/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Sickness

W Tenn

First published in Infinity Science Fiction magazine in 1955.

The Sickness

by William Tenn

For the record, it was a Russian, Nicolai Belov, who found it and brought it back to the ship. He found it in the course of a routine geological survey he was making some six miles from the ship the day after they landed. For what it might be worth, he was driving a caterpillar jeep at the time, a caterpillar jeep that had been made in Detroit, U.S.A.

He radioed the ship almost immediately. Preston O’Brien, the navigator, was in the control room at the time, as usual, checking his electronic computers against a dummy return course he had set up. He took the call. Belov, of course, spoke in English; O’Brien in Russian.

“O’Brien,” Belov said excitedly, once identification had been established. “Guess what I’ve found? Martians! A whole city!”

O’Brien snapped the computer relays shut, leaned back in the bucket seat, and ran his fingers through his crewcut red hair. They’d had no right to, of course but somehow they’d all taken it for granted that they were alone on the chilly, dusty, waterless planet. Finding it wasn’t so gave him a sudden acute attack of claustrophobia. It was like looking up from his thesis work in an airy, silent college library to find it had filled with talkative freshmen just released from a class in English composition. Or that disagreeable moment at the beginning of the expedition, back in Benares, when he’d come out of a nightmare in which he’d been drifting helplessly by himself in a starless black vacuum to find Kolevitch’s powerful right arm hanging down from the bunk above him and the air filled with sounds of thick Slavic snores. It wasn’t just that he was jumpy, he’d assured himself; after all, everyone was jumpy . . . these days.

He’d never liked being crowded. Or being taken by surprise. He rubbed his hands together irritably over the equations he’d scribbled a moment before. Of course, come to think of it, if anyone was being crowded, it was the Martians. There was that.

O’Brien cleared his throat and asked:

“Live Martians?”

“No, of course not. How could you have live Martians in the cupful of atmosphere this planet has left? The only things alive in the place are the usual lichens and maybe a desert flatworm or two, the same as those we found near the ship. The last of the Martians must have died at least a million years ago. But the city’s intact, O’Brien, intact and almost untouched!”

For all his ignorance of geology, the navigator was incredulous. “Intact? You mean it hasn’t been weathered down to sand in a million years?”

“Not a bit,” Belov chortled. “You see it’s underground. I saw this big sloping hole and couldn’t figure it: it didn’t go with the terrain. Also there was a steady breeze blowing out of the hole, keeping the sand from piling up inside. So I nosed the jeep in, rode downhill for about fifty, sixty yards—and there it was, a spacious, empty Martian city, looking like Moscow a thousand, ten thousand years from now. It’s beautiful, O’Brien, beautiful!”

“Don’t touch anything,” O’Brien warned. Moscow! Like Moscow yet!

“You think I’m crazy? I’m just taking a couple of shots with my Rollei. Whatever machinery is operating that blower system is keeping the lights on; it’s almost as bright as daylight down here. But what a place! Boulevards like colored spider webs. Houses like—like— Talk about the Valley of the Kings, talk about Harappa! They’re nothing, nothing at all to this find. You didn’t know I was an amateur archaeologist, did you, O’Brien? Well, I am. And let me tell you, Schliemann would have given his eyes—his eyes!—for this discovery! It’s magnificent!”

O’Brien grinned at his enthusiasm. At moments like this you couldn’t help feeling that the Russkys were all right, that it would all work out—somehow. “Congratulations,” he said. “Take your pictures and get back fast. I’ll tell Captain Ghose.”

“But listen, O’Brien, that’s not all. These people—these Martians—they were like us! They were human!”

“Human? Did you say human? Like us?”

Belay’s delighted laugh irradiated the earphones. “That’s exactly the way I felt. Amazing, isn’t it? They were human, like us. If anything, even more so. There’s a pair of nude statues in the middle of a square that the entrance opens into. Phidias or Praxiteles or Michelangelo wouldn’t have been ashamed of those statues, let me tell you. And they were made back in the Pleistocene or Pliocene, when sabertooth tigers were still prowling the Earth!”

O’Brien grunted and switched off. He strolled to the control room porthole, one of the two that the ship boasted, and stared out at the red desert that humped and hillocked itself endlessly, repetitiously, until, at the furthest extremes of vision, it disappeared in a sifting, sandy mist.

This was Mars. A dead planet. Dead, that is, except for the most primitive forms of vegetable and animal life, forms which could survive on the minute rations of water and air that their bitterly hostile world allotted them. But once there had been men here, men like himself, and Nicolai Belov. They had had art and science as well as, no doubt, differing philosophies. They had been here once, these men of Mars, and were here no longer. Had they too been set a problem in coexistence—and had they failed to solve it?

Two space-suited figures clumped into sight from under the ship. O’Brien recognized them through their helmet bubbles. The shorter man was Fyodor Guranin, Chief Engineer; the other was Tom Smathers, his First Assistant. They had evidently been going over the rear jets, examining them carefully for any damage incurred on the outward journey. In eight days, the first Terrestrial Expedition to Mars would start home: every bit of equipment had to be functioning at optimum long before that.

Smathers saw O’Brien through the porthole and waved. The navigator waved back. Guranin glanced upwards curiously, hesitated a moment, then waved too. Now O’Brien hesitated. Hell, this was silly. Why not? He waved at Guranin, a long, friendly, rotund wave.

Then he smiled to himself. Chose should only see them now! The tall captain would be grinning like a lunatic out of his aristocratic, coffee-colored face. Poor guy! He was living on emotional crumbs like these.

And that reminded him. He left the control room and looked in at the galley where Semyon Kolevitch, the Assistant Navigator and Chief Cook, was opening cans in preparation for their lunch. “Any idea where the captain is?” he inquired in Russian.

The man glanced at him coolly, finished the can he was working on, tossed the round flat top into the wall disposer-hole, and then replied with a succinct English “No”.

Out in the corridor again, he met Dr. Alvin Schneider on the way to the galley to work out his turn at K.P. “Have you seen Captain Chose, Doc?”

