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The Wishbone Express - Chapter 17

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Sun Feb 01, 2015 11:14 pm    Post subject: The Wishbone Express - Chapter 17 Reply with quote




Chapter 17


Six minutes later the courier cycle arrived at the spaceport’s outer perimeter. The airborne river of flying vehicles dispersed in all directions, some headed for the terminal’s main entrance, some headed for the freight terminal where cargo was processed, and others going straight to various spacecraft resting on their assigned landing pads or designated hangars.



Knievel spoke happy words into Bill’s headphones. “I just received word that Judge Summerhill has arranged for us to go directly to hangar fifty-five where the Wishbone currently resides. He asked me to remind you that he needs the complete data log from the Wishbone in thirty minutes . . . or else.”

Bill mulled over those last two words for a second, then he said, “Or else what?”

Knievel sounded sympathetic even though he didn’t understand the situation. “I’m not sure, Bill. Shall I call him back and ask?”

“No. Definitely no. Don’t do that,” Bill said quickly. “We’ll just get that download ready and on its way back to him in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Maybe even one shake.”

The spaceport field was huge, seemingly endless, undoubtedly the biggest that Bill had ever seen, and so Bill breathed a sigh of relief when he finally caught sight of the semi-private hangars that lined one edge of the field. There were two hundred hangars, twenty rows of them, ten hangars per row. In the fifth row was hangar number fifty-five, and inside number fifty-five was the dear old Wishbone — or what was left of her. Bill had done some repairs, mostly the communication systems. He hoped she was in good enough shape to get him out of trouble just one more time.

The hangars were set at a forty-five degree angle from the taxi lane, with a short lane forking off toward each angled hangar.



However, at the end of each row was a doublewide hangar whose doors opened straight out onto the taxiway that ran between the two rows of hangars. This was Bill’s final destination. Knievel guided the cycle into the hangar, dropped the retractable supports, and set it down gentle a few meters inside the big door. In front of Bill was the Wishbone, her stern looking like the end of a half-chewed stick of beef jerky. As the cycle’s ramjet engine wound down, Bill fumbled impatiently with the release for the safety harness, threw it off his body, leaped off the cycle, and hurried over to the hangar door’s control box. He grabbed the handle, yanking it down hard. The motors whined, the big doors shook and rumbled, and Bill watched anxiously as they started sliding closed. A warning buzzer filled the hangar as the doors slowly narrowed the gap. Very slowly. Bill nervously danced back and forth from one foot to another like a kindergartener badly in need of a bathroom break. The closing hangar doors narrowed the gap to thirty feet . . . twenty feet . . . ten feet . . . and finally they thudded closed like the jaws of a hungry dinosaur. Bill studied the control panel until he figured out how to lock the doors from the inside.

Bill spoke quickly into the helmet mike. “I’ll be right back, Knievel. Gotta get that stuff for Judge Summerhill.”

“We seem to have gotten here well ahead of the people in the other vehicle,” Knievel said politely. “Will they know where to find us?”

“Oh, yes indeed,” said Bill. “Don’t worry about them, pal.”

He heard Knievel giving a courteous reply as he yanked off the cycle’s helmet and placed it on the seat. Knievel didn’t have to worry about the men, but Bill certainly did. Since Bill had deliberately evaded the court clerks, preventing them from serving the legal papers, they would undoubtedly notify the police to have Bill arrested and forced to accept the documents. For all they knew, Bill had partially repaired the Wishbone and was planning on using it to leave Philcani-tu so that the spacecraft couldn’t be confiscated.

Bill ran toward the other aircraft that shared hangar fifty-five with the Wishbone. It was a two-man jet fighter, roughly the same size as the ones that had been sent to destroy the Wishbone, although this one was a couple of obsolete models older.



It was battered and worn, and it bore no government markings because it was privately owned by Mr. Joshua Clanton — who was also battered and worn and a couple of obsolete models older. Joshua was a wiry, weather-beaten little man, tough and cynical and not extremely likeable. During the two weeks the Wishbone had shared hangar fifty-five with Joshua Clanton’s aging fighter, Bill had gotten to know the old man a little — just enough to realize that Clanton wanted no part of any friendship with Bill or anybody else. But Clanton was, above all, a businessman — and Bill possessed something the old man wanted.

As Bill approached the fighter, Clanton was standing up in the open cockpit, a tool in one hand with a hard look of disapproval and puzzlement on his face.

“Thought you were going to be in court all day, Jenkins.”

Bill skidded to a halt against a tool cart located near the rolling stairway leading up to the fighter’s cockpit. Bill spoke hastily as he started digging around among the tools.

“I need to borrow your laser welder. Is it here?”

“Why?” the old man said suspiciously.

