Plague Ship/Chapter IX

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Jellico and Steen Wilcox pored over the few notes Tau had made before he was stricken. But apparently the Medic had found nothing to indicate that Sinbad was the carrier of any disease. Meanwhile the Captain gave orders for the cat to be confined. A difficult task—since Sinbad crouched close to the door of the storage cabin and was ready to dart out when food was taken in for him. Once he got a good way down the corridor before Dane was able to corner and return him to keeping.

Dane, Ali and Weeks took on the full care of the four sick men, leaving the few regular duties of the ship to the senior officers, while Rip was installed in charge of the hydro garden.

Mura, the first to be taken ill, showed no change. He was semi-conscious, he swallowed food if it were put in his mouth, he responded to nothing around him. And Kosti, Tau, and Van Rycke followed the same pattern. They still held morning inspection of those on their feet for signs of a new outbreak, but when no one else went down during the next two days, they regained a faint spark of hope.

Hope which was snapped out when Ali brought the news that Stotz could not be roused and must have taken ill during a sleep period. One more inert patient was added to the list—and nothing learned about how he was infected. Except that they could eliminate Sinbad, since the cat had been in custody during the time Stotz had apparently contracted the disease.

Weeks, Ali and Dane, though they were in constant contact with the sick men, and though Dane had repeatedly handled Sinbad, continued to be immune. A fact, Dane thought more than once, which must have significance—if someone with Tau's medical knowledge had been able to study it. By all rights they should be the most susceptible—but the opposite seemed true. And Wilcox duly noted that fact among the data they had recorded.

It became a matter of watching each other, waiting for another collapse. And they were not surprised when Tang Ya reeled into the mess, his face livid and drawn with pain. Rip and Dane got him to his cabin before he blacked out. But all they could learn from him during the interval before he lost consciousness was that his head was bursting and he couldn't stand it. Over his limp body they stared at one another bleakly.

"Six down," Ali observed, "and six to go. How do you feel?"

"Tired, that's all. What I don't understand is that once they go into this stupor they just stay. They don't get any worse, they have no rise in temperature—it's as if they are in a modified form of cold sleep!"

"How is Tang?" Rip asked from the corridor.

"Usual pattern," Ali answered, "He's sleeping. Got a pain, Fella?"

Rip shook his head. "Right as a Com-unit. I don't get it. Why does it strike Tang who didn't even hit dirt much—and yet you keep on—?"

Dane grimaced. "If we had an answer to that, maybe we'd know what caused the whole thing—"

Ali's eyes narrowed. He was staring straight at the unconscious Com-tech as if he did not see that supine body at all. "I wonder if we've been salted—" he said slowly.

"We've been what?" Dane demanded.

"Look here, we three—with Weeks—drank that brew of the Salariki, didn't we? And we—"

"Were as sick as Venusian gobblers afterwards," agreed Rip.

Light dawned. "Do you mean—" began Dane.

"So that's it!" flashed Rip.

"It might just be," Ali said. "Do you remember how the settlers on Camblyne brought their Terran cattle through the first year? They fed them salt mixed with fansel grass. The result was that the herds didn't take the fansel grass fever when they turned them out to pasture in the dry season. All right, maybe we had our 'salt' in that drink. The fansel-salt makes the cattle filthy sick when it's forced down their throats, but after they recover they're immune to the fever. And nobody on Camblyne buys unsalted cattle now."

"It sounds logical," admitted Rip. "But how are we going to prove it?"

Ali's face was black once more. "Probably by elimination," he said morosely. "If we keep our feet and all the rest go down—that's our proof."

"But we ought to be able to do something—" protested Shannon.

"Just how?" Ali's slender brows arched. "Do you have a gallon of that Salariki brew on board you can serve out? We don't know what was in it. Nor are we sure that this whole idea has any value."

All of them had had first aid and basic preventive medicine as part of their training, but the more advanced laboratory experimentation was beyond their knowledge and skill. Had Tau still been on his feet perhaps he could have traced that lead and brought order out of the chaos which was closing in upon the Solar Queen. But, though they reported their suggestion to the Captain, Jellico was powerless to do anything about it. If the four who had shared that upsetting friendship cup were immune to the doom which now overhung the ship, there was no possible way for them to discover why or how.

Ship's time came to have little meaning. And they were not surprised when Steen Wilcox slipped from his seat before the computer—to be stowed away with what had become a familiar procedure. Only Jellico withstood the contagion apart from the younger four, taking his turn at caring for the helpless men. There was no change in their condition. They neither roused nor grew worse as the hours and then the days sped by. But each of those units of time in passing brought them nearer to greater danger. Sooner or later they must make the transition out of Hyper into system space, and the jump out of warp was something not even a veteran took lightly. Rip's round face thinned while they watched. Jellico was still functioning. But if the Captain collapsed the whole responsibility for the snap-out would fall directly on Shannon. An infinitesimal error would condemn them to almost hopeless wandering—perhaps for ever.

