Plague Ship/Chapter VII

The morning winds rustled through the grass forest and, closer to hand, it pulled at the cloaks of the Salariki. Clan nobles sat on stools, lesser folk squatted on the trampled stubble of the cleared ground outside the stockade. In their many colored splendor the drab tunics of the Terrans were a blot of darkness at either end of the makeshift arena which had been marked out for them.

At the conclusion of their conference the Queen's men had been forced into a course Jellico had urged from the first. He, and he alone, would represent the Free Traders in the coming duel. And now he stood there in the early morning, stripped down to shorts and boots, wearing nothing on which a net could catch and so trap him. The Free Traders were certain that the I-S men having any advantage would press it to the ultimate limit and the death of Captain Jellico would make a great impression on the Salariki.

Jellico was taller than the Eysie who faced him, but almost as lean. Hard muscles moved under his skin, pale where space tan had not burned in the years of his star voyaging. And his every movement was with the liquid grace of a man who, in his time, had been a master of the force blade. Now he gripped in his left hand the claw knife given him by Groft himself and in the other he looped the throwing rope of the net.

At the other end of the field, the Eysie man was industriously moving his bootsoles back and forth across the ground, intent upon coating them with as much of the gritty sand as would adhere. And he displayed the supreme confidence in himself which he had shown at the moment of challenge in the Great Hall.

None of the Free Trading party made the mistake of trying to give Jellico advice. The Captain had not risen to his command without learning his duties. And the duties of a Free Trader covered a wide range of knowledge and practice. One had to be equally expert with a blaster and a slingshot when the occasion demanded. Though Jellico had not fought a Salariki duel with net and knife before, he had a deep memory of other weapons, other tactics which could be drawn upon and adapted to his present need.

There was none of the casual atmosphere which had surrounded the affair between the Salariki clansmen in the hall. Here was ceremony. The storm priests invoked their own particular grim Providence, and there was an oath taken over the weapons of battle. When the actual engagement began the betting among the spectators had reached, Dane decided, epic proportions. Large sections of Sargolian personal property were due to change hands as a result of this encounter.

As the chief priest gave the order to engage both Terrans advanced from their respective ends of the fighting space with the half crouching, light footed tread of spacemen. Jellico had pulled his net into as close a resemblance to rope as its bulk would allow. The very type of weapon, so far removed from any the Traders knew, made it a disadvantage rather than an asset.

But it was when the Eysie moved out to meet the Captain that Rip's fingers closed about Dane's upper arm in an almost paralyzing grip.

"He knows—"

Dane had not needed that bad news to be made vocal. Having seen the exploits of the Salariki duelists earlier, he had already caught the significance of that glide, of the way the I-S champion carried his net. The Eysie had not had any last minute instruction in the use of Sargolian weapons—he had practiced and, by his stance, knew enough to make him a formidable menace. The clamor about the Queen's party rose as the battle-wise eyes of the clansmen noted that and the odds against Jellico reached fantastic heights while the hearts of his crew sank.

Only Van Rycke was not disturbed. Now and then he raised his smelling bottle to his nose with an elegant gesture which matched those of the befurred nobility around him, as if not a thought of care ruffled his mind.

The Eysie feinted in a opening which was a rather ragged copy of the young Salarik's more fluid moves some hours before. But, when the net settled, Jellico was simply not there, his quick drop to one knee had sent the mesh flailing in an arc over his bowed shoulders with a good six inches to spare. And a cry of approval came not only from his comrades, but from those natives who had been gamblers enough to venture their wagers on his performance.

Dane watched the field and the fighters through a watery film. The discomfort he had experienced since downing that mouthful of the cup of friendship had tightened into a fist of pain clutching his middle in a torturing grip. But he knew he must stick it out until Jellico's ordeal was over. Someone stumbled against him and he glanced up to see Ali's face, a horrible gray-green under the tan, close to his own. For a moment the Engineer-apprentice caught at his arm for support and then with a visible effort straightened up. So he wasn't the only one—He looked for Rip and Weeks and saw that they, too, were ill.

