Friday, September 11, 2015

Plague - Part Two - A Town Called Mercy

So what do you do when the author throws the name "Smith Empire" at you?

It's kind of jarring, that's for sure.  So far we've had real-world names like Sirius and Algol for the stars, and planets with names ranging from unimaginative like New Earth to unexciting like Arphon.  So what's Hubbard's motive with the Smith Empire, you think?  Is he commenting on just how banal space travel will become in nine centuries, and how someone with such an unassuming name as Smith might be able to carve out an interstellar empire?  Is this a joke, suggesting that what I have mistaken for rampant stupidity might in fact be sly parody?  Is this a shout-out to one of Hubbard's homies?  Or did his creativity check just bounce that day?  Was "Smith" a placeholder meaning "think up a more interesting name later," but alas, later never came?

The world is indeed rich in mystery.  Anyway, Ole Doc and Hippocrates pick up word of the Star of Space's whereabouts when they're near the Carmack system - their target has gone to the world of Skinner's Folly, which at least sounds like a frontier community, in the Smith Empire, which see above.

"We'll never make it," said Ole Doc.  "That confounded System Police will get there and wreck everything.  I know the Smith Empire!"

If you're curious what specifically he knows about the Smith Empire, just keep on wondering a while longer.  Instead of explaining this comment the author spends a paragraph describing the lavish mural on the walls of the Morgue's salon, a masterpiece by the Old Seattle artist Boyd of "a tree of life growing all around the four walls of the room depicting the evolution of man," something that we're assured the galaxies' richest leaders would pay "a planet's ransom" for a mere copy.  Its images are so lifelike that the gibbons on the branches seem to be moving, in full 3-D.

You might think that this detail is just another sign of the author's obsession with wealth and luxury and wrapping his wish-fulfillment characters in it, and odds are that you'd be right.  But it also gives Ole Doc an excuse to call his opponents unevolved brutes still in the "monkey stage," contenting themselves by picking fleas as if they're actually accomplishing something.  Hippocrates, meanwhile, is keeping his master alive with some chicken noodle soup and magical medical science.  And Ole Doc is being kind of a bitch about it.

Hippocrates isn't happy with Ole Doc's outbursts this chapter, and wants to cut back on his patient-master's adrenaline levels.  Ole Doc replies "You'll cut down nothing, you gypsum freak!"  Hippocrates does not react to this insult, suggesting that either he is very patient or used to this sort of language.  Come to think of it, I don't remember Ole Doc apologizing for this remark later in the story.  Hippocrates comments that adrenaline makes Ole Doc engage in bad habits like drinking and falling in love, and recounts a poem or something about how "Love is the ambition of a failed man," how there is nothing so ridiculous as a guy swapping saliva with some "predatory female."  Ole Doc says the gibbon on the wall is more sensible than the person who remembers to give him his life-extending treatments.  Hippocrates counters that a gibbon couldn't make soup.

Man, it's really a good thing this story comes after the last one, or else we might start wondering whether Ole Doc actually likes his little alien manservant.  Now all we need is something that explains why Hippocrates puts up with Ole Doc.

Between dinner and his vita-ray treatment, Ole Doc does some calculations - on his wrist cuffs, of course - predicting when the Morgue will arrive at Skinner's Folly.  He also sends an ion beam transmission to the Smith Empire, but unfortunately the Smith Dynasty... uh, unfortunately, this noble line... of Smiths... is "a very economical one and kept few beams going, depending more upon its staff of inventors than upon what was already practical and in use elsewhere."  You know, like how cell phones manufactured in different countries aren't able to talk to each other.

Then Ole Doc submits to Hippocrates using those "ray rods," which don't seem to affect the alien slave any.   A little scar is removed, an off-color hair's entire follicle is corrected, because our hero must be physically flawless and youthful-looking.  Hippocrates then adjusts his owner's metabolism, and Ole Doc flips the crunch out because "You skimped the adrenaline!", causing Hippocrates to recite a passage on glands in a "defeated tone of voice" and look up how a diet impacts adrenaline levels in the ship's library.

But before the reader can dwell on the two main characters' unhealthy relationship, the Morgue reaches Skinner's Folly, and too late at that.  The System Police has already been on the scene for six hours, and after reaching the capital of Garciaville, Ole Doc hears the whole grim story from a reporter.  There's a couple of other adjectives that could also be used, like "stupid," or "contrived."

