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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 3

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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 09, 2015 6:20 pm    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 3 Reply with quote

Chapter 3

The Wishbone's cockpit dome turned opaque to protect the crew from starlight that had been blue shifted to a blinding brightness. But several seconds later the view outside reappeared when the dome turned itself into one big display screen that presented a computer-enhanced, light-adjusted image of the stars. It was so detailed it was indistinguishable from the real thing.

The two men just sat in their chairs, limp as cadavers, smiling blissfully, enjoying that heady sensation best expressed by three simple words: We made it. The view of space being presented by the Wishbone's cockpit dome was a thing of breathtaking beauty, a bigger-than-life, better-than-reality version of the galactic landscape. The stars were sprinkled across the sky like frosted sugar on a doughnut, and many of them blazed with rich colors: the yellow of the Sol type stars, the bright purity of the white dwarfs, the blue-white splendor of the blue super giants, the orange (and sometimes crimson) of the red super giants.

And just to give the view real pizzazz, the Wishbone's computer added a subtle touch of false depth – an artificial three dimensional effect that ever-so-slightly enhanced the aesthetic quality of the scene. Actually, the cosmic scene was chocked full of minor embellishments that gave it an edge on reality. In this and a thousand other ways, the Wishbone was designed to serve its owners.

After several minutes had passed, Bill spoke in a slow, lazy voice.

"Well,” (deep sigh). “Go on, say it. Don't be shy."

Randy turned his head slowly towards Bill, a puzzled look on his face. He thought carefully for a moment, then he said, “What?"

"Come on, old buddy, don't hold it in. There's no shame in gratitude."


"A simple `thank you' will suffice. Or perhaps `Thank you, Bill'. In fact, I don't think a `Thank you, Bill, for saving my life’ would be going to far. If you really want to discharge your debt of honor –”

"Debt of honor?" Randy was staring at Bill as if he rabies.

“ — you could go all-out and say `Oh, Bill, thank you! Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you for saving my miserable life! If there's anything I can do to repay you, just tell me!" Bill's face was entirely dominated by the silliest, sappiest, stupidest grin possible. Randy studied that grin for a few seconds, then decided that if Bill didn't remove that grin in one quick hurry Randy would remove Bill's face forever.

Bill Jenkins, who was no fool in spite of the grin, saw the look in Randy's eyes and elected to change the subject. He ditched the grin and spoke in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice.

"Ummm . . . . By the way. It's your turn."

The fast switch threw Randy off. "My turn? My turn to what?"

"To cook."

Randy's eyes narrowed. His voice was barely audible. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious. It's your turn to – ”

Instant indignation. "Bull hockey, Jenkins! Don't pull that crap with me. I cooked the last time!"

"You did not cook the last time – "

"The veal stroganoff, remember?" said Randy. His face was red.

"I remember just fine. Are you really going to count that as a meal?"

"Of course I'm going to count it! You ate it, didn't you? In fact, it was a gourmet meal compared to your so-called teriyaki chicken."

Despite the insult, Bill demonstrated tremendous restraint. "The chicken was a bit over-done, I don't deny it. But all-in-all I was very pleased with the way – "

"You were pleased with it?" Randy said in amazement. "The only reason you ate it was because you didn't want to lose the bet! That stuff was awful!"

The restraint Bill had demonstrated thus far was beginning to fail him in the face of Randy's assault. "There's no need to get abusive,” he said in a tight voice. "If you want to cook for yourself from now on, that's okay with me, pal."

The last hour had contained too much tension, too much danger, and too much anxiety about the laws they had broken and fines they would have to pay. Ragged nerves were turning two grown men into school children – and they both knew it. Randy and Bill sat there with their eyes locked, like two rams with horns likewise. Finally Randy rose from his chair and headed for the stairway which led down to the lounge. Bill called to him as he went down the stairs.

"Does this mean I won the argument?"

"It means nothing of the sort,” said Randy. "But I promised our lady passenger I would cook something special to celebrate our get-away. I don't dare let you cook for her. The poor girl has already lived through one assassination attempt."

Exit Randy. Bill just sat there for a moment, remembering the hawk-like features and steely eyes of the aforementioned female. She was, he decided, no poor girl.

