By R. DeWITT MILLER
Illustrated by FRANCIS
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction April 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
There were no vacuums in Space Regulations,
so Swenson—well, you might say he knew how to
plot courses through sub-ether legality!
It was on October 15, 2177, that Swenson staggered into the offices of Acme Interplanetary Express and demanded a job as dispatcher.
They threw him out. They forgot to lock the door. The next time they threw him out, they remembered to lock the door but forgot the window.
The dingy office was on the ground floor and Swenson was a tall man. When he came in the window, the distraught Acme Board of Directors realized that they had something unusual in the way of determined drunks to deal with.
Acme was one of the small hermaphroditic companies—hauling mainly freight, but shipping a few passengers—which were an outgrowth of the most recent war to create peace.
During that violent conflict, America had established bases throughout the Solar System. These required an endless stream of items necessary for human existence.
While the hostilities lasted, the small outfits were vital and for that reason prospered. They hauled oxygen, food, spare parts, whisky, atomic slugs, professional women, uniforms, paper for quadruplicate reports, cigarettes, and all the other impedimenta of war-time life.
With the outbreak of peace, such companies faced a precarious, devil-take-the-hindmost type of existence.
The day that Swenson arrived had been grim even for Acme. Dovorkin, the regular dispatcher, had been fired that morning. He had succeeded in leaving the schedule in a nightmarish muddle.
And on Dovorkin's vacant desk lay the last straw—a Special Message.
Acme Interplanetary Express
147 Z Street
Your atomic-converted ship Number 7 is hereby grounded at Luna City, Moon, until demurrage bill paid. Your previous violations of Space Regulations make our action mandatory.
Planetary Commerce Commission
The Acme Board of Directors was inured to accepting the inevitable. They had heard rumors along Blaster's Alley of Swenson's reputation, which ranged from brilliance, through competence, to insanity. So they shrugged and hired him.
His first act was to order a case of beer. His second was to look at what Dovorkin had left of a Dispatch Sheet.
"Number 5 is still blasting through the astraloids. It should be free-falling. Why the hell isn't it?"
Old Mister Cerobie, Chairman of the Board, said quietly: "Before you begin your work, we would like a bit of information. What is your full name?"
"Patrick M. Swenson."
"What does the M stand for?"
"I don't know."
"My mother never told me. I don't think she knows. In the name of God, why don't you send Number 3...."
"What's your nationality?"
"I'm supposed to be a Swede."
"What do you mean, 'supposed'?"
"Will you open one of those beers?"
"I asked you...."
Swenson made a notation on the Dispatch Sheet and spun around in the swivel chair. "I was born on a Swallow Class ship in space between the Moon and Earth. My mother said my father was a Swede. She was Irish. I was delivered and circumcised by a rabbi who happened to be on board. The ship was of Venutian registry, but was owned by a Czechoslovakian company. Now you figure it out."
"How did you happen to come here?"
"I met Dovorkin in a bar. He told me that you were in trouble. You are. Is one of the Moulton Trust's ships at Luna City?"
"Then that's why you're grounded. They've got an in with the Planetary Commerce Commission. What's the demurrage?"
"Seventy-six thousand dollars."
"Can you raise it?"
Swenson glanced at the sheet. "How come Number 2 is in New York?"
"We're waiting for additional cargo. We have half a load of snuff for Mars. And we've been promised half a load of canned goods for Luna City. It's reduced rate freight that another company can't handle."
"Dovorkin told me about the snuff. That's a starter, anyway." Swenson turned back to the Dispatch Sheet and muttered to himself: "Always a good thing to have snuff for Mars."
Mister Cerobie became strangely interested.
Swenson paid no attention. "What are you taking a split load for?"
"We had no choice."
"You know damn well that the broken-down old stovepipes you buy from war surplus are too slow to handle split loads. Who promised you the canned goods?"
"Oh, Lord!" said Swenson. "An outfit that expects lions to lie down with lambs!"
The red ship-calling light flashed on.
"Number 4 to dispatcher. This is Captain Elsing. Dovorkin...."
"Dispatcher to Number 4. Dovorkin, hell. This is Swenson. What blasts?"
"B jet just went out. Atomic slug clogged."
"How radioactive is the spout?" asked Swenson.
"Have somebody who's already had a family put on armor and clean up the mess," Swenson said, "and alter course for Luna City. I'll send you the exact course in a few minutes. When you get to Luna, land beside the Moulton Trust's ship. Now stand by to record code."
Swenson reached back to Mister Cerobie. "Acme private code book."
Silently, the Chairman of the Board handed it to him. When Swenson had finished coding, he handed the original message to Mister Cerobie. The message read:
"Captain Elsing, have crew start fight with Moulton's crew. Not much incentive will be necessary. See that no real damage is done. Urgent. Will take all responsibility. Explain later. Cerobie."
"Swenson," Mister Cerobie said quietly, "you are insane. Tear that up."
With slow dignity, Swenson put on his coat. He stood there, smiling, and looking at Mister Cerobie. The memory of Dovorkin stalked unpleasantly through the Chairman's mind. Everything was hopeless, anyway. Better go out with a bang than a whimper.
"All right, send it," he said. "There is plenty of time to countermand—after I talk to you."
