Ole Doc asks "Why air?" Tolliver replies "Why not?" and points out that everyone has to breathe. So his company taxes the planetary population to keep the hundreds of big "air" machines running across the planet, and also sells bombs, cans and flasks of the stuff for hundreds of dollars. If the people can't pay their "air" bills, they sign away their liberty and are repossessed as slaves - better than having those air machines turned off, right? And that's why a whopping nine-tenths of the planet are in bondage. And not the fun kind.
This sounds about as stupid to Ole Doc as it does to us, and he asks what those machines could possibly be doing.
"Why, they keep the outer spacial gases from settling down and killing people. The gases ruin the oxygen content of the air. So we run the machines and keep the gases going up, not down. That's simple, isn't it? And the air bombs we sell let men breathe when they've been hit by the gases too much."
Maybe Ole Doc knows enough about space to understand that its key characteristic is being effectively empty of anything like gases, or maybe he's just curious, because he asks what gases could be doing this. And Big Lem Tolliver gets all cagey and explains that's why he needs an expert to look at those machines. Ole Doc agrees, but refuses to sign up with Tolliver's group just yet in case it turns out he can't do anything, good sport that he is. The bad guy has his most trusted flunky Tinoi take Ole Doc to one of the faulty devices, and makes a very efficient hand gesture adding an order to "Watch him, don't let him see too much, kill if he tries to get away."
As it happens, Tinoi just brought in a group of slaves (only twelve died during the march - stupid Persephons), and among them is "her." So we get a paragraph or two of Ole Doc seeing "her" burns, realizing how "she" got them, and feeling "sick inside" at her feverish state and ruined beauty, but the fact that he doesn't have a proper noun to use during it really undermines the whole exercise, and makes our hero look incredibly shallow to boot. If "she" had been disfigured before he happened to see her in the slave train, would Ole Doc have gotten involved in the first place? Would he even care about her state now?
But since "she"'s not really the focus of the story, Tinoi prods Ole Doc along and takes him up to the roof to work on the nearest air machine. It's nothing but a "huge, golden drum," but something about it makes Ole Doc instinctively put on his helmet, a good move since Tinoi is already donning a breathing mask.
"What's wrong with it?" said Tinoi.
Ole Doc spoke at urgent random. "The rheostats."
"The... well, you know your business, I guess."
The henchman hangs back and chills out while Ole Doc gets to work, though he's considerate enough to send for some of the doctor's tools. And so our hero is able to get inside the air machine and examine its innards, finding vats of a mysterious something, a centrifuge, a "moleculizar," and ports to send ionized beams skyward to "broadcast" tiny drops of fluid throughout the surrounding area. Why, it seems to be a dispersal system, not something repelling those nasty space gases!
So Ole Doc takes a sample from one of the vats, analyzes it to discover it's a natural plant secretion, and puts a pinch of the stuff on a patch of artificial skin to get an immediate, violent reaction. With a bit more work, he identifies the substance - ragweed pollen.
This was one of those "put the book down and groan" moments when I first read the story.
Yes, ragweed, that notorious shrub whose pollen is a common allergen, has been transplanted to an alien world, and is even being cultivated in enormous greenhouses that Ole Doc can spot from his rooftop vantage point, so the so-called air machines can disperse it to make people sneeze.
The second piece to the puzzle comes when Tinoi asks if Ole Doc is finished yet, the guy answers that he is, and promptly KOs Tinoi with an uppercut. It's okay to be violent - Ole Doc is able to tell by Tinoi's cranial structure that he had been "born and raised in the slums of Earth." Super-advanced space doctors are trained how to use cephalic measurements to classify someone's race, you see. Then he searches the man's pocket and finds "a drug so ancient and common that at first he didn't recognize it and thought it was cocaine" - benadryl.
And there's the scam. Big Lem taxes the chumps to fund his machines spraying them with ragweed pollen, then sells them something - we'll later learn that those "air" bombs contain nothing but some cheap ephedrine and a propellant - to treat, if barely, the resulting allergic reaction. And the people are so stupid that they mistake a runny nose, sneezing and coughing for dying from lack of oxygen. And the local doctors are so stupid that they don't recognize these symptoms as something common and non-threatening, if annoying and messy (oh, wait, they all conveniently and inexplicably left). And none of the other scientists or experts can disprove this talk about hostile space gases invading the atmosphere, because they too have come down with a terrible case of the stupids.
