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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 15

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 31, 2015 3:14 am    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 15 Reply with quote



Chapter 15

Bill Jenkins was awed by the size of the courtroom the Alliance Court of Inquiry was using to conduct their judicial proceedings. It was the size of a concert hall, a grand and elegant piece of architecture.



Yet despite its size, there was standing room only, and Bill was thankful for the comfortable chair he occupied next to Mr. Aganto and Refnonali. The big courtroom was filled with thousands of sentient beings, most of them human. Bill and his two companions were sitting in the witness-and-attorneys section, toward the front of the courtroom. The judges — all twenty-one of them — occupied a long, raised bench at the front of the room.

Of the twenty-one judges, no two were of the same species, and this resulted in more variety than the mind could imagine. Even their various sizes had an awesome range. The smallest judge was about the size of a cocker spaniel. The largest was as big as an elephant. Because the judges’ bench was elevated, Bill couldn’t actually see their chairs, but it amused him to think that there was as much variety between those chairs as there was between their occupants.

Bill had been sitting for hours, listening to the steady drone of the various witnesses who were called to address the court. A long table that faced the judges’ bench was capable of seating ten witnesses at a time. Tiny microphones built into the table picked up every word the witnesses said, carrying them to unseen speakers throughout the huge room. The result was surprising. Each witness sounded like they were speaking from just a few feet away — no matter where you were in the courtroom. Bill found the disembodied voices a bit unnerving. It was like being visited by the invisible man. He kept fidgeting in his seat, looking all around the room, trying to find the hidden speakers. He even deliberately dropped his pen so he could bend down and look under his seat. The maneuver hadn’t revealed anything except that the occupant of the seat behind him had four very ugly feet.

The thousands of spectators were unusually quiet as they listened to the testimony of the endless stream of witnesses called by the court. Those twenty-one judges were deciding the fate of the entire planetary population. And the judges would enforce their decision with the considerable might of the Alliance Armed Forces. This was a very historic occasion.

Unfortunately, it was also very boring.

Bill Jenkins was here because he had been subpoenaed as a witness. The Court of Inquiry wanted to know all about the [i]Wishbone’s[/i] wild chase from Blue Marble to Philcani-tu.

In his lap Bill held a data storage unit, which contained a copy of the Wishbone’s technical log — a complete record of the flight from Blue Marble to Philcani-tu as seen through the Wishbone’s exterior cameras, interior cameras, jinn wave scope, radiation detectors, gravity wave sensors, et cetera. Bill figured that when it came his turn to testify, he could sure liven things up with a rousing description of the heroic way he and Randy had battled their way across the galaxy. Yes sir, they’d be selling popcorn in the lobby when he got rolling.

“For Pete’s sake, when are they going to get to us?” said a voice in the headset Bill wore.

“Sooner or later,” Bill spoke quietly into the mike.

“We’re way past sooner,” Randy grumbled. “In fact, we’re way past later. They had us scheduled to testify three days ago. What’s the hold up?”

Bill tried to keep his irritation from showing when he answered. “The wheels of justice turn slowly — or not at all. And this is somewhere in between.” Then Bill let a tiny bit of irritation peek through. “Look, you don’t have to stay online with me the whole damn time. Why not just let me call you when our turn — ”

“Uh-uh. No way,” said Randy. “The phone system down there is so screwed up that it took me thirty minutes to get through to you this time. The Council of Justice is paying the phone bill for all our calls, so I’m not giving up the line until the court recesses for lunch.”

Bill groaned as he looked at his watch. He wondered if he could stand Randy’s bellyaching for another hour.

“Okay, so keep the line open. But quit asking me every five minutes if it’s our turn yet. I’ll tell you when it’s our turn.”

“Don’t get huffy,” said Randy. “I just think I should stay informed about what’s going on, that’s all.”

“Nothing is going on!” said Bill, rapidly losing his composure. “They’re just giving the third degree to every poor slob who ever held a government job under the old regime. Look, what are you gripin’ about anyway? All you’ve had to do for the last two weeks is lie around on your fat ass and flirt with the nurses! And who’s been doing all the work while you’ve been making the most of your big-deal broken arm, eh?”

There was no reply from the headset.

“Well?”

“What? Oh, sorry, Bill. I couldn’t hear you because Nurse Janet Whitmore was blowing in my ear.”

Bill started grinding his teeth together, but it didn’t seem to help, so he let himself whisper a heated reply. “Forget it, Randy. I do not believe that Janet Whitmore is anywhere near you.”

