Pietro and I exchanged glances, but I guess we weren't surprised. Among intelligent people on a ship of that size, secrets wouldn't keep. They'd all put bits together and got part of the answer. Pietro shrugged, and half stood up to make an announcement.
"Beg pardon, sirs." We jerked our heads around to see Bullard standing in the doorway.
He was scared stiff, and his words got stuck in his throat. Then he found his voice again. "I heard as how Hendrix went crazy and poisoned the plants and went and killed himself and we'll all die if we don't find some trick, and what I want to know, please, sirs, is are what they're saying right and you know all kinds of tricks and can you save us because I can't go on like this not knowing and hearing them talking outside the galley and none of them telling me--"
Lomax cut into his flood of words. "You'll live, Bullard. Farmer Hendrix did get killed in an accident to some of the plants, but we've still got air enough. Captain Muller has asked the help of a few of us, but it's only a temporary emergency."
Bullard stared at him, and slowly some of the fear left his face--though not all of it. He turned and left with a curt bow of his head, while Pietro added a few details that weren't exactly lies to Lomax's hasty cover-up, along with a grateful glance at the chemist. It seemed to work, for the time being--at least enough for Riggs to begin making nasty remarks about cooked paste.
Then the tension began to build again. I don't think any of the crew talked to any of our group. And yet, there seemed to be a chain of rumor that exchanged bits of information. Only the crew could have seen the dead plants being carried down to our refuse breakdown plant; and the fact it was chromazone poisoning must have been deduced from a description by some of our group. At any rate, both groups knew all about it--and a little bit more, as was usual with rumors--by the second day.
Muller should have made the news official, but he only issued an announcement that the danger was over. When Peters, our radioman-navigator, found Sam and Phil Riggs smoking and dressed them down, it didn't make Muller's words seem too convincing. I guessed that Muller had other things on his mind; at least he wasn't in his cabin much, and I didn't see Jenny for two whole days.
My nerves were as jumpy as those of the rest. It isn't too bad cutting out smoking; a man can stand imagining the air is getting stale; but when every unconscious gesture toward cigarettes that aren't there reminds him of the air, and when every imagined stale stench makes him want a cigarette to relax, it gets a little rough.
Maybe that's why I was in a completely rotten mood when I finally did spot Jenny going down the passage, with the tight coveralls she was wearing emphasizing every motion of her hips. I grabbed her and swung her around. "Hi, stranger. Got time for a word?"
She sort of brushed my hand off her arm, but didn't seem to mind it. "Why, I guess so, Paul. A little time. Captain Muller's watching the 'ponics."
"Good," I said, trying to forget Muller. "Let's make it a little more private than this, though. Come on in."
She lifted an eyebrow at the open door of my cabin, made with a little giggle, and stepped inside. I followed her, and kicked the door shut. She reached for it, but I had my back against it.
"Paul!" She tried to get around me, but I wasn't having any. I pushed her back onto the only seat in the room, which was the bunk. She got up like a spring uncoiling. "Paul Tremaine, you open that door. You know better than that. Paul, please!"
"What makes me any different than the others? You spend plenty of time in Muller's cabin--and you've been in Pietro's often enough. Probably Doc Napier's, too!"
Her eyes hardened, but she decided to try the patient and reason-with-the-child line. "That is different. Captain Muller and I have a great deal of business to work out."
"Sure. And he looks great in lipstick!"
It was a shot in the dark, but it went home. I wished I'd kept my darned mouth shut; before I'd been suspecting it--now I knew. She turned pink and tried to slap me, which won't work when the girl is sitting on a bunk and I'm on my feet. "You mind your own business!"
"I'm doing that. Generations should stick together, and he's old enough to be your father!"
She leaned back and studied me. Then she smiled slowly, and something about it made me sick inside. "I like older men, Paul. They make people my own age seem so callow, so unfinished. It's so comforting to have mature people around. I always did have an Electra complex."
