In luck and out of luck, John Grimes was a living legend of the spaceways. He had been an officer of the service, he had been the victim of a mutiny, he had discovered lost worlds, he had served under strange masters and on strange ships, but he had never turned space pirate. Until this adventure. How it happened was a complex story to begin with, but typical Grimes luck. How he became the terror of the star lanes developed, as usual, from his own efforts to make an honest living and other's efforts to use him for devious diversions. This is a story of the loot of the stars, of how Grimes graduated from operator of a space courier ship to master of a fleet of dreaded carriers of the skull and crossbones!
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 160
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A. Bertram Chandler
But money, he was coming to realize, does not buy happiness. Furthermore it is, far too often, a very expensive commodity. It has to be paid for and the price can be high. The cost of his newly acquired wealth was Little Sister, the beautiful, golden, deep space pinnace that had been given him by the Baroness Michelle d’Estang. He had hated parting with his tiny ship but financial circumstances had been such that there was almost no option. The fortunes of Far Traveler Couriers were at an extremely low ebb and Grimes, long notorious for his hearty appetite, wanted to go on eating.
At first the courier business had been moderately successful. There seemed to be no shortage of small parcels of special cargo to be carted, at high freight rates, hither and yon across the known galaxy. Then the commercial climate deteriorated and Grimes gained the impression that nobody at all wanted anything taken anywhere in a hurry and at a price. His last employment had been the carriage of a small shipment of memory-and-motivation units from Electra to Austral, the consignee being Yosarian Robotics. There was absolutely no suitable outward cargo for Little Sister available on Austral—and the First Galactic Bank was getting restive about Far Traveler Couriers’ considerable overdraught.
Grimes went to see Mr. Yosarian. He knew that the fantastically wealthy roboteer often manufactured very special models for very special customers, some of whom must surely wish delivery in a hurry. He was admitted into an outer office on the very top floor of the towering Kapek Komplex, an assemblage of three glittering tetrahedra of steel and plastic with a fourth tetrahedron mounted on this spectacular foundation.
He sat waiting in a deep, comfortable chair, watching the blonde secretary or receptionist or whatever she was doing something at her desk, languidly prodding a keyboard with scarlet-nailed fingers, watching some sort of read-out on a screen that presented a featureless back to the visitor. She was not at all inclined to make conversation. Grimes wondered idly if she was one of Yosarian’s special robots, decided that she probably wasn’t. She was too plump, too soft looking and there had been nothing metallic in her voice when she condescended to speak to him. He tried to interest himself in the magazines on a low table by his seat but all of them were trade journals. An engineer would have found them fascinating—but Grimes was not an engineer. From his cadet days onward he had displayed little mechanical aptitude and, quite naturally, had entered the spaceman branch of the Survey Service.
He filled and lit his vile pipe, got up from his chair and strolled to one of the wide windows overlooking the city of Port Southern. The tall, elongated pyramid was a feature of local architecture. Between these towers and groupings of towers were green parks, every one of which seemed to have its own fountain, each a wavering plume of iridescent spray. In the distance was the spaceport, looking like a minor city itself. But those gleaming spires were the hulls of ships great and small, passenger liners and freighters.
Grimes could just see the golden spark that was the sunlight reflected from the shell plating of a ship by no means great—Little Sister. She had brought him here, to this world. Would she take him away from it? She wouldn’t, he thought bitterly, unless there were some cargo to make it worth her while, some paid employment that would enable him to settle his outstanding bills.
The blonde’s voice broke into his glum thoughts. “Mr. Yosarian will see you now, sir. Go straight through.”
“Thank you,” said Grimes.
He looked around for an ashtray, found one, knocked out his pipe into it.
“That,” said the girl coldly, “happens to be a flower bowl.”
“But there aren’t any flowers in it,” he said defensively.
“A ship is still a ship even when there’s no cargo in her holds,” she told him nastily.
That hurt. She must know how things were with him. Probably everybody in Port Southern, on the whole damned planet, knew. With his prominent ears flushing angrily he went through into the inner office.
Like a statue of some corpulent Oriental deity Yosarian sat behind his huge desk, the vast, shining expanse of which was bare save for two read-out screens. He did not rise as Grimes entered, just regarded him through black eyes that were like little lumps of coal representing the visual organs in the white face of a snowman. His too full red lips were curved in a complacent smile.
