Plague Ship/Chapter XVII

"To those of you who do not travel the star trails our case may seem puzzling—" the words were coming easily. Dane gathered confidence as he spoke, intent on making those others out there know what it meant to be outlawed.

"We are Patrol Posted, outlawed as a plague ship," he confessed frankly. "But this is our true story—"

Swiftly, with a flow of language he had not known he could command, Dane swung into the story of Sargol, of the pest they had carried away from that world. And at the proper moment he thrust a gloved hand into the cage and brought out the wriggling thing which struck vainly with its poisoned talons, holding it above the dark table so that those unseen watchers could witness the dramatic change of color which made it such a menace. Dane continued the story of the Queen's ill-fated voyage—of their forced descent upon the E-Stat.

"Ask the truth of Inter-Solar," he demanded of the audience beyond those walls. "We were no pirates. They will discover in their records the vouchers we left." Then Dane described the weird hunt when, led by the Hoobat, they had finally found and isolated the menace, and their landing in the heart of the Big Burn. He followed that with his own quest for medical aid, the kidnapping of Hovan. At that point he turned to the Medic.

"This is Medic Hovan. He has consented to appear in our behalf and to testify to the truth—that the Solar Queen has not been stricken by some unknown plague, but infested with a living organism we now have under control—" For a suspenseful second or two he wondered if Hovan was going to make it. The man looked shaken and sick, as if the drastic awaking they had subjected him to had left him too dazed to pull himself together.

But out of some hidden reservoir of strength the Medic summoned the energy he needed. And his testimony was all they had hoped it would be. Though now and then he strayed into technical terms. But, Dane thought, their use only enhanced the authority of his description of what he had discovered on board the spacer and what he had done to counteract the power of the poison. When he had done Dane added a few last words.

"We have broken the law," he admitted forthrightly, "but we were fighting in self-defense. All we ask now is the privilege of an impartial investigation, a chance to defend ourselves—such as any of you take for granted on Terra—before the courts of this planet—" But he was not to finish without interruption.

From the play-back over their heads another voice blared, breaking across his last words:

"Surrender! This is the Patrol. Surrender or take the consequences!" And that faint sighing which signaled their open contact with the outer world was cut off. The Com-tech turned away from the control board, a sneering half smile on his face.

"They've reached the circuit and cut you off. You're done!"

Dane stared into the cage where the now almost invisible thing sat humped together. He had done his best—they had all done their best. He felt nothing but a vast fatigue, an overwhelming weariness, not so much of body, but of nerve and spirit too.

Rip broke the silence with a question aimed at the tech. "Can you signal below?"

"Going to give up?" The fellow brightened. "Yes, there's an inter-com I can cut in."

Rip stood up. He unbuckled the belt about his waist and laid it on the table—disarming himself. Without words Ali and Dane followed his example. They had played their hand—to prolong the struggle would mean nothing. The acting Captain of the Queen gave a last order:

"Tell them we are coming down unarmed—to surrender." He paused in front of Hovan. "You'd better stay here. If there's any trouble—no reason for you to be caught in the middle."

Hovan nodded as the three left the room. Dane, remembering the trick he had pulled with the riser, made a comment:

"We may be marooned here—"

Ali shrugged. "Then we can just wait and let them collect us." He yawned, his dark eyes set in smudges. "I don't care if they'll just let us sleep the clock around afterwards. D'you really think," he addressed Rip, "that we've done ourselves any good?"

Rip neither denied nor confirmed. "We took our only chance. Now it's up to them—" He pointed to the wall and the teeming world which lay beyond it.

Ali grinned wryly. "I note you left the what-you-call-it with Hovan."

"He wanted one to experiment with," Dane replied. "I thought he'd earned it."

"And now here comes what we've earned—" Rip cut in as the hum of the riser came to their ears.

"Should we take to cover?" Ali's mobile eyebrows underlined his demand. "The forces of law and order may erupt with blasters blazing."

But Rip did not move. He faced the riser door squarely and, drawn by something in that stance of his, the other two stepped in on either side so that they fronted the dubious future as a united group. Whatever came now, the Queen's men would meet it together.

In a way Ali was right. The four men who emerged all had their blasters or riot stun-rifles at ready, and the sights of those weapons were trained at the middles of the Free Traders. As Dane's empty hands, palm out, went up on a line with his shoulders, he estimated the opposition. Two were in the silver and black of the Patrol, two wore the forest green of the Terrapolice. But they all looked like men with whom it was better not to play games.

And it was clear they were prepared to take no chances with the outlaws. In spite of the passiveness of the Queen's men, their hands were locked behind them with force bars about their wrists. When a quick search revealed that the three were unarmed, they were herded onto the riser by two of their captors, while the other pair remained behind, presumably to uncover any damage they had done to the Tower installations.

The police did not speak except for a few terse words among themselves and a barked order to march, delivered to the prisoners. Very shortly they were in the entrance hall facing the wreckage of the crawler and doors through which a ragged gap had been burned. Ali viewed the scene with his usual detachment.

