Plague Ship/Chapter XVI

Oddly enough, in spite of the tension which must have boiled within him, Rip brought them in with a perfect four fin-point landing—one which, under the circumstances, must win him the respect of master star-star pilots from the Rim. Though Dane doubted whether if they lost, that skill would bring Shannon anything but a long term in the moon mines. The actual jar of their landing contact was mostly absorbed by the webbing of their shock seats and they were on their feet, ready to move almost at once.

The next operation had been planned. Dane gave a glance at the screen. Ringed now about the Queen were the buildings of Terraport. Yes, any attempt to attack the ship would endanger too much of the permanent structure of the field itself. Rip had brought them down—not on the rocket scarred outer landing space—but on the concrete apron between the Assignment Center and the control tower—a smooth strip usually sacred to the parking of officials' ground scooters. He speculated as to whether any of the latter had been converted to molten metal by the exhausts of the Queen's descent.

Like the team they had come to be the four active members of the crew went into action. Ali and Weeks were waiting by an inner hatch, Medic Hovan with them. The Engineer-apprentice was bulky in a space suit, and two more of the unwieldy body coverings waited beside him for Rip and Dane. With fingers which were inclined to act like thumbs they were sealed into what would provide some protection against any blaster or sleep ray. Then with Hovan, conspicuously wearing no such armor, they climbed into one of the ship's crawlers.

Weeks activated the outer hatch and the crane lines plucked the small vehicle out of the Queen, swinging it dizzily down to the blast scored apron.

"Make for the tower—" Rip's voice was thin in the helmet coms.

Dane at the controls of the crawler pulled on as Ali cast off the lines which anchored them to the spacer.

Through the bubble helmet he could see the frenzied activity in the aroused port. An ant hill into which some idle investigator had thrust a stick and given it a turn or two was nothing compared with Terraport after the unorthodox arrival of the Solar Queen.

"Patrol mobile coming in on southeast vector," Ali announced calmly. "Looks like she mounts a portable flamer on her nose—"

"So." Dane changed direction, putting behind him a customs check point, aware as he ground by that stand, of a line of faces at its vision ports. Evasive action—and he'd have to get the top speed from the clumsy crawler.

"Police 'copter over us—" that was Rip reporting.

Well, they couldn't very well avoid that. But at the same time Dane was reasonably sure that its attack would not be an overt one—not with the unarmed, unprotected Hovan prominently displayed in their midst.

But there he was too sanguine. A muffled exclamation from Rip made him glance at the Medic beside him. Just in time to see Hovan slump limply forward, about to tumble from the crawler when Shannon caught him from behind. Dane was too familiar with the results of sleep rays to have any doubts as to what had happened.

The P-copter had sprayed them with its most harmless weapon. Only the suits, insulated to the best of their makers' ability against most of the dangers of space, real and anticipated, had kept the three Traders from being overcome as well. Dane suspected that his own responses were a trifle sluggish, that while he had not succumbed to that attack, he had been slowed. But with Rip holding the unconscious Medic in his seat, Thorson continued to head the crawler for the tower and its promise of a system wide hearing for their appeal.

"There's a P-mobile coming in ahead—"

Dane was irritated by that warning from Rip. He had already sighted that black and silver ground car himself. And he was only too keenly conscious of the nasty threat of the snub nosed weapon mounted on its hood, now pointed straight at the oncoming, too deliberate Traders' crawler. Then he saw what he believed would be their only chance—to play once more the same type of trick as Rip had used to earth them safely.

"Get Hovan under cover," he ordered. "I'm going to crash the tower door!"

Hasty movements answered that as the Medic's limp body was thrust under the cover offered by the upper framework of the crawler. Luckily the machine had been built for heavy duty on rugged worlds where roadways were unknown. Dane was sure he could build up the power and speed necessary to take them into the lower floor of the tower—no matter if its door was now barred against them.

Whether his audacity daunted the P-mobile, or whether they held off from an all out attack because of Hovan, Dane could not guess. But he was glad for a few minutes of grace as he raced the protesting engine of the heavy machine to its last and greatest effort. The treads of the crawler bit on the steps leading up to the impressive entrance of the tower. There was a second or two before traction caught and then the driver's heart snapped back into place as the machine tilted its nose up and headed straight for the portal.

They struck the closed doors with a shock which almost hurled them from their seats. But that engraved bronze expanse had not been cast to withstand a head-on blow from a heavy duty off-world vehicle and the leaves tore apart letting them into the wide hall beyond.

"Take Hovan and make for the riser!" For the second time it was Dane who gave the orders. "I have a blocking job to do here." He expected every second to feel the bit of a police blaster somewhere along his shrinking body—could even a space suit protect him now?