He said, “Be seated, Captain.” His voice was just too pleasant to be classed as oleaginous, but only just.
Grimes started to turn. The nearest chair had been against the wall, near the door by which he had entered. But it was no longer there. Walking rapidly but silently on its four legs, it had positioned itself behind him. The edge of its padded seat nudged Grimes just below the backs of his knees.
He sat rather more heavily than had been his intention.
Grimes said, “Quite a trick.”
“But little more, Captain. You should see—and use—some of the robot furniture that I design and manufacture. Such as the beds. Custom made.” He leered. “And what do you think of these?”
A drawer in the desk must have opened—by itself, as both Yosarian’s fat hands were sprawled on the polished surface. Something was coming out of it. A tiny hand found purchase on the edge of the desk top, then another. It—she—pulled herself up. She was only a mechanical doll but she could have been alive, a miniature golden girl, perfect in every detail from her long, yellow hair to the toes of her golden feet. She pirouetted and as she did so she sang wordlessly. High and thin was the music but with an insidious rhythm. She was joined by two more dolls, both female, one white-skinned and black-haired, the other whose body was a lustrous black and whose hair shone like silver. They carried instruments—the white girl a syrinx, the black girl a little drum. They sat cross-legged, piping and drumming, while the golden doll danced and sang.
“These come life-size, too,” said Yosarian. “Special orders. Very special orders …”
“Mphm,” grunted Grimes thoughtfully and disapprovingly.
“And you wouldn’t believe that they’re made of metal, would you?” He raised his hands, clapped them sharply, then with his right index finger pointed at Grimes. The musicians stopped playing, the dancer halted in mid-step. Then all three of them ran gracefully to the edge of the desk, jumped down to the thick carpet. Before Grimes realized what was happening they were swarming up his legs, on to his lap. His ears, flamed with embarrassment.
“Go on, touch them. They aren’t programed to bite, Captain.”
Gingerly, with the tip of a forefinger, Grimes stroked the back of the golden dancer. It could almost have been real skin under his touch—almost, but not quite.
Yosarian clapped again. The dolls jumped down from Grimes’ lap, ran around to Yosarian’s side of the desk, vanished.
“You must often, Mr. Yosarian, get special orders for these … toys,” said Grimes.
“Toys? You offend me, Captain. But there are special orders. Only a short while ago the Grand Duke Oblimov on El Dorado wanted a pair of dancing boys, life-size. Do you know El Dorado, Captain? I have thought, now and again, of retiring there. I’ve more than enough money to be accepted as a citizen, but I’d be expected to buy a title of some kind—and that I would regard as a sinful waste of hard-earned credits! As a matter of fact it was an El Doradan ship that carried the small shipment to the Grand Duke. She was here on a cruise and all the passengers were Lord this and Lady that. The master of her called himself Commodore, not Captain, and he was a Baron. The funny part of it all was that I used to know him slightly, years ago, when he was skipper of a scruffy little star tramp running out of Port Southern …”
“Commodore Baron Kane,” said Grimes sourly.
“You know him? It’s a small universe, isn’t it? But what can I do for you, Captain Grimes? I’m sure that you didn’t come all the way from the spaceport just to talk to me and watch my pretty mini-robots perform.”
“You have mentioned special orders, Mr. Yosarian. I’ll be frank; I need employment for my ship and myself very badly. I was wondering if …”
“I am sorry, Captain. The last special order was the one to El Dorado; the next one will be—” he shrugged and spread his hands—“who knows when? But perhaps you have not wasted your time after all …”
“Then you do have something?”
“You have something, Captain Grimes. Something that I want, for which I am prepared to pay. I will tell you a secret. When I was very young I wanted to become a spaceman. As you know, your Antarctic Space Academy on Earth accepts entrants from all the Federated Planets—as long as they can pass the preliminary examinations. I almost passed—but almost isn’t good enough. So I had to go into my father’s business—robotics. He wasn’t exactly poor—but I am rich. I have been thinking for some time of purchasing a little ship of my own, a spaceyacht, something so small that I am not required by law to carry a qualified master. I have the know-how—or my people have the know-how—to make a computer pilot capable of navigating and handling life-support systems and all the rest of it. I may have to import a special m-and-m unit from Electra, but that is no problem. They can send it with the next big shipment that I have on order.”
