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For the one-time service manager of a certain engineering concern



Chapter 1

She was old and tired, the Rim Dragon—and after this, her final voyage, we were feeling just that way ourselves. It was as though she had known somehow that a drab and miserable end awaited her in the ungentle hands of the breakers, and she had been determined to forestall the inevitable and go out in a blaze of glory—or as much glory as would have been possible for a decrepit Epsilon Class tramp finishing her career after many changes of ownership at the very rim of the Galaxy, the edge of the dark.

Fortunately for us, she had overdone things.

Off Grollor, for example, a malfunctioning of the control room computer had coincided with a breakdown of the main propellant pump. If the second mate hadn't got his sums wrong we should have been trapped in a series of grazing ellipses, with no alternative but to take to the boats in a hurry before too deep a descent into the atmosphere rendered this impossible. As things worked out, however, the mistakes made by our navigator and his pet computer resulted in our falling into a nice, stable orbit, with ample time at our disposal in which to make repairs.

Then there had been pile trouble, and Mannschenn drive trouble—and for the benefit of those of you who have never experienced this latter, all I can say is that it is somewhat hard to carry out normal shipboard duties when you're not certain if it's high noon or last Thursday. It was during the Mannschenn drive trouble that Cassidy, our reaction drive chief engineer, briefly lost control of his temperamental fissioning furnace. By some miracle the resultant flood of radiation seemed to miss all human personnel. It was the algae tanks that caught it—and this was all to the good, as a mutated virus had been running riot among the algae, throwing our air conditioning and sewage disposal entirely out of kilter. The virus died, and most of the algae died—but enough of the organisms survived to be the parents of a new and flourishing population.

Then there had been the occasions when Rim Dragon had not overdone things, but her timing had been just a little out. There had been, for example, the tube lining that had cracked just a second or so too late (fortunately, really, from our viewpoint) but the mishap nonetheless had resulted in our sitting down on the concrete apron of Port Grimes, on Tharn, hard enough to buckle a vane.

There had been another propellant pump failure—this time on Mellise—that caused us to be grounded on that world for repairs at just the right time to be subjected to the full fury of a tropical hurricane. Luckily, the procedure for riding out such atmospheric disturbances is laid down in Rim Runners' Standing Orders and Regulations. It was a Captain Calver, I think, who had been similarly trapped on Mellise several years ago in some ancient rustbucket called Lorn Lady. He had coped with the situation by rigging stays to save his ship from being overturned by the wind. We did the same. It worked—although the forward towing lugs, to which our stays were shackled, would have torn completely away from the shell plating with disastrous consequences had the blow lasted another five minutes.

Anyhow, the voyage was now over—or almost over.

We were dropping down to Port Forlorn, on Lorn, falling slowly down the column of incandescence that was our reaction drive, drifting cautiously down to the circle of drab gray concrete that was the spaceport apron, to the gray concrete that was hardly distinguishable from the gray landscape, from the dreary flatlands over which drifted the thin rain and the gray smoke and the dirty fumes streaming from the stacks of the refineries.

We were glad to be back—but, even so . . .

Ralph Listowel, the mate, put into words the feeling that was, I think, in the minds of all but one of us. He quoted sardonically:

"Lives there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
When returning from some foreign strand
This is my own, my native land?"

Of all of us, the only genuine, native-born Rim Worlder descended from the first families was the old man. He looked up from his console now to scowl at his chief officer. And then I, of course, had to make matters worse by throwing in my own two bits' worth of archaic verse. I remarked, "The trouble with you, Ralph, is that you aren't romantic. Try to see things this way . . .

"Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies with magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales . . ."

"What the hell's the bloody purser doing in here?" roared the captain, turning his glare on me. "Mr. Malcolm, will you please get the hell out of my control room? And you, Mr. Listowel, please attend to your duties."

I unstrapped myself from my chair and left hastily. We carried no third mate, and I had been helping out at landings and blast-offs by looking after the RT. Besides, I liked to be on top to see everything that was happening. Sulkily, I made my way down to the officers' flat, staggering a little as the ship lurched, and let myself into the wardroom.

The other two "idlers" were there—Sandra and Doc Jenkins. They were sprawled at ease in their acceleration chairs, sipping drinks from tall glasses dewy with condensation.

"So this is how the poor live," I remarked sourly.

"The way that the old bitch has been carrying on," said Doc affably, "we have to assume that any given drink may be our last. But how come you're not in the greenhouse?"

