Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Plague - Part One - Voyage of the Damned

This Ole Doc story is one where he's actually called upon to solve a medical problem, rather than blundering into a situation where his magical healing putty or knowledge of basic science ends up saving the day.  And there's no "love interest" either, though an increased focus on Hippocrates kinda negates that.  But it's still pretty stupid.

The big ship settled in the landing cradle, her ports agleam - and her guts rotten with sickness.

There were no banners to greet her back from her Spica run, there was no welcoming mass of greeters.  The field was as still as an execution dock and the black wagons waited with drivers scared and the high yellow blaze of QUARANTINE hung sickly over all.

Yes, the Star of Space... really?  Gonna call my next boat Island of Ocean.  Anyway, the Star of Space is being ravaged by an unknown infection sweeping through its passengers and crew.  591 are already dead, and the rest seem doomed to follow since the ship's doctor is among the corpses "flung out the space port to explode in vacuum and gyrate, then, perhaps, as dark comets of putrescent matter around some darker star."  It's just a much more entertaining way of disposing of biohazards than dumping them in the incinerator, you see.

Now it turns out there are radios in this stupid Hubbardian future, and there is such a thing as an "operations platform" that port authorities stand on while they speak, via radio, with people on a nearby spaceship.  There's even a rank called Spaceway Control Police Chief.  So our story opens with this officer and some other people conversing with the stricken ship - the guy on the radio is begging for help, while the port medic is asking for more information about the plague.

But, well, reread the first line again.  They're doing this when the plague ship has already come to Earth - like, planet Earth itself - and landed.  Nobody thought to tell the thing to stay in orbit in the nice, sterile vacuum of space while a medical shuttle docked with it, or for it to make port at one of Earth's orbital platforms.  And - well, just wait a moment.

The voice from the ship describes the sickness - sore throats and spots inside the mouth that lead to a swollen throat, fever, and finally death from convulsions in about fourteen days.  And try to resist the urge to go to Wikipedia or somewhere and figure out the disease for yourself, so not to spoil the big reveal in forty pages.

Now, the medic on hand has no idea what the Star of Space has picked up, but everyone remembers the time the Vestal brought the "red death" over from "Galaxy 159" ...Hubbard, the bigger you claim your setting is, the more backwards and miserable it appears from the juxtaposition between casual intergalactic travel and people too stupid to check for radiation when exploring a strange planet.  Anyway, the medic can't do an over-the-radio diagnosis of this latest plague, he calls his superiors but can't get anything useful from them, so Control Chief Conway can only take messages.

A woman had come to the ship speaker now. She was pleading between broken sobs. They were trying everything they could out there in that ship. The medic tried to imagine what it was like with those closed ports. No doctor. The ballrooms and salons turned over to dying men, women and children. The few live ones cringing in far places, hoping. Brave ones waiting on sick people. Some officer with his first command which would be his last. They had a kid at the ship speaker now.

A horrible, tragic situation.  The solution is obvious: order the ship to leave.

Yes, they let the vessel land only to tell it to take off again.  No, there's no physicians around that want to try and address this crisis.  No Red Cross rushing to respond, no temporary housing put up on the tarmac so the stricken passengers can at least die in the fresh air, nothing.  On planet Earth, presumably among the most civilized planets in the galaxy, a galaxy where there is allegedly one physician for every 160 humans, there is nobody who can help these poor people.

If this seems astoundingly stupid... well, it is.  But Hubbard wants a particular kind of plot, so just go along with the idea that the oldest inhabited human planet in all the universe has no way to deal with one diseased spaceship beyond commanding it to depart.  Why the author decided to have this story kick off on Earth instead of some frontier world where this kind of helpless response would make more sense is just one of those mysteries, along with why a magazine would publish this crap and why anyone would willingly read it.

Conway gives the order at 10:72, "sidereal galaxy time," an impressive but meaningless number.  About an... hour?  Later at 11:67, the Star of Space reluctantly departs.  And five days later, at 19:95, Ole Doc Methuselah arrives at Earth.  And he's pissed, pissed enough to ignore quarantine and the control tower to land directly in front of the hangar!  Or in other words act like he has on every other world he's visited in these wretched stories.

When a dispatcher comes along to see what's going on, he's awestruck by the crossed "ray rods of pharmacy" on the nose of the golden spaceship, terrified of the "four-armed, antennaed nightmare" that causes the ground to shake when it hops out of the vessel, and surprised when Ole Doc himself disembarks since he looks only 27, because I guess Hubbard was terrified of aging and comforted himself by creating long-lived but eternally-youthful characters.  A cab driver races off rather than tangle with these two, so Ole Doc gets to march right to the ninety-eighth floor of the Spaceway Control Building to yell at Conway.  Maybe he took the stairs all the way up, because he's less coherent than usual.

"You listen to me!" cried Ole Doc.  "You imbecile!  You... you- Good Catfish!  You haven't the discernment of a two-year-old kid!  You... you flatfoot!  Do you know what you've done?  Do you know what ought to happen to you?  Do you know where you'll wind up when I'm through with this?  If you-"

Ordinarily Conway would take issue with this, but he sees on Ole Doc's gorget the emblem of the Universal Medical Society, so he can only sit back, take it, and learn "some pretty terrible things about himself, including his personal appearance and the slightly sub-quality of his wits."  After doing all this, and threatening to issue quarantine tickets to lock down all space travel from Earth, Jupiter and Mars, Ole Doc finally gets around to explaining what has rustled his jimmies: he demands that Conway find the Star of Space so the super-doctor can cure its survivors and prevent it from infecting anyone else, potentially quadrillions of people.