When Swenson had finished sending the coded message, he turned back to Mister Cerobie. "What's this I hear from Dovorkin about a Senator being aboard Number 7 at Luna?"
A member of the Board began: "After all...."
Mister Cerobie cut him off: "Your information is correct, Swenson. A Senator has shipped with us. However, I would prefer to discuss the matter in my private office."
Swenson crossed the room to the astrographer in the calculating booth and said: "Plot the free-falling curve for Number 5 to Mars." Then he followed Mister Cerobie into the Chairman's office.
Half an hour later, they came out and Swenson went back to his desk. First he glanced at the free-falling plot. Then he snorted, called the astrographer and fired him. Next he said to Mister Cerobie: "Is that half load of snuff...."
"Yes, it is. You know Martians as well as I do. With their type of nose, they must get quite a sensation. I understand they go a bit berserk. That's why their government outlaws snuff as an Earth vice. However, our cargo release states that it is being sent for 'medicinal purposes.' It's no consequence to us what they use the snuff for. We're just hauling it. And I don't have to tell you how fantastic a rate we're getting."
"To hell with the canned goods part of the load," Swenson said. "Can you get a full haul of snuff?"
"Possibly. But it would cost."
"Even this outfit can afford to grease palms."
"I'll see what I can do."
"What's the Senator on the Moon for?"
"He's supposed to make a speech on Conquest Day." Mister Cerobie lit a cigar. "That's day after tomorrow," he added.
"Exactly where is this eloquence to be expounded?"
"The Senator is speaking at the dedication of the new underground recreation dome. It's just outside Luna City. They've bored a tunnel from the main dome cluster. This dedication is considered very important. Everybody in Luna will be there. It's been declared an official holiday, with all crews released. Even the maintenance and public service personnel have been cut to skeleton staffs."
"With that fiesta scheduled on our beloved satellite," said Swenson, "we won't have to worry about getting the Senator off for some time. His name's Higby, isn't it?" Mister Cerobie nodded. "Then he'll whoop it up long enough for you to get that demurrage mess straightened out."
"Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. The Senator is due for another speech on Mars. The timing is close—he only has a minimum of leeway. As you mentioned, Number 7 is grounded for demurrage. And we can't ship the Senator out on Number 4 because of the bad jet."
Swenson was silent for a long time. The beer gurgled pleasantly as he drank it. Then a bright smile—which could have been due either to inspiration or beer—spread across his face.
"If that idiot Dovorkin can be trusted," he said, "the Senator is speaking in the early afternoon, our time. Do you happen to know just when he starts yapping? And the scheduled length of the spiel?"
"I'll check it." Mister Cerobie turned to one of his assistants. Swenson took down the Luna Data Handbook and thumbed through it.
A moment later, the assistant handed a slip of paper to the Board Chairman.
"The Senator," Mister Cerobie said, "will speak from 1300 hours to 1500 hours."
Swenson smiled and stuck a marker in the Luna Data Handbook.
"Now," he said, "about this snuff. Can you have it loaded by tomorrow night?"
"I don't see how."
"Remember our agreement in the office. If we don't do something, we're through, so all we can do is lose. Leave me be and don't ask questions. I want to blast Number 2 into low Earth-orbital tomorrow night."
Mister Cerobie looked off into that nowhere which was the daily destiny of Acme. "All right," he said, "I was born a damn fool. I'll do my best to have a full load of snuff aboard—somehow—tomorrow night."
Swenson went back to his Dispatch Sheet. During the next five hours, he looked up only long enough to order another case of beer and a new astrographer.
Finally, he called Heilberg, the assistant dispatcher who was on the night shift, gave him a lecture concerning dispatching in general and the present situation in particular, promoted a date with one of the stenographers, and departed.
When Swenson came back the next morning, he was sober, ornery and disinclined to do any work. He cornered O'Toole, the labor relations man, and began talking women. O'Toole was intrigued but evasive.
"Your trouble," Swenson said, "is not with women. It's with evolution. I don't blame evolution for creating women. I blame it for abandoning the egg. Just when it had invented a reasonable method of reproduction which didn't make the female silly-looking and tie her down needlessly for nine months...."
"I don't think they're silly-looking."
"Maybe you don't, O'Toole, but I do. And you must admit that nine months is a hell of a long time to fool around with something that could be hatched in an incubator under automatic controls. Look at the time saving. If evolution hadn't abandoned the egg idea, half the human race wouldn't waste time being damned incubators."
O'Toole backed away. He had never heard the legend of Swenson's egg speech.
"Don't tell me," Swenson went on, "that evolution is efficient. Are you married, O'Toole?"
"Wouldn't you rather your wife laid an egg than—"
"I don't know," O'Toole interrupted, "but I do know that I'd like to find out what the dispatch situation is at the moment."
Swenson grabbed a piece of paper and drew a diagram.
While O'Toole was studying the diagram, someone laid a Special Message on Swenson's desk. Swenson glanced at it:
Acme Interplanetary Express
147 Z Street
Your ship Number 4 is hereby grounded at Luna City, pending an investigation of a riot involving your men, and for non-payment of bill for atomic slug purification. Your Number 4 is also charged with unpaid demurrage bill.
