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by Robert Sheckley
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Salvatore commands the battleship Endymion. He's seen his share of battles and fought them bravely, too. So he doesn't hesitate when beautiful Princess Hatari pleads for his help. She wants to regain her throne, but it may be more than Salvatore can accomplish, for the deadly race known as the Balderdash has taken over the planet Melchior--and now, even his own men have turned against him!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1990 USA
eBookwise Release Date: November 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [101 KB]
Reading time: 55-77 min.
Salvatore stretched in front of the spaceship control panel. He yawned.
"Tired, Boss?" asked Toma, his spider robot.
"Only bored, Toma. Only bored."
He'd joined the StarSwarm fleet to see action and danger. No one had told him there would be periods of waiting that would test his thin patience. How could anyone expect a sixteen-year-old commander to sit idle? He eased forward and flipped a button. A ray of light flicked through the sky.
"Boss! You could blast another vessel to Stagmall and gone!"
"I need action, Toma. I only want to tear up a few ships or maybe sack a planet or two."
"I'd save my energy if I were you," said Toma. "You know nothing stays quiet around here for long."
* * * *
Salvatore paced up and down the wide, carpeted area in front of the huge, curving windows of the battleship Endymion. Through them, he could see a splendid view of the Semiramis region of Space from a distance of a mere 1.3 light-years. In this dense region near the Galactic Center, a million pinpoints of light flared and glowed in colors ranging from pale violet through angry red. Sal wasn't interested in the spectacle now, though at another time, it would have thrilled his sixteen-year-old heart.
He was watching for the first sign of his squadron returning, even though he knew the radar would pick them up long before he could make them out visually.
"Still no sign of them?" he asked Toma, his spider robot assistant, who was on the other side of the Command Room near the radar readout.
"You know I'd tell you as soon as I picked up a signal," the little robot said. "Calm down, Boss. You know they're all right."
"Just keep watching that screen," Sal said.
The spider robot waved two tentacles in a curious gesture that was his equivalent of a nod. He had a body mass about the size and shape of an aluminum beer keg, rounded at both ends. Extruding from his body were a dozen tentacle-like limbs, made of a flexible gray metal. He could extrude more limbs as circumstances required.
No one knew how the spider-robots came into existence. They were, as their name implied, a novel cross between living spider and non animate robot. They were usually colored medium gray or slate blue, though a few species were orange with blue checks. It was not known what these different colors might signify.
Human explorers first found the spider robots on the planet Stagma II. They already had an advanced mechanical civilization, although their development had stopped short of Space flight. The spider robots were eager to cooperate with other intelligent species, and were often taken on interstellar journeys as data assistants.
"Anything yet?" Sal asked.
"Not yet, Boss. Don't worry!"
"I can't help but worry," Salvatore said. "Some of my men are new to Space conflicts. Even though the engagement I sent them to didn't look like it would offer much resistance...."
"A piece of cake," the robot said. "You said so yourself."
"But you can never tell in advance. Not really. I should have gone with them."
Toma crossed two tentacles in a negative gesture. "You know the rules. You are bound by your contract to Sforza to send them into at least one action under their second-in-command, Dick Fogarty, so their decisions and actions can be appraised for future leadership positions."
"I know, I know," Salvatore said "But maybe Star Pass Nine wasn't the right engagement to send them to."
"It was the best small action to come along in months," the robot pointed out. "Another month without sending them into an engagement and you would have been in violation of contract."
"Still, maybe I should have gone along."
"Boss, you did the right thing. They can take care of themselves."
"They're just kids at heart," Salvatore said, evidently unaware of the irony of such words issuing from the lips of one who had just celebrated his sixteenth birthday.
"That's because they've taken the Immaturity Option," Toma said. "It's the best conditioning for space ship fighter pilots. It makes them dashing and courageous. But also, if you will excuse the thought, a little reckless."
Salvatore shook his head. "It's a weird world when sixteen-year-olds command adult men. But what the hell, that's the system. I didn't invent it. I know they'll be okay. But where in hell are they?"
