"Nice piece of piloting," Dasinger observed.
Duomart lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug. "That's my job." Her face remained serious. "Are you wondering why I edged us through that thing instead of going around it?"
"Uh-huh, a little," Dasinger admitted.
"It knocked half an hour off the time it should take us to get to your planet," she said. "That is, if you'll still want to go there. We're being followed, you see."
"They call her the Spy. After the Mooncat she's the fastest job in the Fleet. She's got guns, and her normal complement is twenty armed men."
"The idea being to have us lead them to what we're after, and then take it away from us?" Dasinger asked.
"That's right. I'm not supposed to know about it. You know what a Gray Fleet is?"
Dasinger nodded. "An Independent that's turned criminal."
"Yes. Willata's Fleet was a legitimate outfit up to four years ago. Then Liu Taunus and Calat and their gang took over. That happened to be the two Fleet bosses you slapped handcuffs on, Dasinger. We're a Gray Fleet now. So I had some plans of my own for this trip. If I can get to some other I-Fleet or to the Hub, I might be able to do something about Taunus. After we were down on the planet, I was going to steal the Mooncat and take off by myself."
"Why are you telling me?"
Miss Mines colored a little. "Well, you gave me the gun," she said. "And you clobbered Taunus, and got me out of that hypno thing ... I mean, I'd have to be pretty much of a jerk to ditch you now, wouldn't I? Anyway, now that I've told you, you won't be going back to Willata's Fleet, whatever you do. I'll still get to the Hub." She paused. "So what do you want to do now? Beat it until the coast's clear, or make a quick try for your loot before the Spy gets there?"
"How far is she behind us?" Dasinger asked.
Duomart said, "I don't know exactly. Here's what happened. When we started out, Taunus told me not to let the Mooncat travel at more than three-quarters speed for any reason. I figured then the Spy was involved in whatever he was planning; she can keep up with us at that rate, and she has considerably better detector reach than the Cat. She's stayed far enough back not to register on our plates throughout the trip.
"Late yesterday we hit some extensive turbulence areas, and I started playing games. There was this little cluster of three sun systems ahead. One of them was our target, though Dr. Egavine hadn't yet said which. I ducked around a few twisters, doubled back, and there was the Spy coming the other way. I beat it then--top velocity. The Spy dropped off our detectors two hours later, and she can't have kept us on for more than another hour herself.
"So they'll assume we're headed for one of those three systems, but they don't know which one. They'll have to look for us. There's only one terraprox in the system we're going to. There may be none in the others, or maybe four or five. But the terraprox worlds is where they'll look because the salvage suits you're carrying are designed for ordinary underwater work. After the way I ran from them, they'll figure something's gone wrong with Taunus's plans, of course."
Dasinger rubbed his chin. "And if they're lucky and follow us straight in to the planet?"
"Then," Miss Mines said, "you might still have up to six or seven hours to locate the stuff you want, load it aboard and be gone again."
She shrugged. "We've got a lead on them, but just how big a lead we finally wind up with depends to a considerable extent on the flight conditions they run into behind us. They might get a break there, too. Then there's another very unfortunate thing. The system Dr. Egavine's directed us to now is the one we were closest to when I broke out of detection range. They'll probably decide to look there first. You see?"
"Yes," Dasinger said. "Not so good, is it?" He knuckled his jaw again reflectively. "Why was Taunus pounding around on you when I came forward?"
"Oh, those two runches caught me flying the ship at top speed. Taunus was furious. He couldn't know whether the Spy still had a fix on us or not. Of course he didn't tell me that. The lumps he was preparing to hand out were to be for disregarding his instructions. He does things like that." She paused. "Well, are you going to make a try for the planet?"
"Yes," Dasinger said. "If we wait, there's entirely too good a chance the Spy will run across what we're after while she's snooping around for us there. We'll try to arrange things for a quick getaway in case our luck doesn't hold up."
Duomart nodded. "Mind telling me what you're after?"
"Not at all. Under the circumstances you should be told....
"Of course," Dasinger concluded a minute or two later, "all we'll have a legal claim to is the salvage fee."
Miss Mines glanced over at him, looking somewhat shaken. "You are playing this legally?"
"Even so," she said, "if that really is the wreck of the Dosey Asteroids raider, and the stones are still on board ... you two will collect something like ten million credits between you!"
"Roughly that," Dasinger agreed. "Dr. Egavine learned about the matter from one of your Willata Fleetmen."
Her eyes widened. "He what!"
"The Fleet lost a unit called Handing's Scout about four years ago, didn't it?"
"Three and a half," she said. She paused. "Handing's Scout is the other wreck down there?"