When Randy entered the lounge he found Aganto and Clawron strapped into their chairs, gazing at the forward bulkhead on each side of the door through which he had just entered the room. Both the front and back bulkheads and the curved ceiling of the lounge were actually display screens that could be activated to present whatever the exterior monitor cameras where viewing ( – or recorded scenes of a beautiful landscape – or a crowded city street – or any of the thousands of movies in the Wishbone's library).

Aganto and Clawron had activated the ceiling and forward bulkhead to watch the Wishbone's multi-orbit maneuver through the gas giant's moons. Randy noticed that Aganto had a white-knuckled grip on the armrests of his chair. His color didn't look too good. Randy put on a relaxed smile and tried to radiate calm reassurance when he spoke to his passengers.

"Well, folks, we're in the clear. Those police cruisers are not equipped with hyperdrive, and our sensors detected no Alliance Armed Forces starships in the immediate area. So, we're out of danger."

For the moment, he added silently.

"The Sangwaniki police will request an intersystem warrant for our arrest, but that will take time. Meanwhile we'll get you folks to Philcani-tu and present our case to the authorities there. With luck they'll just hit us with a fat fine. I figure it will be about equal to what we're being paid for this job. " Randy tried to chuckle, but it got stuck in his throat. He managed a forced smile, but he was fooling no one.

Neither of his passengers laughed, because the joke was too close to the truth. Randy's smile soured for a moment, but he mentally patted it back into shape. "Anyway, there's nothing else we can do right now. And my motto has always been – when there's nothing else you can do right now, all you can do is have lunch."

Still no laugh. Tough audience. Maybe Aganto had forgotten how to laugh. Maybe the woman had never learned. Randy gave up and headed toward the galley booth, but suddenly it occurred to him that his third passenger, the wajinda, was not in the room.

"Hey . . . where’s the whatchama-callit?"

"In the cargo hold,” said Clawron with her lazy almost-smile. "Your little daredevil stunt made it nervous."

Oh, great, thought Randy. We're going to be cooped up for ninety hours with a seven-foot carnivore that gets jittery in starships.

Hesitantly Randy went down the corridor that led to the cargo hold. The door at the end of the corridor was closed, and Randy switched the sliding door to manual and then eased it open cautiously, his hand resting on the butt of the pistol at his hip. He heard the wajinda before he actually saw it.

The animal was doing acrobatics. It was running from one side of the room to the other, leaping high into the air, hitting the wall five feet up, bouncing off, then tearing across the room to do the same thing again on the other side. Back and forth, back and forth, making the cargo hold echo with the heavy thud of the animal's repeated impacts. Sometimes it would run around the room – spending more time on the walls and in the air than it did on the floor. It ignored the open door and sailed right past it each time it went around. Randy stood at the door, watching the performance with slack-jawed awe. He decided it was a sight worth paying good money to see.

"Energetic beast, isn't it?" A voice spoke from Randy’s right shoulder.

"Whoa!" Randy did a pretty fair jump of his own, then he spun around to glare angrily at Clawron, who had been standing so close behind him she could have licked his ear without moving six inches. Clawron weathered Randy's frosty glare without apparent discomfort, so Randy added a frosty tone when he spoke.

"Is that thing dangerous when it gets like that?"

"Not unless you're dumb enough to get in front of it,” she replied, still wearing that lipless Mona Lisa smile. Randy turned away from her to watch the wajinda, partly because he considered the animal the better looking of the two. But the wajinda had noticed its audience and had stopped the acrobatic show. It stood in the middle of the room, watching the two humans, its chest inflating and deflating because of the exertion.

Randy studied it for a moment, then he turned to the woman.

"Tell me the truth – is that beast trained well enough so that there's no danger in being around it?"

The question seemed to amuse her. The corners of her mouth twitched upward, just for an instant. "The truth is,” she said slowly, “You don’t have a thing to worry about."

Randy studied her unreadable face for a few seconds, then he studied the wajinda's equally unreadable face – then he decided he didn't trust either of them.

"Let's eat lunch,” said Randy as he headed for the lounge. Clawron and the wajinda followed him closely, but neither of them made a sound as they walked, and Randy had to glance over his shoulder just to know they were there. As the three of them entered the lounge they met Aganto heading towards the cargo hold. Apparently the nervous lawyer was coming to see if he was needed to mediate any disputes.

