Friday, September 18, 2015

A Sound Investment - Part Two - State of Decay

Now, in the last story, much fuss was made about the authorities not having the sense to put together a proper quarantine.  Not only did space traffic control let a plague ship take off and set out for parts unknown, but when it spread its pestilent cargo to another world and people were actually dying in the streets, nobody could figure out how to so much as set up a roadblock.

In this story, we just read a message from a Generalissimo declaring that Fomalhaut was under "full quarantine," yet when Ole Doc lands on Gasperand in that system, he spies tramp freighters (standing on their tails, of course) taking in passengers eager to leave the world.  We can't even say 'well, maybe they have the infected areas properly locked down,' because there are diseased bodies rotting in the open literally down the street from the airport these people are departing from.

It just seems like a bit of a health risk, is what I'm saying.  Or maybe these people understand quarantines about as well as they understand how diseases spread, i.e. through spaceship hulls.

Anyhoo.  Ole Doc disembarks to find a mix of civilians and military dudes waiting for him around a car.  Please keep in mind that he's a thousand years old at this point and got his degree in the early 20th century, so it's vaguely disappointing that civilization hasn't come up with a more interesting way of getting around as the year 3000 approaches.

Leading the pack of greeters is Generalissimo Lebel, "a big fellow with a big mustache and a big black mane" in front of "a big staff that wore big medals and waiting for him was a big bullet-ray-germ proof car."  He greets Ole Doc with a lot of exclaimed sentences mentioning the twenty-five thousand dead and the fact that everyone's trying to desert the Fomalhaut system.  Then he tries to give Ole Doc a big smooch.

Ole Doc was almost swept up and kissed before he recalled the customs in this part of the galaxy. He twisted expertly away to shake an offered hand. Generally he didn't shake hands but it was better than getting buried in mustache. The crowed was surging toward him, cheering and pleading. Lebel took Ole Doc by the hand and got him into the refuge of the car. It was a usual sort of reception. The U.M.S. was so very old, so very feared and respected

You can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes pretty hard.

and its members so seldom seen in the flesh that welcoming parties were sometimes the most dangerous portion for the work.

So we're supposed to be excited about and interested in the disease of this story when the main character is more annoyed with having to shake hands with the local head honcho?  If he's bored, how do you think we feel?

Lebel starts talking about the sudden onset of this terrible disease and its horrible effects ("People die."), but Ole Doc is so disinterested he's literally trying not to yawn, and says that he was headed to this planet anyway since that Giotini guy died and "left the revenue of the system to the U.M.S."  The generalissimo is incredulous that the Society would still want a world being wracked by such a plague and decides to take Ole Doc to see the disease at work.  He's really insistent that Ole Doc put on one of his helmets to keep any germs from getting in, and quite confident that it should be trusted more than any equipment that Ole Doc brought (not that he's wearing a helmet).  What normal and not at all suspicious behavior.

A street ahead was barricaded.  Bodies were piled in either gutter, bodies in various stages of decomposition, of both sexes, of many races and castes.

Oh lord.  I know the super-enlightened Soldiers of Light have watched democracy fade from memory, but could they at least have fought against the notion that some people 'deserve' to belong to an underclass?

Velvet and burlap were brothers in that grisly display.

"Ought to bury them," said Ole Doc.  "You'll have cholera or something if you don't watch it."

One, cholera is usually spread by sewage getting in the drinking water, not corpses.  Two, this guy is supposed to be a medical genius but has to use the words "or something" when warning a patient about sanitation.

"Bury them!  Who'd go near them?  They are thrown out of the houses like that young girl there and nobody-"

Oh no.

"Wait a minute," said Ole Doc.  "Stop the car!"

For the young girl was not dead.  She was dressed in satin, probably in her wedding dress, for a church stood fifty feet further on, and her hair was a golden flood upon the pavement.  She was pressing up with her hands, seeking to rise and falling back, each time screaming.

Of course.  Of course Ole Doc doesn't give a lepertige's haunch about the outbreak until he spots an appealingly woman-shaped pile of meat.

Lebel at least gets Ole Doc to put on the offered helmet before opening the car door and stepping onto the "pave" to check on the woman, who is in screaming, eye-rolling hysterics.  She fights back when Ole Doc tries to pick her up, Lebel starts pulling on his other end to get him back in the car away from the plague victims, and Ole Doc calls out for "Hippocrates!" before he remembers he manumitted his slave.

