He met Jake Miles coming up the steps. Jake looked pale, too pale.
"Morning," Phillip said weakly. "Nice day. Looks like the sun might come through."
"Yeah," said Jake. "Nice day. You--uh--feel all right this morning?"
"Fine, fine." Phillip tossed his hat in the closet, opened the incubator on his culture tubes, trying to look busy. He slammed the door after one whiff and gripped the edge of the work table with whitening knuckles. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing. Thought you looked a little peaked, was all."
They stared at each other in silence. Then, as though by signal, their eyes turned to the office at the end of the lab.
"Coffin come in yet?"
Jake nodded. "He's in there. He's got the door locked."
"I think he's going to have to open it," said Phillip.
A gray-faced Dr. Coffin unlocked the door, backed quickly toward the wall. The room reeked of kitchen deodorant. "Stay right where you are," Coffin squeaked. "Don't come a step closer. I can't see you now. I'm--I'm busy, I've got work that has to be done--"
"You're telling me," growled Phillip. He motioned Jake into the office and locked the door carefully. Then he turned to Coffin. "When did it start for you?"
Coffin was trembling. "Right after supper last night. I thought I was going to suffocate. Got up and walked the streets all night. My God, what a stench!"
Dr. Miles shook his head. "Sometime this morning, I don't know when. I woke up with it."
"That's when it hit me," said Phillip.
"But I don't understand," Coffin howled. "Nobody else seems to notice anything--"
"Yet," said Phillip, "we were the first three to take the Coffin Cure, remember? You, and me and Jake. Two months ago."
Coffin's forehead was beaded with sweat. He stared at the two men in growing horror. "But what about the others?" he whispered.
"I think," said Phillip, "that we'd better find something spectacular to do in a mighty big hurry. That's what I think."
Jake Miles said, "The most important thing right now is secrecy. We mustn't let a word get out, not until we're absolutely certain."
"But what's happened?" Coffin cried. "These foul smells, everywhere. You, Phillip, you had a cigarette this morning. I can smell it clear over here, and it's bringing tears to my eyes. And if I didn't know better I'd swear neither of you had had a bath in a week. Every odor in town has suddenly turned foul--"
"Magnified, you mean," said Jake. "Perfume still smells sweet--there's just too much of it. The same with cinnamon; I tried it. Cried for half an hour, but it still smelled like cinnamon. No, I don't think the smells have changed any."
"But what, then?"
"Our noses have changed, obviously." Jake paced the floor in excitement. "Look at our dogs! They've never had colds--and they practically live by their noses. Other animals--all dependent on their senses of smell for survival--and none of them ever have anything even vaguely reminiscent of a common cold. The multicentric virus hits primates only--and it reaches its fullest parasitic powers in man alone!"
Coffin shook his head miserably. "But why this horrible stench all of a sudden? I haven't had a cold in weeks--"
"Of course not! That's just what I'm trying to say," Jake cried. "Look, why do we have any sense of smell at all? Because we have tiny olfactory nerve endings buried in the mucous membrane of our noses and throats. But we have always had the virus living there, too, colds or no colds, throughout our entire lifetime. It's always been there, anchored in the same cells, parasitizing the same sensitive tissues that carry our olfactory nerve endings, numbing them and crippling them, making them practically useless as sensory organs. No wonder we never smelled anything before! Those poor little nerve endings never had a chance!"
"Until we came along in our shining armor and destroyed the virus," said Phillip.
"Oh, we didn't destroy it. We merely stripped it of a very slippery protective mechanism against normal body defences." Jake perched on the edge of the desk, his dark face intense. "These two months since we had our shots have witnessed a battle to the death between our bodies and the virus. With the help of the vaccine, our bodies have won, that's all--stripped away the last vestiges of an invader that has been almost a part of our normal physiology since the beginning of time. And now for the first time those crippled little nerve endings are just beginning to function."
"God help us," Coffin groaned. "You think it'll get worse?"
"And worse. And still worse," said Jake.
"I wonder," said Phillip slowly, "what the anthropologists will say."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe it was just a single mutation somewhere back there. Just a tiny change of cell structure or metabolism that left one line of primates vulnerable to an invader no other would harbor. Why else should man have begun to flower and blossom intellectually--grow to depend so much on his brains instead of his brawn that he could rise above all others? What better reason than because somewhere along the line in the world of fang and claw he suddenly lost his sense of smell?"