Planetary Commerce Commission
Swenson muttered: "Good!" and threw the Special Message in the wastebasket. Mister Cerobie, who had just entered the office, fished the form out and read it.
"It never rains, but it pours," he said.
"You can't stand long on one foot," Swenson answered without looking up. "Put all your troubles in one basket and then lose the basket. Morituri te salutamus. Have you heard my theory about the advantage of reproduction via the egg? And get me a beer."
"I will get you a beer, but if you say a word about that egg theory, I will fire you. I heard you talking to O'Toole."
"Okay. We'll forget the egg for the nonce. Did you pilfer that snuff?"
"It's being loaded. And it cost Acme—"
"Did you expect it would fall like manna from heaven?" Swenson flipped the switch of the intercom to Acme's launching area. "Give me Number 2. Captain Wilkins."
"What are you going to do?" Mister Cerobie asked.
"Don't you remember what I told you yesterday? Where's that beer?"
Mister Cerobie smiled, a weary, dogged smile, the smile of a man who had bet on drawing to a belly straight.
"Captain Wilkins," came over the intercom, "calling Swenson, dispatcher, for orders."
"Blast as soon as loaded for low altitude Earth-orbital." Swenson was silent a moment, then: "Hell, don't you know the plot? All right, I'll give it to you. Full jets, two minutes, azimuth...."
Mister Cerobie interrupted quietly: "Swenson, don't you think you'd better check with the astrographer?"
Turning off the intercom, Swenson spun in his chair. "Any decent dispatcher knows that one by heart. So maybe I'm wrong. Then Number 2 will pile up on either the Moon or the Earth. If that happens, you can collect the insurance and get out of this mess." He flipped on the intercom switch. "Sorry, Captain Wilkins, brass interference. As I was saying, azimuth...."
Mister Cerobie made no effort to continue the conversation. He was reading an astrogram, which had just been handed to him.
ACME INTERPLANETARY EXPRESS
147 Z STREET
HEAR PERSISTENT RUMOR YOUR SHIP ON WHICH I AM A PASSENGER HELD HERE FOR NON-PAYMENT OF DEMURRAGE. MUST MAKE WORLD CRISIS SPEECH ON MARS AS SCHEDULED. ASTROGRAM TRUTH OF SITUATION AT ONCE. INVESTIGATION OF SUCH MATTERS NOW PENDING BEFORE SUBCOMMITTEE. DO NOT ASTROGRAM COLLECT.
SEN. HIRAM C. HIGBY
Swenson snapped off the intercom, glanced at his Dispatch Sheet, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He was silent for the next half hour and drank three beers, looking either thoughtful or asleep. Mister Cerobie smoked a cigar until it burned his mustache.
When the third beer was finished, Swenson reached for an astrogram blank and wrote:
HON. SENATOR HIRAM C. HIGBY ESQ.
ACME INTERPLANETARY EXPRESS
RUMOR RE UNPAID DEMURRAGE UTTERLY UN-FOUNDED. INFORMATION HERE THAT RUMOR STARTED BY YOUR OPPOSITION. HAVE VITAL NEW DATA FOR YOUR LUNA CITY SPEECH. WILL SEND SPEECH INSERT AT ONCE.
Mister Cerobie, who had been reading over Swenson's shoulder, said: "You know that demurrage rumor is true."
"If things don't work out and we have any trouble, you can say you hadn't heard about the demurrage. By the way, can you write an insert to a political speech?"
"I suppose so. I've lied before."
"Make sure it will take ten minutes to deliver—even talking fast—which Senators don't usually do."
"What," inquired Mister Cerobie, "shall I write about?"
"You know that scandal Senator Higby's opposition just got involved in. That business about slave labor exploitation on Venus. The story broke this morning. Get in touch with my friend Max Zempky on Telenews and have him give you some inside details. It doesn't matter if they're important or not. The Senator will grab anything that might pep up his speech. Besides, he's probably been having a large time in Luna City and hasn't heard about this morning's story."
Mister Cerobie executed a sweeping bow. "Yes, sir. And if this thing doesn't work, I told you yesterday in my office what would happen."
Swenson shrugged. "Kismet."
As Mister Cerobie opened the door to his private office, Swenson called after him: "Where's this outfit's attorney?"
"In the Board Room."
"Find him and send him in here."
Mister Cerobie nodded.
"And," Swenson added, "be damned sure that speech insert will run at least ten minutes. More, if possible."
Mister Cerobie slammed the door.
Five minutes later, slim, soft-spoken Van Euing, Acme's attorney, coughed behind the dispatcher's chair. Swenson swiveled from coding the astrogram and dropped his cigarette. "What the hell—oh, you. Lawyers are like policemen—they sneak up on people."
"How did you know I was the firm's attorney?"
"I watched you try that unfair-trade-practice suit against Lesquallan Ltd. two years ago. It was snowing outside. I was broke and the courtroom was warm. You should have won the case. Some of their evidence looked phony to me. Anyway, you did a good job."
"Did you ever stop to think about the advantage of the egg—"
"Mister Cerobie said you wished to speak to me."
"That's right. I want you to draw up a something-or-other—you know what I mean—grounding Moulton Trust's ship on the Moon until this fight hassle is settled."
