Plague Ship/Chapter XII
"All right, so we think we know a little more," Ali added a moment later. "Just what are we going to do? We can't stay in space forever—there're the small items of fuel and supplies and—"
Rip had come to a decision. "We're not going to remain space borne," he stated with the confidence of one who now saw an open road before him.
"Luna—" Weeks was plainly doubtful.
"No. Not after that warn-off. Terra!"
For a second or two the other three stared at Rip agape. The audacity and danger of what he suggested was a little stunning. Since men had taken regularly to space no ship had made a direct landing on their home planet—all had passed through the quarantine on Luna. It was not only risky—it was so unheard of that for some minutes they did not understand him.
"We try to set down at Terraport," Dane found his tongue first, "and they flame us out—"
Rip was smiling. "The trouble with you," he addressed them all, "is that you think of earth only in terms of Terraport—"
"Well, there is the Patrol field at Stella," Weeks agreed doubtfully. "But we'd be right in the middle of trouble there—"
"Did we have a regular port on Sargol—on Limbo—on fifty others I can name out of our log?" Rip wanted to know.
Ali voiced a new objection. "So—we have the luck of Jones and we set down somewhere out of sight. Then what do we do?"
"We seal ship until we find the pest—then we bring in a Medic and get to the bottom of the whole thing," Rip's confidence was contagious. Dane almost believed that it could be done that way.
"Did you ever think," Ali cut in, "what would happen if we were wrong—if the Queen really is a plague carrier?"
"I said—we seal the ship—tight," countered Shannon. "And when we earth it'll be where we won't have visitors to infect—"
"And that is where?" Ali, who knew the deserts of Mars better than he did the greener planet from which his stock had sprung, pursued the question.
"Right in the middle of the Big Burn!"
Dane, Terra born and bred, realized first what Rip was planning and what it meant. Sealed off was right—the Queen would be amply protected from investigation. Whether her crew would survive was another matter—whether she could even make a landing there was also to be considered.
The Big Burn was the horrible scar left by the last of the Atomic Wars—a section of radiation poisoned land comprising hundreds of square miles—land which generations had never dared to penetrate. Originally the survivors of that war had shunned the whole continent which it disfigured. It had been close to two centuries before men had gone into the still wholesome land laying to the far west and the south. And through the years, the avoidance of the Big Burn had become part of their racial instinct as they shrank from it. It was a symbol of something no Terran wanted to remember.
But Ali now had only one question to ask. "Can we do it?"
"We'll never know until we try," was Rip's reply.
"The Patrol'll be watching—" that was Weeks. With his Venusian background he had less respect for the dangers of the Big Burn than he did for the forces of Law and order which ranged the star lanes.
"They'll be watching the route lanes," Rip pointed out. "They won't expect a ship to come in on that vector, steering away from the ports. Why should they? As far as I know it's never been tried since Terraport was laid out. It'll be tricky—" And he himself would have to bear most of the responsibility for it. "But I believe that it can be done. And we can't just roam around out here. With I-S out for our blood and a Patrol warn-off it won't do us any good to head for Luna—"
None of his listeners could argue with that. And, Dane's spirits began to rise, after all they knew so little about the Big Burn—it might afford them just the temporary sanctuary they needed. In the end they agreed to try it, mainly because none of them could see any alternative, except the too dangerous one of trying to contact the authorities and being summarily treated as a plague ship before they could defend themselves.
And their decision was ably endorsed not long afterwards by a sardonic warning on the com—a warning which Ali who had been tending the machine passed along to them.
"What do you mean?" Dane was heating broth to feed to Captain Jellico.
"The word has gone out—our raid on the E-Stat is now a matter of history and Patrol record—we've been Posted!"
