Plague Ship/Chapter XIV

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Plague Ship by Andre Norton
Chapter XIV: Special Mission
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That click, the dial beneath the counter, warned them that they were as cut off from the luxuriance outside as if they were viewing a scene on Mars or Sargol from their present position. To go beyond the shielding walls of the spacer into that riotous green world would sentence them to death as surely as if the Patrol was without, with a flamer trained on their hatch. There was no escape from that radiation—it would be in the air one breathed, strike though one's skin. And yet the wilderness flourished and beckoned.

"Mutations—" Rip mused. "Space, Tau'd go wild if he could see it!"

And that mention of the Medic brought them back to the problem which had earthed them. Dane leaned back against the slanting wall of the cabin.

"We have to have a Medic—"

Rip nodded without looking away from the screen.

"Can one of the flitters be shielded?" The Cargo-apprentice persisted.

"That's a thought! Ali should know—" Rip reached for the inter-com mike. "Engines!"

"So you are alive?" Ali's voice had a bite in it. "About time you're contacting. Where are we? Besides being lopsided from a recruit's scrambled set-down, I mean."

"In the Big Burn. Come top-side. Wait—how's Weeks?"

"He has a devil's own headache, but he hasn't blacked out yet. Looks like his immunity holds in part. I've sent him bunkside for a while with a couple of pain pills. So we've made it—"

He must have left to join them for when Rip answered: "After a fashion," into the mike there was no reply.

And the clang of his boot plates on the ladder heralded his arrival at their post. There was an interval for him to view the outer world and accept the verdict of the counter and then Rip voiced Dane's question:

"Can we shield one of the flitters well enough to cross that? I can't take the Queen up and earth her again—"

"I know you can't!" the acting-engineer cut in. "Maybe you could get her off world, but you'll come close to blasting out when you try for another landing. Fuel doesn't go on forever—though some of you space jockeys seem to think it does. The flitter? Well, we've some spare rocket linings. But it's going to be a job and a half to get those beaten out and reassembled. And, frankly, the space whirly one who flies her had better be suited and praying loudly when he takes off. We can always try—" He was frowning, already busied with the problem which was one for his department.

So with intervals of snatched sleep, hurried meals and the time which must be given to tending their unconscious charges, Rip and Dane became only hands to be directed by Ali's brain and garnered knowledge. Weeks slept off the worst of his pain and, though he complained of weakness, he tottered back on duty to help.

The flitter—an air sled intended to hold three men and supplies for exploring trips on strange-worlds—was first stripped of all non-essentials until what remained was not much more than the pilot's seat and the motor. Then they labored to build up a shielding of the tough radiation dulling alloy which was used to line rocket tubes. And they could only praise the foresight of Stotz who carried such a full supply of spare parts and tools. It was a task over which they often despaired, and Ali improvised frantically, performing weird adjustments of engineering structure. He was still unsatisfied when they had done.

"She'll fly," he admitted. "And she's the best we can do. But it'll depend a lot on how far she has to go over 'hot' country. Which way do we head her?"

Rip had been busy with a map of Terra—a small thing he had discovered in one of the travel recordings carried for crew entertainment.

"The Big Burn covers three quarters of this continent. There's no use going north—the devastated area extends into the arctic regions. I'd say west—there's some fringe settlements on the sea coast and we need to contact a frontier territory. Now do we have it straight—? I take the flitter, get a Medic and bring him back?"

Dane cut in at that point. "Correct course! You stay here. If the Queen has to lift, you're the only one who can take her off world. And the same's true for Ali. I can't ride out a blast-off in either the pilot's or the engineer's seat. And Weeks is on the sick list. So I'm elected to do the Medic hunting—"

They were forced to agree to that. He was no hero, Dane thought, as he gave a last glance about his cabin early the next morning. The small cubby, utilitarian and bare as it was, never looked more inviting or secure. No, no hero, it was merely a matter of common sense. And although his imagination—that deeply hidden imagination with which few of his fellows credited him—shrank from the ordeal ahead, he had not the slightest intention of allowing that to deter him.