“Ah! Got it! Thanks.” Bill pulled the welding tool from the pile. The floor around the tool cart was littered with discarded parts and material, the residue of Joshua’s efforts to complete a major overhaul on his aircraft. He’d been working on it since well before the Wishbone had arrived. Bill picked up two twelve-inch strips of scrap metal. “I need to borrow these, too. Be right back.”

“Hey! Where’re you going with that? Come back here!”

Bill ran past the Wishbone to the left side of the hangar where one of the two pedestrian entrances were located. He fully expected to see policemen pouring through the door when he got there, but luckily they hadn’t arrived yet. Quickly Bill used the laser torch to weld the heavy metal door shut.

When he ran back across the hangar to the pedestrian door on the opposite side, Joshua Clanton shouted angrily at him, but Bill paid no heed. Seconds later Bill had welded the second door shut. He hoped that when the two court clerks arrived with the police, they would assume the pedestrian doors were locked, and they would send for the manager of the rental hangars to bring the master key. After all, they had Bill bottled up in the hangar, so they didn’t need to damage private property by blasting the doors open.

Bill ran back to Clanton, who still stood in the open cockpit of his fighter. The older man was studying Bill warily, wondering if he should sit down in the cockpit and close the canopy, just to be on the safe side. Bill was keenly aware that he had very little time to enact the insane plan he had devised, but the first thing he had to do was talk the old man into being a part of it — and that was going to require some salesmanship.

Joshua Clanton made his living in much the same manner as Randy and Bill had done; he provided express delivers to almost anywhere on Philcani-tu. The eight missiles the fighter had been equipped with back when it was used by the military had been replaced by four reaction engine boosters — two on each wing — that enabled the aircraft to reach low orbit and travel much farther and faster than its jet engines would have. A series of altitude thrusters had been added around the fuselage, permitting Clanton to maneuver when he was above Philcani-tu’s atmosphere.

The difference between Clanton’s business and the Wishbone Express, Inc. was that Clanton operated largely outside the law. His client’s hired him to transport illegal goods, contraband material, and high-priced taxable imports and exports.

During the past two weeks while Clanton had been repairing his fighter, he had expressed a keen interest in buying the Wishbone. Bill had come to realize that old Joshua Clanton wanted to get off Philcani-tu, and he apparently had the resources necessary to repair the Wishbone — at least enough to make her an interplanetary shuttle. His long-range plan, Bill gathered, was to save up the money needed to someday replace the totally destroyed hyperdrive engines. Joshua’s interest in the poor, ravaged Wishbone represented Bill Jenkins’s one slim hope for escaping Philcani-tu before the local judicial system condemned him to virtual slave labor.

Despite the impatience Bill felt, he made himself appear reasonably calm as he approached the old man, who was still standing in the open cockpit of his fighter, looking down at Bill with unconcealed suspicion. Bill gave Clanton his very best boyish grin, and he began to make his pitch.

“Joshua, my friend, I find myself in a rather unenviable situation,” Bill began. “My lawyer has informed me that certain parties are attempting to impound the Wishbone.” This announcement produced a quick look of alarm on the old man’s carefully guarded expression. This was the reaction Bill had hoped for. “They haven’t served the papers to me yet, so the Wishbone is still mine, free and clear. Unfortunately, that will cease to be the case the moment two nasty court officials and a few policemen manage to get into this hanger.”

Well-oiled wheels were turning in Joshua Clanton’s head, and he let the merest suggestion of a smile cross his face for a moment as he gazed down at Bill. The game was afoot.

“Sure sounds like you’re in a bind, Jenkins.”

“You bet your treasured backside I am, Josh! I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do.” Bill scratched his head for a moment and squinted his face up into a picture of perplexity. “If only I had somebody to sell the Wishbone to before those bloodsuckers steal it from me.”

Casually the old man looked around the hangar. “Hmmm. Nobody here but us.”

“Well, now, that does narrow my options a bit.”

“It does indeed,” said Clanton. He looked over at the Wishbone for a moment, then he said, “What about your partner? Doesn’t he own part of it?”

“We’ve got each other’s power of attorney. No problem.”

“I see. Hmmm. It’s a shame she’s so beat up. Practically worthless — ”

“Not true, Josh!” Bill said with a smile. “Why, I’ve got her electronics system fully repaired. The weapons system still needs a little work. The hull needs patching up, of course, and the hyperdrive engine is — ”

“Scrap metal, I know. You make it sound like a weekend repair job, Jenkins,” Clanton said, smiling, shaking his head slowly to show how unimpressed he was.

“Ah, come on, Josh. Be fair. The navigational computer alone is worth a tidy sum. And with a little money and a little work, that ship can sail the sea of stars again!” Bill said grandly. He cast a visibly scornful look at Clanton’s aging fighter. “Admit it, Josh. This thing can’t even leave Philcani-tu, much less the star system — ”

“At least it can fly!” said Clanton heatedly. “Which is more than your ship can do.”

