Plague Ship/Chapter XIII
Across the lock of the panel was the seal set in place by Van Rycke before the spacer had lifted from Sargol. Under Dane's inspection it showed no crack. To all evidence the hatch had not been opened since they left the perfumed planet. And yet the hunting Hoobat was sure that the invading pests were within.
It took only a second for Dane to commit an act which, if he could not defend it later, would blacklist him out of space. He twisted off the official seal which should remain there while the freighter was space borne.
With Ali's help he shouldered aside the heavy sliding panel and they looked into the cargo space, now filled with the red wood from Sargol. The redwood! When he saw it Dane was struck with their stupidity. Aside from the Koros stones in the stone box, only the wood had come from the Salariki world. What if the pests had not been planted by I-S agents, but were natives of Sargol being brought in with the wood?
The men remained at the hatch to allow the Hoobat freedom in its hunt. And Sinbad crouched behind them, snarling and giving voice to a rumbling growl which was his negative opinion of the proceedings.
They were conscious of an odor—the sharp, unidentifiable scent Dane had noticed during the loading of the wood. It was not unpleasant—merely different. And it—or something—had an electrifying effect upon Queex. The blue hunter climbed with the aid of its claws to the top of the nearest pile of wood and there settled down. For a space it was apparently contemplating the area about it.
Then it raised its claws and began the scraping fiddle which once before had drawn its prey out of hiding. Oddly enough that dry rasp of sound had a quieting effect upon Sinbad and Dane felt the drag of the harness lessen as the cat moved, not toward escape, but to the scene of action, humping himself at last in the open panel, his round eyes fixed upon the Hoobat with a fascinated stare.
Scrape-scrape—the monotonous noise bit into the ears of the men, gnawed at their nerves.
"Ahhh—" Ali kept his voice to a whisper, but his hand jerked to draw their attention to the right at deck level. Dane saw that flicker along a log. The stowaway pest was now the same brilliant color as the wood, indistinguishable until it moved, which probably explained how it had come on board.
But that was only the first arrival. A second flash of movement and a third followed. Then the hunted remained stationary, able to resist for a period the insidious summoning of Queex. The Hoobat maintained an attitude of indifference, of being so wrapped in its music that nothing else existed. Rip whispered to Weeks:
"There's one to the left—on the very end of that log. Can you net it?"
The small oiler slipped the coiled mesh through his calloused hands. He edged around Ali, keeping his eyes on the protuding protruding bump of red upon red which was his quarry.
"—two—three—four—five—" Ali was counting under his breath but Dane could not see that many. He was sure of only four, and those because he had seen them move.
The things were ringing in the pile of wood where the Hoobat fiddled, and two had ascended the first logs toward their doom. Weeks went down on one knee, ready to cast his net, when Dane had his first inspiration. He drew his sleep rod, easing it out of its holster, set the lever on "spray" and beamed it at three of those humps.
Rip seeing what he was doing, dropped a hand on Weeks' shoulder, holding the oiler in check. A hump moved, slid down the rounded side of the log into the narrow aisle of deck between two piles of wood. It lay quiet, a bright scarlet blot against the gray.
Then Weeks did move, throwing his net over it and jerking the draw string tight, at the same time pulling the captive toward him over the deck. But, even as it came, the scarlet of the thing's body was fast fading to an ashy pink and at last taking on a gray as dull as the metal on which it lay—the complete camouflage. Had they not had it enmeshed they might have lost it altogether, so well did it now blend with the surface.
The other two in the path of the ray had not lost their grip upon the logs, and the men could not advance to scoop them up. Not while there were others not affected, free to flee back into hiding. Weeks bound the net about the captive and looked to Rip for orders.
"Deep freeze," the acting-commander of the Queen said succinctly. "Let me see it get out of that!"
Surely the cold of the deep freeze, united to the sleep ray, would keep the creature under control until they had a chance to study it. But, as Weeks passed Sinbad on his errand, the cat was so frantic to avoid him, that he reared up on his hind legs, almost turning a somersault, snarling and spitting until Weeks was up the ladder to the next level. It was very evident that the ship's cat was having none of this pest.
They might have been invisible and their actions non-existent as far as Queex was concerned. For the Hoobat continued its siren concert. The lured became more reckless, mounting the logs to Queex's post in sudden darts. Dane wondered how the Hoobat proposed handling four of the creatures at once. For, although the other two which had been in the path of the ray had not moved, he now counted four climbing.
"Stand by to ray—" that was Rip.
But it would have been interesting to see how Queex was prepared to handle the four. And, though Rip had given the order to stand by, he had not ordered the ray to be used. Was he, too, interested in that?
The first red projection was within a foot of the Hoobat now and its fellows had frozen as if to allow it the honor of battle with the feathered enemy. To all appearances Queex did not see it, but when it sprang with a whir of speed which would baffle a human, the Hoobat was ready and its claws, halting their rasp, met around the wasp-thin waist of the pest, speedily cutting it in two. Only this time the Hoobat made no move to unjoint and consume the victim. Instead it squatted in utter silence, as motionless as a tri-dee print.
