Plague Ship/Chapter XI
Measured in distance and time that rough walk in the ponderous suits across the broken terrain of the asteroid was a short one, measured by the beating of his own heart, Dane thought it much too long. There was no sign of life by the air lock of the bubble—no move on the part of the men stationed there to come to their assistance.
"D'you suppose we're invisible?" Ali's disembodied voice clicked in the helmet earphones.
"Maybe we'll wish we were," Dane could not forego that return.
Rip was almost to the air lock door now. His massively suited arm was outstretched toward the control bar when the com-unit in all three helmets caught the same demand:
"Identify!" The crisp order had enough snap to warn them that an answer was the best policy.
"Shannon—A-A of the Polestar," Rip gave the required information. "We claim E rights—"
But would they get them? Dane wondered. There was a click loud in his ears. The metal door was yielding to Rip's hand. At least those on the inside had taken off the lock. Dane quickened pace to join his leader.
Together the three from the Queen crowded through the lock door, saw that swing shut and seal behind them, as they stood waiting for the moment they could discard the suits and enter the dome. The odds against them could not be too high, this was a small Stat. It would not house more than four agents at the most. And they were familiar enough with the basic architecture of such stations to know just what move to make. Ali was to go to the com room where he could take over if they did meet with trouble. Dane and Rip would have to handle any dissenters in the main section. But they still hoped that luck might ride their fins and they could put over a story which would keep them out of active conflict with the Eysies.
The gauge on the wall registered safety and they unfastened the protective clasps of the suits. Standing the cumbersome things against the wall as the inner door to the lock rolled back, they walked into Eysie territory.
As Free Traders they had the advantage of being uniformly tunicked—with no Company badge to betray their ship or status. So that could well be the "Polestar" standing needle slim behind them—and not the notorious "Solar Queen." But each, as he passed through the inner lock, gave a hitch to his belt which brought the butt of his sleep rod closer to hand. Innocuous as that weapon was, in close quarters its effects, if only temporary, was to some purpose. And since they were prepared for trouble, they might have a slight edge over the Eysies in attack.
A Company man, his tunic shabby and open in a negligent fashion at his thick throat, stood waiting for them. His unhelmeted head was grizzled, his coarse, tanned face with heavy jowls bristly enough to suggest he had not bothered to use smooth-cream for some days. An under officer of some spacer, retired to finish out the few years before pension in this nominal duty—fast letting down the standards of personal regime he had had to maintain on ship board. But he wasn't all fat and soft living, the glance with which he measured them was shrewdly appraising.
"What's your trouble?" he demanded without greeting. "You didn't I-dent coming in."
"Coms are out," Rip replied as shortly. "We need E-Hydro—"
"First time I ever heard it that the coms were wired in with the grass," the Eysies's hands were on his hips—in close proximity to something which made Dane's eyes narrow. The fellow was wearing a flare-blaster! That might be regulation equipment for an E-Stat agent on a lonely asteroid—but he didn't quite believe it. And probably the other was quick on the draw too.
"The coms are something else," Rip answered readily. "Our tech is working on them. But the hydro's bad all though. We'll have to dump and restock. Give you a voucher on Terra for the stuff."
The Eysie agent continued to block the doorway into the station. "This is private—I-S property. You should hit the Patrol post—they cater to you F-Ts."
"We hit the nearest E-Stat when we discovered that we were contaminated," Rip spoke with an assumption of patience. "That's the law, and you know it. You have to supply us and take a voucher—"
"How do I know that your voucher is worth the film it's recorded on?" asked the agent reasonably.
"All right," Rip shrugged. "If we have to do it the hard way, we'll cargo dump to cover your bill."
"Not on this field." The other shook his head. "I'll flash in your voucher first."
He had them, Dane thought bitterly. Their luck had run out. Because what he was going to do was a move they dared not protest. It was one any canny agent would make in the present situation. And if they were what they said they were, they must readily agree to let him flash their voucher of payment to I-S headquarters, to be checked and okayed before they took the hydro stock.
But Rip merely registered a mild resignation. "You the Com-tech? Where's your unit? I'll indit at once if you want it that way."
Whether their readiness to co-operate allayed some of the agent's suspicion or not, he relaxed some, giving them one more stare all around before he turned on his heel. "This way."
They followed him down the narrow hall, Rip on his heels, the others behind.
"Lonely post," Rip commented. "I'd think you boys'd get space-whirly out here."
The other snorted. "We're not star lovers. And the pay's worth a three month stretch. They take us down for Terra leave before we start talking to the Whisperers."
"How many of you here at a time?" Rip edged the question in casually.
But the other might have been expecting it by the way he avoided giving a direct answer. "Enough to run the place—and not enough to help you clean out your wagon," he was short about it. "Any dumping you do is strictly on your own. You've enough hands on a spacer that size to manage—"
Rip laughed. "Far be it from me to ask an Eysie to do any real work," was his counter. "We know all about you Company men—"
But the agent did not take fire at that jib. Instead he pushed back a panel and they were looking into com-unit room where another man in the tunic of the I-S lounged on what was by law twenty-four hour duty, divided into three watches.
