Infomotions, Inc.Plague Ship / Norton, Andre, 1912-2005



Author: Norton, Andre, 1912-2005
Title: Plague Ship
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): dane; salariki; rycke; ali; rip; captain jellico; solar queen; queen; koros stones
Contributor(s): Horne, Diantha W. [Illustrator]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 62,303 words (short) Grade range: 8-10 (high school) Readability score: 68 (easy)
Identifier: etext16921
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Title: Plague Ship

Author: Andre Norton

Release Date: October 23, 2005 [EBook #16921]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII

*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK PLAGUE SHIP ***




Produced by Jason Isbell, Greg Weeks, Cori Samuel and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net





ANDRE NORTON

(Writing As "Andrew North")

PLAGUE SHIP




Copyright, 1956 by Andrew North

All Rights Reserved




Chapter I

PERFUMED PLANET


Dane Thorson, Cargo-master-apprentice of the Solar Queen, Galactic Free
Trader spacer, Terra registry, stood in the middle of the ship's cramped
bather while Rip Shannon, assistant Astrogator and his senior in the
Service of Trade by some four years, applied gobs of highly scented paste
to the skin between Dane's rather prominent shoulder blades. The small
cabin was thickly redolent with spicy odors and Rip sniffed
appreciatively.

"You're sure going to be about the best smelling Terran who ever set boot
on Sargol's soil," his soft slur of speech ended in a rich chuckle.

Dane snorted and tried to estimate progress over one shoulder.

"The things we have to do for Trade!" his comment carried a hint of
present embarrassment. "Get it well in--this stuff's supposed to hold for
hours. It'd better. According to Van those Salariki can talk your ears
right off your head and say nothing worth hearing. And we have to sit and
listen until we get a straight answer out of them. Phew!" He shook his
head. In such close quarters the scent, pleasing as it was, was also
overpowering. "We would have to pick a world such as this--"

Rip's dark fingers halted their circular motion. "Dane," he warned,
"don't you go talking against this venture. We got it soft and we're
going to be credit-happy--if it works out--"

But, perversely, Dane held to a gloomier view of the immediate future.
"_If_," he repeated. "There's a galaxy of 'ifs' in this Sargol
proposition. All very well for you to rest easy on your fins--you don't
have to run about smelling like a spice works before you can get the time
of day from one of the natives!"

Rip put down the jar of cream. "Different worlds, different customs," he
iterated the old tag of the Service. "Be glad this one is so easy to
conform to. There are some I can think of--There," he ended his massage
with a stinging slap. "You're all evenly greased. Good thing you don't
have Van's bulk to cover. It takes him a good hour to get his cream
on--even with Frank helping to spread. Your clothes ought to be steamed
up and ready, too, by now--"

He opened a tight wall cabinet, originally intended to sterilize clothing
which might be contaminated by contact with organisms inimical to
Terrans. A cloud of steam fragrant with the same spicy scent poured out.

Dane gingerly tugged loose his Trade uniform, its brown silky fabric damp
on his skin as he dressed. Luckily Sargol was warm. When he stepped out
on its ruby tinted soil this morning no lingering taint of his off-world
origin must remain to disgust the sensitive nostrils of the Salariki. He
supposed he would get used to this process. After all this was the first
time he had undergone the ritual. But he couldn't lose the secret
conviction that it was all very silly. Only what Rip had pointed out was
the truth--one adjusted to the customs of aliens or one didn't trade and
there were other things he might have had to do on other worlds which
would have been far more upsetting to that core of private fastidiousness
which few would have suspected existed in his tall, lanky frame.

"Whew--out in the open with you--!" Ali Kamil apprentice Engineer,
screwed his too regular features into an expression of extreme distaste
and waved Dane by him in the corridor.

For the sake of his shipmates' olfactory nerves, Dane hurried on to the
port which gave on the ramp now tying the Queen to Sargol's crust. But
there he lingered, waiting for Van Rycke, the Cargo-master of the spacer
and his immediate superior. It was early morning and now that he was out
of the confinement of the ship the fresh morning winds cut about him,
rippling through the blue-green grass forest beyond, to take much of his
momentary irritation with them.

There were no mountains in this section of Sargol--the highest elevations
being rounded hills tightly clothed with the same ten-foot grass which
covered the plains. From the Queen's observation ports, one could watch
the constant ripple of the grass so that the planet appeared to be
largely clothed in a shimmering, flowing carpet. To the west were the
seas--stretches of shallow water so cut up by strings of islands that
they more resembled a series of salty lakes. And it was what was to be
found in those seas which had lured the Solar Queen to Sargol.

Though, by rights, the discovery was that of another Trader--Traxt
Cam--who had bid for trading rights to Sargol, hoping to make a
comfortable fortune--or at least expenses with a slight profit--in the
perfume trade, exporting from the scented planet some of its most
fragrant products. But once on Sargol he had discovered the Koros
stones--gems of a new type--a handful of which offered across the board
in one of the inner planet trading marts had nearly caused a riot among
bidding gem merchants. And Cam had been well on the way to becoming one
of the princes of Trade when he had been drawn into the vicious net of
the Limbian pirates and finished off.

Because they, too, had stumbled into the trap which was Limbo, and had
had a very definite part in breaking up that devilish installation, the
crew of the Solar Queen had claimed as their reward the trading rights of
Traxt Cam in default of legal heirs. And so here they were on Sargol with
the notes left by Cam as their guide, and as much lore concerning the
Salariki as was known crammed into their minds.

Dane sat down on the end of the ramp, his feet on Sargolian soil, thin,
red soil with glittering bits of gold flake in it. He did not doubt that
he was under observation from hidden eyes, but he tried to show no sign
that he guessed it. The adult Salariki maintained at all times an
attitude of aloof and complete indifference toward the Traders, but the
juvenile population were as curious as their elders were contemptuous.
Perhaps there was a method of approach in that. Dane considered the idea.

Van Rycke and Captain Jellico had handled the first negotiations--and the
process had taken most of a day--the result totaling exactly nothing. In
their contacts with the off world men the feline ancestered Salariki were
ceremonious, wary, and completely detached. But Cam had gotten to them
somehow--or he would not have returned from his first trip with that
pouch of Koros stones. Only, among his records, salvaged on Limbo, he had
left absolutely no clue as to how he had beaten down native sales
resistance. It was baffling. But patience had to be the middle name of
every Trader and Dane had complete faith in Van. Sooner or later the
Cargo-master would find a key to unlock the Salariki.

As if the thought of Dane's chief had summoned him, Van Rycke, his
scented tunic sealed to his bull's neck in unaccustomed trimness, his
cap on his blond head, strode down the ramp, broadcasting waves of
fragrance as he moved. He sniffed vigorously as he approached his
assistant and then nodded in approval.

"So you're all greased and ready--"

"Is the Captain coming too, sir?"

Van Rycke shook his head. "This is our headache. Patience, my boy,
patience--" He led the way through a thin screen of the grass on the
other side of the scorched landing field to a well-packed earth road.

Again Dane felt eyes, knew that they were being watched. But no Salarik
stepped out of concealment. At least they had nothing to fear in the way
of attack. Traders were immune, taboo, and the trading stations were set
up under the white diamond shield of peace, a peace guaranteed on blood
oath by every clan chieftain in the district. Even in the midst of
interclan feuding deadly enemies met in amity under that shield and would
not turn claw knife against each other within a two mile radius of its
protection.

The grass forests rustled betrayingly, but the Terrans displayed no
interest in those who spied upon them. An insect with wings of brilliant
green gauze detached itself from the stalk of a grass tree and fluttered
ahead of the Traders as if it were an official herald. From the red soil
crushed by their boots arose a pungent odor which fought with the scent
they carried with them. Dane swallowed three or four times and hoped that
his superior officer had not noticed that sign of discomfort. Though Van
Rycke, in spite of his general air of sleepy benevolence and careless
goodwill, noticed everything, no matter how trivial, which might have a
bearing on the delicate negotiations of Galactic Trade. He had not
climbed to his present status of expert Cargo-master by overlooking
anything at all. Now he gave an order:

"Take an equalizer--"

Dane reached for his belt pouch, flushing, fiercely determined inside
himself, that no matter how smells warred about him that day, he was not
going to let it bother him. He swallowed the tiny pellet Medic Tau had
prepared for just such trials and tried to occupy his mind with the work
to come. If there would be any work--or would another long day be wasted
in futile speeches of mutual esteem which gave formal lip service to
Trade and its manifest benefits?

"Houuuu--" The cry which was half wail, half arrogant warning, sounded
along the road behind them.

Van Rycke's stride did not vary. He did not turn his head, show any sign
he had heard that heralding fanfare for a clan chieftain. And he
continued to keep to the exact center of the road, Dane the regulation
one pace to the rear and left as befitted his lower rank.

"Houuu--" that blast from the throat of a Salarik especially chosen for
his lung power was accompanied now by the hollow drum of many feet. The
Terrans neither looked around nor withdrew from the center, nor did their
pace quicken.

That, too, was in order, Dane knew. To the rank conscious Salariki
clansmen you did not yield precedence unless you wanted at once to
acknowledge your inferiority--and if you did that by some slip of
admission or omission, there was no use in trying to treat face to face
with their chieftains again.

"Houuu--!" The blast behind was a scream as the retinue it announced
swept around the bend in the road to catch sight of the two Traders
oblivious of it. Dane longed to be able to turn his head, just enough to
see which one of the local lordlings they blocked.

"Houu--" there was a questioning note in the cry now and the heavy
thud-thud of feet was slacking. The clan party had seen them, were
hesitant about the wisdom of trying to shove them aside.

Van Rycke marched steadily onward and Dane matched his pace. They might
not possess a leather-lunged herald to clear their road, but they gave
every indication of having the right to occupy as much of it as they
wished. And that unruffled poise had its affect upon those behind. The
pound of feet slowed to a walk, a walk which would keep a careful
distance behind the two Terrans. It had worked--the Salariki--or these
Salariki--were accepting them at their own valuation--a good omen for the
day's business. Dane's spirits rose, but he schooled his features into a
mask as wooden as his superior's. After all this was a very minor victory
and they had ten or twelve hours of polite, and hidden, maneuvering
before them.

The Solar Queen had set down as closely as possible to the trading center
marked on Traxt Cam's private map and the Terrans now had another five
minutes march, in the middle of the road, ahead of the chieftain who must
be inwardly boiling at their presence, before they came out in the
clearing containing the roofless, circular erection which served the
Salariki of the district as a market place and a common meeting ground
for truce talks and the mending of private clan alliances. Erect on a
pole in the middle, towering well above the nodding fronds of the grass
trees, was the pole bearing the trade shield which promised not only
peace to those under it, but a three day sanctuary to any feuder or
duelist who managed to win to it and lay hands upon its weathered
standard.

They were not the first to arrive, which was also a good thing. Gathered
in small groups about the walls of the council place were the personal
attendants, liege warriors, and younger relatives of at least four or
five clan chieftains. But, Dane noted at once, there was not a single
curtained litter or riding orgel to be seen. None of the feminine part of
the Salariki species had arrived. Nor would they until the final trade
treaty was concluded and established by their fathers, husbands, or sons.

With the assurance of one who was master in his own clan, Van Rycke,
displaying no interest at all in the shifting mass of lower rank
Salariki, marched straight on to the door of the enclosure. Two or three
of the younger warriors got to their feet, their brilliant cloaks
flicking out like spreading wings. But when Van Rycke did not even lift
an eyelid in their direction, they made no move to block his path.

As fighting men, Dane thought, trying to study the specimens before him
with a totally impersonal stare, the Salariki were an impressive lot.
Their average height was close to six feet, their distant feline ancestry
apparent only in small vestiges. A Salarik's nails on both hands and feet
were retractile, his skin was gray, his thick hair, close to the texture
of plushy fur, extended down his backbone and along the outside of his
well muscled arms and legs, and was tawny-yellow, blue-gray or white. To
Terran eyes the broad faces, now all turned in their direction, lacked
readable expression. The eyes were large and set slightly aslant in the
skull, being startlingly orange-red or a brilliant turquoise green-blue.
They wore loin cloths of brightly dyed fabrics with wide sashes forming
corselets about their slender middles, from which gleamed the gem-set
hilts of their claw knives, the possession of which proved their
adulthood. Cloaks as flamboyant as their other garments hung in bat wing
folds from their shoulders and each and every one moved in an invisible
cloud of perfume.

Brilliant as the assemblage of liege men without had been, the gathering
of clan leaders and their upper officers within the council place was a
riot of color--and odor. The chieftains were installed on the wooden
stools, each with a small table before him on which rested a goblet
bearing his own clan sign, a folded strip of patterned cloth--his "trade
shield"--and a gemmed box containing the scented paste he would use for
refreshment during the ordeal of conference.

A breeze fluttered sash ends and tugged at cloaks, otherwise the assembly
was motionless and awesomely quiet. Still making no overtures Van Rycke
crossed to a stool and table which stood a little apart and seated
himself. Dane went into the action required of him. Before his superior
he set out a plastic pocket flask, its color as alive in the sunlight as
the crudely cut gems which the Salariki sported, a fine silk
handkerchief, and, last of all, a bottle of Terran smelling salts
provided by Medic Tau as a necessary restorative after some hours
combination of Salariki oratory and Salariki perfumes. Having thus done
the duty of liege man, Dane was at liberty to seat himself, cross-legged
on the ground behind his chief, as the other sons, heirs, and advisors
had gathered behind their lords.

The chieftain whose arrival they had in a manner delayed came in after
them and Dane saw that it was Fashdor--another piece of luck--since that
clan was a small one and the chieftain had little influence. Had they so
slowed Halfer or Paft it might be a different matter altogether.

Fashdor was established at his seat, his belongings spread out, and Dane,
counting unobtrusively, was certain that the council was now complete.
Seven clans Traxt Cam had recorded divided the sea coast territory and
there were seven chieftains here--indicative of the importance of this
meeting since some of these clans beyond the radius of the shield peace,
must be fighting a vicious blood feud at that very moment. Yes, seven
were here. Yet there still remained a single stool, directly across the
circle from Van Rycke. An empty stool--who was the late comer?

That question was answered almost as it flashed into Dane's mind. But no
Salariki lordling came through the door. Dane's self-control kept him in
his place, even after he caught the meaning of the insignia emblazoned
across the newcomer's tunic. Trader--and not only a Trader but a Company
man! But why--and how? The Companies only went after big game--this was a
planet thrown open to Free Traders, the independents of the star lanes.
By law and right no Company man had any place here. Unless--behind a face
Dane strove to keep as impassive as Van's his thoughts raced. Traxt Cam
as a Free Trader had bid for the right to exploit Sargol when its sole
exportable product was deemed to be perfume--a small, unimportant trade
as far as the Companies were concerned. And then the Koros stones had
been found and the importance of Sargol must have boomed as far as the
big boys could see. They probably knew of Traxt Cam's death as soon as
the Patrol report on Limbo had been sent to Headquarters. The Companies
all maintained their private information and espionage services. And,
with Traxt Cam dead without an heir, they had seen their chance and moved
in. Only, Dane's teeth set firmly, they didn't have the ghost of a chance
now. Legally there was only one Trader on Sargol and that was the Solar
Queen, Captain Jellico had his records signed by the Patrol to prove
that. And all this Inter-Solar man would do now was to bow out and try
poaching elsewhere.

But the I-S man appeared to be in no haste to follow that only possible
course. He was seating himself with arrogant dignity on that unoccupied
stool, and a younger man in I-S uniform was putting before him the same
type of equipment Dane had produced for Van Rycke. The Cargo-master of
the Solar Queen showed no surprise, if the Eysies' appearance had been
such to him.

One of the younger warriors in Paft's train got to his feet and brought
his hands together with a clap which echoed across the silent gathering
with the force of an archaic solid projectal shot. A Salarik, wearing the
rich dress of the upper ranks, but also the collar forced upon a captive
taken in combat, came into the enclosure carrying a jug in both hands.
Preceded by Paft's son he made the rounds of the assembly pouring a
purple liquid from his jug into the goblet before each chieftain, a
goblet which Paft's heirs tasted ceremoniously before it was presented to
the visiting clan leader. When they paused before Van Rycke the Salarik
nobleman touched the side of the plasta flask in token. It was recognized
that off world men must be cautious over the sampling of local products
and that when they joined in the Taking of the First Cup of Peace, they
did so symbolically.

Paft raised his cup, his gesture copied by everyone around the circle. In
the harsh tongue of his race he repeated a formula so archaic that few of
the Salariki could now translate the sing-song words. They drank and the
meeting was formally opened.

But it was an elderly Salarik seated to the right of Halfer, a man who
wore no claw knife and whose dusky yellow cloak and sash made a subdued
note amid the splendor of his fellows, who spoke first, using the
click-clack of the Trade Lingo his nation had learned from Cam.

"Under the white," he pointed to the shield aloft, "we assemble to hear
many things. But now come two tongues to speak where once there was but
one father of a clan. Tell us, outlanders, which of you must we now hark
to in truth?" He looked from Van Rycke to the I-S representative.

The Cargo-master from the Queen did not reply. He stared across the
circle at the Company man. Dane waited eagerly. What _was_ the I-S going
to say to that?

But the fellow did have an answer, ready and waiting. "It is true,
fathers of clans, that here are two voices, where by right and custom
there should only be one. But this is a matter which can be decided
between us. Give us leave to withdraw from your sight and speak privately
together. Then he who returns to you will be the true voice and there
shall be no more division--"

It was Paft who broke in before Halfer's spokesman could reply.

"It would have been better to have spoken together before you came to us.
Go then until the shadow of the shield is not, then return hither and
speak truly. We do not wait upon the pleasure of outlanders--"

A murmur approved that tart comment. "Until the shadow of the shield is
not." They had until noon. Van Rycke arose and Dane gathered up his
chief's possessions. With the same superiority to his surroundings he had
shown upon entering, the Cargo-master left the enclosure, the Eysies
following. But they were away from the clearing, out upon the road back
to the Queen before the two from the Company caught up with them.

"Captain Grange will see you right away--" the Eysie Cargo-master was
beginning when Van Rycke met him with a quelling stare.

"If you poachers have anything to say--you say it at the Queen and to
Captain Jellico," he stated flatly and started on.

Above his tight tunic collar the other's face flushed, his teeth flashed
as he caught his lower lip between them as if to forcibly restrain an
answer he longed to make. For a second he hesitated and then he vanished
down a side path with his assistant. Van Rycke had gone a quarter of the
distance back to the ship before he spoke.

"I thought it was too easy," he muttered. "Now we're in for it--maybe
right up the rockets! By the Spiked Tail of Exol, this is certainly _not_
our lucky day!" He quickened pace until they were close to trotting.




Chapter II

RIVALS


"That's far enough, Eysie!"

Although Traders by law and tradition carried no more potent personal
weapons--except in times of great crisis--than hand sleep rods, the
resultant shot from the latter was just as unpleasant for temporary
periods as a more forceful beam--and the threat of it was enough to halt
the three men who had come to the foot of the Queen's ramp and who could
see the rod held rather negligently by Ali. Ali's eyes were anything but
negligent, however, and Free Traders had reputations to be respected by
their rivals of the Companies. The very nature of their roving lives
taught them savage lessons--which they either learned or died.

Dane, glancing down over the Engineer-apprentice's shoulder, saw that Van
Rycke's assumption of confidence had indeed paid off. They had left the
trade enclosure of the Salariki barely three-quarters of an hour ago. But
below now stood the bebadged Captain of the I-S ship and his
Cargo-master.

"I want to speak to your Captain--" snarled the Eysie officer.

Ali registered faint amusement, an expression which tended to rouse the
worst in the spectator, as Dane knew of old when that same mocking
appraisal had been turned on him as the rawest of the Queen's crew.

"But does _he_ wish to speak to you?" countered Kamil. "Just stay where
you are, Eysie, until we are sure about that fact."

That was his cue to act as messenger. Dane retreated into the ship and
swung up the ladder to the command section. As he passed Captain
Jellico's private cabin he heard the muffled squall of the commander's
unpleasant pet--Queex, the Hoobat--a nightmare combination of crab,
parrot and toad, wearing a blue feather coating and inclined to scream
and spit at all comers. Since Queex would not be howling in that fashion
if its master was present, Dane kept on to the control cabin where he
blundered in upon an executive level conference of Captain, Cargo-master
and Astrogator.

"Well?" Jellico's blaster scarred left cheek twitched as he snapped that
impatient inquiry at the messenger.

"Eysie Captain below, sir. With his Cargo-master. They want to see you--"

Jellico's mouth was a straight line, his eyes very hard. By instinct
Dane's hand went to the grip of the sleep rod slung at his belt. When the
Old Man put on his fighting face--look out! Here we go again, he told
himself, speculating as to just what type of action lay before them now.

"Oh, they do, do they!" Jellico began and then throttled down the temper
he could put under iron control when and if it were necessary. "Very
well, tell them to stay where they are. Van, we'll go down--"

For a moment the Cargo-master hesitated, his heavy-lidded eyes looked
sleepy, he seemed almost disinterested in the suggestion. And when he
nodded it was with the air of someone about to perform some boring duty.

"Right, sir." He wriggled his heavy body from behind the small table,
resealed his tunic, and settled his cap with as much precision as if he
were about to represent the Queen before the assembled nobility of
Sargol.

Dane hurried down the ladders, coming to a halt beside Ali. It was the
turn of the man at the foot of the ramp to bark an impatient demand:

"Well?" (Was that the theme word of every Captain's vocabulary?)

"You wait," Dane replied with no inclination to give the Eysie officer
any courtesy address. Close to a Terran year aboard the Solar Queen had
inoculated him with pride in his own section of Service. A Free Trader
was answerable to his own officers and to no one else on earth--or among
the stars--no matter how much discipline and official etiquette the
Companies used to enhance their power.

He half expected the I-S officers to leave after an answer such as that.
For a Company Captain to be forced to wait upon the convenience of a Free
Trader must be galling in the extreme. And the fact that this one was
doing just that was an indication that the Queen's crew did, perhaps,
have the edge of advantage in any coming bargain. In the meantime the
Eysie contingent fumed below while Ali lounged whistling against the exit
port, playing with his sleep rod and Dane studied the grass forest. His
boot nudged a packet just inside the port casing and he glanced
inquiringly from it to Ali.

"Cat ransom," the other answered his unspoken question.

So that was it--the fee for Sinbad's return. "What is it today?"

"Sugar--about a tablespoon full," the Engineer-assistant returned, "and
two colored steelos. So far they haven't run up the price on us. I think
they're sharing out the spoil evenly, a new cub brings him back every
night."

As did all Terran ships, the Solar Queen carried a cat as an important
member of the regular crew. And the portly Sinbad, before their landing
on Sargol, had never presented any problem. He had done his duty of
ridding the ship of unusual and usual pests and cargo despoilers with
dispatch, neatness and energy. And when in port on alien worlds had never
shown any inclination to go a-roving.

But the scents of Sargol had apparently intoxicated him, shearing away
his solid dignity and middle-aged dependability. Now Sinbad flashed out
of the Queen at the opening of her port in the early morning and was
brought back, protesting with both voice and claws, at the end of the day
by that member of the juvenile population whose turn it was to collect
the standing reward for his forceful delivery. Within three days it had
become an accepted business transaction which satisfied everyone but
Sinbad.

The scrape of metal boot soles on ladder rungs warned of the arrival of
their officers. Ali and Dane withdrew down the corridor, leaving the
entrance open for Jellico and Van Rycke. Then they drifted back to
witness the meeting with the Eysies.

There were no prolonged greetings between the two parties, no offer of
hospitality as might have been expected between Terrans on an alien
planet a quarter of the Galaxy away from the earth which had given them a
common heritage.

Jellico, with Van Rycke at his shoulder, halted before he stepped from
the ramp so that the three Inter-Solar men, Captain, Cargo-master and
escort, whether they wished or no, were put in the disadvantageous
position of having to look up to a Captain whom they, as members of one
of the powerful Companies, affected to despise. The lean, well muscled,
trim figure of the Queen's commander gave the impression of hard bitten
force held in check by will control, just as his face under its thick
layer of space burn was that of an adventurer accustomed to make split
second decisions--an estimate underlined by that seam of blaster burn
across one flat cheek.

Van Rycke, with a slight change of dress, could have been a Company man
in the higher ranks--or so the casual observer would have placed him,
until an observer marked the eyes behind those sleepy drooping lids, or
caught a certain note in the calm, unhurried drawl of his voice. To look
at the two senior officers of the Free Trading spacer were the antithesis
of each other--in action they were each half of a powerful, steamroller
whole--as a good many men in the Service--scattered over a half dozen or
so planets--had discovered to their cost in the past.

Now Jellico brought the heels of his space boots together with an
extravagant click and his hand flourished at the fore of his helmet in a
gesture which was better suited to the Patrol hero of a slightly
out-of-date Video serial.

"Jellico, Solar Queen, Free Trader," he identified himself brusquely, and
added, "this is Van Rycke, our Cargo-master."

Not all the flush had faded from the face of the I-S Captain.

"Grange of the Dart," he did not even sketch a salute. "Inter-Solar.
Kallee, Cargo-master--" And he did not name the hovering third member of
his party.

Jellico stood waiting and after a long moment of silence Grange was
forced to state his business.

"We have until noon--"

Jellico, his fingers hooked in his belt, simply waited. And under his
level gaze the Eysie Captain began to find the going hard.

