Plague Ship/Chapter VIII

They lifted from Sargol on schedule and went into Hyper also on schedule. From that point on there was nothing to do but wait out the usual dull time of flight between systems and hope that Steen Wilcox had plotted a course which would cut that flight time to a minimum. But this voyage there was little relaxation once they were in Hyper. No matter when Dane dropped into the mess cabin, which was the common meeting place of the spacer, he was apt to find others there before him, usually with a mug of one of Mura's special brews close at hand, speculating about their landing date.

Dane, himself, once he had thrown off the lingering effects of his Sargolian illness, applied time to his studies. When he had first joined the Queen as a recruit straight out of the training Pool, he had speedily learned that all the ten years of intensive study then behind him had only been an introduction to the amount he still had to absorb before he could take his place as an equal with such a trader as Van Rycke—if he had the stuff which would raise him in time to that exalted level. While he had still had his superior's favor he had dared to treat him as an instructor, going to him with perplexing problems of stowage or barter. But now he had no desire to intrude upon the Cargo-master, and doggedly wrestled with the microtapes of old records on his own, painfully working out the why and wherefor for any departure from the regular procedure. He had no inkling of his own future status—whether the return to Terra would find him permanently earthed. And he would ask no questions.

They had been four days of ship's time in Hyper when Dane walked into the mess cabin, tired after his work with old records, to discover no Mura busy in the galley beyond, no brew steaming on the heat coil. Rip sat at the table, his long legs stuck out, his usually happy face very sober.

"What's wrong?" Dane reached for a mug, then seeing no pot of drink, put it back in place.

"Frank's sick—"

"What!" Dane turned. Illness such as they had run into on Sargol had a logical base. But illness on board ship was something else.

"Tau has him isolated. He has a bad headache and he blacked out when he tried to sit up. Tau's running tests."

Dane sat down. "Could be something he ate—"

Rip shook his head. "He wasn't at the feast—remember? And he didn't eat anything from outside, he swore that to Tau. In fact he didn't go dirt much while we were down—"

That was only too true as Dane could now recall. And the fact that the steward had not been at the feast, had not sampled native food products, wiped out the simplest and most comforting reasons for his present collapse.

"What's this about Frank?" Ali stood in the doorway. "He said yesterday that he had a headache. But now Tau has him shut off—"

"But he wasn't at that feast." Ali stopped short as the implications of that struck him. "How's Tang feeling?"

"Fine—why?" The Com-tech had come up behind Kamil and was answering for himself. "Why this interest in the state of my health?"

"Frank's down with something—in isolation," Rip replied bluntly. "Did he do anything out of the ordinary when we were off ship?"

For a long moment the other stared at Shannon and then he shook his head. "No. And he wasn't dirt-side to any extent either. So Tau's running tests—" He lapsed into silence. None of them wished to put their thoughts into words.

Dane picked up the microtape he had brought with him and went on down the corridor to return it. The panel of the cargo office was ajar and to his relief he found Van Rycke out. He shoved the tape back in its case and pulled out the next one. Sinbad was there, not in his own private hammock, but sprawled out on the Cargo-master's bunk. He watched Dane lazily, mouthing a silent mew of welcome. For some reason since they had blasted from Sargol the cat had been lazy—as if his adventures afield there had sapped much of his vitality.

"Why aren't you out working?" Dane asked as he leaned over to scratch under a furry chin raised for the benefit of such a caress. "You inspect the hold lately, boy?"

Sinbad merely blinked and after the manner of his species looked infinitely bored. As Dane turned to go the Cargo-master came in. He showed no surprise at Dane's presence. Instead he reached out and fingered the label of the tape Dane had just chosen. After a glance at the identifying symbol he took it out of his assistant's hand, plopped it back in its case, and stood for a moment eyeing the selection of past voyage records. With a tongue-click of satisfaction he pulled out another and tossed it across the desk to Dane.

"See what you can make out of this tangle," he ordered. But Dane's shoulders went back as if some weight had been lifted from them. The old easiness was still lacking, but he was no longer exiled to the outer darkness of Van Rycke's displeasure.