It seemed as if it would go on forever: Salvatore and the spider robot, alone in the darkened Battle Command Station, reading the dials, waiting. But things can change fast in Space. One moment everything was going along as usual, with all instruments reading in normal range, and with Salvatore sitting in the big command chair, nervous, bored and worried about his men and wondering where he would take his leave time next year.
The next moment, a light flashed on the Communication Board, and an alarm went off. It could have been a false summons, since the alarms did go off from time to time for no discernable reason. But this felt like something different to Sal. The alarm had an emergency feel about it, accompanied as it was by the strident burr of the buzzer and the red light flashing on the board.
"That's them!" Sal cried.
But the spider robot said in a cheery voice, "It's not the battle group."
"Who could it be, then?"
"Don't know, but it looks like you got a visitor, Boss!"
The robot pointed to the screen with one slender tentacle. The blip showed a spaceship of unknown origin, coming toward the Endymion at full speed.
It was an awkward time to receive callers on a battleship without defenders, with only a sixteen-year-old commander and a spider robot there to hold the fort.
Of course, Salvatore was not just anybody. He had a Commander's license in the Sforza Condottieri forces, and he had been top of his class on the Battle Organ the year he graduated from the Uni Prep war college. He was one tough sixteen-year-old, and he was ready for trouble.
At this time in the Semiramis region, no inhabited planet had a Space navy of its own. The great military houses of the Condottieri with their freelance armies did most of the fighting, hiring themselves out to either side, battling other Condottieri bands who had signed contracts with their enemies. As a partial check on their powers, Condottieri were not supposed to live on planets they worked for.
It was not an ideal system, but it had worked well enough up to this point. Salvatore, as officer on the scene, was supposed to make up his own mind about matters when they came up. Correct decisions could mean advancement; incorrect ones could result in unpleasantness, including condemnation on charges of treason, and then, summary execution. Often the execution came first, and the trial later. The Sforza and other Condottieri families took few chances.
Salvatore didn't bother with the Battle Organ. Not for one ship. Instead he toggled the satellite's laser guns to the ON position and sat up straight in the command chair. He was of normal height for a boy of sixteen, but the chair had been padded to raise him and give him a better view. He was a tall, skinny kid, with a head of unruly orange-red curls. His eyes were an intense cold blue.
His guns locked onto the target. Before him, through the curving window, was the unsurpassed view of the night sky stretching as towards the constellation Agamemnon in the Semiramis region.
There was usually a lot of action in this part of the galaxy. This was where the Big Bang was said to have begun, starting the human race on its still unended career. In this region, inhabited planets were more packed than countries on a map of old Earth. One thousand and seventy-one planetary civilizations traded, took holidays on each other's worlds, and sometimes went to war with each other. Scattered through the entire region were the Condottieri, independent mercenary battle groups who hired themselves out to planets without StarSwarms of their own. Politics changed quickly out here. Salvatore's mission was to monitor the flow of events in this region, and look for suitable fighting opportunities for his Battle Group.
Salvatore put out a trace on the alarm. Soon a flashing LED line came up on the navigation screen. It showed something moving toward them.
"It's coming," Salvatore muttered to himself. "Closing fast."
"It should have started a braking orbit by now." Toma the robot said. "It's coming directly toward us.
"Scared?" Salvatore asked.
"Of course not. Spider robots have very little instinct for survival. It doesn't matter to me if the ship destroys this entire battleship."
"Thanks a lot," Salvatore said.
"No insult intended."
Salvatore studied the moving LED line. "Maybe the pilot doesn't dare slow down."
"See those faint tracings of lights behind him on the screen? Looks like ships in hot pursuit, doesn't it?"
"Yes," the robot said. "That is the most logical explanation."
Salvatore studied the screen. There were about a dozen blips following the spaceship. On the basis of their velocity and mass, he was certain they were short range spaceships, probably from a nearby planet. No more detailed identification was possible at this range. The leading spaceship, trying to pull away from its pursuers, was closing fast on Salvatore's battleship.
"Try to raise the pilot on radio," Salvatore said.
