"Canaries," Muller said. He frowned, though he must have known of them. It was traditional to keep them in the engine-room, though the reason behind it had long since been lost. "Better kill them, Mr. Wilcox."
Wilcox jerked, and his face paled a bit. Then he nodded. "Yes, sir!"
That was when I got scared. The idea that two birds breathing could hurt our chances put things on a little too vivid a basis. Only Lomax seemed unaffected. He shoved back now, and stood up.
"Some tests I have to make, Captain. I have an idea that might turn up the killer among us!"
I had an idea he was bluffing, but I kept my mouth shut. A bluff was as good as anything else, it seemed.
At least, it was better than anything I seemed able to do. I prowled over the ship, sometimes meeting Peters doing the same, but I couldn't find a bit of evidence. The crewmen sat watching with hating eyes. And probably the rest aboard hated and feared us just as much. It wasn't hard to imagine the man who was behind it all deciding to wipe one of us out. My neck got a permanent crimp from keeping one eye behind me. But there wasn't a shred of evidence I could find.
In two more days, we began to notice the stuffiness more. My breathing went up enough to notice. Somehow, I couldn't get a full breath. And the third night, I woke up in the middle of my sleep with the feeling something was sitting on my chest; but since I'd taken to sleeping with the light on, I saw that it was just the stuffiness that was bothering me. Maybe most of it had been psychological up until then. But that was the real thing.
The nice part of it was that it wouldn't be sudden--we'd have days to get closer and closer to death; and days for each one to realize a little more that every man who wasn't breathing would make it that much easier for the rest of us. I caught myself thinking of it when I saw Bullard or Grundy.
Then trouble struck again. I was late getting to the scene this time, down by the engine room. Muller and Bill Sanderson were ahead of me, trying to separate Hal Lomax and Grundy, and not doing so well. Lomax brought up a haymaker as I arrived, and started to shout something. But Grundy was out of Muller's grasp, and up, swinging a wrench. It connected with a dull thud, and Lomax hit the floor, unconscious.
I picked Grundy up by the collar of his jacket, heaved him around and against a wall, where I could get my hand against his esophagus and start squeezing. His eyeballs popped, and the wrench dropped from his hands. When I get mad enough to act that way, I usually know I'll regret it later. This time it felt good, all the way. But Muller pushed me aside, waiting until Grundy could breathe again.
"All right," Muller said. "I hope you've got a good explanation, before I decide what to do with you."
Grundy's eyes were slitted, as if he'd been taking some of the Venus drugs. But after one long, hungry look at me, he faced the captain. "Yes, sir. This guy came down here ahead of me. Didn't think nothing of it, sir. But when he started fiddling with the panel there, I got suspicious." He pointed to the external control panel for the engine room, to be used in case of accidents. "With all that's been going on, how'd I know but maybe he was gonna dump the fuel? And then I seen he had keys. I didn't wait, sir. I jumped him. And then you come up."
Wilcox came from the background and dropped beside the still figure of Lomax. He opened the man's left hand and pulled out a bunch of keys, examining them. "Engine keys, Captain Muller. Hey--it's my set! He must have lifted them from my pocket. It looks as if Grundy's found our killer!"
"Or Lomax found him!" I pointed out. "Anybody else see this start, or know that Lomax didn't get those keys away from Grundy, when he started trouble?"
"Why, you--" Grundy began, but Wilcox cut off his run. It was a shame. I still felt like pushing the man's Adam's apple through his medulla oblongata.
"Lock them both up, until Dr. Lomax comes to," Muller ordered. "And send Dr. Napier to take care of him. I'm not jumping to any conclusions." But the look he was giving Lomax indicated that he'd already pretty well made up his mind. And the crew was positive. They drew back sullenly, staring at us like animals studying a human hunter, and they didn't like it when Peters took Grundy to lock him into his room. Muller finally chased them out, and left Wilcox and me alone.
Wilcox shrugged wryly, brushing dirt off his too-clean uniform. "While you're here, Tremaine, why not look my section over? You've been neglecting me."
I'd borrowed Muller's keys and inspected the engine room from, top to bottom the night before, but I didn't mention that. I hesitated now; to a man who grew up to be an engineer and who'd now gotten over his psychosis against space too late to start over, the engines were things better left alone. Then I remembered that I hadn't seen Wilcox's quarters, since he had the only key to them.
