BY CHARLES DYE
Illustrated by EMSH
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction July 1951.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The plagues that struck mankind could be attributed
to one man. But was he fiend ... or savior?
The blood was added to a pool of other blood, mixed, centrifuged, separated to plasma and corpuscles, irradiated slightly, pasteurized slightly, frozen, evaporated, and finally banked. Some of the plasma was used immediately for a woman who had bled too much in childbirth.
Others received plasma and did not die. But their symptoms changed, including a syndrome of multiple endocrine unbalance, eccentricities of appetite and digestion, and a general pattern of emotional disturbance.
An alert hospital administrator investigated the mortality rise and narrowed it to a question of who had donated blood the week before. After city residents were eliminated, there remained only the signed receipts and thumbprints of nine men. Nine healthy unregistered travelers poor enough to sell their blood for money, and among them a man who carried death in his veins. The nine thumbprints were broadcast to all police files and a search began.
The effort was futile, for there were many victims who had sickened and grown partially well again without recognizing the strangeness of their illness.
Three years later they reached the carrier stage and the epidemic spread to four cities. Three more years, and there was an epidemic which spread around the world, meeting another wave coming from the opposite direction. It killed two out of four, fifty out of a hundred, twenty-seven million out of fifty million. There was hysteria where it appeared. And where it had not appeared there were quarantines to fence it out. But it could not be fenced out. For two years it covered the world. And then it vanished again, leaving the survivors with a tendency toward glandular troubles.
Time passed. The world grew richer, more orderly, more peaceful.
A man paused in the midst of his work at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Commission. He looked up at the red and green production map of India.
"Just too many people per acre," he said. "All our work at improving production ... just one jump ahead of their rising population, one jump ahead of famine. Sometimes I wish to God there would be another plague to give us a breathing spell and a fair chance to get things organized."
He went back to work and added another figure.
Two months later, he was one of the first victims of the second plague.
In the dining hall of a university, a biochemical student glanced up from his paper to his breakfast companion. "You remember Johnny, the mythical carrier that they told about during the first and second epidemics of Syndrome Plague?"
"Sure. Syndrome Johnny. They use that myth in psychology class as a typical example of mass hysteria. When a city was nervous and expecting the plague to reach them, some superstitious fool would imagine he saw Syndrome Johnny and the population would panic. Symbol for Death or some such thing. People imagined they saw him in every corner of the world. Simultaneously, of course."
It was a bright morning and they were at a window which looked out across green rolling fields to a towering glass-brick building in the distance.
The student who had gone back to his paper suddenly looked up again. "Some Peruvians here claim they saw Syndrome Johnny—"
"Idiotic superstition! You'd think it would have died down when the plague died."
The other grinned. "The plague didn't die." He folded his newspaper slowly, obviously advancing an opening for a debate.
His companion went on eating. "Another of your wild theories, huh?" Then through a mouthful of food: "All right, if the plague didn't die, where did it go?"
"Nowhere. We have it now. We all have it!" He shrugged. "A virus catalyst of high affinity for the cells and a high similarity to a normal cell protein—how can it be detected?"
"Then why don't people die? Why aren't we sick?"
"Because we have sickened and recovered. We caught it on conception and recovered before birth. Proof? Why do you think that the countries which were known as the Hungry Lands are now well-fed, leisured, educated, advanced? Because the birth rate has fallen! Why has the birth rate fallen?" He paused, then very carefully said, "Because two out of three of all people who would have lived have died before birth, slain by Syndrome Plague. We are all carriers now, hosts to a new guest. And"—his voice dropped to a mock sinister whisper—"with such a stranger within our cells, at the heart of the intricate machinery of our lives, who knows what subtle changes have crept upon us unnoticed!"
His companion laughed. "Eat your breakfast. You belong on a horror program!"
A police psychologist for the Federated States of The Americas was running through reports from the Bureau of Social Statistics. Suddenly he grunted, then a moment later said, "Uh-huh!"
