The Far Traveler was hardly the sort of starship to use in the study of lost space colonies. Lost colonies were likely to be desperate, eccentric and otherwise unappreciative. And The Far Traveler was a rich woman's toy, constructed of gold and directed by an omniscient, dictatorial and feminine computer known as Big Sister. John Grimes had become that golden vessel's captain. A captain in name only because nobody could talk back to Big Sister or the haughty beauty who owned everything aboard. But Grimes was a man of many resources and lost space colonies were placed that did not observe the civilized rules. You could be sure, therefore, that the man known as the Commodore Hornblower of Outer Space would be likely to come through okay, even if the ladies - mechanical and physical - never expected him to!
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 174
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The Far Traveler
A. Bertram Chandler
John Grimes, lately captain of Discovery, was still on Botany Bay. He had no place else to go. He had resigned from the Federation’s Survey Service, knowing full well that with the loss of his ship his famous luck had run out, that if ever he returned to Lindisfarne he would be brought before a court martial and, almost certainly, would be held responsible for the seizure by mutineers of a valuable piece of the Interstellar Federation’s property. And, in all likelihood, he would be held to blame for the quite considerable damage to Vega.
In some ways, however, he was still lucky. Apart from anything else he had a job, one for which he was qualified professionally if not temperamentally even though Botany Bay, as yet, owned no spaceships under its flag. (The lost-in-space Lode Wallaby, bringing the original colonists, had crashed on landing and, in any case, the essentially cranky gaussjammers had been obsolete for generations.) Nonetheless Botany Bay now needed a spaceport; since the news of Discovery’s landing had been broadcast throughout the Galaxy an influx of visitors from outside was to be expected. A spaceport must have a Port Captain. Even if Grimes had not been on more than merely friendly terms with Mavis, Lady Mayor of Paddington and President of the Planetary Council of Mayors, he would have been the obvious choice.
Obvious—but not altogether popular. Vega’s people were still on Botany Bay and all of them blamed Grimes for the wreck of their vessel and, come to that, Commander Delamere, the destroyer’s captain, had always hated Grimes’ guts. (It was mutual.) And there were the parents whose daughters had flown the coop with the Discovery mutineers—and quite a few husbands whose wives had done likewise. Vociferously irate, too, were the cricket enthusiasts whose series of test matches had been disrupted by the cluttering up of the Oval with spaceships.
Only the prompt intervention of the local police force had saved Grimes, on one occasion, from a severe beating up at the hands of a half dozen of Delamere’s Marines. There had been no police handy when a husband whose wife had deserted with Discovery’s bo’s’n gave Grimes two black eyes. And he was becoming tired of the white-clad, picketing cricketers outside his temporary office continually chanting, “Terry bastard, go home!”
Then The Far Traveler came to Botany Bay.
She was not a big ship but large for what she was, a deep-space yacht. Her home port—Grimes had ascertained during the preliminary radio conversations with her master—was Port Bluewater on El Dorado. That made sense. Only the filthy rich could afford space yachts—and El Dorado was known as the Planet of the Filthy Rich. Grimes had been there once, a junior officer in the Zodiac Class cruiser Aries. He had been made to feel like a snotty-nosed urchin from the wrong side of the tracks. He had been told, though, that he would be welcome to return—but only after he had made his first billion credits. He did not think it at all likely that he ever would return.
The Far Traveler dropped down through the clear, early morning sky, the irregular beat of her inertial drive swelling from an irritable mutter to an almost deafening clatter as she fell. The rays of the rising sun were reflected dazzlingly from her burnished hull. There was a peculiarly yellow quality to the mirrored light.
Grimes stood on the uppermost tier of the big grandstand watching her and, between times, casting an observant eye around his temporary domain. The triangle of scarlet beacons was there, well clear of the hapless Vega, the painfully bright flashers in vivid contrast to the dark green grass on which they stood. At the head of each of the tall flagstaffs around the Oval floated the flag of Botany Bay—blue, with red, white and blue superimposed crosses in the upper canton, a lopsided cruciform constellation of silver stars at the fly.
He was joined by the Deputy Port Captain. Skipper Wheeldon was not a spaceman—yet. He had been master of one of the big dirigibles that handled most of Botany Bay’s airborne commerce. But he wanted to learn and already possessed a good grasp of spaceport procedure.
He said, “She’s comin’ in nicely, sir.”
Grimes grunted dubiously. He made a major production of filling and lighting his pipe. He said, speaking around the stem, “If I were that captain I’d be applying more lateral thrust to compensate for windage. Can’t he see that he’s sagging badly to leeward? If he’s not careful he’ll be sitting down on top of Vega…”
He raised the wrist upon which he wore the portable transceiver to his mouth—but before he could speak it seemed almost as though the yacht master had overheard Grimes’ remarks to Wheeldon. The note of the inertial drive suddenly changed, the beat becoming more rapid as the incoming ship added a lateral component to her controlled descent.