Bill gave the older man a look of surprise. “Oh, it’s all fixed, is it?”

“Not entirely, but it’s in a lot better shape than the Wishbone,” Joshua said firmly.

“Well that’s great, Josh. I guess you don’t need a real starship then, hmmm?”

Joshua studied the Wishbone for a long moment and then casually said, “Well . . . I might consider helping you out of your jam. If the price is right. What are you asking?”

“The price is real reasonable, Josh. In fact, it’s practically a steal. But it’s also non-negotiable. I think you’ll understand why when I tell you what it is.”

“Now, don’t be too inflexible — ”

“I want to trade ships with you, Josh.”

There was a dumbfounded pause, followed by, “What?”

“A straight swap. The Wishbone for your fighter. I need it to get away.”

Clanton stared at Bill for a few seconds, then he said, “You’re serious? You want my ship, here and now? You’re going to outrun the police in my — but where will you go? They’ll track you to any place on the planet.”

“I’m leaving the planet, Josh. I’m going up to an Alliance stellacruiser that’s in a low orbit.”

“You’re crazy, Jenkins! What makes you think this Alliance ship will even let you dock — much less give you sanctuary from the authorities.”

“That’s just a chance I’ll have to take,” Bill said anxiously, his impatience getting the best of him. “Come on, Josh, it’ll work! And even it if doesn’t, that’s my worry. The Wishbone will belong to you, and you can get off this screwed-up planet. Josh . . . you gotta say yes. I’m running outta time.”

Joshua Clanton didn’t know what to say to this madman. He wanted the Wishbone, but he didn’t want to send Bill Jenkins to his death by getting shot down as a wanted criminal.

“What about the cockpit, Jenkins? The canopy isn’t fixed, yet, and it won’t seal against the vacuum.”

“Don’t worry about it, Clanton. I’ve got all that figured out. Say yes and let’s get the legalities over with!”

Someone banged on the hangar doors for a moment and then stopped. Bill gave Clanton a pleading look. The old man gazed at the Wishbone for several seconds, and finally he said, “All right. Deal. But if you get yourself killed, it’s not my fault. Ummm . . . You said the communication system is fixed?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, you go make the call to the Alliance Central Records Division while I clear my stuff off my ship. Then I’ll come over and we’ll finalize the transfer of ownership.”

Bill was off and running. He hurried aboard the Wishbone and powered up the communicator while Clanton moved his personal effects off his fighter. In less than two minutes, Bill was in touch via jinn wave with the Central Records Division of Alliance Stellamaritime Registry. He tried not to think about what he was doing as he went through the elaborate procedure that legally transferred ownership of the Wishbone. There were identification codes and retinal scans and handprint scans, all done right from the Wishbone’s cockpit while a computer located thousands of light years away listened attentively and gave the ISY Wishbone to its new owner.

Several minutes later Joshua Clanton came aboard his new ship and joined Bill in the cockpit. He carefully went through his own part of the transfer, taking ownership of the Wishbone and transferring ownership of his fighter (which had no name, just a twelve-digit number) to Bill — and Bill already regretted it. But there was no other choice. The wolves were at the door.

“Hey, I almost forgot,” said Bill as they were concluding the transaction. “You’ll have to officially change the Wishbone’s name.”

“What? Wait a second, Jenkins. You told me you had clear title to this ship. What’s with this name-changing business?”

“I haven’t got time to explain. Don’t worry, the ship is yours. But you’ll save yourself a monumental amount of annoyance if you’ll just register an official name change. It’ll protect your interests as well as mine.”

“I’m warning you, Jenkins. If you’re trying to pull something — ”

“Pick a name, Clanton! I don’t have time to fart around!”

Joshua Clanton looked angry, suspicious, and insulted, all at once. But after a moment of huffing and puffing, he said, “All right. Ummm, I’ll call it the, uh . . . the Lucky Dog.”

Bill hated it instantly, but he knew the reason he hated it was mostly because it was symbolic of the fact that this ship was no longer his. In fact, the Wishbone wasn’t even the Wishbone anymore.

“Okay. Great. Let’s send that off to central records now.” Bill typed at the console for a moment, then he said, “And now I’m going to name my new fighter.” He typed at the console again, and Clanton read the results over his shoulder.

“What? The Wishbone! So that’s it! You just wanted that name for yourself.”

“Not true,” said Bill as he broke the jinn wave link with central records and then rose from the chair.

“Yeah? Well, fine! Who wants that stupid name anyway?” Clanton said angrily as he followed Bill out of the cockpit and through the lounge. “I’d have changed the name anyway. And I’m going to make plenty of other changes, too,” he said as he looked around the lounge. Bill had ducked into his own cabin and was throwing a few of his personal belongings into a small shoulder bag. “Yes, sir,” Clanton was saying. “You won’t know this ship in a few weeks. I’m going to spruce it up some. It’s too Spartan. Too plain.”

