Plague Ship/Chapter XVIII
"—and so we landed here, sir," Rip concluded his report in the matter-of-fact tone he might have used in describing a perfectly ordinary voyage, say between Terraport and Luna City, a run of no incident and dull cargo carrying.
The crew of the Solar Queen, save for Tau, were assembled in a room somewhere in the vastness of Patrol Headquarters. Since the room seemed a comfortable conference chamber, Dane thought that their status must now be on a higher level than that of Patrol Posted outlaws. But he was also sure that if they attempted to walk out of the building that effort would not be successful.
Van Rycke sat stolidly in his chosen seat, fingers of both hands laced across his substantial middle. He had sat as impassively as the Captain while Rip had outlined their adventures since they had all been stricken. Though the other listeners had betrayed interest in the story, the senior officers made no comments. Now Jellico turned to his Cargo-master.
"How about it, Van?"
"What's done is done—"
Dane's elation vanished as if ripped away by a Sargolian storm wind. The Cargo-master didn't approve. So there must have been another way to achieve their ends—one the younger members of the crew had been too inexperienced or too dense to see—
"If we blasted off today we might just make cargo contract."
Dane started. That was it! The point they had lost sight of during their struggles to get aid. There was no possible chance of upping the ship today—probably not for days to come—or ever, if the case went against them. So they had broken contract—and the Board would be down on them for that. Dane shivered inside. He could try to fight back against the Patrol—there had always been a slight feeling of rivalry between the Free Traders and the space police. But you couldn't buck the Board—and keep your license and so have a means of staying in space. A broken contract could cut one off from the stars forever. Captain Jellico looked very bleak at that reminder.
"The Eysies will be all ready to step in. I'd like to know why they were so sure we had the plague on board—"
Van Rycke snorted. "I can supply you five answers to that—for one they may have known the affinity of those creatures for the wood, and it would be easy to predict as a result of our taking a load on board—or again they may have deliberately planted the things on us through the Salariki—But we can't ever prove it. It remains that they are going to get for themselves the Sargolian contract unless—" He stopped short, staring straight ahead of him at the wall between Rip and Dane. And his assistant knew that Van was exploring a fresh idea. Van's ideas were never to be despised and Jellico did not now disturb the Cargo-master with questions.
It was Rip who spoke next and directly to the Captain. "Do you know what they plan to do about us, sir?"
Captain Jellico grunted and there was a sardonic twist to his mouth as he replied, "It's my opinion that they're now busy adding up the list of crimes you four have committed—maybe they had to turn the big HG computer loose on the problem. The tally isn't in yet. We gave them our automat flight record and that ought to give them more food for thought."
Dane speculated as to what the experts would make of the mechanical record of the Queen's past few weeks—the section dealing with their landing in the Big Burn ought to be a little surprising. Van Rycke got to his feet and marched to the door of the conference room. It was opened from without so quickly Dane was sure that they had been under constant surveillance.
"Trade business," snapped the Cargo-master, "contract deal. Take me to a sealed com booth!"
Contracts might not be as sacred to the protective Service as they were to Trade, but Trade had its powers and since Van Rycke, an innocent bystander of the Queen's troubles, could not legally be charged with any crime, he was escorted out of the room. But the door panel was sealed behind him, shutting in the rest with the unspoken warning that they were not free agents. Jellico leaned back in his chair and stretched. Long years of close friendship had taught him that his Cargo-master was to be trusted with not only the actual trading and cargo tending, but could also think them out of some of the tangles which could not be solved by his own direct action methods. Direct action had been applied to their present problem—now the rest was up to Van, and he was willing to delegate all responsibility.
But they were not left long to themselves. The door opened once more to admit star rank Patrolmen. None of the Free Traders arose. As members of another Service they considered themselves equals. And it was their private boast that the interests of Galactic civilization, as represented by the black and silver, often followed, not preceded the brown tunics into new quarters of the universe.
However, Rip, Ali, Dane, and Weeks answered as fully as they could the flood of questions which engulfed them. They explained in detail their visit to the E-Stat, the landing in the Big Burn, the kidnapping of Hovan. Dane's stubborn feeling of being in the right grew in opposition to the questioning. Under the same set of circumstances how would that Commander—that Wing Officer—that Senior Scout—now all seated there—have acted? And every time they inferred that his part in the affair had been illegal he stiffened.
Sure, there had to be law and order out on the Rim—and doubly sure it had to cover and protect life on the softer planets of the inner systems. He wasn't denying that on Limbo, he, for one, had been very glad to see the Patrol blast their way into the headquarters of the pirates holed up on that half-dead world. And he was never contemptuous of the men in the field. But like all Free Traders he was influenced by a belief that too often the laws as enforced by the Patrol favored the wealth and might of the Companies, that law could be twisted and the Patrol sent to push through actions which, though legal, were inherently unfair to those who had not the funds to fight it out in the far off Council courts. Just as now he was certain that the Eysies were bringing all the influence they had to bear here against the Queen's men. And Inter-Solar had a lot of influence.