"You mean you wish me to prepare a restraining order?"
"Restrain, yeah! And restrain them as long as you can. I wish you could restrain them forever. This solar system would be a better place."
"On what grounds am I to base my order?"
"Claim they started the fight and our crew's so bashed up that we haven't enough able men to blast off."
"But I'm afraid we can't prove that."
"And what's it going to cost us to try? You're on retainer. The total bill for said restraining order will be only the price of some legal paper and the services of a notary. The steno's hired by the month, like you."
Van Euing looked puzzled. "What good will it do?"
"You know how long it takes courts to do anything. Before your order is tossed out, Moulton will have been grounded for a week."
Van Euing lit his pipe. "In legal parlance, it is something irregular, which, being translated, means it's a slick trick."
"All it's going to cost you is being half an hour late to lunch."
Van Euing puffed a moment on his pipe and said: "Because of your audacity, Swenson, and furthermore, because you'll be fired tomorrow, I'll prepare the restraining order."
Swenson put out his hand and his blunt fingers closed around Van Euing's delicate ones.
When Van Euing had gone, Swenson returned to coding the astrogram. He checked the form twice and sent it.
Then he turned over his desk to an apprentice dispatcher, left orders to be called if anything broke down, and went out to lunch.
It was 2:30 P.M. when news of the restraining order arrived in the quiet, streamlined offices of the Moulton Trust. Two minutes later, the offices were still streamlined, but not quiet.
The three major stockholders of the great organization, N. Rovance, F. K. Esrov, and Cecil Neinfort-Whritings, formed a tiny huddle at one end of the long conference table. Esrov was waving a copy of the order.
"Gentlemen, we can consider this nothing but an outrage!"
"Blackmail, really!" It was Neinfort-Whritings's lisping voice.
"Whatever it is, this sort of nonsense must be stopped at the beginning. It might set a precedent."
"May I suggest," Rovance broke in, "that, as the matter of precedent is sure to arise, we take no action without first consulting Lesquallan Ltd."
"An excellent idea," Esrov nodded. He switched on the intercom to his first secretary. "Connect me with Lesquallan Ltd. I want to speak with Novell Lesquallan. Inform him that it is urgent."
"He just entered our office." The voice that came from the intercom carried the slightest trace of surprise. "He said he desired to discuss something about canned goods and snuff. I shall send him in at once."
Rovance turned to Neinfort-Whritings. "I fear that old Cerobie is becoming senile. Apparently he has lost his mind."
"But really, did he ever have one?"
Nobody laughed. Esrov slammed the restraining order on the conference table and stood up. "Gentlemen, what shall we do concerning—"
"Yes, gentlemen, that is just what I want to know."
Three heads pivoted. Novell Lesquallan, sole owner of Lesquallan Ltd., stood in the doorway. He was a broad, ruddy-faced man with a voice trained to basso interruptions.
"I understand, Mr. Lesquallan," Esrov said, "that you have a matter to discuss with us."
"Yes! Sit down, F.K. We have some talking to do—about that bankrupt, dishonest Acme Interplanetary Express."
"Quite a coincidence," Neinfort-Whritings murmured.
"You got trouble with that outfit, too? That settles it. They've cluttered up the orderly progress of free enterprise long enough. Out they go."
Novell Lesquallan swiftly read the document and bellowed an unintelligible remark.
"Something, quite," Neinfort-Whritings agreed.
Lesquallan got his voice under control. "What action do you intend to take?"
"We hadn't decided," Rovance answered. "We received the order only a few minutes ago."
"Before we form our plans," Esrov said, "we would like some information about your problems with Acme. We understand it involves canned goods and snuff."
"Yes, those damned.... At the last minute, they turned down a small load of canned goods for Luna that we'd been decent enough to give them at reduced rates. They can't get away with that kind of thing long. But that's just the beginning. They got hold of the contract and permit to haul a consignment of medicinal snuff to Mars. We had already arranged for that cargo. You know that snuff situation. Through certain contacts, we have been able—perfectly legally—to have permits issued. That customs man must have taken a double—"
"We understand," Rovance broke in. "We have had occasion to make similar arrangements. The rates—and other inducements—are extremely satisfactory."
"Well, gentlemen," Lesquallan demanded, "what are we going to do about this unprecedented situation?"
"I suggest," Neinfort-Whritings said, "that we have our legal staffs meet in joint session. We should impress on them that the quashing of this restraining order is urgent. Perhaps we should consider debts owed us by the judiciary we helped elect."
"An excellent idea," Lesquallan declared. "I will take care of that part of it myself, personally."
"As to the snuff matter," Esrov said, "I think we should emphasize to our mutual contact that he should be more discriminating in issuing permits."
"That's all right for now," Lesquallan snapped. "But he's done with, too. I'll see to it that he's replaced."
"As to the canned goods situation," Rovance said, "it seems to me that we should have a subsidiary company to handle our excess cargoes—at reduced rates, of course. It shouldn't cost too much to pick up one of the less financially secure companies—such as Acme."
Esrov nodded. "An excellent idea."
"I agree," Lesquallan said and sat down. "But first we must dispose of today's damned annoyances. I suggest that we outline a plan for immediate action."
