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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 14

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 28, 2015 3:41 am    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 14 Reply with quote



Chapter 14

It was a bright, clear morning in this rich and fertile region of Philcani-tu. The only thing that marred the perfect blue sky was one very battered starship that came floating down on its erratic maneuvering thrusters.



The land was dominated by well-cultivated fields from horizon to horizon, a giant patchwork quilt of edible landscape. The Wishone wobbled and pitched as it soared over a wide field of lush green alfalfa. The bright flares of its thrusters were flickering constantly as the ship soared low over the edge of a freshly plowed field.



Suddenly it dropped down and belly-flopped onto the bare, lumpy soil. It skidded across the ground like a speedboat, cutting a raw groove fourteen meters wide and one-meter feet deep.

A young farmer was driving across the center of the field on a balloon-tired tractor with a plow built into the underside, and he watched with widening eyes as the Wishone’s belly smacked the ground and came sliding straight toward him. He stomped his foot down on the tractor’s accelerator and made the big, fat tires gnaw at the soft soil, scrambling to get out of the way. The brown soil created tall twin geysers behind the fat tires as soil was tossed up into the air behind the tractor. The sliding ship missed the back end of the tractor by less than three meters.

In the cargo hold, Randy and Aganto were thrown against the forward bulkhead when the ship hit the ground. The wajinda and the body of Clawron Uquay were pitched forward. The woman’s body tumbled and rolled for a few yards before it came to rest, but the slick fur of the wajinda sent it skidding all the way across the cargo hold until it collided with the two men against the forward bulkhead. Randy looked up at the creature’s grisly head, ten inches above his face, wearing a crimson mask of Clawron’s blood that coated its entire muzzle.

The ship slid to the edge of the freshly plowed field and skidded right onto a paved road that ran as straight as a yardstick from horizon to horizon.

And there the ISY Wishone finally came to rest, its forty-meter-long hull lying across the road like some huge dead animal, its body riddled with metallic wounds. It was an inglorious finale for a grand and loyal lady of the stars.



Randy Henson had lost consciousness. His body had suffered too much pain, too much traumatic shock, and too much exertion. As he gradually regained consciousness and opened his eyes a tiny fraction, he saw Bill bending over him, using a cutting tool to slice away the left sleeve of Randy’s spacesuit. Randy emitted a barely audible groan. “Ah, Bill . . . did you have to do that?”

“Sorry, my friend. Yes, I did,” Bill cut carefully from the cuff toward Randy’s shoulder. “Your broken arm is so swollen and misshapen we’d never get it out of your suit without cutting the sleeve open.”

Bill got the tough material sliced open from wrist to shoulder. Randy was sucking air in through his clenched teeth every time his arm had to be moved the slightest bit, and he cried out briefly when Bill peeled away the material. The broken arm was bloated and discolored, and it looked like it now possessed a second elbow about six inches below the shoulder. When Bill first saw it he let a sympathetic grimace show on his face, but then he tried to change the expression before Randy saw it. He wasn’t quick enough.

“Pretty bad, huh?” Randy said quietly. He couldn’t bring himself to look at his own arm, so he made his assessment based entirely on Bill’s expression.

“Actually, no, not that bad,” said Bill. “The bone didn’t tear through the skin, and the break seems pretty clean.” Bill picked up a device that looked vaguely like a short, fat telescope with a pistol-grip handle. As he aimed one end of the gun-shaped gizmo at Randy’s arm, a three-inch screen on the other end displayed a picture of the broken bone, surrounded by translucent muscles, veins, and tendons. “There’re a few bone chips that should be removed,” said Bill, peering at the screen. “Other than that, it’s just a matter of setting the broken bone and then putting a cast on it.” Bill was trying to sound reassuring.

Randy managed a weary smile as he said quietly, “Great, Doc — but will I ever play the violin again?”

Bill smiled at his wounded friend and chuckled. “No . . . not if I can help it.”

Randy closed his eyes for a moment, then he said, “By the way, that was a good landing.”

Bill’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “You call that a good landing?”

“As long as you’re alive to say ‘that was a good landing,’ it’s a good landing.”

“Yeah, well . . . it wasn’t all that good. I nearly nailed some poor farmer on a tractor. Scared the crap out of him and me.”

Aganto came up behind Bill and handed him an injector unit. Bill gently pressed the end of the pencil-shaped device against Randy’s left shoulder and pushed the button. The injector made a quick hiss as it squirted drugs into Randy’s veins.

“This stuff will make the pain more manageable without sending your brain off to Never Never Land.” Bill handed the injector back to Aganto, then he looked at Randy and said, “Which is good, because we’ve had quite enough of that on this trip, eh?”

“Gee, Mommy, you never let me have any fun.” Randy closed his eyes and enjoyed the growing numbness in his arm.

“Want me to get something stronger?”

“Not yet. Not until I get the answers to a few questions.”

“Aha,” said Bill with a knowing look. He turned to the man beside him. “You’re on, Mr. Aganto. Tell him what you told me.”

Aganto knelt down beside Bill. He looked embarrassed. Randy was eager to know why.

“You said Clawron was a paid assassin,” said Randy. “Okay, that part I understand. But what was that about the wajinda?”