“He’s down in the engine room, waiting to have a conference with Guranin,” the chubby little ship’s doctor told him. Both men spoke in Russian.

O’Brien nodded and kept going. A few minutes later, he pushed open the engineroom door and came upon Captain Sabodh Chose, late of Benares Polytechnic Institute, Benares, India, examining a large wall chart of the ship’s jet system. Despite his youth—like every other man on the ship, Chose was under twenty-five—the fantastic responsibilities he was carrying had ground two black holes into the flesh under the captain’s eyes. They made him look perpetually strained. Which he was, O’Brien reflected, and no two ways about it.

He gave the captain Belov’s message.

“Hm,” Ghose said, frowning. “I hope he has enough sense not to—” He broke off sharply as he realized he had spoken in English. “I’m terribly sorry, O’Brien!” he said in Russian, his eyes looking darker than ever. “I’ve been standing here thinking about Guranin; I must have thought I was talking to him. Excuse me.”

’Think nothing of it,” O’Brien murmured. “It was my pleasure.”

Ghose smiled, then turned it off abruptly. “I better not let it happen again. As I was saying, I hope Belov has enough sense to control his curiosity and not touch anything.”

“He said he wouldn’t. Don’t worry, captain. Belov is a bright boy. He’s like the rest of us; we’re all bright boys.” “An operating city like that” the tall Indian brooded.

“There might be life there still—he might set off an alarm and start up something unimaginable. For all we know, there might be automatic armament in the place, bombs, anything. Belov could get himself blown up, and us too. There might be enough in that one city to blow up all of Mars.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” O’Brien suggested. “I think that’s going a little too far. I think you have bombs on the brain, Captain.”

Chose stared at him soberly. “I have, Mr. O’Brien. That’s a fact.”

O’Brien felt himself blushing. To change the subject, he said, “I’d like to borrow Smathers for a couple of hours. The computers seem to be working fine, but I want to spot-check a couple of circuits, just for the hell of it.”

“I’ll ask Guranin if he can spare him. You can’t use your assistant?’

The navigator grimaced. “Kolevitch isn’t half the electronics man that Smathers is. He’s a damn good mathematician, but not much more.”

Chose studied him, as if trying to decide whether or not that was the only obstacle. “I suppose so. But that reminds me. I’m going to have to ask you to remain in the ship until we lift for Earth.”

“Oh, no, Captain! I’d like to stretch my legs. And I’ve as much right as anyone to—to walk the surface of another world.” His phraseology made O’Brien a bit self-conscious, but damn it, he reflected, he hadn’t come forty million miles just to look at the place through portholes.

“You can stretch your legs inside the ship. You know and I know that walking around in a space-suit is no particularly pleasant exercise. And as for being on the surface of another world, you’ve already done that, O’Brien, yesterday, in the ceremony where we laid down the marker.”

O’Brien glanced past him to the engine-room porthole. Through it, he could see the small white pyramid they had planted outside. On each of its three sides was the same message in a different language: English, Russian, Hindustani. First Terrestrial Expedition to Mars. In the Name of Human Life.

Cute touch, that. And typically Indian. But pathetic. Like everything else about this expedition, plain pathetic.

“You’re too valuable to risk, O’Brien,” Ghose was explaining. “We found that out on the way here. No human brain can extemporize suddenly necessary course changes with the speed and accuracy of those computers. And, since you helped design them, no one can handle those computers as well as you. So my order stands.”

“Oh, come now, it’s not that bad: you’d always have Kolevitch.”

“As you remarked just a moment ago, Semyon Kolevitch isn’t enough of an electronic technician. If anything went wrong with the computers, we’d have to call in Smathers and use the two of them in tandem—not the most efficient working arrangement there is. And I suspect that Smathers plus Kolevitch still would not quite equal Preston O’Brien. No, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t take chances: you’re too close to being indispensable.”

“All right,” O’Brien said softly. “The order stands. But allow me a small disagreement, Captain. You know and I know that there’s only one indispensable man aboard this ship. And it isn’t me.”

Ghose grunted and turned away. Guranin and Smathers came in, having shed their space suits in the airlock at the belly of the craft. The captain and the chief engineer had a brief English colloquy, at the end of which, with only the barest resistance, Guranin agreed to lend Smathers to O’Brien.

“But I’ll need him back by three at the latest.”

“You’ll have him,” O’Brien promised in Russian and led Smathers out. Behind him, Guranin began to discuss engine repair problems with the captain.

“I’m surprised he didn’t make you fill out a requisition for me,” Smathers commented. “What the hell does he think I am anyway, a Siberian slave laborer?”

“He’s got his own departmental worries, Tom. And for God’s sake, talk Russian. Suppose the captain or one of the Ivans overheard you? You want to start trouble at this late date?”

“I wasn’t being fancy, Pres. I just forgot.”

It was easy to forget, O’Brien knew. Why in the world hadn’t the Indian government been willing to let all seven Americans and seven Russians learn Hindustani so that the expedition could operate under a mutual language, the language of their captain? Although, come to think of it, Ghose’s native language was Bengali… .

He knew why, though, the Indians had insisted on adding these specific languages to the already difficult curriculum of the expedition’s training program. The idea probably was that if the Russians spoke English to each other and to the Americans, while the Americans spoke and replied in Russian, the whole affair might achieve something useful in the ship’s microcosm even if it failed in its larger and political macrocosmic objectives. And then, having returned to Earth and left the ship, each of them would continue to spread in his own country the ideas of amity and cooperation for survival acquired on the journey.

Along that line, anyway. It was pretty—and pathetic. But was it any more pathetic than the state of the world at the present moment? Something had to be done, and done fast. At least the Indians were trying. They didn’t just sit up nights with the magic figure six dancing horrendous patterns before their eyes: six, six bombs, six of the latest cobalt bombs and absolutely no more life on Earth.

It was public knowledge that America had at least nine such bombs stockpiled, that Russia had seven, Britain four, China two, that there were at least five more individual bombs in existence in the armories of five proud and sovereign states. What these bombs could do had been demonstrated conclusively in the new proving grounds that America and Russia used on the dark side of the moon.

