Several hours and stomach growls later Obie had cleaned what seemed like miles of ductwork and was approaching what he hoped was the galley. Not knowing the layout of the ship he had had to work by sense of smell alone, a decision he had not made lightly. Many odors battled in the air, but two were preeminent in their lack of appeal; one he assumed to be the head, the other the galley. He had cleaned in the direction of the one that seemed less objectionable, but was taking no bets on its being the galley.
Passing a side branch in the duct, the aroma suddenly increased. Obie turned his rag in that direction and began working toward the end of the duct where he saw light glowing greenly off the slime.
Cautiously he approached a grill set in the floor of the duct, and looked down into what was unmistakably the galley. Carefully sliding the grill loose from the duct Obie pulled it up inside and set it down. Then dangling his legs through the hole he lowered himself and dropped soundlessly the last foot to the floor. He quickly crossed to the hatch and listened. Hearing nothing he opened it a crack and peered through. On the other side was the crew's mess, a room never so aptly named. Fortunately, it was dim and unoccupied, the crew either at stations, or, Obie hoped, asleep. Either way, he wasn't going to waste time.
Leaving the hatch open a crack so he might hear anyone entering the mess, he turned to assuage his appetite, almost a moot point as he surveyed his surroundings. Such a profusion of browns, blacks, blue-greens, and other colors and textures too nauseous to mention he had never seen, nor, he thought further, had he ever wanted to. These boys must love Roquefort, Obie gulped.
Bracing himself, he opened the refrigerator. There, nestled among the green and blue, he found what must be the true diet of the crew: cold cuts, cheese, bread and beer. Undoubtedly, all they ever ate was sandwiches. Obie recognized several seals from his own spaceport, and, taking a fresh garbage bag from his belt, he began stuffing it with enough food to supply him with sandwiches and beer for several days.
He shoved the bag through the grill hole and took one last look before following it. As his eyes roamed over the encrustations and crud his shoulders slumped. He couldn't, he decided. He just couldn't leave this mess behind him. Squaring his shoulders, he whipped out another bag and began gingerly shoveling it full, telling himself that one bag was all that he would do: the rest was up to the crew.
Returning to the laundry room, Obie pulled four bags out of the duct: one full of food, and three full of garbage. He had found it impossible to stop at only one bagful, and desisted only when he remembered the trek back to his hideout through the ducts, dragging four bags behind him.
Preparing to stuff them down the disposhole, he was suddenly struck by a horrifying thought: he didn't know which of the four bags contained his lunch - they all looked alike. He looked them over, then gingerly squeezed them, but could come to no certain conclusion. Dejectedly, almost fatalistically, he decided the only way was to open them one by one, perhaps subjecting himself to overwhelming odors best left undescribed.
Hoping that he would be right the first time, he opened a bag. It took only a brief and very shallow breath to determine that his luck was running as badly as ever.
With his basic survival needs met, Obie could get on with his odious assignment. His search of the ship via the air ducts had proceeded to the point where the air blowing into the laundry room was no longer obnoxiously loaded with ketones and moldy aromas, but beyond this small victory over filth little else could be said for his five days of labor. Thus far he had located the galley, crew's mess, ward room, engine room, two holds, and the control room, and none had yielded the slightest clue as to the whereabouts of his quarry. Even his foray into the engine room had been a waste of time: he had no idea what the coupler looked like; he needed Dr. Sterling-Quincannon to find and get it back from Moody.
Sighing heavily, Obie wrapped himself again in plastic, pulled on his gloves, and picked up his sack of cleaning rags. Then, knowing he was working his way toward the head today, he grabbed a bottle of superstrength ammonium-cloride cleaner and craw led once more into the duct.