At the end of their ordeal their statements were read back to them from the recording tape and they thumb signed them. Were these statements or confessions, Dane mused. Perhaps in their honest reports they had just signed their way into the moon mines. Only there was no move to lead them out and book them. And when Weeks pressed his thumb at the bottom of the tape, Captain Jellico took a hand. He looked at his watch.
"It is now ten hours," he observed. "My men need rest, and we all want food. Are you through with us?"
The Commander was spokesman for the other group. "You are to remain in quarantine, Captain. Your ship has not yet been passed as port-free. But you will be assigned quarters—"
Once again they were marched through blank halls to the other section of the sprawling Patrol Headquarters. No windows looked upon the outer world, but there were bunks and a small mess alcove. Ali, Dane, and Rip turned in, more interested in sleep than food. And the last thing the Cargo-apprentice remembered was seeing Jellico talking earnestly with Steen Wilcox as they both sipped steaming mugs of real Terran coffee.
But with twelve hours of sleep behind them the three were less contented in confinement. No one had come near them and Van Rycke had not returned. Which fact the crew clung to as a ray of hope. Somewhere the Cargo-master must be fighting their battle. And all Van's vast store of Trade knowledge, all his knack of cutting corners and driving a shrewd bargain, enlisted on their behalf, must win them some concessions.
Medic Tau came in, bringing Hovan with him. Both looked tired but triumphant. And their report was a shot in the arm for the now uneasy Traders.
"We've rammed it down their throats," Tau announced. "They're willing to admit that it was those poison bugs and not a plague. Incidentally," he grinned at Jellico and then looked around expectantly, "where's Van? This comes in his department. We're going to cash in on those the kids dumped in the deep freeze. Terra-Lab is bidding on them. I said to see Van—he can arrange the best deal for us. Where is he?"
"Gone to see about our contract," Jellico reported. "What's the news about our status now?"
"Well, they've got to wipe out the plague ship listing. Also—we're big news. There're about twenty video men rocketing around out in the offices trying to get in and have us do some spot broadcasts. Seems that the children here," he jerked his thumb at the three apprentices, "started something. An inter-solar invasion couldn't be bigger news! Human interest by the tankful. I've been on Video twice and they're trying to sign up Hovan almost steady—"
The Medic from the frontier nodded. "Wanted me to appear on a three week schedule," he chuckled. "I was asked to come in on 'Our Heroes of the Starlines' and two Quiz programs. As for you, you young criminal," he swung to Dane, "you're going to be fair game for about three networks. It seems you transmit well," he uttered the last as if it were an accusation and Dane squirmed. "Anyway you did something with your crazy stunt. And, Captain, three men want to buy your Hoobat. I gather they are planning a showing of how it captures those pests. So be prepared—"
Dane tried to visualize a scene in which he shared top billing with Queex and shuddered. All he wanted now was to get free of Terra for a nice, quiet, uncomplicated world where problems could be settled with a sleep rod or a blaster and the Video screen was unknown.
Having heard of what awaited them without, the men of the Queen were more content to be incarcerated in the quarantine section. But as time wore on and the Cargo-master did not return, their anxieties awoke. They were fairly sure by now that any penalty the Patrol or the Terrapolice would impose would not be too drastic. But a broken contract was another and more serious affair—a matter which might ground them more effectively than any rule of the law enforcement bodies. And Jellico took to pacing the room, while Tang and Wilcox who had started a game of four dimensional chess made countless errors of move, and Stotz glared moodily at the wall, apparently too sunk in his own gloomy thoughts to rise from the mess table in the alcove.
Though time had ceased to have much meaning for them except as an irritating reminder of the now sure failure of their Sargolian venture, they marked the hours into a second full day of detention before Van Rycke finally put in appearance. The Cargo-master was plainly tired, but he showed no signs of discomposure. In fact as he came in he was humming what he fondly imagined was a popular tune.
Jellico asked no questions, he merely regarded his trusted officer with a quizzically raised eyebrow. But the others drew around. It was so apparent that Van Rycke was pleased with himself. Which could only mean that in some fantastic way he had managed to bring their venture down in a full fin landing, that somehow he had argued the Queen out of danger into a position where he could control the situation.
He halted just within the doorway and eyed Dane, Ali, and Rip with mock severity. "You're baaaad boys," he told them with a shake of the head and a drawl of the adjective. "You've been demoted ten files each on the list."
Which must put him on the bottom rung once more, Dane calculated swiftly. Or even below—though he didn't see how he could fall beneath the rank he held at assignment. However, he found the news heartening instead of discouraging. Compared to a bleak sentence at the moon mines such demotion was absolutely nothing and he knew that Van Rycke was breaking the worst news first.
"You also forfeit all pay for this voyage," the Cargo-master was continuing. But Jellico broke in.
At the Cargo-master's nod, Jellico added. "Ship pays that."