"Are you hungry, Mr. Aganto?" Randy said with another attempted smile as he went into the small galley booth.

"No. I mean, yes . . . but I'm afraid to eat anything." Aganto's color was still a bit less than rosy. Randy opened the first aid kit and took out a small container of yellow and white pills. He gave one to Aganto.

"What's this?" said Aganto, examining the pill carefully, one eyebrow slightly raised.

"It's just a harmless anti-nausea drug,” said Randy. And a mild tranquilizer, he said to himself. If Aganto's stomach was jumpy, Randy didn't want to have to scrub the man's lunch out of the carpet.

Aganto accepted the pill and a glass of water, then he retired to the lounge. While Randy started fussing with the autochef controls, Clawron leaned against the edge of the booth's entrance, her arms folded, her narrow eyes studying Randy, her maybe-smile telling him nothing at all about her thoughts. Randy did a poor job of disguising the annoyance that her watchful gaze was causing. Finally he said, “I'll be done in just a minute. You said you wanted to fix your own meals, so I'll get out of your way and you can – "

"No, that's okay,” she said casually. "You go ahead and do it. I'm not really worried."

"Oh. Okay." Of course you're not worried – you're watching every move I make!

Randy finished his instructions to the autochef and then started pulling out plates and silverware to set the table. Clawron surprised him by taking them and setting the table herself.

Randy cursed himself for letting her get to him so badly. Her unreadable face and faintly mocking mannerisms seemed to challenge him. Oddly enough, the challenge had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman.

Or did it? Randy Henson was honest enough to admit to himself that any time a woman acted indifferent towards him he viewed it as a challenge. Flirtation was, after all, a fine art – and Randy was a master at this art when he chose to be.

But this is different . . . isn't it? Well, sure it is! First of all –

"What's the hold-up?" Clawron stuck her head into the galley and startled Randy so badly he almost dropped two of glasses. He had been standing there like a zombie, staring into the open cabinet, debating nonsense with himself. The autochef had signaled the food was ready, and he hadn’t even heard it. He handed Clawron the glasses, removed the food, and then he followed her into the lounge. When they all sat down at the table, Randy refused to look her in the eye, choosing instead to busy himself with the rituals of salt and pepper and sauces and seasonings. He felt an unreasonable irritation at the fact that the wajinda was curled up on the couch nearby, watching him with curious eyes.

Randy ate quickly, then he excused himself from the table and hurried to the cockpit to relieve Bill.

"Go eat,” he said curtly as he sat down in the right-hand chair. Bill gave him a puzzled look.

"Okay,” Bill paused, then added, “Thanks." . Randy was staring straight ahead, and Bill studied his profile for a moment. Then he said, “Hey, look, ummm . . . I'm sorry about what I said earlier. "

"Huh?" Randy snapped. “What are you talking about?”

“My cracks about your cooking.”

“Oh, that. No problem. Forget it." Randy was taking a great interest in the console displays, but Bill wasn't fooled. There were two little vertical lines in the middle of Randy's forehead, and his jaw muscles kept flexing.

"Hey, partner?" said Bill quietly. "Something wrong?"

Randy abandoned his absent inspection of the console readouts and slouched back in his chair, drawing deep a breath and blowing it out noisily.

"Yeah, there is. This whole deal is getting on my nerves. We're already in so much trouble we'll be lucky just to break even, never mind making a profit. And if that isn't bad enough, we might get ambushed in the Philcani-tu system."

Bill saw a chance to change the subject from useless recriminations to useful battle strategies, so he said, "Yeah, I've been thinking about that. First of all, we should have known better than to file an accurate flight plan on Blue Marble. That's probably how the opposition figured out which ship the woman hired."

Randy was shaking his head. "Naw, not necessarily. They might have had somebody watching Aganto. That would explain how they knew which car to go after at the spaceport."

"Oh, yeah. Right,” Bill was nodding thoughtfully. "Hmmm. Aganto said the police car tried to ram him."

"He was probably right. And we didn't believe him. They could easily justify it as an attempt to halt an unauthorized vehicle on the spaceport field."

"Sure, but ramming them would be a sloppy way to commit murder. The vehicle's safety features would protect them. “

"Okay, you got me there. Hmmmm.“

"Well, all this is pointless, now. We've got more immediate problems. What should our next move be?"