"These F-Ts want to flash a voucher request through," their guide informed the tech. The other, interested, gave them a searching once-over before he pushed a small scriber toward Rip.
"It's all yours—clear ether," he reported.
Ali stood with his back to the wall and Dane still lingered in the portal. Both of them fixed their attention on Rip's left hand. If he gave the agreed upon signal! Their fingers were linked loosely in their belts only an inch or so from their sleep rods.
With his right hand Rip scooped up the scribbler while the Com-tech half turned to make adjustments to the controls, picking up a speaker to call the I-S headquarters.
Rip's left index finger snapped across his thumb to form a circle. Ali's rod did not even leave his belt, it tilted up and the invisible deadening stream from it centered upon the seated tech. At the same instant Dane shot at the agent who had guided them there. The latter had time for a surprised grunt and his hand was at his blaster as he sagged to his knees and then relaxed on the floor. The Tech slumped across the call board as if sleep had overtaken him at his post.
Rip crossed the room and snapped off the switch which opened the wire for broadcasting. While Ali, with Dane's help, quietly and effectively immobilized the Eysies with their own belts.
"There should be at least three men here," Rip waited by the door. "We have to get them all under control before we start work."
However, the interior of the bubble, extending as it did on levels beneath the outer crust of the asteroid, was not an easy place to search. An enemy, warned of the invasion, could easily keep ahead of the party from the Queen, spying on them at his leisure or preparing traps for them. In the end, afraid of wasting time, they contented themselves with locking the doors of the corridor leading to the lower levels, making ready to raid the storeroom they had discovered during their search.
Emergency hydro supplies consisted mainly of algae which could be stored in tanks and hastily put to use—as the plants now in the Queen took much longer to grow even under forcing methods. Dane volunteered to remain inside the E-Stat and assemble the necessary containers at the air lock while the other two, having had more experience, went back to the spacer to strip the hydro and prepare to switch contents.
But, when Rip and Ali left, the younger Cargo-apprentice began to find the bubble a haunted place. He took the sealed containers out of their storage racks, stood them on a small hand truck, and pushed them to the foot of the stairs, up which he then climbed carrying two of the cylinders at a time.
The swish of the air current through the narrow corridors made a constant murmur of sound, but he found himself listening for something else, for a footfall other than his own, for the betraying rasp of clothing against a wall—for even a whisper of voice. And time and time again he paused suddenly to listen—sure that the faintest hint of such a sound had reached his ears. He had a dozen containers lined up when the welcome signal reached him by the com-unit of his field helmet. To transfer the cylinders to the lock, get out, and then open the outer door, did not take long. But as he waited he still listened for a sound which did not come—the notice, that someone besides himself was free to move about the Stat.
Not knowing just how many of the supply tins were needed, he worked on transferring all there were in the storage racks to the upper corridor and the lock. But he still had half a dozen left to pass through when Rip sent a message that he was coming in.
Out of his pressure suit, the Astrogator-apprentice stepped lightly into the corridor, looked at the array of containers and shook his head.
"We don't need all those. No, leave them—" he added as Dane, with a sigh, started to pick up two for a return trip. "There's something more important just now—" He turned into the side hall which led to the com room.
Both the I-S men had awakened. The Com-tech appeared to accept his bonds philosophically. He was quiet and flat on his back, staring pensively at the ceiling. But the other agent had made a worm's progress half across the room and Rip had to halt in haste to prevent stepping on him.
Shannon stooped and, hooking his fingers in the other's tunic, heaved him back while the helpless man favored them with some of the ripest speech—and NOT Trade Lingo—Dane had ever heard. Rip waited until the man began to run down and then he broke in with his pleasant soft drawl.
"Oh, sure, we're all that. But time runs on, Eysie, and I'd like a couple of answers which may mean something to you. First—when do you expect your relief?"
That set the agent off again. And his remarks—edited—were that no something, something F-T was going to get any something, something information out of him!
But it was his companion in misfortune—the Com-tech—who guessed the reason behind Rip's question.
"Cut jets!" he advised the other. "They're just being soft-hearted. I take it," he spoke over the other agent's sputtering to Rip, "that you're worried about leaving us fin down—That's it, isn't it?"
Rip nodded. "In spite of what you think about us," he replied, "We're not Patrol Posted outlaws—"
"No, you're just from a plague ship," the Com-tech remarked calmly. And his words struck his comrade dumb. "Solar Queen?"
"You got the warn-off then?"
"Who didn't? You really have plague on board?" The thought did not appear to alarm the Com-tech unduly. But his fellow suddenly heaved his bound body some distance away from the Free Traders and his face displayed mixed emotions—most of them fearful.
"We have something—probably supplied," Rip straightened. "Might pass along to your bosses that we know that. Now suppose you tell me about your relief. When is it due?"
"Not until after we take off on the long orbit if you leave us like this. On the other hand," the other added coolly, "I don't see how you can do otherwise. We've still got those—" with his chin he pointed to the com-unit.
