Plague Ship/Chapter XV

Fortunately the path out of the straggling town was a twisted one and in a very short space they were hidden from view. Dane paused as if the pace was too much for an injured man. The Medic put out a steadying hand, only to drop it quickly when he saw the weapon which had appeared in Dane's grip.

"What—?" His mouth snapped shut, his jaw tightened.

"You will march ahead of me," Dane's low voice was steady. "Beyond that rock spur to the left you'll find a place where it is possible to climb down to sea level. Do it!"

"I suppose I shouldn't ask why?"

"Not now. We haven't much time. Get moving!"

The Medic mastered his surprise and without further protest obeyed orders. It was only when they were standing by the flitter and he saw the suits that his eyes widened and he said:

"The Big Burn!"

"Yes, and I'm desperate—"

"You must be—or mad—" The Medic stared at Dane for a long moment and then shook his head. "What is it? A plague ship?"

Dane bit his lip. The other was too astute. But he did not ask why or how he had been able to guess so shrewdly. Instead he gestured to the suit Ali had lashed beneath the seat in the flitter. "Get into that and be quick about it!"

The Medic rubbed his hand across his jaw. "I think that you might just be desperate enough to use that thing you're brandishing about so melodramatically if I don't," he remarked in a calmly conversational tone.

"I won't kill. But a blaster burn—"

"Can be pretty painful. Yes, I know that, young man. And," suddenly he shrugged, put down his kit and started donning the suit. "I wouldn't put it past you to knock me out and load me aboard if I did say no. All right—"

Suited, he took his place on the seat as Dane directed, and then the Trader followed the additional precaution of lashing the Medic's metal encased arms to his body before he climbed into his own protective covering. Now they could only communicate by sight through the vision plates of their helmets.

Dane triggered the controls and they arose out of the sand and rock hollow just as a party of two men and a boy came hurrying along the top of the cliff—Jorge and the rescuers arriving too late. The flitter spiraled up into the sunlight and Dane wondered how long it would be before this outrage was reported to the nearest Plant Police base. But would any Police cruiser have the hardihood to follow him into the Big Burn? He hoped that the radiation would hold them back.

There was no navigation to be done. The flitter's "memory" should deposit them at the Queen. Dane wondered at what his silent companion was now thinking. The Medic had accepted his kidnapping with such docility that the very ease of their departure began to bother Dane. Was the other expecting a trailer? Had exploration into the Big Burn from the seaside villages been more extensive than reported officially?

He stepped up the power of the flitter to the top notch and saw with some relief that the ground beneath them was now the rocky waste bordering the devastated area. The metal encased figure that shared his seat had not moved, but now the bubble head turned as if the Medic were intent upon the ground flowing beneath them.

The flicker of the counter began and Dane realized that nightfall would find them still air borne. But so far he had not been aware of any pursuit. Again he wished he had the use of a com—only here the radiation would blanket sound with that continuous roar.

Patches of the radiation vegetation showed now and something in the lines of the Medic's tense figure suggested that these were new to him. Afternoon waned as the patches united, spread into the beginning of the jungle as the counter was once more an almost steady light. When evening closed in they were not caught in darkness—for below trees, looping vines, brush, had a pale, evil glow of their own, proclaiming their toxicity with bluish halos. Sometimes pockets of these made a core of light which pulsed, sending warning fingers at the flitter which sped across it.

The hour was close on midnight before Dane sighted the other light, the pink-red of which winked through the ghastly blue-white with a natural and comforting promise, even though it had been meant for an entirely different purpose. The Queen had earthed with her distress lights on and no one had remembered to snap them off. Now they acted as a beacon to draw the flitter to its berth.

Dane brought the stripped flyer down on the fused ground as close to the spot from which he had taken off as he could remember. Now—if those on the spacer would only move fast enough—!

But he need not have worried, his arrival had been anticipated. Above, the rounded side of the spacer bulged as the hatch opened. Lines swung down to fasten their magnetic clamps on the flitter. Then once more they were air borne, swinging up to be warped into the side of the ship. As the outer port of the flitter berth closed Dane reached over and pulled loose the lashing which immobilized his companion. The Medic stood up, a little awkwardly as might any man who wore space armor the first time.

The inner hatch now opened and Dane waved his captive into the small section which must serve them as a decontamination space. Free at last of the suits, they went through one more improvised hatch to the main corridor of the Queen where Rip and Ali stood waiting, their weary faces lighting as they saw the Medic.

It was the latter who spoke first. "This is a plague ship—"

Rip shook his head. "It is not, sir. And you're the one who is going to help us prove that."

The man leaned back against the wall, his face expressionless. "You take a rather tough way of trying to get help."

"It was the only way left us. I'll be frank," Rip continued, "we're Patrol Posted."

The Medic's shrewd eyes went from one drawn young face to the next. "You don't look like desperate criminals," was his comment. "This your full crew?"

"All the rest are your concern. That is—if you will take the job—" Rip's shoulders slumped a little.