"I'm open for suggestions."

"All right, how 'bout this idea. We simply do not go to Philcani-tu." Bill made a face of great surprise, eyes and mouth open wide. "Hey! Brilliant, right?"

Randy met Bill's cartoon expression with a look of somber maturity. “No, dumb. Wrong. If we don't take the woman to Philcani-tu, we don't get paid. If we don't get paid, we'll have to use our cash reserves to pay the penalties and fines we've already racked up."

"Sure, but so what? We've got enough."

"I know, but I'd like to keep it."

"Randy, my old friend -- you can't take it with you."

Randy conjured up his best sour expression and fired it towards Bill's face at point-blank range. "Aaah, you worry too much. Just listen to yourself, Bill. You're frettin' like an old lady. The most dangerous thing in my future is your cookin'."

A joke. That was a good sign. Randy was recovering from an acute blue funk. Bill responded with mock indignation. "Hey, listen, man. If I hear one more crack about that damned teriyaki chicken, I’ll cook it for the next five days straight until you learn to appreciate it.”

The teriyaki chicken, Randy decided, had all the ear-marks of a running joke with marathon potential, and that was fine with him. "Speaking of cooking,” Randy said finally, “that reminds me why I came in here. Go eat."

Bill brightened right up and gave every indication that the previous discussion was now ancient history. "Now you're talkin',” he said with a big hungry smile. He was satisfied that the ship’s morale had been fully restored. Obviously the poor teriyaki chicken had not died in vain.

Bill departed the cockpit and headed for the dubious delights of Randy's cooking – not to mention the dubious pleasure of Clawron Uquay's company – leaving Randy to ponder the shaky financial future of the Wishbone Express Interstellar Courier Service, Inc.

Randy Henson's rare bad moods were always short lived, and this one couldn’t stand up to the pleasure he always felt when gazing at the splendid view afforded by the Wishbone's cockpit display. The computer-generated view of the stellar panorama was a sight he never grew tired of admiring.

The Wishbone was cruising at her top hyperdrive speed, a nice even fifty thousand times the speed of light. At that rate the Wishbone traveled one light year every ten minutes and twenty-five seconds – which meant the Wishbone was capable of making the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri in under forty-two minutes -- less than the average time spent by 20th Century commuters stuck in traffic, wishing they could run over all the family dogs of the pokey jackasses in front of them.

However, even at that fantastic speed there was enough empty space between the stars in this particular part of the galaxy to make navigation fairly simple – although the Wishbone's course was never just a straight line. Even in sparse regions like this one, the Wishbone's autopilot was constantly weaving the ship's flight path back and forth, dodging around the obstacles it encountered. In other parts of the galaxy there were areas of much greater density. A wide detour around such areas was sometimes much easier and safer than trying to thread a path through the three-dimensional maze of, say, a globular cluster or a ten-parsec-wide dust cloud.

Randy punched up a display of their course to Philcani-tu. Yep, just as he'd thought – there was a six light-year-wide dust cloud located several parsecs up ahead. It was a small cloud by cosmic standards, but plenty big enough to require a hefty detour. The autopilot had already figured the ship's course around the dust cloud. If they had been really pressed for time, there were probably a number of convoluted passages through the cloud, passages through which the Wishbone's navigational computer could plot a course. But traversing such a passage was hellishly complex -- and therefore dangerous. It was much wiser to go around the whole cloud.

Randy checked the jinn wave scope and found that interstellar space in the Wishbone's immediate vicinity was clear of any other spacecraft, which wasn't surprising since the automatic alarm would have sounded if any other ships had been detected.


Jinn wave was a quirky sort of phenomenon, a thing apart from the rest of the universe because it didn't seem to be bound by the normal laws of physics. Jinn waves were able to travel instantaneously across any distance. No measurable delay at all. It was like magic.

That's why they were called jinn waves – “jinn” as in Genie of the Blue Jinn, those mythical creatures of ancient mythology who could make amazing things happen in ways that defied explanation.

The same was true of jinn waves. Nobody really knew what jinn waves were, but they definitely came in handy. Being instantaneous, jinn waves were the perfect medium for interstellar communications. Even at the speed of light a message would take one hundred thousand years to go from one edge of the galaxy to the other. Jinn waves, however, did it in less than two shacks of a lamb’s tale.