Dane felt a cold finger drawn along his backbone. Now they were fair game for the whole system. Any Patrol ship that wanted could shoot them down with no questions asked. Of course that had always been a possibility from the first after their raid on the E-Stat. But to realize that it was now true was a different matter altogether. This was one occasion when realization was worse than anticipation. He tried to keep his voice level as he answered:
"Let us hope we can pull off Rip's plan—"
"We'd better. What about the Big Burn anyway, Thorson? Is it as tough as the stories say?"
"We don't know what it's like. It's never been explored—or at least those who tried to explore its interior never reported in afterwards. As far as I know it's left strictly alone."
"Is it still all 'hot'?"
"Parts of it must be. But all—we don't know."
With the bottle of soup in his hand Dane climbed to Jellico's cabin. And he was so occupied with the problem at hand that at first he did not see what was happening in the small room. He had braced the Captain up into a half-sitting position and was patiently ladling the liquid into his mouth a spoonful at a time when a thin squeak drew his attention to the top of Jellico's desk.
From the half open lid of a microtape compartment something long and dark projected, beating the air feebly. Dane, easing the Captain back on the bunk, was going to investigate when the Hoobat broke its unnatural quiet of the past few days with an ear-splitting screech of fury. Dane struck at the bottom of its cage—the move its master always used to silence it—But this time the results were spectacular.
The cage bounced up and down on the spring which secured it to the ceiling of the cabin and the blue feathered horror slammed against the wires. Either its clawing had weakened them, or some fault had developed, for they parted and the Hoobat came through them to land with a sullen plop on the desk. Its screams stopped as suddenly as they had begun and it scuttled on its spider-toad legs to the microtape compartment, acting with purposeful dispatch and paying no attention to Dane.
Its claws shot out and with ease it extracted from the compartment a creature as weird as itself—one which came fighting and of which Dane could not get a very clear idea. Struggling they battled across the surface of the desk and flopped to the floor. There the hunted broke loose from the hunter and fled with fantastic speed into the corridor. And before Dane could move the Hoobat was after it.
He gained the passage just in time to see Queex disappear down the ladder, clinging with the aid of its pincher claws, apparently grimly determined to catch up with the thing it pursued. And Dane went after them.
There was no sign of the creature who fled on the next level. But Dane made no move to recapture the blue hunter who squatted at the foot of the ladder staring unblinkingly into space. Dane waited, afraid to disturb the Hoobat. He had not had a good look at the thing which had run from Queex—but he knew it was something which had no business aboard the Queen. And it might be the disturbing factor they were searching for. If the Hoobat would only lead him to it—
The Hoobat moved, rearing up on the tips of its six legs, its neckless head slowly revolving on its puffy shoulders. Along the ridge of its backbone its blue feathers were rising into a crest much as Sinbad's fur rose when the cat was afraid or angry. Then, without any sign of haste, it crawled over and began descending the ladder once more, heading toward the lower section which housed the Hydro.
Dane remained where he was until it had almost reached the deck of the next level and then he followed, one step at a time. He was sure that the Hoobat's peculiar construction of body prevented it from looking up—unless it turned upon its back—but he did not want to do anything which would alarm it or deter Queex from what he was sure was a methodical chase.
Queex stopped again at the foot of the second descent and sat in its toad stance, apparently brooding, a round blue blot. Dane clung to the ladder and prayed that no one would happen along to frighten it. Then, just as he was beginning to wonder if it had lost contact with its prey, once more it arose and with the same speed it had displayed in the Captain's cabin it shot along the corridor to the hydro.
To Dane's knowledge the door of the garden was not only shut but sealed. And how either the stranger or Queex could get through it he did not see.
"What the—?" Ali clattered down the ladder to halt abruptly as Dane waved at him.
"Queex," the Cargo-apprentice kept his voice to a half whisper, "it got loose and chased something out of the Old Man's cabin down here."
"Queex—!" Ali began and then shut his mouth, moving noiselessly up to join Dane.
The short corridor ended at the hydro entrance. And Dane had been right, there they found the Hoobat, crouched at the closed panel, its claws clicking against the metal as it picked away useless at the portal which would not admit it.
