Monday, September 14, 2015

Plague - Part Three - Full Circle

For eight days (Terran standard?), Ole Doc zooms along, dodging comets and even powering through a magnetic space "maelstrom" at full throttle, "fire in his sleepless eyes, one ear glued to the channels which would tell him if anything serious would happen before he got there and one ear to the ticking meters which said that if he kept stretching the Morgue like this, she wouldn't have a sound seam in her whole, ancient hull."  Wonder how old his ship is?  At least two hundred years, Ole Doc is nine hundred something in this story and seven hundred something in his introduction.  Has he been upgrading it incrementally instead of replacing it?  Or can standard shipyards not produce anything comparable to some Universal Medical Society-exclusive vessel even after all those years?

However old and advanced the Morgue is, turns out the tub has its limits, because on day eight of the voyage, "three-thirteen s.g.t.," the port tubes jam and Ole Doc and Hippocrates get to presumably step out an airlock to install new linings so the ship can fly straight again.  But eventually they reach their destination, a grand mustering of a hundred thousand ships in formation around the world of Green Rivers.  Yes, "fully half of the navies of the galaxy" have come together to stop one plague-stricken space liner, because they're that scared of a contagious illness, because they're that incompetent at preventing or treating a contagious illness, instituting a quarantine, detaining a civilian spaceship, tracking a civilian spaceship, and letting planetary defense forces in on the straightforward plan of blowing up a plague-infected civilian spaceship.

But I guess it makes for a dramatic finale.  A hundred thousand ships full of trigger-happy jarheads, opposed only by our heroic doctor belonging to the cabal whose monopoly on medicine allowed this situation to happen in the first place.

It was an imposing sight. Here lay, side by side, navies which had within the past century been searing one another out of the darkness. Here were reunions of peoples who had long since forgotten any connection with Mother Earth.

I just can't shake the feeling that all of these peoples are white, English-speaking men.

It was a blinding, majestic array.

Ole Doc was indifferent to its majesty. He wanted the flagship of Garth.

The fleet's patrol craft don't just hail the Morgue once they spot it with their sensors, they have to come in close enough to see its gold paint to "blare a surly warning," and of course they scamper off when realize it's one of those Soldiers of Light.  The heroes actually beat Garth to the rendezvous, so Ole Doc takes a nap until he hears Garth's radio order for all admirals to gather at a conference aboard his flagship.  Ole Doc has time for a hot bath before he goes, though Hippocrates doesn't approve because "it would have dissolved the little slave in a splash had he neglected to grease himself up first."  Then-

Hang on.  "Ole Doc Methuselah," yeah, forty-five pages into the story in my version - Hippocrates rescues the girl of the week by walking around on the bottom of a river "for many minutes" until he finds and fishes her out.  A river Hippocrates was only walking along because he was sad Ole Doc was mad at him, not because he was really planning on doing so.  Now, there's no mention of grease here, but he must have greased himself up, right?

So just how vulnerable is Hippocrates to water?  Is it just full immersion that would dissolve him?  Would that work in any liquid?  What about rain, would that erode him?  Water vapor? Is this Signs all over again?  Or does the water need to be a certain temperature?

All this from one little throw-away sentence.  Oy.

Hubbard spends the rest of the big paragraph on Ole Doc getting dressed, deciding at the last minute to swap out his new ostentatious cape for his old ostentatious cape that at least matches his scuffed boots and space helmet, because the author wants to present the hero as someone focused more on getting the job done than his personal appearance, despite dressing him as decadently as possible for the past four stories, to say nothing of having him fly around in a golden spaceship.  Ole Doc and Methuselah get on the Morgue's lifeboat and shuttle over to Galactic Admiral Garth's flagship, the Tangier-Mairlicon.  Hmm, maybe I'm wrong and "Garth" is actually an old Moroccan name.

There's one of those moments when the conference's guards see this weirdo in a cape and some six-limbed gypsum monster approaching and have to whip out an etiquette handbook to figure out how to respond, only to see that the man is a Soldier of Light, who orders them to skip the fanfare and just let him in.  They do so, and an officer decides to consult his handbook again.

"It won't be there, commander," said the chief warrant bos'n, for he had known the commander as a midshipman and ever afterward treated him with a hint of it the way old spacemen will. "That's a Soldier of Light."

"It isn't here," said the commander.

"Neither," said the old chief warrant, "is God."

I can't really articulate the growling, spitting-through-your-teeth sound I made in response to this line.  All I can say is that Hubbard's hero more closely resembles the demiurge than a proper deity.

Ole Doc gets to walk into the conference room right when Garth is about to pound his fist to make a point, and in the silence that follows cracks a wry comment about needing all these ships just for one plague boat.  After demanding to know how Ole Doc found out about this conference (Ole Doc lies about cracking the code instead of abusing the trust of his profession and drugging a patient to get it), Garth explains the situation to the meddlesome physician.  The Star of Space landed on Green Rivers, two men escaped from it, and now there's plague in or around the settlements of Piedmont, Hammerford and Hartisford - seventy-one cases all said, which means that "the planet is rotten with it."