“You mean …” began Grimes.
“I mean that I want your ship, your Little Sister. I know how things are with you. There is word of a forced sale, engineered by the First Galactic Bank. So I’m doing you a favor. I will pay a good price. And you will know that your ship will not be broken up just for the precious metal that went into her building. She will survive as a functioning vessel.”
“As a rich man’s toy,” said Grimes.
Yosarian chuckled. “There are worse fates, much worse fates, for ships, just as there are for women. And a ship such as yours, constructed from an isotope of gold, will keep her looks. I shall cherish her.”
“How much?” asked Grimes bluntly.
Yosarian told him.
With an effort Grimes kept his face expressionless. The sum named was far in excess of what he had expected. With such money in his bank account he would be able to retire, a young man, and live anywhere in the galaxy—with the exception of El Dorado—that he wished. But was it enough? Would it ever be enough?
“I think, Captain,” said Yosarian gently, “that mine is a fair offer. Very fair.”
“Yes,” admitted Grimes.
“And yet you are still reluctant. If I wait until your many creditors force a sale I may be able to buy your ship at a mere fraction of this offer.”
“Then why aren’t you willing to wait, Mr. Yosarian?” asked Grimes.
The fat man looked at him shrewdly, then laughed. “All right, Captain. It’s cards on the table. I happen to know that Austral Metals wants your ship. It is quite possible that they would outbid even me—and that, I freely admit, would mean more money in your pocket after all the legal technicalities have been sorted out. But do you know what they would do with her if they got her? They would regard her as no more than scrap metal—precious scrap, but scrap nonetheless. They would break her up, melt her down. Only the Electrans know the secret of producing the isotope of gold of which your Little Sister is constructed. Austral Metals use that very isotope in some of their projects—and have to pay very heavily for what they import from Electra. Your ship, her hull and her fittings, would be relatively cheap.
“If I have read you aright, Captain Grimes, you are a sentimentalist. Although your ship is only a machine you feel toward her almost as you would toward a woman—and could you bear to see the body of a woman you loved cut up and the parts deposited in an organ bank?” He shuddered theatrically. “If I get Little Sister I’ll look after her, pamper her, even. If Austral Metals gets her they’ll hack her and burn her into pieces.”
And I can’t afford to keep her, thought Grimes. Always in the past something had turned up to rescue him from utter insolvency—but this time nothing would. Or something had. If he accepted Yosarian’s offer it would save Little Sister from the breakers as well as putting him back in the black.
“You really want her as a ship?” asked Grimes. “You don’t intend to turn out a line of indestructible golden robots?”
“I give you my word, Captain.”
Grimes believed him.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll take your price—on condition that you clear my overdraught and all my other debts.”
Had he overplayed his hand? For long moments he feared that he had. Then Yosarian laughed.
“You drive a hard bargain, Captain Grimes. Once I would have haggled. Now I will not. At least twice—the first time many years ago, the second time recently—I have tried to get the price down on something I really wanted. Each time I failed—and failed, in consequence, to attain my heart’s desire.”
Grimes wondered what it was that Yosarian had been wanting to buy, decided that it might not be politic to ask. He felt an odd twinge of sympathy.
“My lawyers,” said the fat man, “will call on board your ship tomorrow morning to arrange the details. Please have a detailed statement of your liabilities prepared for them.”
“I shall do that,” said Grimes. “And … thank you.”
He got up from his chair, turned to leave the office. A slight noise behind him made him stop, turn again to see what was making it. Another mechanical toy had emerged from one of the drawers of Yosarian’s big desk. This one was a miniature spaceship, perfect in every detail, a replica of an Alpha Class liner only about fifteen centimeters in length. The roboticist gestured with his fat right hand and, with its inertial drive tinkling rather than clattering, it rose into the air and began to circle the opalescent light globe that hung from the ceiling. It could have been a real space vessel, viewed from a distance, in orbit about some planetoid.