Still looking embarrassed, Aganto cleared his throat a few times before he spoke. “The wajinda, uh . . . is actually the individual you were hired to bring here to Philcani-tu. I deliberately misled you about who was the bodyguard and who was being guarded because, well . . . my client didn’t entirely trust you two.” Aganto gave Randy a sheepish grin and a nervous laugh. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

Wearing a stern look, Bill waved an admonishing finger at the lawyer. “That’s perjury, councilor. Bad boy. And after we shared our popcorn with you.”

“Wait a second,” said Randy. “If Clawron attacked the wajinda, instead of the other way around, then how did you get those claw marks on your chest?”

“The wajinda and I were watching a movie in my cabin and trying to ignore the fact that we were terrified because we were in the middle of a battle. Suddenly Clawron burst in with the obvious intention of killing us both. The wajinda reacted instantly. It pushed me out of the way just as Clawron tried to kick me in the neck — ”

“Which would have crushed your windpipe,” said Bill, remembering his own fight with Clawron.

Aganto tried to swallow several times, gave up, then unconsciously touched his throat lightly with one hand. “Uh, yes . . . well, the wajinda pushed me out of the way, but I guess its claws had extended themselves reflexively, because they did this.” He looked down at the shredded holes in his shirt and the glistening white foam which covered the claw marks. His chest was wet and shiny with a sprayed-on solution of blood coagulant, anti-pain drug, and antibiotic which he’d gotten from the first aid kit in the mechmed compartment.

“How did you hurt your nose?” said Bill.

Aganto reached up and gingerly touched his swollen nose. The blood that Randy had seen on Aganto’s lower face had been washed off, but there were still dried remnants around his nostrils.

“Clawron did it with a very weak backhanded blow near the end of the fight. The wajinda forced her away from those containers, and I tried to get the gun that’s behind them. I wasn’t quick enough.”

“You shouldn’t have lied to us,” Randy said. “She could easily have killed us all. And I almost killed our real employer!”

“Please try to understand,” Aganto said. “Refnonali — that’s the wajinda’s actual name — wanted desperately to get to Philcani-tu, but it was understandably concerned for its own safety. Refnonali knew there was a bounty on its head, so it hired Clawron — partly to keep an eye on you two. But Refnonali was also aware that Clawron Uquay’s services would go to the highest bidder. Refnonali was trying to play both ends against the middle. Even if Clawron turned out to be an assassin, she would see to it that you took us to Philcani-tu, because that’s where she would collect her bounty. And Clawron would prevent you two from killing Refnonali to collect the bounty, because she would want the bounty for herself.” Aganto was smiling as if he were pleased with himself. The smile faltered when he saw that Bill and Randy were looking at him with scornful amazement.

“Who thought up this hair-brained scheme?” said Bill.

“Uh, we both did, Refnonali and I.”

“Did it occur to either of you that Clawron could have easily killed us all shortly after we left Blue Marble and then brought the Wishone to Philcani-tu herself?” said Bill.

“Or,” said Randy, “that Clawron might offer to split the bounty with us?”

“Yes, we thought of that possibility,” Aganto said defensively. “Refnonali and I kept a close eye on all three of you. But when those ships attacked us, it gave us all a common foe. It also served as a strong indication that none of you were working for the group that wanted Refnonali dead. If that group already had an assassin aboard, they wouldn’t need to attack us. Right?”

“Wrong,” said Bill.

“Wrong,” said Randy.

“Wrong?” said Aganto, his voice suddenly going falsetto.

“Right,” said Bill. “You saw how determined those guys were. They wanted to blow us out of the sky no matter what it took. They wouldn’t have cared a bit about the life of some paid assassin, whether they had put her on board or not. But I must admit, I don’t think Clawron was working directly for anybody, because she would never have come aboard if she’d even suspected the Wishone would be ambushed. She probably just didn’t know how badly the opposition wanted to kill the wajinda — I mean, Refnonali. My guess is that she planned to kill all of us, keep the Wishone for herself, and then collect the bounty.”

“Hey, I just thought of something,” said Randy. “You know, I think it’s entirely possible that our ambushers did know an assassin was aboard.”

“How could they have known that unless Clawron was working for them?” said Aganto.

“She may have told them herself. She knew the wajinda was carrying — ”

“Refnonali,” Aganto quickly corrected him.

“Okay, right, she knew Refnonali needed a bodyguard, because that’s why you hired her. And she also knew our destination before we left, because you told her, right?”

“Well, yes. Actually Refnonali told her when she was hired.”

“Okay, so all Clawron had to do was make a few interstellar jinncom calls to Philcani-tu and find out if there was a bounty on Refnonali. A mercenary like her would know just who to call to get information like that.”

Bill was grinning and nodding his head in agreement. “A toll-free assassin’s hotline,” he said with a laugh. Nobody else laughed, so he went on. “Anyway, whoever she called on Philcani-tu knew who else to call, somebody that would buy information concerning Refnonali’s whereabouts. And that’s how our ambushers knew where to find us.”

“That’s also how the crooked port authority cop who planted the bomb knew.”

“Agreed,” Bill said. “When they found out where Refnonali was, they just did a little checking with the port authority on Blue Marble and found out that the dear old Wishone, a starship for hire, had filed a flight plan for Philcani-tu.”