The space suit, which had been bulky and clumsy enough on the E-Stat asteroid under limited gravity, was almost twice as poorly adapted to progression on earth. But he climbed into it with Rip's aid, while Ali lashed a second suit under the seat—ready to encase the man Dane must bring back with him. Before he closed the helmet, Rip had one last order to give, along with an unexpected piece of equipment. And, when Dane saw that, he knew just how desperate Shannon considered their situation to be. For only on life or death terms would the Astrogator-apprentice have used Jellico's private key, opened the forbidden arms cabinet, and withdrawn that blaster.

"If you need it—use this—" Rip's face was very sober.

Ali arose from fastening the extra suit in place. "It's ready—"

He came back into the corridor and Dane clanked out in his place, settling himself behind the controls. When they saw him there, the inner hatch closed and he was alone in the bay.

With tantalizing slowness the outer wall of the spacer slid back. His hands blundering with the metallic claws of the gloves, Dane buckled two safety belts about him. Then the skeleton flitter moved to the left—out into the glare of the early day, a light too bright, even through the shielded viewplates of his helmet.

For some dangerous moments the machine creaked out and down on the landing cranes, the warning counter on its control panel going into a mad whirl of color as it tried to record the radiation. There came a jar as it touched the scorched earth at the foot of the Queen's fins.

Dane pressed the release and watched the lines whip up and the hatch above snap shut. Then he opened the controls. He used too much energy and shot into the air, tearing a wide gap through what was luckily a thin screen of the matted foliage, before he gained complete mastery.

Then he was able to level out and bore westward, the rising sun at his back, the sea of deadly green beneath him, and somewhere far ahead the faint promise of clean, radiation free land holding the help they needed.

Mile after mile of the green jungle swept under the flitter, and the flash of the counter's light continued to record a land unfit for mankind. Even with the equipment used on distant worlds to protect what spacemen had come to recognize was a reasonably tough human frame, no ground force could hope to explore that wilderness in person. And flying above it, as well insulated as he was, Dane knew that he could be dangerously exposed. If the contaminated territory extended more than a thousand miles, his danger was no longer problematical—it was an established fact.

He had only the vague directions from the scrap of map Rip had uncovered. To the west—he had no idea how far away—there stretched a length of coastline, far enough from the radiation blasted area to allow small settlements. For generations the population of Terra, decimated by the atomic wars, and then drained by first system and then Galactic exploration and colonization, had been decreasing. But within the past hundred years it was again on the upswing. Men retiring from space were returning to their native planet to live out their remaining years. The descendants of far-flung colonists, coming home on visits, found the sparsely populated mother world appealed to some basic instinct so that they remained. And now the settlements of mankind were on the march, spreading out from the well established sections which had not been blighted by ancient wars.

It was mid-afternoon when Dane noted that the green carpet beneath the flitter was displaying holes—that small breaks in the vegetation became sizable stretches of rocky waste. He kept one eye on the counter and what, when he left the spacer, had been an almost steady beam of warning light was now a well defined succession of blinks. The land below was cooling off—perhaps he had passed the worst of the journey. But in that passing how much had he and the flitter become contaminated? Ali had devised a method of protection for the empty suit the Medic would wear—had that held? There were an alarming number of dark ifs in the immediate future.

The mutant growths were now only thin patches of stunted and yellowish green. Had man penetrated only this far into the Burn, the knowledge of what lay beyond would be totally false. This effect of dreary waste might well discourage exploration.

Now the blink of the counter was deliberate, with whole seconds of pause between the flashes. Cooling off—? It was getting cold fast! He wished that he had a com-unit. Because of the interference in the Burn he had left it behind—but with one he might be able now to locate some settlement. All that remained was to find the seashore and, with it as a guide, flit south towards the center of modern civilization.