"To begin with," Esrov reminded him, "we must deal with the restraining order."
When Swenson came back from lunch, he was not as sober and thus in a better mood. Mister Cerobie's insert to the Senator's speech was on his desk. Swenson read the first few lines:
As a further indication of the methods, devices, malfeasances, and corrupt practices employed, used, and sustained by those with whom you have called upon me to negotiate in the highest tribunal in Washington, let me cite the following information which I have just received. Although this information is top-drawer, restricted and highly secret, I was able to obtain it through certain channels which, as a man of honor, I must leave undisclosed.
The right of all creatures to be free is a fundamental, an inviolable, right and yet on Venus....
Swenson said to himself: "Mister Cerobie is in the wrong business," and started coding the insert. He had almost finished when the ship-calling light flashed red.
"Number 5 to Dispatcher. Captain Verbold speaking."
"Dispatcher to Number 5. This is Swenson. Go ahead."
"I'm afraid you can't help me. May I speak to Mister Cerobie?"
"He's out to lunch."
"This matter is serious. I am faced with what amounts to mutiny."
"Sorry, but I got troubles, too. Maybe I can find Mister Cerobie, maybe I can't. Why don't you tell me your grief?"
Captain Verbold hesitated. "It's something I've been expecting. The crew has stated that they will leave the ship at Mars." Captain Verbold's next sentence was pronounced word by word in code. "I even have private information that there is a plot to take over the ship and blast directly to Earth, where the crew feel their case can be more justly presented."
"What are they squawking about?"
"Everything. Wages have not been paid for six months. Poor radiation shielding. Food not up to standard. You know the story."
"It's not the first time I've heard it."
"What am I to do?"
"First, read them section 942 in your copy of Space Regulations," said Swenson. "If they divert ship from Mars without your permission, it's mutiny. That means the neutron death chamber or, if they are very lucky, life sentences to the Luna Penal Colony. Get them all together and read it to them. You're free-falling now, so even the jetters won't have to be on duty."
"But if I could talk to Mister Cerobie—"
"I've already told you I don't know where the hell he is. He couldn't do you any good, anyway. Didn't you ever read Space Regulations? Section 19: 'The captain of a ship in flight is solely responsible for the maintenance of discipline and his orders cannot be changed or overruled'."
"Swenson, you said a moment ago that this was your first suggestion. I presume, therefore, that you have others."
"I have two others." Swenson paused long enough for a brief study of his Master Ship Location Chart, which he had just brought up to date. The chart showed the position of all ships at the moment in space. "There's a patrol cruiser loaded with gendarmes three million miles behind you on a course paralleling yours. It's one of the new Arrow Class and if they blast full, they can catch you in ten hours. Mention to the crew that you could notify the police boys and have them pick you up and escort you to Mars."
"What is the patrol ship's number and call letters?"
"Arrow—British—Earth—number 96. Call letters MMXAH."
"Thanks. If things get too bad, I might take advantage of our valiant guarders of the spaceways. All right, you said you had three suggestions. What's the third?"
"Some goons on a Moulton Trust ship, parked beside our number 2 on the Moon, started a fight and beat up our boys. We're about to sue Moulton for plenty. Tell your crew about it and suggest that if they behave, we'll cut them in on the proceeds from the suit, in addition to paying their wages as soon as a snuff cargo that I had to send into orbital gets to Mars."
"On whose authority am I to make such a statement?"
"Swenson's. You don't need any other, do you? I know most of the boys on your mobile junkyard. They trust me, so they'll trust you. You have my word that Cerobie will go for the idea."
"You talk to Cerobie and let me know what happens. Meanwhile, I'll think over your suggestions."
The ship-calling light blinked off and Swenson went back to coding the speech insert.
As he was finishing, O'Toole came in.
Swenson looked up. "O'Toole, sure and it's one hell of a job you're doing. You've got me in a fight with myself. My Swedish half wants to ignore you and my Irish half wants to punch you in the nose. You're supposed to handle labor relations. And I just received a message from Captain Verbold of Number 5 that his crew is about to mutiny."
"Mother of God, what can I do?" cried O'Toole. "This outfit's so broke, it doesn't have enough money to pay the filing fee for bankruptcy."
"In the face of adversity, you should spit."
"Who are you quoting?"
"Look, Swenson, I'm supposed to supervise labor relations, sure. Labor is something you hire. That's done by paying wages—on time."
"At least you should have brains enough to understand the advantage of the egg."
"What?" asked O'Toole blankly.
"I've already explained it to you. Apparently it didn't get past your hair. I shall therefore make a second attempt. Do you understand the principle of the egg?"
"Of course not. You never stopped to analyze it. You just assumed that because human beings are born the way they are, it is the best method. How much pain and trouble does a hen have laying an egg? Does she—"
"Getting back to number 5," O'Toole said firmly, "what did Captain Verbold—"
"Consider the advantage of the egg from another angle, O'Toole. Let's say your wife lays an egg and, at the moment, you don't have money enough to support another child. All you would have to do is put the egg in cold storage until your ship comes in. Then you can take the egg out and incubate it. Instead of being—"
The click of the latch as O'Toole closed the door caused Swenson to spin in his chair. Tossing his pencil on the Dispatch Sheet, he put on his coat and went home.
