There was a short interval of stupefaction before he regained presence of mind enough to relatch the locker and go in search of a pistol. Back in the living room he reported:
‘There’s a stowaway aboard, Dale.’
The tour stared at him as the remark sank in. Dale grunted, scornfully:
‘Impossible. The ship’s been guarded all the time.’
‘But there is. I saw…
‘And searched before we left.’
‘I tell you I saw his foot in the chart locker. Go and look for yourself.’
Dale rose from the control desk and held out his hand.
‘Give me that pistol. I’ll settle with him. Now we know where the extra weight was.’
He was coldly angry. The presence of a stowaway might easily have meant disaster for all of them. No wonder the ship had lagged a little to begin with, and no wonder that the fuel level had shown an unexpected reading. He pulled himself through the trap door closely followed by the rest. The front of the locker was still fastened. He twisted the latch and flung it wide open.
‘Now then. Out of that!’ he ordered.
There was no movement. He jabbed the muzzle of his pistol among the papers and felt it encounter something yielding.
‘Come out of it!’ he repeated.
The protruding toe stirred, sending a bunch of charts floating out into the room and revealing a high boot laced to the knee. The stowaway began to wriggle slowly out of the opening, feet first. The boots were followed by breeches and a jacket of soft leather, and finally, a woebegone, grimy face. Dale, after one glance at the disordered hair around it, lowered his pistol.
‘Oh, my God, it’s a woman,’ he said in a tone of devastating disgust.
‘Dear me,’ said Froud’s voice calmly. ‘Just like the movies, isn’t it? Quaint how these things happen.’
The girl struggled free of the locker and came drifting across the room. But for her weightlessness, she would have collapsed. She put out her hand to grasp a stanchion, but did not reach it. Her eyes closed, and she floated inertly in mid air.
‘What’s more,’ Dale added, ‘she’s the kind that begins by fainting. What, in heaven’s name, have we done to deserve this?’
The doctor caught the girl’s arm.
‘You can’t blame her for that. We all fainted and we had sprung couches. If she’s not broken anything, it’ll be a wonder.’
Burns slipped a flask from his pocket.
‘Give the lass a drop of brandy,’ he suggested.
The doctor thrust him off impatiently.
‘Get away, man. How the devil do you think you can pour a liquid here? Do use what brains you’ve got.’
Burns stood back, abashed and regarding the unpourable brandy with a bewildered expression.
‘You’d better take her into the sick room and look after her, I suppose,’ Dale said grudgingly. ‘You’d better clean her up, too. I never saw anyone in such a filthy mess. She’s probably ruined some of those charts.’
‘If I were you,’ advised Frond, ‘I’d do the cleaning up before the reviving. She’ll never forgive you if she wakes up to see herself as she is now. This part of her performance is well below the movie standard nobody yet ever saw a film star just after she had been thoroughly ill.’
CHAPTER VIII. JOAN.
BACK in the living room there closed down one of those uncomfortable silences sometimes described as ‘palpable’. Dale paused beside the control desk and glanced at the instruments there without seeing them, for his mind was at present entirely possessed by a sense of surging indignation. Burns sat down on the side of the table and placidly awaited the outcome. Frond, attempting to drop comfortably upon one of the couches found this casual gesture defeated by lack of weight, and hung for a time in a state of puzzled suspense. Dugan crossed to one of the unshuttered windows and examined the wonders of space with noticeably discreet attention.
It was Froud who ended the mute period.
‘Well. Well. Well,’ he murmured, reflectively. ‘And here was I thinking that I had got the only all male assignment since sex appeal was invented. It just shows you even a journalist can be wrong sometimes. You know,’ he added, ‘old Oscar Wilde had his points in spite of what people said about him.’
Dugan turned from the contemplation of stars, looking puzzled.
‘What the devil are you talking about?’ he inquired.
‘Oh, quite harmless. Only that Wilde had a theory about nature imitating art. The typical art of today is the movies hence the situation. Who but the movie minded would have thought of stowing away on a rocket? Therefore—
‘That’s all very well,’ Dale told him, ‘but this isn’t as funny as you seem to think. And the point at present is what are we going to do about it?’
‘Do?’ echoed Froud, undismayed. ‘Why, that’s simple enough heave her outside.’
‘Here, I say ‘ Dugan began.
Froud grinned at him.
‘Exactly. But the fact remains that it is the only thing we can do. The alternative which we shall undoubtedly adopt is not to do anything: to lump it, in fact.’
‘If it had been a man,’ Dale said, ‘I’d soon have settled him and it couldn’t have been called murder.’
‘But as it isn’t a man?’
‘Well, damn it all, why not? A woman doesn’t eat less or breathe less. Is there any really good reason why she shouldn’t be treated the same way?’
‘None at all,’ said Froud promptly. ‘Equal pay for equal work, equal penalties for equal crimes, and all that. Entirely logical and correct procedure. But no one ever puts it into practice this is known as chivalry,’ he explained, kindly.
Dale, engrossed with the problem, took no notice.
‘She’s just trading on her sex, as they all do that’s what it is. Taking it for granted that just because she happens to be a woman we shall do her no harm.’
‘No be fair to her,’ the journalist said. ‘It’s your sex that she’s trading on. If the Gloria Mundi had had a crew of women, she’d soon have been outside. But she argues that you, being a male, won’t behave logically what’s more, she’s perfectly right.’
‘Can’t you be serious for a few minutes?’
‘Oh, I am. I’m facing a terrible future which you chaps haven’t thought of yet. By the time she’s been here a week she’ll be bossing the whole show and making us feel as if we were the supercargo instead of she. I know ’em.’
‘If she stays.’
‘Oh, she’ll stay all right. I really don’t know why you’re making all this fuss. You know quite well none of us has guts enough to chuck her overboard, and that we’ll just have to accept the situation in the end.’
‘That’s right,’ Dugan put in. ‘Anyway, she’s done the really serious part of the damage already by coming at all. There’ll be enough food to see us through. And I mean to say, we can’t just bump her off, can we?’
He turned to Burns who nodded silent support.
Dale looked at the three faces. He wore a somewhat deflated appearance not surprising in one who felt himself to be showing weakness in the face of the trip’s first emergency. He took refuge on a side track.
‘Well, I’d like to know who got her aboard. I know none of you would play a damn fool trick like that, but when we get back, I’m going to find out who did, and, by God ‘ The return of the doctor cut short his threat.
‘Given her a sedative. She’s sleeping now.’
‘Don’t think so. Pretty well bruised, of course.’
‘H’m, that’s a blessing, at least. It would have been about the last straw to have been landed with an invalid.’
‘I don’t think you need bother about that. She’ll probably be all right in a day or two.’
‘And in the meantime,’ said Froud, ‘all we can do is to await this probably disruptive influence with patience.’
A full forty eight hours passed before Doctor Grayson would allow his patient to be seen, and even then his permission was given reluctantly. So far, he told them, she had made a good recovery, but now the thought of her reception was beginning to worry her and retard progress. He considered it worth the risk of a slight setback to have matters out and let the girl know where she stood.
Dale immediately made for the trap door. It would. be easier, he thought, to conduct this first interview in the privacy of the tiny sick room. To his irritation he found that he did not arrive there alone.
‘What do you want’ he demanded, rounding on Froud. ‘Me? Oh, I’m just tagging along,’ the other told him placidly.
‘Well, you can go back to the rest. I don’t need you.’