Competition, p.1James Causey
Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net
By JAMES CAUSEY
_They would learn what caused the murderous disease--if it was the last thing they did!_
_January 18, Earth Time_
I wish Max would treat me like a _woman_.
An hour ago, at dinner, John Armitage proposed a toast, especially formy benefit. He loves to play the gallant. Big man, silver mane, veryblue eyes, a porcelain smile. The head of WSC, the perfect example ofthe politician-scientist.
"To the colony," he announced, raising his glass. "May Epsilon love themand keep them. May it only be transmittal trouble."
"Amen," Max said.
We drank. Taylor Bishop put down his glass precisely. Bishop is a graylittle man with a diffident voice that belies his reputation as the bestbiochemist in the system. "Has Farragut hinted otherwise?" he askedmildly.
Armitage frowned. "It would be scarcely prudent for Senator Farragut toalarm the populace with disaster rumors."
Bishop looked at him out of his pale eyes. "Besides, it's an electionyear."
The silence was suddenly ugly.
Then Armitage chuckled. "All right," he said. "So the Senator wants tobe a national hero. The fact still remains that Epsilon had better behabitable or Pan-Asia will scream we're hogging it. They want waranyway. Within a month--boom."
* * * * *
For a moment, I was afraid he was going to make a speech about Earth'ssuffocating billions, the screaming tension of the cold war, and thesacred necessity of Our Mission. If he had, I'd have gotten the weepingshrieks. Some responsibilities are too great to think about. But insteadhe winked at me. For the first time, I began to realize why Armitage wasthe Director of the Scientists' World Council.
"Hypothesis, Greta," he said. "Epsilon is probably a paradise. Whyshould the test colony let the rest of the world in on it? They're beingselfish."
I giggled. We relaxed.
After supper, Armitage played chess with Bishop while I followed Maxinto the control room.
"Soon?" I said.
"Planetfall in eighteen hours, Doctor." He said it stiffly, busyinghimself at the controls. Max is a small dark man with angry eyes and thesaddest mouth I've ever seen. He is also a fine pilot and magnificentbacteriologist. I wanted to slap him. I hate these professional Britishtypes that think a female biochemist is some sort of freak.
"Honestly," I said. "What do you think?"
"Disease," he said bitterly. "For the first six months they reported onschedule, remember? A fine clean planet, no dominant life-forms, perfectfor immigration; unique, one world in a billion. Abruptly they stoppedsending. You figure it."
I thought about it.
"I read your thematic on Venusian viruses," he said abruptly. "Goodshow. You should be an asset to us, Doctor."
"Thanks!" I snapped. I was so furious that I inadvertently looked intothe cabin viewplate.
Bishop had warned me. It takes years of deep-space time to enable aperson to stare at the naked Universe without screaming.
It got me. The crystal thunder of the stars, that horrible hungryblackness. I remember I was sort of crying and fighting, then Max had meby the shoulders, holding me gently. He was murmuring and stroking myhair. After a time, I stopped whimpering.
Illustrated by STONE]
"Thanks," I whispered.
"You'd better get some sleep, Greta," he said.
I turned in.
I think I'm falling in love.
* * * * *
Today we made planetfall. It took Max a few hours to home in on the testcolony ship. He finally found it, on the shore of an inland sea thatgleamed like wrinkled blue satin. For a time we cruised in wideningspirals, trying to detect some signs of life. There was nothing.
We finally landed. Max and Armitage donned spacesuits and went towardthe colony ship. They came back in a few hours, very pale.
"They're dead." Armitage's voice cracked as he came out of the airlock."All of them."
"Skeletons," Max said.
"How?" Bishop said.
Armitage's hands were shaking as he poured a drink. "Looks like civilwar."
"But there were a hundred of them," I whispered. "They were_dedicated_--"
"I wonder," Bishop said thoughtfully. "White and brown and yellow.Russian and British and French and German and Chinese and Spanish. Theywere chosen for technical background rather than emotional stability."
"Rot!" Armitage said like drums beating. "It's some alien bug, sometoxin. We've got to isolate it, find an antibody."
He went to work.
* * * * *
It's taken three days to finalize the atmospheric tests. Oxygen,nitrogen, helium, with trace gases. Those trace gases are stinkers.Bishop discovered a new inert gas, heavier than Xenon. He's excited. I'mcurrently checking stuff that looks like residual organic, and am nottoo happy about it. Still, this atmosphere seems pure.
Armitage is chafing.
"It's in the flora," he insisted today. "Something, perhaps, that theyate." He stood with a strained tautness, staring feverishly at thechronometer. "Senator Farragut's due to make contact soon. What'll Itell him?"
"That we're working on it," Bishop said dryly. "That the four bestscientists in the Galaxy are working toward the solution."
"That's good," Armitage said seriously. "But they'll worry. You _are_making progress?"
I wanted to wrap a pestle around his neck.
We were all in the control room an hour later. Armitage practicallystood at attention while Farragut's voice boomed from the transmitter.
It was very emetic. The Senator said the entire hemisphere was waitingfor us to announce the planet was safe for immigration. He said thestars were a challenge to Man. He spoke fearfully of the Coming WorldCrisis. Epsilon was Man's last chance for survival. Armitage assured himour progress was satisfactory, that within a few days we would havesomething tangible to report. The Senator said we were heroes.
Finally it was over. Max yawned. "Wonder how many voters start fieldwork at once."
Armitage frowned. "It's not funny, Cizon. Not funny at all. Inasmuch aswe've checked out the atmosphere, I suggest we start field work atonce."
Taylor blinked. "We're still testing a few residual--"
"I happen to be nominal leader of this party." Armitage stood very tall,very determined. "Obviously the atmosphere is pure. Let's make someprogress!"
* * * * *
This is progress?
For the past ten days, we've worked the clock around. Quantitativeanalysis, soil, water, flora, fauna, cellular, microscopic. Nothing. Maxhas discovered a few lethal alkaloids in some greenish tree fungus, butI doubt if the colony were indiscriminate fungus eaters. Bishop hasfound a few new unicellular types, but nothing dangerous. There's onetentacled thing that reminds me of a frightened rotifer. Max named it_Armitagium_. Armitage is pleased.
Perhaps the fate of the hundred colonists will remain one of thoseforever unsolved mysteries, like the fate of the _Mary Celeste_ or thestarship _Prometheus_.
This planet's _clean_.
* * * * *
Today Max and I went specimen-hunting.
It must be autumn on Epsilon. Everywhere the trees are a riot of scarletand ocher, the scrubby bushes are shedding their leaves. Once we cameupon a field of thistlelike plants with spiny seed-pods that opened aswe watched, the purple spores drifting afield in a
On the way back to the ship we saw two skeletons. Each had its fingerstightly locked about the other's throat.
* * * * *
We have, to date, analyzed nine hundred types of plant life for toxincontent. Bishop has tested innumerable spores and bacteria. Our slidefile is immense and still growing. Max has captured several insects.There is one tiny yellow bush-spider with a killing bite, but thespecies seem to be rare. Bishop has isolated a mold bacterium that couldcause a high fever, but its propagation rate is far too low to enable itto last long in the bloodstream.
The most dangerous animal seems to be a two-foot-tall arthropod.
Competition by James Causey / Science Fiction have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on19 votes