Six. Only six bombs could do for the entire planet. Everyone knew that, and knew that if there were a war these bombs would be used, sooner or later, by the side that was going down to defeat, by the side that was looking forward grimly to occupation by the enemy, to war crimes trials for their leaders.

And everyone knew that there was going to be a war.

Decade after decade it had held off, but decade after decade it had crept irresistibly closer. It was like a persistent, lingering disease that the patient battles with ever-diminishing strength, staring at his thermometer with despair, hearing his own labored breathing with growing horror, until it finally overwhelms him and kills him. Every crisis was surmounted somehow—and was followed by a slight change for the worse. International conferences followed by new alliances followed by more international conferences, and ever war came closer, closer.

It was almost here now. It had almost come three years ago, over Madagascar, of all places, but a miracle had staved it off. It had almost come last year, over territorial rights to the dark side of the moon, but a super-miracle, in the form of last-minute arbitration by the government of India, had again prevented it. But now the world was definitely on the verge. Two months, six months, a year—it would come. Everyone knew it. Everyone waited for extinction, wondering jerkily, when they had time, why they did no more than wait, why it had to be. But they knew it had to be.

In the midst of this, with both the Soviet Union and the United States of America going ahead full-blast with rocket research and space travel techniques—to the end that when the time came for the bombs to be delivered, they would be delivered with the maximum efficiency and dispatch—in the midst of this, India made her proposal public. Let the two opposing giants cooperate in a venture which both were projecting, and in which each could use the other’s knowledge. One had a slight edge in already-achieved space travel, the other was known to have developed a slightly better atomic-powered rocket. Let them pool their resources for an expedition to Mars, under an Indian captain and under Indian auspices, in the name of humanity as a whole. And let the world find out once and for all which side refused to cooperate.

It was impossible to refuse, given the nature of the proposition and the peculiarly perfect timing. So here they were, O’Brien decided; they had made it to Mars and would probably make it hack. But, while they might have proven much, they had prevented nothing. The spastic political situation was still the same; the world would still be at war within the year. The men on this ship knew that as well, or better, than anybody.

As they passed the air lock, on the way to the control room, they saw Belov squeezing his way out of his space suit. He hurried over clumsily, hopping out of the lower section as he came. “What a discovery, eh?” he boomed. “The second day and in the middle of the desert. Wait till you see my pictures!”

“I’ll look forward to it,” O’Brien told him. “Meanwhile you better run down to the engine room and report to the captain. He’s afraid that you might have pressed a button that closed a circuit that started up a machine that will blow up all of Mars right out from under us.”

The Russian gave them a wide, slightly gap-toothed smile. “Ghose and his planetary explosions.” He patted the top of his head lightly and shook it uneasily from side to side.

“What’s the matter?” O’Brien asked.

“A little headache. It started a few seconds ago. I must have spent too much time in that space suit.”

“I just spent twice as much time in a space suit as you did,” Smathers said, poking around abstractedly at the gear that Belov had dropped, “and I don’t have a headache. Maybe we make better heads in America.”

“Tom!” O’Brien yelped. “For God’s sake!”

Belov’s lips had come together in whitening union. Then he shrugged. “Chess, O’Brien? After lunch?”

“Sure. And, if you’re interested, I’m willing to walk right into a fried liver. I still insist that black can hold and win.”

“It’s your funeral,” Belov chuckled and went on to the engine room gently massaging his head.

When they were alone in the control room and Smathers had begun to dismantle the computer bank, O’Brien shut the door and said angrily, “That was a damned dangerous, uncalled-for crack you made, Tom! And it was about as funny as a declaration of war!”

“I know. But Belov gets under my skin.”

“Belov? He’s the most decent Russky on board.”

The second assistant engineer unscrewed a side panel and squatted down beside it. “To you maybe. But he’s always taking a cut at me.”


“Oh, all sorts of ways. Take this chess business. Whenever I ask him for a game, he says he won’t play me unless I accept odds of a queen. And then he laughs—you know, that slimy laugh of his.”

“Check that connection at the top,” the navigator warned. “Well, look, Tom, Belov is pretty good. He placed seventh in the last Moscow District tournament, playing against a hatful of masters and grandmasters. That’s good going in a country where they feel about chess the way we do about baseball and football combined.”

“Oh, I know he’s good. But I’m not that bad. Not queen odds. A queen!”

“Are you sure it isn’t something else? You seem to dislike him an awful lot, considering your motivations.”

Smathers paused for a moment to examine a tube. “And you,” he said without looking up. “You seem to like him an awful lot, considering your motivations.”

On the verge of anger, O’Brien suddenly remembered something and shut up. After all, it could be anyone. It could be Smathers.

Just before they’d left the United States to join the Russians in Benares they’d had a last, ultra-secret briefing session with Military Intelligence. There had been a review of the delicacy of the situation they were entering and its dangerous potentialities. On the one hand, it was necessary that the United States not be at all backward about the Indian suggestion, that before the eyes of the world it enter upon this joint scientific expedition with at least as much enthusiasm and cooperativeness as the Russians. On the other, it was equally important, possibly even more important, that the future enemy should not use this pooling of knowledge and skills to gain an advantage that might prove conclusive, like taking over the ship, say, on the return trip, and landing it in Baku instead of Benares.

Therefore, they were told, one among them had received training and a commission in the Military Intelligence Corps of the U. S. Army. His identity would remain a secret until such time as he decided that the Russians were about to pull something. Then he would announce himself with a special code sentence and from that time on all Americans on board were to act under his orders and not Ghose’s. Failure to do so would be adjudged prima face evidence of treason.

And the code sentence? Preston O’Brien had to grin as he remembered it. It was: “Fort Sumter has been fired upon.”

But what happened after one of them stood up and uttered that sentence would not be at all funny… .

He was certain that the Russians had such a man, too. As certain as that Ghose suspected both groups of relying on this kind of insurance, to the serious detriment of the captain’s already-difficult sleep.

What kind of a code sentence would the Russians use? “Fort Kronstadt has been fired upon?” No, more likely, “Workers of the world unite!” Yes, no doubt about it, it could get very jolly, if someone made a real wrong move.