"They have given us until noon," he started once more, "to get
together--"

Jellico's voice came, coldly remote. "There is no reason for any 'getting
together,' Grange. By rights I can have you up before the Trade Board for
poaching. The Solar Queen has sole trading rights here. If you up-ship
within a reasonable amount of time, I'll be inclined to let it pass.
After all I've no desire to run all the way to the nearest Patrol post to
report you--"

"You can't expect to buck Inter-Solar. We'll make you an offer--" That
was Kallee's contribution, made probably because his commanding officer
couldn't find words explosive enough.

Jellico, whose forté was more direct action, took an excursion into
heavy-handed sarcasm. "You Eysies have certainly been given excellent
briefing. I would advise a little closer study of the Code--and not the
sections in small symbols at the end of the tape, either! _We're_ not
bucking anyone. You'll find our registration for Sargol down on tapes at
the Center. And I suggest that the sooner you withdraw the better--before
we cite you for illegal planeting."

Grange had gained control of his emotions. "We're pretty far from Center
here," he remarked. It was a statement of fact, but it carried over-tones
which they were able to assess correctly. The Solar Queen was a Free
Trader, alone on an alien world. But the I-S ship might be cruising in
company, ready to summon aid, men and supplies. Dane drew a deep breath,
the Eysies _must_ be sure of themselves, not only that, but they must
want what Sargol had to offer to the point of being willing to step
outside the law to get it.

The I-S Captain took a step forward. "I think we understand each other
now," he said, his confidence restored.

Van Rycke answered him, his deep voice cutting across the sighing of the
wind in the grass forest.

"Your proposition?"

Perhaps this return to their implied threat bolstered their belief in the
infallibility of the Company, their conviction that no independent dared
stand up against the might and power of Inter-Solar. Kallee replied:

"We'll take up your contract, at a profit to you, and you up-ship before
the Salariki are confused over whom they are to deal with--"

"And the amount of profit?" Van Rycke bored in.

"Oh," Kallee shrugged, "say ten percent of Cam's last shipment--"

Jellico laughed. "Generous, aren't you, Eysie? Ten percent of a cargo
which can't be assessed--the gang on Limbo kept no records of what they
plundered."

"We don't know what he was carrying when he crashed on Limbo," countered
Kallee swiftly. "We'll base our offer on what he carried to Axal."

Now Van Rycke chucked. "I wonder who figured that one out?" he inquired
of the scented winds. "He must save the Company a fair amount of credits
one way or another. Interesting offer--"

By the bland satisfaction to be read on the three faces below the I-S men
were assured of their victory. The Solar Queen would be paid off with a
pittance, under the vague threat of Company retaliation she would
up-ship from Sargol, and they would be left in possession of the rich
Koros trade--to be commended and rewarded by their superiors. Had they,
Dane speculated, ever had any dealings with Free Traders before--at least
with the brand of independent adventurers such as manned the Solar Queen?

Van Rycke burrowed in his belt pouch and then held out his hand. On the
broad palm lay a flat disc of metal. "Very interesting--" he repeated. "I
shall treasure this recording--"

The sight of that disc wiped all satisfaction from the Eysie faces.
Grange's purplish flush spread up from his tight tunic collar, Kallee
blinked, and the unknown third's hand dropped to his sleep rod. An action
which was not overlooked by either Dane or Ali.

"A smooth set down to you," Jellico gave the conventional leave taking of
the Service.

"You'd better--" the Eysie Captain began hotly, and then seeing the disc
Van Rycke held--that sensitive bit of metal and plastic which was
recording this interview for future reference, he shut his mouth tight.

"Yes?" the Queen's Cargo-master prompted politely. But Kallee had taken
his Captain's arm and was urging Grange away from the spacer.

"You have until noon to lift," was Jellico's parting shot as the three in
Company livery started toward the road.

"I don't think that they will," he added to Van Rycke.

The Cargo-master nodded. "You wouldn't in their place," he pointed out
reasonably. "On the other hand they've had a bit of a blast they weren't
expecting. It's been a long time since Grange heard anyone say 'no.'"

"A shock which is going to wear off," Jellico's habitual distrust of the
future gathered force.

"This," Van Rycke tucked the disc back into his pouch, "sent them off
vector a parsec or two. Grange is not one of the strong arm blaster
boys. Suppose Tang Ya does a little listening in--and maybe we can rig
another surprise if Grange does try to ask advice of someone off world.
In the meantime I don't think they are going to meddle with the Salariki.
They don't want to have to answer awkward questions if _we_ turn up a
Patrol ship to ask them. So--" he stretched and beckoned to Dane, "we
shall go to work once more."

Again two paces behind Van Rycke Dane tramped to the trade circle of the
Salariki clansmen. They might have walked out only five or six minutes of
ship time before, and the natives betrayed no particular interest in
their return. But, Dane noted, there was only one empty stool, one
ceremonial table in evidence. The Salariki had expected only one Terran
Trader to join them.

What followed was a dreary round of ceremony, an exchange of platitudes
and empty good wishes and greetings. No one mentioned Koros stones--or
even perfume bark--that he was willing to offer the off-world traders.
None lifted so much as a corner of his trade cloth, under which, if he
were ready to deal seriously, his hidden hand would meet that of the
buyer, so that by finger pressure alone they could agree or disagree on
price. But such boring sessions were part of Trade and Dane, keeping a
fraction of attention on the speeches and "drinkings-together," watched
those around him with an eye which tried to assess and classify what he
saw.

The keynote of the Salariki character was a wary independence. The only
form of government they would tolerate was a family-clan organization.
Feuds and deadly duels between individuals and clans were the accepted
way of life and every male who reached adulthood went armed and ready for
combat until he became a "Speaker for the past"--too old to bear arms in
the field. Due to the nature of their battling lives, relatively few of
the Salariki ever reached that retirement. Short-lived alliances between
families sometimes occurred, usually when they were to face a common
enemy greater than either. But a quarrel between chieftains, a fancied
insult would rip that open in an instant. Only under the Trade Shield
could seven clans sit this way without their warriors being at one
another's furred throats.

An hour before sunset Paft turned his goblet upside down on his table, a
move followed speedily by every chieftain in the circle. The conference
was at an end for that day. And as far as Dane could see it had
accomplished exactly nothing--except to bring the Eysies into the open.
What _had_ Traxt Cam discovered which had given him the trading contract
with these suspicious aliens? Unless the men from the Queen learned it,
they could go on talking until the contract ran out and get no farther
than they had today.

From his training Dane knew that ofttimes contact with an alien race did
require long and patient handling. But between study and experiencing the
situation himself there was a gulf, and he thought somewhat ruefully that
he had much to learn before he could meet such a situation with Van
Rycke's unfailing patience and aplomb. The Cargo-master seemed in nowise
tired by his wasted day and Dane knew that Van would probably sit up half
the night, going over for the hundredth time Traxt Cam's sketchy
recordings in another painstaking attempt to discover why and how the
other Free Trader had succeeded where the Queen's men were up against a
stone wall.

The harvesting of Koros stones was, as Dane and all those who had been
briefed from Cam's records knew, a perilous job. Though the rule of the
Salariki was undisputed on the land masses of Sargol, it was another
matter in the watery world of the shallow seas. There the Gorp were in
command of the territory and one had to be constantly alert for attack
from the sly, reptilian intelligence, so alien to the thinking processes
of both Salariki and Terran that there was, or seemed to be, no point of
possible contact. One went gathering Koros gems after balancing life
against gain. And perhaps the Salariki did not see any profit in that
operation. Yet Traxt Cam had brought back his bag of gems--somehow he had
managed to secure them in trade.

Van Rycke climbed the ramp, hurrying on into the Queen as if he would not
get back to his records soon enough. But Dane paused and looked back at
the grass jungle a little wistfully. To his mind these early morning
hours were the best time on Sargol. The light was golden, the night winds
had not yet arisen. He disliked exchanging the freedom of the open for
the confinement of the spacer.

And, as he hesitated there, two of the juvenile population of Sargol came
out of the forest. Between them they carried one of their hunting nets, a
net which now enclosed a quiet but baneful eyed captive--Sinbad being
delivered for nightly ransom. Dane was reaching for the pay to give the
captors when, to his real astonishment, one of them advanced and pointed
with an extended forefinger claw to the open port.

"Go in," he formed the Trade Lingo words with care. And Dane's surprise
must have been plain to read for the cub followed his speech with a
vigorous nod and set one foot on the ramp to underline his desire.

For one of the Salariki, who had continually manifested their belief that
Terrans and their ship were an offence to the nostrils of all right
living "men," to wish to enter the spacer was an astonishing about-face.
But any advantage no matter how small, which might bring about a closer
understanding, must be seized at once.

Dane accepted the growling Sinbad and beckoned, knowing better than to
touch the boy. "Come--"

Only one of the junior clansmen obeyed that invitation. The other
watched, big-eyed, and then scuttled back to the forest when his fellow
called out some suggestion. _He_ was not going to be trapped.

Dane led the way up the ramp, paying no visible attention to the young
Salarik, nor did he urge the other on when he lingered for a long moment
or two at the port. In his mind the Cargo-master apprentice was
feverishly running over the list of general trade goods. What _did_ they
carry which would make a suitable and intriguing gift for a small alien
with such a promising bump of curiosity? If he had only time to get Van
Rycke!

The Salarik was inside the corridor now, his nostrils spread, assaying
each and every odor in this strange place. Suddenly his head jerked as if
tugged by one of his own net ropes. His interest had been riveted by some
scent his sensitive senses had detected. His eyes met Dane's in appeal.
Swiftly the Terran nodded and then followed with a lengthened stride as
the Salarik sped down into the lower reaches of the Queen, obviously in
quest of something of great importance.




Chapter III

CONTACT AT LAST


"What in"--Frank Mura, steward, storekeeper, and cook of the Queen,
retreated into the nearest cabin doorway as the young Salarik flashed
down the ladder into his section.

Dane, with the now resigned Sinbad in the crook of his arm, had tailed
his guest and arrived just in time to see the native come to an abrupt
halt before one of the most important doors in the spacer--the portal of
the hydro garden which renewed the ship's oxygen and supplied them with
fresh fruit and vegetables to vary their diet of concentrates.

The Salarik laid one hand on the smooth surface of the sealed compartment
and looked back over his shoulder at Dane with an inquiry to which was
added something of a plea. Guided by his instinct--that this was
important to them all--Dane spoke to Mura:

"Can you let him in there, Frank?"

It was not sensible, it might even be dangerous. But every member of the
crew knew the necessity for making some sort of contact with the natives.
Mura did not even nod, but squeezed by the Salarik and pressed the lock.
There was a sign of air, and the crisp smell of growing things, lacking
the languorous perfumes of the world outside, puffed into the faces.

The cub remained where he was, his head up, his wide nostrils visibly
drinking in that smell. Then he moved with the silent, uncanny speed
which was the heritage of his race, darting down the narrow aisle toward
a mass of greenery at the far end.

Sinbad kicked and growled. This was his private hunting ground--the
preserve he kept free of invaders. Dane put the cat down. The Salarik had
found what he was seeking. He stood on tiptoe to sniff at a plant, his
yellow eyes half closed, his whole stance spelling ecstasy. Dane looked
to the steward for enlightenment.

"What's he so interested in, Frank?"

"Catnip."

"Catnip?" Dane repeated. The word meant nothing to him, but Mura had a
habit of picking up strange plants and cultivating them for study. "What
is it?"

"One of the Terran mints--an herb," Mura gave a short explanation as he
moved down the aisle toward the alien. He broke off a leaf and crushed it
between his fingers.

Dane, his sense of smell largely deadened by the pungency with which he
had been surrounded by most of that day, could distinguish no new odor.
But the young Salarik swung around to face the steward his eyes wide, his
nose questing. And Sinbad gave a whining yowl and made a spring to push
his head against the steward's now aromatic hand.

So--now they had it--an opening wedge. Dane came up to the three.

"All right to take a leaf or two?" he asked Mura.

"Why not? I grow it for Sinbad. To a cat it is like heemel smoke or a
tankard of lackibod."

And by Sinbad's actions Dane guessed that the plant did hold for the cat
the same attraction those stimulants produced in human beings. He
carefully broke off a small stem supporting three leaves and presented it
to the Salarik, who stared at him and then, snatching the twig, raced
from the hydro garden as if pursued by feuding clansmen.

Dane heard the pad of his feet on the ladder--apparently the cub was
making sure of escape with his precious find. But the Cargo-master
apprentice was frowning. As far as he could see there were only five of
the plants.

"That's all the catnip you have?"

Mura tucked Sinbad under his arm and shooed Dane before him out of the
hydro. "There was no need to grow more. A small portion of the herb goes
a long way with this one," he put the cat down in the corridor. "The
leaves may be preserved by drying. I believe that there is a small box of
them in the galley."

A strictly limited supply. Suppose this was the key which would unlock
the Koros trade? And yet it was to be summed up in five plants and a few
dried leaves! However, Van Rycke must know of this as soon as possible.

But to Dane's growing discomfiture the Cargo-master showed no elation as
his junior poured out the particulars of his discovery. Instead there
were definite signs of displeasure to be read by those who knew Van Rycke
well. He heard Dane out and then got to his feet. Tolling the younger man
with him by a crooked finger, he went out of his combined office-living
quarters to the domain of Medic Craig Tau.

"Problem for you, Craig." Van Rycke seated his bulk on the wall jump seat
Tau pulled down for him. Dane was left standing just within the door,
very sure now that instead of being commended for his discovery of a few
minutes before, he was about to suffer some reprimand. And the reason for
it still eluded him.

"What do you know about that plant Mura grows in the hydro--the one
called 'catnip'?"

Tau did not appear surprised at that demand--the Medic of a Free Trading
spacer was never surprised at anything. He had his surfeit of shocks
during his first years of service and after that accepted any occurrence,
no matter how weird, as matter-of-fact. In addition Tau's hobby was
"magic," the hidden knowledge possessed and used by witch doctors and
medicine men on alien worlds. He had a library of recordings, odd scraps
of information, of certified results of certain very peculiar
experiments. Now and then he wrote a report which was sent into Central
Service, read with raised eyebrows by perhaps half a dozen incredulous
desk warmers, and filed away to be safely forgotten. But even that had
ceased to frustrate him.

"It's an herb of the mint family from Terra," he replied. "Mura grows it
for Sinbad--has quite a marked influence on cats. Frank's been trying to
keep him anchored to the ship by allowing him to roll in fresh leaves. He
does it--then continues to sneak out whenever he can--"

That explained something for Dane--why the Salariki cub wished to enter
the Queen tonight. Some of the scent of the plant had clung to Sinbad's
fur, had been detected, and the Salarik had wanted to trace it to its
source.

"Is it a drug?" Van Rycke prodded.

"In the way that all herbs are drugs. Human beings have dosed themselves
in the past with a tea made of the dried leaves. It has no great
medicinal properties. To felines it is a stimulation--and they get the
same satisfaction from rolling in and eating the leaves as we do from
drinking--"

"The Salariki are, in a manner of speaking, felines--" Van Rycke mused.

Tau straightened. "The Salariki have discovered catnip, I take it?"

Van Rycke nodded at Dane and for the second time the Cargo-master
apprentice made his report. When he was done Van Rycke asked a direct
question of the medical officer:

"What effect would catnip have on a Salarik?"

It was only then that Dane grasped the enormity of what he had done. They
had no way of gauging the influence of an off-world plant on alien
metabolism. What if he had introduced to the natives of Sargol a
dangerous drug--started that cub on some path of addiction. He was cold
inside. Why, he might even have poisoned the child!

Tau picked up his cap, and after a second's hesitation, his emergency
medical kit. He had only one question for Dane.

"Any idea of who the cub is--what clan he belongs to?"

And Dane, chill with real fear, was forced to answer in the negative.
What _had_ he done!

"Can you find him?" Van Rycke, ignoring Dane, spoke to Tau.

The Medic shrugged. "I can try. I was out scouting this morning--met one
of the storm priests who handles their medical work. But I wasn't
welcomed. However, under the circumstances, we have to try something--"

In the corridor Van Rycke had an order for Dane. "I suggest that you keep
to quarters, Thorson, until we know how matters stand."

Dane saluted. That note in his superior's voice was like a whip
lash--much worse to take than the abuse of a lesser man. He swallowed as
he shut himself into his own cramped cubby. This might be the end of
their venture. And they would be lucky if their charter was not
withdrawn. Let I-S get an inkling of his rash action and the Company
would have them up before the Board to be stripped of all their rights
in the Service. Just because of his own stupidity--his pride in being
able to break through where Van Rycke and the Captain had faced a stone
wall. And, worse than the future which could face the Queen, was the
thought that he might have introduced some dangerous drug into Sargol
with his gift of those few leaves. When would he learn? He threw himself
face down on his bunk and despondently pictured the string of calamities
which could and maybe would stem from his thoughtless and hasty action.

Within the Queen night and day were mechanical--the lighting in the
cabins did not vary much. Dane did not know how long he lay there forcing
his mind to consider his stupid action, making himself face that in the
Service there were no short cuts which endangered others--not unless
those taking the risks were Terrans.

"Dane--!" Rip Shannon's voice cut through his self-imposed nightmare. But
he refused to answer. "Dane--Van wants you on the double!"

Why? To bring him up before Jellico probably. Dane schooled his
expression, got up, pulling his tunic straight, still unable to meet
Rip's eyes. Shannon was just one of those he had let down so badly. But
the other did not notice his mood. "Wait 'til you see them--! Half Sargol
must be here yelling for trade!"

That comment was so far from what he had been expecting that Dane was
startled out of his own gloomy thoughts. Rip's brown face was one wide
smile, his black eyes danced--it was plain he was honestly elated.

"Get a move on, fire rockets," he urged, "or Van will blast you for
fair!"

Dane did move, up the ladder to the next level and out on the port ramp.
What he saw below brought him up short. Evening had come to Sargol but
the scene immediately below was not in darkness. Blazing torches
advanced in lines from the grass forest and the portable flood light of
the spacer added to the general glare, turning night into noonday.

Van Rycke and Jellico sat on stools facing at least five of the seven
major chieftains with whom they had conferred to no purpose earlier. And
behind these leaders milled a throng of lesser Salariki. Yes, there was
at least one carrying chair--and also an orgel from the back of which a
veiled noblewoman was being assisted to dismount by two retainers. The
women of the clans were coming--which could mean only that trade was at
last in progress. But trade for what?

Dane strode down the ramp. He saw Paft, his hand carefully covered by his
trade cloth, advance to Van Rycke, whose own fingers were decently veiled
by a handkerchief. Under the folds of fabric their hands touched. The
bargaining was in the first stages. And it was important enough for the
clan leaders to conduct themselves. Where, according to Cam's records, it
had been usual to delegate that power to a favored liege man.

Catching the light from the ship's beam and from the softer flares of the
Salariki torches was a small pile of stones resting on a stool to one
side. Dane drew a deep breath. He had heard the Koros stones described,
had seen the tri-dee print of one found among Cam's recordings but the
reality was beyond his expectations. He knew the technical analysis of
the gems--that they were, as the amber of Terra, the fossilized resin
exuded by ancient plants (maybe the ancestors of the grass trees) long
buried in the saline deposits of the shallow seas where chemical changes
had taken place to produce the wonder jewels. In color they shaded from a
rosy apricot to a rich mauve, but in their depths other colors, silver,
fiery gold, spun sparks which seemed to move as the gem was turned.
And--which was what first endeared them to the Salariki--when worn
against the skin and warmed by body heat they gave off a perfume which
enchanted not only the Sargolian natives but all in the Galaxy wealthy
enough to own one.

On another stool placed at Van Rycke's right hand, as that bearing the
Koros stones was at Paft's, was a transparent plastic box containing some
wrinkled brownish leaves. Dane moved as unobtrusively as he could to his
proper place at such a trading session, behind Van Rycke. More Salariki
were tramping out of the forest, torch bearing retainers and cloaked
warriors. A little to one side was a third party Dane had not seen
before.

They were clustered about a staff which had been driven into the ground,
a staff topped with a white streamer marking a temporary trading ground.
These were Salariki right enough but they did not wear the colorful garb
of those about them, instead they were all clad alike in muffling,
sleeved robes of a drab green--the storm priests--their robes denoting
the color of the Sargolian sky just before the onslaught of their worst
tempests. Cam had not left many clues concerning the religion of the
Salariki, but the storm priests had, in narrowly defined limits, power,
and their recognition of the Terran Traders would add to good feeling.

In the knot of storm priests a Terran stood--Medic Tau--and he was
talking earnestly with the leader of the religious party. Dane would have
given much to have been free to cross and ask Tau a question or two. Was
all this assembly the result of the discovery in the hydro? But even as
he asked himself that, the trade cloths were shaken from the hands of the
bargainers and Van Rycke gave an order over his shoulder.

"Measure out two spoonsful of the dried leaves into a box--" he pointed
to a tiny plastic container.

With painstaking care Dane followed directions. At the same time a
servant of the Salarik chief swept the handful of gems from the other
stool and dropped them in a heap before Van Rycke, who transferred them
to a strong box resting between his feet. Paft arose--but he had hardly
quitted the trading seat before one of the lesser clan leaders had taken
his place, the bargaining cloth ready looped loosely about his wrist.

It was at that point that the proceedings were interrupted. A new party
came into the open, their utilitarian Trade tunics made a drab blot as
they threaded their way in a compact group through the throng of
Salariki. I-S men! So they had not lifted from Sargol.

They showed no signs of uneasiness--it was as if _their_ rights were
being infringed by the Free Traders. And Kallee, their Cargo-master,
swaggered straight to the bargaining point. The chatter of Salariki
voices was stilled, the Sargolians withdrew a little, letting one party
of Terrans face the other, sensing drama to come. Neither Van Rycke nor
Jellico spoke, it was left to Kallee to state his case.

"You've crooked your orbit this time, bright boys," his jeer was a paean
of triumph. "Code Three--Article six--or can't you absorb rules tapes
with your thick heads?"

Code Three--Article six, Dane searched his memory for that law of the
Service. The words flashed into his mind as the auto-learner had planted
them during his first year of training back in the Pool.

"To no alien race shall any Trader introduce any drug, food, or drink
from off world, until such a substance has been certified as nonharmful
to the aliens."

There it was! I-S had them and it was all his fault. But if he had been
so wrong, why in the world did Van Rycke sit there trading, condoning the
error and making it into a crime for which they could be summoned before
the Board and struck off the rolls of the Service?

Van Rycke smiled gently. "Code Four--Article two," he quoted with the
genial air of one playing gift-giver at a Forkidan feasting.

Code Four, Article two: Any organic substance offered for trade must be
examined by a committee of trained medical experts, an equal
representation of Terrans and aliens.

Kallee's sneering smile did not vanish. "Well," he challenged, "where's
your board of experts?"

"Tau!" Van Rycke called to the Medic with the storm priests. "Will you
ask your colleague to be so kind as to allow the Cargo-master Kallee to
be presented?"

The tall, dark young Terran Medic spoke to the priest beside him and
together they came across the clearing. Van Rycke and Jellico both arose
and inclined their heads in honor to the priests, as did the chief with
whom they had been about to deal.

"Reader of clouds and master of many winds," Tau's voice flowed with the
many voweled titles of the Sargolian, "may I bring before your face
Cargo-master Kallee, a servant of Inter-Solar in the realm of Trade?"

The storm priest's shaven skull and body gleamed steel gray in the light.
His eyes, of that startling blue-green, regarded the I-S party with
cynical detachment.

"You wish of me?" Plainly he was one who believed in getting down to
essentials at once.

Kallee could not be overawed. "These Free Traders have introduced among
your people a powerful drug which will bring much evil," he spoke slowly
in simple words as if he were addressing a cub.

"You have evidence of such evil?" countered the storm priest. "In what
manner is this new plant evil?"

For a moment Kallee was disconcerted. But he rallied quickly. "It has
not been tested--you do not know how it will affect your people--"

The storm priest shook his head impatiently. "We are not lacking in
intelligence, Trader. This plant _has_ been tested, both by your master
of life secrets and ours. There is no harm in it--rather it is a good
thing, to be highly prized--so highly that we shall give thanks that it
was brought unto us. This speech-together is finished." He pulled the
loose folds of his robe closer about him and walked away.

"Now," Van Rycke addressed the I-S party, "I must ask you to withdraw.
Under the rules of Trade your presence here can be actively resented--"

But Kallee had lost little of his assurance. "You haven't heard the last
of this. A tape of the whole proceedings goes to the Board--"

"As you wish. But in the meantime--" Van Rycke gestured to the waiting
Salariki who were beginning to mutter impatiently. Kallee glanced around,
heard those mutters, and made the only move possible, away from the
Queen. He was not quite so cocky, but neither had he surrendered.

Dane caught at Tau's sleeve and asked the question which had been burning
in him since he had come upon the scene.

"What happened--about the catnip?"

There was lightening of the serious expression on Tau's face.

"Fortunately for you that child took the leaves to the storm priest. They
tested and approved it. And I can't see that it has any ill effects. But
you were just lucky, Thorson--it might have gone another way."

Dane sighed. "I know that, sir," he confessed. "I'm not trying to rocket
out--"

Tau gave a half-smile. "We all off-fire our tubes at times," he
conceded. "Only next time--"

He did not need to complete that warning as Dane caught him up:

"There isn't going to be a next time like this, sir--ever!"




Chapter IV

GORP HUNT


But the interruption had disturbed the tenor of trading. The small chief
who had so eagerly taken Paft's place had only two Koros stones to offer
and even to Dane's inexperienced eyes they were inferior in size and
color to those the other clan leader had tendered. The Terrans were aware
that Koros mining was a dangerous business but they had not known that
the stock of available stones was so very small. Within ten minutes the
last of the serious bargaining was concluded and the clansmen were
drifting away from the burned over space about the Queen's standing fins.