There was a silent pause, then a breathy female voice filled Bill’s ear.

“Hi, Billy. I’m really sorry you’re having such a bad day, sweetheart.”

Bill Jenkins couldn’t take it anymore. He yanked off the headset and banged it on the arm of his chair a few times, hoping to deafen the both of them.

Randy Henson was not deafened because he was nobody’s fool. He was holding the headset a foot from his ears while he and Janet Whitmore listened to the racket Bill was making, then Randy brought the mike close to his mouth.

“Hey there, buddy, order in the court, huh? Your contempt is showing.” He heard Bill’s tinny voice speaking rapidly, but Randy had to put the headset on to make out the words.

“ — you instead of me, pal! Do you think it’s fun sitting here hour after hour, day after day, listening to this boring crap? And every minute I sit here decreases our chances of getting out of this star system before the local courts confiscate what’s left of the Wishbone and sell it to pay off some of the money we owe. Aganto says that any day now they might — What? Oh, all right!”

Bill stopped abruptly, and Randy heard Mr. Aganto in the background, pleading with Bill to be quiet. Randy wondered if his angry friend would hang up on him. But the line remained open, and Randy elected to keep quiet for a few minutes while Bill calmed down.

Nurse Janet Whitmore rose from the edge of the bed and waved good-bye to Randy as she went off to tend to her duties. Randy studied her retreating backside with wistful eyes. Janet was, in Randy’s opinion, one of the most beautiful women God’s skillful hands had ever fashioned. In fact, she was too beautiful, and she had undoubtedly been told she was beautiful by too many men. Randy had learned from past experience that extremely beautiful women tended to be selfish, because men were eager to give them whatever they wanted. Janet Whitmore seemed to be an exception, and Randy was curious to know if her admirable character was genuine or if she was just a good actress.

Ironically, Janet Whitmore had exactly the same opinion of Randy Henson. He was too handsome for his own good, and she wondered if there was any substance to the man, any brains behind that finely chiseled face. And like Randy, she had yet to come to any firm conclusion on the issue. She and Randy were both skilled experts at the art of flirting, and they had spent the last fourteen days exercising their talents on each other.

Two weeks had passed since the Wishbone had made her spectacular landing, plowing up the young farmer’s field. It had been an eventful two weeks for practically everybody on the planet Philcani-tu. The otter-like alien that Bill and Randy had thought was a trained animal was now the star of the show. Within hours of the Refnonali’s first session with the Alliance Court of Inquiry, hundreds of Philcani-tu’s top government officials had gone into hiding. They were now believed to have fled the planet. Refnonali had presented a flood of incriminating evidence concerning the out-system corporation’s illegal interference into Philcani-tu’s internal affairs.

Now, two weeks later, most of Refnonali’s evidence had been presented, but the court still called upon the non-human lawyer from time to time to answer questions that came up while the court received testimony from hundreds of petty government officials, few of whom had expected to be called. The court’s investigation had been winding down when the Wishbone arrived — and now, thanks to Refnonali, it had geared itself back up to fever pitch.

Meanwhile, Philcani-tu had been placed under martial law. The planetary economy was in turmoil, mostly because all the really big corporations had been heavily involved with the old government. Now that the old government was no longer around to control things, private enterprise all over the planet was at each other’s throats. Genuine free enterprise had reared its sweet, ugly little head. The price of everything from toilet paper to uncut diamonds was fluctuating wildly from one day to the next. Putting the planet’s government and its economy back into shape might take the Alliance as long as a year. Life on Philcani-tu was not going to be especially pleasant for quite some time.

Randy Henson was very glad to be exactly where he was — on board the galactic stellacruiser Candlelight, in high orbit above Philcani-tu. His broken arm was incased in a “controlled environment cast,” a smooth plastic shell that held the arm immobile while it fed nutrients to the broken bone and sent a tiny electrical charge through the injured region to stimulate the healing process and prevent the muscles from becoming atrophied. Randy’s generally battered body was recuperating rapidly under the skilled care of the Candlelight’s medical staff — especially Nurse Janet Whitmore. The doctors had discovered enough fractures in Randy’s ribs to list his status as “bed rest,” but Randy had spent hours each day roaming around the GSC Candlelight, becoming familiar with the ship and getting to know the crew.