As he worked his way along in a direction he had hitherto eschewed, he suddenly stopped in mid-scrub and listened intently. He had, of course, heard the mumbling and rumbling of the crew's conversations as it echoed down the ducts, but never before had he heard a soprano screech. Stirrings of hope fumbled their way about Obie's body: either one of the crew was a castrati or he had heard the voice of Dr. Sterling-Quincannon's daughter Amanda. Hoping the latter was the case, Obie strained his ears in anticipation, was not disappointed, and began polishing madly in what seemed to be the correct direction, spewing cleaner and strewing cleaning rags in mad abandon.
When he came to a crossing he had a ten minute wait before again hearing the voice he was tracking. He spent the time mentally constructing a face and figure to go with the voice: long, softly curling hair, strawberry lips, deep blue eyes, long-legged, slender but fully curved. It wasn't until just before he heard her again that he realized his mental picture was like the girls on the covers of the computer's books. Almost touching his own something less than granite jaw, he located the duct from which the sounds emanated, breathed a slight sigh of exasperation and embarrassment, poured more cleaner on a rag, and scrubbed on.
At the next crossing the voice suddenly grew louder, and was joined by another high pitched whine like fingernails on a blackboard. Turning into this duct, Obie cautiously approached a grating that appeared to be set in the wall of some room. Inching forward, he scanned the room and realized he had found his quarry: the cadaverous man with the wild hair, stained lab coat, and irritating voice must be Dr. Sterling-Quincannon. Obie searched for Amanda, then realized that the six foot tall, broad shouldered, short haired man with the paunch standing in front of the doctor was actually a woman, his two clues ponderously evident as she turned. Numerous pungent remarks sprang into Obie's mind as he thought about his computer's idea of helpful reading material, but pushed them firmly to the back of his mind. At the moment he had work to do. The room seemed otherwise unoccupied, so Obie tried to determine the best way to unobtrusively gain attention. Suddenly realizing the two goals were mutually ex clusive, he took a breath, leaned forward, and quietly called out, "Hey!"
The effect was hardly what he anticipated. The doctor had a hissy-fit and his daughter assumed a stance whose belligerency was only offset by the gleam of sadistic glee shining in her piggish little eyes. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," she wheedled sweetly, her pudgy fingers grasping the imaginary necks of little bunnies and other dangerous fauna. "We won't hurt you." Obie felt a certain lack of sincerity on her part. He felt sure that the only way Moody and his crew got her on board was with a cargo net and a cattle prod.
Nevertheless, he did have a duty to perform. "I'm over here," he whispered, "in the air duct." With a speed he found hard to believe from such short legs, she rushed across, jammed her fingers into the grate and wrenched it loose from the wall. Tossing it aside like a candy wrapper she then groped inside for Obie who scuttled back out of reach, thankful that her girth was too great for the opening. "Wait a minute!" he shouted as loud as he could whisper, "I'm a friend. I'm here to rescue you!"
The fingers stopped wriggling, although they occasionally twitched with a life of their own. "Rescue?"
"Yes! Rescue. Succor. Save. Get you and your father out of here."
Twitch. Twitch. "How?"
The silence grew uncomfortably long. Obie felt he had to say something. "Well . . ." That wasn't it. "Uhh . . . " No improvement.
"That's what I thought." Twitch. Twitch.
Obie's plans for escape included only a personal, and hasty, departure from that twitch, twitch when the matter became academic. With a spine-rasping howl, sirens throughout the ship went off, echoing down the ducts and almost nerve-jumping Obie int o Amanda's grasp.
"Now hear this, now hear this! Gas leak, gas le--" The automatic alarm reporter broke off short. Recorder's probably jammed with dirt, Obie thought. There was silence for a few seconds, then Moody's voice came over the PA. "Alright, scum. There seems to be a chlorine leak somewhere in the ship. Find it. Now!"
Chlorine? wondered Obie. His musing suddenly became tinged with panic as he realized that chlorine was not only poisonous, but would be spread through the ship by the air ducts in which he was currently ensconced. All he could smell was unwashed Am anda and freshly scrubbed duct work, but he had to get out. Forward into Amanda's arms, or try to get back to his hideout before the gas got him. A moment's reflection had him scuttling for safety -- he was sure he could make it to the laundry room in t ime. He almost lost a nose and a couple of fingers as the choice was cut off, along with his stretch of duct, as baffle plates dropped, sealing each compartment off from the others. He stared bemusedly at the plate before his nose for a moment, then turned and slumped against it. Hell of a deal, he thought gently, and waited for Dr. No.