But for a moment all that mattered was the stretch of trampled earth and the two men facing each other. The Eysie made another cast and this time, although Jellico was not caught, the slap of the mesh raised a red welt on his forearm. So far the Captain had been content to play the defensive role of retreat, studying his enemy, planning ahead.

The Eysie plainly thought the game his, that he had only to wait for a favorable moment and cinch the victory. Dane began to think it had gone on for weary hours. And he was dimly aware that the Salariki were also restless. One or two shouted angrily at Jellico in their own tongue.

The end came suddenly. Jellico lost his footing, stumbled, and went down. But before his men could move, the Eysie champion bounded forward, his net whirling out. Only he never reached the Captain. In the very act of falling Jellico had pulled his legs under him so that he was not supine but crouched, and his net swept but at ground level, clipping the I-S man about the shins, entangling his feet so that he crashed heavily to the sod and lay still.

"The whip—that Lalox whip trick!" Wilcox's voice rose triumphantly above the babble of the crowd. Using his net as if it had been a thong, Jellico had brought down the Eysie with a move the other had not foreseen.

Breathing hard, sweat running down his shoulders and making tracks through the powdery red dust which streaked him, Jellico got to his feet and walked over to the I-S champion who had not moved or made a sound since his fall. The Captain went down on one knee to examine him.

"Kill! Kill!" That was the Salariki, all their instinctive savagery aroused.

But Jellico spoke to Groft. "By our customs we do not kill the conquered. Let his friends bear him hence." He took the claw knife the Eysie still clutched in his hand and thrust it into his own belt. Then he faced the I-S party and Kallee.

"Take your man and get out!" The rein he had kept on his temper these past days was growing very thin. "You've made your last play here."

Kallee's thick lips drew back in something close to a Salarik snarl. But neither he nor his men made any reply. They bundled up their unconscious fighter and disappeared.

Of their own return to the sanctuary of the Queen Dane had only the dimmest of memories afterwards. He had made the privacy of the forest road before he yielded to the demands of his outraged interior. And after that he had stumbled along with Van Rycke's hand under his arm, knowing from other miserable sounds that he was not alone in his torment.

It was some time later, months he thought when he first roused, that he found himself lying in his bunk, feeling very weak and empty as if a large section of his middle had been removed, but also at peace with his world. As he levered himself up the cabin had a nasty tendency to move slowly to the right as if he were a pivot on which it swung, and he had all the sensations of being in free fall though the Queen was still firmly planeted. But that was only a minor discomfort compared to the disturbance he remembered.

Fed the semi-liquid diet prescribed by Tau and served up by Mura to him and his fellow sufferers, he speedily got back his strength. But it had been a close call, he did not need Tau's explanation to underline that. Weeks had suffered the least of the four, he the most—though none of them had had an easy time. And they had been out of circulation three days.

"The Eysie blasted last night," Rip informed him as they lounged in the sun on the ramp, sharing the blessed lazy hours of invalidism.

But somehow that news gave Dane no lift of spirit. "I didn't think they'd give up—"

Rip shrugged. "They may be off to make a dust-off before the Board. Only, thanks to Van and the Old Man, we're covered all along the line. There's nothing they can use against us to break our contract. And now we're in so solid they can't cut us out with the Salariki. Groft asked the Captain to teach him that trick with the net. I didn't know the Old Man knew Lalox whip fighting—it's about one of the nastiest ways to get cut to pieces in this universe—"

"How's trade going?"

Rip's sunniness clouded. "Supplies have given out. Weeks had an idea—but it won't bring in Koros. That red wood he's so mad about, he's persuaded Van to stow some in the cargo holds since we have enough Koros stones to cover the voyage. Luckily the clansmen will take ordinary trade goods in exchange for that and Weeks thinks it will sell on Terra. It's tough enough to turn a steel knife blade and yet it is light and easy to handle when it's cured. Queer stuff and the color's interesting. That stockade of it planted around Groft's town has been up close to a hundred years and not a sign of rot in a log of it!"