I nodded and went inside. The engines were old, and the gravity generator was one of the first models. But Wilcox knew his business. The place was slick enough, and there was the good clean smell of metal working right. I could feel the controls in my hands, and my nerves itched as I went about making a perfunctory token examination. I even opened the fuel lockers and glanced in. The two crewmen watched with hard eyes, slitted as tight as Grundy's, but they didn't bother me. Then I shrugged, and went back with Wilcox to his tiny cabin.
I was hit by the place before I got inside. Tiny, yes, but fixed up like the dream of every engineer. Clean, neat, filled with books and luxuries. He even had a tape player I'd seen on sale for a trifle over three thousand dollars. He turned it on, letting the opening bars of Haydn's Oxford Symphony come out. It was a binaural, ultra-fidelity job, and I could close my eyes and feel the orchestra in front of me.
This time I was thorough, right down the line, from the cabinets that held luxury food and wine to the little drawer where he kept his dress-suit studs; they might have been rutiles, but I had a hunch they were genuine catseyes.
He laughed when I finished, and handed me a glass of the first decent wine I'd tasted in months. "Even a small ozonator to make the air seem more breathable, and a dehumidifier, Tremaine. I like to live decently. I started saving my money once with the idea of getting a ship of my own--" There was a real dream in his eyes for a second. Then he shrugged. "But ships got bigger and more expensive. So I decided to live. At forty, I've got maybe twenty years ahead here, and I mean to enjoy it. And--well, there are ways of making a bit extra...."
I nodded. So it's officially smuggling to carry a four-ounce Martian fur to Earth where it's worth a fortune, considering the legal duty. But most officers did it now and then. He put on Sibelius' Fourth while I finished the wine. "If this mess is ever over, Paul, or you get a chance, drop down," he said. "I like a man who knows good things--and I liked your reaction when you spotted that Haydn for Hohmann's recording. Muller pretends to know music, but he likes the flashiness of Mohlwehr."
Hell, I'd cut my eye teeth on that stuff; my father had been first violinist in an orchestra, and had considered me a traitor when I was born without perfect pitch. We talked about Sibelius for awhile, before I left to go out into the stinking rest of the ship. Grundy was sitting before the engines, staring at them. Wilcox had said the big ape liked to watch them move ... but he was supposed to be locked up.
I stopped by Lomax's door; the shutter was open, and I could see the big man writhing about, but he was apparently unconscious. Napier came back from somewhere, and nodded quickly.
"Concussion," he said. "He's still out, but it shouldn't be too serious."
"Grundy's loose." I'd expected surprise, but there was none. "Why?"
He shrugged. "Muller claimed he needed his mate free to handle the crew, and that there was no place the man could go. I think it was because the men are afraid they'll be outnumbered by your group." His mouth smiled, but it was suddenly bitter. "Jenny talked Pietro into agreeing with Muller."
Mess was on when I reached the group. I wasn't hungry. The wine had cut the edge from my appetite, and the slow increase of poison in the air was getting me, as it was the others. Sure, carbon dioxide isn't a real poison--but no organism can live in its own waste, all the same. I had a rotten headache. I sat there playing a little game I'd invented--trying to figure which ones I'd eliminate if some had to die. Jenny laughed up at Muller, and I added him to the list. Then I changed it, and put her in his place. I was getting sick of the little witch, though I knew it would be different if she'd been laughing up at me. And then, because of the sick-calf look on Bill Sanderson's face as he stared at Eve, I added him, though I'd always liked the guy. Eve, surprisingly, had as many guys after her as Jenny; but she didn't seem interested. Or maybe she did--she'd pulled her hair back and put on a dress that made her figure look good. Either flattery was working, or she was entering into the last-days feeling most of us had.
Napier came in and touched my shoulder. "Lomax is conscious, and he's asking for you," he said, too low for the others to hear.
I found the chemist conscious, all right, but sick--and scared. His face winced, under all the bandages, as I opened the door. Then he saw who it was, and relaxed. "Paul--what happened to me? The last I remember is going up to see that second batch of plants poisoned. But--well, this is something I must have got later...."
I told him, as best I could. "But don't you remember anything?"
"Not a thing about that. It's the same as Napier told me, and I've been trying to remember. Paul, you don't think--?"
I put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back gently. "Don't be a damned fool, Hal. I know you're no killer."
"But somebody is, Paul. Somebody tried to kill me while I was unconscious!"
He must have seen my reaction. "They did, Paul. I don't know how I know--maybe I almost came to--but somebody tried to poke a stick through the door with a knife on it. They want to kill me."