He laid no plans of action—this whole exploit must depend upon improvisation. And, as a Free Trader, spur-of-the-moment action was a necessary way of life. On the frontier Rim of the Galaxy, where the independent spacers traced the star trails, fast thinking and the ability to change plans on an instant were as important as skill in aiming a blaster. And it was very often proven that the tongue—and the brain behind it—were more deadly than a flamer.

The sun was in Dane's face now and he caught sight of patches of uncontaminated earth with honest vegetation—in place of the "hot" jungle now miles behind. That night he camped out on the edge of rough pasturage where the counter no longer flashed its warning and he was able to shed the suit and sleep under the stars with the fresh air of early summer against his cheek and the smell of honest growing things replacing the dry scent of the spacer and the languorous perfumes of Sargol.

He lay on his back, flat against the earth of which he was truly a part, staring up into the dark, inverted bowl of the heavens. It was so hard to connect those distant points of icy light making the well remembered patterns overhead with the suns whose rays had added to the brown stain on his skin. Sargol's sun—the one which gave such limited light to dead Limbo—the sun under which Naxos, his first Galactic port, grew its food. He could not pick them out—was not even sure that any could be sighted from Terra. Strange suns, red, orange, blue green, white—yet here all looked alike—points of glitter.

Tomorrow at dawn he must go on. He turned his head away from the sky and grass, green Terran grass, was soft beneath his cheek. Yet unless he was successful tomorrow or the next day—he might never have the right to feel that grass again. Resolutely Dane willed that thought out of his mind, tried to fix upon something more lulling which would bring with it the sleep he must have before he went on. And in the end he did sleep, deeply, dreamlessly, as if the touch of Terra's soil was in itself the sedative his tautly strung nerves needed.

It was before sunrise that he awoke, stiff, and chilled. The dryness of pre-dawn gave partial light and somewhere a bird was twittering. There had been birds—or things whose far off ancestors had been birds—in the "hot" forest. Did they also sing to greet the dawn?

Dane went over the flitter with his small counter and was relieved to find that they had done a good job of shielding under Ali's supervision. Once the suit he had worn was stored, he could sit at the controls without danger and in comfort. And it was good to be free of that metal prison.

This time he took to the air with ease, the salt taste of food concentrate on his tongue as he sucked a cube. And his confidence arose with the flitter. This was the day, somehow he knew it. He was going to find what he sought.

It was less than two hours after sunrise that he did so. A village which was a cluster of perhaps fifty or so house units strung along into the land. He skimmed across it and brought the flitter down in a rock cliff walled sand pocket with surf booming some yards away, where he would be reasonably sure of safe hiding.

All right, he had found a village. Now what? A Medic—A stranger appearing on the lane which served the town, a stranger in a distinctive uniform of Trade, would only incite conjecture and betrayal. He had to plan now—

Dane unsealed his tunic. He should, by rights, shed his space boots too. But perhaps he could use those to color his story. He thrust the blaster into hiding at his waist. A rip or two in his undertunic, a shallow cut from his bush knife allowed to bleed messily. He could not see himself to judge the general effect, but had to hope it was the right one.

His chance to test his acting powers came sooner than he had anticipated. Luckily he had climbed out of the hidden cove before he was spotted by the boy who came whistling along the path, a fishing pole over his shoulder, a basket swinging from his hand. Dane assumed an expression which he thought would suggest fatigue, pain, and bewilderment and lurched forward as if, in sighting the oncoming boy, he had also sighted hope.

"Help—!" Perhaps it was excitement which gave his utterance that convincing croak.

Rod and basket fell to the ground as the boy, after one astounded stare, ran forward.

"What's the matter!" His eyes were on those space boots and he added a "sir" which had the ring of hero worship.

"Escape boat—" Dane waved toward the sea's general direction. "Medic—must get to Medic—"

"Yes, sir," the boy's basic Terran sounded good. "Can you walk if I help you?"