See, this is why I said this story is worse than the last one. Space explorers being too dumb to check for radiation is staggeringly stupid, but you can't really blame the Universal Medical Society for it... unless they're suppressed knowledge of radiation as part of their crusade to save humanity. But in this case, the Soldiers of Light's attempt to keep dangerous medicine out of the wrong hands has left the galaxy so ignorant that a small-time crook like this Tolliver twerp is able to use what Ole Doc calls "one of the oldest known buncombes in medical history" to enslave a planet. Or in other words, normally harmless medicine is able to be used this way because nobody else can defend against it.
Ole Doc gets back in the elevator and heads to the basement so he can study one of those patented Air, Limited air bombs, since he doesn't know what's in them yet. There's one of those Persephon guards standing in front of the storeroom down there, but while the grunt was on alert, and had time to see Tinoi laying unconscious on the elevator floor, he still isn't able to draw before our hero blows a "neat and silent hole" through him. Another shot blows the lock off and Ole Doc is able to breach the storeroom, but then an alarm starts ringing because he literally cut a wire running behind the door - "An old-fashioned burglar alarm!"
No one saw him on the security cameras, the motion sensors didn't pick him up, nothing read his heat signatures, the pressure plates on the floors didn't detect an unauthorized visitor, nothing registered the weapons fire, a security chief wasn't alerted when a guard's vital signs abruptly cut off - no, our hero physically broke a wire.
I think the reason these stories are so primitive, spaceships and blasters aside, is because the author isn't that imaginative when it comes to thinking of obstacles for his hero to deal with. He's not imagining brave new worlds for us to strive for, Hubbard's telling old stories of railroad speculators and mad queens, then solving them with space medicine that may as well be magical healing elixirs.
So the alarm has been raised, and Ole Doc is inconvenienced by sneezing since he got into that pollen and didn't properly seal his helmet. This turns out to mean nothing at all, because he's still able to effortlessly defeat another three Persephons sent after him. Then he picks up one of the bombs from the storeroom and heads back up to Big Lem's office, "murder in his old-young eyes" as he demands to know what's in the explosive.
Remember how Ole Doc got caught flat-footed by one of Tolliver's bodyguards twelve pages back? Keep wondering how that was possible, especially after Ole Doc is able to hear "the tiny whisper of leather" accompanying a drawn firearm over Big Lem's yelling and the alarm clanging, so that he dodges the first shot, whirls and shoots another bad guy in the face before he can take another. During this exchange of fire, Big Lem is able to run to the elevator and escape.
And so Ole Doc heroically bounds up the stairs four at a time, "cloak billowing out behind him." His quarry isn't on the second floor, or the third, but he does spot the elevator's "switch box" and blasts it. He finds Big Lem on the roof, behind a barricade that Ole Doc blows apart with ease, and - hang on, is this building only four stories tall? And the corrupt businessman bad guy's office was down on the first floor? And his response when faced with a threat was to keep climbing up to a place where there's no escape but a suicidal jump off the side of the building? It's not like there was a helipad up there.
Whatever, I'm impatient to end this stupid tale. Big Lem is whining "You're not playing fair! You see the racket and you want it all." Ole Doc tries to tell him how he's violating something, but Tolliver decides to take refuge inside the big ol' "air machine," and when Ole Doc shoots off the lock to the hatch, the bad guy panics even more, jumping away from the explosion only to fall into one of the vats.
Ole Doc's able to fish him out, but Big Lem is dripping with green scum, clawing at his eyes, skin burning, struggling to breathe. Ole Doc throws down that air bomb he liberated from the basement, but it doesn't do any good - within a minute the other man has choked to death on ironic, karma-y justice. And of course Ole Doc's miraculous space science couldn't save him, the best he could come up with was tearing the guy's clothes off, but he didn't have time to try. Welp. So it goes.