Dane folded up the bargain cloth, glad for a task. He sensed that he was
far from being back in Van Rycke's good graces. The fact that his
superior did not discuss any of the aspects of the deals with him was a
bad sign.

Captain Jellico stretched. Although his was not, or never, what might be
termed a good-humored face, he was at peace with his world. "That would
seem to be all. What's the haul, Van?"

"Ten first class stones, about fifty second grade, and twenty or so of
third. The chiefs will go to the fisheries tomorrow. _Then_ we'll be in
to see the really good stuff."

"And how's the herbs holding out?" That interested Dane too. Surely the
few plants in the hydro and the dried leaves could not be stretched too
far.

"As well as we could expect." Van Rycke frowned. "But Craig thinks he's
on the trail of something to help--"

The storm priests had uprooted the staff marking the trading station and
were wrapping the white streamer about it. Their leader had already gone
and now Tau came up to the group by the ramp.

"Van says you have an idea," the Captain hailed him.

"We haven't tried it yet. And we can't unless the priests give it a clear
lane--"

"That goes without saying--" Jellico agreed.

The Captain had not addressed that remark to him personally, but Dane was
sure it had been directed at him. Well, they needn't worry--never again
was he going to make that mistake, they could be very sure of that.

He was part of the conference which followed in the mess cabin only
because he was a member of the crew. How far the reason for his disgrace
had spread he had no way of telling, but he made no overtures, even to
Rip.

Tau had the floor with Mura as an efficient lieutenant. He discussed the
properties of catnip and gave information on the limited supply the Queen
carried. Then he launched into a new suggestion.

"Felines of Terra, in fact a great many other of our native mammals, have
a similar affinity for this."

Mura produced a small flask and Tau opened it, passing it to Captain
Jellico and so from hand to hand about the room. Each crewman sniffed at
the strong aroma. It was a heavier scent than that given off by the
crushed catnip--Dane was not sure he liked it. But a moment later Sinbad
streaked in from the corridor and committed the unpardonable sin of
leaping to the table top just before Mura who had taken the flask from
Dane. He miaowed plaintively and clawed at the steward's cuff. Mura
stoppered the flask and put the cat down on the floor.

"What is it?" Jellico wanted to know.

"Anisette, a liquor made from the oil of anise--from seeds of the anise
plant. It is a stimulant, but we use it mainly as a condiment. If it is
harmless for the Salariki it ought to be a bigger bargaining point than
any perfumes or spices, I-S can import. And remember, with their
unlimited capital, they can flood the market with products we can't
touch, selling at a loss if need be to cut us out. Because their ship is
not going to lift from Sargol just because she has no legal right here."

"There's this point," Van Rycke added to the lecture. "The Eysies are
trading or want to trade perfumes. But they stock only manufactured
products, exotic stuff, but synthetic." He took from his belt pouch two
tiny boxes.

Before he caught the rich scent of the paste inside them Dane had already
identified each as luxury items from Casper--chemical products which sold
well and at high prices in the civilized ports of the Galaxy. The
Cargo-master turned the boxes over, exposing the symbol on their
undersides--the mark of I-S.

"These were offered to me in trade by a Salarik. I took them, just to
have proof that the Eysies are operating here. But--note--they were
offered to me in trade, along with two top Koros for what? One spoonful
of dried catnip leaves. Does that suggest anything?"

Mura answered first. "The Salariki prefer natural products to synthetic."

"I think so."

"D'you suppose that was Cam's secret?" speculated Astrogator Steen
Wilcox.

"If it was," Jellico cut in, "he certainly kept it! If we had only known
this earlier--"

They were all thinking of that, of their storage space carefully packed
with useless trade goods. Where, if they had known, the same space could
have carried herbs with five or twenty-five times as much buying power.

"Maybe now that their sales' resistance is broken, we _can_ switch to
some of the other stuff," Tang Ya, torn away from his beloved
communicators for the conference, said wistfully. "They like color--how
about breaking out some rolls of Harlinian moth silk?"

Van Rycke sighed wearily. "Oh, we'll try. We'll bring out everything and
anything. But we could have done so much better--" he brooded over the
tricks of fate which had landed them on a planet wild for trade with no
proper trade goods in either of their holds.

There was a nervous little sound of a throat being apologetically
cleared. Jasper Weeks, the small wiper from the engine room detail, the
third generation Venusian colonist whom the more vocal members of the
Queen's complement were apt to forget upon occasion, seeing all eyes upon
him, spoke though his voice was hardly above a hoarse whisper.

"Cedar--lacquel bark--forsh weed--"

"Cinnamon," Mura added to the list. "Imported in small quantities--"

"Naturally! Only the problem now is--how much cedar, lacquel bark, forsh
weed, cinnamon do we have on board?" demanded Van Rycke.

His sarcasm did not register with Weeks for the little man pushed by Dane
and left the cabin to their surprise. In the quiet which followed they
could hear the clatter of his boots on ladder rungs as he descended to
the quarters of the engine room staff. Tang turned to his neighbor,
Johan Stotz, the Queen's Engineer.

"What's he going for?"

Stotz shrugged. Weeks was a self-effacing man--so much so that even in
the cramped quarters of the spacer very little about him as an individual
impressed his mates--a fact which was slowly dawning on them all now.
Then they heard the scramble of feet hurrying back and Weeks burst in
with energy which carried him across to the table behind which the
Captain and Van Rycke now sat.

In the wiper's hands was a plasta-steel box--the treasure chest of a
spaceman. Its tough exterior was guaranteed to protect the contents
against everything but outright disintegration. Weeks put it down on the
table and snapped up the lid.

A new aroma, or aromas, was added to the scents now at war in the cabin.
Weeks pulled out a handful of fluffy white stuff which frothed up about
his fingers like soap lather. Then with more care he lifted up a tray
divided into many small compartments, each with a separate sealing lid of
its own. The men of the Queen moved in, their curiosity aroused, until
they were jostling one another.

Being tall Dane had an advantage, though Van Rycke's bulk and the wide
shoulders of the Captain were between him and the object they were so
intent upon. In each division of the tray, easily seen through the
transparent lids, was a carved figure. The weird denizens of the Venusian
polar swamps were there, along with lifelike effigies of Terran animals,
a Martian sand-mouse in all its monstrous ferocity, and the native animal
and reptile life of half a hundred different worlds. Weeks put down a
second tray beside the first, again displaying a menagerie of strange
life forms. But when he clicked open one of the compartments and handed
the figurine it contained to the Captain, Dane understood the reason for
now bringing forward the carvings.

The majority of them were fashioned from a dull blue-gray wood and Dane
knew that if he picked one up he would discover that it weighed close to
nothing in his hand. That was lacquel bark--the aromatic product of a
Venusian vine. And each little animal or reptile lay encased in a soft
dab of frothy white--frosh weed--the perfumed seed casing of the Martian
canal plants. One or two figures on the second tray were of a red-brown
wood and these Van Rycke sniffed at appreciatively.

"Cedar--Terran cedar," he murmured.

Weeks nodded eagerly, his eyes alight. "I am waiting now for
sandalwood--it is also good for carving--"

Jellico stared at the array in puzzled wonder. "You have made these?"

Being an amateur xenobiologist of no small standing himself, the shapes
of the carvings more than the material from which they fashioned held his
attention.

All those on board the Queen had their own hobbies. The monotony of
voyaging through hyper-space had long ago impressed upon men the need for
occupying both hands and mind during the sterile days while they were
forced into close companionship with few duties to keep them alert.
Jellico's cabin was papered with tri-dee pictures of the rare animals and
alien creatures he had studied in their native haunts or of which he kept
careful and painstaking records. Tau had his magic, Mura not only his
plants but the delicate miniature landscapes he fashioned, to be
imprisoned forever in the hearts of protecting plasta balls. But Weeks
had never shown his work before and now he had an artist's supreme
pleasure of completely confounding his shipmates.

The Cargo-master returned to the business on hand first. "You're willing
to transfer these to 'cargo'?" he asked briskly. "How many do you have?"

Weeks, now lifting a third and then a fourth tray from the box, replied
without looking up.

"Two hundred. Yes, I'll transfer, sir."

The Captain was turning about in his fingers the beautifully shaped
figure of an Astran duocorn. "Pity to trade these here," he mused aloud.
"Will Paft or Halfer appreciate more than just their scent?"

Weeks smiled shyly. "I've filled this case, sir. I was going to offer
them to Mr. Van Rycke on a venture. I can always make another set. And
right now--well, maybe they'll be worth more to the Queen, seeing as how
they're made out of aromatic woods, then they'd be elsewhere. Leastwise
the Eysies aren't going to have anything like them to show!" he ended in
a burst of honest pride.

"Indeed they aren't!" Van Rycke gave honor where it was due.

So they made plans and then separated to sleep out the rest of the night.
Dane knew that his lapse was not forgotten nor forgiven, but now he was
honestly too tired to care and slept as well as if his conscience were
clear.

But morning brought only a trickle of lower class clansmen for trading
and none of them had much but news to offer. The storm priests, as
neutral arbitrators, had divided up the Koros grounds. And the clansmen,
under the personal supervision of their chieftains were busy hunting the
stones. The Terrans gathered from scraps of information that gem seeking
on such a large scale had never been attempted before.

Before night there came other news, and much more chilling. Paft, one of
the two major chieftains of this section of Sargol--while supervising the
efforts of his liege men on a newly discovered and richly strewn length
of shoal water--had been attacked and killed by gorp. The unusual
activity of the Salariki in the shallows had in turn drawn to the spot
battalions of the intelligent, malignant reptiles who had struck in
strength, slaying and escaping before the Salariki could form an adequate
defense, having killed the land dwellers' sentries silently and
effectively before advancing on the laboring main bodies of gem hunters.

A loss of a certain number of miners or fishers had been preseen as the
price one paid for Koros in quantity. But the death of a chieftain was
another thing altogether, having repercussions which carried far beyond
the fact of his death. When the news reached the Salariki about the Queen
they melted away into the grass forest and for the first time the Terrans
felt free of spying eyes.

"What happens now?" Ali inquired. "Do they declare all deals off?"

"That might just be the unfortunate answer," agreed Van Rycke.

"Could be," Rip commented to Dane, "that they'd think we were in some way
responsible--"

But Dane's conscience, sensitive over the whole matter of Salariki trade,
had already reached that conclusion.

The Terran party, unsure of what were the best tactics, wisely decided to
do nothing at all for the time being. But, when the Salariki seemed to
have completely vanished on the morning of the second day, the men were
restless. Had Paft's death resulted in some interclan quarrel over the
heirship and the other clans withdrawn to let the various contendents for
that honor fight it out? Or--what was more probable and dangerous--had
the aliens come to the point of view that the Queen was in the main
responsible for the catastrophe and were engaged in preparing too warm a
welcome for any Traders who dared to visit them?

With the latter idea in mind they did not stray far from the ship. And
the limit to their traveling was the edge of the forest from which they
could be covered and so they did not learn much.

It was well into the morning before they were dramatically appraised
that, far from being considered in any way an enemy, they were about to
be accepted in a tie as close as clan to clan during one of the temporary
but binding truces.

The messenger came in state, a young Salarik warrior, his splendid cloak
rent and hanging in tattered pieces from his shoulders as a sign of his
official grief. He carried in one hand a burned out torch, and in the
other an unsheathed claw knife, its blade reflecting the sunlight with a
wicked glitter. Behind him trotted three couples of retainers, their
cloaks also ragged fringes, their knives drawn.

Standing up on the ramp to receive what could only be a formal deputation
were Captain, Astrogator, Cargo-master and Engineer, the senior officers
of the spacer.

In the rolling periods of the Trade Lingo the torch bearer identified
himself as Groft, son and heir of the late lamented Paft. Until his
chieftain father was avenged in blood he could not assume the high seat
of his clan nor the leadership of the family. And now, following custom,
he was inviting the friends and sometimes allies of the dead Paft to a
gorp hunt. Such a gorp hunt, Dane gathered from amidst the flowers of
ceremonial Salariki speech, as had never been planned before on the face
of Sargol. Salariki without number in the past had died beneath the
ripping talons of the water reptiles, but it was seldom that a chieftain
had so fallen and his clan were firm in their determination to take a
full blood price from the killers.

"--and so, sky lords," Groft brought his oration to a close, "we come to
ask that you send your young men to this hunting so that they may know
the joy of plunging knives into the scaled death and see the horned ones
die bathed in their own vile blood!"

Dane needed no hint from the Queen's officers that this invitation was a
sharp departure from custom. By joining with the natives in such a foray
the Terrans were being admitted to kinship of a sort, cementing relations
by a tie which the I-S, or any other interloper from off-world, would
find hard to break. It was a piece of such excellent good fortune as they
would not have dreamed of three days earlier.

Van Rycke replied, his voice properly sonorous, sounding out the rounded
periods of the rolling tongue which they had all been taught during the
voyage, using Cam's recording. Yes, the Terrans would join with pleasure
in so good and great a cause. They would lend the force of their arms to
the defeat of all gorp they had the good fortune to meet. Groft need only
name the hour for them to join him--

It was not needful, the young Salariki chieftain-to-be hastened to tell
the Cargo-master, that the senior sky lords concern themselves in this
matter. In fact it would be against custom, for it was meet that such a
hunt be left to warriors of few years, that they might earn glory and be
able to stand before the fires at the Naming as men. Therefore--the thumb
claw of Groft was extended to its greatest length as he used it to single
out the Terrans he had been eyeing--let this one, and that, and that, and
the fourth be ready to join with the Salariki party an hour after nooning
on this very day and they would indeed teach the slimy, treacherous
lurkers in the depths a well needed lesson.

The Salarik's choice with one exception had unerringly fallen upon the
youngest members of the crew, Ali, Rip, and Dane in that order. But his
fourth addition had been Jasper Weeks. Perhaps because of his native
pallor of skin and slightness of body the oiler had seemed, to the alien,
to be younger than his years. At any rate Groft had made it very plain
that he chose these men and Dane knew that the Queen's officers would
raise no objection which might upset the delicate balance of favorable
relations.

Van Rycke did ask for one concession which was reluctantly granted. He
received permission for the spacer's men to carry their sleep rods.
Though the Salariki, apparently for some reason of binding and hoary
custom, were totally opposed to hunting their age-old enemy with anything
other than their duelists' weapons of net and claw knife.

"Go along with them," Captain Jellico gave his final orders to the four,
"as long as it doesn't mean your own necks--understand? On the other hand
dead heroes have never helped to lift a ship. And these gorp are tough
from all accounts. You'll just have to use your own judgment about
springing your rods on them--" He looked distinctly unhappy at that
thought.

Ali was grinning and little Weeks tightened his weapon belt with a touch
of swagger he had never shown before. Rip was his usual soft voiced self,
dependable as a rock and a good base for the rest of them--taking command
without question as they marched off to join Groft's company.




Chapter V

THE PERILOUS SEAS


The gorp hunters straggled through the grass forest in family groups, and
the Terrans saw that the enterprise had forced another uneasy truce upon
the district, for there were representatives from more than just Paft's
own clan. All the Salariki were young and the parties babbled together in
excitement. It was plain that this hunt, staged upon a large scale, was
not only a means of revenge upon a hated enemy but, also, a sporting
event of outstanding prestige.

Now the grass trees began to show ragged gaps, open spaces between their
clumps, until the forest was only scattered groups and the party the
Terrans had joined walked along a trail cloaked in knee-high, yellow-red
fern growth. Most of the Salariki carried unlit torches, some having four
or five bundled together, as if gorp hunting must be done after
nightfall. And it _was_ fairly late in the afternoon before they topped a
rise of ground and looked out upon one of Sargol's seas.

The water was a dull-metallic gray, broken by great swaths of purple as
if an artist had slapped a brush of color across it in a hit or miss
fashion. Sand of the red grit, lightened by the golden flecks which
glittered in the sun, stretched to the edge of the wavelets breaking with
only languor on the curve of earth. The bulk of islands arose in serried
ranks farther out--crowned with grass trees all rippling under the sea
wind.

They came out upon the beach where one of the purple patches touched the
shore and Dane noted that it left a scummy deposit there. The Terrans
went on to the water's edge. Where it was clear of the purple stuff they
could get a murky glimpse of the bottom, but the scum hid long stretches
of shoreline and outer wave, and Dane wondered if the gorp used it as a
protective covering.

For the moment the Salariki made no move toward the sea which was to be
their hunting ground. Instead the youngest members of the party, some of
whom were adolescents not yet entitled to wear the claw knife of manhood,
spread out along the shore and set industriously to gathering driftwood,
which they brought back to heap on the sand. Dane, watching that harvest,
caught sight of a smoothly polished length. He called Weeks' attention
to the water rounded cylinder.

The oiler's eyes lighted and he stooped to pick it up. Where the other
sticks were from grass trees this was something else. And among the
bleached pile it had the vividness of flame. For it was a strident
scarlet. Weeks turned it over in his hands, running his fingers lovingly
across its perfect grain. Even in this crude state it had beauty. He
stopped the Salarik who had just brought in another armload of wood.

"This is what?" he spoke the Trade Lingo haltingly.

The native gazed somewhat indifferently at the branch. "Tansil," he
answered. "It grows on the islands--" He made a vague gesture to include
a good section of the western sea before he hurried away.

Weeks now went along the tide line on his own quest, Dane trailing him.
At the end of a quarter hour when a hail summoned them back to the site
of the now lighted fire, they had some ten pieces of the tansil wood
between them. The finds ranged from a three foot section some four
inches in diameter, to some slender twigs no larger than a writing
steelo--but all with high polish, the warm flame coloring. Weeks lashed
them together before he joined the group where Groft was outlining the
technique of gorp hunting for the benefit of the Terrans.

Some two hundred feet away a reef, often awash and stained with the
purple scum, angled out into the sea in a long curve which formed a
natural breakwater. This was the point of attack. But first the purple
film must be removed so that land and sea dwellers could meet on common
terms.

The fire blazed up, eating hungrily into the driftwood. And from it ran
the young Salariki with lighted brands, which at the water's edge they
whirled about their heads and then hurled out onto the purple patches.
Fire arose from the water and ran with frantic speed across the crests of
the low waves, while the Salariki coughed and buried their noses in their
perfume boxes, for the wind drove shoreward an overpowering stench.

Where the cleansing fire had run on the water there was now only the
natural metallic gray of the liquid, the cover was gone. Older Salariki
warriors were choosing torches from those they had brought, doing it with
care. Groft approached the Terrans carrying four.

"These you use now--"

What for? Dane wondered. The sky was still sunlit. He held the torch
watching to see how the Salariki made use of them.

Groft led the advance--running lightly out along the reef with agile and
graceful leaps to cross the breaks where the sea hurled in over the rock.
And after him followed the other natives, each with a lighted torch in
hand--the torch they hunkered down to plant firmly in some crevice of the
rock before taking a stand beside that beacon.

The Terrans, less surefooted in the space boots, picked their way along
the same path, wet with spray, wrinkling their noses against the
lingering puffs of the stench from the water.

Following the example of the Salariki they faced seaward--but Dane did
not know what to watch for. Cam had left only the vaguest general
descriptions of gorp and beyond the fact that they were reptilian,
intelligent and dangerous, the Terrans had not been briefed.

Once the warriors had taken up their stand along the reef, the younger
Salariki went into action once more. Lighting more torches at the fire,
they ran out along the line of their elders and flung their torches as
far as they could hurl them into the sea outside the reef.

The gray steel of the water was now yellow with the reflection of the
sinking sun. But that ocher and gold became more brilliant yet as the
torches of the Salariki set blazing up far floating patches of scum. Dane
shielded his eyes against the glare and tried to watch the water, with
some idea that this move must be provocation and what they hunted would
so be driven into view.

He held his sleep rod ready, just as the Salarik on his right had claw
knife in one hand and in the other, open and waiting, the net intended to
entangle and hold fast a victim, binding him for the kill.

But it was at the far tip of the barrier--the post of greatest honor
which Groft had jealously claimed as his, that the gorp struck first. At
a wild shout of defiance Dane half turned to see the Salarik noble cast
his net at sea level and then stab viciously with a well practiced blow.
When he raised his arm for a second thrust, greenish ichor ran from the
blade down his wrist.

"Dane!"

Thorson's head jerked around. He saw the vee of ripples headed straight
for the rocks where he balanced.

But he'd have to wait for a better target than a moving wedge of water.
Instinctively he half crouched in the stance of an embattled spaceman,
wishing now that he did have a blaster.

Neither of the Salariki stationed on either side of him made any move and
he guessed that was hunt etiquette. Each man was supposed to face and
kill the monster that challenged him--without assistance. And upon his
skill during the next few minutes might rest the reputation of all
Terrans as far as the natives were concerned.

There was a shadow outline beneath the surface of the metallic water now,
but he could not see well because of the distortion of the murky waves.
He must wait until he was sure.

Then the thing gave a spurt and, only inches beyond the toes of his
boots, a nightmare creature sprang halfway out of the water, pincher
claws as long as his own arms snapping at him. Without being conscious of
his act, he pressed the stud of the sleep rod, aiming in the general
direction of that horror from the sea.

But to his utter amazement the creature did not fall supinely back into
watery world from which it had emerged. Instead those claws snapped
again, this time scrapping across the top of Dane's foot, leaving a
furrow in material the keenest of knives could not have scored.

"Give it to him!" That was Rip shouting encouragement from his own place
farther along the reef.

Dane pressed the firing stud again and again. The claws waved as the
monstrosity slavered from a gaping frog's mouth, a mouth which was fanged
with a shark's vicious teeth. It was almost wholly out of the water,
creeping on a crab's many legs, with a clawed upper limb reaching for
him, when suddenly it stopped, its huge head turning from side to side in
the sheltering carapace of scaled natural armor. It settled back as if
crouching for a final spring--a spring which would push Dane into the
ocean.

But that attack never came. Instead the gorp drew in upon itself until it
resembled an unwieldy ball of indestructible armor and there it remained.

The Salariki on either side of Dane let out cries of triumph and edged
closer. One of them twirled his net suggestively, seeing that the Terran
lacked what was to him an essential piece of hunting equipment. Dane
nodded vigorously in agreement and the tough strands swung out in a
skillful cast which engulfed the motionless creature on the reef. But it
was so protected by its scales that there was no opening for the claw
knife. They had made a capture but they could not make a kill.

However, the Salariki were highly delighted. And several abandoned their
posts to help the boys drag the monster ashore where it was pinned down
to the beach by stakes driven through the edges of the net.

But the hunting party was given little time to gloat over this stroke of
fortune. The gorp killed by Groft and the one stunned by Dane were only
the van of an army and within moments the hunters on the reef were
confronted by trouble armed with slashing claws and diabolic fighting
ability.

The battle was anything but one-sided. Dane whirled, as the air was rent
by a shriek of agony, just in time to see one of the Salariki, already
torn by the claws of a gorp, being drawn under the water. It was too late
to save the hunter, though Dane, balanced on the very edge of the reef,
aimed a beam into the bloody waves. If the gorp was affected by this
attack he could not tell, for both attacker and victim could no longer be
seen.

But Ali had better luck in rescuing the Salarik who shared his particular
section of reef, and the native, gashed and spurting blood from a wound
in his thigh, was hauled to safety. While the gorp, coiling too slowly
under the Terran ray, was literally hewn to pieces by the revengeful
knives of the hunter's kin.

The fight broke into a series of individual duels carried on now by the
light of the torches as the evening closed in. The last of the purple
patches had burned away to nothing. Dane crouched by his standard torch,
his eyes fastened on the sea, watching for an ominous vee of ripples
betraying another gorp on its way to launch against the rock barrier.

There was such wild confusion along that line of water sprayed rocks
that he had no idea of how the engagement was going. But so far the
gorp showed no signs of having had enough.

Dane was shaken out of his absorption by another scream. One, he was
sure, which had not come from any Salariki throat. He got to his
feet. Rip was stationed four men beyond him. Yes, the tall
Astrogator-apprentice was there, outlined against torch flare. Ali?
No--there was the assistant Engineer. Weeks? But Weeks was picking his
way back along the reef toward the shore, haste expressed in every line
of his figure. The scream sounded for a second time, freezing the
Terrans.

"Come back--!" That was Weeks gesturing violently at the shore and
something floundering in the protecting circle of the reef. The younger
Salariki who had been feeding the fire were now clustered at the water's
edge.

Ali ran and with a leap covered the last few feet, landing reckless knee
deep in the waves. Dane saw light strike on his rod as he swung it in a
wide arc to center on the struggle churning the water into foam. A third
scream died to a moan and then the Salariki dashed into the sea, their
nets spread, drawing back with them through the surf a dark and now quiet
mass.

The fact that at least one gorp had managed to get on the inner side of
the reef made an impression on the rest of the native hunters. After an
uncertain minute or two Groft gave the signal to withdraw--which they did
with grisly trophies. Dane counted seven gorp bodies--which did not
include the prisoner ashore. And more might have slid into the sea to
die. On the other hand two Salariki were dead--one had been drawn into
the sea before Dane's eyes--and at least one was badly wounded. But who
had been pulled down in the shallows--some one sent out from the Queen
with a message?

Dane raced back along the reef, not waiting to pull up his torch, and
before he reached the shore Rip was overtaking him. But the man who lay
groaning on the sand was not from the Queen. The torn and bloodstained
tunic covering his lacerated shoulders had the I-S badge. Ali was already
at work on his wounds, giving temporary first aid from his belt kit. To
all their questions he was stubbornly silent--either he couldn't or
wouldn't answer.

In the end they helped the Salariki rig three stretchers. On one the
largest, the captive gorp, still curled in a round carapace protected
ball, was bound with the net. The second supported the wounded Salarik
clansman and onto the third the Terrans lifted the I-S man.

