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It was with mixed feelings that he watched a dilapidated ship land with a fin-crumpling lack of finesse on the open space laughingly called the spaceport.
Oberon Prospero McElhaney (his mother had been a great admirer of an ancient playwright named Shakesword or Rattlelance or something like that) was an embassy clerk, rating -3, classification "Documentation, Specialist, Rearranger", the only one on a small mining outpost planet, performing his small but vital role of handling the Federation paperwork, filing reports, and in his spare time cleaning everything in sight.
He was mildly intrigued at the prospect of seeing new faces, but apprehensive of the mess they would quite probably leave behind. As chunks of antennae and sensor housing fell from the Star Ranger to bounce on the rock below, his apprehension increased. He knew that he would have to pick them up: space crews were so untidy, and this crew was obviously dedicated to the proposition. The mere thought of what the interior of the ship must look, much less smell like, set Obie to madly polishing his al ready gleaming name sign on the desk, the computer console, and his teeth.
Nonetheless, it was his duty as the Federation's only representative on the planet to greet and assist all travelers, even sloppy ones. Obie hadn't much (any) chance to practice but he knew the forms of courtesy and determined to perform them meticulously. Gathering his dignity around him like an impeccable cloak, he strode out of his office to attend his visitors.
Obie's obsequies were brusquely ignored. Although he had always considered himself of adequate stature, his 1.8 meters and 80 kilos paled to insignificance against Captain Moody's two meters and 135 kilos, and Moody knew it, treating Obie like a small child puddling the deck. Obie was hurt but controlled his pique and listened politely (breathing shallowly through his mouth) as Moody stated his needs: water, and some spare parts to replace those that had inadvertently fallen on and impacted in the wayside. Water was easy. The planet, a rather primitive one, was in the ocean forming stage of its life, raining twenty and one/half hours out of its twenty-one hour rotation period. However, the quantity of water Moody wanted was rather exorbitant, particularly for a crew that apparently never bathed.
The spare parts were another matter entirely. The ship was so old that many of the parts needed were no longer in existence. Obie agreed to supply the water and gave Moody the address of a shop that could make the parts. His duty done he departed in a haste the unkind would call panic and took his first unpolluted breath in hours. The ship's condition made his worst nightmares harmless fantasies -- it was a pit.
Returning to his office, Obie filled out and filed by hyperadio the required reports on ship arrivals and disposition of supplies to same, then immediately and gratefully retired to the 'fresher. For once he didn't complain that he had only been sup plied with an old style 'fresher that used water instead of ultrasonics and rays.
It was only a few moments later that the emergency bell on the hyperadio began a shrill chirping and rushed Obie, dripping, from the 'fresher. The sound dumbfounded him, since it was one he had never heard except when he himself set it off to see if it really worked. He raced to the printer, turned and raced back for a mop, cleaned up the drips on the floor, then waited breathlessly for the printer to finish its buzzing, unconsciously wiping up the stray drop or two. Something of great import must be happening if Oberon, diligent cog in the bureaucratic machine who had gone totally unnoticed and unknown until now, should be informed of it. The printer had finished for some seconds before he realized it, pulled himself out of his pensive fog and removed the message. He scanned it quickly and then read it again in disbelief. Someone, he concluded, was kidding.
To: Oberon P. McElhaney, Supervisor (supervisor? Who was he supposed to supervise? He was the only one there, and he was a clerk.)
From: Governor, Federation Council, District III
Subject: Ship Star Ranger, A.J. Moody, Master, in re Dr. A.Q. Sterling-Quincannon, Inventor -- Interwarp Coupler Model 2, recovery of
You are hereby directed to board the Star Ranger and effect the recovery of Dr. Sterling-Quincannon, his daughter Amanda, and his invention, an improved interwarp coupler. Once recovery has been effected return Dr. Sterling-Quincannon, his daughter, and his invention to base.
Caution: This may be difficult and involve a certain amount of hazard. Proceed with care. Full report to follow to your computer's memory banks. Good luck.
Jonathan Cornwalle Quincy-Morefforde
They seem very confident of success, Obie thought, then noticed a postscript.
You'll need it!
Radio operator Tobias has no sense of propriety about official dispatches, Obie thought. Then he thought that the addendum was rather vicious, particularly if it was true.
