Muller had walked forward. Now his fist lashed out, and Grundy crumpled. He lay still for a second, then got to his feet unsteadily. Jenny screamed, but Muller moved steadily back to his former place without looking at the mate. Grundy hesitated, fumbled in his pocket for something, and swallowed it.
"Captain, sir!" His voice was lower this time.
"Yes, Mr. Grundy?"
"How many of us can live off the plants?"
"Then--then give us a lottery!"
Pietro managed to break in over the yells of the rest of the crew. "I was about to suggest calling for volunteers, Captain Muller. I still have enough faith in humanity to believe...."
"You're a fool, Dr. Pietro," Muller said flatly. "Do you think Grundy would volunteer? Or Bullard? But thanks for clearing the air, and admitting your group has nothing more to offer. A lottery seems to be the only fair system."
He sat down heavily. "We have tradition on this; in an emergency such as this, death lotteries have been held, and have been considered legal afterwards. Are there any protests?"
I could feel my tongue thicken in my mouth. I could see the others stare about, hoping someone would object, wondering if this could be happening. But nobody answered, and Muller nodded reluctantly. "A working force must be left. Some men are indispensable. We must have an engineer, a navigator, and a doctor. One man skilled with engine-room practice and one with deck work must remain."
"And the cook goes," Grundy yelled. His eyes were intent and slitted again.
Some of both groups nodded, but Muller brought his fist down on the table. "This will be a legal lottery, Mr. Grundy. Dr. Napier will draw for him."
"And for myself," Napier said. "It's obvious that ten men aren't going on to Saturn--you'll have to turn back, or head for Jupiter. Jupiter, in fact, is the only sensible answer. And a ship can get along without a doctor that long when it has to. I demand my right to the draw."
Muller only shrugged and laid down the rules. They were simple enough. He would cut drinking straws to various lengths, and each would draw one. The two deck hands would compare theirs, and the longer would be automatically safe. The same for the pair from the engine-room. Wilcox was safe. "Mr. Peters and I will also have one of us eliminated," he added quietly. "In an emergency, our abilities are sufficiently alike."
The remaining group would have their straws measured, and the seven shortest ones would be chosen to remove themselves into a vacant section between hulls without air within three hours, or be forcibly placed there. The remaining ten would head for Jupiter if no miracle removed the danger in those three hours.
Peters got the straws, and Muller cut them and shuffled them. There was a sick silence that let us hear the sounds of the scissors with each snip. Muller arranged them so the visible ends were even. "Ladies first," he said. There was no expression on his face or in his voice.
Jenny didn't giggle, but neither did she balk. She picked a straw, and then shrieked faintly. It was obviously a long one. Eve reached for hers-- And Wilcox yelled suddenly. "Captain Muller, protest! Protest! You're using all long straws for the women!" He had jumped forward, and now struck down Muller's hand, proving his point.
"You're quite right, Mr. Wilcox," Muller said woodenly. He dropped his hand toward his lap and came up with a group of the straws that had been cut, placed there somehow without our seeing it. He'd done a smooth job of it, but not smooth enough. "I felt some of you would notice it, but I also felt that gentlemen would prefer to see ladies given the usual courtesies."
He reshuffled the assorted straws, and then paused. "Mr. Tremaine, there was a luxury liner named the Lauri Ellu with an assistant engineer by your name; and I believe you've shown a surprising familiarity with certain customs of space. A few days ago, Jenny mentioned something that jogged my memory. Can you still perform the duties of an engineer?"
Wilcox had started to protest at the delay. Now shock ran through him. He stared unbelievingly from Muller to me and back, while his face blanched. I could guess what it must have felt like to see certain safety cut to a 50 per cent chance, and I didn't like the way Muller was willing to forget until he wanted to take a crack at Wilcox for punishment. But....
"I can," I answered. And then, because I was sick inside myself for cutting under Wilcox, I managed to add, "But I--I waive my chance at immunity!"
"Not accepted," Muller decided. "Jenny, will you draw?"
It was pretty horrible. It was worse when the pairs compared straws. The animal feelings were out in the open then. Finally, Muller, Wilcox, and two crewmen dropped out. The rest of us went up to measure our straws.
It took no more than a minute. I stood staring down at the ruler, trying to stretch the tiny thing I'd drawn. I could smell the sweat rising from my body. But I knew the answer. I had three hours left!
"Riggs, Oliver, Nolan, Harris, Tremaine, Napier and Grundy," Muller announced.