"They gave me the bum's rush," I admitted, dropping into the nearest chair, strapping myself in. I was feeling extremely disgruntled. In well-manned, well-found ships pursers are brought up to regard the control room as forbidden ground, but over the past few months, I had become used to playing my part in blastings-off and landings and had come to appreciate the risks that we were running all the time. If anything catastrophic happened I'd be dead, no matter where I was. But when I die I'd like to know the reason.

"So they gave you the bum's rush," said Sandra, not at all sympathetically. (She had been heard to complain that if the purser was privileged to see all that was going on, a like privilege should be extended to the catering officer. "Might I inquire why?"

"You might," I told her absently, listening to the thunder of the rocket drive, muffled by the insulation but still loud in the confined space. It sounded healthy enough. They seemed to be getting along without me up there. But we weren't down yet.

"Why?" she asked bluntly.

"Give me a drink, and I'll tell you."

She did not unstrap herself but extended a long, shapely arm and managed to shove the heavy decanter and a glass across the table so that they were within my reach. I looked at the surface of the liquid within the container. It was rippled, but ever so slightly, by the vibration. The old girl was behaving herself. I might still have time for a drink before things started to happen. I poured myself a generous slug and raised the tumbler to my lips. It was, as I had suspected, the not at all bad gin manufactured by the doctor in his capacity of biochemist. The lime flavor made it palatable.

She said, "You've got your drink."

I said, "All right. If you must know, I was quoting poetry. Ralph started it. The master did not, repeat not, approve . . ."

"Down," quoted the doctor in his fruitiest voice.

Fierce stabbing
Flame phallus
Membrane of atmosphere,
Tissues of cloud.
To stony womb of world.
Spacemen, I ask you
What monster
Or prodigy
Shall come of this rape?"

I looked at him with some distaste. His chubby face under the overly long, overly oily black hair was (as usual) smugly sensual. He had an extensive repertoire of modern verse, and practically all of it dealt with rape, both literal and figurative.

"If I'd quoted that trash," I told him, "the old man would have been justified in booting me out of his Holy of Holies. But I was quoting poetry. Poetry. Period."

"Oh, yes. Poetry. Meretricious jingles. You and dear Ralph share a passion for this revival of the ancient Terran slush, corn of the corniest. Our lord and master did well in arising in his wrath and hurling you into the outer darkness . . ."

"Poetry," said Sandra flatly, "and ship handling just don't mix. Especially at a time like this."

"She was riding down," I said, "sweetly and gently, on full automatic."

"And all of us," she pointed out, "at the mercy of a single fuse. I may be only chief cook and bottlewasher aboard this wagon, but even I know that it is essential for the officers in the control room to be fully alert at all times."

"All right," I said. "All right."

I glared at her, and she glared at me. She was always handsome—but she was almost beautiful when she was in a bad temper. I wondered (as I had often wondered before) what she would be like when the rather harsh planes and angles of her face were softened by some gentler passion. But she did her job, Sandra did, and did it well, and kept to herself—as others, as well as I, had learned the hard way.

Meanwhile, we were still falling, still dropping, the muffled thunder of our reaction drive steady and unfaltering. In view of the past events and near disasters of the voyage it was almost too good to be true. It was, I decided, too good to be true—and then, as though in support of my pessimism, the sudden silence gripped the hearts of all of us. Sandra's face was white under her coppery hair and Jenkins's normally ruddy complexion was a sickly green. We waited speechless for the last, the final crash.

The ship tilted gently, ever so gently, tilted and righted herself, and the stuffy air inside the wardroom was alive with the whispered complaints of the springs and cylinders of her landing gear. The bulkhead speaker crackled and we heard the old man's voice: "The set-down has been accomplished. All personnel may proceed on their arrival duties."

Doc Jenkins laughed, unashamedly relieved. He unstrapped himself and poured a generous drink from the decanter into each of our glasses. "To the end of the voyage," he said, raising his tumbler. He gulped his gin. Then, "Now that we can all relax, Peter, just what was the so-called poetry that led to your well-merited eviction from the greenhouse?"

" 'Saw the heavens fill with commerce,' " I quoted. " 'Argosies with magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales . . . ' "

"We dropped down all right," he jested, "but not on any magic sails. A down-thrusting phallus of flame is a far better description of rocket drive."

"I prefer the magic sails," I said.

"You would," he said.

"Some people," said Sandra pointedly, getting to her feet, "have work to do. Even though the ship is finished, we aren't."

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