"The Greeks had plenty of names for it, kid," I told her. "Don't get me wrong. If you want to be a slut, that's your own business. But when you pull the innocent act on me, and then fall back to sophomore psychology--"
This time she stood up before she slapped. Before her hand stung my face, I was beginning to regret what I'd said. Afterwards, I didn't give a damn. I picked her up off the floor, slapped her soundly on the rump, pulled her tight against me, and kissed her. She tried scratching my face, then went passive, and wound up with one arm around my neck and the other in the hair at the back of my head. When I finally put her down she sank back onto the bunk, breathing heavily.
"Why, Paul!" And she reached out her arms as I came down to meet them. For a second, the world looked pretty good.
Then a man's hoarse scream cut through it all, with the sound of heavy steps in panic flight. I jerked up. Jenny hung on. "Paul.... Paul...." But there was the smell of death in the air, suddenly. I broke free and was out into the corridor. The noise seemed to come from the shaft that led to the engine room, and I jumped for it, while I heard doors slam.
This time, there was a commotion, like a wet sack being tossed around in a pentagonal steel barrel, and another hoarse scream that cut off in the middle to a gargling sound.
I reached the shaft and started down the center rail, not bothering with the hand-grips. I could hear something rustle below, followed by silence, but I couldn't see a thing; the lights had been cut.
I could feel things poking into my back before I landed; I always get the creeps when there's death around, and that last sound had been just that--somebody's last sound. I knew somebody was going to kill me before I could find the switch. Then I stumbled over something, and my hair stood on end. I guess my own yell was pretty horrible. It scared me worse than I was already. But my fingers found the switch somehow, and the light flashed on.
Sam lay on the floor, with blood still running from a wide gash across his throat. A big kitchen knife was still stuck in one end of the horrible wound. And one of his fingers was half sliced off where the blade of a switch-blade shiv had failed on him and snapped back.
Something sounded above me, and I jerked back. But it was Captain Muller, coming down the rail. The man had obviously taken it all in on the way down. He jerked the switch-blade out of Sam's dead grasp and looked at the point of the knife. There was blood further back from the cut finger, but none on the point.
"Damn!" Muller tossed it down in disgust. "If he'd scratched the other man, we'd have had a chance to find who it was. Tremaine, have you got an alibi?"
"I was with Jenny," I told him, and watched his eyes begin to hate me. But he nodded. We picked Sam up together and lugged his body up to the top of the shaft, where the crowd had collected. Pietro, Peters, the cook, Grundy and Lomax were there. Beyond them, the dark-haired, almost masculine head of Eve Nolan showed, her eyes studying the body of Sam as if it were a negative in her darkroom; as usual, Bill Sanderson was as close to her as he could get. But there was no sign now of Jenny. I glanced up the corridor but saw only Wilcox and Phil Riggs, with Walt Harris trailing them, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
Muller moved directly to Pietro. "Six left in my crew now, Dr. Pietro. First Hendrix, now Sam. Can you still say that the attack is on your crew--when mine keep being killed? This time, sir, I demand . . ."
"Give 'em hell, Captain," ape-man Grundy broke in. "Cut the fancy stuff, and let's get the damned murdering rats!"
Muller's eyes quartered him, spitted his carcass, and began turning him slowly over a bed of coals. "Mister Grundy, I am master of the Wahoo. I fail to remember asking for your piratical advice. Dr. Pietro, I trust you will have no objections if I ask Mr. Peters to investigate your section and group thoroughly?"
"None at all, Captain Muller," Pietro answered. "I trust Peters. And I feel sure you'll permit me to delegate Mr. Tremaine to inspect the remainder of the ship?"
Muller nodded curtly. "Certainly. Until the madman is found, we're all in danger. And unless he is found, I insist I must protect my crew and my ship by turning back to Earth."
"I cannot permit that, sir!"
"Your permission for that was not requested, Dr. Pietro! Yes, Bullard?"
The cook had been squirming and muttering to himself for minutes. Now he darted out toward Grundy, and his finger pointed to Lomax. "He done it! I seen him. Killed the only friend I had, he did. They went by my galley--and--and he grabbed my big knife, that one there. And he killed Sam."
"You're sure it was Lomax?" Muller asked sharply.