Obie realized something was happening when the light in the duct increased dramatically. Deciding the opening was no longer blocked by Amanda's excess avoirdupois, he moved cautiously forward. Arriving at the opening he saw Dr. Sterling-Quincannon cowering in a corner and Amanda in a gorilla stance at the door, all atwitch and eager.
The door began opening slowly. An eye warily peeked around the edge, spied Amanda, and ducked back as she pounced, her bulk buckling the bulkhead.
"Ms. Quincannon?" a voice quavered through the door. Taking her growl as a response the voice continued. "There is a chlorine leak in the ship, and we've traced it through the air ducts to this cabin. We need to get in to check it out, and we don't wish to get physical with you." Obie could well understand why. "Please let us enter."
Obie found himself doing the incredible: rooting for the twitch-twitch. With his escape route through the ducts cut off he was trapped if Moody and his men came in. But then, he was in an air duct with a chlorine leak. He couldn't smell anything but his cleaner, but if Moody was willing to brave the beast to check, it must be there.
Obie felt like a bell clapper just starting up: either way he swung -- toward the opening and Moody or toward the duct baffle and the gas -- it was going to be hard on him. The need to decide was removed along with his consciousness as Moody took the only possible way past Amanda -- he flooded the room and duct with sleep gas.
How anything as insubstantial as a gas could contain such large quantities of scrap metal to dump on one's head, Obie would rather not know, even if his head stopped throbbing long enough for him to ponder on the question.
At the moment, other ponderables were clamoring for his attention. Moody's questions sounded like they were burbling through several gallons of water, not being particularly sanitized in the process. The few words that filtered through undistorted seemed to have less to do with the questions than with Obie's lack of answers.
In an attempt to reduce the noise level, Obie burbled something back. What it was wasn't exactly clear even to him, but it had the desired effect -- Moody's verbal diarrhea flowed to a halt. With a sigh of impending relief, Obie settled his head like a poleaxed elephant and awaited blissful oblivion.
Obie found his five seconds of oblivion insufficient, but all Moody allowed him. "What (burble, burble) here?"
"Raja frazma bawstl mok." The perfect response -- it gained him another five seconds. However, he realized that sooner or later he was going to have to use actual words and he should start picking them now. But none he selected seemed quite ripe.< P> "What are you doing here?"
"Rebeded drur kakakuh."
"One more time."
"Resln drakl korakahn."
A sudden blast of halitosis cleared Obie's mind like the smelling salts it resembled. "One more time, and if I can't understand I'm liable to lose interest. We don't want that, now do we?"
Obie's tongue shrank along with his stomach and, taking a deep breath, he choked momentarily on the ambient atmosphere, then blurted, "Rescue Dr. Quincannon!"
A stunned silence was followed by an eye-patch-and-parrot-on-the-shoulder laugh that rumbled through Obie's head like boulders down a cliff.
"You? Rescue the doc?"
"I fail to see the humor."
"Then open your eyes."
Obie did so and found himself nose-to-nose with a wall-to-wall face reminiscent of a lemon meringue pie sprinkled with raisins. "Well? How's your funny bone?"
"Still in one piece, and I'd like to keep it that way."
"Then tell me why you're here."
"I already did. I'm here to rescue the doctor."
Moody's eyes widened as he straightened up. "You mean it. You really think you're going to rescue Quincannon."
"I have to."
"Those are my orders."
Moody smiled like an acute case of dyspepsia. "And what do you think your chances are?"
"Oh," Obie quavered, "about nil."