Bill dashed into to Randy’s cabin and threw a few of Randy’s things into the bag.

“Look, Josh, I need a favor,” he said quickly. “While you’re redecorating your newly acquired love nest, can you crate up all the stuff belonging to me and Randy and send it to us later.”

“That could cost a fortune — ”

“We’ll pay you. And be sure not to accidentally leave out anything, either.” He paused and then said firmly, “We would miss them.” Bill looked around hurriedly for anything he might want to take with him. But it was useless to even think about it, because he wanted to take everything with him — including the ship. “Aaaaw . . . crap,” he said in disgust, then he hurried back toward the cargo hold.

Outside the hangar there were three police vehicles, two of which slowly circled the building, while the third was on the ground near the big doors Bill had locked from the inside. The two men with the court document had been the first to arrive, and they were furious about Bill locking himself in the hanger. There had been some difficulty in getting official permission to cut through the doors: the port authority police were haggling on the communicator with the municipal police who were there to arrest Bill. Nobody had been able to find the manager of the rental hangars, so the police still thought the big doors and the side doors were locked from the inside.

Confusion reigned supreme, but finally the port authority police consented to let the municipal police cut through one of the pedestrian doors at the side of the hangar. They sent for a maintenance man with a cutting torch. More waiting.

During this time the two men with the court document complained repeatedly about the delay in arresting Bill. The policemen, who were in a very bad mood by this time, threatened to arrest the two men.

Finally a maintenance man arrived with a laser torch, but when he was told that the manager of the rental hangars hadn’t given permission to cut open the side door, he refused to do it. The policemen told him there was a fugitive hiding in the hangar. The maintenance man wanted to see the warrant for the fugitive’s arrest and the court order allowing them to damage private property.

The police got the man’s supervisor on the phone, explained the situation to him, and threatened to jail him if he obstructed justice. The supervisor told the maintenance man to cut the lock on the door or pick up his pink slip before he went home. The maintenance man spent several minutes slicing out a small, round hole in the door, a hole big enough for someone to reach in and unlock it. After waiting for the hot metal around the hole to cool, one of the policemen reached in . . . and discovered the door wasn’t locked.

More arguments ensued. The maintenance man suggested that the door might be welded shut from the inside at some point (or points) along the sides, tops, or bottom. Without knowing exactly where it was welded, he would have to cut it loose all the way around. This would take considerable time, but nobody had a better idea, so the maintenance man went to work. The municipal police wanted to blast the door, but the port authority police didn’t want to be responsible for that much property damage, so they all argued about it while the maintenance man did his slow work. The two men with the court documents complained about the delay. Everybody ignored them.

Inside the hangar, Bill was finishing up his elaborate plans to escape from the Planet of Doom. He was wearing his spacesuit and carrying the helmet as he walked up to the courier cycle, and slipped the black helmet on so he could talk to the amazing nav computer that had done so much for him already.

“Knievel, I have a very important assignment for you.”

“Certainly, Bill. How can I help?

“The vitally important data which Judge Summerhill needs is in the data storage unit in your cargo bin. I’ll put the helmet in there too after we finish talking. I need you to fly yourself back to the courthouse. Call Judge Summerhill and have him send a bailiff to the carpool to retrieve it. Can you do that?”

“Of course, Bill. I’m allowed to self-navigate within city limits to return the cycle to the carpool when a rider is finished with it.”

“Hot damn, Knievel, you’re amazing,” Bill said, smiling fondly at the sleek, black ramjet cycle. “Now, there’s one last little favor I have to ask. This is gonna sound completely nuts, but I don’t have time to explain it.”

“I’m here to help, Bill. What is it?”

Bill quickly told Knievel what he planned to do.

*

Ten minutes later, when the maintenance man had cut about halfway around the pedestrian door, everybody heard the big hangar doors start grinding open. The policemen went running around to the front of the hangar. When the expanding gap between the big doors was still less than twenty feet wide, a sleek black shape came roaring out at almost ground level. It was the cycle, and a space-suited figure clung to it as it shot away from the hangar. Gaining altitude slowly, the cycle went straight down the road between the two rows of hangars. The police vehicles were lifting off as hastily as their pilots could climb into them. They looked like a flock of startled birds, nearly colliding with each other in their eagerness to get airborne. The chase was on again.

The maintenance man and the two men with the court papers ran out in front of the hangar to watch the police soar off in pursuit of the cycle. They tried to shout comments to each other, but the noise was too loud.