"After a few alterations," Rip amended. The bulk of the com was in a tightly sealed case which they would need a flamer to open. But he could and did wreak havoc with the exposed portions. The tech watching this destruction spouted at least two expressions his companion had not used. But when Rip finished he was his unruffled self again.
"Now," Rip drew his sleep rod. "A little rest and when you wake it will all be a bad dream." He carefully beamed each man into slumber and helped Dane strip off their bonds. But before he left the room he placed on the recorder the voucher for the supplies they had taken. The Queen was not stealing—under the law she still had some shadow of rights.
Suited they crossed the rough rock to the ship. And there about the fins, already frozen into brittle spikes was a tangle of plants—the rich result of years of collecting.
"Did you find anything?" Dane asked as they rounded that mess on their way to the ladder.
Rip's voice came back through the helmet com. "Nothing we know how to interpret. I wish Frank or Craig had had a chance to check. We took tri-dees of everything before we dumped. Maybe they can learn something from these when—"
His voice trailed off leaving that "when" to ring in both their minds. It was such an important "when." When would either the steward or the Medic recover enough to view those tri-dee shots? Or was that "when" really an ominous "if?"
Back in the Queen, sealed once more for blast-off, they took their stations. Dane speculated as to the course Rip had set—were they just going to wander about the system hoping to escape notice until they had somehow solved their problem? Or did Shannon have some definite port in mind? He did not have time to ask before they lifted. But once they were space borne again he voiced his question.
Rip's face was serious. "Frankly—" he began and then hesitated for a long moment before he added, "I don't know. If we can only get the Captain or Craig on their feet again—"
"One thing," Ali materialized to join them, "Sinbad's back in the hydro. And this morning you couldn't get him inside the door. It's not a very good piece of evidence—"
No, it wasn't but they clung to it as backing for their actions of the past few hours. The cat that had shown such a marked distaste for the company of the stricken, and then for the hydro, was now content to visit the latter as if some evil he has sensed there had been cleansed with the dumping of the garden. They had not yet solved their mystery but another clue had come into their hands.
But now the care of the sick occupied hours and Rip insisted that a watch be maintained by the com—listening in for news which might concern the Queen. They had done a good job at silencing the E-Stat, for they had been almost six hours in space before the news of their raid was beamed to the nearest Patrol post.
Ali laughed. "Told you we'd be pirates," he said when he listened to that account of their descent upon the I-S station. "Though I didn't see all that blaster work they're now raving about. You'd think we fought a major battle there!"
Weeks growled. "The Eysies are trying to make it look good. Make us into outlaws—"
But Rip did not share in the general amusement at the wild extravagation of the report from the ether. "I notice they didn't say anything about the voucher we left."
Ali's cynical smile curled. "Did you expect them to? The Eysies think they have us by the tail fins now—why should they give us any benefit of the doubt? We junked all our boosters behind us on this take-off, and don't forget that, my friends."
Weeks looked confused. "But I thought you said we could do this legal," he appealed to Rip. "If we're Patrol Posted as outlaws—"
"They can't do any more to us than they can for running in a plague ship," Ali pointed out. "Either will get us blasted if we happen into the wrong vector now. So—what do we do?"
"We find out what the plague really is," Dane said and meant every word of it.
"How?" Ali inquired. "Through some of Craig's magic?"
Dane was forced to answer with the truth. "I don't know yet—but it's our only chance."
Rip rubbed his eyes wearily. "Don't think I'm disagreeing—but just where do we start? We've already combed Frank's quarters and Kosti's—we cleaned out the hydro—"
"Those tri-dee shots of the hydro—have you checked them yet?" Dane countered.
Without a word Ali arose and left the cabin. He came back with a microfilm roll. Fitting it into the large projector he focused it on the wall and snapped the button.
They were looking at the hydro—down the length of space so accurately recorded that it seemed they might walk straight into it. The greenery of the plants was so vivid and alive Dane felt that he could reach out and pluck a leaf. Inch by inch he examined those ranks, looking for something which was not in order, had no right to be there.
The long shot of the hydro as it had been merged into a series of sectional groupings. In silence they studied it intently, using all their field lore in an attempt to spot what each one was certain must be there somewhere. But they were all handicapped by their lack of intimate knowledge of the garden.
"Wait!" Weeks' voice scaled up. "Left hand corner—there!" His pointing hand broke and shadowed the portion he was calling to their attention. Ali jumped to the projector and made a quick adjustment.
Plants four and five times life size glowed green on the wall. What Weeks had caught they all saw now—ragged leaves, stripped stems.
"Chewed!" Dane supplied the answer.
It was only one species of plant which had been so mangled. Other varieties in the same bank showed no signs of disturbance. But all of that one type had at least one stripped branch and two were virtual skeletons.
"A pest!" said Rip.
"But Sinbad," Dane began a protest before the memory of the cat's peculiar actions of the past weeks stopped him. Sinbad had slipped up, the hunter who had kept the Queen free of the outré alien life which came aboard from time to time with cargo, had not attacked that which had ravaged the hydro plants. Or if he had done so, he had not, after his usual custom, presented the bodies of the slain to any crew member.
"It looks as if we have something at last," Ali observed and someone echoed that with a sigh of heartdeep relief.