A yell came from Grundy. He stood up, with the engine man named Oliver, and there was a gun in his hand. "No damned big brain's kicking me off my ship," he yelled. "You guys know me. Hey, roooob!"
Oliver was with him, and the other three of the crew sprang into the group. I saw Muller duck a shot from Grundy's gun, and leap out of the room. Then I was in it, heading for Grundy. Beside me, Peters was trying to get a chair broken into pieces. I felt something hit my shoulder, and the shock knocked me downward, just as a shot whistled over my head.
Gravity cut off!
Someone bounced off me. I got a piece of the chair that floated by, found the end cracked and sharp, and tried to spin towards Grundy, but I couldn't see him. I heard Eve's voice yell over the other shouts. I spotted the plate coming for me, but I was still in midair. It came on steadily, edge on, and I felt it break against my forehead. Then I blacked out.
I had the grandaddy of all headaches when I came to. Doc Napier's face was over me, and Jenny and Muller were working on Bill Sanderson. There was a surprisingly small and painful lump on my head. Pietro and Napier helped me up, and I found I could stand after a minute.
There were four bodies covered with sheets on the floor. "Grundy, Phil Riggs, Peters and a deckhand named Storm," Napier said. "Muller gave us a whiff of gas and not quite in time."
"Is the time up?" I asked. It was the only thing I could think of.
Pietro shook his head sickly. "Lottery is off. Muller says we'll have to hold another, since Storm and Peters were supposed to be safe. But not until tomorrow."
Eve came in then, lugging coffee. Her eyes found me, and she managed a brief smile. "I gave the others coffee," she reported to Muller. "They're pretty subdued now."
"Mutiny!" Muller helped Jenny's brother to his feet and began helping him toward the door. "Mutiny! And I have to swallow that!"
Pietro watched him go, and handed Eve back his cup. "And there's no way of knowing who was on which side. Dr. Napier, could you do something...."
He held out his hands that were shaking, and Napier nodded. "I can use a sedative myself. Come on back with me."
Eve and I wandered back to the kitchen. I was just getting my senses back. The damned stupidity of it all. And now it would have to be done over. Three of us still had to have our lives snuffed out so the others could live--and we all had to go through hell again to find out which.
Eve must have been thinking the same. She sank down on a little stool, and her hand came out to find mine. "For what? Paul, whoever poisoned the plants knew it would go this far! He had to! What's to be gained? Particularly when he'd have to go through all this, too! He must have been crazy!"
"Bullard couldn't have done it," I said slowly.
"Why should it be Bullard? How do we know he was insane? Maybe when he was shouting that he wouldn't tell, he was trying to make a bribe to save his own life. Maybe he's as scared as we are. Maybe he was making sense all along, if we'd only listened to him. He--"
She stood up and started back toward the lockers, but I caught her hand. "Eve, he wouldn't have done it--the killer--if he'd had to go through the lottery! He knew he was safe! That's the one thing we've been overlooking. The man to suspect is the only man who could be sure he would get back! My God, we saw him juggle those straws to save Jenny! He knew he'd control the lottery."
She frowned. "But ... Paul, he practically suggested the lottery! Grundy brought it up, but he was all ready for it." The frown vanished, then returned. "But I still can't believe it."
"He's the one who wanted to go back all the time. He kept insisting on it, but he had to get back without violating his contract." I grabbed her hand and started toward the nose of the ship, justifying it to her as I went. "The only man with a known motive for returning, the only one completely safe--and we didn't even think of it!"
She was still frowning, but I wasn't wasting time. We came up the corridor to the control room. Ahead the door was slightly open, and I could hear a mutter of Jenny's voice. Then there was the tired rumble of Muller.
"I'll find a way, baby. I don't care how close they watch, we'll make it work. Pick the straw with the crimp in the end--I can do that, even if I can't push one out further again. I tell you, nothing's going to happen to you."
"But Bill--" she began.
I hit the door, slamming it open. Muller sat on a narrow couch with Jenny on his lap. I took off for him, not wasting a good chance when he was handicapped. But I hadn't counted on Jenny. She was up, and her head banged into my stomach before I knew she was coming. I felt the wind knocked out, but I got her out of my way--to look up into the muzzle of a gun in Muller's hands.
"You'll explain this, Mr. Tremaine," he said coldly. "In ten seconds, I'll have an explanation or a corpse."