Five pages to wrap everything up. Tinoi has woken up from getting decked by Ole Doc, and when he learns Tolliver is dead becomes a compliant, sniveling wreck. Ole Doc orders him to cease Air, Limited's operations, shut off those stupid air machines and "Set this place to rights eventually" - but first, Ole Doc uses the full authority granted to him as a member of the Universal Medical Society to get a clerk to give him the whereabouts of "Bestin Karjay, extraracial being." Because remember, despite the title this story is about getting medical help for Hippocrates.
In short order, Mr. Karjay and his knowledgeable father are loaded up in the gig and sped to the Morgue, where they lock Ole Doc out of his own surgical suite while they work on their fellow... being. Ole Doc waits for a few hours, but then some moaning reminds him that oh yeah, he apparently brought along that burned girl on a stretcher, so he goes to work with the medical magic to fix her face. He also brought Tinoi and a nameless clerk, so they get to be nauseated as he starts some field surgery, then awed when he's soon finished and the girl doesn't have so much as a scar to remember her ordeal from.
Ole Doc has to convince her that she went to Minga and back after pulling him out of the wreckage, but she can tell that he's distracted by whatever's going on in the ship.
"Someone you like?" she asked.
"The best slave any man ever had," said Ole Doc. "I recall..." But he stopped, listening. "The best slave a man ever had," he finished quietly.
I mean, what's wrong with slavery if the owner appreciates his property, and his property likes serving him? Stupid Lincoln, messing up a happy relationship.
Eventually, as dark nears, the noises from the operating room stop, and the alien doctor and his son step out, carrying their tools. They don't walk out all solemn and quiet, and Ole Doc doesn't ask how things went - instead he immediately assumes the worst and starts comforting the extraracial beings that he's sure they did their best, it's not easy losing a patient, etc. So of course Hippocrates pops out, good as new, and already complaining about the "stupid humans" who wrecked their ship. He's better than ever, in fact - the alien doctor gave him some "new pipes" that allow him to scream even louder! He even demonstrates for Ole Doc's enjoyment.
Ole Doc saw and heard. He sat down on the grass weakly and began to laugh. Hippocrates was offended. He did not know this was from the shock of his own near demise, from the close shave of never getting aid to him. He did not know that the biggest swindle in a thousand systems
Are you kidding me?! This stupid plot - stupid because it depends upon an entire planet's ignorance - is the worst con within a thousand planetary systems? All the other scam artists in that corner of the galaxy can't top the Great Air Monopoly? And yet Tolliver's operation still managed to fly under the radar of the mythical galactic empire?
had had to relax its wealthy sway before he could be cured. He was offended.
So Hippocrates yells at Tinoi and the nameless clerk to start fixing up the ship while also staying away from the cake, tells Ole Doc that the birthday party starts at six, and invites "girl" to it. He is at least polite enough not to refer to the woman as Ole Doc's birthday present, even if the alien never asks her name either.
All that's left is for Ole Doc to tell the human males to get busy - busy with following Hippocrates' orders, they take priority over shutting off those "air" machines, which they'll get to in the morning. Tinoi asks about the bombs, Ole Doc explains they were cheap and ineffective decongestants, and declares that "It makes me sick to think of it." Presumably he's outraged that the scam depended upon such basic medicine, and not dismayed that his organization's practices allowed the scam to happen in the first place.
And so ends "The Great Air Monopoly," with a planet's stupid problems sorted out more or less inadvertently as Ole Doc tried to find an alien doctor to tend to his manservant because he never got around to studying his dear friend's biology, a problem that only arose because Ole Doc's libido revved up at the sight of a girl who chanced to walk by his spaceship.
I think I'm going to start referring to this guy as a protagonist instead of hero. Good grief.
What were Tolliver and company even doing with all those slaves, anyway? If 90% of a world is in chains and the planet is starving, what do you do once you've acquired all its wealth? How can they engage in interplanetary trade if every incoming spaceship risked blowing the lid off the "air" scam? Why did all the doctors leave? Didn't anyone on this planet have an allergy to something else and saw a connection between them and what they were experiencing from the "space gases?"
I think it'll be hard for the next story to top the sheer stupidity of this one, but I guess we'll find out shortly.
Back to Part Three