantitative tests are slowing down. We play a rubber of bridge each night before retiring. Last night I trumped Max’s ace and he snarled at me. We had a fight. This morning I found a bouquet of purple spore-thistles at my cabin door. Max is sweet.

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