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After Calhoun and Murgatroyd the tormal were established on board, the Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty allowed itself to be lifted off from Med Service Headquarters and thrust swiftly out to space. The headquarters landing grid did the lifting. Some five planetary diameters out, the grid's force fields let go and Calhoun busied himself with aiming the ship for his destination, which was a very long way off. Presently he pushed a button. The result was exactly the one to be expected. The Med Ship did something equivalent to making a hole, crawling into it, and then pulling the hole in after itself. In fact, it went into overdrive.

There were the usual sensations of dizziness, nausea, and a contracting spiral fall. Then there was no cosmos, there was no galaxy, and there were no stars. The Aesclipus Twenty had formed a cocoon of highly stressed space about itself which was practically a private sub-cosmos. As long as it existed the Med Ship was completely independent of all creation outside. However, the cocoon was active. It went hurtling through emptiness at many times the speed of light. The Aesclipus Twenty rode inside it. When the overdrive field—the cocoon—collapsed and the ship returned to normal space, it would find itself very far from its starting point. For every hour spent in overdrive, the ship should break out somewhat more than a light-year of distance farther away from Med Service Headquarters.

The background tape began to make its unobtrusive sounds. In overdrive, of course, the Med Ship was wholly isolated from the normal universe of galaxies and stars. There was, in theory, only one conceivable way in which it could be affected by anything outside its own overdrive field, and that had never happened yet. So there could have been a sepulchral, nerve-racking silence in the small spacecraft but for such sounds as the background tape provided.

Those were trivial, those sounds. One had to pay close attention to hear them. There was the sound of rain, and of traffic, and of wind in treetops and voices too faint for the words to be distinguished, and almost inaudible music—and sometimes laughter. The background tape carried no information; only the assurance that there were still worlds with clouds and people and creatures moving about on them.

But sensory assurance of the existence of a real cosmos is as essential to a man's subjective health as hormones and enzymes to his body. Calhoun would have suffered from the lack of such noises if they'd stopped, but he paid no attention to them when they began.

On this occasion the Med Ship stayed in overdrive for three long weeks, while the overdrive field hurtled toward the planet Kryder II. Calhoun was supposed to make a special public health visit there. Some cases of what the planetary government called a plague had turned up. The government was in a panic because plagues of similar type had appeared on two other worlds previously and done great damage. In both other cases a Med Ship man had arrived in time to check and stop the pestilence. In both cases the plague was not a new one, but a pestilence of familiar diseases. In both forerunners of this third plague, the arriving Med Ship's tormal had succumbed to the infection. So the government of Kryder II had called for help, and Calhoun and Murgatroyd answered the call. They were on the way to take charge.

Calhoun was singularly suspicious of this assignment. The report on the contagion was tricky. Typically, a patient was admitted to hospital with a case of—say—typhoid fever. It was a sporadic case, untraceable to any previous clinical one. The proper antibiotic was administered. With suitable promptness, the patient ceased to have typhoid fever. But he was weakened, and immediately developed another infectious disease. It might be meningitis. That yielded to treatment, but something else followed, perhaps a virus infection. The series went on until he died. Sometimes a patient survived a dozen such contagions, to die of a thirteenth. Sometimes he remained alive, emaciated and weak. No amount of care could prevent a succession of totally unrelated illnesses. Exposure or non-exposure seemed to make no difference. And the cause of this plague of plagues was undetectable.

It shouldn't be impossible to work out such a problem, of course. Both previous plagues had been checked. Calhoun read and reread the reports on them and wasn't satisfied. The Med Ship man who'd handled both plagues was reported dead, not of sickness, but because his ship had blown itself to bits on the Castor IV spaceport. Such things didn't happen. Tormals had died in each pestilence, and tormals did not die of infectious diseases.

Murgatroyd was the tormal member of the Aesclipus Twenty's crew. During three weeks of overdrive travel he was his normal self. He was a furry, companionable small animal who adored Calhoun, coffee, and pretending to be human, in that order. Calhoun traveled among the stars on professional errands, and Murgatroyd was perfectly happy to be with him. His tribe had been discovered on one of the Deneb planets; their charming personalities made them prized as pets. A long while ago it had been noticed that they were never sick. Then it developed that if they were exposed to any specific disease, they andantly manufactured overwhelming quantities of antibody for that infection.