I tried to calm him down until Napier came and gave him a sedative. The doctor seemed as sick about Hal's inability to remember as I was, though he indicated it was normal enough in concussion cases. "So is the hallucination," he added. "He'll be all right tomorrow."
In that, Napier was wrong. When the doctor looked in on him the next time, the big chemist lay behind a door that had been pried open, with a long galley knife through his heart. On the bloody sheet, his finger had traced something in his own blood.
"It was...." But the last "s" was blurred, and there was nothing more.
I don't know how many were shocked at Hal's death, or how many looked around and counted one less pair of lungs. He'd never been one of the men I'd envied the air he used, though, and I think most felt the same. For awhile, we didn't even notice that the air was even thicker.
Phil Riggs broke the silence following our inspection of Lomax's cabin. "That damned Bullard! I'll get him, I'll get him as sure as he got Hal!"
There was a rustle among the others, and a suddenly crystallized hate on their faces. But Muller's hoarse shout cut through the babble that began, and rose over even the anguished shrieking of the cook. "Shut up, the lot of you! Bullard couldn't have committed the other crimes. Any one of you is a better suspect. Stop snivelling, Bullard, this isn't a lynching mob, and it isn't going to be one!"
"What about Grundy?" Walt Harris yelled.
Wilcox pushed forward. "Grundy couldn't have done it. He's the logical suspect, but he was playing rummy with my men."
The two engine men nodded agreement, and we began filing back to the mess hall, with the exception of Bullard, who shoved back into a niche, trying to avoid us. Then, when we were almost out of his sight, he let out a shriek and came blubbering after us.
I watched them put Hal Lomax's body through the 'tween-hulls lock, and turned toward the engine room; I could use some of that wine, just as the ship could have used a trained detective. But the idea of watching helplessly while the engines purred along to remind me I was just a handyman for the rest of my life got mixed up with the difficulty of breathing the stale air, and I started to turn back. My head was throbbing, and for two cents I'd have gone out between the hulls beside Lomax and the others and let the foul air spread out there and freeze....
The idea was slow coming. Then I was running back toward the engines. I caught up with Wilcox just before he went into his own quarters. "Wilcox!"
He swung around casually, saw it was me, and motioned inside. "How about some Bartok, Paul? Or would you rather soothe your nerves with some first-rate Buxtehude organ...."
"Damn the music," I told him. "I've got a wild idea to get rid of this carbon dioxide, and I want to know if we can get it working with what we've got."
He snapped to attention at that. Half-way through my account, he fished around and found a bottle of Armagnac. "I get it. If we pipe our air through the passages between the hulls on the shadow side, it will lose its heat in a hurry. And we can regulate its final temperature by how fast we pipe it through--just keep it moving enough to reach the level where carbon dioxide freezes out, but the oxygen stays a gas. Then pass it around the engines--we'll have to cut out the normal cooling set-up, but that's okay--warm it up.... Sure, I've got equipment enough for that. We can set it up in a day. Of course, it won't give us any more oxygen, but we'll be able to breathe what we have. To success, Paul!"
I guess it was good brandy, but I swallowed mine while calling Muller down, and never got to taste it.
It's surprising how much easier the air got to breathe after we'd double-checked the idea. In about fifteen minutes, we were all milling around in the engine room, while Wilcox checked through equipment. But there was no question about it. It was even easier than we'd thought. We could simply bypass the cooling unit, letting the engine housings stay open to the between-hulls section; then it was simply a matter of cutting a small opening into that section at the other end of the ship and installing a sliding section to regulate the amount of air flowing in. The exhaust from the engine heat pumps was reversed, and run out through a hole hastily knocked in the side of the wall.
Naturally, we let it flow too fast at first. Space is a vacuum, which means it's a good insulator. We had to cut the air down to a trickle. Then Wilcox ran into trouble because his engines wouldn't cool with that amount of air. He went back to supervise a patched-up job of splitting the coolers into sections, which took time. But after that, we had it.
I went through the hatch with Muller and Pietro. With air there there was no need to wear space suits, but it was so cold that we could take it for only a minute or so. That was long enough to see a faint, fine mist of dry ice snow falling. It was also long enough to catch a sight of the three bodies there. I didn't enjoy that, and Pietro gasped. Muller grimaced. When we came back, he sent Grundy in to move the bodies to a hull-section where our breathing air wouldn't pass over them. It wasn't necessary, of course. But somehow, it seemed important.