"Sure I'm sure. Sam, he was acting queer lately. He was worried. Told me he saw something, and he was going to know for sure. He borrowed my switch-blade knife that my wife gave me. And he went out looking for something. Then I heard him a-running, and I looked up, and there was this guy, chasing him. Sure, I seen him with my own eyes."
Eve Nolan chuckled throatily, throwing her mannish-cut hair back from her face. She was almost pretty with an expression on her countenance, even if it was amused disgust. "Captain Muller, that's a nice story. But Dr. Lomax was with me in my darkroom, working on some spectroanalysis slides. Bill Sanderson and Phil Riggs were waiting outside for us. And Mr. Peters saw us come out together when we all ran down here."
Peters nodded. Muller stared at us for a second, and the hunting lust died out of his eyes, leaving them blank and cold. He turned to Bullard. "Bullard, an explanation might make me reduce your punishment. If you have anything to say, say it now!"
The cook was gibbering and actually drooling with fear. He shook, and sweat popped out all over him. "My knife--I hadda say something. They stole my knife. They wanted it to look like I done it. God, Captain, you'da done the same. Can't punish a man for trying to save his life. I'm a good man, I am. Can't whip a good man! Can't--"
"Give him twenty-five lashes with the wire, Mr. Grundy," Muller said flatly.
Pietro let out a shriek on top of the cook's. He started forward, but I caught him. "Captain Muller's right," I told him. "On a spaceship, the full crew is needed. The brig is useless, so the space-enabling charter recognizes flogging. Something is needed to maintain discipline."
Pietro dropped back reluctantly, but Lomax faced the captain. "The man is a coward, hardly responsible, Captain Muller. I'm the wounded party in this case, but it seems to me that hysteria isn't the same thing as maliciousness. Suppose I ask for clemency?"
"Thank you, Dr. Lomax," Muller said, and actually looked relieved. "Make it ten lashes, Mr. Grundy. Apparently no real harm has been done, and he will not testify in the future."
Grundy began dragging Bullard out, muttering about damn fool groundlubbers always sticking their noses in. The cook caught at Lomax's hand on the way, literally slobbering over it. Lomax rubbed his palm across his thigh, looking embarrassed.
Muller turned back to us. "Very well. Mr. Peters will begin investigating the expedition staff and quarters; Mr. Tremaine will have free run over the rest of the ship. And if the murderer is not turned up in forty-eight hours, we head back to Earth!"
Pietro started to protest again, but another scream ripped down the corridor, jerking us all around. It was Jenny, running toward us. She was breathing hoarsely as she nearly crashed into Dr. Pietro.
Her face was white and sick, and she had to try twice before she could speak.
"The plants!" she gasped out. "Poison! They're dying!"
It was chromazone again. Muller had kept most of the gang from coming back to hydroponics, but he, Jenny, Pietro, Wilcox and myself were enough to fill the room with the smell of sick fear. Now less than half of the original space was filled with healthy plants. Some of the tanks held plants already dead, and others were dying as we watched; once beyond a certain stage, the stuff acted almost instantly--for hours there was only a slight indication of something wrong, and then suddenly there were the dead, bleached plants.
Wilcox was the first to speak. He still looked like some nattily dressed hero of a space serial, but his first words were ones that could never have gone out on a public broadcast. Then he shrugged. "They must have been poisoned while we were all huddled over Sam's body. Who wasn't with us?"
"Nonsense," Pietro denied. "This was done at least eighteen hours ago, maybe more. We'd have to find who was around then."
"Twenty hours, or as little as twelve," Jenny amended. "It depends on the amount of the dosage, to some extent. And...." She almost managed to blush. "Well, there have been a lot of people around. I can't even remember. Mr. Grundy and one of the men, Mr. Wilcox, Dr. Napier--oh, I don't know!"
Muller shook his head in heavy agreement. "Naturally. We had a lot of work to do here. After word got around about Hendrix, we didn't try to conceal much. It might have happened when someone else was watching, too. The important thing, gentlemen, is that now we don't have reserve enough to carry us to Saturn. The plants remaining can't handle the air for all of us. And while we ship some reserve oxygen...."
He let it die in a distasteful shrug. "At least this settles one thing. We have no choice now but to return to Earth!"