And a jinn wave scope made it possible for spacecraft to see the universe while traveling faster than light. Without jinn wave, all starships would be deaf, dumb and blind.

The only problem with a jinn wave scope was that it had trouble detecting anything protected by force shields unless it was relatively close. The purpose of a spacecraft's force shields was to deflect in-coming matter and radiation. These shields had exactly the same effect on the pulses emitted by a jinn wave scope – bending most of the jinn waves around the spacecraft, preventing all but a small percentage from bouncing back – so that the spacecraft remained undetected.

However, if the spacecraft was closer than 2,180,750 kilometers then the jinn wave pulses were reflected back to make the spacecraft detectable.

Unfortunately this wasn't much help. At hyperdrive speeds, two million KM was practically nothing. A figurative stone's throw. For this reason all spacecraft were required to transmit an identification beacon which allowed them to plot each other's positions in interstellar space.


Randy kept a careful watch on all the displays and readouts for about forty-five minutes, but then his diligence began to erode in the face of colossal boredom. Despite the magnificent view, Randy got restless. Patience not being Randy Henson's strong suit, he finally gave up and decided to go the lavatory, mostly as an excuse to get out of the cockpit.

When he entered the lounge, Clawron was sitting at the table in front of a raised reader screen, and Bill was talking with Aganto as they both sat on the couch. Bill gave Randy an expectant look.

"What's up?"

"Not a thing,” said Randy mildly, making a B-line for the lavatory.

"Oh,” said Bill, looking puzzled. "So who's minding the store?"

"Out to lunch,” said Randy with a lazy smile.

A few minutes later Randy came back through the lounge as he headed for the cockpit. He met Bill coming down the stairs.

"All through?" said Bill. Randy detected a note of disapproval.

"Gee, Mom, I was only gone for a minute."

Bill was annoyed, but he chose to be diplomatic. "Want me to take your watch? You can pay me back later."

Randy was about to decline, but then he realized that the question raised an interesting point. Was Bill going to insist that someone remain in the cockpit throughout the whole damn trip? After all, the nav computer did all the navigating, and the automatic alarms would sound if another ship was detected.

"Bill? Are you sure we need to maintain a full-time watch?"

Bill was wearing a look of annoyance, and it stayed frozen in place while he considered putting his hand gently on Randy's forehead to see if the man had a fever. Bill phrased a careful reply he hoped would communicate the largest amount of information while delivering the smallest number of insults. Due to his agitated mental condition, he didn't do a great job.

"Randy? Old friend? Wake up, will ya? If we get caught with our – "

"Whoa, wait a second. Who are you tellin' to wake up?”

" – pants down, this could be the last voyage of the dear old Wishbone."

Randy ignored most of Bill’s comment and said, "I just don't think we need to spend every minute staring at the displays. The alarms will sound if any company shows up. Right?"

Bill's jaw muscles flexed a few times as he stood there giving Randy a cold look. The passengers, he knew, were watching this discussion, and it embarrassed Bill for them to see such unprofessional behavior. Before he could suggest that he and Randy retire to the privacy of the cockpit, Randy was off again.

"Look, how `bout if we check the displays every fifteen minutes or so, okay? Would that satisfy your over-active sense of duty?"

Bill had a tough time keeping his voice low and level and calm, but he did manage it. "It's not that I don't trust the alarms, Randy. But if we should encounter trouble while nobody is in the cockpit, it would add at least a few seconds to our reaction time, right? That extra few seconds could make a big difference." Bill was making a sincere and obvious effort to be both diplomatic and convincing. Randy appreciated the diplomacy, but he still wasn't convinced.

"What difference will a few seconds make, Bill? If we get attacked by a C class vessel, they're not going to be any faster than us, so we'll have plenty of time. And if we get attacked by an A or B class vessel, I doubt we'd even have time to say something like, 'Hey – what the hell was that?" Randy smiled sadly and shrugged his shoulders. "Bam. We're history."

Bill was dumfounded. Randy's argument was so pat and simplistic that Bill couldn't even think of a logical response to it. He opened his mouth a few times, snapped it closed again, huffed air out through his nose, shook his head back and forth, and looked down at the deck.

Into that moment of silence came the sound of an alarm from the cockpit.