“Which was damned stupid on our part,” said Randy.

“True. But nobody’s perfect.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Okay, I’m not perfect . . . and you’re even worse.”

Still lying flat on his back, Randy heaved a colossal sigh and said, “Admittedly this has not been one of my better days.”

Aganto was gazing thoughtfully at the lifeless body of Clawron Uquay, twenty feet away. After several seconds he said, “If all this is true, it seems pretty stupid of Clawron to have — ” he stopped and lowered his voice as if Clawron might overhear him, “ — to have come aboard the Wishone at all. I mean, if she was a professional assassin with access to information about Refnonali, she would have known how important the situation was. The smart thing to do would be to kill Refnonali on Blue Marble.”

“Aha,” said Bill. “But then she would have a problem: the burden of proof. To collect a death bounty, an assassin usually has to present the body — or some recognizable part of it. Clawron would have to take something — the head or a paw — to Philcani-tu for a DNA test. On the other hand, if she waited until the Wishone got to Philcani-tu, she’d have a nice stolen starship and Refnonali’s body. Plus she could hold that briefcase of yours with whatever evidence it contains as insurance for the payment of the bounty.”

“She might even have been planning to sell the briefcase to the highest bidder,” said Randy. “In fact, she may have been planning to ransom Refnonali himself — itself — whatever. But she had to drop that plan when the Wishbone got itself shot to pieces, because she no longer had the means to deliver an imprisoned hostage. She decided to kill you and Refnonali while Bill and I were busy.”

“That’s the trouble with mercenaries,” said Bill. “They have the nasty habit of switching sides and plans whenever it suits them.”

Randy closed his eyes for several seconds, then he groaned pathetically and on purpose, after which he said, “God, I feel awful.” With his eyes still closed, he waited for someone to show a little sympathy. Nobody did. Finally he said, “Isn’t anyone going to offer to help me into the mechmed’s comatank?”

“No,” said Bill, shaking his head sadly.

“No? Why the hell not?” said Randy, opening his eyes and glaring indignantly.

“Can’t.”

“Again I say, why the hell not? Your arm broken, too?”

“No, actually my rib is broken, remember? But that’s not why I can’t help you into the comatank. It’s already occupied.”

Randy looked puzzled for a moment, and then with a surprised look he said, “Refnonali?”

“Ex — actly! It put itself in there as soon as the ship came to rest. That critter is even more beat up than you are, pal. Clawron put up a pretty good fight. She overestimated herself when she decided she could kill a full-grown wajinda with her bare hands.”

Randy noticed Aganto suppressing a smile. When Aganto saw Randy looking at him, his smile widened.

“Excuse me, but what’s so damn funny?” said Randy. “I could use a good laugh.”

“Uh, well . . . hmmm,” Aganto stammered, putting his hand over his lower face while he tried to stifle his laughter. “Remember when Clawron first introduced herself to you, and she told you that Refnonali didn’t have a name? She told you just call it a wajinda because it was the only one aboard?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Well . . . she lied. There are two of them.”

“What?” said both men in unison.

“Yep,” said Aganto, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m a wajinda, too. The word wajinda means lawyer in Refnonali’s language.”

“Lawyer?” Bill said, his mouth hanging open.

“Yes, indeed.”

“That vicious beast is a lawyer?”

With noticeable pride, Aganto said, “Refnonali is an attorney who, until recently, was employed by a prestigious law firm that represents a large corporation based on Refnonali’s home world, although it maintains considerable holdings in a dozen other star systems. For purely business reasons, this corporation wants to perpetuate the existing government and the existing economic structure here on Philcani-tu.”

“You mean they want the corrupt government to stay in power because it helps them make a profit,” said Randy. The expression on his face made him look like someone just told him he was eating off a dirty plate.

“All’s fair in love and business,” Bill said quietly.

“Not everyone is that cynical, Mr. Jenkins,” said Aganto, his tone demonstrating noticeable emotion. “Refnonali has risked its life to come here and offer testimony and deliver the official records and legal documents in that briefcase. All this has been done in an effort to prove that an interstellar corporation is actively influencing the corrupt planetary government for the purpose of monetary gain. And that,” Aganto concluded firmly, “is illegal!” He wore an angry expression, his eyes alight with the fire of judicial indignation. Randy and Bill were openly awed by the man’s sudden display of zeal and the obvious strength of his convictions.

“So,” said Bill. “Your interest in this matter is not just professional.”

“No, not just professional,” said Aganto, calming himself. “But, uh . . . I did receive a sizable retainer to represent Refnonali in its dealings with you two and with the Alliance Court of Inquiry here on Philcani-tu. Gentlemen, we’ve got to deliver Refnonali and the documents in my briefcase to the Court of Inquiry before they render their final decision. Reopening a case like this after the court has passed judgment can be very difficult.”

“How long until the tow truck gets here, Bill?” said Randy.

“I couldn’t call anybody. The power systems gave out before we even hit the ground. The Wishone is dead metal. I had to crosswire the emergency batteries just to get the outer hatches open.”

“You must have by-passed all the safeties on the way down if the power systems are burned out that bad.”