"Uh-huh what?" asked his superior, who was reading a newspaper with his feet up on the desk.
"Remember the myth, of Syndrome Johnny?"
"Ghost of Syndrome Plague. Si, what of it?"
"Titaquahapahel, Peru, population nine hundred, sent in a claim that he turned up there and they almost caught him. Crime Statistics rerouted the report to Mass Phenomena, of course. Mass Phenomena blew a tube and sent their folder on Syndrome Johnny over here. Every report they ever had on him for ninety years back! A memo came with it." He handed the memo over.
The man behind the desk looked at it. It was a small graph and some mathematical symbols. "What is it?"
"It means," said the psychologist, smiling dryly, "that every crazy report about our ghost has points of similarity to every other crazy report. The whole business of Syndrome Johnny has been in their 'funny coincidence' file for twenty years. This time the suspect hits the averaged description of Johnny too closely: A solid-looking man, unusual number of visible minor scars, and a disturbing habit of bending his fingers at the first-joint knuckles when he is thinking. The coincidence has gotten too damn funny. There's a chance we've been passing up a crime."
"An extensive crime," said the man at the desk softly. He reached for the folder. "Yes, a considerable quantity of murder." He leafed through the folder and then thought a while, looking at the most recent reports. Thinking was what he was paid for, and he earned his excellent salary.
"This thumbprint on the hotel register—the name is false, but the thumbprint looks real. Could we persuade the Bureau of Records to give their data on that print?"
"Without a warrant? Against constitutional immunity. No, not a chance. The public has been touchy about the right to secrecy ever since that police state was attempted in Varga."
"How about persuading an obliging judge to give a warrant on grounds of reasonable suspicion?"
"No. We'd have the humanist press down on our necks in a minute, and any judge knows it. We'd have to prove a crime was committed. No crime, no warrant."
"It seems a pity we can't even find out who the gentleman is," the Crimes Department head murmured, looking at the thumbprint wistfully. "No crime, no records. No records, no evidence. No evidence, no proof of crime. Therefore, we must manufacture a small crime. He was attacked and he must have defended himself. Someone may have been hurt in the process." He pushed a button. "Do you think if I send a man down there, he could persuade one of the mob to swear out a complaint?"
"That's a rhetorical question," said the psychologist, trying to work out an uncertain correlation in his reports. "With that sort of mob hysteria, the town would probably give you an affidavit of witchcraft."
"Phone for you, Doctor Alcala." The nurse was crisp but quiet, smiling down at the little girl before vanishing again.
Ricardo Alcala pushed the plunger in gently, then carefully withdrew the hypodermic needle from the little girl's arm. "There you are, Cosita," he said, smiling and rising from the chair beside the white bed.
"Will that make me better, Doctor?" she piped feebly.
He patted her hand. "Be a good girl and you will be well tomorrow." He walked out into the hospital corridor to where the desk nurse held out a phone.
The voice was unfamiliar. "My deepest apologies for interrupting your work, Doctor. At this late hour I'm afraid I assumed you would be at home. The name is Camba, Federation Investigator on a health case. I would like to consult you."
Alcala was tired, but there was nothing to do at home. Nita was at the health resort and Johnny had borrowed all his laboratory space for a special synthesis of some sort, and probably would be too busy even to talk. Interest stirred in him. This was a Federation investigator calling; the man's work was probably important. "Tonight, if that's convenient. I'll be off duty in five minutes."
Thirty minutes later they were ordering in a small cantina down the street from the hospital.
Julio Camba, Federation Investigator, was a slender, dark man with sharp, glinting eyes. He spoke with a happy theatrical flourish.
"Order what you choose, Senor. We're on my expense account. The resources of the Federated States of all The Americas stand behind your menu."
Alcala smiled. "I wouldn't want to add to the national debt."
"Not at all, Senor. The Federated States are only too happy thus to express a fraction of their gratitude by adding a touch of luxury to the otherwise barren and self-sacrificing life of a scientist."