The heavy lower half of the creature rolled down the pile of logs to the deck and there paled to the gray of its background. None of its kind appeared to be interested in its fate. The two which had been in the path of the ray, continued to be humps on the wood, the others faced the Hoobat.
But Rip was ready to waste no more time. "Ray them!" he snapped.
All three of their sleep rods sprayed the pile, catching in passing the Hoobat. Queex's pop eyes closed, but it showed no other sign of falling under the spell of the beam.
Certain that all the creatures in sight were now relatively harmless, the three approached the logs. But it was necessary to get into touching distance before they could even make out the outlines of the nightmare things, so well did their protective coloring conceal them. Wearing gloves Ali detached the little monsters from their holds on the wood and put them for temporary safekeeping—during a transfer to the deep freeze—into the Hoobat's cage. Queex, they decided to leave where it was for a space, to awaken and trap any survivor which had been too wary to emerge at the first siren song. As far as they could tell the Hoobat was their only possible protection against the pest and to leave it in the center of infection was the wisest course.
Having dumped the now metal colored catch into the freeze, they held a conference.
"No plague—" Weeks breathed a sigh of relief.
"No proof of that yet," Ali caught him up short. "We have to prove it past any reasonable doubt."
"And how are we going to do—?" Dane began when he saw what the other had brought in from Tau's stores. A lancet and the upper half of the creature Queex had killed in the cargo hold.
The needle pointed front feet of the thing were curled up in its death throes and it was now a dirty white shade as if the ability to change color had been lost before it matched the cotton on which it lay. With the lancet Ali forced a claw away from the body. It was oozing the watery liquid which they had seen on the one in the hydro.
"I have an idea," he said slowly, his eyes on the mangled creature rather than on his shipmates, "that we might have escaped being attacked because they sheered off from us. But if we were clawed we might take it too. Remember those marks on the throats and backs of the rest? That might be the entry point of this poison—if poison it is—"
Dane could see the end of that line of reasoning. Rip and Ali—they couldn't be spared. The knowledge they had would bring the Queen to earth. But a Cargo-master was excess baggage when there was no reason for trade. It was his place to try out the truth of Ali's surmise.
But while he thought another acted. Weeks leaned over and twitched the lancet out of Ali's fingers. Then, before any of them could move, he thrust its contaminated point into the back of his hand.
Both Dane's cry and Rip's hand came too late. It had been done. And Weeks sat there, looking alone and frightened, studying the drop of blood which marked the dig of the surgeon's keen knife. But when he spoke his voice sounded perfectly natural.
"Headache first, isn't it?"
Only Ali was outwardly unaffected by what the little man had just done. "Just be sure you have a real one," he warned with what Dane privately considered real callousness.
Weeks nodded. "Don't let my imagination work," he answered shrewdly. "I know. It has to be real. How long do you suppose?"
"We don't know," Rip sounded tired, beaten. "Meanwhile," he got to his feet, "we'd better set a course home—"
"Home," Weeks repeated. To him Terra was not his own home—he had been born in the polar swamps of Venus. But to All Solarians—no matter which planet had nurtured them—Terra was home.
"You," Rip's big hand fell gently on the little oiler's shoulder, "stay here with Thorson—"
"No," Weeks shook his head. "Unless I black out, I'm riding station in the engine room. Maybe the bug won't work on me anyway."
And because he had done what he had done they could not deny him the right to ride his station as long as he could during the grueling hours to come.
Dane visited the cargo hold once more. To be greeted by an irate scream which assured him that Queex was again awake and on guard. Although the Hoobat was ready enough to give tongue, it still squatted in its chosen position on top of the log stack and he did not try to dislodge it. Perhaps with Queex planted in the enemies' territory they would have nothing to fear from any pests not now confined in the deep freeze.
Rip set his course for Terra—for that plague spot on their native world where they might hide out the Queen until they could prove their point—that the spacer was not a disease ridden ship to be feared. He kept to the control cabin, shifting only between the Astrogator's and the pilot's station. Upon him alone rested the responsibility of bringing in the ship along a vector which crossed no well traveled space lane where the Patrol might challenge them. Dane rode out the orbiting in the Com-tech's seat, listening in for the first warning of danger—that they had been detected.
The mechanical repetition of their list of crimes was now stale news and largely off-ether. And from all traces he could pick up, they were lost as far as the authorities were concerned. On the other hand, the Patrol might indeed be as far knowing as its propaganda stated and the Queen was running headlong into a trap. Only they had no choice in the matter.
It was the ship's inter-com bringing Ali's voice from the engine room which broke the concentration in the control cabin.
Rip barked into the mike. "How bad?"
"He hasn't blacked out yet. The pains in his head are pretty bad and his hand is swelling—"
"He's given us our proof. Tell him to report off—"
But the disembodied voice which answered that was Weeks'.
