Broderick MacNeil lay in his bed and felt pleasantly ill. He treasured each one of his various symptoms; each pain and ache was just right. He hadn't been so comfortable in years. It really felt fine to have all those doctors fussing over him. They got snappy and irritable once in a while, but then, all them brainy people had a tendency to do that. He wondered how the rest of the boys were doing on their diet of banana-pears. Too bad they weren't getting any special treatment.
MacNeil had decided just that morning that he'd leave the whole state of his health in the hands of the doctors. No need for a fellow to dose himself when there were three medics on the job, was there? If he needed anything, they'd give it to him, so he'd decided to take no medicine.
A delightful, dulling lassitude was creeping over him.
"MacNeil! MacNeil! Wake up, MacNeil!"
The spaceman vaguely heard the voice, and tried to respond, but a sudden dizziness overtook him. His stomach felt as though it were going to come loose from his interior.
"I'm sick," he said weakly. Then, with a terrible realization, "I'm really awful sick!"
He saw Dr. Smathers' face swimming above him and tried to lift himself from the bed. "Shoulda taken pills," he said through the haze that was beginning to fold over him again. "Locker box." And then he was unconscious again.
Dr. Smathers looked at him bleakly. The same thing was killing MacNeil as had killed the others. It had taken longer--much longer. But it had come.
And then the meaning of the spaceman's mumbled words came to him. Pills? Locker box?
He grabbed the unconscious man's right hand and shoved his right thumb up against the sensor plate in the front of the metal box next to the bed. He could have gotten the master key from Colonel Fennister, but he hadn't the time.
The box door dilated open, and Dr. Smathers looked inside.
When he came across the bottles, he swore under his breath, then flung the spaceman's arm down and ran from the room.
"That's where he was getting his vitamins, then," said Dr. Pilar as he looked over the assortment of bottles that he and Smathers had taken from the locker box. "Look at 'em. He's got almost as many pills as you have." He looked up at the physician. "Do you suppose it was just vitamins that kept him going?"
"I don't know," said Smathers. "I've given him massive doses of every one of the vitamins--from my own supplies, naturally. He may rally round, if that's what it was. But why would he suddenly be affected by the stuff now?"
"Maybe he quit taking them?" Pilar made it half a question.
"It's possible," agreed Smathers. "A hypochondriac will sometimes leave off dosing himself if there's a doctor around to do it for him. As long as the subconscious need is filled, he's happy." But he was shaking his head.
"What's the matter?" Pilar asked.
Smathers pointed at the bottles. "Some of those are mislabeled. They all say vitamins of one kind or another on the label, but the tablets inside aren't all vitamins. MacNeil's been giving himself all kinds of things."
Pilar's eyes widened a trifle. "Do you suppose--"
"That one of them is an antidote?" Smathers snorted. "Hell, anything's possible at this stage of the game. The best thing we can do, I think, is give him a dose of everything there, and see what happens."
"Yeah, Doc, yeah," said MacNeil smiling weakly, "I feel a little better. Not real good, you understand, but better."
Under iron control, Dr. Smathers put on his best bedside manner, while Pilar and Petrelli hovered in the background.
"Now, look, son," said Smathers in a kindly voice, "we found the medicines in your locker box."
MacNeil's face fell, making him look worse. He'd dropped down close to death before the conglomerate mixture which had been pumped into his stomach had taken effect, and Smathers had no desire to put too much pressure on the man.
"Now, don't worry about it, son," he said hurriedly; "We'll see to it that you aren't punished for it. It's all right. We just want to ask you a few questions."
"Sure, Doc; anything," said MacNeil. But he still looked apprehensive.
"Have you been dosing yourself pretty regularly with these things?"
"Well ... uh ... well, yeah. Sometimes." He smiled feebly. "Sometimes I didn't feel so good, and I didn't want to bother the medics. You know how it is."
"Very considerate, I'm sure," said Smathers with just the barest trace of sarcasm, which, fortunately, fell unheeded on MacNeil's ears. "But which ones did you take every day?"
"Just the vitamins." He paused. "And ... uh ... maybe an aspirin. The only things I took real regular were the vitamins, though. That's all right ain't it? Ain't vitamins food?"
"Sure, son, sure. What did you take yesterday morning, before you got so sick?"
"Just the vitamins," MacNeil said stoutly. "I figured that since you docs was takin' care of me, I didn't need no medicine."