Dane and Ali relieved Rip of all duty but that which kept him chained in Wilcox's chair before the computers. He went over and over the data of the course the Astrogator had set. And Captain Jellico, his eyes sunk in dark pits, checked and rechecked.

When the fatal moment came Ali manned the engine room with Weeks at his elbow to tend the controls the acting-Engineer could not reach. And Dane, having seen the sick all safely stowed in crash webbing, came up to the control cabin, riding out the transfer in Tang Ya's place.

Rip's voice hoarsened into a croak, calling out the data. Dane, though he had had basic theory, was completely lost before Shannon had finished the first set of co-ordinates. But Jellico replied, hands playing across the pilot's board.

"Stand-by for snap-out—" the croak went down to the engines where Ali now held Stotz's post.

"Engines ready!" The voice came back, thinned by its journey from the Queen's interior.

"Ought-five-nine—" That was Jellico.

Dane found himself suddenly unable to watch. He shut his eyes and braced himself against the vertigo of snap-out. It came and he whirled sickeningly through unstable space. Then he was sitting in the laced Com-tech's seat looking at Rip.

Runnels of sweat streaked Shannon's brown face. There was a damp patch darkening his tunic between his shoulder blades, a patch which it would take both of Dane's hands to cover.

For a moment he did not raise his head to look at the vision plate which would tell him whether or not they had made it. But when he did familiar constellations made the patterns they knew. They were out—and they couldn't be too far off the course Wilcox had plotted. There was still the system run to make—but snap-out was behind them. Rip gave a deep sigh and buried his head in his hands.

With a throb of fear Dane unhooked his safety belt and hurried over to him. When he clutched at Shannon's shoulder the Astrogator-apprentice's head rolled limply. Was Rip down with the illness too? But the other muttered and opened his eyes.

"Does your head ache?" Dane shook him.

"Head? No—" Rip's words came drowsily. "Jus' sleepy—so sleepy—"

He did not seem to be in pain. But Dane's hands were shaking as he hoisted the other out of his seat and half carried-half led him to his cabin, praying as he went that it was only fatigue and not the disease. The ship was on auto now until Jellico as pilot set a course—

Dane got Rip down on the bunk and stripped off his tunic. The fine-drawn face of the sleeper looked wan against the foam rest, and he snuggled into the softness like a child as he turned over and curled up. But his skin was clear—it was real sleep and not the plague which had claimed him.

Impulse sent Dane back to the control cabin. He was not an experienced pilot officer, but there might be some assistance he could offer the Captain now that Rip was washed out, perhaps for hours.

Jellico hunched before the smaller computer, feeding pilot tape into its slot. His face was a skull under a thin coating of skin, the bones marking it sharply at jaw, nose and eye socket.

"Shannon down?" His voice was a mere whisper of its powerful self, he did not turn his head.

"He's just worn out, sir," Dane hastened to give reassurance. "The marks aren't on him."

"When he comes around tell him the co-ords are in," Jellico murmured. "See he checks course in ten hours—"

"But, sir—" Dane's protest failed as he watched the Captain struggle to his feet, pulling himself up with shaking hands. As Thorson reached forward to steady the other, one of those hands tore at tunic collar, ripping loose the sealing—

There was no need for explanation—the red splotch signaled from Jellico's sweating throat. He kept his feet, holding out against the waves of pain by sheer will power. Then Dane had a grip on him, got him away from the computer, hoping he could keep him going until they reached Jellico's cabin.

Somehow they made that journey, being greeted with raucous screams from the Hoobat. Furiously Dane slapped the cage, setting it to swinging and so silencing the creature which stared at him with round, malignant eyes as he got the Captain to bed.

Only four of them on their feet now, Dane thought bleakly as he left the cabin. If Rip came out of it in time they could land—Dane's breath caught as he made himself face up to the fact that Shannon might be ill, that it might be up to him to bring the Queen in for a landing. And in where? The Terra quarantine was Luna City on the Moon. But let them signal for a set-down there—let them describe what had happened and they might face death as a plague ship.

Wearily he climbed down to the mess cabin to discover Weeks and Ali there before him. They did not look up as he entered.

"Old Man's got it," he reported.

"Rip?" was Ali's crossing question.

"Asleep. He passed out—"

"What!" Weeks swung around.

"Worn out," Dane amended. "Captain fed in a pilot tape before he gave up."

"So—now we are three," was Ali's comment. "Where do we set down—Luna City?"

"If they let us," Dane hinted at the worst.

"But they've got to let us!" Weeks exclaimed. "We can't just wander around out here—"

"It's been done," Ali reminded them brutally and that silenced Weeks.

"Did the Old Man set Luna?" After a long pause Ali inquired.

"I didn't check," Dane confessed. "He was giving out and I had to get him to his bunk."

"It might be well to know." The Engineer-apprentice got up, his movements lacking much of the elastic spring which was normally his. When he climbed to control both the others followed him.

Ali's slender fingers played across a set of keys and in the small screen mounting on the computer a set of figures appeared. Dane took up the master course book, read the connotation and blinked.

"Not Luna?" Ali asked.

"No. But I don't understand. This must be for somewhere in the asteroid belt."

