"Who tried last?"
"Where is Whiting now?"
"Frankly we don't know. But--"
"And the four guys who tried before Whiting?"
"We don't know. But we'd like to find out."
"Try real hard. Maybe you will."
"Cut it out. You're a newspaperman aren't you?"
"God help me, yes. But there's no way."
"There's a way. There's always a way. Like Whiting and the others. Your pals."
Back at the port looking through the hot wire. Sure there was a way. Ask questions out loud. Then sit back and let them throw a noose around you. And there was a place where you could do the sitting in complete comfort. Where Whiting had done it--but only to vanish off the face of the earth. Damn Carter to all hell!
Gene turned and walked up the sandy road toward the place where the gaudy neons of the Blue Moon told hard working men where they could spend their money. The Blue Moon. It was quite a place.
Outside, beneath the big crescent sign, Gene stopped to watch the crowds eddying in and out. Then he went in, to watch them cluster around the slot machines and bend in eager rows over the view slots of the peep shows.
He moved into the bar, dropped on one of the low stools. He ordered a beer and let his eyes drift around.
A man sat down beside him. He was husky, tough looking. "Ain't you the guy who's been asking questions about the crews down at the Port?"
Gene felt it coming. He looked the man over. His heavy face was flushed with good living, eyes peculiarly direct of stare as if he was trying to keep them from roving suspiciously by force of will. He was well dressed, and his heavy hands twinkled with several rather large diamonds. The man went on: "I can give you the information you want--for a price, of course." He nodded toward an exit. "Too public in here, though."
Gene grinned without mirth as he thought, move over Whiting--here I come, and followed the man toward the door.
Outside the man waited, and Gene moved up close.
"You see, it's this way...."
Something exploded against Gene's skull. Even as fiery darkness closed down he knew he'd found the way. But only a stupid newspaperman would take it. Damn Carter!
Gene went out.
He seemed to be dreaming. Over him bent a repulsive, man-like face. But the man had fingernails growing on his chin where his whiskers should have been. And his eyes were funny--walled, as though he bordered on idiocy. In the dream, Gene felt himself strapped into a hammock. Then something pulled at him and made a terrible racket for a long time. Then it got very quiet except for a throbbing in his head. He went back to sleep.
She had on a starched white outfit, but it wasn't a nurse's uniform. There wasn't much skirt, and what there was of it was only the back part. The neckline plunged to the waist and stopped there. It was a peculiar outfit for a nurse to be wearing. But it looked familiar.
Her soft hands fixed something over his eyes, something cold and wet. He felt grateful, but kept on trying to remember. Ah, he had it; the girls wore that kind of outfit in the Blue Moon in one of the skits they did, burlesquing a hospital. He took off the wet cloth and looked again.
She was a dream. Even with her lips rouge-scarlet, her cheeks pink with makeup, her eyes heavy with artifice.
"What gives, beautiful?" He was surprised at the weakness of his voice.
Her voice was hard, but nice, and it was bitter, as though she wanted hard people to know she knew the score, could be just a little harder. "You're a spaceman now! Didn't you know?"
Gene grinned weakly. "I don't know a star from a street light. Nobody gets on the space crews these days--it's a closed union."
Her laugh was full of a knowledge denied him. "That's what I used to think!"
She began to unstrap him from the hammock. Then she pushed back his hair, prodded at the purple knob on his head with careful fingertips.
"How come you're on this ship?" asked Gene, wincing but letting her fingers explore.
"Shanghaied, same as you. I'm from the Blue Moon. I stepped out between acts for a breath of fresh air, and wham, a sack over the head and here I am. They thought you might have a cracked skull. One of the monsters told me to check you. No doctor on the ship."
Gene groaned. "Then I didn't dream it--there is a guy on this ship with fingernails instead of a beard on his chin!"
She nodded. "You haven't seen anything yet!"
"Why are we here?"
"You've been shanghaied to work the ship, I'm here for a different purpose--these men can't get off the ship and they've got to be kept contented. We've got ourselves pleasant jobs, with monsters for playmates, and we can't get fired. It'll be the rottenest time of our lives, and the rest of our lives, as far as I can see."
Gene sank down, put the compress back on his bump. "I don't get it."
"You will. I'm not absolutely sure I'm right, but I know a little more about it than you."
"What's your name?"