So, thought Grimes, he was letting Little Sister go to somebody who would regard her as no more than an ingenious toy.
But in a harshly commercial universe that was all that she was anyhow.
MUCH TO GRIMES’ surprise the formalities of the sale were concluded late the following morning. (When Yosarian wanted something he wanted it now.) It was early afternoon when Little Sister was handed over to her new owner. Grimes was both hurt and relieved to discover that Yosarian did not expect him to stay around to show the new owner where everything lived and what everything did; in fact the roboticist made it quite plain that he wished to be left alone to gloat over his new possession.
“If that is all, Mr. Yosarian …” said Grimes.
“Yes, that is all, Captain. I’ve made a study of ships, as you know. And, in any case, much of the equipment here is of my own design. The autochef, the waste processor … There seems to be nothing here that is a departure from normal practice.”
“Look after her,” said Grimes.
“You need have no worries on that score, Captain. When something has cost me as much as this vessel I look after it.”
He extended a fat hand for Grimes to shake. Grimes shook it, then went out through his—no, the—airlock for the last time. Yosarian’s ground car was waiting to carry him to his hotel, his baggage already stowed in the rear compartment. There were two large suitcases and a mattress cover that had been pressed into service as a kitbag. (When one is in a ship for any length of time personal possessions tend to accumulate.) Before boarding the vehicle Grimes paused to pat the gleaming surface of the golden hull.
At least, he thought, you aren’t being broken up …
The chauffeur, a little, wizened monkey of a man in severe, steel-grey livery, watched him dourly. He said, “Old Yosie won’t like it if you put greasy pawmarks all over that finish.”
“She’s had worse on her,” said Grimes. “Like blood.”
“You don’t say, Captain?” The man looked at Grimes with a new respect. Then, “Where to, sir?”
“The Centaurian,” said Grimes, taking his seat beside the driver.
The car sped smoothly and silently toward the spaceport gate. It did not reduce speed for challenge and inspection by the duty customs officer; the flag flying from the short mast on the bonnet, black with a golden Y set in a golden cogwheel, was pass enough.
“That blood, Captain …” hinted the chauffeur.
“Not human blood,” Grimes told him. “Shaara blood. Or ichor. A couple of drones were trying to burn their way in with hand lasers. So I went upstairs in a hurry, out of a dense atmosphere into near vacuum. They … burst.”
“Messy,” muttered the driver.
“Yes,” agreed Grimes.
And where was Tamara, who had shared that adventure with him, he wondered. Probably back on Tiralbin, once again the desk-borne Postmistress General, no longer directly involved in getting the mail through come hell or high water. And where were Shirl and Darleen, also one-time passengers aboard Little Sister? And the obnoxious Fenella Pruin … And Susie … Susie had never set foot aboard the golden pinnace herself but she belonged to the Little Sister period of his life.
He may have lost his ship but he would keep the memories.
The driver was saying something.
“Mphm?” grunted Grimes.
“We’re here, Captain. The Centaurian.”
The hotel was the usual elongated pyramid. A porter, who could have been a Survey Service High Admiral making an honest living for a change, was lifting Grimes’ baggage out of the back of the car, sneering visibly at the bulging mattress cover.
“Thank you,” said Grimes to the chauffeur. He supposed that he should have tipped the man but, although he had a fortune in his bank account, he had almost nothing in his pockets. He disembarked, followed the porter into the lobby to the desk. The receptionists, he could not help noticing, were staring at the mattress cover and giggling. But the girl whom he approached was polite enough.
“Captain Grimes? Yes, we have your reservation. Room number 5063. And for how long will you be staying, sir?”
“Probably until Alpha Sextans comes in. She’s the next direct ship for Earth.”
“Have a happy stay with us, sir.”
“Thank you,” said Grimes.
He accompanied the porter in the lift up to the fiftieth floor, was ushered into a room from the wide windows of which he could enjoy a view of the city and the distant spaceport. Little Sister was there among the grey towers that were the big ships, no more than a tiny, aureate mote. He turned away from the window to the resplendently uniformed porter who was waiting expectantly.
He said, “I’m sorry. I’m out of cash until I get to the bank.”
“That’s all right, sir,” said the man, conveying by the tone of his voice that it was not.