"We'll deliver him to his own ship," Rip decided. "He must have tailed us
here as a spy--" He asked a passing Salarik as to where they could find
the Company spacer.

"They might just think we are responsible," Ali pointed out. "But I see
your point. If we do pack him back to the Queen and he doesn't make it,
they might say that we fired his rockets for him. All right, boys, let's
up-ship--he doesn't look too good to me."

With a torch-bearing Salarik boy as a guide, they hurried along a path
taking in turns the burden of the stretcher. Luckily the I-S ship was
even closer to the sea than the Queen and as they crossed the slagged
ground, congealed by the break fire, they were trotting.

Though the Company ship was probably one of the smallest Inter-Solar
carried on her rosters, it was a third again as large as the Queen--with
part of that third undoubtedly dedicated to extra cargo space. Beside her
their own spacer would seem not only smaller, but battered and worn. But
no Free Trader would have willingly assumed the badges of a Company man,
not even for the command of such a ship fresh from the cradles of a
builder.

When a man went up from the training Pool for his first assignment, he
was sent to the ship where his temperament, training and abilities best
fitted. And those who were designated as Free Traders would never fit
into the pattern of Company men. Of late years the breech between those
who lived under the strict parental control of one of the five great
galaxy wide organizations and those still too much of an individual to
live any life but that of a half-explorer-half-pioneer which was the Free
Trader's, had widened alarmingly. Antagonism flared, rivalry was strong.
But as yet the great Companies themselves were at polite cold war with
one another for the big plums of the scattered systems. The Free Traders
took the crumbs and there was not much disputing--save in cases such as
had arisen on Sargol, when suddenly crumbs assumed the guise of very rich
cake, rich and large enough to attract a giant.

The party from the Queen was given a peremptory challenge as they reached
the other ship's ramp. Rip demanded to see the officer of the watch and
then told the story of the wounded man as far as they knew it. The Eysie
was hurried aboard--nor did his shipmates give a word of thanks.

"That's that." Rip shrugged. "Let's go before they slam the hatch so hard
they'll rock their ship off her fins!"

"Polite, aren't they?" asked Weeks mildly.

"What do you expect of Eysies?" Ali wanted to know. "To them Free Traders
are just rim planet trash. Let's report back where we are appreciated."

They took a short cut which brought them back to the Queen and they filed
up her ramp to make their report to the Captain.

But they were not yet satisfied with Groft and his gorp slayers. No
Salarik appeared for trade in the morning--surprising the Terrans.
Instead a second delegation, this time of older men and a storm priest,
visited the spacer with an invitation to attend Paft's funeral feast, a
rite which would be followed by the formal elevation of Groft to his
father's position, now that he had revenged that parent. And from remarks
dropped by members of the delegation it was plain that the bearing of the
Terrans who had joined the hunting party was esteemed to have been in
highest accord with Salariki tradition.

They drew lots to decide which two must remain with the ship and the rest
perfumed themselves so as to give no offense which might upset their now
cordial relations. Again it was mid-afternoon when the Salariki escort
sent to do them honor waited at the edge of the wood and Mura and Tang
saw them off. With a herald booming before them, they traveled the beaten
earth road in the opposite direction from the trading center, off through
the forest until they came to a wide section of several miles which had
been rigorously cleared of any vegetation which might give cover to a
lurking enemy. In the center of this was a twelve-foot-high stockade of
the bright red, burnished wood which had attracted Weeks on the shore.
Each paling was the trunk of a tree and it had been sharpened at the top
to a wicked point. On the field side was a wide ditch, crossed at the
gate by a bridge, the planking of which might be removed at will. And as
Dane passed over he looked down into the moat that was dry. The Salariki
did not depend upon water for a defense--but on something else which his
experience of the previous night had taught him to respect. There was no
mistaking that shade of purple. The highly inflammable scum the hunters
had burnt from the top of the waves had been brought inland and lay a
greasy blanket some eight feet below. It would only be necessary to toss
a torch on that and the defenders of the stockade would create a wall of
fire to baffle any attackers. The Salariki knew how to make the most of
their world's natural resources.




Chapter VI

DUELIST'S CHALLENGE


Inside the red stockade there was a crowded community. The Salariki
demanded privacy of a kind, and even the unmarried warriors did not share
barracks, but each had a small cubicle of his own. So that the mud brick
and timber erections of one of their clan cities resembled nothing so
much as the comb cells of a busy beehive. Although Paft's was considered
a large clan, it numbered only about two hundred fighting men and their
numerous wives, children and captive servants. Not all of them normally
lived at this center, but for the funeral feasting they had
assembled--which meant a lot of doubling up and tenting out under
makeshift cover between the regular buildings of the town. So that the
Terrans were glad to be guided through this crowded maze to the Great
Hall which was its heart.

As the trading center had been, the hall was a circular enclosure open to
the sky above but divided in wheel-spoke fashion with posts of the red
wood, each supporting a metal basket filled with imflammable material.
Here were no lowly stools or trading tables. One vast circular board,
broken only by a gap at the foot, ran completely around the wall. At the
end opposite the entrance was the high chair of the chieftain, set on a
two step dais. Though the feast had not yet officially begun, the Terrans
saw that the majority of the places were already occupied.

They were led around the perimeter of the enclosure to places not far
from the high seat. Van Rycke settled down with a grunt of satisfaction.
It was plain that the Free Traders were numbered among the nobility. They
could be sure of good trade in the days to come.

Delegations from neighboring clans arrived in close companies of ten or
twelve and were granted seats, as had been the Terrans, in groups. Dane
noted that there was no intermingling of clan with clan. And, as they
were to understand later that night, there was a very good reason for
that precaution.

"Hope all our adaption shots work," Ali murmured, eyeing with no pleasure
at all the succession of platters now being borne through the inner
opening of the table.

While the Traders had learned long ago that the wisest part of valor was
not to sample alien strong drinks, ceremony often required that they
break bread (or its other world equivalent) on strange planets. And so
science served expediency and now a Trader bound for any Galactic banquet
was immunized, as far as was medically possible, against the evil
consequences of consuming food not originally intended for Terran
stomachs. One of the results being that Traders acquired a far flung
reputation of possessing bird-like appetites--since it was always better
to nibble and live, than to gorge and die.

Groft had not yet taken his place in the vacant chieftain's chair. For
the present he stood in the center of the table circle, directing the
captive slaves who circulated with the food. Until the magic moment when
the clan themselves would proclaim their overlord, he remained merely the
eldest son of the house, relatively without power.

As the endless rows of platters made their way about the table the basket
lights on the tops of the pillars were ignited, dispelling the dusk of
evening. And there was an attendant stationed by each to throw on
handsful of aromatic bark which burned with puffs of lavender smoke,
adding to the many warring scents. The Terrans had recourse at intervals
to their own pungent smelling bottles, merely to clear their heads of the
drugging fumes.

Luckily, Dane thought as the feast proceeded, that smoke from the
braziers went straight up. Had they been in a roofed space they might
have been overcome. As it was--were they entirely conscious of all that
was going on around them?

His reason for that speculation was the dance now being performed in the
center of the hall--their fight with the gorp being enacted in a series
of bounds and stabbings. He was sure that he could no longer trust his
eyes when the claw knife of the victorious dancer-hunter apparently
passed completely through the chest of another wearing a grotesque
monster mask.

As a fitting climax to their horrific display, three of the men who had
been with them on the reef entered, dragging behind them--still enmeshed
in the hunting net--the gorp which Dane had stunned. It was uncurled now
and very much alive, but the pincer claws which might have cut its way
to safety were encased in balls of hard substance.

Freed from the net, suspended by its sealed claws, the gorp swung back
and forth from a standard set up before the high seat. Its murderous jaws
snapped futilely, and from it came an enraged snake's vicious hissing.
Though totally in the power of its enemies it gave an impression of
terrifying strength and menace.

The sight of their ancient foe aroused the Salariki, inflaming warriors
who leaned across the table to hurl tongue-twisting invective at the
captive monster. Dane gathered that seldom had a living gorp been
delivered helpless into their hands and they proposed to make the most of
this wonderful opportunity. And the Terran suddenly wished the
monstrosity had fallen back into the sea. He had no soft thoughts for the
gorp after what he had seen at the reef and the tales he had heard, but
neither did he like what he saw now expressed in gestures, heard in the
tones of voices about them.

A storm priest put an end to the outcries. His dun cloak making a spot of
darkness amid all the flashing color, he came straight to the place where
the gorp swung. As he took his stand before the wriggling creature the
din gradually faded, the warriors settled back into their seats, a pool
of quiet spread through the enclosure.

Groft came up to take his position beside the priest. With both hands he
carried a two handled cup. It was not the ornamented goblet which stood
before each diner, but a manifestly older artifact, fashioned of some
dull black substance and having the appearance of being even older than
the hall or town.

One of the warriors who had helped to bring in the gorp now made a quick
and accurate cast with a looped rope, snaring the monster's head and
pulling back almost at a right angle. With deliberation the storm priest
produced a knife--the first straight bladed weapon Dane had seen on
Sargol. He made a single thrust in the soft underpart of the gorp's
throat, catching in the cup he took from Groft some of the ichor which
spurted from the wound.

The gorp thrashed madly, spattering table and surrounding Salariki with
its life fluid, but the attention of the crowd was riveted elsewhere.
Into the old cup the priest poured another substance from a flask brought
by an underling. He shook the cup back and forth, as if to mix its
contents thoroughly and then handed it to Groft.

Holding it before him the young chieftain leaped to the table top and so
to stand before the high seat. There was a hush throughout the enclosure.
Now even the gorp had ceased its wild struggles and hung limp in its
bonds.

Groft raised the cup above his head and gave a loud shout in the archaic
language of his clan. He was answered by a chant from the warriors who
would in battle follow his banner, chant punctuated with the clinking
slap of knife blades brought down forcibly on the board.

Three times he recited some formula and was answered by the others. Then,
in another period of sudden quiet, he raised the cup to his lips and
drank off its contents in a single draught, turning the goblet upside
down when he had done to prove that not a drop remained within. A shout
tore through the great hall. The Salariki were all on their feet, waving
their knives over their heads in honor to their new ruler. And Groft for
the first time seated himself in the high seat. The clan was no longer
without a chieftain. Groft held his father's place.

"Show over?" Dane heard Stotz murmur and Van Rycke's disappointing reply:

"Not yet. They'll probably make a night of it. Here comes another round
of drinks--"

"And trouble with them,"--that was Captain Jellico being prophetic.

"By the Coalsack's Ripcord!" That exclamation had been jolted out of Rip
and Dane turned to see what had so jarred the usually serene
Astrogator-apprentice. He was just in time to witness an important piece
of Sargolian social practice.

A young warrior, surely only within a year or so of receiving his knife,
was facing an older Salarik, both on their feet. The head and shoulder
fur of the older fighter was dripping wet and an empty goblet rolled
across the table to bump to the floor. A hush had fallen on the immediate
neighbors of the pair, and there was an air of expectancy about the
company.

"Threw his drink all over the other fellow," Rip's soft whisper
explained. "That means a duel--"

"Here and now?" Dane had heard of the personal combat proclivities of the
Salariki.

"Should be to the death for an insult such as that," Ali remarked, as
usual surveying the scene from his chosen role as bystander. As a child
he had survived the unspeakable massacres of the Crater War, nothing had
been able to crack his surface armor since.

"The young fool!" that was Steen Wilcox sizing up the situation from the
angle of a naturally cautious nature and some fifteen years of experience
on a great many different worlds. "He'll be mustered out for good before
he knows what happened to him!"

The younger Salarik had barked a question at his elder and had been
promptly answered by that dripping warrior. Now their neighbors came to
life with an efficiency which suggested that they had been waiting for
such a move, it had happened so many times that every man knew just the
right procedure from that point on.

In order for a Sargolian feast to be a success, the Terrans gathered from
overheard remarks, at least one duel must be staged sometime during the
festivities. And those not actively engaged did a lot of brisk betting in
the background.

"Look there--at that fellow in the violet cloak," Rip directed Dane. "See
what he just laid down?"

The nobleman in the violet cloak was not one of Groft's liege men, but a
member of the delegation from another clan. And what he had laid down on
the table--indicating as he did so his choice as winner in the coming
combat, the elder warrior--was a small piece of white material on which
reposed a slightly withered but familiar leaf. The neighbor he wagered
with, eyed the stake narrowly, bending over to sniff at it, before he
piled up two gem set armlets, a personal scent box and a thumb ring to
balance.

At this practical indication of just how much the Terran herb was
esteemed Dane regretted anew their earlier ignorance. He glanced along
the board and saw that Van Rycke had noted that stake and was calling
their Captain's attention to it.

But such side issues were forgotten as the duelists vaulted into the
circle rimmed by the table, a space now vacated for their action. They
were stripped to their loin cloths, their cloaks thrown aside. Each
carried his net in his right hand, his claw knife ready in his left. As
yet the Traders had not seen Salarik against Salarik in action and in
spite of themselves they edged forward in their seats, as intent as the
natives upon what was to come. The finer points of the combat were lost
on them, and they did not understand the drilled casts of the net, which
had become as formalized through the centuries as the ancient and now
almost forgotten sword play of their own world. The young Salarik had
greater agility and speed, but the veteran who faced him had the
experience.

To Terran eyes the duel had some of the weaving, sweeping movements of
the earlier ritual dance. The swift evasions of the nets were graceful
and so timed that many times the meshes grazed the skin of the fighter
who fled entrapment.

Dane believed that the elder man was tiring, and the youngster must have
shared that opinion. There was a leap to the right, a sudden flurry of
dart and retreat, and then a net curled high and fell, enfolding flailing
arms and kicking legs. When the clutch rope was jerked tight, the
captured youth was thrown off balance. He rolled frenziedly, but there
was no escaping the imprisoning strands.

A shout applauded the victor. He stood now above his captive who lay
supine, his throat or breast ready for either stroke of the knife his
captor wished to deliver. But it appeared that the winner was not minded
to end the encounter with blood. Instead he reached out a long, befurred
arm, took up a filled goblet from the table and with serious
deliberation, poured its contents onto the upturned face of the loser.

For a moment there was a dead silence around the feast board and then a
second roar, to which the honestly relieved Terrans added spurts of
laughter. The sputtering youth was shaken free of the net and went down
on his knees, tendering his opponent his knife, which the other thrust
along with his own into his sash belt. Dane gathered from overheard
remarks that the younger man was, for a period of time, to be determined
by clan council, now the servant-slave of his overthrower and that since
they were closely united by blood ties, this solution was considered
eminently suitable--though had the elder killed his opponent, no one
would have thought the worse of him for that deed.

It was the Queen's men who were to provide the next center of attraction.
Groft climbed down from his high seat and came to face across the board
those who had accompanied him on the hunt. This time there was no
escaping the sipping of the potent drink which the new chieftain slopped
from his own goblet into each of theirs.

The fiery mouthful almost gagged Dane, but he swallowed manfully and
hoped for the best as it burned like acid down his throat into his
middle, there to mix uncomfortably with the viands he had eaten. Weeks'
thin face looked very white, and Dane noticed with malicious enjoyment,
that Ali had an unobtrusive grip on the table which made his knuckles
stand out in polished knobs--proving that there _were_ things which could
upset the imperturbable Kamil.

Fortunately they were _not_ required to empty that flowing bowl in one
gulp as Groft had done. The ceremonial mouthful was deemed enough and
Dane sat down thankfully--but with uneasy fears for the future.

Groft had started back to his high seat when there was an interruption
which had not been foreseen. A messenger threaded his way among the
serving men and spoke to the chieftain, who glanced at the Terrans and
then nodded.

Dane, his queasiness growing every second, was not attending until he
heard a bitten off word from Rip's direction and looked up to see a party
of I-S men coming into the open space before the high seat. The men from
the Queen stiffened--there was something in the attitude of the newcomers
which hinted at trouble.

"What do you wish, sky lords?" That was Groft using the Trade Lingo, his
eyes half closed as he lolled in his chair of state, almost as if he were
about to witness some entertainment provided for his pleasure.

"We wish to offer you the good fortune desires of our hearts--" That was
Kallee, the flowery words rolling with the proper accent from his tongue.
"And that you shall not forget us--we also offer gifts--"

At a gesture from their Cargo-master, the I-S men set down a small chest.
Groft, his chin resting on a clenched fist, lost none of his lazy air.

"They are received," he retorted with the formal acceptance. "And no one
can have too much good fortune. The Howlers of the Black Winds know
that." But he tendered no invitation to join the feast.

Kallee did not appear to be disconcerted. His next move was one which
took his rivals by surprise, in spite of their suspicions.

"Under the laws of the Fellowship, O, Groft," he clung to the formal
speech, "I claim redress--"

Ali's hand moved. Through his growing distress Dane saw Van Rycke's jaw
tighten, the fighting mask snap back on Captain Jellico's face. Whatever
came now was real trouble.

Groft's eyes flickered over the party from the Queen. Though he had just
pledged cup friendship with four of them, he had the malicious humor of
his race. He would make no move to head off what might be coming.

"By the right of the knife and the net," he intoned, "you have the power
to claim personal satisfaction. Where is your enemy?"

Kallee turned to face the Free Traders. "I hereby challenge a champion to
be set out from these off-worlders to meet by the blood and by the water
my champion--"

The Salariki were getting excited. This was superb entertainment, an
engagement such as they had never hoped to see--alien against alien. The
rising murmur of their voices was like the growl of a hunting beast.

Groft smiled and the pleasure that expression displayed was neither
Terran--nor human. But then the clan leader was not either, Dane reminded
himself.

"Four of these warriors are clan-bound," he said. "But the others may
produce a champion--"

Dane looked along the line of his comrades--Ali, Rip, Weeks and himself
had just been ruled out. That left Jellico, Van Rycke, Karl Kosti, the
giant jetman whose strength they had to rely upon before, Stotz the
Engineer, Medic Tau and Steen Wilcox. If it were strength alone he would
have chosen Kosti, but the big man was not too quick a thinker--

Jellico got to his feet, the embodiment of a star lane fighting man. In
the flickering light the scar on his cheek seemed to ripple. "Who's your
champion?" he asked Kallee.

The Eysie Cargo-master was grinning. He was confident he had pushed them
into a position from which they could not extricate themselves.

"You accept challenge?" he countered.

Jellico merely repeated his question and Kallee beckoned forward one of
his men.

The Eysie who stepped up was no match for Kosti. He was a slender, almost
wand-slim young man, whose pleased smirk said that he, too, was about to
put something over on the notorious Free Traders. Jellico studied him for
a couple of long seconds during which the hum of Salariki voices was the
threatening buzz of a disturbed wasps' nest. There was no way out of
this--to refuse conflict was to lose all they had won with the clansmen.
And they did not doubt that Kallee had, in some way, triggered the scales
against them.

Jellico made the best of it. "We accept challenge," his voice was level.
"We, being guesting in Groft's holding, will fight after the manner of
the Salariki who are proven warriors--" He paused as roars of pleased
acknowledgment arose around the board.

"Therefore let us follow the custom of warriors and take up the net and
the knife--"

Was there a shade of dismay on Kallee's face?

"And the time?" Groft leaned forward to ask--but his satisfaction at such
a fine ending for his feast was apparent. This would be talked over by
every Sargolian for many storm seasons to come!

Jellico glanced up at the sky. "Say an hour after dawn, chieftain. With
your leave, we shall confer concerning a champion."

"My council room is yours," Groft signed for a liege man to guide them.




Chapter VII

BARRING ACCIDENT


The morning winds rustled through the grass forest and, closer to hand,
it pulled at the cloaks of the Salariki. Clan nobles sat on stools,
lesser folk squatted on the trampled stubble of the cleared ground
outside the stockade. In their many colored splendor the drab tunics of
the Terrans were a blot of darkness at either end of the makeshift arena
which had been marked out for them.

At the conclusion of their conference the Queen's men had been forced
into a course Jellico had urged from the first. He, and he alone, would
represent the Free Traders in the coming duel. And now he stood there in
the early morning, stripped down to shorts and boots, wearing nothing on
which a net could catch and so trap him. The Free Traders were certain
that the I-S men having any advantage would press it to the ultimate
limit and the death of Captain Jellico would make a great impression on
the Salariki.

Jellico was taller than the Eysie who faced him, but almost as lean. Hard
muscles moved under his skin, pale where space tan had not burned in the
years of his star voyaging. And his every movement was with the liquid
grace of a man who, in his time, had been a master of the force blade.
Now he gripped in his left hand the claw knife given him by Groft himself
and in the other he looped the throwing rope of the net.

At the other end of the field, the Eysie man was industriously moving his
bootsoles back and forth across the ground, intent upon coating them with
as much of the gritty sand as would adhere. And he displayed the supreme
confidence in himself which he had shown at the moment of challenge in
the Great Hall.

None of the Free Trading party made the mistake of trying to give Jellico
advice. The Captain had not risen to his command without learning his
duties. And the duties of a Free Trader covered a wide range of knowledge
and practice. One had to be equally expert with a blaster and a slingshot
when the occasion demanded. Though Jellico had not fought a Salariki duel
with net and knife before, he had a deep memory of other weapons, other
tactics which could be drawn upon and adapted to his present need.

There was none of the casual atmosphere which had surrounded the affair
between the Salariki clansmen in the hall. Here was ceremony. The storm
priests invoked their own particular grim Providence, and there was an
oath taken over the weapons of battle. When the actual engagement began
the betting among the spectators had reached, Dane decided, epic
proportions. Large sections of Sargolian personal property were due to
change hands as a result of this encounter.

As the chief priest gave the order to engage both Terrans advanced from
their respective ends of the fighting space with the half crouching,
light footed tread of spacemen. Jellico had pulled his net into as close
a resemblance to rope as its bulk would allow. The very type of weapon,
so far removed from any the Traders knew, made it a disadvantage rather
than an asset.

But it was when the Eysie moved out to meet the Captain that Rip's
fingers closed about Dane's upper arm in an almost paralyzing grip.

"He knows--"

Dane had not needed that bad news to be made vocal. Having seen the
exploits of the Salariki duelists earlier, he had already caught the
significance of that glide, of the way the I-S champion carried his net.
The Eysie had not had any last minute instruction in the use of Sargolian
weapons--he had practiced and, by his stance, knew enough to make him a
formidable menace. The clamor about the Queen's party rose as the
battle-wise eyes of the clansmen noted that and the odds against Jellico
reached fantastic heights while the hearts of his crew sank.

Only Van Rycke was not disturbed. Now and then he raised his smelling
bottle to his nose with an elegant gesture which matched those of the
befurred nobility around him, as if not a thought of care ruffled his
mind.

The Eysie feinted in a opening which was a rather ragged copy of the
young Salarik's more fluid moves some hours before. But, when the net
settled, Jellico was simply not there, his quick drop to one knee had
sent the mesh flailing in an arc over his bowed shoulders with a good six
inches to spare. And a cry of approval came not only from his comrades,
but from those natives who had been gamblers enough to venture their
wagers on his performance.

Dane watched the field and the fighters through a watery film. The
discomfort he had experienced since downing that mouthful of the cup of
friendship had tightened into a fist of pain clutching his middle in a
torturing grip. But he knew he must stick it out until Jellico's ordeal
was over. Someone stumbled against him and he glanced up to see Ali's
face, a horrible gray-green under the tan, close to his own. For a moment
the Engineer-apprentice caught at his arm for support and then with a
visible effort straightened up. So he wasn't the only one--He looked for
Rip and Weeks and saw that they, too, were ill.

But for a moment all that mattered was the stretch of trampled earth and
the two men facing each other. The Eysie made another cast and this time,
although Jellico was not caught, the slap of the mesh raised a red welt
on his forearm. So far the Captain had been content to play the defensive
role of retreat, studying his enemy, planning ahead.

The Eysie plainly thought the game his, that he had only to wait for a
favorable moment and cinch the victory. Dane began to think it had gone
on for weary hours. And he was dimly aware that the Salariki were also
restless. One or two shouted angrily at Jellico in their own tongue.

The end came suddenly. Jellico lost his footing, stumbled, and went down.
But before his men could move, the Eysie champion bounded forward, his
net whirling out. Only he never reached the Captain. In the very act of
falling Jellico had pulled his legs under him so that he was not supine
but crouched, and his net swept but at ground level, clipping the I-S man
about the shins, entangling his feet so that he crashed heavily to the
sod and lay still.

"The whip--that Lalox whip trick!" Wilcox's voice rose triumphantly above
the babble of the crowd. Using his net as if it had been a thong, Jellico
had brought down the Eysie with a move the other had not foreseen.

Breathing hard, sweat running down his shoulders and making tracks
through the powdery red dust which streaked him, Jellico got to his feet
and walked over to the I-S champion who had not moved or made a sound
since his fall. The Captain went down on one knee to examine him.

"Kill! Kill!" That was the Salariki, all their instinctive savagery
aroused.

But Jellico spoke to Groft. "By our customs we do not kill the conquered.
Let his friends bear him hence." He took the claw knife the Eysie still
clutched in his hand and thrust it into his own belt. Then he faced the
I-S party and Kallee.

"Take your man and get out!" The rein he had kept on his temper these
past days was growing very thin. "You've made your last play here."

Kallee's thick lips drew back in something close to a Salarik snarl. But
neither he nor his men made any reply. They bundled up their unconscious
fighter and disappeared.

Of their own return to the sanctuary of the Queen Dane had only the
dimmest of memories afterwards. He had made the privacy of the forest
road before he yielded to the demands of his outraged interior. And after
that he had stumbled along with Van Rycke's hand under his arm, knowing
from other miserable sounds that he was not alone in his torment.