At the far end of the corridor were the attendants and visitors, trapped in the building, who had fled in an attempt to find safety at the crashing entrance of the crawler. These flung themselves flat at the steady advance of the two space-suited Traders who supported the unconscious Medic between them, using the low-powered anti-grav units on their belts to take most of his weight so each had one hand free to hold a sleep rod. And they did not hesitate to use those weapons—spraying the rightful inhabitants of the tower until all lay unmoving.

Having seen that Ali and Rip appeared to have the situation in hand, Dane turned to his own self-appointed job. He jammed the machine on reverse, maneuvering it with an ease learned by practice on the rough terrain of Limbo, until the gate doors were pushed shut again. Then he swung the machine around so that its bulk would afford an effective bar to keep the door locked for some very precious moments to come. Short of using a flamer full power to cut their way in, no one was going to force an entrance now.

He climbed out of the machine, to discover, when he turned, that the trio from the Queen had disappeared—leaving all possible opposition asleep on the floor. Dane clanked on to join them, carrying in plated fingers their most important weapon to awake public opinion—an improvised cage in which was housed one of the pests from the cargo hold—the proof of their plague-free state which they intended Hovan to present, via the telecast, to the whole system.

Dane reached the shaft of the riser—to find the platform gone. Would either Rip or Ali have presence of mind enough to send it down to him on automatic?

"Rip—return the riser," he spoke urgently into the throat mike of his helmet com.

"Keep your rockets straight," Ali's cool voice was in his earphones, "It's on its way down. Did you remember to bring Exhibit A?"

Dane did not answer. For he was very much occupied with another problem. On the bronze doors he had been at such pains to seal shut there had come into being a round circle of dull red which was speedily changing into a coruscating incandescence. They had brought a flamer to bear! It would be a very short time now before the Police could come through. That riser—

Afraid of overbalancing in the bulky suit Dane did not lean forward to stare up into the shaft. But, as his uncertainty reached a fever pitch, the platform descended and he took two steps forward into temporary safety, still clutching the cage. At the first try the thick fingers of his gloved hand slipped from the lever and he hit it again, harder than he intended, so that he found himself being wafted upward with a speed which did not agree with a stomach, even one long accustomed to space flight. And he almost lost his balance when it came to a stop many floors above.

But he had not lost his wits. Before he stepped from the platform he set the dial on a point which would lift the riser to the top of the shaft and hold it there. That might trap the Traders on the broadcasting floor, but it would also insure them time before the forces of the law could reach them.

Dane located the rest of his party in the circular core chamber of the broadcasting section. He recognized a backdrop he had seen thousands of times behind the announcer who introduced the news-casts. In one corner Rip, his suit off, was working over the still relaxed form of the Medic. While Ali, a grim set to his mouth, was standing with a man who wore the insignia of a Com-tech.

"All set?" Rip looked up from his futile ministrations.

Dane put down the cage and began the business of unhooking his own protective covering. "They were burning through the outer doors of the entrance hall when I took off."

"You're not going to get away with this—" that was the Com-tech.

Ali smiled wearily, a stretch of lips in which there was little or no mirth. "Listen, my friend. Since I started to ride rockets I've been told I wasn't going to get away with this or that. Why not be more original? Use what is between those outsize ears of yours. We fought our way in here—we landed at Terraport against orders—we're Patrol Posted. Do you think that one man, one lone man, is going to keep us now from doing what we came to do? And don't look around for any reinforcements. We sprayed both those rooms. You can run the emergency hook-up singlehanded and you're going to. We're Free Traders—Ha," the man had lost some of his assurance as he stared from one drawn young face to another, "I see you begin to realize what that means. Out on the Rim we play rough, and we play for keeps. I know half a hundred ways to set you screaming in three minutes and at least ten of them will not even leave a mark on your skin! Now do we get Service—or don't we?"

"You'll go to the Chamber for this—!" snarled the tech.

"All right. But first we broadcast. Then maybe someday a ship that's run into bad luck'll have a straighter deal than we've had. You get on your post. And we'll have the play back on—remember that. If you don't give us a clear channel we'll know it. How about it, Rip—how's Hovan?"

Rip's face was a mask of worry. "He must have had a full dose. I can't bring him around."

Was this the end of their bold bid? Let each or all of them go before the screen to plead their case, let them show the caged pest. But without the professional testimony of the Medic, the weight of an expert opinion on their side, they were licked. Well, sometimes luck did not ride a man's fins all the way in.

But some stubborn core within Dane refused to let him believe that they had lost. He went over to the Medic huddled in a chair. To all appearances Hovan was deeply asleep, sunk in the semi-coma the sleep ray produced. And the frustrating thing was that the man himself could have supplied the counter to his condition, given them the instructions how to bring him around. How many hours away was a natural awaking? Long before that their hold on the station would be broken—they would be in the custody of either Police or Patrol.