Holding the microtape as if it were a first grade Koros stone Dane went back to his own cabin, snapped the tape into his reader, adjusted the ear buttons and lay back on his bunk to listen.

He was deep in the intricacy of a deal so complicated that he was lost after the first two moves, when he opened his eyes to see Ali at the door panel. The Engineer-apprentice made an emphatic beckoning wave and Dane slipped off the ear buttons.

"What is it?" His question lacked a cordial note.

"I've got to have help." Ali was terse. "Kosti's blacked out!"

"What!" Dane sat up and dropped his feet to the deck in almost one movement.

"I can't shift him alone," Ali stated the obvious. The giant jetman was almost double his size. "We must get him to his quarters. And I won't ask Stotz—"

For a perfectly good reason Dane knew. An assistant—two of the apprentices—could go sick, but their officers' continued good health meant the most to the Queen. If some infection were aboard it would be better for Ali and himself to be exposed, than to have Johan Stotz with all his encyclopedic knowledge of the ship's engines contract any disease.

They found the jetman half sitting, half lying in the short foot or so of corridor which led to his own cubby. He had been making for his quarters when the seizure had taken him. And by the time the two reached his side, he was beginning to come around, moaning, his hands going to his head.

Together they got him on his feet and guided him to his bunk where he collapsed again, dead weight they had to push into place. Dane looked at Ali—


"Haven't had time to call him yet." Ali was jerking at the thigh straps which fastened Kosti's space boots.

"I'll go." Glad for the task Dane sped up the ladder to the next section and threaded the narrow side hall to the Medic's cabin where he knocked on the panel.

There was a pause before Craig Tau looked out, deep lines of weariness bracketing his mouth, etched between his eyes.

"Kosti, sir," Dane gave his bad news quickly. "He's collapsed. We got him to his cabin—"

Tau showed no sign of surprise. His hand shot out for his kit.

"You touched him?" At the other's nod he added an order. "Stay in your quarters until I have a chance to look you over—understand?"

Dane had no chance to answer, the Medic was already on his way. He went to his own cabin, understanding the reason for his imprisonment, but inwardly rebelling against it. Rather than sit idle he snapped on the reader—but, although facts and figures were dunned into his ears—he really heard very little. He couldn't apply himself—not with a new specter leering at him from the bulkhead.

The dangers of the space lanes were not to be numbered, death walked among the stars a familiar companion of all spacemen. And to the Free Trader it was the extra and invisible crewman on every ship that raised. But there were deaths and deaths—And Dane could not forget the gruesome legends Van Rycke collected avidly as his hobby—had recorded in his private library of the folk lore of space.

Stories such as that of the ghostly "New Hope" carrying refugees from the first Martian Rebellion—the ship which had lifted for the stars but had never arrived, which wandered for a timeless eternity, a derelict in free fall, its port closed but the warning "dead" lights on at its nose—a ship which through five centuries had been sighted only by a spacer in similar distress. Such stories were numerous. There were other tales of "plague" ships wandering free with their dead crews, or discovered and shot into some sun by a patrol cruiser so that they might not carry their infection farther. Plague—the nebulous "worst" the Traders had to face. Dane screwed his eyes shut, tried to concentrate upon the droning voice in his ears, but he could not control his thoughts nor—his fears.

At a touch on his arm he started so wildly that he jerked the cord loose from the reader and sat up, somewhat shamefaced, to greet Tau. At the Medic's orders he stripped for one of the most complete examinations he had ever undergone outside a quarantine port. It included an almost microscopic inspection of the skin on his neck and shoulders, but when Tau had done he gave a sigh of relief.

"Well, you haven't got it—at least you don't show any signs yet," he amended his first statement almost before the words were out of his mouth.

"What were you looking for?"