Neither the policemen nor the three men in front of the hangar realized that their attention was focused in the wrong direction. The hangar doors had continued to open, and as they did, a rising engine noise filled the air. When the doors were sixty feet apart, a second aircraft came thundering through the gap — the battered old jet fighter, formerly owned by Joshua Clanton, now owned and piloted by Bill Jenkins. Supported by its VSTOL jet thrusters, the fighter floated out of the hangar atop a cloud of swirling dust that was torn from the blacktop beneath it. The men in front of the hangar turned when they heard the noise, and they stood there in stunned amazement as the fighter drifted toward them, its landing gear still almost grazing the blacktop. The men dove to the ground as the fighter soared over their heads, and the hot hurricane from its jet thrusters whipped at their hair and clothing. The landing gear folded up into the aircraft’s body while the jet moved past, and then it rotated on its axis until its long, streamlined nose swung around to point at the men, turning its back on the retreating police vehicles. The cockpit canopy was open, and the men saw Bill Jenkins inside, dressed in his spacesuit, grinning at them through the open visor of his helmet. The sound of Bill’s laughter was lost in the roar of the jet engines as the fighter tilted forward and started to climb rapidly while it soared back over the three men. The cockpit canopy slid forward and sealed shut as the fighter rose. When the fighter’s engines came up to full throttle, they shook the air and rattled the teeth of the stunned onlookers. The fighter’s needle-like nose nearly brushed the edge of the hangar’s roof before it went over the top and disappeared from view.



Meanwhile, the cycle had just reached the edge of the spaceport field when Knievel dutifully complied with the policemen’s radioed demands that it land at once. The policemen leaped out of their vehicles and surrounded the courier cycle, weapons drawn and aimed at the helmet of the rider. They shouted at him to raise his hands and dismount the bike, but they got no response. Since the rider was motionless, one policeman suggested that the rider couldn’t hear them through the helmet. The brave law officer approached the rider cautiously — and noticed that his hands were attached to the handlebars with insulation tape. The officer holstered his pistol, released the helmet’s latches, and twisted it off. Air rushed out of the suit, and it deflated atop the courier cycle.

It was Randy Henson’s damaged spacesuit — inflated by its own air supply and held atop the cycle by the safety harness and some hastily wound insulation tape that attached the gloves to the handle grips. The boots were jammed down into the slots that enclosed the pedals. Bill had sealed the space suit’s sliced-up arm with more tape.

As the policemen gathered around the courier cycle, scratching their heads, Knievel spoke through a speaker in front of the handlebars.

“Gentlemen, I have Judge Summerhill online, and he demands that you escort me to the courthouse so I can deliver important evidence to the Court of Inquiry. He says he’s holding the senior officer responsible for the delay if the evidence is not delivered in ten minutes.”

All the policemen turned as pale as a new father with quintuplets. They started scrambling into their vehicles like the Titanic survivors on the last lifeboat. The officer holding the helmet jammed it back onto the neck ring, and the suit began to re-inflate. One officer hesitated just long enough to ask the question they were all thinking.

“Is this empty spacesuit the important evidence the judge needs?”

“No,” said Knievel. “The suit is just a joke.”

The officer was silent for a few seconds, then he said, “I don’t get it.”

“I don’t either,” said Knievel.

*

“Okay, Josh, I got the landing gear up,” Bill said into his spacesuit mike as he rose above the spaceport. “What do I do now?”

“What’s your airspeed indicator say?” Joshua replied through the headphones in Bill’s helmet. Bill was wearing his full spacesuit, despite the fact that this made the fighter’s cockpit very cramped. The suit’s com system was linked to the fighter’s communicator to give it the power needed to reach Joshua Clanton in the ISY Wishbone as Bill left it far behind.



“Air speed indicator . . . uh . . . give me a hint, Josh, I can’t find — ”

“A little to the right of dead center, high on the panel. The numbers glow blue.”

Thank goodness for color-coding, Bill thought to himself. He found the airspeed indicator and read the glowing numbers. 523 kilometers per hour, 587, 612

“Six hundred twelve kph and climbing fast, Josh.”

“Good Lord! That fast already? I must have fixed the engines pretty good, eh? I’m sorry I traded it.”

“Sorry, all sales are final,” said Bill. “Now, get back to business. What do I do now?”

“Cut the lifting thrusters. Have you done that yet?”

“I pushed that separate throttle back down. Did that do it?”

“No, you gotta flip the red switch to seal the thruster nozzles. The switch above the thruster throttle. See it?”

“Got it. Now I can just fly it normally?”

“One more thing. You want to gain altitude fast, right? Okay, kick in the after-burner.”

“Oh, yeah. Where’s the switch for that?”

“On the joy stick. A recessed red button between the first and third buttons.”

Bill thumbed the button down. The deep roar of the engine suddenly got deeper and louder, and Bill was slammed back into the seat as the fighter surged forward. He pulled the joy stick back close to his stomach, and the fighter went into a steep climb. It punched through a thin cloud layer and raced toward the deep blue sky overhead.