“I had to. But don’t worry,” said Bill, “we won’t have to wait around here very long. The local police will show up pretty soon to ask us why we’re blocking the road.”

Randy stared at his friend for a moment. Then he said, “Why we’re doing what?”

“The ship is laying across a road in the middle of a big agricultural region . . . Hey, wait a second.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Listen.”

The big cargo hatch was standing open, and from outside the three men heard a rising sound, the unmistakable noise of approaching aircraft.

“Perhaps we should signal them,” said Aganto. He started to rise, but Bill took hold of his arm.

“Whoa. Wait now. Think a second. We are now on Philcani-tu, right? Does that mean we’re safe? Not by a long shot, pal. This is the planet with the government that wants us dead. Remember?”

Aganto’s mouth opened slowly. “Ooooh,” he said softly.

“You stay here with this cripple,” said Bill, pointing at Randy’s prostrate form. “I’ll go see if yon strangers be friend or foe.”

Bill picked up the gun Randy had dropped earlier, then he made a quick trip to the weapons locker to get his gun belt and holster. He left the locker open just in case more weaponry was needed. The sound of the approaching aircraft had grown much louder, and when Bill peeked around the edge of the hatch, he saw that the Wishone was being circled by four two-man fighter-bombers — and they were obviously armed to the teeth. The undersides of their wings were crowded with missiles. He also noticed thrust nozzles along the fuselage, which meant they were short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft.



It occurred to Bill that there was a certain contradiction here. If these aircraft had come to rescue the passengers of a wrecked starship, why didn’t they land and come check the injured. On the other hand, if they had come to destroy Refnonali and the evidence in the briefcase, why didn’t they just open fire?

“Who is it?” Randy called out.

“Military aircraft. Four of them. Heavily armed.”

“Are they Alliance stellascouts or Philcani-tu Air Force ships?”

“Take a guess.”

Randy groaned, then he said, “No. I don’t want to. I’m sorry I even asked.”

Hovering about a hundred feet away, one of the STOVL aircraft aligned itself with the road and dropped down gently. The air beneath it wavered from the heat of its exhaust.



On the far side of the newly plowed field to Bill’s left, he saw the young farmer on the balloon-tired tractor, now more than three miles away, going hell-bent-for-leather in his efforts to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Wishone. Bill took it as a bad omen. High up in the cloudless blue sky, Bill saw a tiny glint. More aircraft on the way.

The canopy of the fighter on the road rose up slowly, and the pilot climbed out. The silvered visor of his helmet was lowered, and Bill couldn’t see the man’s face. The other man in the fighter’s cockpit stayed where he was, a fact that Bill judged as significant. It probably meant the fighter’s weaponry was trained on the Wishone.

This is definitely not a welcoming committee, Bill thought to himself. He suddenly wished he had not popped open all the hatches. Well, too late to worry about that now.

The fighter pilot came walking toward the open cargo hatch. Bill saw the pistol on the man’s hip. The holster was a built-in part of the flight suit he wore.

Why doesn’t he take the damn helmet off? Bill thought. I can’t see his eyes. If I could just see his eyes, I could make some kind of guess about whether he’s going to lie or tell the truth or yank that gun out.

When the pilot was about ten meters from the cargo hatch, Bill stepped casually into view, folded his arms across his chest, and said, “Hold it right there, friend. State your business, please.”

The pilot stopped and studied Bill for several seconds, his face still hidden by the helmet’s silvered visor. It muffled his voice when he spoke.



“Are you the captain of this vessel?”

“Well, sort of. The co-captain you might say.”

The pilot didn’t answer for a moment, and Bill wondered if the man could hear him with that helmet on. After a pause, the pilot said, “I’ve been ordered to pick up some important documents that were being brought to Philcani-tu in connection with the Alliance Court of Inquiry. We received word that your spacecraft crash-landed in this area. If you’ll turn over these documents to me, I’ll see to it they’re delivered.”

Despite the man’s reassuring words, Bill wasn’t fooled. Actually the pilot seemed to be making little effort to be convincing. His voice was monotonic and unemotional, but his body seemed suspiciously tense. He hadn’t asked if anyone was injured. He hadn’t said that medical rescue units were on the way.

“Documents?” Bill said with great innocence. “Hmmm . . . documents. Lemme think. Uh . . . nope, sorry, pal. You must have the wrong crash-landed spacecraft.”

There was another pause while the pilot just stood there. Staring at the mirrored surface of the pilot’s helmet, Bill couldn’t tell if the man was laughing or angry or falling asleep. He thought he heard the man speaking in a barely audible voice, and Bill wondered if the man was muttering curses. Then he realized the truth of the matter: the pilot was conferring with someone via the communicator built into his helmet. But who was he talking to? The other man in the fighter? The pilots of the other three fighters?

Bill glanced up at the distant dot in the sky, noticeably larger now. What he had previously assumed to be a second group of aircraft he now saw was just one very large one, though it was still too far away for Bill to see what type. Perhaps it carried some high-ranking officer or government official who was coming to make sure the documents in Aganto’s briefcase didn’t fall into the wrong hands — like, for example, the Alliance Council of Justice.