"So I told them," Van Rycke agreed. "The Queen's warned off Terra for ten solar years—"
They could take that, too. Other Free Traders got back to their home ports perhaps once in a quarter century. It was so much less than they had expected that the sentence was greeted with a concentrated sigh of relief.
"No earth-side leave—"
All right—no leave. They were not, after their late experiences so entranced with Terraport that they wanted to linger in its environs any longer than they had to.
"We lose the Sargol contract—"
That did hurt. But they had resigned themselves to it since the hour when they had realized that they could not make it back to the perfumed planet.
"To Inter-Solar?" Wilcox asked the important question.
Van Rycke was smiling broadly, as if the loss he had just announced was in some way a gain. "No—to Combine!"
"Combine?" the Captain echoed and his puzzlement was duplicated around the circle. How did Inter-Solar's principal rival come into it?
"We've made a deal with Combine," Van Rycke informed them. "I wasn't going to let I-S cash in on our loss. So I went to Vickers at Combine and told him the situation. He understands that we were in solid with the Salariki and that the Eysies are not. And a chance to point a blaster at I-S's tail is just what he has been waiting for. The shipment will go out to the storm priests tomorrow on a light cruiser—it'll make it on time."
Yes, a light cruiser, one of the fast ships maintained by the big Companies, could make the transition to Sargol with a slight margin to spare. Stotz nodded his approval at this practical solution.
"I'm going with it—" That did jerk them all up short. For Van Rycke to leave the Queen—that was as unthinkable as if Captain Jellico had suddenly announced that he was about to retire and become a kelp farmer. "Just for the one trip," the Cargo-master hastened to assure them. "I smooth their vector with the storm priests and hand over so the Eysies will be frozen out—"
Captain Jellico interrupted at that point. "D'you mean that Combine is buying us out—not just taking over? What kind of a deal—"
But Van Rycke, his smile a brilliant stretch across his plump face, was nodding in agreement. "They're taking over our contract and our place with the Salariki."
"In return for what?" Steen Wilcox asked for them all.
"For twenty-five thousand credits and a mail run between Xecho and Trewsworld—frontier planets. They're far enough from Terra to get around the exile ruling. The Patrol will escort us out and see that we get down to work like good little space men. We'll have two years of a nice, quiet run on regular pay. Then, when all the powers that shine have forgotten about us, we can cut in on the trade routes again."
"And the pay?" "First or second class mail?" "When do we start?"
"Standard pay on the completion of each run—Board rates," he made replies in order. "First, second and third class mail—anything that bears the government seal and out in those quarters it is apt to be anything! And you start as soon as you can get to Xecho and relieve the Combine scout which has been holding down the run."
"While you go to Sargol—" commented Jellico.
"While I make one voyage to Sargol. You can spare me," he dropped one of his big hands on Dane's shoulder and gave the flesh beneath it a quick squeeze. "Seeing as how our juniors helped pull us out of this last mix-up we can trust them about an inch farther than we did before. Anyway—Cargo-master on a mail run is more or less a thumb-twiddling job at the best. And you can trust Thorson on stowage—that's one thing he does know." Which dubious ending left Dane wondering as to whether he had been complimented or warned. "I'll be on board again before you know it—the Combine will ship me out to Trewsworld on your second trip across and I'll join ship there. For once we won't have to worry for awhile. Nothing can happen on a mail run." He shook his head at the three youngest members of the crew. "You're in for a very dull time—and it will serve you right. Give you a chance to learn your jobs so that when you come up for reassignment you can pick up some of those files you were just demoted. Now," he started briskly for the door, "I'll tranship to the Combine cruiser. I take it that you don't want to meet the Video people?"
At their hasty agreement to that, he laughed. "Well, the Patrol doesn't want the Video spouting about 'high-handed official news suppression' so about an hour or so from now you'll be let out the back way. They put the Queen in a cradle and a field scooter will take you to her. You'll find her serviced for a take-off to Luna City. You can refit there for deep space. Frankly the sooner you get off-world the happier all ranks are going to be—both here and on the Board. It will be better for us to walk softly for a while and let them forget that the Solar Queen and her crazy crew exists. Separately and together you've managed to break—or at least bend—half the laws in the books and they'd like to have us out of their minds."
Captain Jellico stood up. "They aren't any more anxious to see us go than we are to get out of here. You've pulled it off for us again, Van, and we're lucky to get out of it this easy—"
Van Rycke rolled his eyes ceilingward. "You'll never know how lucky! Be glad Combine hates the space I-S blasts through. We were able to use that to our advantage. Get the big fellows at each others' throats and they'll stop annoying us—simple proposition but it works. Anyway we're set in blessed and peaceful obscurity now. Thank the Spirit of Free Space there's practically no trouble one can get into on a safe and sane mail route!"
But Cargo-master Van Rycke, in spite of knowing the Solar Queen and the temper of her crew, was exceedingly over-optimistic when he made that emphatic statement.