Randy and Bill had been given permission to maintain a phone link so they could consult with each other, both before and during Bill’s upcoming testimony. Randy’s testimony would be offered by telecom right from the Candlelight. Bill made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was jealous of Randy’s comfortable arrangement. But it wasn’t just envy that was making Bill act so irritable now. During the last two weeks, Bill had been kept very busy dealing with all the various lawyers, law enforcement officials, government officials, insurance company representatives, et cetera, et cetera — a hostile army that seemed determined to wipe out the Wishbone Express Interstellar Courier Service, Inc. and to nail the hides of its two owners to the nearest barn door.

The total amount of all the fines and penalties for the various laws, rules, and regulations that had been broken between Blue Marble and Philcani-tu was large enough to strip the tidy little fortunes of Bill and Randy right down to pocket change. During the Wishbone’s tight orbit of Philcani-tu, her shields had glanced off several expensive communications satellites, wrecking them completely. Never mind the fact that the Wishbone’s crewmen had been fleeing for their lives, they were still going to have to pay for those satellites — or at least a portion of the cost. The court would decide exactly how much.

Both Aganto and Refnonali had volunteered their professional services to initiate bankruptcy proceedings for the Wishbone Express, Inc. That would help, but filing bankruptcy didn’t mean Bill and Randy could simply walk away from the money they owed. Just exactly what they would have to do had not yet been clearly defined by the local courts, but Aganto had warned Bill and Randy that they might find themselves legally obliged to work off their debt right there on Philcani-tu — in government-assigned jobs. The fact that they would have to pay off such a colossal debt was bad enough, but having to do it on a planet where the economy was in such screwy shape would be especially difficult.

And then there was the matter of the five hundred thousand credits that Aganto and Refnonali had put into a trust fund to cover damages to the Wishbone. Aganto told Bill that since he and Refnonali had been in such a hurry to leave Blue Marble, they had forgotten to file a formal copy of the contract they had with Randy and Bill. Therefore, those funds were not listed as part of the assets that the courts could lay claim to. If Aganto could get the courts to agree to a reasonable settlement based on Randy and Bill’s current assets, he could turn over that money to them at a later date so it could be used to pay for repairs to the Wishbone, as they had been intended.

The thing Aganto asked for in return was that he and Refnonali be allowed to keep any interest the trust fund accrued between now and the time it was given to the Wishbone’s crew. That seemed like a good deal to Randy and Bill, and they had come to trust Mr. Alphonse Aganto because of the incredible experience they had shared.

There was one other small bit of luck working in favor of the Wishbone’s crew — the fact that there were still some unresolved questions of jurisdiction. If Randy and Bill could get out of this star system before their creditors got a court ruling which would legally detain them on Philcani-tu, they might find some kind of profitable employment elsewhere and arrange to send installment payments to their creditors. Unfortunately there were two problems with this plan: (1) the Wishbone was in need of extensive (and expensive) repair, and (2) they couldn’t even afford the price of a ticket on any out-bound commercial liner.

It was a genuine catch-22.

In the big courtroom, Bill’s pessimistic thoughts were interrupted when Mr. Aganto rose from his seat and whispered, “Excuse me, I have to go to the restroom.” He squeezed by Bill without managing to step on his toes, but as he made his way down the row of heavily occupied seats, he had to apologize repeatedly as he stepped on a variety of human feet and other alien appendages. Bill noticed that many of the attorneys around him were non-humans. He could see fourteen who were the same species as Refnonali.

One interesting fact Bill and Randy had learned during the inquiry was that the three ships that had chased the Wishbone across a sizable chunk of the galaxy were crewed by beings of Refnonali’s own kind. Ironic. And the out-system corporation that was being charged with interfering with Philcani-tu’s internal affairs was based on Refnonali’s home world.

Bill glanced over at Refnonali, sprawled across a cushioned bench next to Aganto’s vacant chair. The bench was just like the ones on the bridge of the unmanned ship Randy had gone into. Bill still had a hard time accepting the fact that he and Randy spent three days laboring under the misconception that Refnonali was a trained animal Clawron had brought to protect her — and those three ships that pursued them were crewed by Refnonali’s own species.

Life was certainly full of little surprises.

Refnonali didn’t look much like the oversized otter that had come bounding aboard the Wishbone more than two weeks ago. The most obvious change was that Refnonali now wore clothes — a shiny, skin-tight body suit and a short pullover vest with sealed pockets. The outfit had a vaguely feminine look to it.