"You shame me," Alcala said dryly. It was true that he needed every spare penny for the health of Nita and the child, and for the laboratory. A penny saved from being spent on nourishment was a penny earned. He picked up the menu again and ordered steak.
The investigator lit a cigar, asking casually: "Do you know John Osborne Drake?"
Alcala searched his memory. "No. I'm sorry...." Then he felt for the first time how closely he was being watched, and knew how carefully his reaction and the tone of his voice had been analyzed. The interview was dangerous. For some reason, he was suspected of something.
Camba finished lighting the cigar and dropped the match into an ash-tray. "Perhaps you know John Delgados?" He leaned back into the shadowy corner of the booth.
Johnny! Out of all the people in the world, how could the government be interested in him? Alcala tried to sound casual. "An associate of mine. A friend."
"I would like to contact the gentleman." The request was completely unforceful, undemanding. "I called, but he was not at home. Could you tell me where he might be?"
"I'm sorry, Senor Camba, but I cannot say. He could be on a business trip." Alcala was feeling increasingly nervous. Actually, Johnny was working at his laboratory.
"What do you know of his activities?" Camba asked.
"A biochemist." Alcala tried to see past the meditative mask of the thin dark face. "He makes small job-lots of chemical compounds. Special bug spray for sale to experimental plantations, hormone spray for fruits, that sort of thing. Sometimes, when he collects some money ahead, he does research."
Camba waited, and his silence became a question. Alcala spoke reluctantly, anger rising in him. "Oh, it's genuine research. He has some patents and publications to his credit. You can confirm that if you choose." He was unable to keep the hostility out of his voice.
A waiter came and placed steaming platters of food on the table. Camba waited until he was gone. "You know him well, I presume. Is he sane?"
The question was another shock. Alcala thought carefully, for any man might be insane in secret. "Yes, so far as I know." He turned his attention to the steak, but first took three very large capsules from a bottle in his pocket.
"I would not expect that a doctor would need to take pills," Camba remarked with friendly mockery.
"I don't need them," Alcala explained. "Mixed silicones. I'm guinea pigging."
"Can't such things be left to the guinea pigs?" Camba asked, watching with revulsion as Alcala uncapped the second bottle and sprinkled a layer of gray powder over his steak.
"Guinea pigs have no assimilation of silicones; only man has that."
"Yes, of course. I should have remembered from your famous papers, The Need Of Trace Silicon In Human Diet and Silicon Deficiency Diseases."
Obviously Camba had done considerable investigating of Alcala before approaching him. He had even given the titles of the research papers correctly. Alcala's wariness increased.
"What is the purpose of the experiment this time?" asked the small dark Federation agent genially.
"To determine the safe limits of silicon consumption and if there are any dangers in an overdose."
"How do you determine that? By dropping dead?"
He could be right. Perhaps the test should be stopped. Every day, with growing uneasiness, Alcala took his dose of silicon compound, and every day, the chemical seemed to be absorbed completely—not released or excreted—in a way that was unpleasantly reminiscent of the way arsenic accumulated without evident damage, then killed abruptly without warning.
Already, this evening, he had noticed that there was something faulty about his coordination and weight and surface sense. The restaurant door had swung back with a curious lightness, and the hollow metal handle had had a curious softness under his fingers. Something merely going wrong with the sensitivity of his fingers—?
He tapped his fingertips on the heavy indestructible silicone plastic table top. There was a feeling of heaviness in his hands, and a feeling of faint rubbery give in the table.
Tapping his fingers gently, his heavy fingers ... the answer was dreamily fantastic. I'm turning into silicon plastic myself, he thought. But how, why? He had not bothered to be curious before, but the question had always been—what were supposedly insoluble silicons doing assimilating into the human body at all?
Several moments passed. He smoothed back his hair with his oddly heavy hand before picking up his fork again.
"I'm turning into plastic," he told Camba.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing. A joke."
Camba was turning into plastic, too. Everyone was. But the effect was accumulating slowly, by generations.