Dr. Smathers glanced up hopelessly at the other two men. "That eliminates the vitamins," he said, sotto voce. He looked back at the patient. "No aspirin? No APC's? You didn't have a headache at all?"
MacNeil shook his head firmly. "I don't get headaches much." Again he essayed a feeble smile. "I ain't like you guys, I don't overwork my brains."
"I'm sure you don't," said Smathers. Then his eyes gleamed. "You have quite a bit of stomach trouble, eh? Your digestion bad?"
"Yeah. You know; I told you about it. I get heartburn and acid stomach pretty often. And constipation."
"What do you take for that?"
"Oh, different things. Sometimes a soda pill, sometimes milk of magnesia, different things."
Smathers looked disappointed, but before he could say anything, Dr. Petrelli's awed but excited voice came from behind him. "Do you take Epsom salts?"
"I wonder--" said Petrelli softly.
And then he left for the lab at a dead run.
Colonel Fennister and Major Grodski sat at the table in the lab, munching on banana-pears, blissfully enjoying the sweet flavor and the feeling of fullness they were imparting to their stomachs.
"MacNeil can't stay in the service, of course," said Fennister. "That is, not in any space-going outfit. We'll find an Earthside job for him, though. Maybe even give him a medal. You sure these things won't hurt us?"
Dr. Pilar started to speak, but Petrelli cut him off.
"Positive," said the chemist. "After we worked it out, it was pretty simple. The 'poison' was a chelating agent, that's all. You saw the test run I did for you."
The colonel nodded. He'd watched the little chemist add an iron salt to some of the fruit juice and seen it turn red. Then he'd seen it turn pale yellow when a magnesium salt was added. "But what's a chelating agent?" he asked.
"There are certain organic compounds," Dr. Petrelli explained, "that are ... well, to put it simply, they're attracted by certain ions. Some are attracted by one ion, some by another. The chelating molecules cluster around the ion and take it out of circulation, so to speak; they neutralize it, in a way.
"Look, suppose you had a dangerous criminal on the loose, and didn't have any way to kill him. If you kept him surrounded by policemen all the time, he couldn't do anything. See?"
The Space Service Officers nodded their understanding.
"We call that 'sequestering' the ion," the chemist continued. "It's used quite frequently in medicine, as Dr. Smathers will tell you. For instance, beryllium ions in the body can be deadly; beryllium poisoning is nasty stuff. But if the patient is treated with the proper chelating agent, the ions are surrounded and don't do any more damage. They're still there, but now they're harmless, you see."
"Well, then," said the colonel, "just what did this stuff in the fruit do?"
"It sequestered the iron ions in the body. They couldn't do their job. The body had to quit making hemoglobin, because hemoglobin needs iron. So, since there was no hemoglobin in the bloodstream, the patient developed sudden pernicious anemia and died of oxygen starvation."
Colonel Fennister looked suddenly at Dr. Smathers. "I thought you said the blood looked normal."
"It did," said the physician. "The colorimeter showed extra hemoglobin, in fact. But the chelating agent in the fruit turns red when it's connected up with iron--in fact, it's even redder than blood hemoglobin. And the molecules containing the sequestered iron tend to stick to the outside of the red blood cells, which threw the whole test off."
"As I understand it, then," said Major Grodski, "the antidote for the ... uh ... chelating agent is magnesium?"
"That's right," said Dr. Petrelli, nodding. "The stuff prefers magnesium ions to ferrous ions. They fit better within the chelating ring. Any source of magnesium will do, so long as there's plenty of it. MacNeil was using milk of magnesia, which is the hydroxide, for 'gastric acidity'. It's changed to chloride in the stomach. And he was using Epsom salts--the sulfate, and magnesium citrate as laxatives. He was well protected with magnesium ions."
"We tried it ourselves first, naturally," said Dr. Pilar. "We haven't had any ill effects for two days, so I think we'll be able to make it until the ship comes."
Major Grodski sighed. "Well, if not, I'll at least die with a full stomach." He reached for another banana-pear, then looked over at Petrelli. "Pass the salt, please."
Silently and solemnly, the chemist handed him the Epsom salts.
THE DARK WORLD.
By Henry Kuttner
I. Fire in the Night TO THE north thin smoke made a column against the darkening sky. Again I felt the unreasoning fear, the impulse toward nightmare flight that had been with me for a long time now. I knew it was without reason. There was only smoke, rising from the swamps of the tangled Limberlost country, not fifty miles from Chicago, where man has outlawed superstition with strong bonds of steel and concrete.