She was falling slowly now, very slowly, finally hovering a scant meter above the close-cropped grass. She dropped again, almost imperceptibly. Grimes wasn’t sure that she was actually down until the inertial drive was shut off. The silence was almost immediately broken by the shouts of the picketing, bat-brandishing cricketers—kept well clear of the landing area by slouch-hatted, khaki-clad police—bawling, “Terry, go home! Spacemen, go home!”
A telescopic mast extended itself from the needle prow of the golden ship. A flag broke out from its peak—dark purple and on it, in shining gold, the CR monogram. The Galactic Credit sign—and the ensign of El Dorado.
“I suppose we’d better go down to roll out the red carpet,” said Grimes.
Grimes stood at the base of the slender golden tower that was The Far Traveler, waiting for the after airlock door to open, for the ramp to be extended. With him were Wheeldon and Jock Tanner, the Paddington chief of police who, until things became properly organized, would be in charge of such matters as Customs, Immigration and Port Health formalities. And there was Shirley Townsend, the Mayor’s secretary. (Mavis herself was not present. She had said, “I just might get up at sparrowfart to see a king or a queen or a president comin’ in, but I’m damned if I’ll put meself out for some rich bitch…”)
“Takin’ their time,” complained Tanner.
“Perhaps we should have gone round to the servants’ entrance,” said Grimes half seriously.
The outer door of the airlock slowly opened at last and, as it did so, the ramp extruded itself, a long metal tongue stretching out to lick the dew that still glistened on the grass. Like the shell-plating of the ship it was gold—or, thought Grimes, gold-plated. Either way it was ostentatious.
A man stood in the airlock chamber to receive them. He was tall and thin, and his gorgeous uniform, festoons of gold braid on dark purple, made him look like a refugee from a Strauss operetta. His lean face bore what seemed to be a permanently sour expression. Among the other gleaming encrustations on his sleeve Grimes could distinguish four gold bands. So this had to be the captain… And why should the captain be doing a job—the reception of port officials—usually entrusted to, at best, a senior officer?
The yachtmaster looked down at the boarding party. He seemed to decide that Grimes—wearing a slightly modified airship captain’s uniform, light blue, with four black stripes on each shoulderboard, with a cap badge on which the silver dirigible had been turned through ninety degrees to make it look like a spaceship—was in charge. He said, “Will you come aboard, please? The Baroness d’Estang will receive you in her sitting room.”
Grimes led the way up the ramp. He introduced himself. “Grimes, Acting Port Captain,” he said, extending his hand.
“Billinger—Master de jure but not de facto,” replied the other with a wry grin.
Grimes wondered what was meant by this, but discreet inquiries could be made later. He introduced his companions. Then Captain Billinger led the party into an elevator cage. He pushed no buttons—there were no buttons to push—but merely said, “Her Excellency’s suite.”
The locals were obviously impressed. Grimes was not; such voice-actuated mechanisms were common enough on the worlds with which he was familiar. The ascent was smooth, the stop without even the suspicion of a jolt. They disembarked into a vestibule, on to a thick-piled purple carpet that made a rich contrast to the golden bulkheads. A door before them slid silently open. Billinger led the way through it. He bowed to the tall, slim woman reclining on a chaise longue and announced, “The port officials, Your Excellency.”
“Thank you, Captain,” she replied in a silvery voice, adding, “You may go.”
Billinger bowed again, then went.
Grimes looked down at the Baroness and she up at him. She was slim yet rounded, the contours of her body revealed rather than hidden by the filmy white translucency that en-robed her. There was a hint of pink-nippled breasts, of dark pubic shadow. Her cheekbones were high, her mouth wide and firm and scarlet, her chin not overly prominent but definitely firm, her nose just short of being prominent and delicately arched. Her lustrous bronze hair was braided into a natural coronet in which flashed not-so-small diamonds. Even larger stones, in ornate gold settings, depended from the lobes of her ears.
She reminded Grimes of Goya’s Maja—the draped version—although her legs were much longer. And the furnishings of her sitting room must be like—he thought—the appointments of the boudoir in which that long ago and far away Spanish aristocrat had posed for the artist. Certainly there was nothing in these surroundings that even remotely suggested a spaceship.
He was abruptly conscious of his off-the-peg uniform, of his far from handsome face, his prominent ears. He felt these blushing hotly, a sure sign of embarrassment.
She said sweetly, “Please sit down, Acting Port Captain. I assume that the rank is both de facto and de jure…” She smiled fleetingly. “And you, Deputy Port Captain. And you, City Constable. And, of course, Miss Townsend…”
“How did you…?” began Shirley. (It came out as “ ‘Ow did yer…?”) “That de facto and de jure business, I mean…”
“I heard, and watched, the introductions at the airlock,” said the Baroness, waving a slim, long hand toward what looked like a normal although ornately gold-framed mirror.