It was some time later, months he thought when he first roused, that he
found himself lying in his bunk, feeling very weak and empty as if a
large section of his middle had been removed, but also at peace with his
world. As he levered himself up the cabin had a nasty tendency to move
slowly to the right as if he were a pivot on which it swung, and he had
all the sensations of being in free fall though the Queen was still
firmly planeted. But that was only a minor discomfort compared to the
disturbance he remembered.

Fed the semi-liquid diet prescribed by Tau and served up by Mura to him
and his fellow sufferers, he speedily got back his strength. But it had
been a close call, he did not need Tau's explanation to underline that.
Weeks had suffered the least of the four, he the most--though none of
them had had an easy time. And they had been out of circulation three
days.

"The Eysie blasted last night," Rip informed him as they lounged in the
sun on the ramp, sharing the blessed lazy hours of invalidism.

But somehow that news gave Dane no lift of spirit. "I didn't think they'd
give up--"

Rip shrugged. "They may be off to make a dust-off before the Board. Only,
thanks to Van and the Old Man, we're covered all along the line. There's
nothing they can use against us to break our contract. And now we're in
so solid they can't cut us out with the Salariki. Groft asked the Captain
to teach him that trick with the net. I didn't know the Old Man knew
Lalox whip fighting--it's about one of the nastiest ways to get cut to
pieces in this universe--"

"How's trade going?"

Rip's sunniness clouded. "Supplies have given out. Weeks had an
idea--but it won't bring in Koros. That red wood he's so mad about, he's
persuaded Van to stow some in the cargo holds since we have enough Koros
stones to cover the voyage. Luckily the clansmen will take ordinary trade
goods in exchange for that and Weeks thinks it will sell on Terra. It's
tough enough to turn a steel knife blade and yet it is light and easy to
handle when it's cured. Queer stuff and the color's interesting. That
stockade of it planted around Groft's town has been up close to a hundred
years and not a sign of rot in a log of it!"

"Where is Van?"

"The storm priests sent for him. Some kind of a gabble-fest on the
star-star level, I gather. Otherwise we're almost ready to blast. And we
know what kind of cargo to bring next time."

They certainly did, Dane agreed. But he was not to idle away his morning.
An hour later a caravan came out of the forest, a line of complaining,
burdened orgels, their tiny heads hanging low as they moaned their woes,
the hard life which sent them on their sluggish way with piles of red
logs lashed to their broad toads' backs. Weeks was in charge of the
procession and Dane went to work with the cargo plan Van had left, seeing
that the brilliant scarlet lengths were hoist into the lower cargo hatch
and stacked according to the science of stowage. He discovered that Rip
had been right, the wood for all its incredible hardness was light of
weight. Weak as he still was he could lift and stow a full sized log with
no great difficulty. And he thought Weeks was correct in thinking that it
would sell on their home world. The color was novel, the durability an
asset--it would not make fortunes as the Koros stones might, but every
bit of profit helped and this cargo might cover their fielding fees on
Terra.

Sinbad was in the cargo space when the first of the logs came in. With
his usual curiosity the striped tom cat prowled along the wood, sniffing
industriously. Suddenly he stopped short, spat and backed away, his spine
fur a roughened crest. Having backed as far as the inner door he turned
and slunk out. Puzzled, Dane gave the wood a swift inspection. There were
no cracks or crevices in the smooth surfaces, but as he stopped over the
logs he became conscious of a sharp odor. So this was one scent of the
perfumed planet Sinbad did not like. Dane laughed. Maybe they had better
have Weeks make a gate of the stuff and slip it across the ramp, keeping
Sinbad on ship board. Odd--it wasn't an unpleasant odor--at least to him
it wasn't--just sharp and pungent. He sniffed again and was vaguely
surprised to discover that it was less noticeable now. Perhaps the wood
when taken out of the sunlight lost its scent.

They packed the lower hold solid in accordance with the rules of stowage
and locked the hatch before Van Rycke returned from his meeting with the
storm priests. When the Cargo-master came back he was followed by two
servants bearing between them a chest.

But there was something in Van Rycke's attitude, apparent to those who
knew him best, that proclaimed he was not too well pleased with his
morning's work. Sparing the feelings of the accompanying storm priests
about the offensiveness of the spacer Captain Jellico and Steen Wilcox
went out to receive them in the open. Dane watched from the hatch, aware
that in his present pariah-hood it would not be wise to venture closer.

The Terran Traders were protesting some course of action that the
Salariki were firmly insistent upon. In the end the natives won and Kosti
was summoned to carry on board the chest which the servants had brought.
Having seen it carried safely inside the spacer, the aliens departed,
but Van Rycke was frowning and Jellico's fingers were beating a tattoo on
his belt as they came up the ramp.

"I don't like it," Jellico stated as he entered.

"It was none of my doing," Van Rycke snapped. "I'll take risks if I have
to--but there's something about this one--" he broke off, two deep lines
showing between his thick brows. "Well, you can't teach a sasseral to
spit," he ended philosophically. "We'll have to do the best we can."

But Jellico did not look at all happy as he climbed to the control
section. And before the hour was out the reason for the Captain's
uneasiness was common property throughout the ship.

Having sampled the delights of off-world herbs, the Salariki were
determined to not be cut off from their source of supply. Six Terran
months from the present Sargolian date would come the great yearly feast
of the Fifty Storms, and the priests were agreed that this year their
influence and power would be doubled if they could offer the devout
certain privileges in the form of Terran plants. Consequently they had
produced and forced upon the reluctant Van Rycke the Koros collection of
their order, with instructions that it be sold on Terra and the price
returned to them in the precious seeds and plants. In vain the
Cargo-master and Captain had pointed out that Galactic trade was a chancy
thing at the best, that accident might prevent return of the Queen to
Sargol. But the priests had remained adamant and saw in all such
arguments only a devious attempt to raise prices. They quoted in their
turn the information they had levered out of the Company men--that
Traders had their code and that once pay had been given in advance the
contract _must_ be fulfilled. They, and they alone, wanted the full cargo
of the Queen on her next voyage, and they were taking the one way they
were sure of achieving that result.

So a fortune in Koros stones which as yet did not rightfully belong to
the Traders was now in the Queen's strong-room and her crew were pledged
by the strongest possible tie known in their Service to set down on
Sargol once more before the allotted time had passed. The Free Traders
did not like it, there was even a vaguely superstitious feeling that such
a bargain would inevitably draw ill luck to them. But they were left with
no choice if they wanted to retain their influence with the Salariki.

"Cutting orbit pretty fine, aren't we?" Ali asked Rip across the mess
table. "I saw your two star man sweating it out before he came down to
shoot the breeze with us rocket monkeys--"

Rip nodded. "Steen's double checked every computation and some he's done
four times." He ran his hands over his close cropped head with a weary
gesture. As a semi-invalid he had been herded down with his fellows to
swallow the builder Mura had concocted and Tau insisted that they take,
but he had been doing a half a night's work on the plotter under his
chief's exacting eye before he came. "The latest news is that, barring
accident, we can make it with about three weeks' grace, give or take a
day or two--"

"Barring accident--" the words rang in the air. Here on the frontiers of
the star lanes there were so many accidents, so many delays which could
put a ship behind schedule. Only on the main star trails did the huge
liners or Company ships attempt to keep on regularly timed trips. A Free
Trader did not really dare to have an inelastic contract.

"What does Stotz say?" Dane asked Ali.

"He says he can deliver. We don't have the headache about setting a
course--you point the nose and we only give her the boost to send her
along."

Rip sighed. "Yes--point her nose." He inspected his nails. "Goodbye," he
added gravely. "These won't be here by the time we planet here again.
I'll have my fingers gnawed off to the first knuckle. Well, we lift at
six hours. Pleasant strap down." He drank the last of the stuff in his
mug, made a face at the flavor, and got to his feet, due back at his post
in control.

Dane, free of duty until the ship earthed, drifted back to his own cabin,
sure of part of a night's undisturbed rest before they blasted off.
Sinbad was curled on his bunk. For some reason the cat had not been
prowling the ship before take-off as he usually did. First he had sat on
Van's desk and now he was here, almost as if he wanted human company.
Dane picked him up and Sinbad rumbled a purr, arching his head so that it
rubbed against the young man's chin in an extremely uncharacteristic show
of affection. Smoothing the fur along the cat's jaw line Dane carried him
back to the Cargo-master's cabin.

With some hesitation he knocked at the panel and did not step in until he
had Van Rycke's muffled invitation. The Cargo-master was stretched on the
bunk, two of the take off straps already fastened across his bulk as if
he intended to sleep through the blast-off.

"Sinbad, sir. Shall I stow him?"

Van Rycke grunted an assent and Dane dropped the cat in the small hammock
which was his particular station, fastening the safety cords. For once
Sinbad made no protest but rolled into a ball and was promptly fast
asleep. For a moment or two Dane thought about this unnatural behavior
and wondered if he should call it to the Cargo-master's attention.
Perhaps on Sargol Sinbad had had _his_ equivalent of a friendship cup
and needed a check-up by Tau.

"Stowage correct?" the question, coming from Van Rycke, was also unusual.
The seal would not have been put across the hold lock had its contents
not been checked and rechecked.

"Yes, sir," Dane replied woodenly, knowing he was still in the outer
darkness. "There was just the wood--we stowed it according to chart."

Van Rycke grunted once more. "Feeling top-layer again?"

"Yes, sir. Any orders, sir?"

"No. Blast-off's at six."

"Yes, sir." Dane left the cabin, closing the panel carefully behind him.
Would he--or could he--he thought drearily, get back in Van Rycke's
profit column again? Sargol had been unlucky as far as he was concerned.
First he had made that stupid mistake and then he got sick and now--And
now--what _was_ the matter? Was it just the general attack of nerves over
their voyage and the commitments which forced their haste, or was it
something else? He could not rid himself of a vague sense that the Queen
was about to take off into real trouble. And he did not like the
sensation at all!




Chapter VIII

HEADACHES


They lifted from Sargol on schedule and went into Hyper also on schedule.
From that point on there was nothing to do but wait out the usual dull
time of flight between systems and hope that Steen Wilcox had plotted a
course which would cut that flight time to a minimum. But this voyage
there was little relaxation once they were in Hyper. No matter when Dane
dropped into the mess cabin, which was the common meeting place of the
spacer, he was apt to find others there before him, usually with a mug of
one of Mura's special brews close at hand, speculating about their
landing date.

Dane, himself, once he had thrown off the lingering effects of his
Sargolian illness, applied time to his studies. When he had first joined
the Queen as a recruit straight out of the training Pool, he had speedily
learned that all the ten years of intensive study then behind him had
only been an introduction to the amount he still had to absorb before he
could take his place as an equal with such a trader as Van Rycke--if he
had the stuff which would raise him in time to that exalted level. While
he had still had his superior's favor he had dared to treat him as an
instructor, going to him with perplexing problems of stowage or barter.
But now he had no desire to intrude upon the Cargo-master, and doggedly
wrestled with the microtapes of old records on his own, painfully
working out the why and wherefor for any departure from the regular
procedure. He had no inkling of his own future status--whether the return
to Terra would find him permanently earthed. And he would ask no
questions.

They had been four days of ship's time in Hyper when Dane walked into the
mess cabin, tired after his work with old records, to discover no Mura
busy in the galley beyond, no brew steaming on the heat coil. Rip sat at
the table, his long legs stuck out, his usually happy face very sober.

"What's wrong?" Dane reached for a mug, then seeing no pot of drink, put
it back in place.

"Frank's sick--"

"What!" Dane turned. Illness such as they had run into on Sargol had a
logical base. But illness on board ship was something else.

"Tau has him isolated. He has a bad headache and he blacked out when he
tried to sit up. Tau's running tests."

Dane sat down. "Could be something he ate--"

Rip shook his head. "He wasn't at the feast--remember? And he didn't eat
anything from outside, he swore that to Tau. In fact he didn't go dirt
much while we were down--"

That was only too true as Dane could now recall. And the fact that the
steward had not been at the feast, had not sampled native food products,
wiped out the simplest and most comforting reasons for his present
collapse.

"What's this about Frank?" Ali stood in the doorway. "He said yesterday
that he had a headache. But now Tau has him shut off--"

"But he wasn't at that feast." Ali stopped short as the implications of
that struck him. "How's Tang feeling?"

"Fine--why?" The Com-tech had come up behind Kamil and was answering for
himself. "Why this interest in the state of my health?"

"Frank's down with something--in isolation," Rip replied bluntly. "Did he
do anything out of the ordinary when we were off ship?"

For a long moment the other stared at Shannon and then he shook his head.
"No. And he wasn't dirt-side to any extent either. So Tau's running
tests--" He lapsed into silence. None of them wished to put their
thoughts into words.

Dane picked up the microtape he had brought with him and went on down the
corridor to return it. The panel of the cargo office was ajar and to his
relief he found Van Rycke out. He shoved the tape back in its case and
pulled out the next one. Sinbad was there, not in his own private
hammock, but sprawled out on the Cargo-master's bunk. He watched Dane
lazily, mouthing a silent mew of welcome. For some reason since they had
blasted from Sargol the cat had been lazy--as if his adventures afield
there had sapped much of his vitality.

"Why aren't you out working?" Dane asked as he leaned over to scratch
under a furry chin raised for the benefit of such a caress. "You inspect
the hold lately, boy?"

Sinbad merely blinked and after the manner of his species looked
infinitely bored. As Dane turned to go the Cargo-master came in. He
showed no surprise at Dane's presence. Instead he reached out and
fingered the label of the tape Dane had just chosen. After a glance at
the identifying symbol he took it out of his assistant's hand, plopped it
back in its case, and stood for a moment eyeing the selection of past
voyage records. With a tongue-click of satisfaction he pulled out another
and tossed it across the desk to Dane.

"See what you can make out of this tangle," he ordered. But Dane's
shoulders went back as if some weight had been lifted from them. The old
easiness was still lacking, but he was no longer exiled to the outer
darkness of Van Rycke's displeasure.

Holding the microtape as if it were a first grade Koros stone Dane went
back to his own cabin, snapped the tape into his reader, adjusted the ear
buttons and lay back on his bunk to listen.

He was deep in the intricacy of a deal so complicated that he was lost
after the first two moves, when he opened his eyes to see Ali at the door
panel. The Engineer-apprentice made an emphatic beckoning wave and Dane
slipped off the ear buttons.

"What is it?" His question lacked a cordial note.

"I've got to have help." Ali was terse. "Kosti's blacked out!"

"What!" Dane sat up and dropped his feet to the deck in almost one
movement.

"I can't shift him alone," Ali stated the obvious. The giant jetman was
almost double his size. "We must get him to his quarters. And I won't ask
Stotz--"

For a perfectly good reason Dane knew. An assistant--two of the
apprentices--could go sick, but their officers' continued good health
meant the most to the Queen. If some infection were aboard it would be
better for Ali and himself to be exposed, than to have Johan Stotz with
all his encyclopedic knowledge of the ship's engines contract any
disease.

They found the jetman half sitting, half lying in the short foot or so of
corridor which led to his own cubby. He had been making for his quarters
when the seizure had taken him. And by the time the two reached his side,
he was beginning to come around, moaning, his hands going to his head.

Together they got him on his feet and guided him to his bunk where he
collapsed again, dead weight they had to push into place. Dane looked at
Ali--

"Tau?"

"Haven't had time to call him yet." Ali was jerking at the thigh straps
which fastened Kosti's space boots.

"I'll go." Glad for the task Dane sped up the ladder to the next section
and threaded the narrow side hall to the Medic's cabin where he knocked
on the panel.

There was a pause before Craig Tau looked out, deep lines of weariness
bracketing his mouth, etched between his eyes.

"Kosti, sir," Dane gave his bad news quickly. "He's collapsed. We got him
to his cabin--"

Tau showed no sign of surprise. His hand shot out for his kit.

"You touched him?" At the other's nod he added an order. "Stay in your
quarters until I have a chance to look you over--understand?"

Dane had no chance to answer, the Medic was already on his way. He went
to his own cabin, understanding the reason for his imprisonment, but
inwardly rebelling against it. Rather than sit idle he snapped on the
reader--but, although facts and figures were dunned into his ears--he
really heard very little. He couldn't apply himself--not with a new
specter leering at him from the bulkhead.

The dangers of the space lanes were not to be numbered, death walked
among the stars a familiar companion of all spacemen. And to the Free
Trader it was the extra and invisible crewman on every ship that raised.
But there were deaths and deaths--And Dane could not forget the gruesome
legends Van Rycke collected avidly as his hobby--had recorded in his
private library of the folk lore of space.

Stories such as that of the ghostly "New Hope" carrying refugees from the
first Martian Rebellion--the ship which had lifted for the stars but had
never arrived, which wandered for a timeless eternity, a derelict in free
fall, its port closed but the warning "dead" lights on at its nose--a
ship which through five centuries had been sighted only by a spacer in
similar distress. Such stories were numerous. There were other tales of
"plague" ships wandering free with their dead crews, or discovered and
shot into some sun by a patrol cruiser so that they might not carry their
infection farther. Plague--the nebulous "worst" the Traders had to face.
Dane screwed his eyes shut, tried to concentrate upon the droning voice
in his ears, but he could not control his thoughts nor--his fears.

At a touch on his arm he started so wildly that he jerked the cord loose
from the reader and sat up, somewhat shamefaced, to greet Tau. At the
Medic's orders he stripped for one of the most complete examinations he
had ever undergone outside a quarantine port. It included an almost
microscopic inspection of the skin on his neck and shoulders, but when
Tau had done he gave a sigh of relief.

"Well, you haven't got it--at least you don't show any signs yet," he
amended his first statement almost before the words were out of his
mouth.

"What were you looking for?"

Tau took time out to explain. "Here," his fingers touched the small
hollow at the base of Dane's throat and then swung him around and
indicated two places on the back of his neck and under his shoulder
blades. "Kosti and Mura both have red eruptions here. It's as if they
have been given an injection of some narcotic." Tau sat down on the jump
seat while Dane dressed. "Kosti was dirt-side--he might have picked up
something--"

"But Mura--"

"That's it!" Tau brought his fist down on the edge of the bunk. "Frank
hardly left the ship--yet he showed the first signs. On the other hand
you are all right so far and you were off ship. And Ali's clean and he
was with you on the hunt. We'll just have to wait and see." He got up
wearily. "If your head begins to ache," he told Dane, "you get back here
in a hurry and stay put--understand?"

As Dane learned all the other members of the crew were given the same
type of inspection. But none of them showed the characteristic marks
which meant trouble. They were on course for Terra--but--and that but
must have loomed large in all their minds--once there would they be
allowed to land? Could they even hope for a hearing? Plague ship--Tau
must find the answer before they came into normal space about their own
solar system or they were in for such trouble as made a broken contract
seem the simplest of mishaps.

Kosti and Mura were in isolation. There were volunteers for nursing and
Tau, unable to be in two places at once, finally picked Weeks to look
after his crewmate in the engineering section.

There was doubling up of duties. Tau could no longer share with Mura the
care of the hydro garden so Van Rycke took over. While Dane found himself
in charge of the galley and, while he did not have Mura's deft hand at
disguising the monotonous concentrates to the point they resembled fresh
food, after a day or two he began to experiment cautiously and produced a
stew which brought some short words of appreciation from Captain Jellico.

They all breathed a sigh of relief when, after three days, no more signs
of the mysterious illness showed on new members of the crew. It became
routine to parade before Tau stripped to the waist each morning for the
inspection of the danger points, and the Medic's vigilance did not
relax.

In the meantime neither Mura nor Kosti appeared to suffer. Once the
initial stages of headaches and blackouts were passed, the patients
lapsed into a semi-conscious state as if they were under sedation of some
type. They would eat, if the food was placed in their mouths, but they
did not seem to know what was going on about them, nor did they answer
when spoken to.

Tau, between visits to them, worked feverishly in his tiny lab, analyzing
blood samples, reading the records of obscure diseases, trying to find
the reason for their attacks. But as yet his discoveries were exactly
nothing. He had come out of his quarters and sat in limp exhaustion at
the mess table while Dane placed before him a mug of stimulating caf-hag.

"I don't get it!" The Medic addressed the table top rather than the
amateur cook. "It's a poison of some kind. Kosti went dirt-side--Mura
didn't. Yet Mura came down with it first. And we didn't ship any food
from Sargol. Neither did he eat any while we were there. Unless he did
and we didn't know about it. If I could just bring him to long enough to
answer a couple of questions!" Sighing he dropped his weary head on his
folded arms and within seconds was asleep.

Dane put the mug back on the heating unit and sat down at the other end
of the table. He did not have the heart to shake Tau into
wakefulness--let the poor devil get a slice of bunk time, he certainly
needed it after the fatigues of the past four days.

Van Rycke passed along the corridor on his way to the hydro, Sinbad at
his heels. But in a moment the cat was back, leaping up on Dane's knee.
He did not curl up, but rubbed against the young man's arm, finally
reaching up with a paw to touch Dane's chin, uttering one of the
soundless, mews which were his bid for attention.

"What's the matter, boy?" Dane fondled the cat's ears. "You haven't got
a headache--have you?" In that second a wild surmise came into his mind.
Sinbad had been planet-side on Sargol as much as he could, and on ship
board he was equally at home in all their cabins--could he be the carrier
of the disease?

A good idea--only if it were true, then logically the second victim
should have been Van, or Dane--whereas Sinbad lingered most of the time
in their cabins--not Kosti. The cat, as far as he knew, had never shown
any particular fondness for the jetman and certainly did not sleep in
Karl's quarters. No--that point did not fit. But he would mention it to
Tau--no use overlooking anything--no matter how wild.

It was the sequence of victims which puzzled them all. As far as Tau had
been able to discover Mura and Kosti had nothing much in common except
that they were crewmates on the same spacer. They did not bunk in the
same section, their fields of labor were totally different, they had no
special food or drink tastes in common, they were not even of the same
race. Frank Mura was one of the few descendants of a mysterious (or now
mysterious) people who had had their home on a series of islands in one
of Terra's seas, islands which almost a hundred years before had been
swallowed up in a series of world-rending quakes--Japan was the ancient
name of that nation. While Karl Kosti had come from the once thickly
populated land masses half the planet away which had borne the
geographical name of "Europe." No, all the way along the two victims had
only very general meeting points--they both shipped on the Solar Queen
and they were both of Terran birth.

Tau stirred and sat up, blinking bemusedly at Dane, then pushed back his
wiry black hair and assumed a measure of alertness. Dane dropped the now
purring cat in the Medic's lap and in a few sentences outlined his
suspicion. Tau's hands closed about Sinbad.

"There's a chance in that--" He looked a little less beat and he drank
thirstily from the mug Dane gave him for the second time. Then he hurried
out with Sinbad under one arm--bound for his lab.

Dane slicked up the galley, trying to put things away as neatly as Mura
kept them. He didn't have much faith in the Sinbad lead, but in this case
everything must be checked out.

When the Medic did not appear during the rest of the ship's day Dane was
not greatly concerned. But he was alerted to trouble when Ali came in
with an inquiry and a complaint.

"Seen anything of Craig?"

"He's in the lab," Dane answered.

"He didn't answer my knock," Ali protested. "And Weeks says he hasn't
been in to see Karl all day--"

That did catch Dane's attention. Had his half hunch been right? Was Tau
on the trail of a discovery which had kept him chained to the lab? But it
wasn't like the Medic not to look in on his patients.

"You're sure he isn't in the lab?"

"I told you that he didn't answer my knock. I didn't open the panel--"
But now Ali was already in the corridor heading back the way he had come,
with Dane on his heels, an unwelcome explanation for that silence in both
their minds. And their fears were reinforced by what they heard as they
approached the panel--a low moan wrung out of unbearable pain. Dane
thrust the sliding door open.

Tau had slipped from his stool to the floor. His hands were at his head
which rolled from side to side as if he were trying to quiet some agony.
Dane stripped down the Medic's under tunic. There was no need to make a
careful examination, in the hollow of Craig Tau's throat was the
tell-tale red blotch.

"Sinbad!" Dane glanced about the cabin. "Did Sinbad get out past you?" he
demanded of the puzzled Ali.

"No--I haven't seen him all day--"

Yet the cat was nowhere in the tiny cabin and it had no concealed hiding
place. To make doubly sure Dane secured the panel before they carried Tau
to his bunk. The Medic had blacked out again, passed into the lethargic
second stage of the malady. At least he was out of the pain which
appeared to be the worst symptom of the disease.

"It must be Sinbad!" Dane said as he made his report directly to Captain
Jellico. "And yet--"

"Yes, he's been staying in Van's cabin," the Captain mused. "And you've
handled him, he slept on your bunk. Yet you and Van are all right. I
don't understand that. Anyway--to be on the safe side--we'd better find
and isolate him before--"

He didn't have to underline any words for the grim-faced men who
listened. With Tau--their one hope of fighting the disease gone--they had
a black future facing them.

They did not have to search for Sinbad. Dane coming down to his own
section found the cat crouched before the panel of Van Rycke's cabin, his
eyes glued to the thin crack of the door. Dane scooped him up and took
him to the small cargo space intended for the safeguarding of choice
items of commerce. To his vast surprise Sinbad began fighting wildly as
he opened the hatch, kicking and then slashing with ready claws. The cat
seemed to go mad and Dane had all he could do to shut him in. When he
snapped the panel he heard Sinbad launch himself against the barrier as
if to batter his way out. Dane, blood welling in several deep scratches,
went in search of first aid. But some suspicion led him to pause as he
passed Van Rycke's door. And when his knock brought no answer he pushed
the panel open.

Van Rycke lay on his bunk, his eyes half closed in a way which had become
only too familiar to the crew of the Solar Queen. And Dane knew that when
he looked for it he would find the mark of the strange plague on the
Cargo-master's body.