The American MI officer could be Smathers. Especially after that last crack of his. O’Brien decided he’d be far better off not replying to it. These days, everyone had to be very careful, and the men in this ship were in a special category.

Although he knew what was eating Smathers. The same thing, in a general sense, that made Belov so eager to play chess with the navigator, a player of a caliber that, back on Earth, wouldn’t have been considered worthy to enter the same tournament with him.

O’Brien had the highest I.Q. on the ship. Nothing special, not one spectacularly above anyone else’s. It was just that in a shipful of brilliant young men chosen from the thick cream of their respective nation’s scientific elite, someone had to have an I.Q. higher than the rest. And that man happened to be Preston O’Brien.

But O’Brien was an American. And everything relative to the preparation for this trip had been worked out in high-level conferences with a degree of diplomatic finagling and behind-the-scenes maneuvering usually associated with the drawing of boundary lines of the greatest strategical significance. So the lowest I.Q. on the ship also had to be an American.

And that was Tom Smathers, second assistant engineer. Again, nothing very bad, only a point or two below that of the next highest man. And really quite a thumpingly high I.Q. in itself.

But they had all lived together for a long time before the ship lifted from Benares. They had learned a lot about each other, both from personal contact and official records, for how did anyone know what piece of information about a shipmate would ward off disaster in the kind of incredible, unforeseeable crises they might be plunging into?

So Nicolai Belov, who had a talent for chess as natural and as massive as the one Sarah Bernhardt had for the theater, got a special and ever-renewing pleasure out of beating a man who had barely made the college team. And Tom Smathers nursed a constant feeling of inferiority that was ready to grow into adult, belligerent status on any pretext it could find.

It was ridiculous, O’Brien felt. But then, he couldn’t know: he had the long end of the stick. It was easy, far him.

Ridiculous? As ridiculous as six cobalt bombs. One, two, three, four, five, six—and boom!

Maybe, he thought, maybe the answer was that they were a ridiculous species. Well. They would soon be gone, gone with the dinosaurs.

And the Martians.

“I can’t wait to get a look at those pictures Belov took,” he told Smathers, trying to change the subject to a neutral, non-argumentative level. “Imagine human beings walking around on this blob of desert, building cities, making love, investigating scientific phenomena—a million years ago!”

The second assistant engineer, wrist deep in a tangle of wiring, merely grunted as a sign that he refused to let his imagination get into the bad company that he considered all matters connected with Belov.

O’Brien persisted. “Where did they go—the Martians, I mean? If they were that advanced, that long ago, they must have developed space travel and found some more desirable real estate to live on. Do you think they visited Earth, Tom?”

“Yeah. And they’re all buried in Red Square.”

You couldn’t do anything against that much bad temper, O’Brien decided; he might as well drop it. Smathers was still smarting over Belov’s eagerness to play the navigator on even terms.

But all the same, he kept looking forward to the photographs. And when they went down to lunch, in the big room at the center of the ship, that served as combinaton dormitory, mess hall, recreation room, and storage area, the first man he looked for was Belov.

Belov wasn’t there.

“He’s up in the hospital room with the doctor,” Layatinsky, his tablemate, said heavily, gravely. “He doesn’t feel well. Schneider’s examining him.”

“That headache get worse?”

Layatinsky nodded. “A lot worse—and fast. And then he got pains in his joints. Feverish too. Guranin says it sounds Iike meningitis.”

“Ouch!” Living as closely together as they did, something like meningitis would spread through their ranks like ink through a blotter. Although, Guranin was an engineer, not a doctor. What did be know about it, where did he come off making a diagnosis?

And then O’Brien noticed it. The mess-hall was unusually quiet, the men eating with their eyes on their plates as Kolevitch dished out the food—a little sullenly, true, but that was probably because after preparing the meal, he was annoyed at having to serve it, too, since the K.P. for lunch, Dr. Alvin Schneider, had abruptly been called to more pressing business.

But whereas the Americans were merely quiet, the Russians were funereal. Their faces were as set and strained as if they were waiting to be shot. They were all breathing heavily, the kind of slow, snorting breaths that go with great worry over extremely difficult problems.

Of course. If Belov were really sick, if Belov went out of action, that put them at a serious disadvantage relative to the Americans. It cut their strength almost fifteen per cent. In case of a real razzle between the two groups …

Therefore, Guranin’s amateur diagnosis should be read as a determined attempt at optimism. Yes, optimism! If it was meningitis and thus highly contagious, others were likely to pick it up, and those others could just as well be Americans as Russians. That way, the imbalance could be redressed.

O’Brien shivered. What kind of lunacy—

But then, he realized, if it had been an American, instead of a Russian, who had been taken real sick and was up there in the hospital at the moment, his mind would have been running along the same track as Guranin’s. Meningitis would have seemed like something to hope for desperately.

Captain Chose climbed down into the mess hall. His eyes seemed darker and smaller than ever.

“Listen, men. As soon as you’ve finished eating, report up to the control room which, until further notice, will serve as an annex to the hospital.”

“What for, Captain?” someone asked. “What do we report for?”

“Precautionary injections.”

There was a silence. Chose started out of the place. Then the chief engineer cleared his throat.

“How is Belov?”

The captain paused for a moment, without turning around. “We don’t know yet. And if you’re going to ask me what’s the matter with him, we don’t know that yet either.”

They waited in a long, silent, thoughtful line outside the control room, entering and leaving it one by one. O’Brien’s turn came.

He walked in, baring his right arm, as he had been ordered. At the far end, Ghose was staring out of the porthole as if he were waiting for a relief expedition to arrive. The navigation desk was covered with cotton swabs, beakers filled with alcohol, and small bottles of cloudy fluid.

“What’s this stuff, Doc?” O’Brien asked when the injection had been completed and he was allowed to roll down his sleeve.

“Duoplexin. The new antibiotic that the Australians developed last year. Its therapeutic value hasn’t been completely validated, but it’s the closest thing to a general cureall that medicine’s come up with. I hate to use anything so questionable, but before we lifted from Benares, I was told to shoot you fellows full of it if any off-beat symptoms showed up.”