Obie stood and polished his fingerprints from the hyperadio in a bemused manner as he tried to digest this disruption in his smooth routine of a well-ordered office with everything in its place, and above all with no one to make a mess of his tidy life. He absently pressed the short-term-memory-readout button and listened idly to the hum of the printer producing the particulars to his problem. It was when the paper began to tickle him in a very inappropriate place that he realized he was still naked and air-drying in front of the computer whose lights he could swear were leering at him.
When he got back from drying and dressing the printer was done. He took the readout and began to read.
Thirty minutes of diligent study of technical details and bureaucratese got him through the first page and left him more confused than ever.
"All right," he said to the room at large, "I give up. What does it mean?"
"What does what mean?" the room at large responded.
Obie turned his chair to face the computer. "I presume you've read this memorandum from District?"
"Don't I always?" the computer responded, the voice from the speaker as usual making Obie think of silver salvers and over-stuffed wingchairs.
"Since you've read it, how about explaining it to me?"
"It's quite simple -- "
"To you, perhaps."
"Everything is simple to me. I mean it is so simple that even you should be able to understand it."
"Never mind the insults and explain it."
"I'll try to keep to words of one syllable or less. As you know -- "
"A good start," Obie muttered.
" -- the interwarp coupler is the most important device in existence."
"Hold it right there."
"What is an interwarp coupler?"
A cooling fan whirred gently in excellent imitation of a sigh. "What do you know about spacecraft?"
"I know how to fasten my restraining straps and how to enter and exit the ship without tripping on the loading ramp."
"That's it, a situation I'm sure you will alleviate."
"I admire your confidence in my abilities, quite justifiable in most cases."
"All but yours."
"Shut up," Obie instructed, "and keep talking."
"Make up your purported mind."
Obie sighed like a gently whirring cooling fan.
The computer started with the basics: the interwarp coupler was a device that made star travel possible, allowing a starship to pass from one sector of the galaxy to another in months. There was, however, a drawback to its use. it required a special and very rare compound to make it function. This compound was as naturally occurring as a flower and just as unsynthesizable.
"That's what I asked."
"Clarification, please. My poor little cybernetic brain cannot cope with non sequiturs."
"Why," Obie clarified, "do I need to know all this?"
"So you can understand part two of the message. Assuming, of course, that you understand part one."
"Sure I understand. This coupler gadget runs on pure gold --"
"Not gold -- "
"It was a figure of speech! Anyway, it's important and expensive to run."
"That is the level of comprehension I expected. Nonetheless, correct in its essentials."
"So. So what?"
"Part two. This Dr. Sterling-Quincannon has invented an improved model of the coupler."
"It runs on H2O."
"Not 'wha--'. Water."
It was with great shock (and a certain amount of derision) that the Federation received a message from a diploma-mill doctor with the unlikely name of Augustus Quintus Sterling-Quincannon. He had made an oddball variation on the basic design of the coupler; amazingly, it not only continued to work, but worked on plain H2O.
Secure in the knowledge that he could trade his discovery for a real degree and a real lab in which he could putter away in well-paid contentment, Sterling-Quincannon had devoted five minutes to dancing around the living room, then set forth with his daughter Amanda to prove his claim. First, of course, he needed a ship. And a captain. Neither too expensive. Thus the forth for which he set was the spaceport.
"Excelsior! Maybe even
Moody's head, and perforce his greasy bearded face, turned toward the high-pitched performance bounding into the bar. He saw a wizened little man with a fringe of wild white hair flapping the tails of a stained white lab coat, and decided his crew was strange enough without shanghaiing something like that. Moody's momentary interest did not, however, go unnoticed by the gnome who fluttered over to the table. "I've done it!" he bellowed in Moody's ear.
"How nice for you," Moody discouraged. In vain.
"I've done it." At least the volume was lower. So was the gnome's head -- he had, uninvited, sat down and become confidential. His breath mingled with Moody's, forming a little yellow cloud above the table. "I've done it."
"So I gather," Moody whispered back, surreptitiously signaling his crew to gather 'round.
"It actually works."
"I'm so pleased."
"And on water."
"Good for you."
"It'll be worth a fortune."
"Ohhh, reeeaalllyyy!" The circle of docksweepings and other assorted misbegottens Moody was using for a crew tightened as Moody's eyes, widening in avarice, almost became visible.
"Ohhhh, yyeeessss," agreed the gnome.
"Who are you?" Moody drooled.
"Dr. Augustus Quintus Sterling-Quincannon."
