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Chapter 3

Aries was in orbit about El Dorado. It was very quiet in the control room where Captain Daintree and his officers looked out, through the wide viewports, to the green, blue and golden, cloud-girdled planet that the ship was circling. The absence of the familiar, shipboard noises—the thin, high keening of the Mannschenn Drive, the odd, irregular throbbing of the inertial drive—engendered a feeling of tension, a taut expectancy. And this was more than just a routine planetfall. El Dorado was a new world to all of Aries' people. True, they had landed on new worlds before, worlds upon which they had been the first humans to set foot; but this fabled planet was—different. Grimes thought of the Moslem paradise with its timeless houris and grinned wryly. Such beauties would never confer their favours on—how had Cooper put it?—on a snotty-nosed ragamuffin from the wrong side of the tracks.

"And what do you find so amusing, Mr. Grimes?" asked Daintree coldly. "Perhaps you will share the joke with us."

"I . . . I was thinking, sir." Grimes felt his prominent ears redden.

"You aren't paid to think," came the age-old, automatic reply, the illogical rejoinder that has persisted through millennia. Grimes was tempted to point out that officers are paid to think, but thought better of it.

Commander Griffin, the Executive Officer, broke the silence. "The pinnace is all cleared away, sir, for the advance party."

"The pinnace, Commander? By whose orders?"

"I . . . I thought, sir . . ."

Another one! Grimes chuckled inwardly, permitted himself a slight grin as he looked at the embarrassed Griffin. Griffin looked back at him in a way that boded ill for the Lieutenant.

Daintree said, "I admit, Commander, that you are permitted to think. Even so, you should think to more purpose. How long is it since the rocket re-entry boat was exercised? Did you not consider that this would be an ideal opportunity to give the craft a test and training flight?"

"Why, yes, sir. It would be an ideal opportunity."

"Then have it cleared away, Commander. At once. Oh, which of your young gentlemen are you thinking of sending?"

"Doctor Passifern has arranged for Surgeon Lieutenant Kravisky to go with the advance party, sir."

"Never mind that. Who will be the pilot?"

"Er . . . Mr. Grimes, sir."

"Mr. Grimes." The captain switched his attention from the Commander to the Lieutenant. "Mr. Grimes, what experience have you had in the handling of rocket-powered craft?"

"At the Academy, sir. And during my first training cruise."

"And never since. You're like all the rest of the officers aboard this ship, far too used to riding around in comfort with an inertial drive unit tucked away under your backside. Very well, this will be an ideal opportunity for you to gain some experience of real spacefaring."

"Yes, sir. See to the boat, sir?"

"Not yet. Commander Griffin is quite capable of that." He walked to the chart desk, beckoned Grimes to follow him. The Navigator had already spread a chart on the flat surface, securing it with spring clips. "This," said Daintree, "was transmitted to us by whatever or whoever passes for Port Control on El Dorado. Mercator's Projection. Here is the spaceport"—his thin, bony fingers jabbed downwards—"by this lake . . ."

"Will the spaceport be suitable for the landing of the rocket boat, sir?" asked Grimes. "After all, if it was designed only to handle inertial drive vessels . . ."

"I've already thought of that point, Mr. Grimes. But our rocket boat is designed to land on water if needs be."

"But . . . but will they be ready for us, sir?"

"This vessel has established electronic radio communication with El Dorado, Mr. Grimes. I shall tell them to be ready for you. After all, we are visiting their planet at their request."

"Yes, sir."

"Very good, then. You may study the chart until it is time for you to take the boat away."

"Yes, sir."

Grimes looked down at the new, as yet unmarked plan of the spaceport and its environs. He would far sooner have spent the time studying the Manual of Spacemanship, with special attention to that section devoted to the handling of rocket-powered re-entry vehicles. But, after all, he was qualified as an atmosphere pilot and had, for some time, been drawing the extra pay to which his certificate entitled him.

As he studied the chart he overheard Captain Daintree talking over the transceiver to somebody, presumably Port Control, on the planet below. "Yes, you heard me correctly. I am sending the advance party down in one of my rocket boats." Came the reply, "But, Captain, our spaceport is not suitable for the reception of such a craft." The voice was as arrogant as Daintree's own but in a different way. It was the arrogance that comes with money (too much money), with inherited titles, with a bloodline traced back to some uncouth robber baron who happened to be a more efficient thief and murderer than his rivals.

"I am sending away my rocket boat." One almost expected the acridity of ozone to accompany that quarterdeck snap and crackle.