Chapter IX

PLAGUE!


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."




Chapter X

E-STAT LANDING


Since Mura was in the isolation of ship sick bay the stripping of his
cabin was a relatively simple job. But, though Rip and Dane went over it
literally by inches, they found nothing unusual--in fact nothing from
Sargol except a small twig of the red wood which lay on the steward's
worktable where he had been fashioning something to incorporate in one of
his miniature fairy landscapes, to be imprisoned for all time in a
plasta-bubble. Dane turned this around in his fingers. Because it was the
only link with the perfumed planet he couldn't help but feel that it had
some importance.

But Kosti had not shown any interest in the wood. And he, himself, and
Weeks had handled it freely _before_ they had tasted Graft's friendship
cup and had no ill effects--so it couldn't be the wood. Dane put the twig
back on the work table and snapped the protecting cover over the delicate
tools--never realizing until days later how very close he had been in
that moment to the solution of their problem.

After two hours of shifting every one of the steward's belongings, of
crawling on hands and knees about the deck and climbing to inspect
perfectly bare walls, they had found exactly nothing. Rip sat down on the
end of the denuded bunk.

"There's the hydro--Frank spent a lot of time in there--and the
storeroom," he told the places off on his fingers. "The galley and the
mess cabin."

Those had been the extent of Mura's world. They could search the
storeroom, the galley and the mess cabin--but to interfere with the hydro
would endanger their air supply. It was for that very reason that they
now looked at each other in startled surmise.

"The perfect place to plant something!" Dane spoke first.

Rip's teeth caught his underlip. The hydro--something planted there could
not be routed out unless they made a landing on a port field and had the
whole section stripped.

"Devilish--" Rip's mobile lips drew tight. "But how could they do it?"

Dane didn't see how it could have been done either. No one but the
Queen's own crew had been on board the ship during their entire stay on
Sargol, except for the young Salarik. Could that cub have brought
something? But he and Mura had been with the youngster every minute that
he had been in the hydro. To the best of Dane's memory the cub had
touched nothing and had been there only for a few moments. That had been
before the feast also--

Rip got to his feet. "We can't strip the hydro in space," he pointed out
the obvious quietly.

Dane had the answer. "Then we've got to earth!"

"You heard that warn-off. If we try it--"

"What about an Emergency station?"

Rip stood very still, his big hands locked about the buckle of his arms
belt. Then, without another word, he went out of the cabin and at a
pounding pace up the ladder, bound for the Captain's cabin and the
records Jellico kept there. It was such a slim chance--but it was better
than none at all.

Dane shouldered into the small space in his wake to find Rip making a
selection from the astrogation tapes. There were E-Stats among the
asteroids--points prospectors or small traders in sudden difficulties
might contact for supplies or repairs. The big Companies maintained their
own--the Patrol had several for independents.

"No Patrol one--"

Rip managed a smile. "I haven't gone space whirly yet," was his comment.
He was feeding a tape into the reader on the Captain's desk. In the cage
over his head the blue Hoobat squatted watching him intently--for the
first time since Dane could remember showing no sign of resentment by
weird screams or wild spitting.

"Patrol E-Stat A-54--" the reader squeaked. Rip hit a key and the wire
clicked to the next entry. "Combine E-Stat--" Another punch and click.
"Patrol E-Stat A-55--" punch-click. "Inter-Solar--" this time Rip's hand
did not hit the key and the squeak continued--"Co-ordinates--" Rip
reached for a steelo and jotted down the list of figures.

"Got to compare this with our present course--"

"But that's an I-S Stat," began Dane and then he laughed as the justice
of such a move struck him. They did not dare set the Queen down at any
Patrol Station. But a Company one which would be manned by only two or
three men and not expecting any but their own people--and I-S owed them
help now!

"There may be trouble," he said, not that he would have any regrets if
there was. If the Eysies were responsible for the present plight of the
Queen he would welcome trouble, the kind which would plant his fists on
some sneering Eysie face.

"We'll see about that when we come to it," Rip went on to the control
cabin with his figures. Carefully he punched the combination on the
plotter and watched it be compared with the course Jellico had set before
his collapse.

"Good enough," he commented as the result flashed on. "We can make it
without using too much fuel--"

"Make what?" That was Ali up from the search of Kosti's quarters.
"Nothing," he gave his report of what he had found there and then
returned to the earlier question. "Make what?"

Swiftly Dane outlined their suspicions--that the seat of the trouble lay
in the hydro and that they should clean out that section, drawing upon
emergency materials at the I-S E-Stat.

"Sounds all right. But you know what they do to pirates?" inquired the
Engineer-apprentice.

Space law came into Dane's field, he needed no prompting. "Any ship in
emergency," he recited automatically, "may claim supplies from the
nearest E-Stat--paying for them when the voyage is completed."

"That means any Patrol E-Stat. The Companies' are private property."

"But," Dane pointed out triumphantly, "the law doesn't say so--there is
nothing about any difference between Company and Patrol E-Stat in the
law--"

"He's right," Rip agreed. "That law was framed when only the Patrol had
such stations. Companies put them in later to save tax--remember? Legally
we're all right."

"Unless the agents on duty raise a howl," Ali amended. "Oh, don't give me
that look, Rip. I'm not sounding any warn-off on this, but I just want
you to be prepared to find a cruiser riding our fins and giving us the
hot flash as bandits. If you want to spoil the Eysies, I'm all for it.
Got a stat of theirs pinpointed?"

Rip pointed to the figures on the computer. "There she is. We can set
down in about five hours' ship time. How long will it take to strip the
hydro and re-install?"

"How can I tell?" Ali sounded irritable. "I can give you oxgy for
quarters for about two hours. Depends upon how fast we can move. No
telling until we make a start."

He started for the corridor and then added over his shoulder: "You'll
have to answer a com challenge--thought about that?"

"Why?" Rip asked. "It might be com repairs bringing us in. They won't be
expecting trouble and we will--we'll have the advantage."

But Ali was not to be shaken out of his usual dim view of the future.
"All right--so we land, blaster in hand, and take the place. And they get
off one little squeak to the Patrol. Well, a short life but an
interesting one. And we'll make all the Video channels for sure when we
go out with rockets blasting. Nothing like having a little excitement to
break the dull routine of a voyage."

"We aren't going to, are we--" Dane protested, "land armed, I mean?"

Ali stared at him and Rip, to Dane's surprise, did not immediately
repudiate that thought.

"Sleep rods certainly," the Astrogator-apprentice said after a pause.
"We'll have to be prepared for the moment when they find out who we are.
And you can't re-set a hydro in a few minutes, not when we have to keep
oxgy on for the others. If we were able to turn that off and work in
suits it'd be a quicker job--we could dump before we set down and then
pile it in at once. But this way it's going to be piece work. And it all
depends on the agents at the Stat whether we have trouble or not."

"We had better break out the suits now," Ali added to Rip's estimate of
the situation. "If we set down and pile out wearing suits at once it will
build up our tale of being poor wrecked spacemen--"

Sleep rods or not, Dane thought to himself, the whole plan was one born
of desperation. It would depend upon who manned the E-Stat and how fast
the Free Traders could move once the Queen touched her fins to earth.

"Knock out their coms," that was Ali continuing to plan. "Do that first
and then we don't have to worry about someone calling in the Patrol."

Rip stretched. For the first time in hours he seemed to have returned to
his usual placid self. "Good thing somebody in this spacer watches Video
serials--Ali, you can brief us on all the latest tricks of space pirates.
Nothing is so wildly improbable that you can't make use of it sometime
during a checkered career."

He glanced over the board before he brought his hand down on a single key
set a distance apart from the other controls. "Put some local color into
it," was his comment.

Dane understood. Rip had turned on the distress signal at the Queen's
nose. When she set down on the Stat field she would be flaming a banner
of trouble. Next to the wan dead lights, set only when a ship had no hope
of ever reaching port at all, that signal was one every spacer dreaded
having to flash. But it was _not_ the dead lights--not yet for the Queen.

Working together they brought out the space suits and readied them at the
hatch. Then Weeks and Dane took up the task of tending their unconscious
charges while Rip and Ali prepared for landing.

There was no change in the sleepers. And in Jellico's cabin even Queex
appeared to be influenced by the plight of its master, for instead of
greeting Dane with its normal aspect of rage, the Hoobat stayed quiescent
on the floor of its cage, its top claws hooked about two of the wires,
its protruding eyes staring out into the room with what seemed closed to
a malignant intelligence. It did not even spit as Dane passed under its
abode to pour thin soup into his patient.

As for Sinbad, the cat had retreated to Dane's cabin and steadily refused
to leave the quarters he had chosen, resisting with tooth and claw the
one time Dane had tried to take him back to Van Rycke's office and his
own hammock there. Afterwards the Cargo-apprentice did not try to evict
him--there was comfort in seeing that plump gray body curled on the bunk
he had little chance to use.

His nursing duties performed for the moment, Dane ventured into the
hydro. He was practiced in tending this vital heart of the ship's air
supply. But outfitting a hydro was something else again. In his cadet
years he had aided in such a program at least twice as a matter of
learning the basic training of the Service. But then they had had
unlimited supplies to draw on and the action had taken place under no
more pressure than that exerted by the instructors. Now it was going to
be a far more tricky job--

He went slowly down the aisle between the banks of green things. Plants
from all over the Galaxy, grown for their contribution to the air
renewal--as well as side products such as fresh fruit and vegetables,
were banked there. The sweet odor of their verdant life was strong. But
how could any of the four now on duty tell what was rightfully there and
what might have been brought in? And could they be sure anything _had_
been introduced?

Dane stood there, his eyes searching those lines of greens--such a
mixture of greens from the familiar shade of Terra's fields to greens
tinged with shades first bestowed by other suns on other worlds--looking
for one which was alien enough to be noticeable. Only Mura, who knew
this garden as he knew his own cabin, could have differentiated between
them. They would just dump everything and trust to luck--

He was suddenly aware of a slight movement in the banks--a shivering of
stem, quiver of leaf. The mere act of his passing had set some sensitive
plant to register his presence. A lacy, fern-like thing was contracting
its fronds into balls. He should not stay--disturbing the peace of the
hydro. But it made little difference now--within a matter of hours all
this luxuriance would be thrust out to die and they would have to depend
upon canned oxgy and algae tanks. Too bad--the hydro represented much
time and labor on Mura's part and Tau had medical plants growing there he
had been observing for a long time.

As Dane closed the door behind him, seeing the line of balled fern which
had marked his passage, he heard a faint rustling, a sound as if a wind
had swept across the green room within. The imagination which was a
Trader's asset (when it was kept within bounds) suggested that the plants
inside guessed--With a frown for his own sentimentality, Dane strode down
the corridor and climbed to check with Rip in control.

The Astrogator-apprentice had his own problems. To bring the Queen down
on the circumscribed field of an E-Stat--without a guide beam to ride
in--since if they contacted the Stat they must reveal their _own_ com was
working and they would have to answer questions--was the sort of test
even a seasoned pilot would tense over. Yet Rip was sitting now in the
Captain's place, his broad hands spread out on the edge of the control
board waiting. And below in the engine room Ali was in Stotz's place
ready to fire and cut rockets at order. Of course they were both several
years ahead of him in Service, Dane knew. But he wondered at their quick
assumption of responsibility and whether he himself could ever reach
that point of self-confidence--his memory turning to the bad mistake be
had made on Sargol.

There was the sharp note of a warning gong, the flash of red light on the
control board. They were off automatic, from here on in it was all Kip's
work. Dane strapped down at the silent com-unit and was startled a moment
later when it spat words at him, translated from space code.

"Identify--identify--I-S E-Stat calling spacer--identify--"

So compelling was that demand that Dane's fingers went to the answer key
before he remembered and snatched them back, to fold his hands in his
lap.

"Identify--" the expressionless voice of the translator droned over their
heads.

Rip's hands were on the control board, playing the buttons there with the
precision of a musician creating some symphonic masterpiece. And the
Queen was alive, now quivering through her stout plates, coming into a
landing.

Dane watched the visa plate. The E-Stat asteroid was of a reasonable
size, but in their eyes it was a bleak, torn mote of stuff swimming
through vast emptiness.

"Identify--" the drone heightened in pitch.

Rip's lips were compressed, he made quick calculations. And Dane saw
that, though Jellico was the master, Rip was fully fit to follow in the
Captain's boot prints.

There was a sudden silence in the cabin--the demand had stopped. The
agents below must now have realized that the ship with the distress
signals blazing on her nose was not going to reply. Dane found he could
not watch the visa plate now, Rip's hands about their task filled his
whole range of sight.

He knew that Shannon was using every bit of his skill and knowledge to
jockey them into the position where they could ride their tail rockets
down to the scorched rock of the E-Stat field. Perhaps it wasn't as
smooth a landing as Jellico could have made. But they did it. Rip's hands
were quiet, again that patch of darkness showed on the back of his tunic.
He made no move from his seat.

"Secure--" Ali's voice floated up to them.

Dane unbuckled his safety webbing and got up, looking to Shannon for
orders. This was Rip's plan they were to carry through. Then something
moved him to give honor where it was due. He touched that bowed shoulder
before him.

"Fin landing, brother! Four points and down!"

Rip glanced up, a grin made him look his old self. "Ought to have a
recording of that for the Board when I go up for my pass-through."

Dane matched his smile. "Too bad we didn't have someone out there with a
tri-dee machine."

"More likely it'd be evidence at our trial for piracy--" their words must
have reached Ali on the ship's inter-com, for his deflating reply came
back, to remind them of why they had made that particular landing. "Do we
move now?"

"Check first," Rip said into the mike.

Dane looked at the visa-plate. Against a background of jagged rock teeth
was the bubble of the E-Stat housing--more than three-quarters of it
being in the hollowed out sections below the surface of the miniature
world which supported it, as Dane knew. But a beam of light shown from
the dome to center on the grounded Queen. They had not caught the Stat
agents napping.

They made the rounds of the spacer, checking on each of the
semi-conscious men. Ali had ready the artificial oxgy tanks--they must
move fast once they began the actual task of clearing and restocking the
hydro.

"Hope you have a good story ready," he commented as the other three
joined him by the hatch to don the suits which would enable them to cross
the airless, heatless surface of the asteroid.

"We have a poisoned hydro," Dane said.

"One look at the plants we dump will give you the lie. They won't accept
our story without investigation."

Dane was aroused. Did Ali think he was a stupid as all that? "If you'd
take a look in there now you'd believe me," he snapped.

"What did you do?" Ali sounded genuinely interested.

"Chucked a heated can of lacoil over a good section. It's wilting down
fast in big patches."

Rip snorted. "Good old lacoil. You drink it, you wash in it, and now you
kill off the Hydro with it. Maybe we can give the company an extra
testimonial for the official jabber and collect when we hit Terra. All
right--Weeks," he spoke to the little man, "you listen in on the
com--it's tuned to our helmet units. We'll climb into these pipe suits
and see how many tears we can wring out of the Eysies with our sad, sad
tale."

They got into the awkward, bulky suits and squeezed into the hatch while
Weeks slammed the lock door at their backs and operated the outer
opening. Then they were looking out across the ground, still showing
signs of the heat of their landing, and lighted by the dome beam.

"Nobody hurrying out with an aid and comfort kit," Rip's voice sounded in
Dane's earphones. "A little slack aren't they?"

Slack--or was it that the Eysies had recognized the Queen and was
preparing the sort of welcome the remnant of her crew could not
withstand? Dane, wanting very much in his heart to be elsewhere, climbed
down the ladder in Rip's wake, both of them spotlighted by the immovable
beam from the Stat dome.




Chapter XI

DESPERATE MEASURES


Measured in distance and time that rough walk in the ponderous suits
across the broken terrain of the asteroid was a short one, measured by
the beating of his own heart, Dane thought it much too long. There was no
sign of life by the air lock of the bubble--no move on the part of the
men stationed there to come to their assistance.

"D'you suppose we're invisible?" Ali's disembodied voice clicked in the
helmet earphones.

"Maybe we'll wish we were," Dane could not forego that return.

Rip was almost to the air lock door now. His massively suited arm was
outstretched toward the control bar when the com-unit in all three
helmets caught the same demand:

"Identify!" The crisp order had enough snap to warn them that an answer
was the best policy.

"Shannon--A-A of the Polestar," Rip gave the required information. "We
claim E rights--"

But would they get them? Dane wondered. There was a click loud in his
ears. The metal door was yielding to Rip's hand. At least those on the
inside had taken off the lock. Dane quickened pace to join his leader.

Together the three from the Queen crowded through the lock door, saw that
swing shut and seal behind them, as they stood waiting for the moment
they could discard the suits and enter the dome. The odds against them
could not be too high, this was a small Stat. It would not house more
than four agents at the most. And they were familiar enough with the
basic architecture of such stations to know just what move to make. Ali
was to go to the com room where he could take over if they did meet with
trouble. Dane and Rip would have to handle any dissenters in the main
section. But they still hoped that luck might ride their fins and they
could put over a story which would keep them out of active conflict with
the Eysies.

The gauge on the wall registered safety and they unfastened the
protective clasps of the suits. Standing the cumbersome things against
the wall as the inner door to the lock rolled back, they walked into
Eysie territory.

As Free Traders they had the advantage of being uniformly tunicked--with
no Company badge to betray their ship or status. So that could well _be_
the "Polestar" standing needle slim behind them--and not the notorious
"Solar Queen." But each, as he passed through the inner lock, gave a
hitch to his belt which brought the butt of his sleep rod closer to hand.
Innocuous as that weapon was, in close quarters its effects, if only
temporary, was to some purpose. And since they were prepared for trouble,
they might have a slight edge over the Eysies in attack.

A Company man, his tunic shabby and open in a negligent fashion at his
thick throat, stood waiting for them. His unhelmeted head was grizzled,
his coarse, tanned face with heavy jowls bristly enough to suggest he had
not bothered to use smooth-cream for some days. An under officer of some
spacer, retired to finish out the few years before pension in this
nominal duty--fast letting down the standards of personal regime he had
had to maintain on ship board. But he wasn't all fat and soft living,
the glance with which he measured them was shrewdly appraising.

"What's your trouble?" he demanded without greeting. "You didn't I-dent
coming in."

"Coms are out," Rip replied as shortly. "We need E-Hydro--"

"First time I ever heard it that the coms were wired in with the grass,"
the Eysies's hands were on his hips--in close proximity to something
which made Dane's eyes narrow. The fellow was wearing a flare-blaster!
That might be regulation equipment for an E-Stat agent on a lonely
asteroid--but he didn't quite believe it. And probably the other was
quick on the draw too.

"The coms are something else," Rip answered readily. "Our tech is working
on them. But the hydro's bad all though. We'll have to dump and restock.
Give you a voucher on Terra for the stuff."

The Eysie agent continued to block the doorway into the station. "This is
private--I-S property. You should hit the Patrol post--they cater to you
F-Ts."

"We hit the nearest E-Stat when we discovered that we were contaminated,"
Rip spoke with an assumption of patience. "That's the law, and you know
it. You have to supply us and take a voucher--"

"How do I know that your voucher is worth the film it's recorded on?"
asked the agent reasonably.

"All right," Rip shrugged. "If we have to do it the hard way, we'll cargo
dump to cover your bill."

"Not on this field." The other shook his head. "I'll flash in your
voucher first."

He had them, Dane thought bitterly. Their luck had run out. Because what
he was going to do was a move they dared not protest. It was one any
canny agent would make in the present situation. And if they were what
they said they were, they must readily agree to let him flash their
voucher of payment to I-S headquarters, to be checked and okayed before
they took the hydro stock.

But Rip merely registered a mild resignation. "You the Com-tech? Where's
your unit? I'll indit at once if you want it that way."

Whether their readiness to co-operate allayed some of the agent's
suspicion or not, he relaxed some, giving them one more stare all around
before he turned on his heel. "This way."

They followed him down the narrow hall, Rip on his heels, the others
behind.

"Lonely post," Rip commented. "I'd think you boys'd get space-whirly out
here."

The other snorted. "We're not star lovers. And the pay's worth a three
month stretch. They take us down for Terra leave before we start talking
to the Whisperers."

"How many of you here at a time?" Rip edged the question in casually.

But the other might have been expecting it by the way he avoided giving a
direct answer. "Enough to run the place--and not enough to help you clean
out your wagon," he was short about it. "Any dumping you do is strictly
on your own. You've enough hands on a spacer that size to manage--"

Rip laughed. "Far be it from me to ask an Eysie to do any real work," was
his counter. "We know all about you Company men--"

But the agent did not take fire at that jib. Instead he pushed back a
panel and they were looking into com-unit room where another man in the
tunic of the I-S lounged on what was by law twenty-four hour duty,
divided into three watches.

"These F-Ts want to flash a voucher request through," their guide
informed the tech. The other, interested, gave them a searching
once-over before he pushed a small scriber toward Rip.

"It's all yours--clear ether," he reported.

Ali stood with his back to the wall and Dane still lingered in the
portal. Both of them fixed their attention on Rip's left hand. If he gave
the agreed upon signal! Their fingers were linked loosely in their belts
only an inch or so from their sleep rods.

With his right hand Rip scooped up the scribbler while the Com-tech half
turned to make adjustments to the controls, picking up a speaker to call
the I-S headquarters.

Rip's left index finger snapped across his thumb to form a circle. Ali's
rod did not even leave his belt, it tilted up and the invisible deadening
stream from it centered upon the seated tech. At the same instant Dane
shot at the agent who had guided them there. The latter had time for a
surprised grunt and his hand was at his blaster as he sagged to his knees
and then relaxed on the floor. The Tech slumped across the call board as
if sleep had overtaken him at his post.

Rip crossed the room and snapped off the switch which opened the wire for
broadcasting. While Ali, with Dane's help, quietly and effectively
immobilized the Eysies with their own belts.

"There should be at least three men here," Rip waited by the door. "We
have to get them all under control before we start work."

However, the interior of the bubble, extending as it did on levels
beneath the outer crust of the asteroid, was not an easy place to search.
An enemy, warned of the invasion, could easily keep ahead of the party
from the Queen, spying on them at his leisure or preparing traps for
them. In the end, afraid of wasting time, they contented themselves with
locking the doors of the corridor leading to the lower levels, making
ready to raid the storeroom they had discovered during their search.

Emergency hydro supplies consisted mainly of algae which could be stored
in tanks and hastily put to use--as the plants now in the Queen took much
longer to grow even under forcing methods. Dane volunteered to remain
inside the E-Stat and assemble the necessary containers at the air lock
while the other two, having had more experience, went back to the spacer
to strip the hydro and prepare to switch contents.

But, when Rip and Ali left, the younger Cargo-apprentice began to find
the bubble a haunted place. He took the sealed containers out of their
storage racks, stood them on a small hand truck, and pushed them to the
foot of the stairs, up which he then climbed carrying two of the
cylinders at a time.

The swish of the air current through the narrow corridors made a constant
murmur of sound, but he found himself listening for something else, for a
footfall other than his own, for the betraying rasp of clothing against a
wall--for even a whisper of voice. And time and time again he paused
suddenly to listen--sure that the faintest hint of such a sound had
reached his ears. He had a dozen containers lined up when the welcome
signal reached him by the com-unit of his field helmet. To transfer the
cylinders to the lock, get out, and then open the outer door, did not
take long. But as he waited he still listened for a sound which did not
come--the notice, that someone besides himself was free to move about the
Stat.

Not knowing just how many of the supply tins were needed, he worked on
transferring all there were in the storage racks to the upper corridor
and the lock. But he still had half a dozen left to pass through when Rip
sent a message that he was coming in.

Out of his pressure suit, the Astrogator-apprentice stepped lightly into
the corridor, looked at the array of containers and shook his head.

"We don't need all those. No, leave them--" he added as Dane, with a
sigh, started to pick up two for a return trip. "There's something more
important just now--" He turned into the side hall which led to the com
room.

Both the I-S men had awakened. The Com-tech appeared to accept his bonds
philosophically. He was quiet and flat on his back, staring pensively at
the ceiling. But the other agent had made a worm's progress half across
the room and Rip had to halt in haste to prevent stepping on him.

Shannon stooped and, hooking his fingers in the other's tunic, heaved him
back while the helpless man favored them with some of the ripest
speech--and NOT Trade Lingo--Dane had ever heard. Rip waited until the
man began to run down and then he broke in with his pleasant soft drawl.

"Oh, sure, we're all that. But time runs on, Eysie, and I'd like a couple
of answers which may mean something to you. First--when do you expect
your relief?"

That set the agent off again. And his remarks--edited--were that no
something, something F-T was going to get any something, something
information out of him!

But it was his companion in misfortune--the Com-tech--who guessed the
reason behind Rip's question.

"Cut jets!" he advised the other. "They're just being soft-hearted. I
take it," he spoke over the other agent's sputtering to Rip, "that you're
worried about leaving us fin down--That's it, isn't it?"

Rip nodded. "In spite of what you think about us," he replied, "We're not
Patrol Posted outlaws--"

"No, you're just from a plague ship," the Com-tech remarked calmly. And
his words struck his comrade dumb. "Solar Queen?"

"You got the warn-off then?"

"Who didn't? You really have plague on board?" The thought did not appear
to alarm the Com-tech unduly. But his fellow suddenly heaved his bound
body some distance away from the Free Traders and his face displayed
mixed emotions--most of them fearful.

"We have something--probably supplied," Rip straightened. "Might pass
along to your bosses that we know that. Now suppose you tell me about
your relief. When is it due?"

"Not until after we take off on the long orbit if you leave us like this.
On the other hand," the other added coolly, "I don't see how you can do
otherwise. We've still got those--" with his chin he pointed to the
com-unit.