Tau took time out to explain. "Here," his fingers touched the small hollow at the base of Dane's throat and then swung him around and indicated two places on the back of his neck and under his shoulder blades. "Kosti and Mura both have red eruptions here. It's as if they have been given an injection of some narcotic." Tau sat down on the jump seat while Dane dressed. "Kosti was dirt-side—he might have picked up something—"

"But Mura—"

"That's it!" Tau brought his fist down on the edge of the bunk. "Frank hardly left the ship—yet he showed the first signs. On the other hand you are all right so far and you were off ship. And Ali's clean and he was with you on the hunt. We'll just have to wait and see." He got up wearily. "If your head begins to ache," he told Dane, "you get back here in a hurry and stay put—understand?"

As Dane learned all the other members of the crew were given the same type of inspection. But none of them showed the characteristic marks which meant trouble. They were on course for Terra—but—and that but must have loomed large in all their minds—once there would they be allowed to land? Could they even hope for a hearing? Plague ship—Tau must find the answer before they came into normal space about their own solar system or they were in for such trouble as made a broken contract seem the simplest of mishaps.

Kosti and Mura were in isolation. There were volunteers for nursing and Tau, unable to be in two places at once, finally picked Weeks to look after his crewmate in the engineering section.

There was doubling up of duties. Tau could no longer share with Mura the care of the hydro garden so Van Rycke took over. While Dane found himself in charge of the galley and, while he did not have Mura's deft hand at disguising the monotonous concentrates to the point they resembled fresh food, after a day or two he began to experiment cautiously and produced a stew which brought some short words of appreciation from Captain Jellico.

They all breathed a sigh of relief when, after three days, no more signs of the mysterious illness showed on new members of the crew. It became routine to parade before Tau stripped to the waist each morning for the inspection of the danger points, and the Medic's vigilance did not relax.

In the meantime neither Mura nor Kosti appeared to suffer. Once the initial stages of headaches and blackouts were passed, the patients lapsed into a semi-conscious state as if they were under sedation of some type. They would eat, if the food was placed in their mouths, but they did not seem to know what was going on about them, nor did they answer when spoken to.

Tau, between visits to them, worked feverishly in his tiny lab, analyzing blood samples, reading the records of obscure diseases, trying to find the reason for their attacks. But as yet his discoveries were exactly nothing. He had come out of his quarters and sat in limp exhaustion at the mess table while Dane placed before him a mug of stimulating caf-hag.

"I don't get it!" The Medic addressed the table top rather than the amateur cook. "It's a poison of some kind. Kosti went dirt-side—Mura didn't. Yet Mura came down with it first. And we didn't ship any food from Sargol. Neither did he eat any while we were there. Unless he did and we didn't know about it. If I could just bring him to long enough to answer a couple of questions!" Sighing he dropped his weary head on his folded arms and within seconds was asleep.

Dane put the mug back on the heating unit and sat down at the other end of the table. He did not have the heart to shake Tau into wakefulness—let the poor devil get a slice of bunk time, he certainly needed it after the fatigues of the past four days.

Van Rycke passed along the corridor on his way to the hydro, Sinbad at his heels. But in a moment the cat was back, leaping up on Dane's knee. He did not curl up, but rubbed against the young man's arm, finally reaching up with a paw to touch Dane's chin, uttering one of the soundless, mews which were his bid for attention.

"What's the matter, boy?" Dane fondled the cat's ears. "You haven't got a headache—have you?" In that second a wild surmise came into his mind. Sinbad had been planet-side on Sargol as much as he could, and on ship board he was equally at home in all their cabins—could he be the carrier of the disease?

A good idea—only if it were true, then logically the second victim should have been Van, or Dane—whereas Sinbad lingered most of the time in their cabins—not Kosti. The cat, as far as he knew, had never shown any particular fondness for the jetman and certainly did not sleep in Karl's quarters. No—that point did not fit. But he would mention it to Tau—no use overlooking anything—no matter how wild.