Bill didn't waste any time saying I-told-you-so. He just bolted up the stairs towards the cockpit and left Randy standing there to bathe in the critical glare of the passengers. Randy didn't need much of that to send him fleeing after Bill.

In the cockpit, Bill scrambled into the left-hand seat and cut the alarm while he studied the display screen of the jinn wave scope. Randy hurried in and stood behind the right-hand seat, looking somewhat humbled and shamefaced.

"Three ships," said Bill. "They're swinging around in a wide loop to parallel our flight path."

"What's their speed?"

Bill punched at the keyboard, and numbers appeared on the display next to the bright dots that represented the three ships. He read the numbers aloud.

"Fifty thousand XLS, right on the nose. Assuming that's their top speed, they must be C class, like us. Only bigger." Bill's fingers called up more data, which appeared on the jinn wave scope display. "Looks like maybe they're . . . ummm, converted stellashuttle-types . . . or maybe they're just modified in-system battlewagons."

"Why modified?" said Randy. "I mean, couldn't they just be Alliance stellashuttles that – "


"No? Why not?"

Bill turned around to look Randy squarely in the eye. He wasn't mad anymore, and he wanted Randy to know it. All sins were forgiven. It was time to get to work.

"Because," Bill said quietly, "they aren't transmitting an identification beacon. And they haven't hailed us. Alliance ships would hail us and order us to surrender. And also because I find it hard to believe that three Alliance stellashuttles would be diverted from their normal duties just to pursue a ship that made an illegal lift-off."

"Uuummm . . . right," Randy agreed reluctantly. Now he felt both stupid and guilty. This just wasn't his day.

Clawron entered the cockpit and leaned over Bill's shoulder to look at the scope screen. She didn't seem to need any explanation of what the computer graphic or the superimposed data meant. After a few seconds she asked a question.

"They aren't closing on us?"

"Nope. Same speed as ours. Fifty-thousand XLS," said Randy. "That means 50,000 times light speed."

"I know what XLS means," she said absently, still studying the display. "So, they must be C class ships."

"Seems that way," said Randy. "But their mass readings are – “ He stopped because he realized it would be a waste of time to explain things to her if she was already some kind of expert on the subject. "Just for the record, how much do you know about this sort of thing?"

She turned her head slowly towards Randy, a faintly mocking expression on her face. "What sort of thing?" she said quietly.

"This sort of thing," Randy repeated angrily. He was getting tired of her mind games.

"Oh, you mean starships and weapons and things like that,” she said casually. "Well . . . I know a little about hyperdrive capabilities, and, ummm . . . battle strategies. A little bit about rifles and handguns and shoulder-mounted missile launchers. A few things about ground artillery, mines, surface-to-air missiles, and air-to-air missiles. Stuff like that." She said it all very nonchalantly. Her face was still a portrait of a painfully thin woman who never showed more than the first few seconds of a smile which never fully developed.

Bill looked at Randy, and Randy looked at Bill, and then Bill quietly said, “Ah-haaa. A professional in our midst. How very fortunate we are."

"So that's why you're going to Philcani-tu. You’re a military advisor," said Randy. His tone was a soft mockery, but it was spiced with a touch of acid. "And I'll bet you were working for the Philcani-tu dictatorship until the Council of Justice got word that the government was receiving illegal financial aid to keep themselves in power." Randy lowered his voice to a sarcastic whisper. "Naughty, naughty. You're switching sides to save your own ass."

Clawron gave them both the closest thing to a true smile they had ever seen on her face -- but it still wasn't very close. The expression did absolutely nothing to heighten their opinion of her.

"What's going on?" said a voice. Aganto came up behind Clawron, his face tense with nervousness, his voice a touch higher than usual.

"We're being pursued by – Hey! Get that fuzzy critter out of here!" Randy bellowed.

The wajinda's head appeared over Aganto's shoulder, knocking him against Clawron when it put its forepaws on the man's back, peering curiously at the lights and displays on the control panel. Aganto looked positively haggard as he pushed himself away from Clawron and struggled to keep his balance. He gave Bill and Randy an apologetic look -- then he gave Clawron a pleading look -- then he turned his head to give the wajinda the same look he would have given a blob of bird droppings on his shoulder. The wajinda must have gotten bored, because it finally dropped down on all fours and padded silently back down the stairs to the lounge.