The Star of Space landed at the little town of Placer to beg for assistance, because when you're a big space liner full of sick people that can go anywhere for five hundred light years, of course you'd pick a backwater with a thousand people in it to seek medical treatment for something not even Earth's experts could address.  The vessel's "speakers" had broken down, so they literally wrapped a message around a wrench and threw it out the window.  The mayor of Placer read it and was sympathetic, but told the Star of Space to stand by while he contacted Emperor Smith III, which is a proper noun I never expected to type.

Now, the mayor couldn't turn on a visio-screen and ring up his sovereign.  He couldn't whip out a cell phone and make a call.  He couldn't even get up on a semaphore tower and wave some flags around.  Because the town of Placer doesn't have any communications equipment whatsoever, it would seem.  Instead they had to send a runner from Placer to the outside world, because they decided to build the village in a valley surrounded by fifty-thousand-foot mountain peaks that atmospheric craft can't cross due to air currents.  During all this, a System Police craft arrived to keep a "cordon" around the Star of Space.  This fact will not matter.

But after reading the wrench-message, the mayor of Placer came down with spots in his mouth, and then got a response from Smith III, who had gotten the word from a certain Galactic Admiral on how to handle the situation.  Before the System Police craft could leave, a pair of Navy vessels came in, and for five minutes hosed down the village with their "twenty-inch rocket rifles," which were a huge improvement over those old smoothbore rocket muskets, let me tell you.  So the town of Placer is no more than a scorched ruin, the passes to it have been collapsed, and an enormous cross denoting plague has been sprayed onto the site from the air to keep anyone else from landing.

And the Star of Space managed to slip away because they heard Emperor Smith III's orders on the System Police radio band.  It took off and left before the two Navy ships showed up, but after the System Police craft was keeping that "cordon."  You had one job, guys.  So the plague ship is off to doom another settlement, and nobody knows where it went, and a thousand people are dead and a town is destroyed.  And I guess the authorities had no choice to flatten the place, because it's not like it was a remote, hard-to-reach, easy-to-contain valley that normally received no air traffic.

Ole Doc stood on the plain before the peaks and watched the rising smoke beyond.  He had been late because he had not been properly informed.

Oh good, hate to think our hero made a mistake or something.

A thousand guiltless human beings had died.

Plague still lived in this galaxy.

And it would be unbelievably naive to think that there would ever be a time that some sort of contagion did not exist in an entire galaxy.  The only way that would happen would be if medical technology was both incredibly advanced and freely available everywhere, and we all know the Universal Medical Society would never stand for that.

It was no use to rail at Garth or excommunicate Emperor Smith.

Ole Doc went back to the Morgue and began anew the anxious search.  Next time he had to be in at the end.

A lot depended upon it.

Yeah, yeah, stakes are high, maybe the next town will have two thousand innocents in it.  I don't mean to sound callous, but coming from a setting like Warhammer 40,000, where entire planetary populations are exterminated over fears of daemonic corruption or heresy, it's just hard to get excited over this.

Following this not-my-fault failure, Ole Doc makes some calculations about the Star of Space's probable next course based on what he's gathered from the ship's passenger list, information he gained from Spica at "fourteen dollars a word high space rates priority."  The guy needs a new telecommunications provider, get himself free texting or something.  And I guess he also needs to find that plague ship before it infects anyone else and the UMS has to spend "the next thousand years" working to cure whatever it's spreading.  You should keep this estimate in mind for the big reveal about what we're actually dealing with.

We are then gifted with a full two pages of backstory, describing how the galaxy got to its current plague policy of "burn the unclean."  Once upon a time the Grand Armies of the Twin Galaxies were fighting the Holloway Galaxy, in which the former was using good old germ warfare during their campaign that involved crossing mind-boggling distances to conquer more stars than a man could count.  The defending Holloway Galaxy...ians had "re-mutated" the "disease germs" used by the invaders so that they would infect the Grand Armies' supposedly-vaccinated troops, leading to the quarantine of the entire galaxy, millions of dead soldiers, and a whopping two billion civilian casualties.  And I have to say, if your conflict's scale is between galaxies, these are small and unimpressive numbers.