There were other, more subtle differences in Refnonali now, too. The non-human seemed to have acquired a whole new manner of moving. Refnonali had done a good job of imitating animal-like behavior during the trip to Philcani-tu. For example, its head had always turned toward what its eyes were looking at.

During the flight to Philcani-tu, Refnonali had skillfully imitated one of the most unobtrusive characteristics that non-sentient animals displayed. Animals never looked at things out of the corners of their eyes. They always turned their heads and pointed their eyes (and their noses) at whatever caught their attention. Sentient beings tended to use peripheral vision and quick glances from the corner of their eyes to hide what they were looking at. Animals weren’t as subtle and sneaky.

Another obvious difference in Refnonali’s current appearance was the thought-activated translator that encircled the non-human’s neck — an inch-wide disk on an elastic strap. Bill leaned toward the lawyer and whispered.

“How does your arm feel? I mean, your foreleg? Whatever.”

The furry head swung toward him and the dark glittering eyes met his. “It aches a little bit, but that should pass in a few weeks,” said the translator at Refnonali’s throat. The electronically synthesized voice was clear enough, but it lacked base. Refnonali lifted the front leg that Clawron Uquay had broken. The paw opened and closed a few times, looking somewhat like a flexing fist, except that five claws sprung out each time it opened.

“Only two weeks and the bone is already healed,” said Bill. “I’ll bet Randy envies you.”

“Yes, we do heal a bit more rapidly than some species,” said Refnonali. “Of course, it would have taken longer if I were male.”

Bill wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. He just blinked a few times while he turned the remark over in his head. Finally, “Uh . . . I beg your pardon?”

“Females of my species heal more quickly than males. It has something to do with childbearing.”

Bill was still staring. After a few seconds, Refnonali said, “Is something wrong?”

“You’re . . . you’re a female?”

Refnonali seemed puzzled for a moment. “You didn’t know I was female?”

“Well . . . no. I just assumed . . . I mean, I guess I never really thought about it.” Bill started getting embarrassed as Refnonali continued to glare at him with what might have been indignation. “Well . . . uh, ma’am . . . you should have told me.”

“I should have done what?” Refnonali said with obvious indignation. “I thought it was obvious,” she said rather curtly. “After all, I was running around stark naked the whole time! That wasn’t easy, you know. My species has a nudity taboo, just like your own.”

She turned back toward the judicial proceedings at the front of the room and ignored Bill. He glanced down at Refnonali’s now-clothed body. After spending a few seconds pondering unanswerable questions about alien anatomy, Bill turned forward and stared off into space until Aganto returned. The lawyer seemed excited about something. He was holding a few sheets of paper as he stumbled down the crowded row, stepping on even more human and non-human appendages than he had earlier. Finally he dropped into his chair. Before Aganto could speak, Bill turned toward him and whispered heatedly.

“Why didn’t you tell me Refnonali was female?”

“He is? I mean, she is? Dear Lord, I didn’t even know. I’ve been afraid to ask ever since we first met. Some non-human species avoid the problem of gender bias which other species have simply by refusing to reveal which gender they are.” Aganto was glancing over his shoulder as he struggled to keep his voice low, hoping Refnonali wasn’t listening. But she seemed to be focused on the testimony currently being presented by a witness in front of the judges. Aganto leaned even closer to Bill and whispered in a barely audible voice, grinning like a lecherous old man. “I feel sorry for the poor little thing. She ran around naked for days in front of three men, and nobody even knew she was female!”

Randy and Aganto both snorted with laughter as they leaned against each other like two buddies with all four elbows on a bar and several conspicuously empty beer mugs between them. After a few seconds, Aganto marshaled his professional dignity and reigned in his mirth with a visible effort.

“All right, all right. Look, Bill, we don’t have time for this right now,” Aganto whispered. “While I was gone, I checked the central records here at the courthouse. Panatex, Inc. has gotten the court to put a lien on your ship until you pay them for damaging their communications satellite. Here’s a printout of the court ruling.”

Bill reacted like a running dog who had suddenly reached the end of its leash. The happy look was snatched off his face and he stared at Aganto with pained disbelief.

“Oh no,” groaned Bill.

“If you can’t prove to the court that you have a reliable source of income outside this system, they can compel you to accept employment here on Philcani-tu! And they’ll imprison you if you don’t accept. The hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Boy, they don’t waste any time, do they?”

“They know you’ll try to leave.”