The fighter pilot saw Bill looking up at the approaching aircraft. The helmet turned toward the dot in the sky, and Bill heard him speak a few more words in a low voice. Then the pilot turned back to Bill.

“I hope you’re not going to make it necessary to use force,” he said in an unemotional voice. “You’re not in any condition to fight.” He waved one hand loosely toward the wrecked Wishone.

Bill gave him a wry smile. “Don’t be too sure about that.”

The pilot thumbed upward at the three circling aircraft. “Any one of those fighters could slice this derelict to pieces.”



That did it. Bill’s face turned hard, even though his faint smile stayed in place. “Maybe so,” he said casually as he slowly unfolded his arms and let them hang by his sides. “But let me ask you a question, pal.”

“What’s that?”

“How are you going to get back to your aircraft?”

Bill’s right hand was hanging loosely near his holstered pistol. The pilot tensed visibly when he realized what Bill meant. In the sky overhead, the three fighters had stopped circling and were now hovering — as they drifted slowly back away from the Wishone, all their weapons trained on the ship. The large approaching aircraft would be there in less than a minute, and Bill could see it out of the corner of his eye as he stared at the fighter pilot, waiting for him to make his move. Bill knew the aircraft sitting on the road couldn’t open fire without hitting the pilot or injuring him in an explosion. The pilot knew it too, and he also knew that the instant he tried to pitch himself sideways, Bill would go for his pistol. So, the pilot took the only option he had — he tried to draw first.

For Bill Jenkins it was pure reflex. His right hand snatched the gun from its holster, and his finger squeezed the trigger a split second later. The plasma bolt smashed through the mirrored visor and blew the pilot’s brains right out through the back of his helmet. The impact of the bolt threw his body three meters backward.

Bill dove sideways to get himself away from the open hatch. A flurry of plasma bolts from the fighter on the road came streaking in through the hatch, hammering the bulkhead on the other side of the cargo hold. Bits and pieces of the wall flew everywhere. Bill heard Aganto shout something, but he didn’t know if the lawyer was injured or just terrified.

As soon as Bill hit the deck he rolled away from the open hatch, scrambled up, and ran toward the door that lead to the corridor. He leapt over the prone bodies of Randy and Aganto near the door and dashed down the corridor. Bill could hear the engines of the fighter outside, rising in pitch. He knew exactly what the man in the fighter was going to do: hover the fighter a meter off the road, back it up fifty meters, and then launch a missile right through the yawning cargo hatch.

Bill sprinted across the lounge and skidded to a halt in front of the open weapons locker. He grabbed the biggest weapon in the arsenal, a brute of a rifle with a complex scope. He ran over to the lounge’s open air lock and threw himself prone to the floor between the inner and outer doors. Outside, the fighter was just lifting off. Its nose was angled upward as it started backing down the road, putting a safe distance between itself and its intended target. Bill sighted his weapon on the exposed underbelly of the fighter. It was receding rapidly, but the scope on Bill’s weapon was filled with a close-up view of the numerous missiles lining the aircraft’s wings. Most of them were small air-to-air missiles, designed to be fast and light and highly accurate. Bill thought that if he could pour enough plasma into one of them, the heat would detonate the warhead.

He started squeezing the trigger on the big rifle, and the weapon belched a fat stream of white-hot plasma that streaked across to the fighter like a lightning bolt. It hit one of the missiles, but the missile did not detonate. Bill kept squeezing the trigger, and three more plasma bolts punched into the missile until it was knocked right off the fighter’s wing. The missile dropped onto the road with an audible clang while Bill fired again and again at the retreating aircraft. Two more missiles were torn loose from the fighter’s wing, and the aircraft titled from the imbalance this caused.

The heavy weapon was kicking back against Bill’s shoulder like a shotgun as he lay there in the air lock, firing over and over at the fighter. The light missiles were being torn loose from the fighter’s wing. They wouldn’t stay put long enough for him to pump enough plasma into them. Bill knew that any second now, the other fighters would launch missiles that would destroy the Wishone, but he was determined to go down fighting. The Wishone would not die easily.

Suddenly there was a blinding flash. The last of the four missiles that had been attached to the wing had detonated and the fighter dissolved in a fireball that flung wreckage in all directions. Bill dropped the rifle and rolled over to hug the left wall of the airlock behind the narrow door frame, wrapping his arms around his head. At the same instant, the shock wave slammed into the ship with a hard, deafening sound, and a split-second later the Wishone’s hull was peppered with hot fragments. Bill heard pieces of metal rip past him and bury themselves in the far wall of the lounge.

As the smoking wreckage rained down on the road and flanking fields, Bill lay their waiting for one of the other fighters to put the poor Wishone out of her misery. He debated taking a few shots at them, but he really didn’t believe he had enough time left. Instead he just gave the deck an affectionate pat and whispered, “We did our best, sweetheart. We gave ‘em a good fight.”

A series of explosions outside the ship made Bill raise his head, a puzzled look on his face. The explosions hadn’t sounded very close, certainly not close enough to qualify as anybody’s near-miss of the Wishone.

Randy called out from the cargo hold. “What the hell was that, Bill?”

“Well . . .” said Bill, “it was supposed to be us getting blown in tiny painful pieces.”

After a pause, Randy just said, “Oh.”