"Go ahead," I told him. "Shoot, damn you! You'll get away with this, too, I suppose. Mutiny, or something. And down in that rotten soul of yours, I suppose you'll be gloating at how you made fools of us. The only man on board who was safe even from a lottery, and we couldn't see it. Jenny, I hope you'll be happy with this butcher. Very happy!"
He never blinked. "Say that about the only safe man aboard again," he suggested.
I repeated it, with details. But he didn't like my account. He turned to Eve, and motioned for her to take it up. She was frowning harder, and her voice was uncertain, but she summed up our reasons quickly enough.
And suddenly Muller was on his feet. "Mr. Tremaine, for a damned idiot, you have a good brain. You found the key to the problem, even if you couldn't find the lock. Do you know what happens to a captain who permits a death lottery, even what I called a legal one? He doesn't captain a liner--he shoots himself after he delivers his ship, if he's wise! Come on, we'll find the one indispensable man. You stay here, Jenny--you too, Eve!"
Jenny whimpered, but stayed. Eve followed, and he made no comment. And then it hit me. The man who had thought he was indispensable, and hence safe--the man I'd naturally known in the back of my head could be replaced, though no one else had known it until a little while ago.
"He must have been sick when you ran me in as a ringer," I said, as we walked down toward the engine hatch. "But why?"
"I've just had a wild guess as to part of it," Muller said.
Wilcox was listening to the Buxtehude when we shoved the door of his room open, and he had his head back and eyes closed. He snapped to attention, and reached out with one hand toward a drawer beside him. Then he dropped his arm and stood up, to cut off the tape player.
"Mr. Wilcox," Muller said quietly, holding the gun firmly on the engineer. "Mr. Wilcox, I've detected evidence of some of the Venus drugs on your two assistants for some time. It's rather hard to miss the signs in their eyes. I've also known that Mr. Grundy was an addict. I assumed that they were getting it from him naturally. And as long as they performed their duties, I couldn't be choosy on an old ship like this. But for an officer to furnish such drugs--and to smuggle them from Venus for sale to other planets--is something I cannot tolerate. It will make things much simpler if you will surrender those drugs to me. I presume you keep them in those bottles of wine you bring aboard?"
Wilcox shook his head slowly, settling back against the tape machine. Then he shrugged and bowed faintly. "The chianti, sir!"
I turned my head toward the bottles, and Eve started forward. Then I yelled as Wilcox shoved his hand down toward the tape machine. The gun came out on a spring as he touched it.
Muller shot once, and the gun missed Wilcox's fingers as the engineer's hand went to his hip, where blood was flowing. He collapsed into the chair behind him, staring at the spot stupidly. "I cut my teeth on tough ships, Mr. Wilcox," Muller said savagely.
The man's face was white, but he nodded slowly, and a weak grin came onto his lips. "Maybe you didn't exaggerate those stories at that," he conceded slowly. "I take it I drew a short straw."
"Very short. It wasn't worth it. No profit from the piddling sale of drugs is worth it."
"There's a group of strings inside the number one fuel locker," Wilcox said between his teeth. The numbness was wearing off, and the shattered bones in his hip were beginning to eat at him. "Paul, pull up one of the packages and bring it here, will you?"
I found it without much trouble--along with a whole row of others, fine cords cemented to the side of the locker. The package I drew up weighed about ten pounds. Wilcox opened it and scooped out a thimbleful of greenish powder. He washed it down with wine.
"Fatal?" Muller asked.
The man nodded. "In that dosage, after a couple of hours. But it cuts out the pain--ah, better already. I won't feel it. Captain, I was never piddling. Your ship has been the sole source of this drug to Mars since a year or so after I first shipped on her. There are about seven hundred pounds of pure stuff out there. Grundy and the others would commit public murder daily rather than lose the few ounces a year I gave them. Imagine what would happen when Pietro conscripted the Wahoo and no drugs arrived. The addicts find out no more is coming--they look for the peddlers--and they start looking for their suppliers...."
He shrugged. "There might have been time and ways, if I could have gotten the ship back to Earth or Jupiter. It might have been recommissioned into the Earth-Mars-Venus run, even. Pietro's injunction caught me before I could transship, but with another chance, I might have gotten the stuff to Mars in time.... Well, it was a chance I took. Satisfied?"
Eve stared at him with horrified eyes. Maybe I was looking the same. It was plain enough now. He'd planned to poison the plants and drive us back. Murder of Hendrix had been a blunder when he'd thought it wasn't working properly. "What about Sam?" I asked.