He left Grimes to his own devices.
Grimes explored his accommodation.
He treated himself to a cup of coffee from the tap so labeled over the bar. He lowered himself into one of the deep armchairs, filled and lit his pipe. Suddenly he was feeling very lonely in this comfortable but utterly characterless sitting room. He wondered how he would pass the days until he could board that Earthbound passenger liner. He would not, he told himself firmly, go near the spaceport before then. He had made his clean break with Little Sister; he would do his best to keep it that way.
The telephone buzzed.
He reached out, touched the acceptance button. The screen came alive, displayed the pretty face of one of the hotel’s receptionists.
“Captain Grimes, a lady and a gentleman are here to see you.”
“Who are they?” Grimes asked.
“A Ms. Granadu, sir. A Mr. Williams.”
The names rang no bells in Grimes’ memory and it must have shown in his expression.
“Spacepersons, sir,” said the girl.
“Send them up,” said Grimes.
He had just finished his coffee when the door chimes tinkled. He had not yet recorded his voice in the opener so had to get up from his chair to let the visitors in. Yes, he thought, the receptionist had been right. These were certainly spacers; the way in which they carried themselves made this obvious. And he, a spacefarer himself, could do better than merely generalize. One spaceman branch officer, he thought, fairly senior but never in actual command. One catering officer.
The spaceman was not very tall but he was big. He had a fleshy nose, a broad, rather thick-lipped mouth, very short hair the color of dirty straw, pale grey eyes. He was plainly dressed in a white shirt and dark grey kilt with matching long socks, black, blunt-toed, highly polished shoes. The woman was flamboyant. She was short, chunky, red-haired, black-eyed and beaky-nosed. Her mouth was a wide, scarlet slash. In contrast to her companion’s sober attire she was colorfully, almost garishly clad. Her orange blouse was all ruffles, her full skirt was bright emerald. Below its hem were stiletto-heeled, pointed-toed knee boots, scarlet with gold trimmings. Jewels scintillated at the lobes of her ears and on her fingers. It looked, at first glance, as though she had a ring on every one of them.
“Williams,” said the big man in a deep voice.
“Magda Granadu,” said the woman in a sultry contralto.
“Grimes,” said Grimes unnecessarily.
There was handshaking. There was the arranging of seats around the coffee table. Magda Granadu, without being asked, drew cups of coffee for Williams and herself, replenished Grimes’ cup. Grimes had the uneasy feeling that he was being taken charge of.
“And what can I do for you, gentlepersons?” he asked.
“You can help us, Captain,” said Williams. “And yourself.”
“Indeed?” Grimes was intrigued but trying not to show it. These were not the sort of people who, hearing somehow of his sudden acquisition of wealth, would come to ask him for a large, never-to-be-repaid loan. “Indeed?”
“That ship in parking orbit—Epsilon Scorpii. You must have seen her when you came in.”
“She’s up for sale. It hasn’t been advertised yet but it soon will be.”
Grimes laughed. “And so what? The Interstellar Transport Commission is always flogging its obsolescent tonnage.”
“Too right, Captain. But why shouldn’t you be the next owner of that hunk of still spaceworthy obsolescence?”
“Why should I?” countered Grimes. “I’ve just sold one ship. I’m in no hurry to buy another.”
“You would not be happy away from ships,” said the woman, staring at him intently. “As well you know.”
She’s right, thought Grimes.
He said, “All right. Just suppose that I’m mad enough to buy this Epsilon Class rustbucket. What is your interest?”
“We want to get back into space,” said Williams.
“And what makes you think that I’d help you?” Grimes demanded.
“The I Ching told us,” said the woman.
Grimes regarded her curiously. With her features, her flamboyant clothing, her garish jewelry, she could well have passed for a Romany fortune teller, one of those who plied their trade in tea rooms and other restaurants. But such women usually practiced palmistry or worked with cards, either of the ordinary variety or the Tarot pack. To find one who consulted the Book of Changes was … weird. And what was a spacewoman doing as a soothsayer anyhow?
She went on, “We’re old shipmates, Billy—Mr. Williams—and I. In the Dog Star Line. Billy was second mate, waiting for his promotion to mat. . .
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