I knew it was only a camper's fire, yet I knew it was not. Something, far back in my mind, knew what the smoke rose from, and who stood about the fire, peering my way through the trees.
I looked away, my glance slipping around the crowded walls -- shelves bearing the random fruit of my uncle's magpie collector's instinct. Opium pipes of inlaid work and silver, golden chessmen from India, a sword...
Deep memories stirred within me -- deep panic. I was beneath the sword in two strides, tearing it from the wall, my fingers cramping hard around the hilt. Not fully aware of what I did, I found myself facing the window and the distant smoke again. The sword was in my fist, but feeling wrong, not reassuring, not as the sword ought to feel.
"Easy, Ed," my uncle's deep voice said behind me. "What's the matter? You look -- sort of wild."
"It's the wrong sword," I heard myself saying helplessly.
Then something like a mist cleared from my brain. I blinked at him stupidly, wondering what was happening to me. My voice answered.
"It isn't the sword. It should have come from Cambodia. It should have been one of the three talismans of the Fire King and the Water King. Three very great talismans -- the fruit of acui, gathered at the time of the deluge, but still fresh -- the rattan with flowers that never fade, and the sword of Yan, the guarding spirit."
My uncle squinted at me through pipe-smoke. He shook his head.
"You've changed, Ed," he said in his deep, gentle voice. "You've changed a lot. I suppose because of the war -- it's to be expected. Arid you've been sick. But you never used to be interested in things like that before. I think you spend too much time at the libraries. I'd hoped this vacation would help. The rest --"
"I don't want rest!" I said violently. "I spent a year and a half resting in Sumatra. Doing nothing but rest in mat smelly little jungle village, waiting and waiting and waiting."
I could see and smell it now. I could feel again the fever that had raged so long through me as I lay in the tabooed hut.
My mind went back eighteen months to the last hour when things were normal for me. It was in the closing phases of World War II, and I was flying over the Sumatran jungle. War, of course, is never good or normal, but until that one blinding moment in the air I had been an ordinary man, sure of myself, sure of my place in the world, with no nagging fragments of memory too elusive to catch.
Then everything blanked out, suddenly and completely. I never knew what it was. There was nothing it could have been. My only injuries came when the plane struck, and they were miraculously light. But I had been whole and unhurt when the blindness and blankness came over me.
The friendly Bataks found me as I lay in the ruined plane. They brought me through a fever and a raging illness with their strange, crude, effective ways of healing, but I sometimes thought they had done me no service when they saved me. And their witch-doctor had his doubts, too.
He knew something. He worked his curious, futile charms with knotted string and rice, sweating with effort I did not understand -- then. I remembered the scarred, ugly mask looming out of the shadow, the hands moving in gestures of strange power.
"Come back, O soul, where thou are lingering in the wood, or in the hills, or by the river. See, I call thee with a toemba bras, with an egg of the fowl Rajah moelija, with the eleven healing leaves...."
"Yes, they were sorry for me at first, all of them. The witchdoctor was the first to sense something wrong and the awareness spread. I could feel it spreading, as their attitude changed. They were afraid. Not of me, I thought, but of -- what?
Before the helicopter came to take me back to civilization, the witch-doctor had told me a little. As much, perhaps, as he dared.
"You must hide, my son. All your life you must hide.
Something is searching for you -- " He used a word I did not understand. " -- and it has come from the Other World, the ghostlands, to hunt you down. Remember this: all magic things must be taboo to you. And if that too fails, perhaps you may find a weapon in magic. But we cannot help you. Our powers are not strong enough for that."
He was glad to see me go. They were all glad.
And after that, unrest. For something had changed me utterly. The fever? Perhaps. At any rate, I didn't feel like the same man. There were dreams, memories -- haunting urgencies as if I had somehow, somewhere left some vital job unfinished.
I found myself talking more freely to my uncle.
"It was like a curtain lifting. A curtain of gauze. I saw some things more clearly -- they seemed to have a different significance. Things happen to me now that would have seemed incredible -- before. Now they don't.
"I've traveled a lot, you know. It doesn't help. There's always something to remind me. An amulet in a pawnshop window, a knotted string, a cat's-eye opal and two figures. I see them in my dreams, over and over. And once --"