Bill could still hear the sound of several aircraft outside, but for some reason the sound was very different from before. And the aircraft seemed to be coming closer, which was odd because the fighters wouldn’t want to be too close when they dealt the deathblow to the Wishone. Bill rolled back to the middle of the air lock for a peek outside.

The view was interesting, to say the least. The road and both the fields on either side were strewn with the burning wreckage of the fighter. High in the blue sky above, Bill saw three separate clouds of smoke. Streamers trailed down from each of the clouds as the falling fragments of the three fighters sprinkled across the bare field on the left and a sea of waving wheat on the right.

Obviously the fighters had been blown out of the sky. And it wasn’t hard to figure out who had done it. A half dozen Alliance stellascouts were swarming around the Wishone like mosquitoes on a summer night. The stellascouts were sleek and beautiful aircraft, about half as long as the Wishone. Two of the stellascouts were using grappling beams to lift the unexploded missiles from the road near the Wishone. The missiles were being carried off to the far side of the newly plowed field. Two other stellascouts were flying low over the wheat field, spraying flame retardant on the remains of the three destroyed fighters so the flaming wreckage wouldn’t start a fire that would spread through the crop.

Once the missiles had all been cleared from the road, one of the stellascouts descended slowly to land on the same spot the fighter had occupied earlier.

And off to Bill’s left, hovering majestically a few hundred meters above the freshly plowed field, a huge Alliance stellacruiser was posing dramatically against the cloudless blue sky, displaying a certain justifiable vanity, defying gravity with a proud indifference.



Maneuvering thrusters studded the ship’s underside like fiery white jewels. The sound of their power filled the air with a low pulsing throb which perfectly conveyed the force and the majesty of this incredible vessel. That starship was the most beautiful thing Bill Jenkins had ever seen, and he stared at it with the same doe-eyed expression a teenaged boy wears when he gazes at the fresh young face of his first true love. Bill propped one elbow on the deck and rested his chin on his hand as he gazed up at the magnificent machine, his face a portrait of blissful adoration.

A galactic stellacruiser’s design is a skillful blend of old and new ideas. Imagine the strange aircraft known as the “flying wing”, first developed in the mid-twentieth century — but with its wings stretched horizontally until they looked like they belong on a slender glider. On top of this, place a tall structure shaped like a submarine’s “sail”, twenty-two stories tall and dotted with view ports, transparent domes, and ledges which hold dozens of plasma cannons. The top of the sail is festooned with tall antennae, a forest of technology which provide the eyes and ears of the starship.

Below the wide and slender wings are two inverted “sails” that support the ship when it lands, each one located a quarter of the way out from the starship’s center. The two structures below the stellacruiser are smaller versions of the main one on top of the ship, and they tilt outward twenty-five degrees. The color of the crystalsteel hull is a strange silver-white, with an odd hint of blue, only visible at certain angles.

All in all Bill decided the stellacruiser was a flying work of art, and he knew he would love it eternally.

The stellascout that had landed on the road sat there for half a minute, then an amplified voice boomed out.

“DON’T FIRE ON US. WE’RE HERE TO TREAT YOUR WOUNDED. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

Bill, still lying in the open air lock, smiled as he raised one hand and answered with a lazy wave. The hatch on the side of the stellascout swung down to form a stairway, and people started piling out. They hurried toward the Wishone, dodging around the still-smoldering bits of metal that littered the road.

“Hey, Bill!” Randy called out, sounding irritated. “Tell us what’s going on, will ya?”

“Oh, sorry,” Bill said hastily. “Okay . . . well . . . to summarize the major developments, the three fighters that were about to blow us to smithereens have in fact been blown to smithereens by the good guys — an Alliance stellacruiser and her escorts, to be exact.” Bill concluded proudly by saying, “In short, we’ve been rescued!”

Randy was silent for several seconds, then he called out with great indignation. “And you got to see all that from a front row seat?”

Bill wore a sleepy smile as he said, “Actually, yes. I did.”

Another silent pause, then Randy spoke in a stern voice, “Don’t ever speak to me again, Jenkins. Ever.”

Bill stiffed a chuckle, then he said, “Okay, if you insist. But there were some very interesting details I didn’t mention.”

Still laying flat on his back in the cargo hold forty meters away with a broken arm, Randy wrestled with Bill’s remark, then he called out, “Okay, Jenkins. But after you tell me those interesting details . . . don’t ever speak to me again. Ever.”

Several of the approaching people hurried over to the body of the pilot Bill had shot. One quick look showed them that the man was definitely, obviously, and undeniably dead, and nobody wasted any time debating the issue. The first person to reach the air lock where Bill lay was a crusty, middle-aged man. He was big and barrel-chested and quick on his feet, despite his size and apparent age. He wore a headset that kept him in contact with the stellacruiser. His first words surprised Bill because they were delivered with absolute sincerity.

“Permission to come aboard, sir?”

Bill almost busted out laughing — but then he realized the man was just giving the Wishone her due respect, in spite of her sad condition. Bill was touched by the gesture, and he decided he liked this old fellow, right off. He wiped the smile from his face, scrambled to his feet, and quickly brushed off the dust from pants and shirt. Then Bill stood tall and said, “Granted, and welcome aboard,” He backed into the lounge to make room for the big man.