And this does raise a question - why doesn't this Soldier of Light have an assistant?  Even the best doctors of our time like to have someone on hand to pass them tools when they're up to their elbows in a patient.  Where's the apprentice Soldier of Light learning as much as possible at Ole Doc's elbow before going solo?  For that matter, where's the medical robot who follows orders unquestionably and has the servos to tote Ole Doc's bag of supplies?  Might be less troublesome than a freaking alien slave.

Anyway, it's all a bit of a mess.  Ole Doc has to juggle the girl, the legal notes, and his medical equipment as he gets out his "hypo gun," and then Lebel's bodyguards are instantly on him and confiscate the thing, because "Nobody draws on the generalissimo!"  A glaring Ole Doc inspects his patient, noting her high pulse rate and fully-dilated eyes, while also getting a good look at her body through the tears in her dress, because this doctor sees no reason to have two bedside manners.  Then he asks for the gun, Lebel hesitates, so Ole Doc says Lebel can do the deed himself.

"Oh!" said Lebel, seeing some parallel between this and the treatment he gave cavalry horses with wounds. He brightened and with something close to pleasure did as he was bidden.

So.  We're not just dealing with land-bound, wheeled cars in the year 3000, but cavalry regiments on horseback.  This is just... I know I shouldn't be this disappointed, because that Warhammer 40,000 game I mentioned does the same thing in an even more distant future.  Except that game is supposed to be primitive and dystopian, a sign of how far mankind has slid back into barbarism despite the future setting.  This just seems to be a sign of the author's failures of imagination.

At least have them riding something cool like lizards or terror birds.  Sheesh.

The generalissimo is probably a little disappointed when the "gun" squirts a healing mist that sends the girl into unconsciousness, and remarks that he's survived "ten - fifteen - twenty" assassination attempts but should have known better than to worry that a Soldier of Light would try to kill him.  He's not happy when Ole Doc declares his intent to bring the girl along and make a case history of the disease, and orders two goons to put her back on the corpse heap.

And though we're told that Ole Doc could have drawn a weapon and "burned them to glory long before they reached him," he restrains himself and merely flicks two little darts at the soldiers, making them come to a halt.

"Attention!" said Ole Doc. "You will obey only me. You can never obey anyone else again. Get into that car!"

And the two aides, like wound-up clockwork, turned around and got into the car like obedient small boys.

"What have you done?" yelped Lebel.

Violated their free wills, duh.

"They are in a fine, deep trance," said Ole Doc.  "I dislike being handled by anyone, Lebel.  No Soldier of Light does.  We are only seven hundred in the entire universe but I think you will that it pays to be very polite to us.  Now do you sleep or cooperate?"

"I'll cooperate!" said Lebel.

I think the Universal Medical Society operates more under "fear" than the "respect" they allegedly receive.  Also, isn't it interesting how Ole Doc's methods are devolving over these stories?  In the first story, some three hundred years before this one, he was able to simply tell a guy to become a stone and he went numb, and in one set immediately afterward he had to shine a light and whisper to hypnotize people, and now he's reduced to chemical mind control.

On the bright side, we finally see a medical weapon worth keeping from the rest of the galaxy.  I'm sure it's better to live in a universe where people are ravaged by ragweed and don't know how diseases spread if it means not having to deal with mind-control darts.  This way when the tyrants and monarchs that rule the galaxies want you to do something, they have to resort to threats or physical violence.

So the conked-out girl is loaded into the car by the hypnotized guards, and Ole Doc demands to be taken to where they're keeping the system's former ruler - that's who this Giotini guy was, turns out, Lebel's predecessor.  They are literally able to drive the car all the way into the palace's throne room.   There really aren't enough capitol buildings with drive-thru audience chambers, are there?

They disembark, and Lebel apologizes for his jumpy guards, since y'know, there's a plague and everyone's fleeing the system and it's all a real mess.  Plus this is the first time he's met a Soldier of Light, and Ole Doc looks so young.  "I have heard that they are all old men and you look like a boy."  How does he know Ole Doc's the real deal, in other words?

Never, ever make this mistake.  Never doubt a Hubbard protagonist, no matter how boyishly handsome they appear.

Ole Doc squares his shoulders and gives a little speech about the Soldiers of Light safeguarding "the health of mankind through the stars against plague and medical warfare" since their founding seven centuries ago, and offers to give a little demonstration to prove his identity.  So he gestures at a sergeant to step forward, and gets him to look at a shiny button until his eyelids start fluttering and he's swaying slightly on his feet.  Oh good, the more conventional hypnosis is back.  Wonder why Ole Doc didn't do that instead of the mind-control darts just a few pages ago?