"After a few alterations," Rip amended. The bulk of the com was in a
tightly sealed case which they would need a flamer to open. But he could
and did wreak havoc with the exposed portions. The tech watching this
destruction spouted at least two expressions his companion had not used.
But when Rip finished he was his unruffled self again.

"Now," Rip drew his sleep rod. "A little rest and when you wake it will
all be a bad dream." He carefully beamed each man into slumber and helped
Dane strip off their bonds. But before he left the room he placed on the
recorder the voucher for the supplies they had taken. The Queen was not
stealing--under the law she still had some shadow of rights.

Suited they crossed the rough rock to the ship. And there about the fins,
already frozen into brittle spikes was a tangle of plants--the rich
result of years of collecting.

"Did you find anything?" Dane asked as they rounded that mess on their
way to the ladder.

Rip's voice came back through the helmet com. "Nothing we know how to
interpret. I wish Frank or Craig had had a chance to check. We took
tri-dees of everything before we dumped. Maybe they can learn something
from these when--"

His voice trailed off leaving that "when" to ring in both their minds. It
was such an important "when." When _would_ either the steward or the
Medic recover enough to view those tri-dee shots? Or was that "when"
really an ominous "if?"

Back in the Queen, sealed once more for blast-off, they took their
stations. Dane speculated as to the course Rip had set--were they just
going to wander about the system hoping to escape notice until they had
somehow solved their problem? Or did Shannon have some definite port in
mind? He did not have time to ask before they lifted. But once they were
space borne again he voiced his question.

Rip's face was serious. "Frankly--" he began and then hesitated for a
long moment before he added, "I don't know. If we can only get the
Captain or Craig on their feet again--"

"One thing," Ali materialized to join them, "Sinbad's back in the hydro.
And this morning you couldn't get him inside the door. It's not a very
good piece of evidence--"

No, it wasn't but they clung to it as backing for their actions of the
past few hours. The cat that had shown such a marked distaste for the
company of the stricken, and then for the hydro, was now content to visit
the latter as if some evil he has sensed there had been cleansed with the
dumping of the garden. They had not yet solved their mystery but another
clue had come into their hands.

But now the care of the sick occupied hours and Rip insisted that a watch
be maintained by the com--listening in for news which might concern the
Queen. They had done a good job at silencing the E-Stat, for they had
been almost six hours in space before the news of their raid was beamed
to the nearest Patrol post.

Ali laughed. "Told you we'd be pirates," he said when he listened to that
account of their descent upon the I-S station. "Though I didn't see all
that blaster work they're now raving about. You'd think we fought a major
battle there!"

Weeks growled. "The Eysies are trying to make it look good. Make us into
outlaws--"

But Rip did not share in the general amusement at the wild extravagation
of the report from the ether. "I notice they didn't say anything about
the voucher we left."

Ali's cynical smile curled. "Did you expect them to? The Eysies think
they have us by the tail fins now--why should they give us any benefit of
the doubt? We junked all our boosters behind us on this take-off, and
don't forget that, my friends."

Weeks looked confused. "But I thought you said we could do this legal,"
he appealed to Rip. "If we're Patrol Posted as outlaws--"

"They can't do any more to us than they can for running in a plague
ship," Ali pointed out. "Either will get us blasted if we happen into the
wrong vector now. So--what do we do?"

"We find out what the plague really is," Dane said and meant every word
of it.

"How?" Ali inquired. "Through some of Craig's magic?"

Dane was forced to answer with the truth. "I don't know yet--but it's our
only chance."

Rip rubbed his eyes wearily. "Don't think I'm disagreeing--but just
where do we start? We've already combed Frank's quarters and Kosti's--we
cleaned out the hydro--"

"Those tri-dee shots of the hydro--have you checked them yet?" Dane
countered.

Without a word Ali arose and left the cabin. He came back with a
microfilm roll. Fitting it into the large projector he focused it on the
wall and snapped the button.

They were looking at the hydro--down the length of space so accurately
recorded that it seemed they might walk straight into it. The greenery of
the plants was so vivid and alive Dane felt that he could reach out and
pluck a leaf. Inch by inch he examined those ranks, looking for something
which was not in order, had no right to be there.

The long shot of the hydro as it had been merged into a series of
sectional groupings. In silence they studied it intently, using all their
field lore in an attempt to spot what each one was certain must be there
somewhere. But they were all handicapped by their lack of intimate
knowledge of the garden.

"Wait!" Weeks' voice scaled up. "Left hand corner--there!" His pointing
hand broke and shadowed the portion he was calling to their attention.
Ali jumped to the projector and made a quick adjustment.

Plants four and five times life size glowed green on the wall. What Weeks
had caught they all saw now--ragged leaves, stripped stems.

"Chewed!" Dane supplied the answer.

It was only one species of plant which had been so mangled. Other
varieties in the same bank showed no signs of disturbance. But all of
that one type had at least one stripped branch and two were virtual
skeletons.

"A pest!" said Rip.

"But Sinbad," Dane began a protest before the memory of the cat's
peculiar actions of the past weeks stopped him. Sinbad had slipped up,
the hunter who had kept the Queen free of the outré alien life which came
aboard from time to time with cargo, had not attacked that which had
ravaged the hydro plants. Or if he had done so, he had not, after his
usual custom, presented the bodies of the slain to any crew member.

"It looks as if we have something at last," Ali observed and someone
echoed that with a sigh of heartdeep relief.




Chapter XII

STRANGE BEHAVIOR OF A HOOBAT


"All right, so we think we know a little more," Ali added a moment later.
"Just what are we going to do? We can't stay in space forever--there're
the small items of fuel and supplies and--"

Rip had come to a decision. "We're not going to remain space borne," he
stated with the confidence of one who now saw an open road before him.

"Luna--" Weeks was plainly doubtful.

"No. Not after that warn-off. Terra!"

For a second or two the other three stared at Rip agape. The audacity and
danger of what he suggested was a little stunning. Since men had taken
regularly to space no ship had made a direct landing on their home
planet--all had passed through the quarantine on Luna. It was not only
risky--it was so unheard of that for some minutes they did not understand
him.

"We try to set down at Terraport," Dane found his tongue first, "and they
flame us out--"

Rip was smiling. "The trouble with you," he addressed them all, "is that
you think of earth only in terms of Terraport--"

"Well, there _is_ the Patrol field at Stella," Weeks agreed doubtfully.
"But we'd be right in the middle of trouble there--"

"Did we have a regular port on Sargol--on Limbo--on fifty others I can
name out of our log?" Rip wanted to know.

Ali voiced a new objection. "So--we have the luck of Jones and we set
down somewhere out of sight. Then what do we do?"

"We seal ship until we find the pest--then we bring in a Medic and get to
the bottom of the whole thing," Rip's confidence was contagious. Dane
almost believed that it _could_ be done that way.

"Did you ever think," Ali cut in, "what would happen if we were wrong--if
the Queen really is a plague carrier?"

"I said--we seal the ship--tight," countered Shannon. "And when we earth
it'll be where we won't have visitors to infect--"

"And that is where?" Ali, who knew the deserts of Mars better than he did
the greener planet from which his stock had sprung, pursued the question.

"Right in the middle of the Big Burn!"

Dane, Terra born and bred, realized first what Rip was planning and what
it meant. Sealed off was right--the Queen would be amply protected from
investigation. Whether her crew would survive was another matter--whether
she could even make a landing there was also to be considered.

The Big Burn was the horrible scar left by the last of the Atomic Wars--a
section of radiation poisoned land comprising hundreds of square
miles--land which generations had never dared to penetrate. Originally
the survivors of that war had shunned the whole continent which it
disfigured. It had been close to two centuries before men had gone into
the still wholesome land laying to the far west and the south. And
through the years, the avoidance of the Big Burn had become part of their
racial instinct as they shrank from it. It was a symbol of something no
Terran wanted to remember.

But Ali now had only one question to ask. "Can we do it?"

"We'll never know until we try," was Rip's reply.

"The Patrol'll be watching--" that was Weeks. With his Venusian
background he had less respect for the dangers of the Big Burn than he
did for the forces of Law and order which ranged the star lanes.

"They'll be watching the route lanes," Rip pointed out. "They won't
expect a ship to come in on that vector, steering away from the ports.
Why should they? As far as I know it's never been tried since Terraport
was laid out. It'll be tricky--" And he himself would have to bear most
of the responsibility for it. "But I believe that it can be done. And we
can't just roam around out here. With I-S out for our blood and a Patrol
warn-off it won't do us any good to head for Luna--"

None of his listeners could argue with that. And, Dane's spirits began to
rise, after all they knew so little about the Big Burn--it might afford
them just the temporary sanctuary they needed. In the end they agreed to
try it, mainly because none of them could see any alternative, except the
too dangerous one of trying to contact the authorities and being
summarily treated as a plague ship before they could defend themselves.

And their decision was ably endorsed not long afterwards by a sardonic
warning on the com--a warning which Ali who had been tending the machine
passed along to them.

"Greetings, pirates--"

"What do you mean?" Dane was heating broth to feed to Captain Jellico.

"The word has gone out--our raid on the E-Stat is now a matter of history
and Patrol record--we've been Posted!"

Dane felt a cold finger drawn along his backbone. Now they were fair game
for the whole system. Any Patrol ship that wanted could shoot them down
with no questions asked. Of course that had always been a possibility
from the first after their raid on the E-Stat. But to realize that it was
now true was a different matter altogether. This was one occasion when
realization was worse than anticipation. He tried to keep his voice level
as he answered:

"Let us hope we can pull off Rip's plan--"

"We'd better. What about the Big Burn anyway, Thorson? Is it as tough as
the stories say?"

"We don't know what it's like. It's never been explored--or at least
those who tried to explore its interior never reported in afterwards. As
far as I know it's left strictly alone."

"Is it still all 'hot'?"

"Parts of it must be. But all--we don't know."

With the bottle of soup in his hand Dane climbed to Jellico's cabin. And
he was so occupied with the problem at hand that at first he did not see
what was happening in the small room. He had braced the Captain up into a
half-sitting position and was patiently ladling the liquid into his
mouth a spoonful at a time when a thin squeak drew his attention to the
top of Jellico's desk.

From the half open lid of a microtape compartment something long and dark
projected, beating the air feebly. Dane, easing the Captain back on the
bunk, was going to investigate when the Hoobat broke its unnatural quiet
of the past few days with an ear-splitting screech of fury. Dane struck
at the bottom of its cage--the move its master always used to silence
it--But this time the results were spectacular.

The cage bounced up and down on the spring which secured it to the
ceiling of the cabin and the blue feathered horror slammed against the
wires. Either its clawing had weakened them, or some fault had developed,
for they parted and the Hoobat came through them to land with a sullen
plop on the desk. Its screams stopped as suddenly as they had begun and
it scuttled on its spider-toad legs to the microtape compartment, acting
with purposeful dispatch and paying no attention to Dane.

Its claws shot out and with ease it extracted from the compartment a
creature as weird as itself--one which came fighting and of which Dane
could not get a very clear idea. Struggling they battled across the
surface of the desk and flopped to the floor. There the hunted broke
loose from the hunter and fled with fantastic speed into the corridor.
And before Dane could move the Hoobat was after it.

He gained the passage just in time to see Queex disappear down the
ladder, clinging with the aid of its pincher claws, apparently grimly
determined to catch up with the thing it pursued. And Dane went after
them.

There was no sign of the creature who fled on the next level. But Dane
made no move to recapture the blue hunter who squatted at the foot of the
ladder staring unblinkingly into space. Dane waited, afraid to disturb
the Hoobat. He had not had a good look at the thing which had run from
Queex--but he knew it was something which had no business aboard the
Queen. And it might be the disturbing factor they were searching for. If
the Hoobat would only lead him to it--

The Hoobat moved, rearing up on the tips of its six legs, its neckless
head slowly revolving on its puffy shoulders. Along the ridge of its
backbone its blue feathers were rising into a crest much as Sinbad's fur
rose when the cat was afraid or angry. Then, without any sign of haste,
it crawled over and began descending the ladder once more, heading toward
the lower section which housed the Hydro.

Dane remained where he was until it had almost reached the deck of the
next level and then he followed, one step at a time. He was sure that the
Hoobat's peculiar construction of body prevented it from looking
up--unless it turned upon its back--but he did not want to do anything
which would alarm it or deter Queex from what he was sure was a
methodical chase.

Queex stopped again at the foot of the second descent and sat in its toad
stance, apparently brooding, a round blue blot. Dane clung to the ladder
and prayed that no one would happen along to frighten it. Then, just as
he was beginning to wonder if it had lost contact with its prey, once
more it arose and with the same speed it had displayed in the Captain's
cabin it shot along the corridor to the hydro.

To Dane's knowledge the door of the garden was not only shut but sealed.
And how either the stranger or Queex could get through it he did not see.

"What the--?" Ali clattered down the ladder to halt abruptly as Dane waved
at him.

"Queex," the Cargo-apprentice kept his voice to a half whisper, "it got
loose and chased something out of the Old Man's cabin down here."

"Queex--!" Ali began and then shut his mouth, moving noiselessly up to
join Dane.

The short corridor ended at the hydro entrance. And Dane had been right,
there they found the Hoobat, crouched at the closed panel, its claws
clicking against the metal as it picked away useless at the portal which
would not admit it.

"Whatever it's after must be in there," Dane said softly.

And the hydro, stripped of its luxuriance of plant life, occupied now by
the tanks of green scum, would not afford too many hiding places. They
had only to let Queex in and keep watch.

As they came up the Hoobat flattened to the floor and shrilled its war
cry, spitting at their boots and then flashing claws against the stout
metal enforced hide. However, though it was prepared to fight them, it
showed no signs of wishing to retreat, and for that Dane was thankful. He
quickly pressed the release and tugged open the panel.

At the first crack of its opening Queex turned with one of those bursts
of astounding speed and clawed for admittance, its protest against the
men forgotten. And it squeezed through a space Dane would have thought
too narrow to accommodate its bloated body. Both men slipped around the
door behind it and closed the panel tight.

The air was not as fresh as it had been when the plants were there. And
the vats which had taken the places of the banked greenery were certainly
nothing to look at. Queex humped itself into a clod of blue, immovable,
halfway down the aisle.

Dane tried to subdue his breathing, to listen. The Hoobat's actions
certainly argued that the alien thing had taken refuge here, though how
it had gotten through--? But if it were in the hydro it was well hidden.

He had just begun to wonder how long they must wait when Queex again went
into action. Its clawed front legs upraised, it brought the pinchers
deliberately together and sawed one across the other, producing a rasping
sound which was almost a vibration in the air. Back and forth, back and
forth, moved the claws. Watching them produced almost a hypnotic effect,
and the reason for such a maneuver was totally beyond the human watchers.

But Queex knew what it was doing all right, Ali's fingers closed on
Dane's arm in a pincher grip as painful as if he had been equipped with
the horny armament of the Hoobat.

Something, a flitting shadow, had rounded one vat and was that much
closer to the industrious fiddler on the floor. By some weird magic of
its own the Hoobat was calling its prey to it.

Scrape, scrape--the unmusical performance continued with monotonous
regularity. Again the shadow flashed--one vat closer. The Hoobat now
presented the appearance of one charmed by its own art--sunk in a
lethargy of weird music making.

At last the enchanted came into full view, though lingering at the round
side of a container, very apparently longing to flee again, but under
some compulsion to approach its enchanter. Dane blinked, not quite sure
that his eyes were not playing tricks on him. He had seen the almost
transparent globe "bogies" of Limbo, had been fascinated by the weird and
ugly pictures in Captain Jellico's collection of tri-dee prints. But this
creature was as impossible in its way as the horrific blue thing dragging
it out of concealment.

It walked erect on two threads of legs, with four knobby joints easily
detected. A bulging abdomen sheathed in the horny substance of a beetle's
shell ended in a sharp point. Two pairs of small legs, folded close to
the much smaller upper portion of its body, were equipped with thorn
shack terminations. The head, which constantly turned back and forth on
the armor plated shoulders, was long and narrow and split for half its
length by a mouth above which were deep pits which must harbor eyes,
though actual organs were not visible to the watching men. It was a
palish gray in color--which surprised Dane a little. His memory of the
few seconds he had seen it on the Captain's desk had suggested that it
was much darker. And erect as it was, it stood about eighteen inches
high.

With head turning rapidly, it still hesitated by the side of the vat, so
nearly the color of the metal that unless it moved it was difficult to
distinguish. As far as Dane could see the Hoobat was paying it no
attention. Queex might be lost in a happy dream, the result of its own
fiddling. Nor did the rhythm of that scraping vary.

The nightmare thing made the last foot in a rush of speed which reduced
it to a blur, coming to a halt before the Hoobat. Its front legs whipped
out to strike at its enemy. But Queex was no longer dreaming. This was
the moment the Hoobat had been awaiting. One of the sawing claws opened
and closed, separating the head of the lurker from its body. And before
either of the men could interfere Queex had dismembered the prey with
dispatch.

"Look there!" Dane pointed.

The Hoobat held close the body of the stranger and where the ashy corpse
came into contact with Queex's blue feathered skin it was slowly changing
hue--as if some of the color of its hunter had rubbed off it.

"Chameleon!" Ali went down on one knee the better to view the grisly
feast now in progress. "Watch out!" he added sharply as Dane came to join
him.

One of the thin upper limbs lay where Queex had discarded it. And from
the needle tip was oozing some colorless drops of fluid. Poison?

Dane looked around for something which he could use to pick up the still
jerking appendage. But before he could find anything Queex had
appropriated it. And in the end they had to allow the Hoobat its victim
in its entirety. But once Queex had consumed its prey it lapsed into its
usual hunched immobility. Dane went for the cage and working gingerly he
and Ali got the creature back in captivity. But all the evidence now left
were some smears on the floor of the hydro, smears which Ali blotted up
for future research in the lab.

An hour later the four who now comprised the crew of the Queen gathered
in the mess for a conference. Queex was in its cage on the table before
them, asleep after all its untoward activity.

"There must be more than just one," Weeks said. "But how are we going to
hunt them down? With Sinbad?"

Dane shook his head. Once the Hoobat had been caged and the more
prominent evidence of the battle scraped from the floor, he had brought
the cat into the hydro and forced him to sniff at the site of the
engagement. The result was that Sinbad had gone raving mad and Dane's
hands were now covered with claw tears which ran viciously deep. It was
plain that the ship's cat was having none of the intruders, alive or
dead. He had fled to Dane's cabin where he had taken refuge on the bunk
and snarled wild eyed when anyone looked in from the corridor.

"Queex has to do it," Rip said. "But will it hunt unless it is hungry?"

He surveyed the now comatose creature skeptically. They had never seen
the Captain's pet eat anything except some pellets which Jellico kept in
his desk, and they were aware that the intervals between such feedings
were quite lengthy. If they had to wait the usual time for Queex to feel
hunger pangs once more, they might have to wait a long time.

"We should catch one alive," Ali remarked thoughtfully. "If we could get
Queex to fiddle it out to where we could net it--"

Weeks nodded eagerly. "A small net like those the Salariki use. Drop it
over the thing--"

While Queex still drowsed in its cage, Weeks went to work with fine cord.
Holding the color changing abilities of the enemy in mind they could not
tell how many of the creatures might be roaming the ship. It could only
be proved where they weren't by where Sinbad would consent to stay. So
they made plans which included both the cat and the Hoobat.

Sinbad, much against his will, was buckled into an improvised harness by
which he could be controlled without the handler losing too much valuable
skin.

And then the hunt started at the top of the ship, proceeding downward
section by section. Sinbad raised no protest in the control cabin, nor in
the private cabins of the officers' thereabouts. If they could interpret
his reactions the center section was free of the invaders. So with Dane
in control of the cat and Ali carrying the caged Hoobat, they descended
once more to the level which housed the hydro galley, steward's quarters
and ship's sick bay.

Sinbad proceeded on his own four feet into the galley and the mess. He
was not uneasy in the sick bay, nor in Mura's cabin, and this time he
even paced the hydro without being dragged--much to their surprise as
they had thought that the headquarters of the stowaways.

"Could there only have been one?" Weeks wanted to know as he stood by
ready with the net in his hands.

"Either that--or else we're wrong about the hydro being their main
hideout. If they're afraid of Queex now they may have withdrawn to the
place they feel the safest," Rip said.

It was when they were on the ladder leading to the cargo level that
Sinbad balked. He planted himself firmly and yowled against further
progress until Dane, with the harness, pulled him along.

"Look at Queex!"

They followed Weeks' order. The Hoobat was no longer lethargic. It was
raising itself, leaning forward to clasp the bars of its cage, and now it
uttered one of its screams of rage. And as Ali went on down the ladder it
rattled the bars in a determined effort for freedom. Sinbad, spitting and
yowling refused to walk. Rip nodded to Ali.

"Let it out."

Tipped out of its cage the Hoobat scuttled forward, straight for the
panel which opened on the large cargo space and there waited, as if for
them to open the portal and admit the hunter to its hunting territory.




Chapter XIII

OFF THE MAP


Across the lock of the panel was the seal set in place by Van Rycke
before the spacer had lifted from Sargol. Under Dane's inspection it
showed no crack. To all evidence the hatch had not been opened since they
left the perfumed planet. And yet the hunting Hoobat was sure that the
invading pests were within.

It took only a second for Dane to commit an act which, if he could not
defend it later, would blacklist him out of space. He twisted off the
official seal which should remain there while the freighter was space
borne.

With Ali's help he shouldered aside the heavy sliding panel and they
looked into the cargo space, now filled with the red wood from Sargol.
The redwood! When he saw it Dane was struck with their stupidity. Aside
from the Koros stones in the stone box, only the wood had come from the
Salariki world. What if the pests had not been planted by I-S agents, but
were natives of Sargol being brought in with the wood?

The men remained at the hatch to allow the Hoobat freedom in its hunt.
And Sinbad crouched behind them, snarling and giving voice to a rumbling
growl which was his negative opinion of the proceedings.

They were conscious of an odor--the sharp, unidentifiable scent Dane had
noticed during the loading of the wood. It was not unpleasant--merely
different. And it--or something--had an electrifying effect upon Queex.
The blue hunter climbed with the aid of its claws to the top of the
nearest pile of wood and there settled down. For a space it was
apparently contemplating the area about it.

Then it raised its claws and began the scraping fiddle which once before
had drawn its prey out of hiding. Oddly enough that dry rasp of sound had
a quieting effect upon Sinbad and Dane felt the drag of the harness
lessen as the cat moved, not toward escape, but to the scene of action,
humping himself at last in the open panel, his round eyes fixed upon the
Hoobat with a fascinated stare.

Scrape-scrape--the monotonous noise bit into the ears of the men, gnawed
at their nerves.

"Ahhh--" Ali kept his voice to a whisper, but his hand jerked to draw
their attention to the right at deck level. Dane saw that flicker along a
log. The stowaway pest was now the same brilliant color as the wood,
indistinguishable until it moved, which probably explained how it had
come on board.

But that was only the first arrival. A second flash of movement and a
third followed. Then the hunted remained stationary, able to resist for a
period the insidious summoning of Queex. The Hoobat maintained an
attitude of indifference, of being so wrapped in its music that nothing
else existed. Rip whispered to Weeks:

"There's one to the left--on the very end of that log. Can you net it?"

The small oiler slipped the coiled mesh through his calloused hands. He
edged around Ali, keeping his eyes on the protuding protruding bump of
red upon red which was his quarry.

"--two--three--four--five--" Ali was counting under his breath but Dane
could not see that many. He was sure of only four, and those because he
had seen them move.

The things were ringing in the pile of wood where the Hoobat fiddled, and
two had ascended the first logs toward their doom. Weeks went down on one
knee, ready to cast his net, when Dane had his first inspiration. He drew
his sleep rod, easing it out of its holster, set the lever on "spray" and
beamed it at three of those humps.

Rip seeing what he was doing, dropped a hand on Weeks' shoulder, holding
the oiler in check. A hump moved, slid down the rounded side of the log
into the narrow aisle of deck between two piles of wood. It lay quiet, a
bright scarlet blot against the gray.

Then Weeks did move, throwing his net over it and jerking the draw string
tight, at the same time pulling the captive toward him over the deck.
But, even as it came, the scarlet of the thing's body was fast fading to
an ashy pink and at last taking on a gray as dull as the metal on which
it lay--the complete camouflage. Had they not had it enmeshed they might
have lost it altogether, so well did it now blend with the surface.

The other two in the path of the ray had not lost their grip upon the
logs, and the men could not advance to scoop them up. Not while there
were others not affected, free to flee back into hiding. Weeks bound the
net about the captive and looked to Rip for orders.

"Deep freeze," the acting-commander of the Queen said succinctly. "Let me
see it get out of that!"

Surely the cold of the deep freeze, united to the sleep ray, would keep
the creature under control until they had a chance to study it. But, as
Weeks passed Sinbad on his errand, the cat was so frantic to avoid him,
that he reared up on his hind legs, almost turning a somersault, snarling
and spitting until Weeks was up the ladder to the next level. It was
very evident that the ship's cat was having none of this pest.

They might have been invisible and their actions non-existent as far as
Queex was concerned. For the Hoobat continued its siren concert. The
lured became more reckless, mounting the logs to Queex's post in sudden
darts. Dane wondered how the Hoobat proposed handling four of the
creatures at once. For, although the other two which had been in the path
of the ray had not moved, he now counted four climbing.

"Stand by to ray--" that was Rip.

But it would have been interesting to see how Queex was prepared to
handle the four. And, though Rip had given the order to stand by, he had
not ordered the ray to be used. Was he, too, interested in that?