"Where is Van?"

"The storm priests sent for him. Some kind of a gabble-fest on the star-star level, I gather. Otherwise we're almost ready to blast. And we know what kind of cargo to bring next time."

They certainly did, Dane agreed. But he was not to idle away his morning. An hour later a caravan came out of the forest, a line of complaining, burdened orgels, their tiny heads hanging low as they moaned their woes, the hard life which sent them on their sluggish way with piles of red logs lashed to their broad toads' backs. Weeks was in charge of the procession and Dane went to work with the cargo plan Van had left, seeing that the brilliant scarlet lengths were hoist into the lower cargo hatch and stacked according to the science of stowage. He discovered that Rip had been right, the wood for all its incredible hardness was light of weight. Weak as he still was he could lift and stow a full sized log with no great difficulty. And he thought Weeks was correct in thinking that it would sell on their home world. The color was novel, the durability an asset—it would not make fortunes as the Koros stones might, but every bit of profit helped and this cargo might cover their fielding fees on Terra.

Sinbad was in the cargo space when the first of the logs came in. With his usual curiosity the striped tom cat prowled along the wood, sniffing industriously. Suddenly he stopped short, spat and backed away, his spine fur a roughened crest. Having backed as far as the inner door he turned and slunk out. Puzzled, Dane gave the wood a swift inspection. There were no cracks or crevices in the smooth surfaces, but as he stopped over the logs he became conscious of a sharp odor. So this was one scent of the perfumed planet Sinbad did not like. Dane laughed. Maybe they had better have Weeks make a gate of the stuff and slip it across the ramp, keeping Sinbad on ship board. Odd—it wasn't an unpleasant odor—at least to him it wasn't—just sharp and pungent. He sniffed again and was vaguely surprised to discover that it was less noticeable now. Perhaps the wood when taken out of the sunlight lost its scent.

They packed the lower hold solid in accordance with the rules of stowage and locked the hatch before Van Rycke returned from his meeting with the storm priests. When the Cargo-master came back he was followed by two servants bearing between them a chest.

But there was something in Van Rycke's attitude, apparent to those who knew him best, that proclaimed he was not too well pleased with his morning's work. Sparing the feelings of the accompanying storm priests about the offensiveness of the spacer Captain Jellico and Steen Wilcox went out to receive them in the open. Dane watched from the hatch, aware that in his present pariah-hood it would not be wise to venture closer.

The Terran Traders were protesting some course of action that the Salariki were firmly insistent upon. In the end the natives won and Kosti was summoned to carry on board the chest which the servants had brought. Having seen it carried safely inside the spacer, the aliens departed, but Van Rycke was frowning and Jellico's fingers were beating a tattoo on his belt as they came up the ramp.

"I don't like it," Jellico stated as he entered.

"It was none of my doing," Van Rycke snapped. "I'll take risks if I have to—but there's something about this one—" he broke off, two deep lines showing between his thick brows. "Well, you can't teach a sasseral to spit," he ended philosophically. "We'll have to do the best we can."

But Jellico did not look at all happy as he climbed to the control section. And before the hour was out the reason for the Captain's uneasiness was common property throughout the ship.

Having sampled the delights of off-world herbs, the Salariki were determined to not be cut off from their source of supply. Six Terran months from the present Sargolian date would come the great yearly feast of the Fifty Storms, and the priests were agreed that this year their influence and power would be doubled if they could offer the devout certain privileges in the form of Terran plants. Consequently they had produced and forced upon the reluctant Van Rycke the Koros collection of their order, with instructions that it be sold on Terra and the price returned to them in the precious seeds and plants. In vain the Cargo-master and Captain had pointed out that Galactic trade was a chancy thing at the best, that accident might prevent return of the Queen to Sargol. But the priests had remained adamant and saw in all such arguments only a devious attempt to raise prices. They quoted in their turn the information they had levered out of the Company men—that Traders had their code and that once pay had been given in advance the contract must be fulfilled. They, and they alone, wanted the full cargo of the Queen on her next voyage, and they were taking the one way they were sure of achieving that result.