"They call me Queenie Brant. A name that fits this business. My real name is Ann O'Donnell."
"Queenie's a horse's name--I'll call you Ann. Me, I'm Gene O'Neil."
"That makes us both Irish," she said. He lifted the compress and saw the first really natural smile on her face. It was a sweet smile, introspective, dewy, young.
"You were only a dancer." He said it flatly.
For a long instant she looked at him, "Thanks. You got inside the gate on that one."
"It's in your eyes. I'm glad to know you, Ann. And I'd like to know you better."
"You will. There'll be plenty of time; we're bound for Io."
"One of Jupiter's moons, you Irish ignoramus. It has quite a colony around the mines. Also it has a strange race of people. But Ann O'Donnell is going to live there if she can get off this ship. I don't want fingernails growing on my chin."
O'Neil sat up. "I get it now! It's something about the atomic drive that changes the crew!"
Gene looked at Ann, let his eyes rove over her figure.
"Take a good look," she said bitterly. "Maybe it won't stay like this very long!"
"We've got to get off this ship!" said Gene hoarsely.
The door of the stateroom opened. A sharp-nosed face peered in, followed by a misshapen body of a man in a dirty blue uniform. Hair grew thick all around his neck and clear up to his ears. It also covered the skin from chin to shirt opening. The hair bristled, coarse as an animal's. His voice was thick, his words hissing as though his tongue was too heavy to move properly.
"Captain wants you, O'Neil."
Gene got up, took a step. He went clear across the room, banged against the wall. The little man laughed.
"We're in space," Ann said. "We have a simulated gravity about a quarter normal. Here, let me put on your metal-soled slippers. They're magnetized to hold you to the floor." She bent and slipped the things on his feet, while Gene held his throbbing head.
The little man opened the door and went out. Gene followed, his feet slipping along awkwardly. After a minute his nausea lessened. At the end of the long steel corridor the little man knocked, then opened the door to a low rumble of command. He didn't enter, just stood aside for Gene. Gene walked in, stood staring.
The eyes in the face he saw were black pools of nothingness, without emotion, yet behind them an active mind was apparent. Gene realized this hairy thing was the Captain--even though he didn't even wear a shirt!
"You've shanghaied me," said Gene. "I don't like it."
The voice was huge and cold, like wind from an ice field. "None of us like it, chum. But the ships have got to sail. You're one of us now, because we're on our way and by the time you get there, there'll be no place left for you to work, unless it's in a circus as a freak."
"I didn't ask for it," said Gene.
"You did. You wanted to know too much about the crew--and if you found out, you'd spread it. You see, the drives are not what they were cooked up to be--the atomics leak, and it wasn't found out until too late. After they learned, they hid the truth, because the cargo we bring is worth millions. All the shielding they've used so far only seems to make it worse. But that won't stop the ships--they'll get crews the way they got you, and nosey people will find out more than they bargain for."
"I won't take it sitting down!" said Gene angrily.
The Captain ignored him. "Start saying sir. It's etiquette aboard ship to say sir to the Captain."
"I'll never say sir to anyone who got me into this...."
The Captain knocked him down.
Gene had plenty of time to block the blow. He had put up his arms, but the big fist went right through and crashed against his chin. Gene sat down hard, staring up at the hairy thing that had once been a man. He suddenly realized the Captain was standing there waiting for an excuse to kill him.
Through split and bleeding lips, while his stomach turned over and his head seemed on the point of bursting, Gene said: "Yes, sir!"
The Captain turned his back, sat down again. He shoved aside a mass of worn charts, battered instruments, cigar butts, ashtrays with statuettes of naked girls in a half-dozen startling poses, comic books, illustrated magazines with sexy pictures, and made a space on the top. He thrust forward a sheet of paper. He picked up a fountain pen, flirted it so that ink spattered the tangle of junk on his desk, then handed it to Gene. "Sign on the dotted line."
Gene picked up the document. It was an ordinary kind of form, an application for employment as a spacehand, third class. The ship was not named, but merely called a cargo boat. This was the paper the Company needed to keep the investigators satisfied that no one was forced to work on the ships against their will. Anger blinded him. He didn't take the pen. He just stood looking at the Captain and wondering how to keep himself from being beaten to death.