"Whatever it's after must be in there," Dane said softly.
And the hydro, stripped of its luxuriance of plant life, occupied now by the tanks of green scum, would not afford too many hiding places. They had only to let Queex in and keep watch.
As they came up the Hoobat flattened to the floor and shrilled its war cry, spitting at their boots and then flashing claws against the stout metal enforced hide. However, though it was prepared to fight them, it showed no signs of wishing to retreat, and for that Dane was thankful. He quickly pressed the release and tugged open the panel.
At the first crack of its opening Queex turned with one of those bursts of astounding speed and clawed for admittance, its protest against the men forgotten. And it squeezed through a space Dane would have thought too narrow to accommodate its bloated body. Both men slipped around the door behind it and closed the panel tight.
The air was not as fresh as it had been when the plants were there. And the vats which had taken the places of the banked greenery were certainly nothing to look at. Queex humped itself into a clod of blue, immovable, halfway down the aisle.
Dane tried to subdue his breathing, to listen. The Hoobat's actions certainly argued that the alien thing had taken refuge here, though how it had gotten through—? But if it were in the hydro it was well hidden.
He had just begun to wonder how long they must wait when Queex again went into action. Its clawed front legs upraised, it brought the pinchers deliberately together and sawed one across the other, producing a rasping sound which was almost a vibration in the air. Back and forth, back and forth, moved the claws. Watching them produced almost a hypnotic effect, and the reason for such a maneuver was totally beyond the human watchers.
But Queex knew what it was doing all right, Ali's fingers closed on Dane's arm in a pincher grip as painful as if he had been equipped with the horny armament of the Hoobat.
Something, a flitting shadow, had rounded one vat and was that much closer to the industrious fiddler on the floor. By some weird magic of its own the Hoobat was calling its prey to it.
Scrape, scrape—the unmusical performance continued with monotonous regularity. Again the shadow flashed—one vat closer. The Hoobat now presented the appearance of one charmed by its own art—sunk in a lethargy of weird music making.
At last the enchanted came into full view, though lingering at the round side of a container, very apparently longing to flee again, but under some compulsion to approach its enchanter. Dane blinked, not quite sure that his eyes were not playing tricks on him. He had seen the almost transparent globe "bogies" of Limbo, had been fascinated by the weird and ugly pictures in Captain Jellico's collection of tri-dee prints. But this creature was as impossible in its way as the horrific blue thing dragging it out of concealment.
It walked erect on two threads of legs, with four knobby joints easily detected. A bulging abdomen sheathed in the horny substance of a beetle's shell ended in a sharp point. Two pairs of small legs, folded close to the much smaller upper portion of its body, were equipped with thorn shack terminations. The head, which constantly turned back and forth on the armor plated shoulders, was long and narrow and split for half its length by a mouth above which were deep pits which must harbor eyes, though actual organs were not visible to the watching men. It was a palish gray in color—which surprised Dane a little. His memory of the few seconds he had seen it on the Captain's desk had suggested that it was much darker. And erect as it was, it stood about eighteen inches high.
With head turning rapidly, it still hesitated by the side of the vat, so nearly the color of the metal that unless it moved it was difficult to distinguish. As far as Dane could see the Hoobat was paying it no attention. Queex might be lost in a happy dream, the result of its own fiddling. Nor did the rhythm of that scraping vary.
The nightmare thing made the last foot in a rush of speed which reduced it to a blur, coming to a halt before the Hoobat. Its front legs whipped out to strike at its enemy. But Queex was no longer dreaming. This was the moment the Hoobat had been awaiting. One of the sawing claws opened and closed, separating the head of the lurker from its body. And before either of the men could interfere Queex had dismembered the prey with dispatch.
"Look there!" Dane pointed.
The Hoobat held close the body of the stranger and where the ashy corpse came into contact with Queex's blue feathered skin it was slowly changing hue—as if some of the color of its hunter had rubbed off it.