When the dispatcher for Acme Interplanetary Express arrived at the office the following morning, a Special Message lay in sublime isolation on his desk. Swenson opened a beer and read the message.
Board of Directors
Acme Interplanetary Express
Your restraining order concerning our ship at Luna City can only be considered as representing a warped and intolerable concept of justice. We will take every legal action available to us.
Moreover, your action in refusing, without notice, a load which we were so kind as to offer you and your immoral dealings in contraband snuff force us to sever all commercial relations with your organization.
We are taking appropriate action with the Planetary Commerce Commission.
Swenson was smiling cherubically and bringing his Master Chart up to date when O'Toole came in.
"Swenson, did you have eggs for breakfast? And how goes with the dispatch?"
Carefully noting the last change of ship position on the Master Chart, Swenson turned to O'Toole.
"Things are like so," he said, and drew a diagram.
While O'Toole was studying the diagram, Swenson placed a call to Moulton Trust. "Give me Esrov. Yes, Esrov himself. This is Swenson, Acme Interplanetary. If Esrov doesn't want to talk to me, jets to him, but I think I have some information he can use."
"Will you please hold on, Mr. Swenson? I will convey your message."
Swenson looked at O'Toole for a moment in silence. "No, I don't like eggs for eating. My theory concerns another aspect—"
"I know," said O'Toole resignedly.
Esrov's urbane voice came from the desk speaker. "Mr. Swenson, you have some information for us?"
"Yes, Esrov. I've just seen your message to our Board and I want you to know that I can certainly understand your position. I could not prevent the restraining order. However, I have a suggestion as to what you can do about it."
"We are doing everything we can."
"Didn't you support Senator Higby for re-election last year? Well, he has shipped with us on an inspection tour of planetary outposts. Right now, he's on the Moon and will speak at 1:30 this afternoon at the official opening of the new Recreation Center. It occurred to me that it might be worthwhile for you to send him a message suggesting that he incorporate in his speech something about the laxity of the Planetary Commerce Commission that allowed you to get into this mess."
"An excellent idea, Mr. Swenson. We shall give it immediate consideration. And, by the way, if for any reason your employment with Acme should terminate, we should be able to find a suitable position for you with our company."
"Thanks, Esrov." Swenson switched off the set.
"You dirty, stinking," O'Toole blared, "doublecrossing—"
"Calm down, O'Toole. Don't get off the rocket until she's on the ground. I've got reasons."
"Reasons? You haven't even got reason! And you're a crook!"
"Now don't let my Irish half get on top. I want that Senator to talk as long as possible. Let's go back to the egg."
"You've laid it."
"For the last time, let me explain. If evolution had followed my theory, I, being a man, would not lay eggs. Women would and therefore they would escape—"
"Swenson," Mister Cerobie called from the door of the Board Room, "you are hired—tentatively—as a dispatcher, not an egg-evolution theorist. Now come in here. The Board wants to talk to you."
Swenson jerked the diagram out of O'Toole's hand and followed Cerobie.
Ten minutes later, he came out of the Board Room, saying: "Gentlemen, the Senator speaks at 1:30 this afternoon. At 6:00 either fire me, crucify me and make me drink boiled beer alone, or give me a raise."
The clock on the wall over the dispatcher's desk showed 2:59 when Swenson called Acme's Luna City Terminal. "Dispatcher to Numbers 7 and 4, have crew stand by to blast off in exactly 15 minutes. I don't give a damn about regulations or the P.C.C. This is an order from your company. It must be obeyed. Number 7 will follow course as originally planned—destination Mars. Number 4 will blast for Earth, curve to be given in space."
Fifteen minutes later, the dispatcher's office at Acme Interplanetary Express was quieter than an abandoned and forgotten tomb. The Board of Directors stood silently in a semi-circle behind Swenson. Every employee, even the stenographers, were jammed into the frowsy room.
As the hand of the clock sliced off the last second of the 15 minutes, Swenson looked over his shoulder—and laughed, a great, resounding laugh. Then he flicked the switch and picked up the microphone.
"Swenson dispatcher to 7 and 4. Blast! Over. Swenson dispatcher to 4 and 7. Blast!"
Suddenly the silent room was filled with the roar of the jets as they thundered in the imaginations of the men and women crowded around the dispatcher's desk. The tension broke as almost a sob of gladness. What if it proved a hopeless dream, a mere stalling of inevitable ruin? They were no longer grounded. They were in space.
To those in the room, it seemed only an instant until the ship-calling light flashed on. "Number 7 to dispatcher. In space. All clear."
"Dispatcher to Number 7, steady as she goes."
The red light was off for a moment. Then: "Number 4 to dispatcher. In space. All clear."
"Dispatcher to Number 4. Temporary curve A 17. Will send exact curve plot in half an hour." Swenson turned to the astrographer. "Give me a plot for Chicago. I don't want to land her in this state. Just a matter of prudence. She's registered in this state."
The astrographer shouldered his way through the crowd. When he reached the calculators, his swift fingers began pushing buttons. Swenson leaned back.
"Mischief, thou art a'space," he said. "Now take whatever course thou wilt."