"Yes. There was one survivor ... as far as we know. You may recall his name. Leed Farous."
Duomart nodded. "The little kwil hound. He was assistant navigator. How did Dr. Egavine...?"
Dasinger said, "Farous died in a Federation hospital on Mezmiali two years ago, apparently of the accumulative effects of kwil addiction. He'd been picked up in Hub space in a lifeboat which we now know was one of the two on Handing's Scout."
"In Hub space? Why, it must have taken him almost a year to get that far in one of those tubs!"
"From what Dr. Egavine learned," Dasinger said, "it did take that long. The lifeboat couldn't be identified at the time. Neither could Farous. He was completely addled with kwil ... quite incoherent, in fact already apparently in the terminal stages of the addiction. Strenuous efforts were made to identify him because a single large star hyacinth had been found in the lifeboat ... there was the possibility it was one of the stones the Dosey Asteroids Company had lost. But Farous died some months later without regaining his senses sufficiently to offer any information.
"Dr. Egavine was the physician in charge of the case, and eventually also the man who signed the death certificate. The doctor stayed on at the hospital for another year, then resigned, announcing that he intended to go into private research. Before Farous died, Egavine had of course obtained his story from him."
Miss Mines looked puzzled. "If Farous never regained his senses ..."
"Dr. Egavine is a hypnotherapist of exceptional ability," Dasinger said. "Leed Farous wasn't so far gone that the information couldn't be pried out of him with an understanding use of drug hypnosis."
"Then why didn't others ..."
"Oh, it was attempted. But you'll remember," Dasinger said, "that I had a little trouble getting close to you with an antihypnotic. The good doctor got to Farous first, that's all. Instead of the few minutes he spent on you, he could put in hour after hour conditioning Farous. Later comers simply didn't stand a chance of getting through to him."
Duomart Mines was silent a moment, then asked, "Why did you two come out to the Willata Fleet station and hire one of our ships? Your cruiser's a lot slower than the Mooncat but it would have got you here."
Dasinger said, "Dr. Egavine slipped up on one point. One can hardly blame him for it since interstellar navigation isn't in his line. The reference points on the maps he had Farous make up for him turned out to be meaningless when compared with Federation star charts. We needed the opportunity to check them against your Fleet maps. They make sense then."
"I see." Duomart gave him a sideways glance, remarked, "You know, the way you've put it, the thing's still pretty fishy."
"In what manner?"
"Dr. Egavine finished off old Farous, didn't he?"
"He may have," Dasinger conceded. "It would be impossible to prove it now. You can't force a man to testify against himself. It's true, of course, that Farous died at a very convenient moment, from Dr. Egavine's point of view."
"Well," she said, "a man like that wouldn't be satisfied with half a salvage fee when he saw the chance to quietly make away with the entire Dosey Asteroids haul."
"That could be," Dasinger said thoughtfully. "On the other hand, a man who had committed an unprovable murder to obtain a legal claim to six million credits might very well decide not to push his luck any farther. You know the space salvage ruling that when a criminal act or criminal intent can be shown in connection with an operation like this, the guilty person automatically forfeits any claim he has to the fee."
"Yes, I know ... and of course," Miss Mines said, "you aren't necessarily so lily white either. That's another possibility. And there's still another one. You don't happen to be a Federation detective, do you?"
Dasinger blinked. After a moment he said, "Not a bad guess. However, I don't work for the Federation."
"Oh? For whom do you work?"
"At the moment, and indirectly, for the Dosey Asteroids Company."
"No. After Farous died, Dosey Asteroids employed a detective agency to investigate the matter. I represent the agency."
"The agency collects on the salvage?"
"That's the agreement. We deliver the goods or get nothing."
"And Dr. Egavine?"
Dasinger shrugged. "If the doctor keeps his nose clean, he stays entitled to half the salvage fee."
"What about the way he got the information from Farous?" she asked.
"From any professional viewpoint, that was highly unethical procedure. But there's no evidence Egavine broke any laws."
Miss Mines studied him, her eyes bright and quizzical. "I had a feeling about you," she said. "I ..."
A warning burr came from the tolerance indicator; the girl turned her head quickly, said, "Cat's complaining ... looks like we're hitting the first system stresses!" She slid back into the pilot seat. "Be with you again in a while...."
When Dasinger returned presently to the control section Duomart sat at ease in the pilot seat with coffee and a sandwich before her.
"How are the mutineers doing?" she asked.
"They ate with a good appetite, said nothing, and gave me no trouble," Dasinger said. "They still pretend they don't understand Federation translingue. Dr. Egavine's a bit sulky. He wanted to be up front during the prelanding period. I told him he could watch things through his cabin communicator screen."