"Chameleon!" Ali went down on one knee the better to view the grisly feast now in progress. "Watch out!" he added sharply as Dane came to join him.
One of the thin upper limbs lay where Queex had discarded it. And from the needle tip was oozing some colorless drops of fluid. Poison?
Dane looked around for something which he could use to pick up the still jerking appendage. But before he could find anything Queex had appropriated it. And in the end they had to allow the Hoobat its victim in its entirety. But once Queex had consumed its prey it lapsed into its usual hunched immobility. Dane went for the cage and working gingerly he and Ali got the creature back in captivity. But all the evidence now left were some smears on the floor of the hydro, smears which Ali blotted up for future research in the lab.
An hour later the four who now comprised the crew of the Queen gathered in the mess for a conference. Queex was in its cage on the table before them, asleep after all its untoward activity.
"There must be more than just one," Weeks said. "But how are we going to hunt them down? With Sinbad?"
Dane shook his head. Once the Hoobat had been caged and the more prominent evidence of the battle scraped from the floor, he had brought the cat into the hydro and forced him to sniff at the site of the engagement. The result was that Sinbad had gone raving mad and Dane's hands were now covered with claw tears which ran viciously deep. It was plain that the ship's cat was having none of the intruders, alive or dead. He had fled to Dane's cabin where he had taken refuge on the bunk and snarled wild eyed when anyone looked in from the corridor.
"Queex has to do it," Rip said. "But will it hunt unless it is hungry?"
He surveyed the now comatose creature skeptically. They had never seen the Captain's pet eat anything except some pellets which Jellico kept in his desk, and they were aware that the intervals between such feedings were quite lengthy. If they had to wait the usual time for Queex to feel hunger pangs once more, they might have to wait a long time.
"We should catch one alive," Ali remarked thoughtfully. "If we could get Queex to fiddle it out to where we could net it—"
Weeks nodded eagerly. "A small net like those the Salariki use. Drop it over the thing—"
While Queex still drowsed in its cage, Weeks went to work with fine cord. Holding the color changing abilities of the enemy in mind they could not tell how many of the creatures might be roaming the ship. It could only be proved where they weren't by where Sinbad would consent to stay. So they made plans which included both the cat and the Hoobat.
Sinbad, much against his will, was buckled into an improvised harness by which he could be controlled without the handler losing too much valuable skin.
And then the hunt started at the top of the ship, proceeding downward section by section. Sinbad raised no protest in the control cabin, nor in the private cabins of the officers' thereabouts. If they could interpret his reactions the center section was free of the invaders. So with Dane in control of the cat and Ali carrying the caged Hoobat, they descended once more to the level which housed the hydro galley, steward's quarters and ship's sick bay.
Sinbad proceeded on his own four feet into the galley and the mess. He was not uneasy in the sick bay, nor in Mura's cabin, and this time he even paced the hydro without being dragged—much to their surprise as they had thought that the headquarters of the stowaways.
"Could there only have been one?" Weeks wanted to know as he stood by ready with the net in his hands.
"Either that—or else we're wrong about the hydro being their main hideout. If they're afraid of Queex now they may have withdrawn to the place they feel the safest," Rip said.
It was when they were on the ladder leading to the cargo level that Sinbad balked. He planted himself firmly and yowled against further progress until Dane, with the harness, pulled him along.
"Look at Queex!"
They followed Weeks' order. The Hoobat was no longer lethargic. It was raising itself, leaning forward to clasp the bars of its cage, and now it uttered one of its screams of rage. And as Ali went on down the ladder it rattled the bars in a determined effort for freedom. Sinbad, spitting and yowling refused to walk. Rip nodded to Ali.
"Let it out."
Tipped out of its cage the Hoobat scuttled forward, straight for the panel which opened on the large cargo space and there waited, as if for them to open the portal and admit the hunter to its hunting territory.