"Can't you keep that thing on a leash?" Randy growled.

Clawron looked at Randy with a complete lack of sympathy and said one soft word. "No."

"Please,” Aganto interrupted, looking everywhere for sympathy but finding none. "Please, somebody tell me what's going on."

Bill took pity and said, "Three ships are pursuing us. We have no idea who they are."

"Could they be the Sangwaniki police – " Aganto began.

"No, I'm afraid not, sir. The Sangwaniki police would be a couple of light years out of their jurisdiction but now -- which is why in-system police cruisers don't usually have hyperdrive. The three ships behind us are larger than the Wishbone, and probably better armed. Fortunately they don't seem to be any faster than us, so we do have a chance."

Aganto was looking back and forth between Randy and Bill, seeking reassurance in their faces, desperately hoping someone would tell him that they were all perfectly safe. When nobody volunteered to do so he tried to prime the pump a bit. "Maybe, uh . . . maybe they're just Alliance ships that – “

"We don't think so, sir, for a number of reasons," said Randy, who was beginning to feel sorry for the man.

"Well . . . can we . . . call somebody for help?"

"Sure, but I doubt it would do any good. We can't stop running while we wait for help to arrive. Anybody who comes to help us will have to be fast enough to catch us."

"That narrows the field a bit,” Bill explained. "Especially when you add the fact that our rescuers would have to be extremely well-armed and willing to risk their necks for perfect strangers."

Aganto was getting more nervous by the second. "But they wouldn't have to catch us if they were already up ahead, would they? Can't you call somebody up ahead?"

"Nope, no good there either. Next stop: Philcani-tu, with very few civilized planets between here and there." said Randy. "I'm sorry, sir. We're on our own."

Aganto's Adam's apple worked up and down as he tried to swallow, but the taste of fear was bitter in his mouth. Evidently the tranquilizer he'd been given earlier hadn't done him much good. After a moment he said, "M-maybe they won't attack us until we get to the Philcani-tu system."

Just to calm Aganto down, Randy was about to agree with him, but Clawron cut him off.

"That won't work, either," she said to the nervous lawyer, showing obvious contempt. "If they were going to attack us when we came into the system, they would have just waited for us there."

Randy gave her yet another angry glare, but she was immune. She focused her cold, narrow eyes on him and held them there until he felt a strong urge to leave the room. Aganto gave everybody a tortured look, but there was nothing they could truthfully say to reassure him. Bill was studying the display screens intently, perhaps just to keep from looking anyone else in the eye. Into the awkward silence he inserted a mumbled comment.

"I wonder what they’re waiting for."

"What?" said Randy.

Bill glanced back at the passengers, and then he turned to Randy. “Just as a precaution, maybe everybody better get strapped down."

Aganto looked alarmed. "You're not going to attack them are you?"

Bill burst out laughing, then quickly stifled it. "No, sir. We're going to run like the proverbial scalded dog. But if we get hit by, uuuuuh . . . anything, the artificial gravity might go out."

"Hit? Wait a second,” said Aganto, a sudden attack of hope brightening his face. "They can't fire plasma cannons at us while we're traveling faster than light. We're safe at least until we get to Philcani-tu!" He looked around at everybody, hoping to see one single nod in the group. "Right?"

Clawron gave a snort of disgust. "Councilor, you've lived a very sheltered life, haven't you?"

Aganto's fragile control broke down and his face became livid as he turned to Clawron. "Yes, thankfully, I have! And that’s because I've avoided contact with mercenaries like you!" Suddenly he stopped himself and gave Bill and Randy a guilty glance.

Clawron chuckled softly and said, "Relax. These bright boys have already decided I'm a mercenary who is double-crossing the Philcani-tu government."

Aganto looked puzzled for a moment, but then he remembered his original question. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. When he opened them again he had reestablished his professional persona. He was Mr. Alphonse Aganto, attorney at law.

"I don't understand,” he said calmly to Bill. "If we're traveling faster than light, how can they fire at us?"

"Mr. Aganto,” Bill said patiently. "There's only one way to strike at a spacecraft that is traveling faster than light." Bill paused, hoping Aganto would make the right guess, thereby saving a little face. But too much was happening too fast for poor Mr. Aganto, and so he just stood there making a valiant effort to look dignified. Bill gave up and said, “A faster-than-light weapon."