“Guranin says it sounds like meningitis,” the navigator suggested.

“It isn’t meningitis.”

O’Brien waited a moment, but the doctor was filling a new hypodermic and seemed indisposed to comment further. He addressed Ghose’s back. “How about those pictures that Belov took? They been developed yet? I’d like to see them.”

The captain turned away from the porthole and walked around the control room with his hands clasped behind his back. “All of Belov’s gear.” he said in a low voice, “is under quarantine in the hospital along with Belov. Those are the doctor’s orders.”

“Oh. Too bad.” O’Brien felt he should leave, but curiosity kept him talking. There was something these men were worried about that was bigger even than the fear niggling the Russians. “He told me over the radio that the Martians had been distinctly humanoid. Amazing, isn’t it? Talk about parallel evolution!”

Schneider set the hypodermic down carefully. “Parallel evolution,” he muttered. “Parallel evolution and parallel pathology. Although it doesn’t seem to act quite like any terrestrial bug. Parallel susceptibility, though. That you could say definitely.”

“You mean you think Belov has picked up a Martian disease?” O’Brien let the concept careen through his mind. “But that city was so old. No germ could survive anywhere near that long!”

The little doctor thumped his small paunch decisively. “We have no reason to believe it couldn’t. Some germs we know of on Earth might be able to. As spores—in any one of a number of ways.”

“But if Belov—”

“That’s enough,” the captain said. “Doctor, you shouldn’t think out loud. Keep your mouth shut about this, O’Brien, until we decide to make a general announcement. Next man!” he called.

Tom Smathers came in. “Hey, Doc,” he said, “I don’t know if this is important, but I’ve begun to generate the lousiest headache of my entire life.”

The other three men stared at each other. Then Schneider plucked a thermometer out of his breast pocket and put it into Smathers’s mouth, whispering an indistinct curse as he did so. O’Brien took a deep breath and left.

They were all told to assemble in the mess hall-dormitory that night. Schneider, looking tired, mounted a table, wiped his hands on his jumper, and said:

“Here it is, men. Nicolai Belov and Tom Smathers are down sick, Belov seriously. The symptoms seem to begin with a mild headache and temperature which rapidly grow worse and, as they do, are accompanied by severe pains in the back and joints. That’s the first stage. Smathers is in that right now. Belov—”

Nobody said anything. They sat around in various relaxed positions watching the doctor. Guranin and Layatinsky were looking up from their chess board as if some relatively unimportant comments were being made that, perforce, just had to be treated, for the sake of courtesy, as of more significance than the royal game. But when Guranin shifted his elbow and knocked his king over, neither of them bothered to pick it up.

“Belov,” Dr. Alvin Schneider went on after a bit, “Belov is in the second stage. This is characterized by a weirdly fluctuating temperature, delirium, and a substantial loss of coordination—pointing, of course, to an attack on the nervous system. The loss of coordination is so acute as to affect even peristalsis, making intravenous feeding necessary. One of the things we will do tonight is go through a demonstration-lecture of intravenous feeding, so that any of you will be able to take care of the patients. Just in case.”

Across the room, O’Brien saw Hopkins, the radio and communications man, make the silent mouth-movement of “Wow!”

“Now as to what they’re suffering from. I don’t know, and that about sums it up. I’m fairly certain though that it isn’t a terrestrial disease, if only because it seems to have one of the shortest incubation periods I’ve ever encountered as well as a fantastically rapid development. I think it’s something that Belov caught in that Martian city and brought back to the ship. I have no idea if it’s fatal and to what degree, although it’s sound procedure in such a case to expect the worst. The only hope I can hold out at the moment is that the two men who are down with it exhibited symptoms before I had a chance to fill them full of duoplexin. Everyone else on the ship—including me—has now had a precautionary injection. That’s all. Are there any questions?”

There were no questions.

“All right,” Dr. Schneider said. “I want to warn you, though I hardly think it’s necessary under the circumstances, that any man who experiences any kind of a headache—any kind of a headache—is to report immediately for hospitalization and quarantine. We’re obviously dealing with something highly infectious. Now if you’ll all move in a little closer, I’ll demonstrate intravenous feeding on Captain Ghose. Captain, if you please.”

He glanced around the room, looking unhappy.

When the demonstration was over and they had proved their proficiency, to his satisfaction, on each other, he put together all the things that smelled pungently of antiseptic and said, “Well, now that’s taken care of. We’re covered, in case of emergency. Get a good night’s sleep.”

Then he started out. And stopped. He looked around and looked carefully from man to man. “O’Brien,” he said at last. “You come up with me.”

Well, at least, the navigator thought, as he followed, at least it’s even now. One Russian and one American. If only it stayed that way!

Schneider glanced in at the hospital and nodded to himself. “Smothers,” he commented. “He’s reached the second stage. Fastest-acting damn bug ever. Probably finds us excellent hosts.”

“Any idea what it’s like?” O’Brien asked, finding, to his surprise, that he was having trouble catching up to the little doctor.

“Uh-uh. I spent two hours with the microscope this afternoon. Not a sign. I prepared a lot of slides, blood, spinal fluid, sputum, and I’ve got a shelf of specimen Tars all filled up. They’ll come in handy for Earthside doctors if ever we— Oh, well. You see, it could be a filterable virus, it could be a bacillus requiring some special stain to make it visible, anything. But the most he was hoping for was to detect it—we’d never have the time to develop a remedy.”

He entered the control room, still well ahead of the taller man, stood to one side, and, once the other had come in, locked the door. O’Brien found his actions puzzling.

“I can’t see why you’re feeling so hopeless, doe. We have those white mice down below that were intended for testing purposes if Mars turned out to have half an atmosphere after all. Couldn’t you use them as experimental animals and try to work up a vaccine?”

The doctor chuckled without turning his lips up into a smile. “In twenty-four hours. Like in the movies. No, and even if I intended to take a whirl at it, which I did, it’s out of the question now.”

“What do you mean—now?”