"I am sorry, Captain—" Port Control didn't sound very sorry—"but that is impossible."

"Do you want our help, or don't you?"

There was a brief silence, then a reluctant "Yes."

"Your spaceport is on the northern shore of Lake Bluewater, isn't it?"

"You have the chart that we transmitted to you, Captain."

"My rocket boat can be put down on water."

"You don't understand, Captain. Lake Bluewater is a very popular resort."

"Isn't that just too bad? Get your kids with their pails and spades and plastic animals off the beaches and out of the water."

Again the silence and then in a voice that shed none of its cold venom over the thousands of miles, "Very well, Captain. But please understand that we shall not be responsible for any accidents to your boat and your personnel."

"And I," said Daintree harshly, "refuse to accept responsibility for any picnic or paddling parties who happen to get in the way. The officer in charge of the re-entry vehicle will be using the same frequency as we are using now. He will keep you and me informed of his movements. Over."

"Roger," came the supercilious reply. "Roger. Over and standing by."

"Rocket boat cleared away and ready, sir," said Commander Griffin, who had returned to the control room.

"Very good, Commander. Man and launch. Mr. Grimes, you should have memorized that chart by now, and, in any case, there will be another copy in the boat."

"Yes, sir." Grimes followed the Commander from the control room.

* * *

Surgeon Lieutenant Kravisky, his slender body already pressure-suited, his thin, dark face behind the open face plate of his helmet wearing an anxious expression, was already waiting by the boat blister. In each hand he carried a briefcase: one containing ship's papers and the other his uniform. Disgustedly, Grimes stripped to his briefs. If he'd been allowed to take the pinnace instead of this relic from the bad old days, there would have been no need to dress up like a refugee from historical space opera. A rating helped him into his suit, another man neatly folded his shorts and shirt and stowed them, together with his shoes and stockings, into a small case. Being on the Advance Party had its advantages after all, Grimes decided. At least he would be spared the discomfort of full dress— frock coat, cocked hat and sword—which would be rig of the day when the big ship came in.

"Are you sure that you can drive this thing, John?" asked Kravisky.

"I don't know. I've never tried before." Then, before Commander Griffin could issue a scathing reprimand, he added. "Not this particular one, I mean. But I am qualified."

"That will do, Mr. Grimes," said Griffin. "You know the drill, I hope. After you're down, present yourself to Port Control and make the necessary arrangements for the reception of Aries. Don't forget that you represent the ship. Comport yourself accordingly. And try to refrain from misguided attempts at humor."

"Ay, ay, sir."

"Then board the boat. Procedure as per Regulations. Bo's'n!"

"Sir!" snapped the petty officer.

"Carry on!"

"Ay, ay, sir."

The inner door to the blister opened, revealing a small airlock. Grimes entered it first, followed by Kravisky, snapping shut his faceplate as he did so. He heard the sighing of the pumps as the air was exhausted from the chamber, watched the needle of the pressure dial drop to Zero. The red light came on. The outer door opened.

Beyond it was the graceless form of the rocket boat, a stubby, flattened dart with a venturi and control surfaces; and visible beyond it was black, star-flecked sky and a great, glowing arc that was the limb of El Dorado. Grimes shuffled toward it on his magnetized soles, saw that the cabin door was already open, pulled himself into the vehicle. Then, while Kravisky was stowing the cases in a locker abaft the seats, he pushed the button that shut the door and another that pressurized the compartment. He looked at the dials and meters on the console, saw that the firing chamber had been warmed up and that all was ready for the launch. He strapped himself into his seat and waited until the Surgeon Lieutenant had done likewise. He opened the faceplate of his helmet. The air was breathable enough but carried a stale, canned flavor.

"All systems Go!" he said, feeling that the archaic spacemanese matched the archaic means of transportation.

"What was that?" snapped Griffin's voice from the speaker. Then, tiredly, "Oh, all right, Mr. Grimes. Five second count-down. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . fire!"

Smoothly and efficiently the launching catapult threw the rocket boat away and clear from the cruiser. Not very smoothly, but efficiently enough, Grimes actuated the reaction drive, felt the giant hand of acceleration push him back into the padding of his seat.

"Mr. Grimes!" This time it was Captain Daintree's voice that came from the speaker. "Mr. Grimes, you should have been able to fall free all the way to the exosphere. You have no fuel to waste on astrobatics."

"Bloody back-seat drivers!" muttered Grimes, but he held his hand over the microphone as he did so.

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