At 3:30, Swenson reached again for the microphone. "Dispatcher to Number 2. You are circling Earth at low orbital. Decelerate and drop to stratosphere. Maintain position over New York. Curve and blasting data...."
At 4:00, he called Max Zempky at Telenews. "Anything frying at Luna?"
"My God, yes! Senator Higby yapped sixteen minutes overtime and the shadow knife-edge caught everybody with their air tanks down. The control crews were listening to the speech and there wasn't anybody left to switch over the heating-cooling system. You've been to the Moon, so you know what happens. When day changes to night and you haven't got any atmosphere, the temperature drops from boiling to practically absolute zero. Sure, the automatic controls worked, but there wasn't any crew to adjust and service the heaters and coolers. It's a mess. Say, haven't you got a ship or two up there?"
"I got 'em out in time."
"Well, Moulton didn't. Their ship's been considerably damaged."
"Thanks, Max. Let me know if anything else breaks."
While Swenson had been talking, two Special Messages and an astrogram had been laid on his desk. He first read one of the Special Messages.
Acme Interplanetary Express
147 Z Street
We are holding you responsible for the damage to our ship Number 57, now on the Moon. The captain of your ship should have known the potential danger and warned Senator Higby of the time factor.
We will contact the PCC at once.
F. K. Esrov
Swenson scribbled an answer and handed it to an assistant.
Nuts, Esrov. You've got to think up something better than that. We have no control over public officials, except during flight. Bellyache all you want to the PCC.
The astrogram was from Senator Hiram C. Higby:
MY BEING STRANDED ON MOON UNMITIGATED AND UNPARALLELED OUTRAGE. MUST SPEAK AS SCHEDULED ON MARS. FIND ME TRANSPORTATION. WILL DEAL LATER WITH YOUR COMPANY CONCERNING INFAMOUS TREATMENT.
SEN. HIRAM C. HIGBY
UNFORTUNATE CIRCUMSTANCE UNAVOIDABLE. YOUR SPEECH MAGNIFICENT. WILL MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO SECURE IMMEDIATE TRANSPORTATION TO MARS.
The second Special Message was from the PCC and asked with crisp and blunt formality why two Acme ships, which had been officially grounded by the Commission, had blasted off the Moon.
In answer, Swenson was mild and apologetic. What else could he have done? Surely the Commission must understand that his first duty was to save his ships from damage. He had been informed by his captains that the shadow knife-edge was almost due, and there was no possibility of the control crews servicing the temperature-change compensators in time. It was an emergency. The matter of the grounding could be settled later.
When his answer was finished, he coded it, along with the Special Message from Moulton Trust, the astrogram from Senator Higby, and his replies. Finally, he coded the Special Message from PCC.
Then he called Number 5.
"Number 5 to dispatcher. This is Verbold. What goes on now?"
"You tell me. Dwelleth thy household in peace?"
"For the moment."
"Have you followed my instructions?"
"In general, yes."
"Did your crew hear Senator Higby's speech?"
"Most of them. What else is there to do in this rat-trap?"
"I could think of a lot of things. But as long as the crew heard the Honorable's spiel, that's all that matters. Do you know about the little affair half an hour ago at Luna City?"
"Check your news recorder. Have the item broadcast to the crew. Then decode the sequence of messages I'm about to send and read them—at your discretion—to the men. Stand by to record code."
When he had finished, Swenson leaned back and opened a beer. "All we can do now is wait. But I'd give my grandmother's immortal soul, if the old shrew had one, to be in the sacred sanctum of Moulton Trust."
Lesquallan sat on the edge of the long table in Moulton's Board Room. He spoke slowly and for once his voice was low:
"Esrov, did you or did you not suggest to our Senator Higby that he lengthen his speech on the Moon to include certain new information? And did that information involve my company along with yours?"
"Mr. Lesquallan, the matter concerns only a minor aspect of policy," said Esrov placatingly.
"Minor aspect of policy, hell! It concerns business. Look what happened at Luna. And you let us get publicly involved in it. Such matters must never be handled openly."
Esrov did not answer.
"Did you send such a message, Rovance?" Rovance shook his head. Lesquallan turned to Neinfort-Whritings. "Did you?"
"No, Lesquallan." Neinfort-Whritings gently pulled a Special Message form from beneath Esrov's folded hands as they lay on the gleaming conference table.
Lesquallan swung back to Esrov. "Did you send it?"
Esrov looked down at his folded hands. At last he said quietly: "Yes, I sent a message to the Senator—in our mutual interests."
"Was it your own idea? Or did someone else suggest it?"
"The basic thought came from a most unexpected source. It was, we might say, one of those happy breaks of industry. The dispatcher at Acme had the sense to cooperate with us. He gave me certain otherwise unavailable information, and—"
"What was his name?"
"I don't—oh, yes, it was Swenson."
"You ... you fool ... idiot!"
Neinfort-Whritings handed Lesquallan the Special Message he had taken from Esrov. It was the one from Swenson, which began: "Nuts, Esrov."
Lesquallan read the message. Then he said slowly: "I've dealt with that clown Swenson before—over minor matters. I never thought he had that much brains." He looked at Esrov. "Or insight. Swenson's a smart man. Therefore, he must be eliminated."