The first red projection was within a foot of the Hoobat now and its
fellows had frozen as if to allow it the honor of battle with the
feathered enemy. To all appearances Queex did not see it, but when it
sprang with a whir of speed which would baffle a human, the Hoobat was
ready and its claws, halting their rasp, met around the wasp-thin waist
of the pest, speedily cutting it in two. Only this time the Hoobat made
no move to unjoint and consume the victim. Instead it squatted in utter
silence, as motionless as a tri-dee print.

The heavy lower half of the creature rolled down the pile of logs to the
deck and there paled to the gray of its background. None of its kind
appeared to be interested in its fate. The two which had been in the path
of the ray, continued to be humps on the wood, the others faced the
Hoobat.

But Rip was ready to waste no more time. "Ray them!" he snapped.

All three of their sleep rods sprayed the pile, catching in passing the
Hoobat. Queex's pop eyes closed, but it showed no other sign of falling
under the spell of the beam.

Certain that all the creatures in sight were now relatively harmless, the
three approached the logs. But it was necessary to get into touching
distance before they could even make out the outlines of the nightmare
things, so well did their protective coloring conceal them. Wearing
gloves Ali detached the little monsters from their holds on the wood and
put them for temporary safekeeping--during a transfer to the deep
freeze--into the Hoobat's cage. Queex, they decided to leave where it was
for a space, to awaken and trap any survivor which had been too wary to
emerge at the first siren song. As far as they could tell the Hoobat was
their only possible protection against the pest and to leave it in the
center of infection was the wisest course.

Having dumped the now metal colored catch into the freeze, they held a
conference.

"No plague--" Weeks breathed a sigh of relief.

"No proof of that yet," Ali caught him up short. "We have to prove it
past any reasonable doubt."

"And how are we going to do--?" Dane began when he saw what the other had
brought in from Tau's stores. A lancet and the upper half of the creature
Queex had killed in the cargo hold.

The needle pointed front feet of the thing were curled up in its death
throes and it was now a dirty white shade as if the ability to change
color had been lost before it matched the cotton on which it lay. With
the lancet Ali forced a claw away from the body. It was oozing the watery
liquid which they had seen on the one in the hydro.

"I have an idea," he said slowly, his eyes on the mangled creature rather
than on his shipmates, "that we might have escaped being attacked because
they sheered off from us. But if we were clawed we might take it too.
Remember those marks on the throats and backs of the rest? That might be
the entry point of this poison--if poison it is--"

Dane could see the end of that line of reasoning. Rip and Ali--they
couldn't be spared. The knowledge they had would bring the Queen to
earth. But a Cargo-master was excess baggage when there was no reason for
trade. It was his place to try out the truth of Ali's surmise.

But while he thought another acted. Weeks leaned over and twitched the
lancet out of Ali's fingers. Then, before any of them could move, he
thrust its contaminated point into the back of his hand.

"Don't!"

Both Dane's cry and Rip's hand came too late. It had been done. And Weeks
sat there, looking alone and frightened, studying the drop of blood which
marked the dig of the surgeon's keen knife. But when he spoke his voice
sounded perfectly natural.

"Headache first, isn't it?"

Only Ali was outwardly unaffected by what the little man had just done.
"Just be sure you have a real one," he warned with what Dane privately
considered real callousness.

Weeks nodded. "Don't let my imagination work," he answered shrewdly. "I
know. It has to be real. How long do you suppose?"

"We don't know," Rip sounded tired, beaten. "Meanwhile," he got to his
feet, "we'd better set a course home--"

"Home," Weeks repeated. To him Terra was not his own home--he had been
born in the polar swamps of Venus. But to All Solarians--no matter which
planet had nurtured them--Terra was home.

"You," Rip's big hand fell gently on the little oiler's shoulder, "stay
here with Thorson--"

"No," Weeks shook his head. "Unless I black out, I'm riding station in
the engine room. Maybe the bug won't work on me anyway."

And because he had done what he had done they could not deny him the
right to ride his station as long as he could during the grueling hours
to come.

Dane visited the cargo hold once more. To be greeted by an irate scream
which assured him that Queex was again awake and on guard. Although the
Hoobat was ready enough to give tongue, it still squatted in its chosen
position on top of the log stack and he did not try to dislodge it.
Perhaps with Queex planted in the enemies' territory they would have
nothing to fear from any pests not now confined in the deep freeze.

Rip set his course for Terra--for that plague spot on their native world
where they might hide out the Queen until they could prove their
point--that the spacer was not a disease ridden ship to be feared. He
kept to the control cabin, shifting only between the Astrogator's and the
pilot's station. Upon him alone rested the responsibility of bringing in
the ship along a vector which crossed no well traveled space lane where
the Patrol might challenge them. Dane rode out the orbiting in the
Com-tech's seat, listening in for the first warning of danger--that they
had been detected.

The mechanical repetition of their list of crimes was now stale news and
largely off-ether. And from all traces he could pick up, they were lost
as far as the authorities were concerned. On the other hand, the Patrol
might indeed be as far knowing as its propaganda stated and the Queen was
running headlong into a trap. Only they had no choice in the matter.

It was the ship's inter-com bringing Ali's voice from the engine room
which broke the concentration in the control cabin.

"Weeks' down!"

Rip barked into the mike. "How bad?"

"He hasn't blacked out yet. The pains in his head are pretty bad and his
hand is swelling--"

"He's given us our proof. Tell him to report off--"

But the disembodied voice which answered that was Weeks'.

"I haven't got it as bad as the others. I'll ride this out."

Rip shook his head. But short-handed as they were he could not argue
Weeks away from his post if the man insisted upon staying. He had other,
and for the time being, more important matters before him.

How long they sweated out that descent upon their native world Dane could
never afterwards have testified. He only knew that hours must have
passed, until he thought groggily that he could not remember a time he
was not glued in the seat which had been Tang's, the earphones pressing
against his sweating skull, his fatigue-drugged mind being held with
difficulty to the duty at hand.

Sometime during that haze they made their landing. He had a dim memory of
Rip sprawled across the pilot's control board and then utter exhaustion
claimed him also and the darkness closed in. When he roused it was to
look about a cabin tilted to one side. Rip was still slumped in a muscle
cramping posture, breathing heavily. Dane bit out a forceful word born of
twinges of his own, and then snapped on the visa-plate.

For a long moment he was sure that he was not yet awake. And then, as his
dazed mind supplied names for what he saw, he knew that Rip had failed.
Far from being in the center--or at least well within the perimeter of
the dread Big Burn--they must have landed in some civic park or national
forest. For the massed green outside, the bright flowers, the bird he
sighted as a brilliant flash of wind coasting color--those were not to
be found in the twisted horror left by man's last attempt to impress his
will upon his resisting kind.

Well, it had been a good try, but there was no use expecting luck to ride
their fins all the way, and they had had more than their share in the
E-Stat affair. How long would it be before the Law arrived to collect
them? Would they have time to state their case?

The faint hope that they might aroused him. He reached for the com key
and a second later tore the headphones from his appalled ears. The
crackle of static he knew--and the numerous strange noises which broke in
upon the lanes of communication in space--but this solid, paralyzing roar
was something totally new--new, and frightening.

And because it was new and he could not account for it, he turned back to
regard the scene on the viewer with a more critical eye. The foliage
which grew in riotous profusion was green right enough, and Terra green
into the bargain--there was no mistaking that. But--Dane caught at the
edge of Com-unit for support. But--What was that liver-red blossom which
had just reached out to engulf a small flying thing?

Feverishly he tried to remember the little natural history he knew. Sure
that what he had just witnessed was unnatural--un-Terran--and to be
suspect!

He started the spy lens on its slow revolution in the Queen's nose, to
get a full picture of their immediate surroundings. It was tilted at an
angle--apparently they had not made a fin-point landing this time--and
sometimes it merely reflected slices of sky. But when it swept earthward
he saw enough to make him believe that wherever the spacer had set down
it was not on the Terra he knew.

Subconsciously he had expected the Big Burn to be barren land--curdled
rock with rivers of frozen quartz, substances boiled up through the crust
of the planet by the action of the atomic explosives. That was the way it
had been on Limbo--on the other "burned-off" worlds they had discovered
where those who had preceded mankind into the Galaxy--the mysterious,
long vanished "Forerunners"--had fought their grim and totally
annihilating wars.

But it would seem that the Big Burn was altogether different--at least
here it was. There was no rock sterile of life outside--in fact there
would appear to be too much life. What Dane could sight on his limited
field of vision was a teeming jungle. And the thrill of that discovery
almost made him forget their present circumstances. He was still staring
bemused at the screen when Rip muttered, turned his head on his folded
arms and opened his sunken eyes:

"Did we make it?" he asked dully.

Dane, not taking his eyes from that fascinating scene without, answered:
"You brought us down. But I don't know where--"

"Unless our instruments were 'way off, we're near to the heart of the
Burn."

"Some heart!"

"What does it look like?" Rip sounded too tired to cross the cabin and
see for himself. "Barren as Limbo?"

"Hardly! Rip, did you ever see a tomato as big as a melon--At least it
looks like a tomato," Dane halted the spy lens as it focused upon this
new phenomena.

"A what?" There was a note of concern in Shannon's voice. "What's the
matter with you, Dane?"

"Come and see," Dane willingly yielded his place to Rip but he did not
step out of range of the screen. Surely that did have the likeness to a
good, old fashioned earth-side tomato--but it was melon size and it hung
from a bush which was close to a ten foot tree!

Rip stumbled across to drop into the Com-tech's place. But his expression
of worry changed to one of simple astonishment as he saw that picture.

"Where are we?"

"You name it," Dane had had longer to adjust, the excitement of an
explorer sighting virgin territory worked in his veins, banishing
fatigue. "It must be the Big Burn!"

"But," Rip shook his head slowly as if with that gesture to deny the
evidence before his eyes, "that country's all bare rock. I've seen
pictures--"

"Of the outer rim," Dane corrected, having already solved that problem
for himself. "This must be farther in than any survey ship ever came.
Great Spirit of Outer Space, what has happened here?"

Rip had enough technical training to know how to get part of the answer.
He leaned halfway across the com, and was able to flick down a lever with
the very tip of his longest finger. Instantly the cabin was filled with a
clicking so loud as to make an almost continuous drone of sound.

Dane knew that danger signal, he didn't need Rip's words to underline it
for him.

"That's what's happened. This country is pile 'hot' out there!"




Chapter XIV

SPECIAL MISSION


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!




Chapter XV

MEDIC HOVAN REPORTS


Fortunately the path out of the straggling town was a twisted one and in
a very short space they were hidden from view. Dane paused as if the pace
was too much for an injured man. The Medic put out a steadying hand, only
to drop it quickly when he saw the weapon which had appeared in Dane's
grip.

"What--?" His mouth snapped shut, his jaw tightened.

"You will march ahead of me," Dane's low voice was steady. "Beyond that
rock spur to the left you'll find a place where it is possible to climb
down to sea level. Do it!"

"I suppose I shouldn't ask why?"

"Not now. We haven't much time. Get moving!"

The Medic mastered his surprise and without further protest obeyed
orders. It was only when they were standing by the flitter and he saw the
suits that his eyes widened and he said:

"The Big Burn!"

"Yes, and I'm desperate--"

"You must be--or mad--" The Medic stared at Dane for a long moment and
then shook his head. "What is it? A plague ship?"

Dane bit his lip. The other was too astute. But he did not ask why or how
he had been able to guess so shrewdly. Instead he gestured to the suit
Ali had lashed beneath the seat in the flitter. "Get into that and be
quick about it!"

The Medic rubbed his hand across his jaw. "I think that you might just be
desperate enough to use that thing you're brandishing about so
melodramatically if I don't," he remarked in a calmly conversational
tone.

"I won't kill. But a blaster burn--"

"Can be pretty painful. Yes, I know that, young man. And," suddenly he
shrugged, put down his kit and started donning the suit. "I wouldn't put
it past you to knock me out and load me aboard if I did say no. All
right--"

Suited, he took his place on the seat as Dane directed, and then the
Trader followed the additional precaution of lashing the Medic's metal
encased arms to his body before he climbed into his own protective
covering. Now they could only communicate by sight through the vision
plates of their helmets.

Dane triggered the controls and they arose out of the sand and rock
hollow just as a party of two men and a boy came hurrying along the top
of the cliff--Jorge and the rescuers arriving too late. The flitter
spiraled up into the sunlight and Dane wondered how long it would be
before this outrage was reported to the nearest Plant Police base. But
would any Police cruiser have the hardihood to follow him into the Big
Burn? He hoped that the radiation would hold them back.

There was no navigation to be done. The flitter's "memory" should deposit
them at the Queen. Dane wondered at what his silent companion was now
thinking. The Medic had accepted his kidnapping with such docility that
the very ease of their departure began to bother Dane. Was the other
expecting a trailer? Had exploration into the Big Burn from the seaside
villages been more extensive than reported officially?

He stepped up the power of the flitter to the top notch and saw with some
relief that the ground beneath them was now the rocky waste bordering the
devastated area. The metal encased figure that shared his seat had not
moved, but now the bubble head turned as if the Medic were intent upon
the ground flowing beneath them.

The flicker of the counter began and Dane realized that nightfall would
find them still air borne. But so far he had not been aware of any
pursuit. Again he wished he had the use of a com--only here the radiation
would blanket sound with that continuous roar.

Patches of the radiation vegetation showed now and something in the lines
of the Medic's tense figure suggested that these were new to him.
Afternoon waned as the patches united, spread into the beginning of the
jungle as the counter was once more an almost steady light. When evening
closed in they were not caught in darkness--for below trees, looping
vines, brush, had a pale, evil glow of their own, proclaiming their
toxicity with bluish halos. Sometimes pockets of these made a core of
light which pulsed, sending warning fingers at the flitter which sped
across it.

The hour was close on midnight before Dane sighted the other light, the
pink-red of which winked through the ghastly blue-white with a natural
and comforting promise, even though it had been meant for an entirely
different purpose. The Queen had earthed with her distress lights on and
no one had remembered to snap them off. Now they acted as a beacon to
draw the flitter to its berth.

Dane brought the stripped flyer down on the fused ground as close to the
spot from which he had taken off as he could remember. Now--if those on
the spacer would only move fast enough--!

But he need not have worried, his arrival had been anticipated. Above,
the rounded side of the spacer bulged as the hatch opened. Lines swung
down to fasten their magnetic clamps on the flitter. Then once more they
were air borne, swinging up to be warped into the side of the ship. As
the outer port of the flitter berth closed Dane reached over and pulled
loose the lashing which immobilized his companion. The Medic stood up, a
little awkwardly as might any man who wore space armor the first time.

The inner hatch now opened and Dane waved his captive into the small
section which must serve them as a decontamination space. Free at last of
the suits, they went through one more improvised hatch to the main
corridor of the Queen where Rip and Ali stood waiting, their weary faces
lighting as they saw the Medic.

It was the latter who spoke first. "This _is_ a plague ship--"

Rip shook his head. "It is _not_, sir. And you're the one who is going to
help us prove that."

The man leaned back against the wall, his face expressionless. "You take
a rather tough way of trying to get help."

"It was the only way left us. I'll be frank," Rip continued, "we're
Patrol Posted."

The Medic's shrewd eyes went from one drawn young face to the next. "You
don't look like desperate criminals," was his comment. "This your full
crew?"

"All the rest are your concern. That is--if you will take the job--"
Rip's shoulders slumped a little.

"You haven't left me much choice, have you? If there is illness on board,
I'm under the Oath--whether you are Patrol Posted or not. What's the
trouble?"

They got him down to Tau's laboratory and told him their story. From a
slight incredulity his expression changed to an alert interest and he
demanded to see, first the patients and then the pests now immured in a
deep freeze. Sometime in the middle of this, Dane, overcome by fatigue
which was partly relief from tension, sought his cabin and the bunk from
which he wearily disposed Sinbad, only to have the purring cat crawl back
once more when he had lain down.

And when he awoke, renewed in body and spirit, it was in a new Queen, a
ship in which hope and confidence now ruled.

"Hovan's already got it!" Rip told him exultantly. "It's that poison from
the little devils' claws right enough! A narcotic--produces some of the
affects of deep sleep. In fact--it may have a medical use. He's excited
about it--"

"All right," Dane waved aside information which under other
circumstances, promising as it did a chance for future trade, would have
engrossed him, to ask a question which at the moment seemed far more to
the point. "Can he get our men back on their feet?"

A little of Rip's exuberance faded. "Not right away. He's given them all
shots. But he thinks they'll have to sleep it off."

"And we have no idea how long that is going to take," Ali contributed.

Time--for the first time in days Dane was struck by that--time! Because
of his training a fact he had forgotten in the past weeks of worry now
came to mind--their contract with the storm priests. Even if they were
able to clear themselves of the plague charge, even if the rest of the
crew were speedily restored to health, he was sure that they could not
hope to return to Sargol with the promised cargo, the pay for which was
already on board the Queen. They would have broken their pledge and there
could be no hope of holding to their trading rights on that world--if
they were not blacklisted for breaking contract into the bargain. I-S
would be able to move in and clean up and probably they could never prove
that the Company was behind their misfortunes--though the men of the
Queen would always be convinced that that fact was the truth.

"We're going to break contract--" he said aloud and that shook the other
two, knocked some of their assurance out of them.

"How about that?" Rip asked Ali.

The acting-engineer nodded. "We have fuel enough to lift from here and
maybe set down at Terraport--if we take it careful and cut vectors. We
can't lift from there without refueling--and of course the Patrol are
going to sit on their hands while we do that--with us Posted! No, put out
of your heads any plan for getting back to Sargol within the time limit.
Thorson's right--that way we're flamed out!"

Rip slumped in his seat. "So the Eysies can take over after all?"

"As I see it," Dane cut in, "let's just take one thing at a time. We may
have to argue a broken contract out before the Board. But first we have
to get off the Posted hook with the Patrol. Have you any idea about how
we are going to handle that?"

"Hovan's on our side. In fact if we let him have the bugs to play with
he'll back us all the way. He can swear us a clean bill of health before
the Medic Control Center."

"How much will that count after we've broken all their regs?" Ali wanted
to know. "If we surrender now we're not going to have much chance, no
matter what Hovan does or does not swear to. Hovan's a frontier Medic--I
won't say that he's not a member in good standing of their
association--but he doesn't have top star rating. And with the Eysies and
the Patrol on our necks, we'll need more than one medic's word--"

But Rip looked from the pessimistic Kamil to Dane. Now he asked a
question which was more than half statement.

"You've thought of something?"

"I've remembered something," the Cargo-apprentice corrected. "Recall the
trick Van pulled on Limbo when the Patrol was trying to ease us out of
our rights there after they took over the outlaw hold?"

Ali was impatient. "He threatened to talk to the Video people and
broadcast--tell everyone about the ships wrecked by the Forerunner
installation and left lying about full of treasure. But what has that to
do with us now--? We bargained away our rights on Limbo for the rest of
Cam's monopoly on Sargol--not that it's done us much good--"

"The Video," Dane fastened on the important point, "Van threatened
publicity which would embarrass the Patrol and he was legally within his
rights. We're outside the law now--but publicity might help again. How
many earth-side people know of the unwritten law about open war on plague
ships? How many who aren't spacemen know that we could be legally pushed
into the sun and fried without any chance to prove we're innocent of
carrying a new disease? If we could talk loud and clear to the people at
large maybe we'd have a chance for a real hearing--"

"Right from the Terraport broadcast station, I suppose?" Ali taunted.

"Why not?"

There was silence in the cabin as the other two chewed upon that and he
broke it again:

"We set down here when it had never been done before."

With one brown forefinger Rip traced some pattern known only to himself
on the top of the table. Ali stared at the opposite wall as if it were a
bank of machinery he must master.

"It just might be whirly enough to work--" Kamil commented softly. "Or
maybe we've been spaced too long and the Whisperers have been chattering
into our ears. What about it, Rip, could you set us down close enough to
Center Block there?"

"We can try anything once. But we might crash the old girl bringing her
in. There's that apron between the Companies' Launching cradles and the
Center--. It's clear there and we could give an E signal coming down
which would make them stay rid of it. But I won't try it except as a last
resort."

Dane noticed that after that discouraging statement Rip made straight for
Jellico's record tapes and routed out the one which dealt with Terraport
and the landing instructions for that metropolis of the star ships. To
land unbidden there would certainly bring them publicity--and to get the
Video broadcast and tell their story would grant them not only world
wide, but system wide hearing. News from Terraport was broadcast on every
channel every hour of the day and night and not a single viewer could
miss their appeal.

But first there was Hovan to be consulted. Would he be willing to back
them with his professional knowledge and assurance? Or would their
high-handed method of recruiting his services operate against them now?
They decided to let Rip ask such questions of the Medic.

"So you're going to set us down in the center of the big jump-off?" was
his first comment, as the acting-Captain of the Queen stated their case.
"Then you want me to fire my rockets to certify you are harmless. You
don't ask for very much, do you, son?"

Rip spread his hands. "I can understand how it looks to you, sir. We
grabbed you and brought you here by force. We can't make you testify for
us if you decide not to--"

"Can't you?" The Medic cocked an eyebrow at him. "What about this bully
boy of yours with his little blaster? He could herd me right up to the
telecast, couldn't he? There's a lot of persuasion in one of those nasty
little arms. On the other hand, I've a son who's set on taking out on one
of these tin pots to go star hunting. If I handed you over to the Patrol
he might make some remarks to me in private. You may be Posted, but you
don't look like very hardened criminals to me. It seems that you've been
handed a bad situation and handled it as best you know. And I'm willing
to ride along the rest of the way on your tail blast. Let me see how many
pieces you land us in at Terraport and I'll give you my final answer. If
luck holds we may have a couple more of your crew present by that time,
also--"

They had had no indication that the Queen had been located, that any
posse hunting the kidnapped Medic had followed them into the Big Burn. And
they could only hope that they would continue to remain unsighted as they
upped-ship once more and cruised into a regular traffic lane for earthing
at the port. It would be a chancy thing and Ali and Rip spent hours
checking the mechanics of that flight, while Dane and the recovering
Weeks worked with Hovan in an effort to restore the sleeping crew.

After three visits to the hold and the discovery that the Hoobat had
uncovered no more of the pests, Dane caged the angry blue horror and
returned it to its usual stand in Jellico's cabin, certain that the ship
was clean for Sinbad now confidently prowled the corridors and went into
every cabin of storage space Dane opened for him.

And on the morning of the day they had planned for take-off, Hovan at
last had a definite response to his treatment. Craig Tau roused, stared
dazedly around, and asked a vague question. The fact he immediately
relapsed once more into semi-coma did not discourage the other Medic.
Progress had been made and he was now sure that he knew the proper
treatment.

They strapped down at zero hour and blasted out of the weird green
wilderness they had not dared to explore, lifting into the arch of the
sky, depending upon Rip's knowledge to put them safely down again.

Dane once more rode out the take-off at the com-unit, waiting for the
blast of radiation born static to fade so that he could catch any
broadcast.

"--turned back last night. The high level of radiation makes it almost
certain that the outlaws could not have headed into the dangerous central
portion. Search is now spreading north. Authorities are inclined to
believe that this last outrage may be a clew to the vanished 'Solar
Queen,' a plague ship, warned off and Patrol Posted after her crew
plundered an E-Stat belonging to the Inter-Solar Corporation. Anyone
having any information concerning this ship--or any strange
spacer--report at once to the nearest Terrapolice or Patrol station. Do
not take chances--report any contact at once to the nearest Terrapolice
or Patrol station!"

"That's putting it strongly," Dane commented as he relayed the message.
"Good as giving orders for us to be flamed down at sight--"

"Well, if we set down in the right spot," Rip replied, "they can't flame
us out without blasting the larger part of Terraport field with us. And I
don't think they are going to do that in a hurry."

Dane hoped Shannon was correct in that belief. It would be more chancy
than landing at the E-Stat or in the Big Burn--to gauge it just right and
put them down on the Terraport apron where they could not be flamed out
without destroying too much, where their very position would give them a
bargaining point, was going to be a top star job. If Rip could only pull
it off!

He could not evaluate the niceties of that flight, he did not understand
all Rip was doing. But he did know enough to remain quietly in his place,
ask no questions, and await results with a dry mouth and a wildly beating
heart. There came a moment when Rip glanced up at him, one hand poised
over the control board. The pilot's voice came tersely, thin and queer:

"Pray it out, Dane--here we go!"

Dane heard the shrill of a riding beam, so tearing he had to move his
earphones. They must be almost on top of the control tower to get it like
that! Rip was planning on a set down where the Queen would block things
neatly. He brought his own fingers down on the E-E-Red button to give the
last and most powerful warning. That, to be used only when a ship landing
was out of control, should clear the ground below. They could only pray
it would vacate the port they were still far from seeing.

"Make it a fin-point, Rip," he couldn't repress that one bit of advice.
And was glad he had given it when he saw a ghost grin tug for a moment at
Rip's full lips.

"Good enough for a check-ride?"

They were riding her flaming jets down as they would on a strange world.
Below the port must be wild. Dane counted off the seconds.
Two--three--four--five--just a few more and they would be too low to
intercept--without endangering innocent coasters and groundhuggers. When
the last minute during which they were still vulnerable passed, he gave a
sigh of relief. That was one more point on their side. In the earphones
was a crackle of frantic questions, a gabble of orders screaming at him.
Let them rave, they'd know soon enough what it was all about.




Chapter XVI

THE BATTLE OF THE VIDEO


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.




Chapter XVII

IN CUSTODY


"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.




Chapter XVIII

BARGAIN CONCLUDED


"--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.

"Board fine?"

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.








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