Camba lay down his knife and started in again. "What connections have you had with John Delgados?"
Concentrate on the immediate situation. Alcala and Johnny were obviously in danger of some sort of mistaken arrest and interrogation.
As Alcala focused on the question, one errant whimsical thought suddenly flitted through the back of his mind. In red advertising letters: TRY OUR NEW MODEL RUST-PROOF, WATERPROOF, HEAT & SCALD RESISTANT, STRONG—EXTRA-LONG-WEARING HUMAN BEING!
He laughed inwardly and finally answered: "Friendship. Mutual interest in high ion colloidal suspensions and complex synthesis." Impatience suddenly mastered him. "Exactly what is it you wish to know, Senor? Perhaps I could inform you if I knew the reasons for your interest."
Camba chose a piece of salad with great care. "We have reason to believe that he is Syndrome Johnny."
Alcala waited for the words to clarify. After a moment, it ceased to be childish babble and became increasingly shocking. He remembered the first time he had met John Delgados, the smile, the strong handclasp. "Call me Johnny," he had said. It had seemed no more than a nickname.
The investigator was watching his expression with bright brown eyes.
Johnny, yes ... but not Syndrome Johnny. He tried to think of some quick refutation. "The whole thing is preposterous, Senor Camba. The myth of Syndrome Plague Johnny started about a century ago."
"Doctor Alcala"—the small man in the gray suit was tensely sober—"John Delgados is very old, and John Delgados is not his proper name. I have traced his life back and back, through older and older records in Argentina, Panama, South Africa, the United States, China, Canada. Everywhere he has paid his taxes properly, put his fingerprints on file as a good citizen should. And he changed his name every twenty years, applying to the courts for permission with good honest reasons for changing his name. Everywhere he has been a laboratory worker, held patents, sometimes made a good deal of money. He is one hundred and forty years old. His first income tax was paid in 1970, exactly one hundred and twenty years ago."
"Other men are that old," said Alcala.
"Other men are old, yes. Those who survived the two successive plagues, were unusually durable." Camba finished and pushed back his plate. "There is no crime in being long-lived, surely. But he has changed his name five times!"
"That proves nothing. Whatever his reasons for changing his name, it doesn't prove that he is Syndrome Johnny any more than it proves he is the cow that jumped over the moon. Syndrome Johnny is a myth, a figment of mob delirium."
As he said it, he knew it was not true. A Federation investigator would not be on a wild goose chase.
The plates were taken away and cups of steaming black coffee put between them. He would have to warn Johnny. It was strange how well you could know a man as well as he knew Johnny, firmly enough to believe that, despite evidence, everything the man did was right.
"Why must it be a myth?" Camba asked softly.
"It's ridiculous!" Alcala protested. "Why would any man—" His voice cut off as unrelated facts fell into a pattern. He sat for a moment, thinking intensely, seeing the century of plague as something he had never dreamed....
Not too high a price in the long run, considering what was purchased. Of course, the great change over into silicon catalysis would be a shock and require adjustment and, of course, the change must be made in several easy stages—and those who could not adjust would die.
"Go on, Doctor," Camba urged softly. "'Why would any man—'"
He tried to find a way of explaining which would not seem to have any relationship to John Delgados. "It has been recently discovered"—but he did not say how recently—"that the disease of Syndrome Plague was not a disease. It is an improvement." He had spoken clumsily.
"An improvement on life?" Camba laughed and nodded, but there were bitterness and anger burning behind the small man's smile. "People can be improved to death by the millions. Yes, yes, go on, Senor. You fascinate me."
"We are stronger," Alcala told him. "We are changed chemically. The race has been improved!"
"Come, Doctor Alcala," Camba said with a sneering merriment, "the Syndrome Plagues have come and they have gone. Where is this change?"
Alcala tried to express it clearly. "We are stronger. Potentially, we are tremendously stronger. But we of this generation are still weak and ill, as our parents were, from the shock of the change. And we need silicone feeding; we have not adjusted yet. Our illness masks our strength." He thought of what that strength would be!