Yes, he's worried that a single spaceship bearing a disease that kills people in about two weeks will manage to cause an apocalyptic loss of life on a scale that the human mind can barely comprehend.  Guess the boat is going to use some super-fast trans-galactic engines to visit hundreds of inhabited worlds per day and cough and sneeze on them.

Ole Doc finishes by demanding that Conway call up the "Grand Council" and have them here in ten minutes.  As the narration reminds us, the Universal Medical Society "ruled the universe of medicine, said what it pleased, did what it pleased when it pleased and if it pleased.  It owed allegiance to no government because it had been born to take the deadly secrets of medicine out of the hands of government."  And this seems to mean that it can order around governments, too.  Though we'll see some limitations shortly.

Now if you were wanting to learn anything about Earth as it will be nine hundred years from now, prepare to be disappointed: all this story indirectly tells us is that there's an interstellar dock at New Chicago, which is where our story seems to be set if Ole Doc can get a seat at a garden looking down at it, and the planet is ruled by Grand Council of eighteen men, which include representatives from the Army, Marines, Navy, some civilians, and most notably Galactic Admiral Garth.  The population of future Earth is also given as 2.5 billion.  Which means that there should have been 15 million physicians on the world?  Huh, oddly enough says that there are 10 to 15 million doctors now, with 7 billion people on the planet.

Anyway, Galactic Admiral Garth is our antagonist, the blustering military leader who bristles at our scientist protagonist's suggestions and wants to do things his way, the killing people way, instead of the smart way.  He's black-jowled, six-and-a-half feet tall, and chomps cigars.  And he's also more or less in charge of the Grand Council, because "He commanded, by planetary seniority and the right of Earth's conquests, the combined space navies of the galaxy whenever "the greater good of the majority of the systems" was threatened.  Which suggests that Earth is the capital of a galactic empire run primarily by the military rather than any popularly-elected leaders.  Eh, democracy had a good run.

Ole Doc calls Garth and the others "a pack of fools!" for sending the Star of Space out without any assistance or supplies, no quarantine, and most importantly no idea where it picked up the disease and where it might be going next.

"That's why you are fools!  You should have provided her with an escort at least!  But no!  You, the men who supposedly monopolize all the wits on Earth, the Earth which rules the galaxy, you let the Star of Space go away from here to murder - yes, murder! - possibly millions and millions of human beings.  Perhaps billions.  Perhaps trillions!  I cannot exaggerate the folly of your action.  Completely beyond the base-hearted wickedness which refused that ship the help she needed, you will be evil and sinful in the eyes of all men.

"I am publishing this matter to space.  The Universal Medical Society can cure anything but stupidity, and where they find that, in government, they must leave it alone!"

Yeah.  Guy belongs to a society that monopolizes medical knowledge, then bitches when people don't follow proper plague protocol.  After all, how would a Universal Medical Society cure stupidity?  Share its knowledge?  Teach people?  Don't be ridiculous.  The government would only abuse such knowledge of ragweed allergies and how to alleviate them.

And if Earth is the capital of the galactic empire, why in Emperor Palpatine's bony buttocks is there not a Soldier of Light stationed there at all times?  Seems like it would be an important posting.  Maybe the galaxy's leadership might benefit from what the UMS knows - oh, but that's right, we don't want that.

The Universal Medical Society does not believe in preventive medicine.  It's all about being the only ones able to respond to a crisis when one develops, not making sure a crisis doesn't develop in the first place.

All of my hate.  Anyway, Galactic Admiral Garth is outraged that some "pill roller" is lecturing him, since he knows all that's worth knowing about plague from books - "disease warfare" nearly wiped out mankind, so of course it only made sense to kick out a plagued ship.  "Nobody could fight a disease when science could make new, incurable ones at every rumor of war.  It had said so in the texts for a long time, for several hundreds years in fact.  That made it true."  He remembers how it was three Army doctors who spread the "red plague" from a camp, and he won't risk the same happening in this case.

He tries to assure everyone that the Star of Space only had a bit of fuel left, so it's not like it can go anywhere, but Ole Doc reveals that he "ion-beamed" New Earth in the Spica system, and learned that the ship had new "delphi particles" in her tanks that would take her anywhere within five hundred light-years.  The only solution, he says, is to put out an alert and hunt down the Star of Space to stop it from infecting anyone else.

The rest of the Grand Council look at Garth, who takes his time getting a new cigar in his mouth before giving his orders: he'll issue an alert, muster all the navies and have them on watch for this vessel, and if anyone sees it they're to blow it up.  No plague, no problem.  He walks out, so Ole Doc can rage at the rest of the Council for agreeing to his orders and dooming a ship full of innocent people to a horrible death by- oh, wait.  He's angry at them because now he'll never find out where the plague came from or learn anything else about it.  And while he has enough clout to convene the Grand Council in the first place, he can't modify Garth's order from "kill" to "apprehend," because... well, for the same reason no one on Earth can treat a ship full of sick guys.

And that's our plot - there's a plague ship out there in the galaxy, trying to get help that nobody is able to give it because the UMS wants every other doctor to be as incompetent and ignorant as possible.  So Ole Doc gets to race the galactic patrols and space navies and all that to try to get to the ship before it's blown up.  In the process we'll see how badly-managed this galactic empire is, and just how far medical science has slipped from our own time.

Back to the "Great Air Monopoly"

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