The police officer fidgeted on the edge of a spindly-legged chair that looked as though it was about to collapse, at any moment, under his weight. He said, “If you’ll excuse me, Baroness, I’ll go an’ see the skipper about the port formalities…”
“They will be handled here,” said the Baroness firmly. She did not actually finish the sentence with “my man” but the unspoken words hung in the faintly scented air. She went on, “I have always considered any of my business too important to be left to underlings.” She clapped her hands. A man dressed in archaic servant’s livery—white, frilled shirt, scarlet, brass-buttoned waistcoat, black knee-breeches, white stockings, black, gold-buckled shoes—entered silently. A man? No. He was, Grimes realized, one of those uncannily humanoid serving robots with which he had become familiar during his visit to El Dorado, years ago. He—it?—was carrying folders of documents—clearances, crew and passenger lists, declarations, store lists and manifests. Without hesitation he handed the papers to the City Constable.
“Is he all gold?” asked Shirley in an awed voice. “Under his clothes and all?”
“Yes,” the Baroness told her. Then, speaking generally, “Will you take refreshment? There is coffee, if you wish, or tea, or wine. I know that, by your time, it is early in the day—but I have never known Spumante Vitelli to come amiss at any hour of the clock.”
“Spumante Vitelli?” asked Shirley Townsend, determinedly talkative. “Sounds like an emetic…”
“It’s an El Doradan sparkling wine,” Grimes said hastily. “From Count Vitelli’s vineyards.”
“You know El Dorado, Port Captain?” asked the Baroness, polite but condescending surprise in her voice.
“I was there,” said Grimes. “Some years ago.”
“But this is a Lost Colony. You have had no facilities for space travel since the founders made their chance landing.”
“Commander Grimes is out of the Federation’s Survey Service,” said Jock Tanner.
“Indeed?” The fine eyebrows arched over the dark violet eyes. “Indeed? Commander Grimes? There was—I recall—a Lieutenant Grimes…”
“There was,” said Grimes. “Me.” Then—the memories were flooding back—“You must know the Princess Marlene von Stolzberg, Your Excellency.”
The Baroness laughed. “Not intimately, Port Captain or Commander. She’s too much of the hausfrau, fat and dowdy, for my taste.”
“Hausfrau?” echoed Grimes bewilderedly. That was not how he recalled Marlene.
“Many women change,” said the Baroness, “and not always for the better when they become mothers.” She went on maliciously, “And what about the father of the child? As I recall it, there was quite a scandal. You, and dear Marlene, and that mad old Duchess, and poor Henri … It’s a small universe, John Grimes, but I never did meet you on El Dorado and I never dreamed that I should meet you here…”
The robot servitor was back, bearing a golden (of course) tray on which was a golden ice bucket, in it a magnum of the Spumante, and gold-rimmed, crystal goblets. He poured, serving his mistress first. Glasses of the sparkling, pale golden wine were raised in salute, sipped from.
“Not a bad drop o’ plonk,” said Shirley, speaking with deliberate coarseness.
Jock Tanner, doing his best to divert attention from her, put his glass down on the richly carpeted deck, picked up a sheath of the papers. “John,” he said, “You know more about these things than I do… This clearance from Tallifer… Shouldn’t it have been signed by the Chief Medical Officer?”
“Not necessarily,” said Grimes, putting down his own glass and getting up from his chair, walking across to the police officers. “But I think we’d better get Shirley—she’s used to wading through bumf—to make sure that everything has been signed by a responsible official.”
“Orl right,” grumbled the girl. “Orl right.” She drained her glass, belched delicately, joined Grimes and Tanner. The hapless Wheeldon, out of his social depth and floundering, was left to make polite conversation with the Baroness.
Shortly thereafter The Far Traveler was granted her Inward Clearance and the boarding party trooped down the golden gangway to the honest turf.
“You do have posh friends, John,” said Shirley Townsend as soon as they were down and off the ramp.
“I didn’t have any friends on El Dorado,” said Grimes, not altogether truthfully and with a note of bitterness in his voice.
Captain Billinger was relaxing. He still looked far from happy but his long face had lost some of the lines of strain. He had changed from his fancy dress uniform into more or less sober civilian attire—a bright orange shirt tucked into a kilt displaying an improbable looking tartan in which a poisonous green predominated, highly polished scarlet knee-boots. He was sitting with Grimes at a table in the saloon bar of the Red Kangaroo.
He gulped beer noisily. “Boy,” he said, “boy, oh boy! Am I ever glad to get off that rich bitch’s toy ship!”
“But you’re rich yourself, surely,” said Grimes. “You must be, to be an El Doradan…”
“Ha! Me an El Doradan! That’d be the sunny Friday! No, Captain, I’m just a poor but reasonably honest Dog Star Line second mate. Beagle happened to be on Electra when her ladyship was there to take delivery of her super-duper yatchet. Seems that she came there in an El Doradan ship—they do have ships, you know, and a few playboy spacemen to run ’em—and assumed that she’d be allowed to lift off in her own fully automated vessel without having a qualified human master on board. But Lloyds’—may the Odd Gods of the Galaxy rot their cotton socks!—got into the act. No duly certificated master astronaut on the Register, no insurance cover. But money talks, . . .
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