Camba smiled and took out a small notebook. "The disease is connected with silicones, you say? The original name of John Delgados was John Osborne Drake. His father was Osborne Drake, a chemist at Dow Corning, who was sentenced to the electric chair in 1967 for unauthorized bacterial experiments which resulted in an accidental epidemic and eight deaths. Dow Corning was the first major manufactury of silicones in America, though not connected in any way with Osborne Drake's criminal experiments. It links together, does it not?"
"It is not a disease, it is strength!" Alcala insisted doggedly.
The small investigator looked up from his notebook and his smile was an unnatural thing, a baring of teeth. "Half the world died of this strength, Senor. If you will not think of the men and women, think of the children. Millions of children died!"
The waiter brought the bill, dropping it on the table between them.
"Lives will be saved in the long run," Alcala said obstinately. "Individual deaths are not important in the long run."
"That is hardly the philosophy for a doctor, is it?" asked Camba with open irony, taking the bill and rising.
They went out of the restaurant in silence. Camba's 'copter stood at the curb.
"Would you care for a lift home, Doctor Alcala?" The offer was made with the utmost suavity.
Alcala hesitated fractionally. "Why, yes, thank you." It would not do to give the investigator any reason for suspicion by refusing.
As the 'copter lifted into the air, Camba spoke with a more friendly note in his voice, as if he humored a child. "Come, Alcala, you're a doctor dedicated to saving lives. How can you find sympathy for a murderer?"
Alcala sat in the dark, looking through the windshield down at the bright street falling away below. "I'm not a practicing medico; only one night a week do I come to the hospital. I'm a research man. I don't try to save individual lives. I'm dedicated to improving the average life, the average health. Can you understand that? Individuals may be sick and individuals may die, but the average lives on. And if the average is better, then I'm satisfied."
The 'copter flew on. There was no answer.
"I'm not good with words," said Alcala. Then, taking out his pen-knife and unfolding it, he said, "Watch!" He put his index finger on the altimeter dial, where there was light, and pressed the blade against the flesh between his finger and his thumb. He increased the pressure until the flesh stood out white on either side of the blade, bending, but not cut.
"Three generations back, this pressure would have gone right through the hand." He took away the blade and there was only a very tiny cut. Putting the knife away, he brought out his lighter. The blue flame was steady and hot. Alcala held it close to the dashboard and put his finger directly over it, counting patiently, "One, two, three, four, five—" He pulled the lighter back, snapping it shut.
"Three generations ago, a man couldn't have held a finger over that flame for more than a tenth part of that count. Doesn't all this prove something to you?"
The 'copter was hovering above Alcala's house. Camba lowered it to the ground and opened the door before answering. "It proves only that a good and worthy man will cut and burn his hand for an unworthy friendship. Good night."
Disconcerted, Alcala watched the 'copter lift away into the night, then, turning, saw that the lights were still on in the laboratory. Camba might have deduced something from that, if he knew that Nita and the girl were not supposed to be home.
Alcala hurried in.
Johnny hadn't left yet. He was sitting at Alcala's desk with his feet on the wastebasket, the way Alcala often liked to sit, reading a technical journal. He looked up, smiling. For a moment Alcala saw him with the new clarity of a stranger. The lean, weathered face; brown eyes with smile deltas at the corners; wide shoulders; steady, big hands holding the magazine—solid, able, and ruthless enough to see what had to be done, and do it.
"I was waiting for you, Ric."
"The Feds are after you." Ricardo Alcala had been running. He found he was panting and his heart was pounding.
Delgados' smile did not change. "It's all right, Ric. Everything's done. I can leave any time now." He indicated a square metal box standing in a corner. "There's the stuff."
What stuff? The product Johnny had been working on? "You haven't time for that now, Johnny. You can't sell it. They'd watch for anyone of your description selling chemicals. Let me loan you some money."
