Plague Ship/Chapter X

Since Mura was in the isolation of ship sick bay the stripping of his cabin was a relatively simple job. But, though Rip and Dane went over it literally by inches, they found nothing unusual—in fact nothing from Sargol except a small twig of the red wood which lay on the steward's worktable where he had been fashioning something to incorporate in one of his miniature fairy landscapes, to be imprisoned for all time in a plasta-bubble. Dane turned this around in his fingers. Because it was the only link with the perfumed planet he couldn't help but feel that it had some importance.

But Kosti had not shown any interest in the wood. And he, himself, and Weeks had handled it freely before they had tasted Graft's friendship cup and had no ill effects—so it couldn't be the wood. Dane put the twig back on the work table and snapped the protecting cover over the delicate tools—never realizing until days later how very close he had been in that moment to the solution of their problem.

After two hours of shifting every one of the steward's belongings, of crawling on hands and knees about the deck and climbing to inspect perfectly bare walls, they had found exactly nothing. Rip sat down on the end of the denuded bunk.

"There's the hydro—Frank spent a lot of time in there—and the storeroom," he told the places off on his fingers. "The galley and the mess cabin."

Those had been the extent of Mura's world. They could search the storeroom, the galley and the mess cabin—but to interfere with the hydro would endanger their air supply. It was for that very reason that they now looked at each other in startled surmise.

"The perfect place to plant something!" Dane spoke first.

Rip's teeth caught his underlip. The hydro—something planted there could not be routed out unless they made a landing on a port field and had the whole section stripped.

"Devilish—" Rip's mobile lips drew tight. "But how could they do it?"

Dane didn't see how it could have been done either. No one but the Queen's own crew had been on board the ship during their entire stay on Sargol, except for the young Salarik. Could that cub have brought something? But he and Mura had been with the youngster every minute that he had been in the hydro. To the best of Dane's memory the cub had touched nothing and had been there only for a few moments. That had been before the feast also—

Rip got to his feet. "We can't strip the hydro in space," he pointed out the obvious quietly.

Dane had the answer. "Then we've got to earth!"

"You heard that warn-off. If we try it—"

"What about an Emergency station?"

Rip stood very still, his big hands locked about the buckle of his arms belt. Then, without another word, he went out of the cabin and at a pounding pace up the ladder, bound for the Captain's cabin and the records Jellico kept there. It was such a slim chance—but it was better than none at all.

Dane shouldered into the small space in his wake to find Rip making a selection from the astrogation tapes. There were E-Stats among the asteroids—points prospectors or small traders in sudden difficulties might contact for supplies or repairs. The big Companies maintained their own—the Patrol had several for independents.

"No Patrol one—"

Rip managed a smile. "I haven't gone space whirly yet," was his comment. He was feeding a tape into the reader on the Captain's desk. In the cage over his head the blue Hoobat squatted watching him intently—for the first time since Dane could remember showing no sign of resentment by weird screams or wild spitting.

"Patrol E-Stat A-54—" the reader squeaked. Rip hit a key and the wire clicked to the next entry. "Combine E-Stat—" Another punch and click. "Patrol E-Stat A-55—" punch-click. "Inter-Solar—" this time Rip's hand did not hit the key and the squeak continued—"Co-ordinates—" Rip reached for a steelo and jotted down the list of figures.

"Got to compare this with our present course—"

"But that's an I-S Stat," began Dane and then he laughed as the justice of such a move struck him. They did not dare set the Queen down at any Patrol Station. But a Company one which would be manned by only two or three men and not expecting any but their own people—and I-S owed them help now!

"There may be trouble," he said, not that he would have any regrets if there was. If the Eysies were responsible for the present plight of the Queen he would welcome trouble, the kind which would plant his fists on some sneering Eysie face.

"We'll see about that when we come to it," Rip went on to the control cabin with his figures. Carefully he punched the combination on the plotter and watched it be compared with the course Jellico had set before his collapse.

"Good enough," he commented as the result flashed on. "We can make it without using too much fuel—"

"Make what?" That was Ali up from the search of Kosti's quarters. "Nothing," he gave his report of what he had found there and then returned to the earlier question. "Make what?"

Swiftly Dane outlined their suspicions—that the seat of the trouble lay in the hydro and that they should clean out that section, drawing upon emergency materials at the I-S E-Stat.

"Sounds all right. But you know what they do to pirates?" inquired the Engineer-apprentice.

Space law came into Dane's field, he needed no prompting. "Any ship in emergency," he recited automatically, "may claim supplies from the nearest E-Stat—paying for them when the voyage is completed."

"That means any Patrol E-Stat. The Companies' are private property."

"But," Dane pointed out triumphantly, "the law doesn't say so—there is nothing about any difference between Company and Patrol E-Stat in the law—"

"He's right," Rip agreed. "That law was framed when only the Patrol had such stations. Companies put them in later to save tax—remember? Legally we're all right."

"Unless the agents on duty raise a howl," Ali amended. "Oh, don't give me that look, Rip. I'm not sounding any warn-off on this, but I just want you to be prepared to find a cruiser riding our fins and giving us the hot flash as bandits. If you want to spoil the Eysies, I'm all for it. Got a stat of theirs pinpointed?"