"And how are we going to get rich?"
"What works on water?"
"Oh. The Interwarp Coupler." The chorus of gasps was drowned out by the sound of jaws hitting the floor.
Thus Sterling-Quincannon gained his transport and demonstration model, warping to the nearest Federation district government in a battered old freighter called the Star Ranger, commanded by one Aloysius J. Moody. The Federation, upon discovering how Sterling-Quincannon had propelled the ship, was ecstatic, though a large number of scientists, suddenly grantless, were somewhat less enthused.
The good(!) doctor was immediately offered anything he wanted for the design. Captain Moody, astute businessman and more-well-known-than-he-would-have-liked entrepreneur, felt that he could not allow Quincannon to pervert an economic windfall as he was about to do, i.e. give it away for "the good of humanity" and a doctorate. Moody was sure that the discovery would be better managed in his own capable hands, and therefore took it upon himself to control all negotiations in regards to the coupler. He put Quincannon in a place where he could "work without interruption", and went to appear before the Federation council.
His demand of the Federation was simple: an empire, with himself at the top. Hurried conferences and skillful negotiations managed to talk him out of absolutely nothing. Either he would be dictator, he replied, or they wouldn't get the new coupler. With a satisfied smile he climbed aboard his freighter, an odd piece here and there falling to the tarmac like dandruff, and issued his ultimatum: if in two months his throne room was not furnished in sybaritic splendor he would destroy the coupler prototype, all of the plans, and just incidentally Dr. Augustus Quintus Sterling-Quincannon. With that, he took off into space in a shower of spare and not so spare parts. Although a fleet of Federation warships immediately launched in pursuit of Moody's meteor-pocked pile of junk, he outdistanced them beyond detector range within a parsec, again demonstrating, to the Federation's nail-biting fury, the effectiveness of Quincannon's discovery.
Obie ran this summary through his mind and cringed slightly. Then he tried to recall when in his training he had been taught to rescue kidnapped scientists and their inventions and daughters from filthy spaceships, and came to the conclusion that he must have been sick that day. The next step, as in any orderly examination of a new problem was a consultation of the manuals. He moved to the bookcase and pulled down "Manual, Bureaucratical Union, Free Federation of Old, New Systems, Operational Procedures, MultiOperational Logistics Assimilator, Second Section Expediter System, Index of, 632nd Edition, 23rd Supplement, Updated (Abridged Edition)". After he got a lifting robot to pick it up off the floor and deposit it on his desk he began a search of for something appropriate to his situation.
An hour later he had checked "Rescue", "Succor", "Save", "Kidnap" (which turned out to be a "how-to" and not a "rescue-from"), and "Scientist: Rescue, Succor, Save and Kidnapped". Nothing seemed to apply. Finally, in desperation, he looked under " Spaceship, filthy, entry thereof". Again, he drew a blank. But just below that another entry caught his eye that rang a distant bell: "Spy".
Obie turned resignedly to what he was sure was another deadend and found under "Spy": "See M.O.L.A.S.S.E.S. File #556562R/squ-m358964721458(547)R/2M-pg007". Obie wrote the file number down, crossed to the computer terminal, opened the code entry key board and punched it in. A moment later the screen showed the heading "Mass Production of Mayonnaise from Glinch Eggs, 500,000 gallon lots. Begin: Take the whites of four glinch eggs". Obie quickly recalled the file number he had entered and compared it with his note - they matched. Returning to his desk he compared it with the index. He found that he had inadvertently written a "6" instead of a "5" for the 22nd digit. Correcting his error, he again crossed to the computer terminal and punched in the number, being very careful. Moments later a new readout appeared: "The information you have requested is restricted. Please enter your authorization code."
This, Obie thought, is not helpful. Nonetheless, he once again returned and unlocked his desk, removed his personal record file, and located his authorization code. He punched it into the computer and waited. Finally the screen responded: "Your code shows that you are not authorized to receive the information you requested. Sorry." Frustrated, Obie insistently inquired, "What am I supposed to do now?"
"What is your problem this time?" the computer asked solicitously. Obie sat and thought about that for a moment, then, with a what-the-hell attitude, quickly summarized his lack of expertise in the area of his assignment. "I deeply sympathize," the computer responded with a gentle hum of cooling fans, "but without the proper authorization there is not much I can do for you." The computer paused a nanosecond, the continued. "However, on 320,768,593rd thought, there is one reference you might try. I don't guarantee results, but it might be worthwhile."