Schneider sat down carefully and put his medical equipment on the desk beside him. Then he grinned. “Got an aspirin, Pres?”

Automatically, O’Brien’s hand went into the pocket of his jumper. “No, but I think that—” Then he understood. A wet towel unrolled in his abdomen. “When did it start?” he inquired softly.

“It must have started near the end of the lecture, but I was too busy to notice it. I first felt it just as I was leaving the mess hall. A real ear splitter at the moment. No, keep away!” he shouted, as O’Brien started forward sympathetically. “This probably won’t do any good, but at least keep your distance. Maybe it will give you a little extra time.”

“Should I get the captain?’

“If I needed him, I’d have asked him along. I’ll be turning myself into the hospital in a few minutes. I just wanted to transfer my authority to you.”

“Your authority? Are you the—the—a”

Doctor Alvin Schneider nodded. He went on—in English. “I’m the American Military Intelligence officer. Was, I should say. From now on, you are. Look, Pres, I don’t have much time. All I can tell you is this. Assuming that we’re not all dead within a week, and assuming that it is decided to attempt a return to Earth with the consequent risk of infecting the entire planet (something which, by the way, I personally would not recommend from where I sit), you are to keep your status as secret as I kept mine, and in the event it becomes necessary to tangle with the Russians, you are to reveal yourself with the code sentence you already know.”

“Fort Sumter has been fired upon,” O’Brien said slowly. He was still assimilating the fact that Schneider had been the MI officer, Of course, he had known all along that it could have been any one of the seven Americans. But Schneider!

“Right. If you then get control of the ship, you are to try to land her at White Sands, California, where we all got our preliminary training. You will explain to the authorities how I came to transfer authority to you. That’s about all, except for two things. If you get sick, you’ll have to use your own judgment about who to pass the scepter to—I prefer not to go any further than you at the moment. And—I could very easily be wrong—but it’s my personal opinion, for whatever it may be worth, that my opposite number among the Russians is Fyodor Guranin.”

“Check.” And then full realization came to O’Brien. “But, doc, you said you gave yourself a shot of duoplexin. Doesn’t that mean—”

Schneider rose and rubbed his forehead with his fist. “I’m afraid it does. That’s why this whole ceremony is more than a little meaningless. But I had the responsibility to discharge. I’ve discharged it. Now, if you will excuse me, I think I’d better lie down. Good luck.”

On his way to report Schneider’s illness to the captain, O’Brien came to realize bow the Russians had felt earlier that day. There were now five Americans to six Russians. That could be bad. And the responsibility was his.

But with his hand on the door to the captain’s room, he shrugged. Fat lot of difference it made! As the plump little man had said: “Assuming that we’re not all dead within a week…”

The fact was that the political setup on Earth, with all of its implications for two billion people, no longer had very many implications for them. They couldn’t risk spreading the disease on Earth, and unless they got back there, they had very little chance of finding a cure for it. They were chained to an alien planet, waiting to be knocked off, one by one, by a sickness which had claimed its last victims a thousand thousand years ago.

Still—he didn’t like being a member of a minority.

By morning, he wasn’t. During the night, two more Russians had come down with what they were all now refering to as Belov’s Disease. That left five Americans to four Russians—except that by that time, they had ceased to count heads in national terms.

Ghose suggested that they change the room serving as mess hall and dormitory into a hospital and that all the healthy men bunk out in the engine room. He also had Guranin rig up a radiation chamber just in front of the engine room.

“All men serving as attendants in the hospital will wear space suits,” he ordered. “Before they reenter the engine room, they will subject the space suit to a radiation bath of maximum intensity. Then and only then will they join the rest of us and remove the suit. It’s not much, and I think any germ as virulent as this one seems to be won’t be stopped by such precautions, but at least we’re still making fighting motions.”

“Captain,” O’Brien inquired, “what about trying to get in touch with Earth some way or other? At least to tell them what’s hitting us, for the guidance of future expeditions. I know we don’t have a radio transmitter powerful enough to operate at such a distance, but couldn’t we work out a rocket device that would carry a message and might have a chance of being poked up?”

“I’ve thought of that. It would be very difficult, but granted that we could do it, do you have any way of ensuring that we wouldn’t send the contagion along with the message? And, given the conditions on Earth at the moment, I don’t think we have to worry about the possibility of another expedition if we don’t get back. You know as well as I that within eight or nine months at the most—” The captain broke off. “I seem to have a slight headache,” he said mildly.

Even the men who had been working hard in the hospital and were now lying down got to their feet at this.

“Are you sure?” Guranin asked him desperately. “Couldn’t it just be a—”

“I’m sure. Well, it had to happen, sooner or later. I think you all know your duties in this situation and will work together well enough. And you’re each one capable of running the show. So. In case the matter comes up, in case of any issue that involves a command decision, the captain will be that one among you whose last name starts with the lowest letter alphabetically. Try to live in peace—for as much time as you may have left. Good-bye.”

He turned and walked out of the engine room and into the hospital, a thin, dark-skinned man on whose head weariness sat like a crown.

By supper-time, that evening, only two men had still not hospitalized themselves: Preston O’Brien and Semyon Kolevitch. They went through the minutiae of intravenous feeding, of cleaning the patients and keeping them comfortable, with dullness and apathy.

It was just a matter of time. And when they were gone, there would be no one to take care of them.

All the same, they performed their work diligently, and carefully irradiated their space suits before returning to the engine room. When Belov and Smathers entered Stage Three, complete coma, the navigator made a descriptive note of it in Dr. Schneider’s medical log, under the column of temperature readings that looked like stock market quotations on a very uncertain day in Wall Street.

They ate supper together in silence. They had never liked each other and being limited to each other’s company seemed to deepen that dislike.

After supper, O’Brien watched the Martian moons, Deimos and Phobos, rise and set in the black sky through the engine room porthole. Behind him, Kolevitch read Pushkin until he fell asleep.

The next morning, O’Brien found Kolevitch occupying a bed in the hospital. The assistant navigator was already delirious.

“And then there was one,” Preston O’Brien said to himself. “Where do we go from here, boys, where do we go from here?”