Miss Mines finished her sandwich, her eyes thoughtful. "I've been wondering, you know ... how can you be sure Dr. Egavine told you the truth about what he got from Leed Farous?"
Dasinger said, "I studied the recordings Dr. Egavine made of his sessions with Farous in the hospital. He may have held back on a few details, but the recordings were genuine enough."
"So Farous passes out on a kwil jag," she said, "and he doesn't even know they're making a landing. When he comes to, the scout's parked, the Number Three drive is smashed, the lock is open, and not another soul is aboard or in sight.
"Then he notices another wreck with its lock open, wanders over, sees a few bones and stuff lying around inside, picks up a star hyacinth, and learns from the ship's records that down in the hold under sixty feet of water is a sealed compartment with a whole little crateful of the stones...."
"That's the story," Dasinger agreed.
"In the Fleets," she remarked, "if we heard of a place where a couple of ship's crews seemed to have vanished into thin air, we'd call it a spooked world. And usually we'd keep away from it." She clamped her lower lip lightly between her teeth for a moment. "Do you think Dr. Egavine has considered the kwil angle?"
Dasinger nodded. "I'm sure of it. Of course it's only a guess that the kwil made a difference for Farous. The stuff has no known medical value of any kind. But when the only known survivor of two crews happens to be a kwil-eater, the point has to be considered."
"Nobody else on Handing's Scout took kwil," Duomart said. "I know that. There aren't many in the Fleet who do." She hesitated. "You know, Dasinger, perhaps I should try it again! Maybe if I took it straight from the needle this time ..."
Dasinger shook his head. "If the little flake you nibbled made you feel drowsy, even a quarter of a standard shot would put you out cold for an hour or two. Kwil has that effect on a lot of people. Which is one reason it isn't a very popular drug."
"What effect does it have on you?" she asked.
"Depends to some extent on the size of the dose. Sometimes it slows me down physically and mentally. At other times there were no effects that I could tell until the kwil wore off. Then I'd have hallucinations for a while--that can be very distracting, of course, when there's something you have to do. Those hangover hallucinations seem to be another fairly common reaction."
He concluded, "Since you can't take the drug and stay awake, you'll simply remain inside the locked ship. It will be better anyway to keep the Mooncat well up in the air and ready to move most of the time we're on the planet."
"What about Taunus and Calat?" she asked.
"They come out with us, of course. If kwil is what it takes to stay healthy down there, I've enough to go around. And if it knocks them out, it will keep them out of trouble."
"Looks like there's a firemaker down there!" Duomart's slim forefinger indicated a point on the ground-view plate. "Column of smoke starting to come up next to that big patch of trees!... Two point nine miles due north and uphill of the wrecks."
From a wall screen Dr. Egavine's voice repeated sharply, "Smoke? Then Leed Farous was not the only survivor!"
Duomart gave him a cool glance. "Might be a native animal that knows how to make fire. They're not so unusual." She went on to Dasinger. "It would take a hand detector to spot us where we are, but it does look like a distress signal. If it's men from one of the wrecks, why haven't they used the scout's other lifeboat?"
"Would the lifeboat still be intact?" Dasinger asked.
Duomart spun the ground-view plate back to the scout. "Look for yourself," she said. "It couldn't have been damaged in as light a crash as that one was. Those tubs are built to stand a really solid shaking up! And what else could have harmed it?"
"Farous may have put it out of commission before he left," Dasinger said. "He wanted to come back from the Hub with an expedition to get the hyacinths, so he wouldn't have cared for the idea of anyone else getting away from the planet meanwhile." He looked over at the screen. "How about it, doctor? Did Farous make any mention of that?"
Dr. Egavine seemed to hesitate an instant. "As a matter of fact, he did. Farous was approximately a third of the way to the Hub when he realized he might have made a mistake in not rendering the second lifeboat unusable. But by then it was too late to turn back, and of course he was almost certain there were no other survivors."
"So that lifeboat should still be in good condition?"
"It was in good condition when Farous left here."
"Well, whoever's down there simply may not know how to handle it."
Duomart shook her blond head decidedly. "That's out, too!" she said. "Our Fleet lifeboats all came off an old Grand Commerce liner which was up for scrap eighty, ninety years ago. They're designed so any fool can tell what to do, and the navigational settings are completely automatic. Of course if it is a native firemaker--with mighty keen eyesight--down there, that could be different! A creature like that mightn't think of going near the scout. Should I start easing the Cat in towards the smoke, Dasinger?"
"Yes. We'll have to find out what the signal means before we try to approach the wrecks. Doctor, are you satisfied now that Miss Mines's outworld biotic check was correct?"