Aganto still didn't get it. "What do you mean?"

"He means one of those!" Clawron said sharply, pointing at the jinn wave scope. Three dots had separated themselves from the three blips of the pursuing ships. The three dots were gaining on the Wishbone.

"Clear this cockpit, now!" Bill ordered. Randy leapt into the right-hand seat and hastily strapped himself in.

"What is it? What's happening?" Aganto pleaded in a shrill voice.

"Ask her,” Randy said harshly. "She knows all about this sort of thing. Now, get back there and strap in!"

Clawron led Aganto firmly out of the cockpit, and Randy could hear him asking desperate questions in rapid succession. He's not going to like the answers, Randy thought to himself.

How do you strike at a hyperdrive-equipped spacecraft? With a hyperdrive-equipped missile, of course. And now three of them were bearing down on the Wishbone. However, the rate they were gaining on the Wishbone was far less than either of the men expected.

"Nine hundred seventy-five thousand kilometers an hour? That's all? Hey, Bill, those missiles are going less than a million kilometers an hour faster than we are." Considering the fact that the Wishbone was traveling at fifty thousand times the speed of light, the missiles' speed was only a tiny fraction faster.

Bill took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Whew! What a relief. I figured those things were going to come tearing at us like William Tell's arrow. How much of a lead do we have on them?"

"Just a tad under one million five-hundred thousand kilometers, as of the instant they were launched."

"Hmmm," Bill said as he scratched his chin. "So, they'll hit us in about an hour and a half. We oughta be able to come up with something brilliant in that length of time." He leaned forward and propped one elbow on the console so he could rest his chin on the palm of his hand. In a lazy voice he said, “Randy, how much do we know about hyperdrive missiles?"

"Up `till now we've been blissfully ignorant,” said Randy, wearing a gloomy expression.

"Come on, I'm serious."

"Okay." Randy squeezed his eyes closed. "Ummm . . . actually there isn't much to know. Hyperdrive missiles are just simple souls with but one thing on their minds -- blow the target into a cloud of atoms. They just lock onto the target and stick tight until they hit it. Lemme see . . . oh yeah, they actually have to hit the spacecraft, because if all they did was explode near it, a faster-than-light spacecraft would outrun the blast. I guess that's about it." Randy opened his eyes.

Bill scrutinized the tiny dots on the jinn wave scope. Without taking his eyes off the screen he asked a slow, hesitant question.

"What about their navigational computers?"

Randy just stared at Bill's profile for a moment and then said, "Okay, I'll bite. What about their navigational computers?"

Bill turned to the computer keyboard and did some fast typing. The display screen lit up with a flood of information, all of it scrolling upward so fast that none of it could be read. Bill grunted and typed some more, making his question more specific. The display went blank and then became three-quarters full of data. Bill read through it hastily, then he said, "Ah-ha. Here it is."

"Here what is?" Randy said.

"It says here, in effect, that most ship-to-ship hyperdrive missiles have minimal navigational data because all they have to do is take the shortest route to a visible target." Bill seemed pleased with the idea, but Randy didn't understand why. So he asked.

"Forgive me, but I seem to be having some navigational problems of my own. You've lost me. What are you talking about?"

Bill was busily typing again. Randy saw that he was giving new instructions to the Wishbone’s navigational computer. As he did so, he addressed Randy in a halting, absent-minded fashion while he continued to type.

"Come on, pal." Type, type, type. "You're letting our gorgeous lady passenger cloud your thinking." Type, type, type. Bill's fingers were a blur on the keyboard.

"Just give me a hint," said Randy, rapidly losing patience.

"I refuse to spoon-feed you another of my brilliant strategies."

"A hint!"

"Okay, okay. Here's a hint. Dust cloud."

Randy squeezed his eyes closed again and mumbled to himself like a man trying to think of the last word in a crossword puzzle. He ricocheted the clue around in his head – dust cloud, dust cloud, dust cloud. He threw in a few related items – hyperdrive missiles, nav computers, shortest route to the target . . .

Pow! Suddenly he had it, all at once, like divine inspiration. "We're going to take `em through the dust cloud up ahead!"

Bill looked up from his typing long enough to give Randy a sleepy-eyed, matter-of-fact smile.

"Of course."


Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)
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