Bill looked bleak and hopeless as he slouched down in his chair. “Well,” he sighed wearily, “I guess that’s it.”

“Not quite,” whispered Aganto, glancing around guiltily as he leaned close to Bill. “There’s still one chance.”

“There is?” Bill said eagerly.

“You’ve got to get off this planet before they serve you the documents.”

Bill stared at Aganto, waiting for the punch line to this cruel joke. After a few seconds, Bill spoke with angry sarcasm. “Oh, is that all I have to do? Just exactly how am I supposed to do that? If they’ve got a lien on the Wishbone, I can’t even sell it to raise the money for a ticket.”

“Not true. According to local law, an officer of the court must present the document to you before it goes into effect. The document has a large red seal on it that you’re required to press with your thumb. The seal electronically registers your thumbprint, proving that you accepted the document. If you refuse to take the document, a warrant is issued for your arrest and the police compel you to accept the document. But until you accept it, willfully or otherwise, you can still legally transfer ownership of the Wishbone.”

Bill was beginning to understand the loophole Aganto was describing. He gave the lawyer a sly look. “Hey, wanna buy a starship, Alphonse? I’ll let you have it cheap.”

Aganto shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid the Professional Ethics Committee of the Alliance Bar Association would take a dim view of that. They would disallow the purchase and slap a fine on me that I would have to chase ambulances for a year to pay off.”

Bill smiled at this uncharacteristically irreverent humor from Aganto.

“I don’t suppose Refnonali could — ”

“No. For the same reason.”

“Right,” said Bill, his smile melting quickly. “Well, maybe I can scare up a buyer between now and the hearing — ”

“They won’t let you out of this building without serving that document to you. And they’ll have you watched constantly until the hearing tomorrow, to make absolutely sure you show up. If you leave Philcani-tu after they’ve sentenced you to compulsory employment, you’d be declared a fugitive — an escaped criminal no matter where you go.”

To Bill Jenkins the huge courtroom was beginning to seem like a locked cage. He wanted out, badly.

Suddenly he was startled by a voice in his ears. “Just out of curiosity,” said Randy, “does that apply to me, too?”

Bill had forgotten that the line was still open. He turned to Aganto. “What about Randy?”

“Well, the fact that he’s aboard an Alliance starship muddies the legal waters a bit, but chances are the captain of that starship would turn Randy over to the authorities here on Philcani-tu if the court requested it.”

“Not necessarily,” Randy’s voice interrupted. “Bill, I haven’t just been lying around on my backside up here. I think I’ve found a way we can beat this thing — although I thought you and I would have a few more days to prepare.”

“What do you mean?”

“They won’t let us leave the system unless we can prove we have gainful employment elsewhere, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay. So I’ve lined us up a job.”

“A job? Where?”

“Everywhere!” Randy said theatrically. “All over the galaxy. We can travel farther and faster than we ever did in the dear old Wishbone. We’ll see new places, meet new people — ”

“Whoa, wait, what are you talking about?”

“It’s simple, Bill! We join the Alliance Armed Forces!”

Bill became a Greek statue, his face carved in stone, his expression showing disbelief. He uttered one word. “What?”

“Sure! Why not? I’ve done a lot of checking while I’ve been up here. You’d be amazed at the pay and the benefits.”

“Are you kidding me? Sign our lives away, just so we can be green recruits doing fetch-and-carry chores on some ratty old shuttle barge? Surely we can do better than that!”

“You’ve got it all wrong, Bill. At first that’s what I thought, too. But it’s — ”

“Listen, listen, listen!” Bill interrupted angrily. He paused for a moment and managed to sound calm when he said, “Randy? Give it to me straight. Are you serious about this?”

“Completely.”

“Okay. Next question. Are you nuts?” Bill exploded.

“Incurably!” Randy said gleefully. “But this is still a good idea. Hey, what choice do we have? And honestly, Bill, it isn’t that bad a choice. The pay is better than you’d think. In fact, you write your own contract and submit it for approval. You ask for whatever you think you’re worth. You can specify the job you want and a whole list of other things. If they don’t accept it, they make a counter-proposal. Then you make a counter-counter-proposal, et cetera, et cetera — et tu, Brute.” Randy paused for a moment, then he said hesitantly, “I’ve . . . uh . . . already submitted a contract for both of us.”

“You did what?” Bill hissed, his face showing that he was on the south side of hysteria and about to cross the border. A dozen people turned around and shushed at him to be quiet.