It was the remarkable talent of tormals—all tormals—that they could not be infected by any microorganism. They could not ordinarily contract any ailment at all. Their digestive systems rejected any substance that would impair their health, and they had a dynamic reaction to infective material. When their normal defenses were bypassed and pathogenic material was put into their bloodstream, they produced antibodies, their structure could be determined and they could be synthesized in any desire quantity. So whatever infection a new planet might offer, it could be brought under control.

Now it was standard Med Service procedure to call on them for this special gift. When a new strain or a novel variety of disease-producing germ appeared, a tormal was exposed to it. They immediately made a suitable antibody, the Med Service isolated it, analyzed its molecular structure, and synthesized it. So far there hadn't been a single failure. So tormals were highly valued members of Med Ship crews.

Now two of them had died in epidemics of the kind now reported from Kryder II. Calhoun was suspicious and somehow resentful of the fact. The official reports didn't explain it. They dodged it. Calhoun fumbled irritably with it. One report was from the Med Service man now dead. He should have explained! The other was from doctors on Castor II after the Med Ship blew up. Nothing explained the explosion of the ship and nothing explained how tormals could die of an infection.

Perhaps Calhoun disliked the idea that Murgatroyd could be called on to give his life for Med Service. Murgatroyd worshiped him. Murgatroyd was a tormal, but he was also a friend.

So Calhoun studied the reports and tried to make sense of them while the Aesclipus Twenty traveled at a very high multiple of the speed of light. Its cocoon made it utterly safe. It required no attention. There was a control-central unit below decks which competently ran it, which monitored all instruments and kept track of their functioning. It labored conscientiously for three full weeks and a few hours over. Then it notified Calhoun that breakout from overdrive was just one hour away.

He doggedly continued his studies. He still had the reports of the earlier plagues on his desk when the control-central speaker said briskly, "When the gong sounds, breakout will be five seconds off." 

There followed a solemn tick, tock, tick, tock like a slow swaying metronome. Calhoun tucked the reports under a paperweight and went to the pilot's chair. He strapped himself in. Murgatroyd recognized the action. He went padding under another chair and prepared to hold fast to its rungs with all four paws and prehensile tail. The gong sounded. The voice said, "Five—four—three—two—one." 

The ship came out of overdrive. There was a sensation of intense dizziness, a desire to upchuck which vanished before one could act on it. Calhoun held onto his chair during that unhappy final sensation of falling in a narrowing spiral. Then the Med Ship was back in normal space. Its vision screens swirled.

They should have cleared to picture ten thousand myriads of suns of every imaginable tint and degree of brilliance, from faint phosphorescence to glaring stars of first magnitude or greater. There should have been no familiar constellations, of course. The Milky Way should be recognizable though subtly changed. The Horse's Head and Coalsack dark nebulas should have been visible with their outlines modified by the new angle from which they were seen. There should have been a Sol-type sun relatively near, probably with a perceptible disk. It ought to be the sun Kryder, from whose second planet had come a frightened demand for help. The Aesclipus Twenty ought to be near enough to pick out Kryder's planets with an electron telescope. Normally well conducted journeys in overdrive ended like that. Calhoun had made hundreds of such sun-falls. Murgatroyd had seen almost as many.

But there was never a breakout like this!

The Med Ship was back in normal space. Certainly. It was light-centuries from its staring point. Positively. Somehow, there were no stars. There was no Milky Way. There were no nebulas, dark or otherwise. There was absolutely nothing of any kind to match up with reasonable expectations, considering what had led up to this moment.

The screens showed the Med Ship surrounded by buildings on a planet's surface, with a blue and sunlit sky overhead. The screens, in fact, showed the buildings of the Interstellar Medical Service as surrounding the Med Ship. They said that Calhoun had traveled three weeks in overdrive and landed exactly back at the spot from which he'd been lifted to begin his journey.

Murgatroyd, also, saw the buildings on the vision screens. It is not likely that he recognized them, but when the Aesclipus Twenty landed, it was the custom for Calhoun to go about his business and for Murgatroyd to be admired, petted, and stuffed to repletion with sweets and coffee by the local population. He approved of the practice.