"Nice job," he commended Dane's enterprise. "They'll have a moving—"

"Get going!" A heavy hand between his shoulder blades urged him on.

The Engineer-apprentice whirled, his eyes blazing. "Keep your hands to yourself! We aren't mine fodder yet. I think that the little matter of a trial comes first—"

"You're Posted," the Patrolman was openly contemptuous.

Dane was chilled. For the first time that aspect of their predicament really registered. Posted outlaws might, within reason, be shot on sight without further recourse to the law. If that label stuck on the crew of the Queen, they had practically no chance at all. And when he saw that Ali was no longer inclined to retort, he knew that fact had dawned upon Kamil also. It would all depend upon how big an impression their broadcast had made. If public opinion veered to their side—then they could defend themselves legally. Otherwise the moon mines might be the best sentence they dare hope for.

They were pushed out into the brilliant sunlight. There stood the Queen, her meteor scarred side reflecting the light of her native sun. And ringed around her at a safe distance was what seemed to be a small mechanized army corps. The authorities were making very sure that no more rebels would burst from her interior.

Dane thought that they would be loaded into a mobile or 'copter and taken away. But instead they were marched down, through the ranks of portable flamers, scramblers, and other equipment, to an open space where anyone on duty at the visa-screen within the control cabin of the spacer could see them. An officer of the Patrol, the sun making an eye-blinding flash of his lightning sword breast badge, stood behind a loud speaker. When he perceived that the three prisoners were present, he picked up a hand mike and spoke into it—his voice so being relayed over the field as clearly as it must be reaching Weeks inside the sealed freighter.

"You have five minutes to open hatch. Your men have been taken. Five minutes to open hatch and surrender."

Ali chuckled. "And how does he think he's going to enforce that?" he inquired of the air and incidentally of the guards now forming a square about the three. "He'll need more than a flamer to unlatch the old girl if she doesn't care for his offer."

Privately Dane agreed with that. He hoped that Weeks would decide to hold out—at least until they had a better idea of what the future would be. No tool or weapon he saw in the assembly about them was forceful enough to penetrate the shell of the Queen. And there were sufficient supplies on board to keep Weeks and his charges going for at least a week. Since Tau had shown signs of coming out of his coma, it might even be that the crew of the ship would arouse to their own defense in that time. It all depended upon Weeks' present decision.

No hatch yawned in the ship's sleek sides. She might have been an inert derelict for all response to that demand. Dane's confidence began to rise. Weeks had picked up the challenge, he would continue to baffle police and Patrol.

Just how long that stalemate would have lasted they were not to know for another player came on the board. Through the lines of besiegers Hovan, escorted by the Patrolmen, made his way up to the officer at the mike station. There was something in his air which suggested that he was about to give battle. And the conversation at the mike was relayed across the field, a fact of which they were not at once aware.

"There are sick men in there—" Hovan's voice boomed out. "I demand the right to return to duty—"

"If and when they surrender they shall all be accorded necessary aid," that was the officer. But he made no impression on the Medic from the frontier. Dane, by chance, had chosen better support than he had guessed.

"Pro Bono Publico—" Hovan invoked the battle cry of his own Service. "For the Public Good—"

"A plague ship—" the officer was beginning. Hovan waved that aside impatiently.

"Nonsense!" His voice scaled up across the field. "There is no plague aboard. I am willing to certify that before the Council. And if you refuse these men medical attention—which they need—I shall cite the case all the way to my Board!"

Dane drew a deep breath. That was taking off on their orbit! Not being one of the Queen's crew, in fact having good reason to be angry over his treatment at their hands, Hovan's present attitude would or should carry weight.

The Patrol officer who was not yet ready to concede all points had an answer: "If you are able to get on board—go."

Hovan snatched the mike from the astonished officer. "Weeks!" His voice was imperative. "I'm coming aboard—alone!"

All eyes were on the ship and for a short period it would seem that Weeks did not trust the Medic. Then, high in her needle nose, one of the escape ports, not intended for use except in dire emergency opened and allowed a plastic link ladder to fall link by link.

Out of the corner of his eye Dane caught a flash of movement to his left. Manacled as he was he threw himself on the policeman who was aiming a stun rifle into the port. His shoulder struck the fellow waist high and his weight carried them both with a bruising crash to the concrete pavement as Rip shouted and hands clutched roughly at the now helpless Cargo-apprentice.

He was pulled to his feet, tasting the flat sweetness of blood where a flailing blow from the surprised and frightened policeman had cut his lip against his teeth. He spat red and glowered at the ring of angry men.

"Why don't you kick him?" Ali inquired, a vast and blistering contempt sawtoothing his voice. "He's got his hands cuffed so he's fair game—"

"What's going on here?" An officer broke through the ring. The policeman, on his feet once more, snatched up the rifle Dane's attack had knocked out of his hold.

"Your boy here," Ali was ready with an answer, "tried to find a target inside the hatch. Is this the usual way you conduct a truce, sir?"