No quarantine, of course, "not even a road has been blocked."  Nobody on the world below can think of what steps they could take to keep a disease from spreading into their area, and nobody on the... what was it, hundred thousand?  Yeah, no one on those hundred thousand spaceships around the planet has any way of, I don't know, blocking roads or forcing air traffic to be grounded.  You'd need, like some sort of vehicle with a lot of firepower that could make demands and use deadly force if necessary, and the ability to fly through the air or even the vacuum.  Some sort of space-ship.  With guns on it, in some sort of navy, I'd expect.

So there's nothing to do but go all Warhammer 40,000 on the planet, purging all life with an orbital bombardment.  Nine million people in over thirty settlements, all gone.  Garth doesn't feel this is necessary simply because the world is a lost cause, no, he has a stupider reason.  See, if they don't sterilize this disaster area, Garth says, the fifty million men in the assembled fleet risk catching the plague as well.

These people.  Are balefully.  Balefully.  Stupid.

They're so ignorant that they can't fight this plague, fine.  They're too stupid to institute a blockade or quarantine to keep the plague from spreading, less acceptable.  But now they're afraid that the plague germs are going to somehow fly up from the planet below, through the vacuum of space, and penetrate the hulls of the spaceships to fly into the lungs of their crews?  And they have these fears after ordering a hundred thousand ships from all corners of the galaxy to assemble over the epicenter of the next outbreak?

I do believe the Universal Medical Society has made the rest of the universe so stupid that they don't know how diseases actually work.

Ole Doc protests that the men, women and children on the plague ship are innocent, and so are the nine million inhabitants of the planet, and they have "homes and farms and children.  They have churchs and projects for celebrating the harvest." But Garth remembers how the red death left Guyper the ruin it remains to this day, asserts that they'll start sterilizing in a few hours, and refuses to let Ole Doc down to examine the plague for fear of him bringing the sickness back with him.  Because how could a super-doctor like a Soldier of Light properly protect himself from a plague?

I ask that like it's sarcasm, but as we'll shortly see...

"One moment," said Ole Doc.  "You have forgotten something."

Garth glared.

"I am not under your orders, admiral."

"Your ship is staying where it is," said Garth.  "When you go back you will find a cruiser alongside."

"He'll not dare detain me," said Ole Doc.

Garth was dangerously angry.  Authority was as precious as blood to him.  "If you defy me-"

Ole Doc said: "Admiral, I am leaving."

Oooh, dramatic exit.  How could we completely defuse the tension of the situation?

He shook out a handkerchief and delicately fanned the air before his face and then restored it.  "We've got warm in here, haven't we?" 

Now at this point you might wonder whether the story is trying to become a comedy, but rest assured, Ole Doc is up to something.  Because when he goes back to the Morgue to try to leave, and learns from an apologetic officer that someone has ordered the "grapplers" sealed so that he's physically incapable of taking off, he doesn't get mad.  He goes back into his cabin, and takes a nap.  He gargles, squirts antiseptic spray up his nose, shines himself with a "sweet-smelling" light to clean his skin, toys with a lancet to make "short passes with it in the air as though he was cutting someone's jugular - not Garth's of course."  And as the hours pass and the time for the purge grows nearer, Ole Doc gets introspective.

Orders.  Orders were inexorable soulless things which temporarily divorced a man from rationality and made him an extension of another brain.  Orders.  Born out of inorganic matter contained in some passionless book, they yet had more force than all the glib conversations of a thousand philosophers.  Orders.  They made men slaves.  Garth was a slave.  A slave to his own orders.

Yeah, maaan.  And like, generals can give commands to everyone except themselves, duuude.

A mere ten minutes before the killing begins, the Morgue receives an urgent message from Galactic Admiral Garth - the plague has reached the fleet, and they're practically begging the doctor to do something.  Oh, the irony!

Yes, when Ole Doc goes over again and finds Garth, grim but courageously facing his fate, the admiral explains that "The scout vessels which approached the Star of Space must have been infected in the air," and then their commanders came to report in person.  He doesn't start laughing halfway through, or trail off incredulously, he honestly thinks this is what happened.  Because these people are all deliberately stupid, thank you, Soldiers of Light.

Garth volunteers to be a test case so Ole Doc can find a cure for his men, but the doctor insists that he start at the source of this problem.  He brings up how Garth forbade him from going down to the infected planet just so Garth can squirm and rescind his order, nice.  And then Ole Doc is off for the town of Piedmont.

There is the predictable mob of fearful citizens when the Morgue lands, complete with a woman dropping to her knees and praying, though Ole Doc only promises them that he'll try.  He's led to the Star of Space, now in terrible shape, "Her sealed ports were like sightless eyes in a skull."  The survivors that greet him can only sob in relief.