“I forged your signature,” said Randy. “If they try to say it isn’t really yours, all you gotta do is say it is.”

Bill strongly suspected he was having some horrible nightmare. Any minute now he would wake up and find himself back on the Wishbone, living the life he had loved for the last few years, before he met a nervous lawyer and a furry critter and a skinny woman. However, this nightmare showed no signs of ending, so he tried to attack the situation with logic.

“But Randy . . . suppose I don’t want to join the blasted Alliance Armed Forces, dammit!” Bill whispered savagely.

“What? You mean you’d rather wash dishes on Philcani-tu for the next fifty years?”

“Aaaargh!” Bill growled furiously as he tore the headset off and flung it to the floor. The people around him were glaring angrily. Bill propped his elbow on the armrest, put his chin on his fist, pointed his smoldering eyes straight ahead, and snorted each breath out through his nose like an angry bull.

Aganto decided not to ask any questions, so he started looking over the printout he’d gotten from the courthouse records. The page was crowded with tiny printed words, a jungle of redundant legal terms that only a lawyer could venture into without going insane. After several minutes Bill noticed Aganto mumbling to himself. Bill wasn’t really curious, just irritated, and that’s what prompted him to say, “What are you muttering about?”

Startled, Aganto looked up quickly. Bill’s angry face did not encourage conversation, but Aganto figured he’d better answer, so he said, “They really rushed this thing through the courts.” He tapped the sheets of paper. “Sloppy work. I could easily get this thrown out on several technicalities.”

Bill started taking an interest. “Are you sure?”

“Guaranteed. It’s riddled with errors.” Scanning down the page, he skipped over several things he decided would be too technical for Bill, then he pointed to a paragraph about two-thirds of the way down. “Look here. They refer to the Wishbone as ‘the spacecraft designated Wishbone, ownership held by William Jenkins and Randolph Henson, registration number as filed.’ See that? They must have had some trouble getting the Wishbone’s registration number, so they just put in as filed. It doesn’t even specify the type of spacecraft — a stellayacht. I mean, sure, there’s only one spacecraft named Wishbone owned by you and Randy, but a document like this has got to be specific about every — ”

“Does that invalidate the ruling?” Bill said eagerly.

“Sure it will!” Aganto declared gleefully. Then he realized what Bill meant. “Oh . . . well, no — not permanently. I mean, we can make them go back and do it right before the courts will rule on it, but you’ll still have to show up in court if you’ve been served the papers. Eventually they’ll clean up these technical flaws.”

“Oh, crap,” Bill sighed.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to — ”

“It’s not your fault. Never mind.” Bill slumped back in his chair.

Aganto felt badly about being unable to offer his client any real hope. He tried a reassuring smile and said, “We’ll fight it, Bill. I’ll go over this thing with a microscope, and when we get into court, I’ll ram every one of these technical flaws down their throats!”

Bill had to smile at Aganto’s forceful imagery. The lawyer was picking up bad habits from his association with the Wishbone Express, Inc. But a weary and dejected feeling came over Bill as he considered his predicament, and he stared down at the floor while he pushed the fallen headset around with his toe. Finally he reached down, picked up the headset, and put it on. Very quietly he said, “Hey, Randy?”

“Still here. Where would I go?”

“Maybe you better just stow away somewhere on that stellacruiser. Don’t let them bring you down here. They don’t like homeless deadbeats like us.”

“I agree with you about staying on this ship, but why should I do it as a stowaway?” Randy paused, then he said quietly, “Bill, are you really dead-set against the idea of joining the Alliance Armed Forces?”

Bill sighed wearily. “I’ll think about it.”

“Okay. Good. That’s all I’m asking.”

Time ticked by. Seconds turned into minutes, and minutes died a slow death as they prepared to turn into hours. Judicial proceedings proceeded at their traditional snail’s pace. Bored to death, Bill toyed with the data storage unit in his lap. He let his fingers dance lightly over the buttons on the fold-out keyboard that covered the display screen, like a practicing pianist mentally playing Chopin. The ergonomic keyboard was locked, so he could stab the keys to his heart’s content.

Tap, tap, tap: download, upload, delete, insert, copy, convert. A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Tap, tap, tap. He tried not to think about the way the stars looked from the Wishbone’s cockpit. The Wishbone would no longer belong to him after tomorrow. He thought about the Wishbone’s pitiful condition, sitting in a hangar at the spaceport. Maybe she would never fly again. Maybe they would disassemble her for the electronic components and then cut up what was left for scrap.