"You haven't left me much choice, have you? If there is illness on board, I'm under the Oath—whether you are Patrol Posted or not. What's the trouble?"

They got him down to Tau's laboratory and told him their story. From a slight incredulity his expression changed to an alert interest and he demanded to see, first the patients and then the pests now immured in a deep freeze. Sometime in the middle of this, Dane, overcome by fatigue which was partly relief from tension, sought his cabin and the bunk from which he wearily disposed Sinbad, only to have the purring cat crawl back once more when he had lain down.

And when he awoke, renewed in body and spirit, it was in a new Queen, a ship in which hope and confidence now ruled.

"Hovan's already got it!" Rip told him exultantly. "It's that poison from the little devils' claws right enough! A narcotic—produces some of the affects of deep sleep. In fact—it may have a medical use. He's excited about it—"

"All right," Dane waved aside information which under other circumstances, promising as it did a chance for future trade, would have engrossed him, to ask a question which at the moment seemed far more to the point. "Can he get our men back on their feet?"

A little of Rip's exuberance faded. "Not right away. He's given them all shots. But he thinks they'll have to sleep it off."

"And we have no idea how long that is going to take," Ali contributed.

Time—for the first time in days Dane was struck by that—time! Because of his training a fact he had forgotten in the past weeks of worry now came to mind—their contract with the storm priests. Even if they were able to clear themselves of the plague charge, even if the rest of the crew were speedily restored to health, he was sure that they could not hope to return to Sargol with the promised cargo, the pay for which was already on board the Queen. They would have broken their pledge and there could be no hope of holding to their trading rights on that world—if they were not blacklisted for breaking contract into the bargain. I-S would be able to move in and clean up and probably they could never prove that the Company was behind their misfortunes—though the men of the Queen would always be convinced that that fact was the truth.

"We're going to break contract—" he said aloud and that shook the other two, knocked some of their assurance out of them.

"How about that?" Rip asked Ali.

The acting-engineer nodded. "We have fuel enough to lift from here and maybe set down at Terraport—if we take it careful and cut vectors. We can't lift from there without refueling—and of course the Patrol are going to sit on their hands while we do that—with us Posted! No, put out of your heads any plan for getting back to Sargol within the time limit. Thorson's right—that way we're flamed out!"

Rip slumped in his seat. "So the Eysies can take over after all?"

"As I see it," Dane cut in, "let's just take one thing at a time. We may have to argue a broken contract out before the Board. But first we have to get off the Posted hook with the Patrol. Have you any idea about how we are going to handle that?"

"Hovan's on our side. In fact if we let him have the bugs to play with he'll back us all the way. He can swear us a clean bill of health before the Medic Control Center."

"How much will that count after we've broken all their regs?" Ali wanted to know. "If we surrender now we're not going to have much chance, no matter what Hovan does or does not swear to. Hovan's a frontier Medic—I won't say that he's not a member in good standing of their association—but he doesn't have top star rating. And with the Eysies and the Patrol on our necks, we'll need more than one medic's word—"

But Rip looked from the pessimistic Kamil to Dane. Now he asked a question which was more than half statement.

"You've thought of something?"

"I've remembered something," the Cargo-apprentice corrected. "Recall the trick Van pulled on Limbo when the Patrol was trying to ease us out of our rights there after they took over the outlaw hold?"

Ali was impatient. "He threatened to talk to the Video people and broadcast—tell everyone about the ships wrecked by the Forerunner installation and left lying about full of treasure. But what has that to do with us now—? We bargained away our rights on Limbo for the rest of Cam's monopoly on Sargol—not that it's done us much good—"

"The Video," Dane fastened on the important point, "Van threatened publicity which would embarrass the Patrol and he was legally within his rights. We're outside the law now—but publicity might help again. How many earth-side people know of the unwritten law about open war on plague ships? How many who aren't spacemen know that we could be legally pushed into the sun and fried without any chance to prove we're innocent of carrying a new disease? If we could talk loud and clear to the people at large maybe we'd have a chance for a real hearing—"

"Right from the Terraport broadcast station, I suppose?" Ali taunted.

"Why not?"

There was silence in the cabin as the other two chewed upon that and he broke it again:

"We set down here when it had never been done before."

With one brown forefinger Rip traced some pattern known only to himself on the top of the table. Ali stared at the opposite wall as if it were a bank of machinery he must master.

"It just might be whirly enough to work—" Kamil commented softly. "Or maybe we've been spaced too long and the Whisperers have been chattering into our ears. What about it, Rip, could you set us down close enough to Center Block there?"

"We can try anything once. But we might crash the old girl bringing her in. There's that apron between the Companies' Launching cradles and the Center—. It's clear there and we could give an E signal coming down which would make them stay rid of it. But I won't try it except as a last resort."

Dane noticed that after that discouraging statement Rip made straight for Jellico's record tapes and routed out the one which dealt with Terraport and the landing instructions for that metropolis of the star ships. To land unbidden there would certainly bring them publicity—and to get the Video broadcast and tell their story would grant them not only world wide, but system wide hearing. News from Terraport was broadcast on every channel every hour of the day and night and not a single viewer could miss their appeal.