So a fortune in Koros stones which as yet did not rightfully belong to the Traders was now in the Queen's strong-room and her crew were pledged by the strongest possible tie known in their Service to set down on Sargol once more before the allotted time had passed. The Free Traders did not like it, there was even a vaguely superstitious feeling that such a bargain would inevitably draw ill luck to them. But they were left with no choice if they wanted to retain their influence with the Salariki.

"Cutting orbit pretty fine, aren't we?" Ali asked Rip across the mess table. "I saw your two star man sweating it out before he came down to shoot the breeze with us rocket monkeys—"

Rip nodded. "Steen's double checked every computation and some he's done four times." He ran his hands over his close cropped head with a weary gesture. As a semi-invalid he had been herded down with his fellows to swallow the builder Mura had concocted and Tau insisted that they take, but he had been doing a half a night's work on the plotter under his chief's exacting eye before he came. "The latest news is that, barring accident, we can make it with about three weeks' grace, give or take a day or two—"

"Barring accident—" the words rang in the air. Here on the frontiers of the star lanes there were so many accidents, so many delays which could put a ship behind schedule. Only on the main star trails did the huge liners or Company ships attempt to keep on regularly timed trips. A Free Trader did not really dare to have an inelastic contract.

"What does Stotz say?" Dane asked Ali.

"He says he can deliver. We don't have the headache about setting a course—you point the nose and we only give her the boost to send her along."

Rip sighed. "Yes—point her nose." He inspected his nails. "Goodbye," he added gravely. "These won't be here by the time we planet here again. I'll have my fingers gnawed off to the first knuckle. Well, we lift at six hours. Pleasant strap down." He drank the last of the stuff in his mug, made a face at the flavor, and got to his feet, due back at his post in control.

Dane, free of duty until the ship earthed, drifted back to his own cabin, sure of part of a night's undisturbed rest before they blasted off. Sinbad was curled on his bunk. For some reason the cat had not been prowling the ship before take-off as he usually did. First he had sat on Van's desk and now he was here, almost as if he wanted human company. Dane picked him up and Sinbad rumbled a purr, arching his head so that it rubbed against the young man's chin in an extremely uncharacteristic show of affection. Smoothing the fur along the cat's jaw line Dane carried him back to the Cargo-master's cabin.

With some hesitation he knocked at the panel and did not step in until he had Van Rycke's muffled invitation. The Cargo-master was stretched on the bunk, two of the take off straps already fastened across his bulk as if he intended to sleep through the blast-off.

"Sinbad, sir. Shall I stow him?"

Van Rycke grunted an assent and Dane dropped the cat in the small hammock which was his particular station, fastening the safety cords. For once Sinbad made no protest but rolled into a ball and was promptly fast asleep. For a moment or two Dane thought about this unnatural behavior and wondered if he should call it to the Cargo-master's attention. Perhaps on Sargol Sinbad had had his equivalent of a friendship cup and needed a check-up by Tau.

"Stowage correct?" the question, coming from Van Rycke, was also unusual. The seal would not have been put across the hold lock had its contents not been checked and rechecked.

"Yes, sir," Dane replied woodenly, knowing he was still in the outer darkness. "There was just the wood—we stowed it according to chart."

Van Rycke grunted once more. "Feeling top-layer again?"

"Yes, sir. Any orders, sir?"

"No. Blast-off's at six."

"Yes, sir." Dane left the cabin, closing the panel carefully behind him. Would he—or could he—he thought drearily, get back in Van Rycke's profit column again? Sargol had been unlucky as far as he was concerned. First he had made that stupid mistake and then he got sick and now—And now—what was the matter? Was it just the general attack of nerves over their voyage and the commitments which forced their haste, or was it something else? He could not rid himself of a vague sense that the Queen was about to take off into real trouble. And he did not like the sensation at all!