By lunch, the air seemed normal. We shipped only pure oxygen at about three pounds pressure, instead of loading it with a lot of useless nitrogen. With the carbon dioxide cut back to normal levels, it was as good as ever. The only difference was that the fans had to be set to blow in a different pattern. We celebrated, and even Bullard seemed to have perked up. He dug out pork chops and almost succeeded in making us cornbread out of some coarse flour I saw him pouring out of the food chopper. He had perked up enough to bewail the fact that all he had was canned spinach instead of turnip greens.
But by night, the temper had changed--and the food indicated it again. Bullard's cooking was turning into a barometer of the psychic pressure. We'd had time to realize that we weren't getting something for nothing. Every molecule of carbon-dioxide that crystallized out took two atoms of oxygen with it, completely out of circulation.
We were also losing water-vapor, we found; normally, any one of our group knew enough science to know that the water would fall out before the carbon dioxide, but we hadn't thought of it. We took care of that, however, by having Wilcox weld in a baffle and keep the section where the water condensed separate from the carbon dioxide snowfall. We could always shovel out the real ice, and meantime the ship's controls restored the moisture to the air easily enough.
But there was nothing we could do about the oxygen. When that was gone, it stayed gone. The plants still took care of about two-thirds of our waste--but the other third was locked out there between the hulls. Given plants enough, we could have thawed it and let them reconvert it; a nice idea, except that we had to wait three months to take care of it, if we lived that long.
Bullard's cooking began to get worse. Then suddenly, we got one good meal. Eve Nolan came down the passage to announce that Bullard was making cake, with frosting, canned huckleberry pie, and all the works. We headed for the mess hall, fast.
It was the cook's masterpiece. Muller came down late, though, and regarded it doubtfully. "There's something funny," he said as he settled down beside me. Jenny had been surrounded by Napier and Pietro. "Bullard came up babbling a few minutes ago. I don't like it. Something about eating hearty, because he'd saved us all, forever and ever. He told me the angels were on our side, because a beautiful angel with two halos came to him in his sleep and told him how to save us. I chased him back to the galley, but I don't like it."
Most of them had already eaten at least half of the food, but I saw Muller wasn't touching his. The rest stopped now, as the words sank in, and Napier looked shocked. "No!" he said, but his tone wasn't positive. "He's a weakling, but I don't think he's insane--not enough to poison us."
"There was that food poisoning before," Pietro said suddenly. "Paul, come along. And don't eat anything until we come back."
We broke the record getting to the galley. There Bullard sat, beaming happily, eating from a huge plate piled with the food he had cooked. I checked on it quickly--and there wasn't anything he'd left out. He looked up, and his grin widened foolishly.
"Hi, docs," he said. "Yes, sir, I knowed you'd be coming. It all came to me in a dream. Looked just like my wife twenty years ago, she did, with green and yellow halos. And she told it to me. Told me I'd been a good man, and nothing was going to happen to me. Not to good old Emery Bullard. Had it all figgered out."
He speared a big forkful of food and crammed it into his mouth, munching noisily. "Had it all figgered. Pop-corn. Best damned pop-corn you ever saw, kind they raise not fifty miles from where I was born. You know, I didn't useta like you guys. But now I love everybody. When we get to Saturn, I'm gonna make up for all the times I didn't give you pop-corn. We'll pop and we'll pop. And beans, too. I useta hate beans. Always beans on a ship. But now we're saved, and I love beans!"
He stared after us, half coming out of his seat. "Hey, docs, ain't you gonna let me tell you about it?"
"Later, Bullard," Pietro called back. "Something just came up. We want to hear all about it."
Inside the mess hall, he shrugged. "He's eating the food himself. If he's crazy, he's in a happy stage of it. I'm sure he isn't trying to poison us." He sat down and began eating, without any hesitation.
I didn't feel as sure, and suspected he didn't. But it was too late to back out. Together, we summarized what he'd told us, while Napier puzzled over it. Finally the doctor shrugged. "Visions. Euphoria. Disconnection with reality. Apparently something of a delusion that he's to save the world. I'm not a psychiatrist, but it sounds like insanity to me. Probably not dangerous. At least, while he wants to save us, we won't have to worry about the food. Still...."
Wilcox mulled it over, and resumed the eating he had neglected before.
"Grundy claimed he'd been down near the engine room, trying to get permission to pop something in the big pile. I thought Grundy was just getting his stories mixed up. But--pop-corn!"