"I haven't got it as bad as the others. I'll ride this out."
Rip shook his head. But short-handed as they were he could not argue Weeks away from his post if the man insisted upon staying. He had other, and for the time being, more important matters before him.
How long they sweated out that descent upon their native world Dane could never afterwards have testified. He only knew that hours must have passed, until he thought groggily that he could not remember a time he was not glued in the seat which had been Tang's, the earphones pressing against his sweating skull, his fatigue-drugged mind being held with difficulty to the duty at hand.
Sometime during that haze they made their landing. He had a dim memory of Rip sprawled across the pilot's control board and then utter exhaustion claimed him also and the darkness closed in. When he roused it was to look about a cabin tilted to one side. Rip was still slumped in a muscle cramping posture, breathing heavily. Dane bit out a forceful word born of twinges of his own, and then snapped on the visa-plate.
For a long moment he was sure that he was not yet awake. And then, as his dazed mind supplied names for what he saw, he knew that Rip had failed. Far from being in the center—or at least well within the perimeter of the dread Big Burn—they must have landed in some civic park or national forest. For the massed green outside, the bright flowers, the bird he sighted as a brilliant flash of wind coasting color—those were not to be found in the twisted horror left by man's last attempt to impress his will upon his resisting kind.
Well, it had been a good try, but there was no use expecting luck to ride their fins all the way, and they had had more than their share in the E-Stat affair. How long would it be before the Law arrived to collect them? Would they have time to state their case?
The faint hope that they might aroused him. He reached for the com key and a second later tore the headphones from his appalled ears. The crackle of static he knew—and the numerous strange noises which broke in upon the lanes of communication in space—but this solid, paralyzing roar was something totally new—new, and frightening.
And because it was new and he could not account for it, he turned back to regard the scene on the viewer with a more critical eye. The foliage which grew in riotous profusion was green right enough, and Terra green into the bargain—there was no mistaking that. But—Dane caught at the edge of Com-unit for support. But—What was that liver-red blossom which had just reached out to engulf a small flying thing?
Feverishly he tried to remember the little natural history he knew. Sure that what he had just witnessed was unnatural—un-Terran—and to be suspect!
He started the spy lens on its slow revolution in the Queen's nose, to get a full picture of their immediate surroundings. It was tilted at an angle—apparently they had not made a fin-point landing this time—and sometimes it merely reflected slices of sky. But when it swept earthward he saw enough to make him believe that wherever the spacer had set down it was not on the Terra he knew.
Subconsciously he had expected the Big Burn to be barren land—curdled rock with rivers of frozen quartz, substances boiled up through the crust of the planet by the action of the atomic explosives. That was the way it had been on Limbo—on the other "burned-off" worlds they had discovered where those who had preceded mankind into the Galaxy—the mysterious, long vanished "Forerunners"—had fought their grim and totally annihilating wars.
But it would seem that the Big Burn was altogether different—at least here it was. There was no rock sterile of life outside—in fact there would appear to be too much life. What Dane could sight on his limited field of vision was a teeming jungle. And the thrill of that discovery almost made him forget their present circumstances. He was still staring bemused at the screen when Rip muttered, turned his head on his folded arms and opened his sunken eyes:
"Did we make it?" he asked dully.
Dane, not taking his eyes from that fascinating scene without, answered: "You brought us down. But I don't know where—"
"Unless our instruments were 'way off, we're near to the heart of the Burn."
"What does it look like?" Rip sounded too tired to cross the cabin and see for himself. "Barren as Limbo?"
"Hardly! Rip, did you ever see a tomato as big as a melon—At least it looks like a tomato," Dane halted the spy lens as it focused upon this new phenomena.
"A what?" There was a note of concern in Shannon's voice. "What's the matter with you, Dane?"
"Come and see," Dane willingly yielded his place to Rip but he did not step out of range of the screen. Surely that did have the likeness to a good, old fashioned earth-side tomato—but it was melon size and it hung from a bush which was close to a ten foot tree!
Rip stumbled across to drop into the Com-tech's place. But his expression of worry changed to one of simple astonishment as he saw that picture.
"Where are we?"
"You name it," Dane had had longer to adjust, the excitement of an explorer sighting virgin territory worked in his veins, banishing fatigue. "It must be the Big Burn!"
"But," Rip shook his head slowly as if with that gesture to deny the evidence before his eyes, "that country's all bare rock. I've seen pictures—"
"Of the outer rim," Dane corrected, having already solved that problem for himself. "This must be farther in than any survey ship ever came. Great Spirit of Outer Space, what has happened here?"
Rip had enough technical training to know how to get part of the answer. He leaned halfway across the com, and was able to flick down a lever with the very tip of his longest finger. Instantly the cabin was filled with a clicking so loud as to make an almost continuous drone of sound.
Dane knew that danger signal, he didn't need Rip's words to underline it for him.
"That's what's happened. This country is pile 'hot' out there!"