He was answered by a glare and the rifleman was abruptly ordered to the rear. Dane, his head clearing, looked at the Queen. Hovan was climbing the ladder—he was within arm's length of that half open hatch. The very fact that the Medic had managed to make his point stick was, in a faint way, encouraging. But the three were not allowed to enjoy that small victory for long. They were marched from the field, loaded into a mobile and taken to the city several miles away. It was the Patrol who held them in custody—not the Terrapolice. Dane was not sure whether that was to be reckoned favorable or not. As a Free Trader he had a grudging respect for the organization he had seen in action on Limbo.

Sometime later they found themselves, freed of the force bars, alone in a room which, bare walled as it was, did have a bench on which all three sank thankfully. Dane caught the warning gesture from Ali—they were under unseen observation and they must have a listening audience too—located somewhere in the maze of offices.

"They can't make up their minds," the Engineer-apprentice settled his shoulders against the wall. "Either we're desperate criminals, or we're heroes. They're going to let time decide."

"If we're heroes," Dane asked a little querulously, "what are we doing locked up here? I'd like a few earth-side comforts—beginning with a full meal—"

"No thumb printing, no psycho testing," Rip mused. "Yes, they haven't put us through the system yet."

"And we decidedly aren't the forgotten men. Wipe your face, child," Ali said to Dane, "you're still dribbling."

The Cargo-apprentice smeared his hand across his chin and brought it away red and sticky. Luckily his teeth remained intact.

"We need Hovan to read them more law," observed Kamil. "You should have medical attention."

Dane dabbed at his mouth. He didn't need all that solicitude, but he guessed that Ali was talking for the benefit of those who now kept them under surveillance.

"Speaking of Hovan—I wonder what became of that pest he was supposed to have under control. He didn't bring the cage with him when he came out of the Tower, did he?" asked Rip.

"If it gets loose in that building," Dane decided to give the powers who held them in custody something to think about, "they'll have trouble. Practically invisible and poisonous. And maybe it can reproduce its kind, too. We don't know anything about it—"

Ali laughed. "Such fun and games! Imagine a hundred of the dear creatures flitting in and out of the broadcasting section. And Captain Jellico has the only Hoobat on Terra! He can name his own terms for rounding up the plague. The whole place will be filled with sleepers before they're through—"

Would that scrap of information send some Patrolmen hurtling off to the Tower in search of the caged creature? The thought of such an expedition was, in a small way, comforting to the captives.

An hour or so later they were fed, noiselessly and without visible attendants, when three trays slid through a slit in the wall at floor level. Rip's nose wrinkled.

"Now I get the vector! We're plague-ridden—keep aloof and watch to see if we break out in purple spots!"

Ali was lifting thermo lids from the containers and now he suddenly arose and bowed in the direction of the blank wall. "Many, many thanks," he intoned. "Nothing but the best—a sub-commander's rations at least! We shall deliver top star rating to this thoughtfulness when we are questioned by the powers that shine."

It was good food. Dane ate cautiously because of his torn lip, but the whole adventure took on a more rose-colored hue. The lapse of time before they were put through the usual procedure followed with criminals, this excellent dinner—it was all promising. The Patrol could not yet be sure how they were to be handled.

"They've fed us," Ali observed as he clanged the last dish back on a tray. "Now you'd think they'd bed us. I could do with several days—and nights—of bunk time right about now."

But that hint was not taken up and they continued to sit on the bench as time limped by. According to Dane's watch it must be night now, though the steady light in the windowless room did not vary. What had Hovan discovered in the Queen? Had he been able to rouse any of the crew? And was the spacer still inviolate, or had the Terrapolice and the Patrol managed to take her over?

He was so very tired, his eyes felt as if hot sand had been poured beneath the lids, his body ached. And at last he nodded into naps from which he awoke with jerks of the neck. Rip was frankly asleep, his shoulders and head resting against the wall, while Ali lounged with closed eyes. Though the Cargo-apprentice was sure that Kamil was more alert than his comrades, as if he waited for something he thought was soon to occur.

Dane dreamed. Once more he trod the reef rising out of Sargol's shallow sea. But he held no weapon and beneath the surface of the water a gorp lurked. When he reached the break in the water-washed rock just ahead, the spidery horror would strike and against its attack he was defenseless. Yet he must march on for he had no control over his own actions!

"Wake up!" Ali's hand was on his shoulder, shaking him back and forth with something close to gentleness. "Must you give an imitation of a space-whirly moonbat?"

"The gorp—" Dane came back to the present and flushed. He dreaded admitting to a nightmare—especially to Ali whose poise he had always found disconcerting.

"No gorps here. Nothing but—"

Kamil's words were lost in the escape of metal against metal as a panel slide back in the wall. But no guard wearing the black and silver of the Patrol stepped through to summon them to trial. Van Rycke stood in the opening, half smiling at them with his customary sleepy benevolence.

"Well, well, and here's our missing ones," his purring voice was the most beautiful sound Dane thought he had ever heard.