The robot turned some dials, fiddled with a rheostat, and touched a filter button.
"No answer yet. This guy's coming in so fast, I figure he's set up a magnetic resonance that's blocking radio waves, or maybe he's shut down the whole electromagnetic spectrum."
"He's going to have to slow down pretty soon," Salvatore said. "Or go through us."
"He's just begun deceleration," the robot said.
Salvatore turned on the long distance displacer cannon and set the sights for maximum range. The spaceship kept on coming, its blip swelling on the screen.
"So what are you going to do?" the robot asks.
Salvatore didn't answer. There was a sudden burst of static from the big speakers mounted on either side of the control board. A light display panel showed a series of squiggles, then went to black.
"Make sense out of that for me," Salvatore said.
The robot quickly adjusted switches. The sound came through again, cleaned, filtered, amplified and slowed. This time, the message was unmistakable.
"Help! I am being attacked!" The message was in Intergab, one of the main trading languages in the Semiramis portion of Space. Judging by the intonation, though poorly reproduced by the space radio, Sal guessed the speaker was female.
"A call for help!" the robot said.
Salvatore shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I have to follow the rules. Punch up Standard Response l."
The robot did so. The message went out. "Please identify yourself."
"Spaceship Leitra, Princess Hatari commanding. I am being pursued by two Balderdash Attack craft. Please let me take refuge on your battleship."
"The Balderdash," Sal said. "Who are the Balderdash?"
Toma performed the odd series of clicks to tune into the Galactic Information Channel.
"A newly discovered race," he said after a while. "Not much is known about them."
The woman's voice on the radio came through, "Didn't you hear me? I need help!"
"I guess we've heard that one before," the robot said.
"I guess we have," Sal said. "Do you think one of the other Condottieri chiefs could be trying to pull a fast one on us?"
"The closest Condottieri are the Borgia squadron on South Myna Star Salient. They have shown no recent signs of bellicosity."
"So this might be a genuine distress call. Well.... Transmit Standard Response 2."
The robot broadcast, "Do not come any closer to this ship! It is the property of the Sforza Condottieri. Only ships with legitimate contracts with a Sforza Battle Group can claim protection. Back off, or I will be forced to fire."
On the big plotting screen, Salvatore could see the light dot representing the spaceship Leitra, closely pursued by two smaller ships. A ripple of light crossed the screen. Firing had commenced.
"My pursuers are firing on me!" Princess Hatari radioed.
"I'm sorry about that," Salvatore radioed back. "But there's nothing I can do about it. However, I must point out you are approaching this battleship's protective shield. Within the shield is Sforza space. Trespassing is forbidden. Break off from your course immediately or I will commence firing."
"But I'm seeking help! I'm being attacked!"
"That is no concern of mine! Get out of Sforza space before I slam a torpedo into you!"
"Darn it, I have a right to be here! I have a contract for Sforza support and services!"
Salvatore looked at the robot. The robot made a shrug-like movement with its tentacles.
"Why didn't you mention this earlier?" Sal asked.
"I had my hands full maneuvering this ship," Hatari replied.
"What is your contract number?"
A telltale light on the screen flashed, showing that the ship had penetrated the outermost defenses of the Sforza planetoid.
"Don't shoot," Hatari said. "I'll have to look it up."
Five seconds passed. Hatari's ship continued to move in toward the planetoid.
Salvatore was tracking the ship through simulated gun-sights. He locked the battleship's guns onto the ship. He said to the robot, "On my mark, begin countdown to zero, and then fire."
"Not so fast!" Hatari said. "I told you. I've got the contract number around here somewhere!"
"...eight, seven, six..."
"Wait, it must be in the accounts receivable file!"
"Here it is! 77089--aa23!"
Salvatore looked at the robot. "Well?"
"It's a legitimate contract number."
More lights flashed on the control board as the ship penetrated the second line of defenses. There was one more line left to pass.
Salvatore turned off the guns. He said, "Put your ship into a parking orbit and 'port over here immediately."
"I'm coming right over," Hatari said. "Signing off."