"Thanks." Johnny was smiling oddly. "Everything's set. I won't need it. How close are they to finding me?"
"They don't know where you're staying." Alcala leaned on the desk edge and put out his hand. "They tell me you're Syndrome Johnny."
"I thought you'd figured that one out." Johnny shook his hand formally. "The name is John Osborne Drake. You aren't horrified?"
"No." Alcala knew that he was shaking hands with a man who would be thanked down all the successive generations of mankind. He noticed again the odd white web-work of scars on the back of Johnny's hand. He indicated them as casually as he could. "Where did you pick those up?"
John Drake glanced at his hand. "I don't know, Ric. Truthfully. I've had my brains beaten in too often to remember much any more. Unimportant. There are instructions outlining plans and methods filed in safety deposit boxes in almost every big city in the world. Always the same typing, always the same instructions. I can't remember who typed them, myself or my father, but I must have been expected to forget or they wouldn't be there. Up to eleven, my memory is all right, but after Dad started to remake me, everything gets fuzzy."
"After he did what?"
Johnny smiled tiredly and rested his head on one hand. "He had to remake me chemically, you know. How could I spread change without being changed myself? I couldn't have two generations to adapt to it naturally like you, Ric. It had to be done artificially. It took years. You understand? I'm a community, a construction. The cells that carry on the silicon metabolism in me are not human. Dad adapted them for the purpose. I helped, but I can't remember any longer how it was done. I think when I've been badly damaged, organization scatters to the separate cells in my body. They can survive better that way, and they have powers of regrouping and healing. But memory can't be pasted together again or regrown."
John Drake rose and looked around the laboratory with something like triumph. "They're too late. I made it, Ric. There's the catalyst cooling over there. This is the last step. I don't think I'll survive this plague, but I'll last long enough to set it going for the finish. The police won't stop me until it's too late."
The last one had been before Alcala was born. He had not thought that Johnny would start another. It was a shock.
Alcala walked over to the cage where he kept his white mice and looked in, trying to sort out his feelings. The white mice looked back with beady bright eyes, caged, not knowing they were waiting to be experimented upon.
A timer clicked and John Delgados-Drake became all rapid efficient activity, moving from valve to valve. It lasted a half minute or less, then Drake had finished stripping off the lab whites to his street clothes. He picked up the square metal box containing the stuff he had made, tucked it under his arm and held out a solid hand again to Alcala.
"Good-by, Ric. Wish me luck. Close up the lab for me, will you?"
Alcala took the hand numbly and mumbled something, turned back to the cages and stared blindly at the mice. Drake's brisk footsteps clattered down the stairs.
Another step forward for the human race.
God knew what wonders for the race were in that box. Perhaps something for nerve construction, something for the mind—the last and most important step. He should have asked.
There came at last a pressure that was a thought emerging from the depth of intuition. Doctor Ricardo Alcala will die in the next plague, he and his ill wife Nita and his ill little girl.... And the name of Alcala will die forever as a weak strain blotted from the bloodstream of the race....
He'd find out what was in the box by dying of it!
He tried to reason it out, but only could remember that Nita, already sickly, would have no chance. And Alcala's family genes, in attempting to adapt to the previous steps, had become almost sterile. It had been difficult having children. The next step would mean complete sterility. The name of Alcala would die. The future might be wonderful, but it would not be his future!
"Johnny!" he called suddenly, something like an icy lump hardening in his chest. How long had it been since Johnny had left?
Running, Alcala went down the long half-lit stairs, out the back door and along the dark path toward the place where Johnny's 'copter had been parked.
A light shone through the leaves. It was still there.
John Osborne Drake was putting his suitcase into the rear of the 'copter.
"What is it, Ric?" he asked in a friendly voice without turning.
It would be impossible to ask him to change his mind. Alcala found a rock, raised it behind Syndrome Johnny's back. "I know I'm being anti-social," he said regretfully, and then threw the rock away.
His fist was enough like stone to crush a skull.