"Very perceptive." Moody turned to a couple of crewmen standing near. "Put him in with the other two--"
"No!" Even Obie was startled by the volume of his protest, but he continued on. "Please, not in with..." He couldn't go on, but Moody instantly recognized the twitch-twitch that shook Obie's hands.
"You're right," Moody said. "I may be nasty and unfeeling, but even I'm not that cruel. Put him in a cabin of his own. And seal the air ducts."
Two days of pounding on the door had yielded Obie nothing more than a sore hand and a deep thirst. Moody's sense of humor evidently included hunger and thirst among the knee slappers.
He raised his hand for one more blow when the door slid aside, revealing Moody standing on the other side, hands on hips and mossy teeth gaping greenly through a smile like a crack in an old sidewalk. His eyes drifted to Obie's still up-raised fist. "Ah, ah, ah. Naughty, naughty," he cautioned, wrapping a hand around Obie's face like a blanket and pushing. Obie ricocheted off two walls, then feeling suddenly fatigued, sat rather indelicately on the floor.
Moody came and leaned over him. "You don't look too well," he snirtled.
Feeling a witty rejoinder was called for, Obie responded, "Arghh."
"Witty rejoinder. Have you noticed a certain lack of communication whenever we begin a conversation?"
"I quite agree. Perhaps a small libation to clear the must from the corners." Obie gratefully grabbed the proffered bottle and sucked it dry with a sigh of relief. "Feel more yourself now?"
Obie cracked an eyelid then let it close. "Bibo, ergo sum."
"What does that mean?"
"I drink, therefore I am."
"Fine. Bilingual puns." Suddenly Moody took on the appearance of a shy rhinoceros in heat. "Uh, listen -- what's-you're-name..."
"Mac," Obie responded hopefully.
"Mac?" Moody was momentarily nonplused, mumbled, "Doesn't seem appropriate, somehow..." He looked back at Obie. "Anyway --uh -- Mac," Obie beamed at him, "are you the guy that cleaned the air ducts and the galley, and the laundry room, and --"
"Yes," Obie interrupted, "I am."
"I'm glad you're pleased."
"Actually, that's what I came to talk to you about."
"What? Being pleased?"
"No. Your cleaning."
"I believe it."
"Could we please use a few more words in our sentences? I feel like I'm watching a tennis match."
Moody stared at him for a moment. "A what?"
"A tennis match. Most of the time on my outpost the only company I had was my computer, so we would play games and one of the computer's favorites -- why, I don't know -- was a thing called tennis in which the computer would hit a blip across the mo nitor screen and I would use another blip to hit it back and it would use yet another blip to hit it back to me and back and forth it would go until one of us missed." Obie paused for breath. "Now that was a sentence I could get my teeth into."
Moody devoted another moment to staring. "That is one of the most boring things I ever heard of," he finally said.
"I agree. But one must keep one's computer happy if one doesn't wish to discover something unsavory in one's morning nutripaste, mustn't one?"
Moody's silence became abyssal. Then, "Either two days were far too many -- or far too few. Maybe I should spend a couple of days deciding." He stood and went toward the door.
Obie, sensing Moody's lack of desire to discuss batting a blip back and forth, quickly sough a subject that would avoid his spending another two days without food and water. "ou said -- " What was it he said? "something about cleaning?" It that what he said? Moody stopped and turned around. That's what he said.
"Cleaning? Yes. Cleaning. You're the guy that did all that cleaning."
"I'm glad you're pleased."
"Let's not start that again!"
Obie settled his hair back in its wonted place and silently nodded.
Moody exasperatedly sighed and sat. "We wish you to continue. We have noticed a certain greater ease in breathing the last few days, a fact that has greatly eased our breathing. Or did I already say that? Anyway, keep it up and we'll think of a suitable reward -- say, we'll allow you feminine companionship."
Obie began to twitch. "Whose?"
"How about Ms. Sterling-Quincannon?"
The twitching became pronounced.
"How about we deny you feminine companionship?"
Obie took a shaky breath and nodded. "I agree."
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