“Ow-weee! This thing’s got a kick to it, Josh!” Bill exclaimed. Then he said, “By the way, please tell me air traffic control gave me permission to liftoff when you called them.”

“Yes, yes, don’t worry. I said it just like you told me to: Spacecraft designated Wishbone, owned by Randy Henson and Bill Jenkins requesting immediate left off, et cetera, et cetera.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Josh. I’m in enough trouble without added another illegal liftoff to my list of crimes. Now, walk me through the procedure for firing up the booster rockets.”

Joshua paused for a moment and then said, “Jenkins, are you sure you want to do this?”

“I’ve got to. No choice. Come on, tell me what to do.”

In the cockpit of the Wishbone (now named the Lucky Dog) Joshua Clanton closed his eyes and pictured the control panel in the fighter. He knew the control panel intimately, so he raised his hands and started flipping invisible switches. Then he spoke to Bill.

“First you’ve got to enter an activation code into the computer. See the console at the front of the right armrest?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Type what I tell you.” Clanton gave Bill an eight-digit code. Bill had some trouble typing on the console with the insulated gloves on his spacesuit. He was also inconvenienced by the fact that the life support pack on his back was forcing him to sit too far forward on the seat. The console on the armrest was below his wrist instead of being in front of his hand.

The fighter was in a steep climb, heading upward at full throttle toward the darkening blue of the clear sky. His speed was up to 1,770 kilometers per hour and his altitude was already over 21,000 meters. The jet engine would eventually begin to lose its effectiveness in the thinning air when he rose above 35,000 meters.

“All right, Josh, the display screen is flashing the words retro boosters armed, so I must have done it right. What now?”

“See the booster control section, on the lower left side? Two square buttons labeled retro set A and retro set B? One is blue, the other is green, and they’ll light up when you push them.”

“Uh . . . yeah, I see ‘em.”

“Above those buttons is a toggle switch which has a safety cover. That one will fire the set of retros when you select one. They automatically fire in pairs, of course, or you’d start spinning like a top until you flew apart.”

“So what do I do first?”

“Raise the safety cover and flip the toggle switch.”

Bill did it. “Okay, what now?”

“Select the booster set you want to fire.”

“Okay, but . . . should I hit A or B?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Okay. Uh . . . I’ll go alphabetically. I’ll push A first.”

Bill heard Josh snicker. “You’re anal, Jenkins.”

“Maybe, but I’m also boyish and charming.”

“Anal people always think that.” Another snicker from Josh.

“Can we get back to work now, please?” said Bill

“If you insist.”

Bill suspected that Josh Clanton was in a good mood for the first time in his life because he had just acquired the Wishbone, the greatest starship in the galaxy. The thought saddened Bill and he wanted to get busy to take his mind off it. He pushed the blue retro set A button and it lit up.

One second latter Bill Jenkins got a swift kick in the ass when the outer two boosters erupted with long flames which pushed the aircraft’s speed steadily upward. The sky went from blue to indigo on its way to pitch-black. As it did so, Bill remembered why he was willing to take this monumental risk. He gazed through the helmet’s visor and the aircraft’s canopy while the black velvet of space presented the bright points of light that were the children of the galaxy.



In the cockpit of the newly christened Lucky Dog, Joshua Clanton paused for a moment, then he said, “Jenkins, are you sure you want to go through with this? It’s not too late to change your mind. You’re in an unfamiliar aircraft attempting to rendezvous with an Alliance ship which might blow you out of the sky or just be nice by telling you to go to hell.”

Bill wasn’t a bit sure. But he didn’t like any of his other choices either. He smiled and said, “Aaaah, Josh, if I never did anything until I was certain about it, I’d never do anything at all.”

Joshua Clanton gave an audible sigh — or maybe it was a snort of disgust, Bill didn’t know which. “You’re insane, Jenkins. You’re really insane. I’m beginning to wonder how you’ve managed to live as long as you have.”

“The secret of my longevity, Josh, is clean living, deep breathing, and an apple a day, rain or shine. Also, one must avoid boredom at all costs. Death is the ultimate boredom, and therefore boredom is the first stage of death. Avoid ‘em both. Simple logic. Think about it, Josh.” There was no reply, and after a few seconds Bill said, “Josh? You still there? Yo, Josh?”

A moment later Clanton came back on line and spoke excitedly. “Jenkins! I went down to the air lock to check out a noise I heard, and the hangar is swarming with policemen! They want to take me downtown for questioning!”

“You mean . . . you missed the speech I just made?”

“What? Oh, yeah, I guess I did. Was it something important?”

“Oh, nothing much, just my secret formula for immortality, that’s all.”

“You’re what?”

“Nope, nope, nope. Too late, now. You blew it, Josh.”