“Thank you,” the man said as the stepped into the airlock. “Do you have any wounded aboard?”

Bill jerked a thumb toward the cargo hold. The people behind the big man hurried past Bill. They were carrying medical equipment.

“Is your passenger wounded?” said the man.

“Yes, one of them is. But it’s already in the mechmed’s comatank.”

“One of them? The non-human?”

“Yes.”

“Hurt bad?”

“Broken arm and a few cracked ribs.”

The man looked around the unlighted lounge, noting that the Wishone’s power systems were out. “We better check the mechmed to see if its independent power system is okay.”

Bill led the man down the corridor to the mechmed. The lights on the mechmed’s status board looked unusually bright in the unlighted corridor.

The man from the stellacruiser gave the status board a quick look, then he punched up some data on the monitor. The mechmed said that Refnonali’s condition was stable and that the non-human was under sedation. The man turned to Bill.

“Doctor Hooper, the Candlelight’s chief surgeon, will probably want to leave the patient in there and have the comatank transferred to the Candlelight. Is it okay with you if we pull it out?”

Bill nodded. The comatank was designed to be easily removed so a patient could be transported to a hospital while still inside the coffin-like container. The man spoke a few quiet words into the headset he wore, conferring with somebody aboard the stellacruiser. Bill walked down the corridor to the cargo hold. Aganto was watching Randy being strapped onto a zero-g stretcher. Randy gave Bill a sleepy smile and spoke in a mellow, child-like voice.

“He gave me a nice shot.”

“Feel good, do we?” said Bill. The medics activated the zero-g stretcher and lifted Randy.

“Wheee,” Randy said softly. One of the medics turned to Bill.

“Your friend is going to be okay. But I’m afraid the woman is dead.” He motioned toward Clawron’s body, which was being loaded onto another zero-G stretcher.

“Yeah. Well, no loss,” Bill said.

The medic just stared at Bill for a second and then said, “We’re taking your friend to the sick bay aboard the Candlelight. He’ll get the best possible treatment there.”

“Can I go along? I’ve never been aboard a stellacruiser before.”

“Sure. Captain North is expecting you.”

“Oh?” said Bill, a bit surprised. “How convenient.”

It was beginning to dawn on Bill that nobody was asking him any questions — like, who he was or who his passengers were or why the Philcani-tu Air Force had tried to vaporize the Wishone. Bill went back to the older man he’d left in the corridor by the mechmed.

“By the way, my name is Bill Jenkins,” he said, holding out his hand. “Just call me Bill.”

“I know,” the man said. It was the answer Bill expected. “I’m Alex Sandusky, chief non-com of the GSC Candlelight. Just call me Chief Sandusky. Or just Chief.” He smiled broadly, and the number of wrinkles on his face multiplied threefold. Sandusky’s huge, knobby hand enveloped Bill’s for a moment. “We found out all about you guys from the authorities back on Blue Marble. Brother, are they yelling for your hides. But my guess is they’ll drop most of the charges when the Council of Justice substantiates your claim that an assassination attempt was made on your passenger.”

“I hope you’re right, Chief. The fines alone could eat us alive.”

“Oh, there will be plenty of fines no matter what the Council of Justice does. But I don’t think you’ll have to go to prison.”

“Oh,” said Bill, looking a little pale. “That’s nice.”

“I don’t mean to sound nosy, but can you cover the fines?”

Bill sighed noisily. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Well look, if you and your buddy find yourselves in a bad way, you might consider a career in the Alliance Armed Forces.”

Bill studied the man’s face to see if he was joking. Apparently he wasn’t. “Thanks anyway,” said Bill.

“Captain North is authorized to approve contracts with new recruits. If you had a contract with the Alliance Armed Forces, it would make it almost impossible for the local authorities to throw you in jail or to seize all your property and assets. The most they could do would be to garnish your wages for a couple of years.”

Bill answered in a strained and impatient voice. “Yeah, well . . . that sounds real tempting, Chief, but no thanks.”

“Just a suggestion.”

Bill and Chief Sandusky walked into the cargo hold to watch Randy being carried out on the floating stretcher to the waiting stellascout, followed closely by Aganto. Another stellascout had landed behind it, and six men were climbing out. They had two floating stretcher for the bodies of the pilot and Clawron.

“Two of those guys will yank out the comatank and take it to the Candlelight,” said Sandusky.

As they approached the Wishone, the men made a wide detour around the body of the fighter pilot lying in the road. Bill and Chief Sandusky stepped aside to let the men pass into the ship. They went to work disconnecting the comatank containing Refnonali, then they activated its zero-g field and pulled it from its wall recess. The two men took hold of the handles on each end of the floating comatank and guided it down the corridor, through the lounge, and out the airlock. The comatank looked like a smooth black coffin with rounded edges and a transparent lid, a resemblance Bill had always found mildly disturbing.

As the two men headed for the stellascout, Sandusky stood at the open airlock, conferring via his headset with the Candlelight. When Sandusky finished speaking, Bill noticed that the man was gazing at the body of the fighter pilot while the medics strapped it to the zero-g stretcher. Sandusky turned to Bill and said, “Just out of curiosity, which one of you drew first?” He could see the pilot’s pistol laying several feet from the body.