Therefore when he saw buildings on the vision screens he said, "Chee!" in a tone of vast satisfaction. He waited for Calhoun to take him aground and introduce him to people who would spoil him.

Calhoun sat perfectly still, staring. He gazed unbelievingly at the screens. They said, uncompromisingly, that the Med Ship was aground inside the Med Service Headquarters landing grid. The buildings were outside it. The screens showed the sky, with clouds. They showed trees. They showed everything that should be visible to a ship aground where ships receive their final checkover before being lifted out to space.

Murgatroyd said, "Chee-chee!" with a pleased urgency in his tone. He was impatient for the social success that came to him on every land-on planet. Calhoun turned his eyes to the outside pressure dial. It said there was seven hundred thirty millimeters of gas-pressure—air-pressure—outside. This was complete agreement with the screens.

"The devil!" said Calhoun.

The logical thing to do, of course, would be to go to the air-lock, enter it, and then open the outer door to demand hotly what the hell was going on. Calhoun stirred in the pilot's chair to do exactly that. Then he clamped his jaws tightly.

He checked the nearest-object meter. Its reading was what it should be if the Med Ship were aground at headquarters. He checked the hull temperature. Its reading was just what it should be if the ship had been aground for a long time. He checked the screens again. He checked the magnetometer, which gave rather unlikely indications in overdrive, but in normal empty space recorded only the Med Ship's own magnetic field. It now registered a plausible Gauss-strength for a planet like the one on which headquarters was built.

He swore. Absurdly enough, he flipped the switch for the electron telescope. It filled a screen with dazzle, as if there were too much light. He could not use it.

Murgatroyd said impatiently, "Chee! Chee! Chee!" 

Calhoun snapped at him. This was completely impossible: It simply could not be! A little while ago, he'd known the sensations of breakout from overdrive. He'd been dizzy, he'd been nauseated, he'd felt the usual horrible sensation of falling in a tightening spiral. That experience was real. There could be no doubt about it.

Instruments could be gimmicked to give false reports. In the course of a Med Ship man's training, he went through training voyages in ships which never left ground, but whose instruments meticulously reacted as they would in a real voyage. In such training exercises, vision screens showed blackness when the mock-up ship was theoretically in overdrive, and star-systems when it theoretically came out. A student Med Ship man went through illusory "voyages" that included even contact with theoretic planets; everything that could happen in a spaceship, including emergencies, was included in such mock-up trips. No training unit could simulate the sensation of going into overdrive or coming out of it, and he'd felt them. This was no mock-up trip.

Growling a little, Calhoun threw the communicator-switch. The speaker gave out the confused murmur of ground level signals, like those a space-type communicator picks up in atmosphere. Through it, vaguely, he could hear the whispering, faintly crackling Jansky radiation which can be received absolutely anywhere. He stared again at the vision screens. Their images were infinitely convincing. Overwhelming evidence insisted that he should go to the air-lock and out of it and hunt up somebody to explain this absurdity. It was inconceivable that a ship should travel for three weeks vastly faster than light and then find itself peacefully aground in its home port. It couldn't happen!

Murgatroyd said impatiently, "Chee!" 

Calhoun slowly unbuckled the seat-belt intended to help him meet any possible emergency at breakout, but a seat-belt wouldn't help him decide what was reality. He got cagily to his feet. He moved toward the airlock's inner door. Murgatroyd padded zestfully with him. Calhoun didn't go into the lock. He checked the dials, and from inside the ship he opened the outside lock door. From inside the ship he closed it again. Then he opened the inner lock door.

He heard a hissing that rose to a shout, and stopped.

He swore violently. Every instrument said the ship was aground, in atmosphere, at Interstellar Medical Service Headquarters, but he opened the outer lock door. If there was air there, nothing would happen. If there was no air outside, the air in the lock would escape and leave a vacuum behind it. He'd closed the outer door and opened the inner one. If there was air inside the lock, nothing could happen, but air had rushed into it with a noise like a shout.

So there'd been a vacuum inside the air-lock; so there was emptiness outside. So the Aesclipus Twenty was not back at home. It was not aground. Hence, the appearance of Med Service Headquarters outside was illusion and the sound of ground-level communication signals was deception.

The Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty was lying to the man it had been built to serve. It had tried to lure him into walking out of an air-lock to empty space. It was trying to kill him.


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