"You cannot feel anything in your entire body!" said Ole Doc. Out came a lancet. Up went the sergeant's sleeve. Ole Doc gashed a five-inch wound into the forearm, picked up the beating artery like a rope, dropped it back and pressed the flesh to stop the bleeding. He reached into a cape pocket and extracted a small rod, a ray rod of pharmacy

I'd just like to point out that pharmacy is associated more with drugs than magical medical science sticks.

with a Greek symbol on it.  He passed the rod over the wound.  It closed.  He reversed the rod and passed it once more.  The scar vanished.  There was nothing but blood on the floor to mark what had happened.

Ole Doc thinks that by showing off his medical gadgets and knowledge of anatomy he'll prove that he's a real doctor, while the fact that he just needlessly tore open a person proves exactly the opposite, I feel.

So Lebel declares that he never doubted Ole Doc for a moment and offers his full assistance, and Ole Doc gets to haul the unconscious woman from the car, which makes him miss Hippocrates.  Not because he values the alien's personality or insights anything, but because "Doing manual labor was a thing that Ole Doc did not particularly enjoy."

Then it's time to check the stiff.  Ole Doc briefly meets Giotini's widow before shooing her out so he can get to work on his body, which is still lying in bed under a sheet.  And Ole Doc got the notification of Giotini's death a full two weeks ago, meaning he's probably been dead even longer than that.  That strikes me as a little long to keep a body out.  You might even catch cholera from it at that point.

Ole Doc puts the unconscious, still-nameless girl down on the room's couch, then throws back the sheet to examine the "sodden lump of dead flesh" (ick) that used to be Wilhelm Reiter Giotini, "unblooded ruler of Fomalhaut, creator of empires and materializer of dreams," the statesman and scholar now humbled as are all men by the reaper's scythe.

Our protagonist barks for Hippocrates again, but of course the alien is still back at the Morgue, languishing under the horrors of liberty.  So Ole Doc gives the girl a pill to wake her up, then reassures her that he's a Soldier of Light, here to help.  She tries to talk about how she was dying from the disease that is as nameless as she is, but Ole Doc reveals "There is no disease, no poison" that he was able to detect.

He asks her to tell her story (but doesn't ask for her name, that's just not how Ole Doc rolls), so the girl explains how she was a bridesmaid at her sister's wedding when everyone suddenly started screaming and falling over dead, another sudden outbreak like had been seen before elsewhere on the planet, and other planets in the system.  She breaks down in tears when she realizes that her sister, brother-in-law, mother, her whole family is now dead.  So Ole Doc jabs her with "a heavy charge of neo-tetrascopolamine" to blank out her memory of the past three days or so.

Um.  I get that the Soldiers of Light are trying to keep this sort of medical technology from falling into the wrong hands - this would be one hell of a date-rape drug - I'm just not convinced that they are the right hands for it, either.

The girl's face goes blank and she asks where she is and who this man is and where she's been for the past few days, which I understand are scary questions to have to ask, especially on a sofa in a strange building with a man you can't recognize.  At least she's able to recognize a Soldier of Light on sight, so our protagonist doesn't have to cut anyone open to prove his identity.

"I brought you here so fast your dress got torn," said Ole Doc.

"You promise you'll get back in time for my sister's wedding?"

"We'll do what we can," said Ole Doc. "Now you don't mind dead people, do you?"

And then she notices the weeks-dead corpse on the bed, and almost loses control of her stomach.  But Ole Doc tells her to pull herself together and they'll see what they can do for him.

"Do what - Why, bury him, of course!"  She added hesitantly and a little afraid: "You are going to bury him?"

"No, my dear.  I am afraid I am not."

So let's see.  Ole Doc uses mind control drugs on two hapless guards, programming them to obey only him for the rest of their lives.  He hypnotizes a man and rips into the guy's arm just to prove that he can and is therefore a real doctor.  He picks up a pretty-looking "plague" victim on a whim, wipes her memory, and more or less kidnaps her into working as his assistant, all because he got mad at his slave and let him go.  And he lies through omission about her dead family members so she won't be distracted while she plays nurse.

Well, he must be the story's hero, because we don't exactly have a villain at this point, do we?

Back to Part One 

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