"He's sunk—" Dane voiced the belief which put an end to their hopes. But Ali did not seem concerned.

Kamil was standing with their captive, an odd expression on his handsome face as if he were striving to recall some dim memory. When he spoke it was to the Com-tech. "You have an HD OS here?"

The other registered surprise. "I think so—"

Ali made an abrupt gesture. "Make sure," he ordered, following the man into another room. Dane looked to Rip for enlightenment.

"What in the Great Nebula is an HD OS?"

"I'm no engineer. It may be some gadget to get us out of here—"

"Such as a pair of wings?" Dane was inclined to be sarcastic. The memory of that incandescent circle on the door some twenty floors below stayed with him. Tempers of Police and Patrol were not going to be improved by fighting their way around or over the obstacles the Traders had arranged to delay them. If they caught up to the outlaws before the latter had their chance for an impartial hearing, the result was not going to be a happy one as far as the Queen's men were concerned.

Ali appeared in the doorway. "Bring Hovan in here." Together Rip and Dane carried the Medic into a smaller chamber where they found Ali and the tech busy lashing a small, lightweight tube chair to a machine which, to their untutored eyes, had the semblance of a collection of bars. Obeying instructions they seated Hovan in that chair, fastening him in, while the Medic continued to slumber peacefully. Uncomprehendingly Rip and Dane stepped back while, under Ali's watchful eye, the Com-tech made adjustments and finally snapped some hidden switch.

Dane discovered that he dared not watch too closely what followed. Inured as he thought he was to the tricks of Hyperspace, to acceleration and anti-gravity, the oscillation of that swinging seat, the weird swaying of the half-recumbent figure, did things to his sight and to his sense of balance which seemed perilous in the extreme. But when the groan broke through the hum of Ali's mysterious machine, all of them knew that the Engineer-apprentice had found the answer to their problem, that Hovan was waking.

The Medic was bleary-eyed and inclined to stagger when they freed him. And for several minutes he seemed unable to grasp either his surroundings or the train of events which had brought him there.

Long since the Police must have broken into the entrance corridor below. Perhaps they had by now secured a riser which would bring them up. Ali had forced the Com-tech to throw the emergency control which was designed to seal off from the outer world the entire unit in which they now were. But whether that protective device would continue to hold now, none of the three were certain. Time was running out fast.

Supporting the wobbling Hovan, they went back into the panel room and under Ali's supervision the Com-tech took his place at the control board. Dane put the cage with the pest well to the fore on the table of the announcer and waited for Rip to take his place there with the trembling Medic. When Shannon did not move Dane glanced up in surprise—this was no time to hesitate. But he discovered that the attention of both his shipmates was now centered on him. Rip pointed to the seat.

"You're the talk merchant, aren't you?" the acting commander of the Queen asked crisply. "Now's the time to shout the Lingo—"

They couldn't mean—! But it was very evident that they did. Of course, a Cargo-master was supposed to be the spokesman of a ship. But that was in matters of trade. And how could he stand there and argue the case for the Queen? He was the newest joined, the greenest member of her crew. Already his mouth was dry and his nerves tense. But Dane didn't know that none of that was revealed by his face or manner. The usual impassiveness which had masked his inner conflicts since his first days at the Pool served him now. And the others never noted the hesitation with which he approached the announcer's place.

Dane had scarcely seated himself, one hand resting on the cage of the pest, before Ali brought down two fingers in the sharp sweep which signaled the Com-tech to duty. Far above them there was a whisper of sound which signified the opening of the play-back. They would be able to check on whether the broadcast was going out or not. Although Dane could see nothing of the system wide audience which he currently faced, he realized that the room and those in it were now visible on every tuned-in video set. Instead of the factual cast, the listeners were about to be treated to a melodrama which was as wild as their favorite romances. It only needed the break-in of the Patrol to complete the illusion of action-fiction—crime variety.

A second finger moved in his direction and Dane leaned forward. He faced only the folds of a wall wide curtain, but he must keep in mind that in truth there was a sea of faces before him, the faces of those whom he and Hovan, working together, must convince if he were to save the Queen and her crew.

He found his voice and it was steady and even, he might have been outlining some stowage problem for Van Rycke's approval.

"People of Terra—"

Martian, Venusian, Asteroid colonist—inwardly they were still all Terran and on that point he would rest. He was a Terran appealing to his own kind.

"People of Terra, we come before you to ask justice—" from somewhere the words came easily, flowing from his lips to center on a patch of light ahead. And that "justice" rang with a kind of reassurance.