Ole Doc pushed on through.  He was, after all, a mortal.  Disease respected no man, no even the U.M.S.  It is valiant to go up against ray guns.  It took more nerve to walk into that ship.

The stench was like a living wall.  There were unburied dead in there.

Where would you "bury" them in a spaceship?

The salons and halls were stained and disarrayed, the furniture broken, the draperies torn down for other uses.  A piano stood gleaming polished amid a chaos of broken glass.  And a young woman, dead, lay with her hair outsplayed across the fragments as though she wore diamonds in her locks.

And whatever happened to chucking the corpses out the airlock?

Now, I've read these pages carefully, and you know what I can find no mention of?  Ole Doc putting on a hazmat suit.  He's not going around in his space suit like he was back on Dorab, he doesn't even have a little gauze surgeon's mask on.  Everyone else in the galaxy has been deliberately kept as ignorant as possible when it comes to medical stuff, so what's Ole Doc's excuse?

Stepping into a plagued city in the Middle Ages, wearing a crude suit of waxed fabric and a mask with glass goggles and a long "beak" filled with herbs to ward off the miasma, doing what you can to save lives, that's heroism.  Stepping into a plagued spaceship some fifteen hundred years later, wearing no protective covering at all?  Heroism isn't quite the word I'd use.

Let's wrap this up.  Ole Doc interviews patients, learns the disease first started with a man from the ruined backwater of Cobanne, and notes its traits - spots in the mouth, ten-day incubation, death from high fever usually a week later.  Then he has to sit and think for a bit, because there's no disease like this one in any of his books.  After all, "The study of such diseases was not very modern after the vigorous campaigns for asepsis five hundred years ago."  And that's the course of medical knowledge: you painstakingly claw your way up to the heights of enlightenment, learn how to keep a sterile environment, and then forget everything you knew to get that far.

So Ole Doc, sitting by a stream, is thinking hard, but for whatever reason keeps flashing back to fishing in his home of Maryland, and one of his first cases as a doctor.  Then he has a revelation, gets everyone animated, buckets and mixtures and catalysts and a brave lad becoming a guinea pig.  In short order a cure and vaccine is produced, and Ole Doc has the details sent out over an honest-to-God "space-radio."  Then he hails Garth to let him know it's safe for the fleet to disperse, all the ship doctors, useless though they may be, now have instructions on how to produce a cure.  The day saved, our hero goes fishing, because he's still a good ol' country boy at heart.

Yes, I'm skimming, but the actual "inventing the cure" part of the story takes a page and a half at most.

After escaping all the fawning plebeians, Ole Doc takes a break from packing to start writing a note about the importance of not totally eradicating diseases from the universe lest people forget how to deal with them, only to have Garth knock at the door to tell him how wrong he was about doctors, the Universal Medical Society, and so on.  Ole Doc is a good sport and offers his guest a drink, even when Garth starts worrying that the symptoms he and some other admirals are showing are different from what his doctors have been told about the plague on the Star of Space.  Ole Doc prescribes him plenty of water and, in a code only a pharmacist would understand, some simple aspirin.

And now, the punchline.

Hippocrates shows up and accuses Ole Doc of giving the assembled admirals something during that meeting.  Ole Doc admits that his handkerchief he waved at the conference was coated with a specially-brewed variant of the common cold that would show symptoms in hours, something to put the fear of as-good-as-God into them so they'd give him a chance to work.  Because even though everyone (except Garth) is awed and deferential to the Soldiers of Light, Ole Doc had no way of just demanding that he be given a chance to do his job.  And for whatever reason he didn't go straight to the Star of Space after arriving over Green Rivers, and decided to hang out with the fleet instead.

Oh, and as for the plague itself, Ole Doc explains that the problem was that the Star of Space's passengers were

"Too well card for by doctors," said Ole Doc.


"Hit by a disease which they hadn't contacted for a long, long time - say five hundred years."

"What disease?" demanded Hippocrates.  "Not one that you spread?"

"No, no, heaven forbid!" laughed Ole Doc. 

So what's funny here?  It's not laughable that a 'doctor' would ever spread a disease instead of curing one, because you just admitted to doing that you tremendous asshat.

 "It has a perfectly good name but it hasn't been around for so long that-"

"What name?"

"Common measles," said Ole Doc. 

Yep.  Nine hundred years from now, we'll be utterly helpless in the face of this disease we've been living with for most of our history, a disease that can be treated with anything that reduces fever and helps breathing.  Any country with a decent health care system can handle measles without too many deaths, so... thanks to the Universal Medical Society, the galaxy has a woefully inadequate health care system.  Success?

I like that Ole Doc recognizes how the Universal Medical Society was so good at its job that it forgot about this old, mostly nonfatal disease.  But it was also so good at its job that it left the rest of the universe helpless in the face of any disease.  And that, I think, is the bigger problem.

Back to Part Two 

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