"Blackmail. He was too smart. He'd been sure Grundy was smuggling the stuff, and raking off from him. He didn't care who killed Hendrix as much as how much Grundy would pay to keep his mouth shut--with murder around, he figured Grundy'd get rattled. The fool did, and Sam smelled bigger stakes. Grundy was bait to get him down near here. I killed him."
"I don't know. Maybe he was bluffing. But he kept going from room to room with a pocketful of chemicals, making some kind of tests. I couldn't take a chance on his being able to spot chromazone. So I had Grundy give him my keys and tell him to go ahead--then jump him."
And after that, when he wasn't quite killed, they'd been forced to finish the job. Wilcox shrugged again. "I guess it got out of hand. I'll make a tape of the whole story for you, Captain. But I'd appreciate it if you'd get Napier down here. This is getting pretty messy."
"He's on the way," Eve said. We hadn't seen her call, but the doctor arrived almost immediately afterwards.
He sniffed the drug, and questioned us about the dose Wilcox had taken. Then he nodded slowly. "About two hours, I'd say. No chance at all to save him. The stuff is absorbed almost at once and begins changing to something else in the blood. I'll be responsible, if you want."
Muller shrugged. "I suppose so. I'd rather deliver him in irons to a jury, but.... Well, we still have a lottery to hold!"
It jerked us back to reality sharply. Somehow, I'd been fighting off the facts, figuring that finding the cause would end the results. But even with Wilcox out of the picture, there were twelve of us left--and air for only ten!
Wilcox laughed abruptly. "A favor for a favor. I can give you a better answer than a lottery."
"Pop-corn! Bullard!" Eve slapped her head with her palm. "Captain, give me the master key." She snatched it out of his hand and was gone at a run.
Wilcox looked disappointed, and then grinned. "Pop-corn and beans. I overlooked them myself. We're a bunch of city hicks. But when Bullard forgot his fears in his sleep, he remembered the answer--and got it so messed up with his dream and his new place as a hero that my complaint tipped the balance. Grundy put the fear of his God into him then. And you didn't get it. Captain, you don't dehydrate beans and pop-corn--they come that way naturally. You don't can them, either, if you're saving weight. They're seeds--put them in tanks and they grow!"
He leaned back, trying to laugh at us, as Napier finished dressing his wound. "Bullard knows where the lockers are. And corn grows pretty fast. It'll carry you through. Do I get that favor? It's simple enough--just to have Beethoven's Ninth on the machine and for the whole damned lot of you to get out of my cabin and let me die in my own way!"
Muller shrugged, but Napier found the tape and put it on. I wanted to see the louse punished for every second of worry, for Lomax, for Hendrix--even for Grundy. But there wasn't much use in vengeance at this point.
"You're to get all this, Paul," Wilcox said as we got ready to leave. "Captain Muller, everything here goes to Tremaine. I'll make a tape on that, too. But I want it to go to a man who can appreciate Hohmann's conducting."
Muller closed the door. "I guess it's yours," he admitted. "Now that you're head engineer here, Mr. Tremaine, the cabin is automatically yours. Take over. And get that junk in the fuel locker cleaned out--except enough to keep your helpers going. They'll need it, and we'll need their work."
"I'll clean out his stuff at the same time," I said. "I don't want any part of it."
He smiled then, just as Eve came down with Bullard and Pietro. The fat cook was sobered, but already beginning to fill with his own importance. I caught snatches as they began to discuss Bullard's knowledge of growing things. It was enough to know that we'd all live, though it might be tough for a while.
Then Muller gestured upwards. "You've got a reduced staff, Dr. Pietro. Do you intend going on to Saturn?"
"We'll go on," Pietro decided. And Muller nodded. They turned and headed upwards.
I stood staring at my engines. One of them was a touch out of phase and I went over and corrected it. They'd be mine for over two years--and after that, I'd be back on the lists.
Eve came over beside me, and studied them with me. Finally she sighed softly. "I guess I can see why you feel that way about them, Paul," she said. "And I'll be coming down to look at them. But right now, Bullard's too busy to cook, and everyone's going to be hungry when they find we're saved."
I chuckled, and felt the relief wash over me finally. I dropped my hand from the control and caught hers--a nice, friendly hand.
But at the entrance I stopped and looked back toward the cabin where Wilcox lay. I could just make out the second movement of the Ninth beginning.
I never could stand the cheap blatancy of Hohmann's conducting.