This World Is Taboo
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THIS WORLD IS TABOO
The little Med Ship came out of overdrive and the stars were strangeand the Milky Way seemed unfamiliar. Which, of course, was because theMilky Way and the local Cepheid marker-stars were seen from anunaccustomed angle and a not-yet-commonplace pattern of varyingmagnitudes.
But Calhoun grunted in satisfaction. There was a banded sun off toport, which was good. A breakout at no more than sixty light-hoursfrom one's destination wasn't bad, in a strange sector of the galaxyand after three light-years of journeying blind.
"Arise and shine, Murgatroyd," said Calhoun. "Comb your whiskers. Getset to astonish the natives!"
A sleepy, small, shrill voice said: "Chee!"
Murgatroyd the tormal came crawling out of the small cubbyhole whichwas his own. He blinked at Calhoun.
"We're due to land shortly," Calhoun observed. "You will impress thelocal inhabitants. I will get unpopular. According to the records,there's been no Med Ship inspection here for twelve standard years.And that was practically no inspection, to judge by the report."
Murgatroyd said: "Chee-chee!"
He began to make his toilet, first licking his right-hand whiskers andthen his left. Then he stood up and shook himself and lookedinterestedly at Calhoun. Tormals are companionable small animals.They are charmed when somebody speaks to them. They find great, deepsatisfaction in imitating the actions of humans, as parrots andmynahs and parakeets imitate human speech. But tormals have certainvaluable, genetically transmitted talents which make them much morevaluable than mere companions or pets.
Calhoun got a light-reading for the banded sun. It could hardly be anaccurate measure of distance, but it was a guide.
"Hold on to something, Murgatroyd!" he said.
Murgatroyd watched. He saw Calhoun make certain gestures whichpresaged discomfort. He popped back into his cubbyhole. Calhoun threwthe overdrive switch and the Med Ship flicked back into thatquestionable state of being in which velocities of hundreds of timesthat of light are possible. The sensation of going into overdrive wasunpleasant. A moment later, the sensation of coming out was no lessso. Calhoun had experienced it often enough, and still didn't like it.
The sun Weald burned huge and terrible in space. It was close, now.Its disk covered half a degree of arc.
"Very neat," observed Calhoun. "Weald Three is our port, Murgatroyd.The plane of the ecliptic would be ... Hm...."
He swung the outside electron telescope, picked up a nearby brightobject, enlarged its image to show details, and checked it against thelocal star-pilot. He calculated a moment. The distance was too shortfor even the briefest of overdrive hops, but it would take time to getthere on solar-system drive.
He thumbed down the communicator button and spoke into a microphone.
"Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty reporting arrival and asking coordinatesfor landing," he said matter-of-factly. "Purpose of landing isplanetary health inspection. Our mass is fifty tons, standard. Weshould arrive at a landing position in something under four hours.Repeat. Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty...."
He finished the regular second transmission and made coffee forhimself while he waited for an answer. Murgatroyd came out for a cupof coffee for himself. Murgatroyd adored coffee. In minutes he held atiny cup in a furry small paw and sipped gingerly at the hot liquid.
A voice came out of the communicator:
"Aesclipus Twenty, repeat your identification."
Calhoun went to the control board.
"Aesclipus Twenty," he said patiently, "is a Med Ship, sent by theInterstellar Medical Service to make a planetary health inspection onWeald. Check with your public health authorities. This is the firstMed Ship visit in twelve standard years, I believe—which isinexcusable. But your health authorities will know all about it. Checkwith them."
The voice said truculently:
"What was your last port?"
Calhoun named it. This was not his home sector, but Sector Twelve hadgotten into a very bad situation. Some of its planets had goneunvisited for as long as twenty years, and twelve between inspectionswas almost commonplace. Other sectors had been called on to help itcatch up.
Calhoun was one of the loaned Med Ship men, and because of theemergency he'd been given a list of half a dozen planets to beinspected one after another, instead of reporting back to sectorheadquarters after each visit. He'd had minor troubles before withlanding-grid operators in Sector Twelve.
So he was very patient. He named the planet last inspected, the onefrom which he'd set out for Weald Three. The voice from thecommunicator said sharply:
"What port before that?"
Calhoun named the one before the last.
"Don't drive any closer," said the voice harshly, "or you'll bedestroyed!"
Calhoun said coldly, "Listen, my fine feathered friend! I'm from theInterstellar Medical Service. You get in touch with planetary healthservices immediately! Remind them of the Interstellar MedicalInspection Agreement, signed on Tralee two hundred and forty standardyears ago. Remind them that if they do not cooperate in medicalinspection that I can put your planet under quarantine and your spacecommerce will be cut off like that!
"No ship will be cleared for Weald from any other planet in the galaxyuntil there has been a health inspection! Things have pretty well goneto pot so far as the Med Service in this sector is concerned, but it'sbeing straightened up. I'm helping straighten it! I give you twentyminutes to clear this! Then I am coming in, and if I'm not landed aquarantine goes on! Tell your health authorities that!"
Silence. Calhoun clicked off and poured himself another cup of coffee.Murgatroyd held out his cup for a refill. Calhoun gave it to him.
"I hate to put on an official hat, Murgatroyd," he said, annoyed, "butthere are some people who demand it. The rule is, never get officialif you can help it, but when you must, out-official the official who'sofficialing you."
Murgatroyd said "Chee!" and sipped at his cup.
Calhoun checked the course of the Med Ship. It bore on through space.There were tiny noises from the communicator. There were whisperingsand rustlings and the occasional strange and sometimes beautifulmusical notes whose origin is yet obscure, but which, since they arecarried by electromagnetic radiation of wildly varying wave lengths,are not likely to be the fabled music of the spheres.