As he went about his tasks as orderly, he began talking to himself a lot. What the hell, it was better than nothing. It enabled him to forget that he was the only conscious intellect at large on this red dust-storm of a world. It enabled him to forget that he would shortly be dead. It enabled him, in a rather lunatic way, to stay sane.

Because this was it. This was really it. The ship had been planned for a crew of fifteen men. In an emergency, it could be operated by as few as five. Conceivably, two or three men, running about like crazy and being incredibly ingenious, could take it back to Earth and crash-land it somehow. But one man …

Even if his luck held out and he didn’t come down with Belov’s Disease, he was on Mars for keeps. He was on Mars until his food ran out and his air ran out and the spaceship became a rusting coffin around him. And if he did develop a headache, well, the inevitable end would come so much the faster.

This was it. And there was nothing he could do about it.

He wandered about the ship, suddenly enormous and empty. He had grown up on a ranch in northern Montana, Preston O’Brien had, and he’d never liked being crowded. The back-to-back conditions that space travel made necessary had always irritated him like a pebble in the shoe, but he found this kind of immense, ultimate loneliness almost overpowering. When he took a nap, he found himself dreaming of crowded stands at a World Series baseball game, of the sweating, soggy mob during a subway rush-hour in New York. When he awoke, the loneliness hit him again.

Just to keep himself from going crazy, he set himself little tasks. He wrote a brief history of their expedition for some wholly hypothetical popular magazine; he worked out a dozen or so return courses with the computers in the control room; he went through the Russians’ personal belongings to find out just for curiosity’s sake, since it could no longer be of any conceivable importance—who the Soviet MI man had been.

It had been Belov. That surprised him. He had liked Belov very much. Although, he remembered, he had also liked Schneider very much. So it made some sense, on a high-order planning level, after all.

He found himself, much to his surprise, regretting Kolevitch. Damn it, he should have made some more serious attempt to get close to the man before the end!

They had felt a strong antipathy toward each other from the beginning. On Kolevitch’s side it no doubt had something to do with O’Brien’s being chief navigator when the Russian had good reason to consider himself by far the better mathematician. And O’Brien had found his assistant singularly without humor, exhibiting a kind of subsurface truculence that somehow never managed to achieve outright insubordination.

Once, when Ghose had reprimanded him for his obvious attitude toward the man, he had exclaimed: “Well, you’re right, and I suppose I should be sorry. But I don’t feel that way about any of the other Russians. I get along fine with the rest of them. It’s only Kolevitch that I’d like to swat and that, Ill admit, is all the time.”

The captain had sighed. “Don’t you see what that dislike adds up to? You find the Russian crew members to be pretty decent fellows, fairly easy to get along with, and that can’t be: you know the Russians are beasts—they should be exterminated to the last man. So all the fears, all the angers and frustrations, you feel you should logically entertain about them, are channeled into a single direction. You make one man the psychological scapegoat for a whole nation, and you pour out on Semyon Kolevitch all the hatred which you would wish to direct against the other Russians, but can’t, because, being an intelligent, perceptive person, you find them too likable.

“Everybody hates somebody on this ship. And they all feel they have good reasons. Hopkins hates Layatinsky because he claims he’s always snooping around the communications room. Guranin hates Doctor Schneider, why, I’ll never know.”

“I can’t buy that. Kolevitch has gone out of his way to annoy me. I know that for a fact. And what about Smathers? He hates all the Russians. Hates ’em to a man.”

“Smathers is a special ease. I’m afraid he lacked security to begin with, and his peculiar position on this expedition—low man on the I.Q. pole—hasn’t done his ego any good. You could help him, if you made a particular friend of him. I know he’d like that.”

“A-ah,” O’Brien had shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m no psychological social worker. I get along all right with him, but I can take Tom Smathers only in very small doses.”

And that was another thing he regretted. He’d never been ostentatious about being absolutely indispensable as navigator and the smartest man on board; he’d even been positive he rarely thought about it. But he realized now, against the background glare of his approaching extinction, that almost daily he had smugly plumped out this fact, like a pillow, in the back of his mind. It had been there: it had been nice to stroke. And he had stroked it frequently.

A sort of sickness. Like the sickness of Hopkins-Layatinsky, Guranin-Schneider, Smathers-everyone else. Like the sickness on Earth at the moment, when two of the largest nations on the planet and as such having no need to covet each other’s territory, were about ready, reluctantly and unhappily, to go to war with each other, a war which would destroy them both and all other nations besides, allies as well as neutral states, a war which could so easily be avoided and yet was so thoroughly unavoidable.

Maybe, O’Brien thought then, they hadn’t caught any sickness on Mars; maybe they’d just brought a sickness—call it the Human Disease—to a nice, clean, sandy planet and it was killing them, because here it had nothing else on which to feed.

O’Brien shook himself.

He’d better watch out. This way madness lay. “Better start talking to myself again. How are you, boy? Feeling all right? No headaches? No aches, no pains, no feelings of fatigue? Then you must be dead, boy!”

When he went through the hospital that afternoon, he noticed that Belov had reached what could be described as Stage Four. Beside Smathers and Ghose who were both still in the coma of Stage Three, the geologist looked wide awake. His head rolled restlessly from side to side and there was a terrible, absolutely horrifying look in his eyes.

“How are you feeling, Nicolai?” O’Brien asked tentatively.

There was no reply. Instead the head turned slowly and Belov stared directly at him. O’Brien shuddered. That look was enough to freeze your blood, he decided, as he went into the engine room and got out of his space suit.

Maybe it wouldn’t go any further than this. Maybe you didn’t die of Belov’s Disease. Schneider had said it attacked the nervous system: so maybe the end-product was just insanity.

“Big deal,” O’Brien muttered. “Big, big deal.”

He had lunch and strolled over to the engine room porthole. The pyramidal marker they had planted on the first day caught his eye; it was the only thing worth looking at in this swirling, hilly landscape. First Terrestrial Expedition to Mars. In the Name of Human Life.