After a long moment of silence the Captain laid the pen down, grinned horribly. He gave a snort. "It's just a formality. I'm supposed to turn these things over to the authorities, but they never bother us anymore. Sign it later, after you've learned. You'll be glad to sign, then."
"What's my job, Captain?"
"Captain Jorgens, and don't forget the sir!"
"Captain Jorgens, sir."
"I'll put you with the Chief Engineer. He'll find work for you down in the pile room."
The Captain laughed a nasty laugh, repeating the last phrase with relish. "The pile room! There's a place for you, Mr. O'Neil. When you decide to sign your papers, we'll get you a job in some other part of this can!"
Gene found his way back to the cabin he had just left. The little guy with the hairy neck was there, leering at the girl.
"Put you in the pile gang didn't he?"
Gene nodded, sat down wearily. "I want to sleep," he said.
"Nuts," said the little man. "I'm here to take you to the Chief Engineer. You go on duty in half an hour. Come on!"
Gene got up. He was too sick to argue. Ann looked at him sympathetically, noting his split lips. He managed a grin at her, "If I never see you again, Ann, it's been nice knowing you, very nice."
"I'll see you, Gene. They'll find us tougher than they bargained for."
The engine room looked like some of the atomic power stations he'd seen. Only smaller. There was no heavy concrete shielding, no lead walls. There was shielding around the central pile, and Gene knew that inside it was the hell of atomic chain reaction under the control of the big levers that moved the cadmium bars. There was a steam turbine at one end, and a huge boiler at the other. Gene didn't even try to guess how the pile activated the jets that drove the space ship. Somehow it "burned" the water.
This pile had been illegal from the first. Obviously some official had been bribed to permit the first use of it on a spaceship. Certainly no one who knew anything about the subject would have allowed human beings to work around a thing like this.
Gene's skin crawled and prickled with the energies that saturated the room. Little sparks leaped here and there, off his fingertips, off his nose.
The Chief Engineer was on a metal platform above the machinery level. The face had hair all over it, even on the eyelids. The eyes, popping weirdly, were double. They looked as if second eyes had started growing inside the original ones. They weren't reasonable; they weren't even sane. The look of them made Gene sick.
The Engineer shook his head back and forth to focus the awful, mutilated eyes. His voice was infinitely weary, strangely muffled. "Another sacrifice to Moloch, an's the pity! So they put you down here, as if there was anything to be done? Well, it'll be nice to work with someone who still has his buttons--as long as they last. Sit down."
Gene sat down and the metal chair gave him a shock that made him jump. "I don't know anything about this kind of work."
The man shrugged, "Who does? The pile runs itself. Ain't enough of it moves to need much greasing. You ought to be able to find the grease cups--they're painted red. Fill them, wipe off the dust, and wait. Then do it over again."
"What's the score on this bucket?"
"We're all signed on with a billy to the knob. And kept aboard by a guard system that's pretty near perfect. After awhile the emanations get to our brains and we don't care anymore. Then we're trusted employees. Only reason I don't blow her loose, it wouldn't do any good."
He got up, a fragile old body clad in dirty overalls. He beckoned Gene to follow him. He led the way to a periscope arrangement over the shielded pile. Gene peered in. It was like a look into boiling Hell. As Gene stared, the old man talked in his ear.
"Supposed to be perfectly shielded, and maybe they are. But something gets out. I think it happens in the jet assembly. A tiny trickle of high pressure steam crosses the atomic beam just above a pinhole that leads into the jet tube. It's exploded by the beam, exploded into God knows what, and the result is your jet. It's a wonderful drive, with plenty of power for the purpose. But I think it forms a strong field of static over the whole shell of the ship, a kind of sphere of reflection that throws the emanations back into the ship from every point. Just my theory, but it explains why you get these physical changes, because that process of reflection gives a different ray than was observed in the ordinary shielded jet."
Gene nodded, asked: "Can I look at the jet assembly?"
"Ain't no way to look at it! It's sealed up to hold in the expanding gases from that exploded steam. Looking in this periscope is what changed my eyes. Only other place the unshielded emanations could escape is from the jet chamber. Only way they can get back into the ship is by reflection from some ionized layer around the ship. If I could talk to some of those big-brained birds that developed this drive, I'd sure have things to say."
Gene was convinced the old man knew what he was talking about. "Why don't you try to put your information where it'll do some good? How about the Captain?"