Obie, by this time in a philosophical frame of mind, said, "Sure. Why not?"
"Why not, indeed?" the computer agreed, and kicking the high speed printer into even higher speed, proceeded to spew forth an avalanche of paper which was quickly grabbed, sorted, and bound in bright garish covers picturing scantily clad and definitely mammalian females clutched possessively by flinty-eyed, granite-jawed males, the finished product flung in Obie's general direction. Obie caught the first, fumbled the second, dropped the third, ducked under the fourth, and ran from the fifth, sixth, seventh, and all succeeding volumes.
A day and a half later, Obie had managed to read two and at least glance through several other volumes devoted to the escapades of some highly improbable characters. Obie sat back. "Incredible," he mused with something approaching reverence, then went over to the computer. "You're kidding," he confided.
"I am not programmed for humor."
"You're programmed to help me, aren't you?"
"Only when you are authorized to receive the information. The material I gave you should be useful as a guide to further action."
"But I don't have a Barretta, or an Astin-Martin. What is an Astin-Martin?"
"A form of ground transportation powered by an internal combustion engine, popular in the First Century Atomic."
"Not very useful information."
"It's the best I can do."
"Then I must work on my own," Obie concluded, considering his position. He had been instantly and unwillingly transformed from a minor cog to a major gear in the workings of the Federation, a position he was not sure he would relish and, in fact, was sure would make him nauseous. Shrugging, he instructed the computer to read out how far arrangements had gotten for the departure of the Star Ranger.
Obie informed Captain Moody by phone that all of his supplies were at the edge of the spaceport ready to be picked up. Within fifteen minutes the crew had swarmed over every case and barrel they could find, loaded them in board, and the Star Ranger had lifted off to continue its journey.
Once in deep space and under the influence of the coupler, Moody set the crew to moving the supplies to approximately where they belonged. They were nonplused when they came to one case marked "Garbage Bags". They couldn't imagine who ordered them, why they were ordered, or where to put them. They finally decided they had scooped it up along with everything else, and dumped it in a corridor.
Obie pressed his ear against the plastic next to his head and listened intently, straining to hear any sound that would indicate a presence outside. He had waited ten hours and was feeling somewhat claustrophobic and that the time to get out was now. He pawed his way to the surface and cautiously lifted the lid, garbage bags drifting like leaves to the deck. The corridor was dark, but he wasn't sure if that was because the ship was powered down for the ship's night, or because of the crud encrusting the lights. More importantly, the corridor was empty. Obie crawled out of the crate, replaced the spilled bags, and went in search of a place to hide.
Half an hour later, Obie had located the lifeboat bay. He thought it the perfect place to hide: fully stocked with supplies, comfortable, and never used except in an emergency, in which case he still couldn't think of a better place to be.
Obie worked his way to the airlock, disgustedly scraped the grime from the controls, and gingerly pressed the OPEN button. Nothing happened. He quickly glanced up and down the corridor, then pressed harder. Then harder still, until he was leaning on the button with all his weight. Nothing. Obie stared at the button as though it had suddenly turned out to be painted on the bulkhead, then tried to discover what was wrong. A quick but diligent search yielded an indicator light, and a hard scrub with one of the tissues he always carried with him revealed that the "Bay Empty" light glowed feebly. At first Obie was incredulous; where was the lifeboat? The answer popped into his mind: Moody had obviously sold it, wanting money more than safety. The question was, did he need one lifeboat's worth, or two? Logic dictated that a second boat should be 180o around the ship. Time to move.
Obie started down the corridor, looking for a crossing. He hadn't gone ten feet when he heard footsteps approaching from ahead. Obie froze, then frantically, silently, backpedalled, eyes searching for someplace, anyplace to hide. They fell on a door, the only one along the corridor that had a jamb that didn't look shiny with use. Obie's first thought was that it was a broom closet; obviously, on this ship such a room would never be entered. Obie cracked the hatch, saw only darkness beyond, and ducked inside. Closing the hatch, he carefully wiped a spot on it with another tissue and gingerly pressed his ear to the spot. He heard the steps approach, then slowly let out his breath as they continued on down the corridor.