Tap, tap, tap. Dancing fingers: send, receive, verify, include, exclude. H, I, J, K.

Bill wondered if Aganto had been right when he said that it would be impossible to get out of the courtroom without running into the court official who was waiting to present Bill with the document that would legally rob him of the Wishbone. In a crowd like this, anybody who might be watching Bill would be lost in the sea of faces. Even if he tried to leap up and run from the courtroom, he would be nabbed at the exit because all the exit doors were clustered at the back of the room, and they were constantly choked with traffic. The security personnel would grab him just because was acting suspiciously. According to Aganto, Bill would be an outlaw and a fugitive the instant he refused to accept the document when it was presented to him by an officer of the court.

So, how in the blazes could he get out of here without confronting the dreaded official with his dreaded document?

Bill slouched down in his seat, his eyes looking distinctly shifty, panning back and forth as they sought a way to escape this insidious trap.

A bailiff made his way along the row until he was close to Bill, then he leaned down and spoke quietly. “Mr. Jenkins? Sir, you’ll be called to testify in a few minutes. Please have all your material ready to present to the court.”

Bill just nodded, his eyes still darting around the room, trying to find a pattern in the crowd flow that might aid him, or some individual who seemed to be watching him with particular interest. He saw the bailiff making his way back to the front of the courtroom. One of the twenty-one judges silently signaled the bailiff with a lifted tentacle, and the bailiff hurried over to take a stack of papers from the judge. At the witness table facing the judges’ bench, a group of pale and sweaty government officials were being given the third degree. The bailiff took the stack of papers over to the witnesses and gave it to one of the men there. He picked up another stack of documents, walked over to the right side of the room, went around the right end of the long judges’ bench . . . and passed through a gap in a huge hanging tapestry that covered the back wall like a curtain.

Of course, thought Bill. The judges’ chambers. And lounges, and restrooms. And, undoubtedly, an exit.

The problem was: Would anybody let him use that particular exit? Perhaps they would, if he was able to manufacture a good enough reason.

Only one possible reason came to mind, a reason he would have to manufacture. And there was a serious risk involved.

Bill looked down at the data storage unit in his lap. It contained the whole gripping story of the Wishbone’s wild pursuit across space, using the complex structures of the cosmos to outwit and outrun the murderous maniacs who wanted to kill her crew and her passengers. The twenty-one judges of the Court of Inquiry were just itching to hear the Wishbone’s story. It was the exciting climax of this historic tale, the fitting conclusion to this desperate struggle, the happy ending to the story of a planetary population that yearned for freedom and justice.

Bill knew he had a moral obligation to present the evidence he held in his hands to the Court of Inquiry. But he also knew that this evidence was the key to getting him out of this room and off this planet. Bill wanted very badly to get out of this courtroom. He wanted to get off this planet. Bill Jenkins wanted to get back to the stars.

He pulled the headset mike close to his mouth. “Uh . . . Randy?” he said quietly, his throat suddenly dry.

“I’m sorry, sir. He left,” said Randy. “Shall I give him a message?”

“Quit clowning,” Bill said hoarsely. “Listen carefully, pal. If you hear me saying strange things when I get up to testify, don’t ask me a lot of stupid questions, okay?”

Randy spoke in a low worried voice. “Bill . . . what are you talking about?”

“I’ll explain later, okay? I’ll explain when I get there. With a little luck, I’ll be seeing you real soon.”

Randy was silent for several seconds, then he said, “I can’t ask any questions, huh?”

“You got it.”

“Listen, Bill . . . you’re not going to get killed or anything are you?”

Bill was silent for five agonizing seconds. Then spoke quietly, “That . . . is a question.”

“Oh my Lord, and all his little angles,” Randy muttered.

Aganto had turned away from Bill to say something to Refnonali. Bill looked down at the display that showed the files he was expected to offer the Court of Inquiry when he was called to witness stand. He was here to swear under oath that the files he submitted were complete and accurate. For a moment he considered deleting a few of the files to support the lie he was about to tell. But then he realized that only God himself would notice any missing files from the long list, so there was no reason to alter it. All Bill had to do was tell the judges it was incomplete.

Bill looked up suddenly when he heard someone say his name. The bailiff was calling him to come forward.


______________________________________________________________________



Next: Mr. Jetson's Wild Ride!


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~ The Space Children (1958)
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