It was the sequence of victims which puzzled them all. As far as Tau had been able to discover Mura and Kosti had nothing much in common except that they were crewmates on the same spacer. They did not bunk in the same section, their fields of labor were totally different, they had no special food or drink tastes in common, they were not even of the same race. Frank Mura was one of the few descendants of a mysterious (or now mysterious) people who had had their home on a series of islands in one of Terra's seas, islands which almost a hundred years before had been swallowed up in a series of world-rending quakes—Japan was the ancient name of that nation. While Karl Kosti had come from the once thickly populated land masses half the planet away which had borne the geographical name of "Europe." No, all the way along the two victims had only very general meeting points—they both shipped on the Solar Queen and they were both of Terran birth.

Tau stirred and sat up, blinking bemusedly at Dane, then pushed back his wiry black hair and assumed a measure of alertness. Dane dropped the now purring cat in the Medic's lap and in a few sentences outlined his suspicion. Tau's hands closed about Sinbad.

"There's a chance in that—" He looked a little less beat and he drank thirstily from the mug Dane gave him for the second time. Then he hurried out with Sinbad under one arm—bound for his lab.

Dane slicked up the galley, trying to put things away as neatly as Mura kept them. He didn't have much faith in the Sinbad lead, but in this case everything must be checked out.

When the Medic did not appear during the rest of the ship's day Dane was not greatly concerned. But he was alerted to trouble when Ali came in with an inquiry and a complaint.

"Seen anything of Craig?"

"He's in the lab," Dane answered.

"He didn't answer my knock," Ali protested. "And Weeks says he hasn't been in to see Karl all day—"

That did catch Dane's attention. Had his half hunch been right? Was Tau on the trail of a discovery which had kept him chained to the lab? But it wasn't like the Medic not to look in on his patients.

"You're sure he isn't in the lab?"

"I told you that he didn't answer my knock. I didn't open the panel—" But now Ali was already in the corridor heading back the way he had come, with Dane on his heels, an unwelcome explanation for that silence in both their minds. And their fears were reinforced by what they heard as they approached the panel—a low moan wrung out of unbearable pain. Dane thrust the sliding door open.

Tau had slipped from his stool to the floor. His hands were at his head which rolled from side to side as if he were trying to quiet some agony. Dane stripped down the Medic's under tunic. There was no need to make a careful examination, in the hollow of Craig Tau's throat was the tell-tale red blotch.

"Sinbad!" Dane glanced about the cabin. "Did Sinbad get out past you?" he demanded of the puzzled Ali.

"No—I haven't seen him all day—"

Yet the cat was nowhere in the tiny cabin and it had no concealed hiding place. To make doubly sure Dane secured the panel before they carried Tau to his bunk. The Medic had blacked out again, passed into the lethargic second stage of the malady. At least he was out of the pain which appeared to be the worst symptom of the disease.

"It must be Sinbad!" Dane said as he made his report directly to Captain Jellico. "And yet—"

"Yes, he's been staying in Van's cabin," the Captain mused. "And you've handled him, he slept on your bunk. Yet you and Van are all right. I don't understand that. Anyway—to be on the safe side—we'd better find and isolate him before—"

He didn't have to underline any words for the grim-faced men who listened. With Tau—their one hope of fighting the disease gone—they had a black future facing them.

They did not have to search for Sinbad. Dane coming down to his own section found the cat crouched before the panel of Van Rycke's cabin, his eyes glued to the thin crack of the door. Dane scooped him up and took him to the small cargo space intended for the safeguarding of choice items of commerce. To his vast surprise Sinbad began fighting wildly as he opened the hatch, kicking and then slashing with ready claws. The cat seemed to go mad and Dane had all he could do to shut him in. When he snapped the panel he heard Sinbad launch himself against the barrier as if to batter his way out. Dane, blood welling in several deep scratches, went in search of first aid. But some suspicion led him to pause as he passed Van Rycke's door. And when his knock brought no answer he pushed the panel open.

Van Rycke lay on his bunk, his eyes half closed in a way which had become only too familiar to the crew of the Solar Queen. And Dane knew that when he looked for it he would find the mark of the strange plague on the Cargo-master's body.