"Captain Muller," Pietro bristled quickly, "that's getting to be a monomania with you. I agree we are in grave danger. I don't relish the prospect of dying any more than you do--perhaps less, in view of certain peculiarities! But it's now further back to Earth than it is to Saturn. And before we can reach either, we'll have new plants--or we'll be dead!"
"Some of us will be dead, Dr. Pietro," Wilcox amended it. "There are enough plants left to keep some of us breathing indefinitely."
Pietro nodded. "And I suppose, in our captain's mind, that means the personnel of the ship can survive. Captain Muller, I must regard your constant attempt to return to Earth as highly suspicious in view of this recurrent sabotage of the expedition. Someone here is apparently either a complete madman or so determined to get back that he'll resort to anything to accomplish his end. And you have been harping on returning over and over again!"
Muller bristled, and big heavy fist tightened. Then he drew himself up to his full dumpy height. "Dr. Pietro," he said stiffly, "I am as responsible to my duties as any man here--and my duties involve protecting the life of every man and woman on board; if you wish to return, I shall be most happy to submit this to a formal board of inquiry. I--"
"Just a minute," I told them. "You two are forgetting that we've got a problem here. Damn it, I'm sick of this fighting among ourselves. We're a bunch of men in a jam, not two camps at war now. I can't see any reason why Captain Muller would want to return that badly."
Muller nodded slightly. "Thank you, Mr. Tremaine. However, for the record, and to save you trouble investigating there is a good reason. My company is now building a super-liner; if I were to return within the next six months, they'd promote me to captain of that ship--a considerable promotion, too."
For a moment, his honesty seemed to soften Pietro. The scientist mumbled some sort of apology, and turned to the plants. But it bothered me; if Muller had pulled something, the smartest thing he could have done would be to have said just what he did.
Besides, knowing that Pietro's injunction had robbed him of a chance like that was enough to rankle in any man's guts and make him work up something pretty close to insanity. I marked it down in my mental files for the investigation I was supposed to make, but let it go for the moment.
Muller stood for a minute longer, thinking darkly about the whole situation. Then he moved toward the entrance to hydroponics and pulled out the ship speaker mike. "All hands and passengers will assemble in hydroponics within five minutes," he announced. He swung toward Pietro. "With your permission, Doctor," he said caustically.
The company assembled later looked as sick as the plants. This time, Muller was hiding nothing. He outlined the situation fully; maybe he shaded it a bit to throw suspicion on our group, but in no way we could pin down. Finally he stated flatly that the situation meant almost certain death for at least some of those aboard.
"From now on, there'll be a watch kept. This is closed to everyone except myself, Dr. Pietro, Mr. Peters, and Dr. Jenny Sanderson. At least one of us will be here at all times, equipped with gas guns. Anyone else is to be killed on setting foot inside this door!" He swung his eyes over the group. "Any objections?"
Grundy stirred uncomfortably. "I don't go for them science guys up here. Takes a crazy man to do a thing like this, and everybody knows...."
Eve Nolan laughed roughly. "Everybody knows you've been swearing you won't go the whole way, Grundy. These jungle tactics should be right up your alley."
"That's enough," Muller cut through the beginnings of the hassle. "I trust those I appointed--at least more than I do the rest of you. The question now is whether to return to Earth at once or to go on to Saturn. We can't radio for help for months yet. We're not equipped with sharp beams, we're low powered, and we're off the lanes where Earth's pick-ups hunt. Dr. Pietro wants to go on, since we can't get back within our period of safety; I favor returning, since there is no proof that this danger will end with this outrage. We've agreed to let the result of a vote determine it."
Wilcox stuck up a casual hand, and Muller nodded to him. He grinned amiably at all of us. "There's a third possibility, Captain. We can reach Jupiter in about three months, if we turn now. It's offside, but closer than anything else. From there, on a fast liner, we can be back on Earth in another ten days."
Muller calculated, while Peters came up to discuss it. Then he nodded. "Saturn or Jupiter, then. I'm not voting, of course. Bullard is disqualified to vote by previous acts." He drew a low moan from the sick figure of Bullard for that, but no protest. Then he nodded. "All those in favor of Jupiter, your right hands please!"