Ali's lips stretched into a pale caricature of a smile. "Good for the Old Man, he still had his wits about him, even after the bug bit him!"

"But why are we going to the asteroids?" Weeks asked reasonably enough. "There're Medics at Luna City—they can help us—"

"They can handle known diseases," Ali pointed out. "But what of the Code?"

Weeks dropped into the Com-tech's place as if some of the stiffening had vanished from his thin but sturdy legs. "They wouldn't do that—" he protested, but his eyes said that he knew that they might—they well might.

"Oh, no? Face the facts, man," Ali sounded almost savage. "We come from a frontier planet, we're a plague ship—"

He did not have to underline that. They all knew too well the danger in which they now stood.

"Nobody's died yet," Weeks tried to find an opening in the net being drawn about them.

"And nobody's recovered," Ali crushed that thread of hope. "We don't know what it is, how it is contracted—anything about it. Let us make a report saying that and you know what will happen—don't you?"

They weren't sure of the details, but they could guess.

"So I say," Ali continued, "the Old Man was right when he set us on an evasion course. If we can stay out until we really know what is the matter we'll have some chance of talking over the high brass at Luna when we do planet—"

In the end they decided not to interfere with the course the Captain had set. It would take them into the fringes of solar civilization, but give them a fighting chance at solving their problem before they had to report to the authorities. In the meantime they tended their charges, let Rip sleep, and watched each other with desperate but hidden intentness, ready for another to be stricken. However, they remained, although almost stupid with fatigue at times, reasonably healthy. Time was proving that their guess had been correct—they had been somehow inoculated against the germ or virus which had struck the ship.

Rip slept for twenty-four hours, ship time, and then came into the mess cabin ravenously hungry, to catch up on both food and news. And he refused to join with the prevailing pessimistic view of the future. Instead he was sure that their own immunity having been proven, they had a talking point to use with the medical officials at Luna and he was eager to alter course directly for the quarantine station. Only the combined arguments of the other three made him, unwillingly, agree to a short delay.

And how grateful they should be for Captain Jellico's foresight they learned within the next day. Ali was at the com-unit, trying to pick up Solarian news reports. When the red alert flashed on throughout the ship it brought the others hurrying to the control cabin. The code squeaks were magnified as Ali switched on the receiver full strength, to be translated as he pressed a second button.

"Repeat, repeat, repeat. Free Trader, Solar Queen, Terra Registry 65-724910-Jk, suspected plague ship—took off from infected planet. Warn off—warn off—report such ship to Luna Station. Solar Queen from infected planet—to be warned off and reported." The same message was repeated three times before going off ether.

The four in the control cabin looked at each other blankly.

"But," Dane broke the silence, "how did they know? We haven't reported in—"

"The Eysies!" Ali had the answer ready. "That I-S ship must be having the same sort of trouble and reported to her Company. They would include us in their report and believe that we were infected too—or it would be easy to convince the authorities that we were."

"I wonder," Rip's eyes were narrowed slits as he leaned back against the wall. "Look at the facts. The Survey ship which charted Sargol—they were dirt-side there about three-four months. Yet they gave it a clean bill of health and put it up for trading rights auction. Then Cam bought those rights—he made at least two trips in and out before he was blasted on Limbo. No infection bothered him or Survey—"

"But you've got to admit it hit us," Weeks protested.

"Yes, and the Eysie ship was able to foresee it—report us before we snapped out of Hyper. Sounds almost as if they expected us to carry plague, doesn't it?" Shannon wanted to know.

"Planted?" Ali frowned at the banks of controls. "But how—no Eysie came on board—no Salarik either, except for the cub who showed us what they thought of catnip."

Rip shrugged. "How would I know how they did—" he was beginning when Dane cut in:

"If they didn't know about our immunity the Queen might stay in Hyper and never come out—there wouldn't be anyone to set the snap-out."

"Right enough. But on the chance that somebody did keep on his feet and bring her home, they were ready with a cover. If no one raises a howl Sargol will be written off the charts as infected, I-S sits on her tail fins a year or so and then she promotes an investigation before the Board. The Survey records are trotted out—no infection recorded. So they send in a Patrol Probe. Everything is all right—so it wasn't the planet after all—it was that dirty old Free Trader. And she's out of the way. I-S gets the Koros trade all square and legal and we're no longer around to worry about! Neat as a Salariki net-cast—and right around our collective throats, my friends!"

"So what do we do now?" Weeks wanted to know.

"We keep on the Old Man's course, get lost in the asteroids until we can do some heavy thinking and see a way out. But if I-S gave us this prize package, some trace of its origin is still aboard. And if we can find that—why, then we have something to start from."

"Mura went down first—and then Karl. Nothing in common," the old problem faced Dane for the hundredth time.

"No. But," Ali arose from his place at the com-unit. "I'd suggest a real search of first Frank's and then Karl's quarters. A regular turn out down to the bare walls of their cabins. Are you with me?"

"Fly boy, we're ahead of you!" Rip contributed, already at the door panel. "Down to the bare walls it is."