"I still maintain," Rovance said, "that the basis of the matter is the strangling of free enterprise."
"I agree," said Lesquallan. "What right has Acme to interfere with free enterprise? They haven't a dollar to our million."
"What shall we do?" Neinfort-Whritings murmured.
"Follow Swenson's suggestion. We're going to the PCC—and we're going to our top contacts. They owe us plenty."
"Shall we dictate a memo?" Esrov put in.
"Call the PCC," Lesquallan ordered. "We're not dictating anything. And we're not sending any messages to anybody. Let the PCC send them!"
No employee of Acme Interplanetary Express had left the smoke-dense office when the ship-calling light went on: "Number 5 to Swenson. Verbold speaking."
"Dispatcher to Number 5. Go ahead."
"Uproar under control. I followed your instructions. A crew that's laughing won't mutiny. The crew sends thanks and their most pious wishes for the distress of Moulton. The men expect shares of the proceeds, if any, in the lawsuit. But they insist on being paid on Mars."
"They will be, Captain Verbold. Now I've got to keep this beam clear. Good luck." Swenson turned to Mister Cerobie. "I presume you can at least find enough cash for the back pay?"
Mister Cerobie did not answer. He was staring at a Special Message which had just been handed to him. He dropped it on Swenson's desk.
Acme Interplanetary Express
147 Z Street
Because of your violation of Space Regulations and unprecedented effrontery, your ships Numbers 7 and 4 are hereby ordered to return to the Moon. There they will be impounded. A police patrol escort has been dispatched to insure your compliance with our order.
Planetary Commerce Commission
Swenson read the message and looked up.
"Well?" asked Mister Cerobie.
The murmur of voices died. The dispatcher's office of Acme Interplanetary Express was a silent, isolated world. Swenson wrote an astrogram and handed it to the Chairman of the Board.
"Shall I code it?"
Mister Cerobie read the astrogram. He read it a second time and his perplexity vanished.
"But will it work?" he asked.
Swenson shrugged. "It ought to. Remember what happened when Solar System Freight lost that chemical load? We're stratosphering over New York. Anyway, he wouldn't dare take the chance. Shall I code it, Mister Cerobie?"
The men and women of Acme crowded and squirmed for a look at the astrogram on Swenson's desk. O'Toole realized first and yelled. Slowly, as understanding came, other voices took it up, until the office was a chaos of sound. Bottles appeared from nowhere. O'Toole raised one of them: "Sure and St. Patrick would have loved it!"
Calmly, Swenson coded:
SENATOR HIRAM C. HIGBY
ACME INTERPLANETARY EXPRESS
ONLY TRANSPORTATION AVAILABLE OUR SHIP NOW IN EARTH STRATOSPHERE ABOVE NEW YORK WITH CARGO SNUFF. WILL DISPATCH THIS SHIP SPECIAL TO MOON FOR YOUR DISPOSAL. HOWEVER MUST JETTISON CARGO TO LIGHTEN SHIP. WILL NOTIFY AIR POLLUTION AND PCC. ONLY ALTERNATIVE COMPLETE CLEARANCE BY PCC OUR SHIPS NUMBERS 7 AND 4. WILL THEN DISPATCH ONE OF THEM TO PICK YOU UP. ORDER TO JETTISON WILL BE GIVEN IN HALF AN HOUR UNLESS WE RECEIVE WORD FROM YOU. HAVE YOU ANY INFLUENCE WITH THE PCC? SEND REACTION AT ONCE. URGENCY OBVIOUS.
The dispatcher for Acme said to himself: "I doubt very seriously if any sane Senator up for re-election would want the official records to show that, because he talked too long on the Moon, a cargo of snuff was dumped over New York. Sneezing voters cannot see candidate's name on ballot."
Twenty minutes later, the replying astrogram was in Swenson's hand.
ACME INTERPLANETARY EXPRESS
147 Z STREET
ORDER CLEARING YOUR SHIPS 7 AND 4 APPROVED BY PCC. HAVE SHIP IMMEDIATELY REVERSE COURSE AND PICK ME UP. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES JETTISON SNUFF. SEND FURTHER INFORMATION CONCERNING SLAVE LABOR EXPLOITATION VENUS FOR INCLUSION IN MY FORTHCOMING MARS SPEECH. HAVE SPEECH INSERT IN SAME FORM AS BEFORE.
SENATOR HIRAM C. HIGBY
"And that, Mister Cerobie," said Swenson, "is how you slide out of a jam. You'll get enough cash for that snuff haul to Mars to pay the crew of Number 5 when she lands there. And you'll have enough left over to pay the demurrage and repair charges at Luna. Now open me a beer."
Mister Cerobie opened the beer wearily.
"You're fired, Swenson," he said. "I'll be damned if I'll write another speech or be your bartender."
Swenson drank and smiled.
The ship-calling light flashed red. "Number 3 to dispatcher. This is Captain Marwovan. Compartment holed by meteorite. Cannot land on Ganymede until we make repairs. Send me the orbital curve so we can circle until the hole is patched. And tell Mister Cerobie that the crew is complaining about back pay."
Transferring the beer to his other hand, Swenson grabbed the microphone. "Dispatcher to Number 3...."