Rip pointed to the figures on the computer. "There she is. We can set down in about five hours' ship time. How long will it take to strip the hydro and re-install?"

"How can I tell?" Ali sounded irritable. "I can give you oxgy for quarters for about two hours. Depends upon how fast we can move. No telling until we make a start."

He started for the corridor and then added over his shoulder: "You'll have to answer a com challenge—thought about that?"

"Why?" Rip asked. "It might be com repairs bringing us in. They won't be expecting trouble and we will—we'll have the advantage."

But Ali was not to be shaken out of his usual dim view of the future. "All right—so we land, blaster in hand, and take the place. And they get off one little squeak to the Patrol. Well, a short life but an interesting one. And we'll make all the Video channels for sure when we go out with rockets blasting. Nothing like having a little excitement to break the dull routine of a voyage."

"We aren't going to, are we—" Dane protested, "land armed, I mean?"

Ali stared at him and Rip, to Dane's surprise, did not immediately repudiate that thought.

"Sleep rods certainly," the Astrogator-apprentice said after a pause. "We'll have to be prepared for the moment when they find out who we are. And you can't re-set a hydro in a few minutes, not when we have to keep oxgy on for the others. If we were able to turn that off and work in suits it'd be a quicker job—we could dump before we set down and then pile it in at once. But this way it's going to be piece work. And it all depends on the agents at the Stat whether we have trouble or not."

"We had better break out the suits now," Ali added to Rip's estimate of the situation. "If we set down and pile out wearing suits at once it will build up our tale of being poor wrecked spacemen—"

Sleep rods or not, Dane thought to himself, the whole plan was one born of desperation. It would depend upon who manned the E-Stat and how fast the Free Traders could move once the Queen touched her fins to earth.

"Knock out their coms," that was Ali continuing to plan. "Do that first and then we don't have to worry about someone calling in the Patrol."

Rip stretched. For the first time in hours he seemed to have returned to his usual placid self. "Good thing somebody in this spacer watches Video serials—Ali, you can brief us on all the latest tricks of space pirates. Nothing is so wildly improbable that you can't make use of it sometime during a checkered career."

He glanced over the board before he brought his hand down on a single key set a distance apart from the other controls. "Put some local color into it," was his comment.

Dane understood. Rip had turned on the distress signal at the Queen's nose. When she set down on the Stat field she would be flaming a banner of trouble. Next to the wan dead lights, set only when a ship had no hope of ever reaching port at all, that signal was one every spacer dreaded having to flash. But it was not the dead lights—not yet for the Queen.

Working together they brought out the space suits and readied them at the hatch. Then Weeks and Dane took up the task of tending their unconscious charges while Rip and Ali prepared for landing.

There was no change in the sleepers. And in Jellico's cabin even Queex appeared to be influenced by the plight of its master, for instead of greeting Dane with its normal aspect of rage, the Hoobat stayed quiescent on the floor of its cage, its top claws hooked about two of the wires, its protruding eyes staring out into the room with what seemed closed to a malignant intelligence. It did not even spit as Dane passed under its abode to pour thin soup into his patient.

As for Sinbad, the cat had retreated to Dane's cabin and steadily refused to leave the quarters he had chosen, resisting with tooth and claw the one time Dane had tried to take him back to Van Rycke's office and his own hammock there. Afterwards the Cargo-apprentice did not try to evict him—there was comfort in seeing that plump gray body curled on the bunk he had little chance to use.

His nursing duties performed for the moment, Dane ventured into the hydro. He was practiced in tending this vital heart of the ship's air supply. But outfitting a hydro was something else again. In his cadet years he had aided in such a program at least twice as a matter of learning the basic training of the Service. But then they had had unlimited supplies to draw on and the action had taken place under no more pressure than that exerted by the instructors. Now it was going to be a far more tricky job—

He went slowly down the aisle between the banks of green things. Plants from all over the Galaxy, grown for their contribution to the air renewal—as well as side products such as fresh fruit and vegetables, were banked there. The sweet odor of their verdant life was strong. But how could any of the four now on duty tell what was rightfully there and what might have been brought in? And could they be sure anything had been introduced?

Dane stood there, his eyes searching those lines of greens—such a mixture of greens from the familiar shade of Terra's fields to greens tinged with shades first bestowed by other suns on other worlds—looking for one which was alien enough to be noticeable. Only Mura, who knew this garden as he knew his own cabin, could have differentiated between them. They would just dump everything and trust to luck—

He was suddenly aware of a slight movement in the banks—a shivering of stem, quiver of leaf. The mere act of his passing had set some sensitive plant to register his presence. A lacy, fern-like thing was contracting its fronds into balls. He should not stay—disturbing the peace of the hydro. But it made little difference now—within a matter of hours all this luxuriance would be thrust out to die and they would have to depend upon canned oxgy and algae tanks. Too bad—the hydro represented much time and labor on Mura's part and Tau had medical plants growing there he had been observing for a long time.