In fifteen minutes a different voice came from the speaker.
"Med Ship Aesclipus! Med Ship Aesclipus!"
Calhoun answered and the voice said anxiously:
"Sorry about the challenge, but we have the blueskin problem alwayswith us. We have to be extremely careful! Will you come in, please?"
"I'm on my way," said Calhoun.
"The planetary health authorities," said the voice, more anxiouslystill, "are very anxious to be cooperative. We need Med Service help!We lose a lot of sleep over the blueskin! Could you tell us the nameof the last Med Ship to land here, and its inspector, and when thatinspection was made? We want to look up the record of the event to beable to assist you in every possible way."
"He's lying," Calhoun told Murgatroyd, "but he's more scared thanhostile."
He picked up the order folio on Weald Three. He gave the informationabout the last Med Ship visit.
"What?" he asked, "is a blueskin?"
He'd read the folio on Weald, of course, but as the ship swam onwardthrough emptiness he went through it again. The last medicalinspection had been only perfunctory. Twelve years earlier—instead ofthree—a Med Ship had landed on Weald. There had been officialconferences with health officials. There was a report on the birthrate, the death rate, the anomaly rate, and a breakdown of allreported communicable diseases. But that was all. There were nospecial comments and no overall picture.
Presently Calhoun found the word in a Sector dictionary, where wordsof only local usage were to be found:
"Blueskin: Colloquial term for a person recovered from a plaguewhich left large patches of blue pigment irregularly distributedover the body. Especially, inhabitants of Dara. The condition issaid to be caused by a chronic, nonfatal form of Dara plague andhas been said to be noninfectious, though this is not certain. Theetiology of Dara plague has not been worked out. The blueskincondition is hereditary but not a genetic modification, as markingsappear in non-Mendelian distributions."
Calhoun puzzled over it. Nobody could have read the entire Sectordirectory, even with unlimited leisure during travel between solarsystems. Calhoun hadn't tried. But now he went laboriously throughindices and cross-references while the ship continued to travelonward.
He found no other reference to blueskins. He looked up Dara. It waslisted as an inhabited planet, some four hundred years colonized, witha landing-grid and, at the time the main notice was written out, aflourishing interstellar commerce. But there was a memo, evidentlyadded to the entry in some change of editions: "Since plague, speciallicense from Med Service is required for landing."
That was all. Absolutely all.
The communicator said suavely:
"Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty! Come in on vision, please!"
Calhoun went to the control board and threw on vision.
"Well, what now?" he demanded.
His screen lighted. A bland face looked out at him.
"We have—ah—verified your statements," said the third voice fromWeald. "Just one more item. Are you alone in your ship?"
"Of course," said Calhoun, frowning.
"Quite alone?" insisted the voice.
"Obviously!" said Calhoun.
"No other living creature?" insisted the voice again. "Of—oh!" saidCalhoun, annoyed. He called over his shoulder. "Murgatroyd! Comehere!"
Murgatroyd hopped to his lap and gazed interestedly at the screen. Thebland face changed remarkably. The voice changed even more.
"Very good!" it said. "Very, very good! Blueskins do not havetormals! You are Med Service! By all means come in! Your coordinateswill be...."
Calhoun wrote them down. He clicked off the communicator again andgrowled to Murgatroyd, "So I might have been a blueskin, eh? Andyou're my passport, because only Med Ships have members of your tribeaboard! What the hell's the matter, Murgatroyd? They act like theythink somebody's trying to get down on their planet with a load ofplague germs!"
He grumbled to himself for minutes. The life of a Med Ship man is notexactly a sinecure, at best. It means long periods in empty space inoverdrive, which is absolute and deadly tedium. Then two or three daysaground, checking official documents and statistics, and askingquestions to see how many of the newest medical techniques havereached this planet or that, and the supplying of information aboutsuch as have not arrived.
Then the lifting out to space for long periods of tedium, to repeatthe process somewhere else. Med Ships carry only one man because twocould not stand the close contact without quarreling with each other.But Med Ships do carry tormals, like Murgatroyd, and a tormal anda man can get along indefinitely, like a man and a dog. It is a highlyunequal friendship, but it seems to be satisfactory to both.
Calhoun was very much annoyed with the way the Med Service had beenoperated in Sector Twelve. He was one of many men at work to correctthe results of incompetence in directing Med Service in this sector.But it is always disheartening to have to labor at making up forsomebody else's blundering, when there is so much new work that needsto be done.
The condition shown by the landing-grid suspicions was a case inpoint. Blueskins were people who inherited a splotchy skinpigmentation from other people who'd survived a plague. Weald plainlymaintained a one-planet quarantine against them. But a quarantine isnormally an emergency measure. The Med Service should have taken over,wiped out the need for a quarantine, and then lifted it. It hadn'tbeen done.
Calhoun fumed to himself.
The world of Weald Three grew brighter and brighter and became a disk.The disk had icecaps and a reasonable proportion of land and watersurface. The ship decelerated, voices notifying observation from thesurface, and the little ship came to a stop some five planetarydiameters out from solidity. The landing field's force-field locked onto it, and its descent began.
The business of landing was all very familiar, from the blue rim whichappeared at the limb of the planet from one diameter out, to thesingular flowing-apart of the surface features as the ship sank stilllower. There was the circular landing-grid, rearing skyward for nearlya mile. It could let down interstellar liners from emptiness and liftthem out to emptiness again, with great convenience and economy foreveryone.
It landed the Med Ship in its center,