"I'll have him locked in his cabin," Muller decided. He picked up the nearest handset, saw that it was to the galley, and switched quickly. "Grundy, lock Bullard up. And no rough stuff this time." Then he turned to Napier. "Dr. Napier, you'll have to see him and find out what you can."
I guess there's a primitive fear of insanity in most of us. We felt sick, beyond the nagging worry about the food. Napier got up at once. "I'll give him a sedative. Maybe it's just nerves, and he'll snap out of it after a good sleep. Anyhow, your mate can stand watching."
"Who can cook?" Muller asked. His eyes swung down the table toward Jenny.
I wondered how she'd get out of that. Apparently she'd never told Muller about the scars she still had from spilled grease, and how she'd never forgiven her mother or been able to go near a kitchen since. But I should have guessed. She could remember my stories, too. Her eyes swung up toward mine pleadingly.
Eve Nolan stood up suddenly. "I'm not only a good cook, but I enjoy it," she stated flatly, and there was disgust in the look she threw at Jenny. She swung toward me. "How about it, Paul, can you wrestle the big pots around for me?"
"I used to be a short order cook when I was finishing school," I told her. But she'd ruined the line. The grateful look and laugh from Jenny weren't needed now. And curiously, I felt grateful to Eve for it. I got up and went after Napier.
I found him in Bullard's little cubbyhole of a cabin. He must have chased Grundy off, and now he was just drawing a hypo out of the cook's arm. "It'll take the pain away," he was saying softly. "And I'll see that he doesn't hit you again. You'll be all right, now. And in the morning, I'll come and listen to you. Just go to sleep. Maybe she'll come back and tell you more."
He must have heard me, since he signalled me out with his hand, and backed out quietly himself, still talking. He shut the door, and clicked the lock.
Bullard heard it, though. He jerked to a sitting position, and screamed. "No! No! He'll kill me! I'm a good man...."
He hunched up on the bed, forcing the sheet into his mouth. When he looked up a second later, his face was frozen in fear, but it was a desperate, calm kind of fear. He turned to face us, and his voice raised to a full shout, with every word as clear as he could make it.
"All right. Now I'll never tell you the secret. Now you can all die without air. I promise I'll never tell you what I know!"
He fell back, beating at the sheet with his hand and sobbing hysterically. Napier watched him. "Poor devil," the doctor said at last. "Well, in another minute the shot will take effect. Maybe he's lucky. He won't be worrying for awhile. And maybe he'll be rational tomorrow."
"All the same, I'm going to stand guard until Muller gets someone else here," I decided. I kept remembering Lomax.
Napier nodded, and half an hour later Bill Sanderson came to take over the watch. Bullard was sleeping soundly.
The next day, though, he woke up to start moaning and writhing again. But he was keeping his word. He refused to answer any questions. Napier looked worried as he reported he'd given the cook another shot of sedative. There was nothing else he could do.
Cooking was a relief, in a way. By the time Eve and I had scrubbed all the pots into what she considered proper order, located some of the food lockers, and prepared and served a couple of meals, we'd evolved a smooth system that settled into a routine with just enough work to help keep our minds off the dwindling air in the tanks. In anything like a kitchen, she lost most of her mannish pose and turned into a live, efficient woman. And she could cook.
"First thing I learned," she told me. "I grew up in a kitchen. I guess I'd never have turned to photography if my kid brother hadn't been using our sink for his darkroom."
Wilcox brought her a bottle of his wine to celebrate her first dinner. He seemed to want to stick around, but she chased him off after the first drink. We saved half the bottle to make a sauce the next day.
It never got made. Muller called a council of war, and his face was pinched and old. He was leaning on Jenny as Eve and I came into the mess hall; oddly, she seemed to be trying to buck him up. He got down to the facts as soon as all of us were together.
"Our oxygen tanks are empty," he announced. "They shouldn't be--but they are. Someone must have sabotaged them before the plants were poisoned--and done it so the dials don't show it. I just found it out when the automatic switch to a new tank failed to work. We now have the air in the ship, and no more. Dr. Napier and I have figured that this will keep us all alive with the help of the plants for no more than fifteen days. I am open to any suggestions!"
There was silence after that, while it soaked in. Then it was broken by a thin scream from Phil Riggs. He slumped into a seat and buried his head in his hands. Pietro put a hand on the man's thin shoulders, "Captain Muller--"
"Kill 'em!" It was Grundy's voice, bellowing sharply. "Let'em breathe space! They got us into it! We can make out with the plants left! It's our ship!"