If only Ghose hadn’t been in such a hurry to get the marker down. The inscription needed rewriting. Last Terrestrial Expedition to Mars. In the Memory of Human Life—Here and on Earth. That would be more apt.

He knew what would happen when the expedition didn’t return—and no message arrived from it. The Russians would be positive that the Americans had seized the ship and were using the data obtained on the journey to perfect their bomb-delivery technique. The Americans would be likewise positive that the Russians …

They would be the incident.

“Ghose would sure appreciate that,” O’Brien said to himself wryly.

There was a clatter behind him. He turned.

The cup and plate from which he’d had lunch were floating in the air!

O’Brien shut his eyes, then opened them slowly. Yes, no doubt about it, they were floating! They seemed to be performing a slow, lazy dance about each other. Once in a while, they touched gently, as if kissing, then pulled apart. Suddenly, they sank to the table and came to rest like a pair of balloons with a last delicate bounce or two.

Had he got Belov’s Disease without knowing it, he wondered? Could you progress right to the last stage—hallucinations—without having headaches or fever?

He heard a series of strange noises in the hospital and ran out of the engine room without bothering to get into his space-suit.

Several blankets were dancing about, just like the cup and saucer. They swirled through the air, as if caught in a strong wind. As he watched, almost sick with astonishment, a few other objects joined them—a thermometer, a packing case, a pair of pants.

But the crew lay silently in their bunks. Smathers had evidently reached Stage Four too. There was the same restless head motion, the same terrible look whenever his eyes met O’Brien’s.

And then, as he turned to Belov’s bunk, he saw that it was empty! Had the man got up in his delirium and wandered off? Was he feeling better? Where had he gone?

O’Brien began to search the ship methodically, calling the Russian by name. Section by section, compartment by compartment, he came at last to the control room. It, too, was empty. Then where could Belov be?

As he wandered distractedly around the little place, he happened to glance through the porthole. And there, outside, he saw Belov. Without a space-suit!

It was impossible—no man could survive for a moment unprotected on the raw, almost airless surface of Mars—yet there was Nicolas Belov walking as unconcernedly as if the sand beneath his feet were the Nevsky Prospekt! And then he shimmered a little around the edges, as if he’d been turned partially into glass—and disappeared.

“Belov!” O’Brien found himself yelping. “For God’s sake! Belov! Belovi”

“He’s gone to inspect the Martian city,” a voice said behind him. “He’ll be back shortly.”

The navigator spun around. There was nobody in the room. He must be going completely crazy.

“No, you’re not,” the voice said. And Tom Smathers rose slowly through the solid floor.

“What’s happening to you people?” O’Brien gasped. “What is all this?”

“Stage Five of Belov’s Disease. The last one. So far, only Belov and I are in it, but the others are entering it now.”

O’Brien found his way to a chair and sat down. He worked his mouth a couple of times but couldn’t make the words come out.

“You’re thinking that Belov’s Disease is making magicians out of us,” Smathers told him. “No. First, it isn’t a disease at all.”

For the first time, Smathers looked directly at him and O’Brien had to avert his eyes. It wasn’t just that horrifying look he’d had lying on the bed in the hospital. It was—it was as if Smathers were no longer Smathers. He’d become something else.

“Well, it’s caused by a bacillus, but not a parasitical one. A symbiotical one.”


“Like the intestinal flora, it performs a useful function. A highly useful function.” O’Brien had the impression that Smathers was having a hard time finding the right words, that he was choosing very carefully, as if—as if—. As if he were talking to a small child!

`That’s correct,” Smathers told him. “But I believe I can make you understand. The bacillus of Belov’s Disease inhabited the nervous system of the ancient Martians as our stomach bacteria live in human digestive systems. Both are symbiotic, both enable the systems they inhabit to function with far greater effectiveness. The Belov bacillus operates within us as a kind of neural transformer, multiplying the mental output almost a thousand times.”

“You mean you’re a thousand times as intelligent as before?”

Smathers frowned. “This is very difficult. Yes, roughly a thousand times as intelligent, if you must put it that way. Actually, there’s a thousandfold increase in mental powers. Intelligence is merely one of those powers. There are many others such as telepathy and telekinesis which previously existed in such minuscule state as to be barely observable. I am in constant comminication with Belov, for example, wherever he is. Belov is in almost complete control of his physical environment and its effect on his body. The movable objects which alarmed you so were the results of the first clumsy experiments we made with our new minds. There is still a good deal we have to learn and get used to.”

“But what about—” O’Brien searched through his erupting brain and at last found a coherent thought. “But you were so sick!”

“The symbiosis was not established without difficulty,” Smathers admitted. “And we are not identical with the Martians physiologically. However, it’s all over now. We will return to Earth, spread Belov’s Disease—if you want to keep calling it that—and begin our exploration of space and time. Eventually, we’d like to get in touch with the Martians in the—the place where they have gone.”

“And we’ll have bigger wars than we ever dreamed of!”

The thing that had once been Tom Smathers, second assistant engineer, shook its head. “There will be no more wars. Among the mental powers enlarged a thousand times is one that has to do with what you might call moral concepts. Those of us on the ship could and would stop any presently threatening war; but when the population of the world has made neural connection with Belov’s bacillus all danger will be past. No, there will be no more wars.”

A silence. O’Brien tried to pull himself together. “Well,” he said. “We really found something on Mars, didn’t we? And if we’re going to start back for Earth, I might as well prepare a course based on present planetary positions.”

Again that look in Smathers’ eyes, stronger than ever. “That won’t be necessary, O’Brien. We won’t go back in the same manner as we came. Our way will be—well, faster.”

“Good enough,” O’Brien said shakily and got to his feet. “And while you’re working out the details, I’ll climb into a spacesuit and hustle down to that Martian city. I want to get me a good strong dose of Belov’s Disease.”

The thing that had been Tom Smathers grunted. O’Brien stopped. Suddenly he understood the meaning of that frightening look he had had first from Belov and now from Smatters.

It was a look of enormous pity.

“That’s right,” said Smathers with infinite gentleness. “You can’t ever get Belov’s Disease. You are naturally immune.”