At any rate, this made the militaries of the universe give up germ warfare, because gee, turns out the little varmints are dangerous, indiscriminate, and might mutate beyond your control.  The same reasons most nations today have given up biological warfare, in fact.  So these days - in the future, in this story - the only people who use germs offensively are revolutionaries and other anarchists who cook them up in test tubes at home.  So now the military equates disease outbreaks with uprisings and figures it's easier to just shoot the infected and wipe out plagued communities than risk the contagion spreading any further.

The Universal Medical Society, operating without charter from anyone, safeguarding the secrets of medicine against destruction or abuse, had been instrumental in solving the original military polixity for disease warfare.

Uh huh.  But if the UMS had been formed before this particular battle, why did they let this germ war between galaxies happen? 

Indeed, this type of fighting was one of the original reasons why the U.M.S. was originated and while there were countless other types of medicine which could still be politically used or abused,

How?  You're gonna have to explain this someday, Hubbard.  What about life-extending ray rods is so dangerous that only your little medicine club gets to have it?  Why is it so important to keep information about allergies and their medications under wraps?

the germ and the virus still ranked high with the out-of-bounds offenses.

Chemical warfare, nukes, what about those?  Big shrug from the ol' UMS, since they aren't medical weapons?

Frickin' stupid premise.  Anyway, it turns out "Center," presumably the Society's central command, contacted Ole Doc with an offer to put the whole "Earth galaxy" under a "blanket ticket" to stop Garth, but Ole Doc declined because "this would mean that some millions of isolated humans would probably starve, that business would be ruined and so create a panic, and that rumor, traveling far and fast would probably demoralize a dozen galaxies or overthrow ten thousand governments."  Huh.  Looks like the military isn't the only group willing to sacrifice a multitude of innocent lives for the greater good.

Knowing this, Ole Doc "dot-dashed" a message declining a galactic quarantine in favor of playing the situation out, which Hippocrates thinks is rash - "Ole Doc couldn't lose now without losing face with his own fellows, the only beings in the entire Universe with whom he could relax."  Two things: first, glad to see that we've got some real stakes for this conflict, whether Ole Doc will look bad in front of his peers.  Second, how telling is it that even after all the time they've spent together and what they've been through, Ole Doc apparently can't relax with Hippocrates?

These two interesting if stupid pages are followed by three uninteresting and stupid pages, as Ole Doc monitors the military frequencies for word of the Star of Space.  They're in code, but Ole Doc healed a soldier's stomach problems back on Skinner's Folly and in the process hit him up with a truth serum that will make him incapable of lying for the next three months.  So he abused his position as a medical authority and violated someone's free will in order to gain access to military secrets.  How... heroic.

Hippocrates decides to be Hippocrates and parrots the intercepted messages, complete with imitation static, and also takes time to chastise his owner.

"Good thing no girl you know on Star of Space.  Then we really get in trouble."

"You leave my private business alone."

"You so full of adrenaline you maybe catch chivalry."

"That's not a disease."

"It disease with you," said Hippocrates, out of long suffering.  "You stop reading now.  Bad for eyes.  You tell me page number and I quote."

And then Ole Doc throws a book of disease diagnoses at him.  Comedy?

But eventually Scout Force Eighty-Six sends a message to Command reporting "Banzo!" which causes Ole Doc to take notice and adjust the Morgue's heading, something to do with being able to tell where those "ion beams" used to communicate are coming from.  And then he hears

"Command to Eighty-six.  Command to Eighty-six.  Operating Zyco X23 Y47 Z189076.  Obit Banzo if Jet.  Order Box Arcton P Lateral.  AHDZA.  ZED DOG FOX ABLE.  WILLIAM GEORGE QUEEN BAKER.  QUEEN QUEEN CAST FOX.  Over."

There was a pause.  Then.  "Eighty-six to Command.  Eighty-six to Command.  Wilco and out." 

which of course means that the Star of Space has been sighted landed at Green Rivers, the third world around Sirius, the recon group has orders to destroy it if it tries to take off, the Sirius system's civil liberties have been revoked, and there are probably space Marines about to take control of the system's capital (of Manford, on the planet Wales).

I guess the "coded" military messages weren't encrypted or anything, just sent in a lot of jargon.  Guess that explains how a civilian ship like the Star of Space was able to eavesdrop earlier.

Since the "comptometer" tells Ole Doc that both the Morgue and Garth's fleet are equidistant from Sirius, it's a race to beat the military hotheads from destroying a plague with guns so Ole Doc can destroy it with medicine!


Back to Part One

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