“Jenkins, be serious for once in your life. They might arrest me for helping you! I’m surprised they haven’t broken in on our conversation — though I must admit, with you talking nobody else can get a word in edgewise.”

“Now, now, Josh. Let’s not quarrel when we’ve got so little time left to be together. Besides, you don’t have to worry about being arrested. You made a legal transaction in which we traded ships, duly registered by — ” Bill stopped when several blips on his radar display caught his eye. He starred at them long enough to be certain they were headed straight for him. And suddenly he had a terrible thought.

“Uh-oh. Tell me something, Josh. Do you think some high mucky-muck in the Philcani-tu government still thinks he can destroy the incriminating evidence in the Wishbone’s log? After all, my good friend Knievel might not have made it back to Judge Summerhill with the copy of the log, and you told air traffic control that the Wishbone was lifting off from the spaceport. So I’m thinkin’ somebody believes I’m in the ISY Wishbone trying to get off the planet with information that could send important people to jail.”

Bill waited several seconds for Josh to answer, but there was only silence. “Hey, Josh? You gone again?”

A strange voice answered. “ISY Wishbone, this is Renegade 7. Do you copy? Over.”

Uh-oh, thought Bill. This ain’t good. He answered quickly. “Renegade 7, this is Wishbone. Go ahead.”

Renegade 7 to Wishbone, we have orders to escort you back to Vyconig Spaceport. You are in possession of data needed by the Alliance Court of Inquiry. Reverse course immediately and begin your decent. Over.”

This was the last thing Bill expected to hear. He had sent the copy of the Wishbone’s log back to the courthouse with the courier cycle, and he had turned over ownership of the Wishbone to Josh Clanton. Something screwy was going on, no doubt about it.

Renegade 7 , I do not — repeat, do not — have the data the Court of Inquiry wants. It’s already been sent to them. Over.”

Renegade 7 to Wishbone, our orders are to escort you back to the spaceport. Begin your decent now. We’re armed with air-to-air missiles, and we’re prepared to use them. You are hereby ordered to return immediately to Vyconig Spaceport. Do you copy? Over.”

Bloody hell! Bill said to himself. The Court of Inquiry sent fighters up after me with orders to shoot to kill! And I’m as helpless as the proverbial squatting water fowl in this unarmed relic.

Then a wacky thought hit Bill squarely between the eyes.

Wait a minute, why would they threaten to shoot me down just because they think I have the copy of the Wishbone’s log? They certainly won’t get the data if they blow me up!

Bill was quick to offer this argument to the voice in his headset. “Renegade 7, I’ve already given my testimony to the Court of Inquiry and I’ve provided them with a copy of the data logs from my ship. There is no reason for me to return to Philcani-tu. Over.”

There was a long pause, and Bill waited to see if he was actually going to talk himself out of this new jam that easily.

Wishbone, this is Renegade 7. We do not have confirmation that the Court of Inquiry received your data log copy. Over.”

Now Bill was really puzzled. Did Knievel not make it back to the courthouse with the data storage unit? If he did deliver it, the Court of Inquiry didn’t need Bill any more. But if Knievel did not deliver the data storage unit, why would the Court of Inquiry send fighters after Bill? They could get the data directly from the Wishbone’s computer!

Bill sat there running the problem around in his head like a farmer at the State Fair in a greased pig contest. And then suddenly Bill realized what was actually happening.

When Bill had outsmarted the lawyers by trading ships with Josh Clanton, he had put himself right back in the deadly cross hairs of the Philcani-tu government and their off-world conspirators — the ones who had been trying to destroy the Wishbone since it had left Blue Marble. They were under the misconception that he still possessed the data storage unit and he was leaving Philcani-tu in the ISY Wishbone with all the incriminating evidence still in her own computer.

Judge Summerhill and the Court of Inquiry had no reason to tell any Philcani-tu government official that they were now in possession of the Wishbone’s data log. These six fighters had not been ordered to bring him back by the Court of Inquiry — they had been order to destroy him by the corrupt government that still desperately wanted to erase the incriminating evidence which the Wishbone’s log contained.

Frantically Bill tried to set the record straight. “Renegade 7, this is Bill Jenkins, former owner of the ISY Wishbone. You’re making a mistake, pal. I’m not flying the starship you think I am. I’m flying an old modified jet fighter used by a smuggler who — well, never mind the long version, here’s the short version. I’m just trying to get off this lovely planet of yours before somebody insists I become a long-term resident because of the money I owe them.”

There was a short pause during which Bill held his breath and hoped for the best. But when the pilot’s voice spoke again, he didn’t sound the least bit happy. “Jenkins, the only ship registered in your name is the ISY Wishbone, a converted C-class stellayacht. Your speed and altitude are way too high for jet fighter. Our orders are to escort you back to the spaceport or prevent you from leaving Philcani-tu. Over.”

