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Chapter 7

Grimes missed his watch. And there was no bulkhead clock in the Third Officer's cabin; her original owners, the Interstellar Transport Commission, were parsimonious in some respects, considering that only departmental heads were entitled to certain "luxuries."

But time would pass whether or not he possessed the mechanical means of recording its passage. One way of passing time is to sit and think. Grimes went through to the bathroom to do his sitting and thinking; he could smoke his pipe in there without its becoming obvious to anybody entering the cabin that he had found the means of lighting the thing.

He sat and he thought.

He thought about the skyjackers. The man called Paul was wearing the most gold and silver braid so, presumably, was the leader. But Lania, with fewer stars and smaller crowns on her shoulder boards, was the one giving all the orders—leader de facto if not de jure. The situation, perhaps, was analogous to that obtaining when a rather ineffectual Captain is overshadowed by a tough, dynamic First Lieutenant or Chief Mate or whatever.

Hodge? Just another engineer, no matter where he came from or whose badges he was wearing.

Susie? Her like could be found in many spaceships, both naval and mercantile. She was no more (and no less) than a spacefaring hotel manager.

All four of the skyjackers, it seemed, had been in the employ of the Bronsonian Meteorological Service, crewpersons aboard Station Beta. How big a crew did those artificial satellites carry? Grimes didn't know. But there must have been a mutiny, during which one of the skyjackers, the navigator of the party, had been killed. Somebody else—possibly the captain, with the muzzle of a pistol pressing into the back of his neck—had driven Beta out of her circumpolar orbit into one intersecting that of Bronson Star.

And this "Highness" business. . . .

Grimes had known Highnesses and Excellencies and the like and was prepared to admit that Lania and Paul did have about them something of that aura which distinguishes members of hereditary aristocracy from the common herd. He knew what it was, of course. It was no more than plain arrogance; if you have it drummed into you from birth on that you are better than those in whose veins blue blood does not flow you will end up really believing it.

But what had a Highness been doing as a crewwoman aboard an orbital spacecraft? A met. observatory owned by a planet state whose elected ruler bore the proud title of First People's Minister, not First Peoples' Minister. . . . Grimes allowed himself a break to enjoy the semantic subtlety.

He heard the cabin door open, voices.

(Didn't these people ever knock?)

He got up, knocked his pipe out into the toilet bowl (the one operational only during acceleration), flushed. He put the pipe into his pocket, came through into the cabin.

Susie said brightly, "Oh, there you are. Making room for breakfast?"

Hodge, behind her, grinned.

"Breakfast?" queried Grimes, looking at the tray that she set down on his desk. He was hungry, but a bowl of stew, however savory, did not seem right, somehow, for the first meal of the day.

"Or lunch, or dinner. Take your pick. But it has to be something that you can eat out of a soft, plastic bowl with a soft, plastic spoon. Her Highness's orders."

"Her Highness?"

"That's what we all have to call her now. And Paul, of course, is His Highness."

"But Bronsonia's a sort of republic."

"And where we came from wasn't. Or, to be more exact, where our parents came from."

"Porlock?" wondered Grimes. "But Porlock's a republic too—unless it's changed since I did my last Recent Galactic History course."

"May as well tell him, Susie," said Hodge. "He can listen while he's eating. I've more important things to do than play at being your armed escort."

"All right," said the girl. "Get dug into your tucker and listen. Our parents were refugees from Dunlevin. You may recall from your history courses that Dunlevin was a monarchy. Paul's father was the Crown Prince; he was one of the few members of the royal family who got away in the royal yacht. Lania's parents were the Duke and Duchess of Barstow, who also escaped. Hodge's father was an officer in the Royal Dunlevin Navy. My father was too, Paymaster Commander of the yacht.

"Wallis, who should have been our navigator on this caper, was the son of Commodore Wallis, a loyalist officer. As a matter of fact he—young Wallis, that is—was Third Mate of this ship before he entered the met. service. . . ."

Grimes worked his way through the plate of stew while she was talking. It wasn't too bad, although he, had he been cooking, would have programmed the auto-chef to be more generous with the seasonings. And the mug of coffee that came with the meal was deficient in sweetening.

Susie's story was interesting. He remembered, now, reading about the revolution on Dunlevin. The ruling house on that planet had not been at all popular and, as Dunlevin was of little strategic importance, had not been propped up by Federation weaponry. Even so the Popular Front had not enjoyed a walkover, mainly because the Royalists had been given support—arms and "volunteers"—by the Duchy of Waldegren. The Interstellar Federation, albeit reluctantly, had imposed a blockade on Dunlevin. The Federation did not like the Popular Front but liked Waldegren even less. And it was Federation presence that prevented too enthusiastic a massacre when the last Royalist stronghold fell; shiploads of refugees made their escape under the guns of the blockading Survey Service fleet.

Some of those refugees, obviously, had found haven on Bronsonia.

"So," said Grimes after he had swallowed the last spoonful, "you people hope to mount a counterrevolution. . . . I'm sorry to be a wet blanket—but you haven't the hope of a snowball in hell. This rustbucket isn't a warship, you know. Or hadn't you noticed?"

"Any ship," she told him sweetly, "is a potential troop transport. And any merchant vessel is a potential auxiliary cruiser. It's rather a pity, Grimes, that we shall be leaving you on Porlock. We could have used your Survey Service expertise."

He said, "I'm not a mercenary."

She said, "But certain episodes in your past career indicate that you're willing to fight on the right side."

He said, "The right side isn't necessarily the right side."

"Ha. Ha bloody ha. If you've ever lived under a left-wing tyranny you'd be talking differently."

"Have you ever lived under a left-wing tyranny, Susie?"

"No. But we know how things are on Dunlevin."

"Do you?"

"Yes!" she snapped. "Have you finished your meal?" She snatched the tray off the desk. "We'll leave you now. You'll be told when you're required again."

"There should be at least a once-daily check of position," said Grimes.

"You people," she told him scornfully, "are always trying to kid us, those of us who aren't members of the Grand Lodge of Navigators, that you're indispensible."

And with those parting words she left him.

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