I counted them, wondering why my own hand was still down. It made some sort of sense to turn aside now. But none of our group was voting--and all the others had their hands up, except for Dr. Napier. "Seven," Muller announced. "Those in favor of Saturn."
Again, Napier didn't vote. I hesitated, then put my hand up. It was crazy, and Pietro was a fool to insist. But I knew that he'd never get another chance if this failed, and....
"Eight," Muller counted. He sighed, then straightened. "Very well, we go on. Dr. Pietro, you will have my full support from now on. In return, I'll expect every bit of help in meeting this emergency. Mr. Tremaine was correct; we cannot remain camps at war."
Pietro's goatee bobbed quickly, and his hand went out. But while most of the scientists were nodding with him, I caught the dark scowl of Grundy, and heard the mutters from the deckhands and the engine men. If Muller could get them to cooperate, he was a genius.
Pietro faced us, and his face was serious again. "We can hasten the seeding of the plants a little, I think, by temperature and light-and-dark cycle manipulations. Unfortunately, these aren't sea-algae plants, or we'd be in comparatively little trouble. That was my fault in not converting. We can, however, step up their efficiency a bit. And I'm sure we can find some way to remove the carbon dioxide from the air."
"How about oxygen to breathe?" Peters asked.
"That's the problem," Pietro admitted. "I was wondering about electrolyzing water."
Wilcox bobbed up quickly. "Can you do it on AC current?"
Lomax shook his head. "It takes DC."
"Then that's out. We run on 220 AC. And while I can rectify a few watts, it wouldn't be enough to help. No welders except monatomic hydrogen torches, even."
Pietro looked sicker than before. He'd obviously been counting on that. But he turned to Bullard. "How about seeds? We had a crop of tomatoes a month ago--and from the few I had, they're all seed. Are any left?"
Bullard rocked from side to side, moaning. "Dead. We're all gonna be dead. I told him, I did, you take me out there, I'll never get back. I'm a good man, I am. I wasn't never meant to die way out here. I--I--"
He gulped and suddenly screamed. He went through the door at an awkward shuffle, heading for his galley. Muller shook his head, and turned toward me. "Check up, will you, Mr. Tremaine? And I suggest that you and Mr. Peters start your investigation at once. I understand that chromazone would require so little hiding space that there's no use searching for it. But if you can find any evidence, report it at once."
Peters and I left. I found the galley empty. Apparently Bullard had gone to lie on his stomach in his bunk and nurse his terror. I found the freezer compartments, though--and the tomatoes. There must have been a bushel of them, but Bullard had followed his own peculiar tastes. From the food he served, he couldn't stand fresh vegetables; and he'd cooked the tomatoes down thoroughly and run them through the dehydrator before packing them away!
It was a cheerful supper, that one! Bullard had half-recovered and his fear was driving him to try to be nice to us. The selection was good, beyond the inevitable baked beans; but he wasn't exactly a chef at best, and his best was far behind him. Muller had brought Wilcox, Napier and Peters down to our mess with himself, to consolidate forces, and it seemed that he was serious about cooperating. But it was a little late for that.
Overhead, the fans had been stepped up to counteract the effect of staleness our minds supplied. But the whine of the motors kept reminding us our days were counted. Only Jenny was normal; she sat between Muller and Pietro, where she could watch my face and that of Napier. And even her giggles had a forced sound.
There were all kinds of things we could do--in theory. But we didn't have that kind of equipment. The plain fact was that the plants were going to lose the battle against our lungs. The carbon dioxide would increase, speeding up our breathing, and making us all seem to suffocate. The oxygen would grow thinner and thinner, once our supplies of bottled gas ran out. And eventually, the air wouldn't support life.
"It's sticky and hot," Jenny complained, suddenly.
"I stepped up the humidity and temperature controls," I told her. She nodded in quick comprehension, but I went on for Muller's benefit. "Trying to give the plants the best growing atmosphere. We'll feel just as hot and sticky when the carbon dioxide goes up, anyhow."
"It must already be up," Wilcox said. "My two canaries are breathing faster."