They stared at each other. "Well, he's got it back again now," Coffin wailed, "and he's not going to like it a bit."
"No, he surely isn't," Jake agreed. "He's going to start looking very quickly for someone to blame, I think."
They both looked at Coffin.
"Now don't be ridiculous, boys," said Coffin, turning white. "We're in this together. Phillip, it was your idea in the first place--you said so yourself! You can't leave me now--"
The telephone jangled. They heard the frightened voice of the secretary clear across the room. "Dr. Coffin? There was a student on the line just a moment ago. He--he said he was coming up to see you. Now, he said, not later."
"I'm busy," Coffin sputtered. "I can't see anyone. And I can't take any calls."
"But he's already on his way up," the girl burst out. "He was saying something about tearing you apart with his bare hands."
Coffin slammed down the receiver. His face was the color of lead. "They'll crucify me!" he sobbed. "Jake--Phillip--you've got to help me."
Phillip sighed and unlocked the door. "Send a girl down to the freezer and have her bring up all the live cold virus she can find. Get us some inoculated monkeys and a few dozen dogs." He turned to Coffin. "And stop sniveling. You're the big publicity man around here; you're going to handle the screaming masses, whether you like it or not."
"But what are you going to do?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," said Phillip, "but whatever I do is going to cost you your shirt. We're going to find out how to catch cold again if we have to die."
It was an admirable struggle, and a futile one. They sprayed their noses and throats with enough pure culture of virulent live virus to have condemned an ordinary man to a lifetime of sneezing, watery-eyed misery. They didn't develop a sniffle among them. They mixed six different strains of virus and gargled the extract, spraying themselves and every inoculated monkey they could get their hands on with the vile-smelling stuff. Not a sneeze. They injected it hypodermically, intradermally, subcutaneously, intramuscularly, and intravenously. They drank it. They bathed in the stuff.
But they didn't catch a cold.
"Maybe it's the wrong approach," Jake said one morning. "Our body defenses are keyed up to top performance right now. Maybe if we break them down we can get somewhere."
They plunged down that alley with grim abandon. They starved themselves. They forced themselves to stay awake for days on end, until exhaustion forced their eyes closed in spite of all they could do. They carefully devised vitamin-free, protein-free, mineral-free diets that tasted like library paste and smelled worse. They wore wet clothes and sopping shoes to work, turned off the heat and threw windows open to the raw winter air. Then they resprayed themselves with the live cold virus and waited reverently for the sneezing to begin.
It didn't. They stared at each other in gathering gloom. They'd never felt better in their lives.
Except for the smells, of course. They'd hoped that they might, presently, get used to them. They didn't. Every day it grew a little worse. They began smelling smells they never dreamed existed--noxious smells, cloying smells, smells that drove them gagging to the sinks. Their nose-plugs were rapidly losing their effectiveness. Mealtimes were nightmarish ordeals; they lost weight with alarming speed.
But they didn't catch cold.
"I think you should all be locked up," Ellie Dawson said severely as she dragged her husband, blue-faced and shivering, out of an icy shower one bitter morning. "You've lost your wits. You need to be protected against yourselves, that's what you need."
"You don't understand," Phillip moaned. "We've got to catch cold."
"Why?" Ellie snapped angrily. "Suppose you don't--what's going to happen?"
"We had three hundred students march on the laboratory today," Phillip said patiently. "The smells were driving them crazy, they said. They couldn't even bear to be close to their best friends. They wanted something done about it, or else they wanted blood. Tomorrow we'll have them back and three hundred more. And they were just the pilot study! What's going to happen when fifteen million people find their noses going bad on them?" He shuddered. "Have you seen the papers? People are already going around sniffing like bloodhounds. And now we're finding out what a thorough job we did. We can't crack it, Ellie. We can't even get a toe hold. Those antibodies are just doing too good a job."
"Well, maybe you can find some unclebodies to take care of them," Ellie offered vaguely.
"Look, don't make bad jokes--"
"I'm not making jokes! All I want is a husband back who doesn't complain about how everything smells, and eats the dinners I cook, and doesn't stand around in cold showers at six in the morning."
"I know it's miserable," he said helplessly. "But I don't know how to stop it."
He found Jake and Coffin in tight-lipped conference when he reached the lab. "I can't do it any more," Coffin was saying. "I've begged them for time. I've threatened them. I've promised them everything but my upper plate. I can't face them again, I just can't."
