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Copyright © 2016 by Murray Leinster
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
THERE WERE SUNS, WHICH WERE nearby, and there were stars which were so far away that no way of telling their distance had any meaning. The suns had planets, most of which did not matter, but the ones that did count had seas and continents, and the continents had cities and highways and spaceports. And people.
The people paid no attention to their insignificance. They built ships which went through emptiness beyond imagining, and they landed upon planets and rebuilt them to their own liking. Suns flamed terribly, renting their impertinence, and storms swept across the planets they preëmpted, but the people built more strongly and were secure. Everything in the universe was bigger or stronger than the people, but they ignored the fact. They went about the businesses they had contrived for themselves.
They were not afraid of anything until somewhere on a certain small planet an infinitesimal single molecule changed itself.
It was one molecule among unthinkably many, upon one planet of one solar system among uncountable star clusters. It was not exactly alive, but it acted as if it were, in which it was like all the important matter of the cosmos. It was actually a combination of two complicated substances not too firmly joined together. When one of the parts changed, it became a new molecule. But, like the original one, it was still capable of a process called autocatalysis. It practiced that process and catalyzed other molecules into existence, which in each case were duplicates of itself. Then mankind had to take notice, though it ignored flaming suns and monstrous storms and emptiness past belief.
Men called the new molecule a virus and gave it a name. They called it and its duplicates “chlorophage.” And chlorophage was, to people, the most terrifying thing in the universe.
In a strictly temporary orbit around the planet Altaira, the Star Queen floated, while lift-ships brought passengers and cargo up to it. The ship was too large to be landed economically at an unimportant spaceport like Altaira. It was a very modern ship and it made the Regulus-to-Cassim run, which is five hundred light-years, in only fifty days of Earthtime.
Now the lift-ships were busy. There was an unusual number of passengers to board the Star Queen at Altaira and an unusual number of them were women and children. The children tended to pudginess and the women had the dieted look of the wives of well-to-do men. Most of them looked red-eyed, as if they had been crying.
One by one the lift-ships hooked onto the airlock of the Star Queen and delivered passengers and cargo to the ship. Presently the last of them was hooked on, and the last batch of passengers came through to the liner, and the ship’s doctor watched them stream past him.
His air was negligent, but he was actually impatient. Like most doctors, Nordenfeld approved of lean children and wiry women. They had fewer things wrong with them and they responded better to treatment. Well, he was the doctor of the Star Queen and he had much authority. He’d exerted it back on Regulus to insist that a shipment of botanical specimens for Cassim travel in quarantine—to be exact, in the ship’s practically unused hospital compartment—and he was prepared to exercise authority over the passengers.
He had a sheaf of health slips from the examiners on the ground below. There was one slip for each passenger. It certified that so-and-so had been examined and could safely be admitted to the Star Queen’s air, her four restaurants, her two swimming pools, her recreation areas and the six levels of passenger cabins the ship contained.
He impatiently watched the people go by. Health slips or no health slips, he looked them over. A characteristic gait or a typical complexion tint, or even a certain lack of hair luster, could tell him things that ground physicians might miss. In such a case the passenger would go back down again. It was not desirable to have deaths on a liner in space. Of course nobody was ever refused passage because of chlorophage. If it were ever discovered, the discovery would already be too late. But the health regulations for space travel were very, very strict.