But first there was Hovan to be consulted. Would he be willing to back them with his professional knowledge and assurance? Or would their high-handed method of recruiting his services operate against them now? They decided to let Rip ask such questions of the Medic.

"So you're going to set us down in the center of the big jump-off?" was his first comment, as the acting-Captain of the Queen stated their case. "Then you want me to fire my rockets to certify you are harmless. You don't ask for very much, do you, son?"

Rip spread his hands. "I can understand how it looks to you, sir. We grabbed you and brought you here by force. We can't make you testify for us if you decide not to—"

"Can't you?" The Medic cocked an eyebrow at him. "What about this bully boy of yours with his little blaster? He could herd me right up to the telecast, couldn't he? There's a lot of persuasion in one of those nasty little arms. On the other hand, I've a son who's set on taking out on one of these tin pots to go star hunting. If I handed you over to the Patrol he might make some remarks to me in private. You may be Posted, but you don't look like very hardened criminals to me. It seems that you've been handed a bad situation and handled it as best you know. And I'm willing to ride along the rest of the way on your tail blast. Let me see how many pieces you land us in at Terraport and I'll give you my final answer. If luck holds we may have a couple more of your crew present by that time, also—"

They had had no indication that the Queen had been located, that any posse hunting the kidnapped Medic had followed them into the Big Burn. And they could only hope that they would continue to remain unsighted as they upped-ship once more and cruised into a regular traffic lane for earthing at the port. It would be a chancy thing and Ali and Rip spent hours checking the mechanics of that flight, while Dane and the recovering Weeks worked with Hovan in an effort to restore the sleeping crew.

After three visits to the hold and the discovery that the Hoobat had uncovered no more of the pests, Dane caged the angry blue horror and returned it to its usual stand in Jellico's cabin, certain that the ship was clean for Sinbad now confidently prowled the corridors and went into every cabin of storage space Dane opened for him.

And on the morning of the day they had planned for take-off, Hovan at last had a definite response to his treatment. Craig Tau roused, stared dazedly around, and asked a vague question. The fact he immediately relapsed once more into semi-coma did not discourage the other Medic. Progress had been made and he was now sure that he knew the proper treatment.

They strapped down at zero hour and blasted out of the weird green wilderness they had not dared to explore, lifting into the arch of the sky, depending upon Rip's knowledge to put them safely down again.

Dane once more rode out the take-off at the com-unit, waiting for the blast of radiation born static to fade so that he could catch any broadcast.

"—turned back last night. The high level of radiation makes it almost certain that the outlaws could not have headed into the dangerous central portion. Search is now spreading north. Authorities are inclined to believe that this last outrage may be a clew to the vanished 'Solar Queen,' a plague ship, warned off and Patrol Posted after her crew plundered an E-Stat belonging to the Inter-Solar Corporation. Anyone having any information concerning this ship—or any strange spacer—report at once to the nearest Terrapolice or Patrol station. Do not take chances—report any contact at once to the nearest Terrapolice or Patrol station!"

"That's putting it strongly," Dane commented as he relayed the message. "Good as giving orders for us to be flamed down at sight—"

"Well, if we set down in the right spot," Rip replied, "they can't flame us out without blasting the larger part of Terraport field with us. And I don't think they are going to do that in a hurry."

Dane hoped Shannon was correct in that belief. It would be more chancy than landing at the E-Stat or in the Big Burn—to gauge it just right and put them down on the Terraport apron where they could not be flamed out without destroying too much, where their very position would give them a bargaining point, was going to be a top star job. If Rip could only pull it off!

He could not evaluate the niceties of that flight, he did not understand all Rip was doing. But he did know enough to remain quietly in his place, ask no questions, and await results with a dry mouth and a wildly beating heart. There came a moment when Rip glanced up at him, one hand poised over the control board. The pilot's voice came tersely, thin and queer:

"Pray it out, Dane—here we go!"

Dane heard the shrill of a riding beam, so tearing he had to move his earphones. They must be almost on top of the control tower to get it like that! Rip was planning on a set down where the Queen would block things neatly. He brought his own fingers down on the E-E-Red button to give the last and most powerful warning. That, to be used only when a ship landing was out of control, should clear the ground below. They could only pray it would vacate the port they were still far from seeing.

"Make it a fin-point, Rip," he couldn't repress that one bit of advice. And was glad he had given it when he saw a ghost grin tug for a moment at Rip's full lips.

"Good enough for a check-ride?"

They were riding her flaming jets down as they would on a strange world. Below the port must be wild. Dane counted off the seconds. Two—three—four—five—just a few more and they would be too low to intercept—without endangering innocent coasters and groundhuggers. When the last minute during which they were still vulnerable passed, he gave a sigh of relief. That was one more point on their side. In the earphones was a crackle of frantic questions, a gabble of orders screaming at him. Let them rave, they'd know soon enough what it was all about.