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Chapter 9

Grimes brought Bronson Star down to Porlock.

He sat in the control room, with Their Royal Highnesses and Susie in other chairs so situated that they could cover him with their pistols without risk of shooting each other. He told them that if they did kill him they, in all probability, would die too. Lania told him that even she knew enough to use the inertial drive to reverse the vessel's fall. He said that the NST transceiver should be used to request permission from Aerospace Control to make entry. She told him that this was not only unnecessary but impossible since the Aerospace Controllers were on strike—a stoppage, thought Grimes, conveniently timed to coincide with Bronson Star's planetfall. Doubtless a coded message had been sent to somebody by means of the Carlotti Deep Space radio.

In any case the landing was not to be made at Port Coleridge. Grimes had been supplied with charts and told that he was to set the ship down at the point indicated at precisely 2000 local time for that locality. (Porlock, like many worlds with a period of rotation less than that of Earth, found it convenient to adopt a twenty-hour day.) The set-down site, ringed in red on the map, was in one of the deserts that occupied most of the land space of the southern continent of this world. It was, Grimes estimated, at least five hundred Porlock miles (one thousand kilometers) from the nearest town. Noisy as the inertial drive inevitably is, the midnight landing should go unheard in any center of population.

Grimes always enjoyed ship handling and, in spite of the circumstances, he found pleasure in this test of his skill. There was no Aerospace Control to keep him informed as to what the wind was doing at the various levels of the atmosphere. Even if Bronson Star had been equipped with sounding rockets he would not have been allowed to use them. But there was a beacon, a bright red light visible only from above, that he was able to pick up from a great altitude; fortunately it was a cloudless night.

That ruddy spark, as soon as he had it in the stern-vision screen, allowed him to estimate drift, which was easily compensated for by lateral thrust although requiring frequent adjustment. Grimes quite forgot that he was acting under duress except when Paul, superciliously obnoxious, remarked that professional spacemen always seem to suffer from the delusion that their ships are made of glass.

The beacon light grew brighter and brighter, so much so that Grimes was obliged to reduce the brilliance of the screen. He watched the radar altimeter and when there were only one hundred and fifty meters to go allowed the target to drift away from the center of the bull's-eye sight.

"Watch it, Grimes!" ordered Lania sharply. "Watch your aim!"

He said, "I'm looking after your property, or somebody's property, Highness. Those laser beacons are quite expensive, you know . . ."

"You're not paying for it!" she snapped but refrained from any further interference.

One hundred. . . . Fifty. . . . Grimes increased vertical thrust to slow the rate of descent. Forty. . . . Thirty. . . . Bronson Star was drifting down like a huge balloon with barely negative buoyancy. Five. . . . Four. . . . Three. . . . Two. . . . One. . . .

And they were down, with hardly a jar. Grimes stopped the drive and the ship sighed as she adjusted her great weight within the cradle of her tripedal landing gear. The clinometer indicated that she was only a fraction of a degree off the vertical.

Grimes felt for his pipe then remembered that he had left it in his cabin. In any case Their Royal Highnesses would not have tolerated smoking in their presence.

He said, "We're here."

"A blinding glimpse of the obvious, Grimes," said Lania.

"They're waiting for us, Highness," said Susie.

"It would be strange if they were not, girl. Mortdale is a good organizer."

Grimes asked, "May I ring off the engines, Highness?"

"No. Leave everything on Stand By. We just might have to—what is the expression?—get upstairs in a hurry. So remain at your controls."

Without leaving his chair Grimes was able to look out through the wide viewports. There was activity outside the ship—dark shapes in the darkness, flashing lights, the occasional flashing reflection from bright metal.

"Susie," ordered Lania, "go down to the airlock to receive General Mortdale. You should recognize him from his photographs and you have the password."

"Yes, Highness."

Susie vanished down the hatch.

Grimes started to ask, "Shall I be . . . ?"

"Speak when you're spoken to," he was told.

* * *

Eventually Susie returned.

She was accompanied by three men, clad in drab, insignialess coveralls. Their leader—Mortdale?—was small, compact, terrier-like, with a stubble of gray hair and a close-cropped moustache. Grimes had known officers like him in the Federation Survey Service Marines, had never cared for them. Terriers—stupidly pugnacious at best, vicious at worst—were not his favorite dogs. The other two were taller than their leader. One had yellow hair, the other was bald but they could almost have been twins. Looking at their hard, reckless faces Grimes categorized them as bad bastards.

Mortdale drew himself to attention, so sharply that Grimes was surprised not to hear vertebrae cracking. "Highness!" he snapped.

"General," acknowledged Paul with a languid nod of his head.

"May I present Major Briggs and Captain Polanski?"

The two men bowed stiffly.

"Captain Polanski, I suppose," said Paul, "is the spaceman who will be taking over from our unwilling . . . chauffeur."

"No, Highness. The captain is a member of my staff."

"Then may I suggest, General, that you get your qualified spaceman aboard as soon as possible? There are the holds to convert into troop accommodation, the stores and the weapons to load, the troops to embark. This work must be supervised."

"It can be supervised by an army officer, Highness," said Mortdale.

"What about the man you were supposed to have for us?" demand Lania sharply.

"Him?" The general's voice was contemptuous. "He backed out. There was some star tramp here short of an officer and so he got himself signed on as Third Mate without letting me know. By this time he's halfway to Ultimo."

"I would have expected you to exercise better control over your people, General Mortdale," said Lania coldly. "Thanks to your negligence the success of the operation has been jeopardized. The work of conversion, the loading, the embarkation must inevitably be delayed. It will not be long before the planetary authorities realize that something odd is going on out here in the desert."

"The World Manager and his ministers are sympathetic to our cause, Highness. They hope for a favorable trade agreement with the new government on Dunlevin. . . ."

"And who gave you the authority to negotiate such deals?" demanded Paul hotly. "Who. . . ."

Lania silenced him with an imperious wave of her hand.

"And as I have already said, Highness," went on the general, "my officers can oversee the work at least as well as any spaceman. As for the lift-off and the navigation to Dunlevin . . ." Grimes realized that Mortdale's rather mad, yellow eyes were staring directly at him . . . "he, whoever he is, got you here. He must be competent. He can take us away from here."

"He will do as he's told," said Lania, "if he values his health."

Grimes said, "I understood that I was to be released on this world. Highness."

"Did you?" Then, to Mortdale, "Have your officers put him back in his kennel until we need him again. Susie will show them where it is."

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