Obie's relief was short-lived. Turning slowly he peered into the darkness, trying to discover what room he had found. In the darkness it felt too spacious to be a closet, but he couldn't see nor hear anything. Deciding to chance it, he pulled out a pocket flash, covered the lens opening with his hand and turned it on to the lowest setting. Letting the light trickle between his fingers, he carefully scanned the room. The first thing he noticed was a coating of dust that lay over everything, all the more incredible for the fact that spaceships were supposed to be virtually dustfree. It was instantly apparent that this room was little, if ever used.
Feeling more confident, Obie removed his hand from the lens and turned the light up to see what all those dust covered amorphous masses were. A brief survey of objects and labels revealed an unexpected windfall - he had found the laundry room, undoubtedly the best place on this ship to avoid detection. Nobody would ever come here.
Obie spent the next few hours moving the crate of garbage bags into his hideaway and making the room fit to live in, filling several of the bags and stuffing them down the disposhole in the process. At last satisfied as to the room's livability, having found a crated 'fresher and the laundry facility's independent recycling system, Obie sat to consider his next move. His thoughts had traveled as far as his empty stomach (a very short trip) when he fell asleep.
Obie cracked joints he didn't know he had as he creaked around the room. Sleeping on a crate did not lend itself to comfortable awakening. Finally he decided he could bend at both hip and knees at the same time, and let his mind return to the previous night's musings: food. Again he regretted the computer's refusal to give him information. It hadn't told him to bring food: the books' protagonists always seemed to have an elegant restaurant close at hand. Shuddering at the thought, Obie decided a search for the galley was in order. The problem was: how? The excursions into the corridors he had already made had not been exactly free from hazard. Bringing the garbage bags to the laundry room he had spent much time crouched behind the crate; luckily nobody who passed considered a crate in the middle of the corridor out of place: it fit in nicely with the rest of the decor. But Obie could not see himself lugging a crate around with him on his perambulations.
He paced the room in thought, periodically wrinkling his nose and hunching his shoulders against the draft. Suddenly he paused in mid-hunch: draft? Looking for the source of the cold wind his eyes fell upon a large grate set up in the wall. It's the air supply, he thought, his nose wrinkling again at the smell carried on the breeze, and he resumed his pacing, his curiosity satisfied.
His pacing stopped abruptly. Air supply? he asked himself. That presupposed air ducts. If the ducts come to one room, surely they go to all the others. The idea half-formed in his mind, he hurried over to the grate and, eyes smarting in the breeze, he peered through its openings. He could see but a few feet into the duct by the light of the room, but it appeared large enough to crawl through if he wasn't particular about comfort. Digging into his pocket he pulled out his flash and beamed it down the duct. Repressing a shudder at the slime he saw coating every surface, he assured himself that it was indeed large enough to crawl through. Replacing the flash in his pocket he reached for the grate to pull it free, then jerked away in disgust at the green tendrils hanging from every crosspiece. Hurrying to his crate he removed his box of surgical gloves, pleased at his foresight. Wishing his foresight had included something to eat, he pulled on a pair of gloves and, returning to the grate, eased it free. Gingerly setting it aside, he again inspected the duct. The way was open, but he couldn't bring himself to come in contact with the slime, and he sat down to consider the problem.
What he needed, he decided, was a plastic suit to go with his gloves. But he didn't have such a thing. Or didn't he? Going to the crate of garbage bags he pulled one out and held it up to his chest for size. With a hole cut here and there and other bags wrapped around his arms and legs it would do admirably for protection. Suiting action to thought, he got to work, and in minutes was safely encased in plastic. Going to the duct, and wishing he didn't have to breathe, he grimaced and crawled into the darkness.
Once well inside he began to regret his decision: the corridors began to develop a certain homey pristineness in his mind, and the danger of discovery an air of quiet adventure, which was certainly preferable to the air through which he was currently crawling. Gingerly extracting a tissue from under his plastic suit he started to hold it to his nose, then drew back as he saw the slime coating his glove. Disgruntled, he resumed crawling, the tissue wiping a dotted line in the slime. Obie glanced at a wiped spot, then paused in mid-crawl. He looked back at the spot, then rubbed at it with more vigor. Of course, he thought happily. The cure to two problems at once: by cleaning the ducts as he went he would not only find them more sufferable, but he would know where he had been.
Backpedaling rapidly, Obie returned to his hideout and scrounged up all the cleaning rags and disinfectant he could find. Thus armed, he reentered the duct and took battle against the sea of muck that surrounded him.
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