“He did.”

“Hmmm. And you still managed to nail him right through the head. Were you really aiming for the head or were you just lucky?”

“Little of both. Any shot right in this general area would have done the job.” Bill indicated an imaginary line down the center of his face, neck, and chest.

“True,” said Sandusky. “That’s where all the important stuff is located: brain, windpipe, heart, lungs, and of course the spine.” His attitude toward the subject was one of professional detachment. An old soldier, Bill thought to himself. He’s seen death so often that it doesn’t move him anymore.

But Sandusky’s next remark surprised him. “I feel sorry for that poor bastard.”

“What?” said Bill.

“Hell, he was caught smack in the middle. We were monitoring his communications systems during our approach. He was in direct communication with some big general in the Philcani-tu Defense Ministry.” Sandusky pointed at the dead pilot. “This poor guy was ordered to get the documents you were carrying and get out of here before we arrived. They couldn’t just attack and destroy your ship without any provocation, because the Candlelight was already in visual range and they knew we were monitoring their com systems. If the Defense Ministry had ordered the destruction of your ship in plain view of an Alliance stellacruiser, it would have been a blatant admission of guilt on their part. Of course, when you opened fire on the fighter, it gave them an excuse to destroy you.”

Bill’s mouth was suddenly so dry he could hardly speak. “You mean . . . they wouldn’t have opened fire if I hadn’t shot the pilot?”

“Right.” Then Sandusky gave Bill a suspicious look. “Wait a second. You said he drew first.”

“He did. But I . . . sort of made him think that I was about to draw.”

“Aha. Then I guess he just acted in self-defense, eh?” said Sandusky. He noticed that Bill was gazing at the pilot’s body with a genuinely unhappy look. “Hey, I wouldn’t let it bother me if I were you. You had no way of knowing.”

“Yeah. Sure. But I know now.”

“True,” Sandusky studied Bill’s face for a moment, then he said, “Look, Jenkins — the way I see it, you were faced with a life-or-death situation, and you had to make a fast decision. You’re not being fair to yourself if you start using hindsight to judge the decision you made, because you didn’t have hindsight when you made it.”

Bill just nodded, then he turned away from the pilot’s body. He was glad when the medics lifted the zero-g stretcher and moved off.

Chief Sandusky motioned for Bill to follow him to the nearest stellascout. Bill told him to go ahead and that he would follow after he’d gathered a few personal belongings for himself and Randy. Bill dashed to his cabin and grabbed his toothbrush, razor, a change of clothes, and a few other things. He threw them into a carryall bag, then he went to Randy’s cabin and did the same thing. He opened the ship’s safe and collected all the currency it held, along with certain other valuables. He closed the safe and locked all the interior doors, then he left the Wishone, deliberately not looking back as he walked away.

He caught up with Sandusky just as the older man finished talking to another crewman and was about to board one of the two stellascouts. Behind the second stellascout, Bill saw that traffic on the blocked road was beginning to back up. Several local policemen had arrived, and they had set up a roadblock, which seemed a little unnecessary to Bill, since the Wishone was doing the job admirably and free of charge.

The cockpit of the stellascout was a bit like a goldfish bowl — a tapered bullet shape of transparent crystalsteel that gave the pilot and co-pilot a splendid view. Even the control panel had a wide gap between two banks of controls on each side of the pilot and co-pilot, allowing both men to look down between their feet and see right out the lower half of the transparent nose of the aircraft. Bill decided he wanted his own stellascout for Christmas.

There was seating for twelve additional people. Bill took a seat behind the co-pilot on the right side. Randy’s stretcher was in the aisle between the seats, well to the back. He had his eyes closed, so Bill didn’t disturb him, hoping that his friend was asleep. He deserved the rest.

As the stellascout lifted off, Bill looked down on the poor old Wishone, lying across the road with a line of annoyed motorists waiting for somebody to come and haul off the wreckage.

And here came the somebody. Bill saw another aircraft making a slow descent toward the Wishone. It was an ugly vessel, old and well dented, with large faded letters along its fuselage that read: NERAD WRECKER AND TOWING SERVICE.

“I’ll find out where they’re taking it,” Chief Sandusky said as he sat down on Bill’s left, across the aisle. Bill didn’t appear to have heard him. He wore a forlorn look as he watched the wrecker lower itself onto the Wishone. Several large mechanical arms unfolded from the aircraft’s sides, like a spider opening its legs as it dropped down onto a trapped fly. The analogy gave Bill an uncomfortable feeling. He watched the wrecker settle over the Wishone, and its multi-jointed legs adjusted themselves to the Wishone’s shape. By this time the stellascout was several hundred feet in the air. Bill stood up and looked over the shoulder of the co-pilot. The Wishone looked small and lonely and abandoned way down there. Bill hoped the man operating the wrecker would run an auxiliary line to the Wishone’s power systems and close her external hatches before he hauled her away. Bill was beginning to think of many things he should have done before abandoning his ship — like dumping all the perishables in the galley. Everything had happened so fast it dulled his mind.

But one thought dominated everything else. Bill Jenkins was very glad that he and Randy were still alive.


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