Dane managed a weak nod, but contrived that he did not lean too heavily on his avidly helpful guide.

"The Medic's my father, sir. We're right down this slope—third house. And father hasn't left—he's supposed to go on a northern inspection tour today—"

Dane felt a stab of distaste for the role being forced upon him. When he had visualized the Medic he must abduct to serve the Queen in her need, he had not expected to have to kidnap a family man. Only the knowledge that he did have the extra suit, and that he had made the outward trip without dangerous exposure, bolstered up his determination to see the plan through.

When they came out at the end of the single long lane which tied the houses of the village together, Dane was puzzled to see the place so deserted. But, since it was not within his role of dazed sufferer to ask questions, he did not do so. It was his young guide who volunteered the information he wanted.

"Most everyone is out with the fleet. There's a run of red-backs—"

Dane understood. Within recent times the "red-backs" of the north had become a desirable luxury item for Terran tables. If a school of them were to be found in the vicinity no wonder this village was now deserted as its fleet went out to garner in the elusive but highly succulent fish.

"In here, sir—" Dane found himself being led to a house on the right. "Are you in Trade—?"

He suppressed a start, shedding his uniform tunic had not done much in the way of disguise. It would be nice, he thought a little bitterly, if he could flash an I-S badge now to completely confuse the issue. But he answered with the partial truth and did not enlarge.

"Yes—"

The boy was flushed with excitement. "I'm trying for Trade Service Medic," he confided. "Passed the Directive exam last month. But I still have to go up for Prelim psycho—"

Dane had a flash of memory. Not too many months before not the Prelim psycho, but the big machine at the Assignment Center had decided his own future arbitrarily, fitting him into the crew of the Solar Queen as the ship where his abilities, knowledge and potentialities could best work to the good of the Service. At the time he had resented, had even been slightly ashamed of being relegated to a Free Trading spacer while Artur Sands and other classmates from the Pool had walked off with Company assignments. Now he knew that he would not trade the smallest and most rusty bolt from the solar Queen for the newest scout ship in I-S or Combine registry. And this boy from the frontier village might be himself as he was five years earlier. Though he had never known a real home or family, scrapping into the Pool from one of the children's Depots.

"Good luck!" He meant that and the boy's flush deepened.

"Thank you, sir. Around here—Father's treatment room has this other door—"

Dane allowed himself to be helped into the treatment room and sat down in a chair while the boy hurried off to locate the Medic. The Trader's hand went to the butt of his concealed blaster. It was a job he had to do—one he had volunteered for—and there was no backing out. But his mouth had a wry twist as he drew out the blaster and made ready to point it at the inner door. Or—his mind leaped to another idea—could he get the Medic safely out of the village? A story about another man badly injured—perhaps pinned in the wreckage of an escape boat—He could try it. He thrust the blaster back inside his torn undertunic, hoping the bulge would pass unnoticed.

"My son says—"

Dane looked up. The man who came through the inner door was in early middle age, thin, wiry, with a hard, fined-down look about him. He could almost be Tau's elder brother. He crossed the room with a brisk stride and came to stand over Dane, his hand reaching to pull aside the bloody cloth covering the Trader's breast. But Dane fended off that examination.

"My partner," he said. "Back there—pinned in—" he jerked his hand southward. "Needs help—"

The Medic frowned. "Most of the men are out with the fleet. Jorge," he spoke to the boy who had followed him, "go and get Lex and Hartog. Here," he tried to push Dane back into the chair as the Trader got up, "let me look at that cut—"

Dane shook his head. "No time now, sir. My partner's hurt bad. Can you come?"

"Certainly." The Medic reached for the emergency kit on the shelf behind him. "You able to make it?"

"Yes," Dane was exultant. It was going to work! He could toll the Medic away from the village. Once out among the rocks on the shoreline he could pull the blaster and herd the man to the flitter. His luck was going to hold after all!