"We only have a few days left," Jake said grimly. "If we don't come up with something, we're goners."
Phillip's jaw suddenly sagged as he stared at them. "You know what I think?" he said suddenly. "I think we've been prize idiots. We've gotten so rattled we haven't used our heads. And all the time it's been sitting there blinking at us!"
"What are you talking about?" snapped Jake.
"Unclebodies," said Phillip.
"Oh, great God!"
"No, I'm serious." Phillip's eyes were very bright. "How many of those students do you think you can corral to help us?"
Coffin gulped. "Six hundred. They're out there in the street right now, howling for a lynching."
"All right, I want them in here. And I want some monkeys. Monkeys with colds, the worse colds the better."
"Do you have any idea what you're doing?" asked Jake.
"None in the least," said Phillip happily, "except that it's never been done before. But maybe it's time we tried following our noses for a while."
The tidal wave began to break two days later ... only a few people here, a dozen there, but enough to confirm the direst newspaper predictions. The boomerang was completing its circle.
At the laboratory the doors were kept barred, the telephones disconnected. Within, there was a bustle of feverish--if odorous--activity. For the three researchers, the olfactory acuity had reached agonizing proportions. Even the small gas masks Phillip had devised could no longer shield them from the constant barrage of violent odors.
But the work went on in spite of the smell. Truckloads of monkeys arrived at the lab--cold-ridden monkeys, sneezing, coughing, weeping, wheezing monkeys by the dozen. Culture trays bulged with tubes, overflowed the incubators and work tables. Each day six hundred angry students paraded through the lab, arms exposed, mouths open, grumbling but co-operating.
At the end of the first week, half the monkeys were cured of their colds and were quite unable to catch them back; the other half had new colds and couldn't get rid of them. Phillip observed this fact with grim satisfaction, and went about the laboratory mumbling to himself.
Two days later he burst forth jubilantly, lugging a sad-looking puppy under his arm. It was like no other puppy in the world. This puppy was sneezing and snuffling with a perfect howler of a cold.
The day came when they injected a tiny droplet of milky fluid beneath the skin of Phillip's arm, and then got the virus spray and gave his nose and throat a liberal application. Then they sat back and waited.
They were still waiting three days later.
"It was a great idea," Jake said gloomily, flipping a bulging notebook closed with finality. "It just didn't work, was all."
Phillip nodded. Both men had grown thin, with pouches under their eyes. Jake's right eye had begun to twitch uncontrollably whenever anyone came within three yards of him. "We can't go on like this, you know. The people are going wild."
"He collapsed three days ago. Nervous prostration. He kept having dreams about hangings."
Phillip sighed. "Well, I suppose we'd better just face it. Nice knowing you, Jake. Pity it had to be this way."
"It was a great try, old man. A great try."
"Ah, yes. Nothing like going down in a blaze of--"
Phillip stopped dead, his eyes widening. His nose began to twitch. He took a gasp, a larger gasp, as a long-dead reflex came sleepily to life, shook its head, reared back ...
He sneezed for ten minutes without a pause, until he lay on the floor blue-faced and gasping for air. He caught hold of Jake, wringing his hand as tears gushed from his eyes. He gave his nose an enormous blow, and headed shakily for the telephone.
"It was a sipple edough pridciple," he said later to Ellie as she spread mustard on his chest and poured more warm water into his foot bath. "The Cure itself depedded upod it--the adtiged-adtibody reactiod. We had the adtibody agaidst the virus, all ridght; what we had to find was sobe kide of adtibody agaidst the adtibody." He sneezed violently, and poured in nose drops with a happy grin.
"Will they be able to make it fast enough?"
"Just aboudt fast edough for people to get good ad eager to catch cold agaid," said Phillip. "There's odly wud little hitch...."
Ellie Dawson took the steaks from the grill and set them, still sizzling, on the dinner table. "Hitch?"
Phillip nodded as he chewed the steak with a pretence of enthusiasm. It tasted like slightly damp K-ration.
"This stuff we've bade does a real good job. Just a little too good." He wiped his nose and reached for a fresh tissue.
"I bay be wrog, but I thik I've got this cold for keeps," he said sadly. "Udless I cad fide ad adtibody agaidst the adtibody agaidst the adtibody--"