As Dane closed the door behind him, seeing the line of balled fern which had marked his passage, he heard a faint rustling, a sound as if a wind had swept across the green room within. The imagination which was a Trader's asset (when it was kept within bounds) suggested that the plants inside guessed—With a frown for his own sentimentality, Dane strode down the corridor and climbed to check with Rip in control.

The Astrogator-apprentice had his own problems. To bring the Queen down on the circumscribed field of an E-Stat—without a guide beam to ride in—since if they contacted the Stat they must reveal their own com was working and they would have to answer questions—was the sort of test even a seasoned pilot would tense over. Yet Rip was sitting now in the Captain's place, his broad hands spread out on the edge of the control board waiting. And below in the engine room Ali was in Stotz's place ready to fire and cut rockets at order. Of course they were both several years ahead of him in Service, Dane knew. But he wondered at their quick assumption of responsibility and whether he himself could ever reach that point of self-confidence—his memory turning to the bad mistake be had made on Sargol.

There was the sharp note of a warning gong, the flash of red light on the control board. They were off automatic, from here on in it was all Kip's work. Dane strapped down at the silent com-unit and was startled a moment later when it spat words at him, translated from space code.

"Identify—identify—I-S E-Stat calling spacer—identify—"

So compelling was that demand that Dane's fingers went to the answer key before he remembered and snatched them back, to fold his hands in his lap.

"Identify—" the expressionless voice of the translator droned over their heads.

Rip's hands were on the control board, playing the buttons there with the precision of a musician creating some symphonic masterpiece. And the Queen was alive, now quivering through her stout plates, coming into a landing.

Dane watched the visa plate. The E-Stat asteroid was of a reasonable size, but in their eyes it was a bleak, torn mote of stuff swimming through vast emptiness.

"Identify—" the drone heightened in pitch.

Rip's lips were compressed, he made quick calculations. And Dane saw that, though Jellico was the master, Rip was fully fit to follow in the Captain's boot prints.

There was a sudden silence in the cabin—the demand had stopped. The agents below must now have realized that the ship with the distress signals blazing on her nose was not going to reply. Dane found he could not watch the visa plate now, Rip's hands about their task filled his whole range of sight.

He knew that Shannon was using every bit of his skill and knowledge to jockey them into the position where they could ride their tail rockets down to the scorched rock of the E-Stat field. Perhaps it wasn't as smooth a landing as Jellico could have made. But they did it. Rip's hands were quiet, again that patch of darkness showed on the back of his tunic. He made no move from his seat.

"Secure—" Ali's voice floated up to them.

Dane unbuckled his safety webbing and got up, looking to Shannon for orders. This was Rip's plan they were to carry through. Then something moved him to give honor where it was due. He touched that bowed shoulder before him.

"Fin landing, brother! Four points and down!"

Rip glanced up, a grin made him look his old self. "Ought to have a recording of that for the Board when I go up for my pass-through."

Dane matched his smile. "Too bad we didn't have someone out there with a tri-dee machine."

"More likely it'd be evidence at our trial for piracy—" their words must have reached Ali on the ship's inter-com, for his deflating reply came back, to remind them of why they had made that particular landing. "Do we move now?"

"Check first," Rip said into the mike.

Dane looked at the visa-plate. Against a background of jagged rock teeth was the bubble of the E-Stat housing—more than three-quarters of it being in the hollowed out sections below the surface of the miniature world which supported it, as Dane knew. But a beam of light shown from the dome to center on the grounded Queen. They had not caught the Stat agents napping.

They made the rounds of the spacer, checking on each of the semi-conscious men. Ali had ready the artificial oxgy tanks—they must move fast once they began the actual task of clearing and restocking the hydro.

"Hope you have a good story ready," he commented as the other three joined him by the hatch to don the suits which would enable them to cross the airless, heatless surface of the asteroid.

"We have a poisoned hydro," Dane said.

"One look at the plants we dump will give you the lie. They won't accept our story without investigation."

Dane was aroused. Did Ali think he was a stupid as all that? "If you'd take a look in there now you'd believe me," he snapped.

"What did you do?" Ali sounded genuinely interested.

"Chucked a heated can of lacoil over a good section. It's wilting down fast in big patches."

Rip snorted. "Good old lacoil. You drink it, you wash in it, and now you kill off the Hydro with it. Maybe we can give the company an extra testimonial for the official jabber and collect when we hit Terra. All right—Weeks," he spoke to the little man, "you listen in on the com—it's tuned to our helmet units. We'll climb into these pipe suits and see how many tears we can wring out of the Eysies with our sad, sad tale."

They got into the awkward, bulky suits and squeezed into the hatch while Weeks slammed the lock door at their backs and operated the outer opening. Then they were looking out across the ground, still showing signs of the heat of their landing, and lighted by the dome beam.

"Nobody hurrying out with an aid and comfort kit," Rip's voice sounded in Dane's earphones. "A little slack aren't they?"

Slack—or was it that the Eysies had recognized the Queen and was preparing the sort of welcome the remnant of her crew could not withstand? Dane, wanting very much in his heart to be elsewhere, climbed down the ladder in Rip's wake, both of them spotlighted by the immovable beam from the Stat dome.