The fighter pilot didn’t know that the Bill’s jet had rocket boosters. And apparently the news of the trade between Bill Jenkins and Josh Clanton hadn’t filtered down to the authorities on Philcani-tu yet — not surprising in view of the fact that the legal transaction had taken place light years away on the planet which held the central records division of the Alliance Stellamaritime Registry. All these folks knew was that a ship named the Wishbone had requested clearance to left off, and Bill Jenkins was trying to leave the planet.

Bill decided to try his friendly-and-disarming act. “Wow, I guess you’re right. Okay, I give up. It’ll take me a minute to disengage the autopilot to go to manual. My ship was badly damaged when I landed on Philcani-tu and the systems are a bit glitchy.”

Bill switched the communicator over to the full-spectrum frequency which any Alliance starship would receive, and then he started speaking rapidly. “Wishbone calling Galactic Stellacruiser Candlelight, come in Candlelight. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Do you copy?”

Bill repeated this message several times before he got an answer. A deep, crisp, well-modulated voice burst from the headset in his helmet, speaking in a cadence so rapid that it awed Bill.

Wishbone, this is the GSC Candlelight. We copy. Give us your position, your situation, and any suggestions as to how we may assist you, over.”

It all came out so fast that it took Bill a second to form a reply. First he had to replay all the different statements in his head.

“Uh . . . yeah, okay, never mind my position, my situation, and my suggestions. What I need is your position, Candlelight. I am an unarmed aircraft — repeat, an unarmed aircraft — and I am being pursued by military aircraft who are threatening to fire on me. I need your protection. Please give me your current orbital position in relation to standardized grid coordinates, altitude, and velocity. I’ll try to reach you. Copy, Candlelight?”

The answer came back in seconds. “This is Candlelight. We copy. Stand by for data on our current orbital position.” A series of coordinates followed, and Bill’s gloved fingers moved carefully over the computer keyboard, typing in the data for his own nav computer.

“Thanks, Candlelight. With luck I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Give us your position so we can rendezvous with you. Repeat, give us your posi — ”

“Negative, negative!” Bill said hastily. “Please, I haven’t got time to explain. Just hold your present course and . . . well, don’t fire on me when I get there, okay? Remember, I am unarmed. This is Wishbone, out.”

Bill knew that if the Candlelight came racing to his rescue again like it had two weeks ago, the pilots of the six fighters on his tail might end up as dead as the ones who were destroyed right after the Wishbone had crashed. Bill had shot one of the pilots himself, something he was not very proud of, even though it had been in self-defense. These were just soldiers following orders, pawns in this planetary struggle. Bill Jenkins didn’t want these men to die because they were carrying out orders issued by corrupt superiors, based on misinformation.

Bill switched back to the frequency on which the pursuing fighters had contacted him, then he said, “Hey, guys, you still there?”

Renegade 7 to Wishbone — Yes, Jenkins, we’re still here,” the pilot said sternly. “Apparently, you have no intention of complying with my order to return to the spaceport.” There was a long pause, then, “Hey, are you listening, Jenkins? Do you want to die?”

“No, as a matter of fact I don’t,” Bill said sincerely. “Question is, do you want to kill me?”

There was a brief silence. Then, in a puzzled tone, “Repeat your last transmission.”

“Are you going to shoot me down if I refuse to go back with you?”

There was another brief pause. “Our orders are to bring you and the Wishbone back. If you refuse to return, we are authorized to use extreme force. I strongly recommend that you turn that spacecraft around.”

That told Bill what he needed to know. The pilot was a loyal soldier in the middle of a global political situation that threatened the stability of his government. The lives of billions were being effected. He was following orders without question.

Wishbone to Renegade 7. I’m sorry, my friend, but I just can’t do that,” Bill said sadly. “I don’t like working for other people. Never have.” Bill paused for a moment as he studied the displays on the control panel, checking to see if he’d prepared everything properly. There appeared to be nothing left to do but say a fond farewell to Philcani-tu. With that in mind, Bill keyed the mike open.

“Listen carefully, pal. The civil authorities have orders to confiscate my ship, the Wishbone. Tell them they can have it, with my blessing. In fact, I’d just love to give it to them personally. But I’m a little pressed for time, so I guess they’re going to have to come up here and get it. You see, this ship is now officially the Wishbone — this antique aircraft I’m flying. Check with the central records division of the Alliance Stellamaritime Registry. Whenever those greedy bloodsuckers want it, they’ll find it up here, in a nice safe orbit. Bye-bye.”

Bill didn’t wait for a reply. He switched the communicator back to the Candlelight’s frequency and then turned his attention to the switches that controlled the boosters. Retro set B was armed and ready. He made one last check of the coordinates on the display screen, the coordinates of the destination his unusual aircraft was locked onto — the coordinates that marked the orbital position of the Galactic Stellacruiser Candlelight


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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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