“All in a Week’s Work”, story 2
By Hannah Christensen
“Route secure. Proceed entry.”
“Bonny proceeding with entry. Signing out.”
“Over and out,” scratched the radio.
Captain Philip snapped it off. In the screen in front of him a minor planet tried its best to loom. It had neither the bulk to make itself impressive nor the color to entice the eye. Its low gravity field only held enough atmosphere to change the stark black of the space to a sulky grey around the planet’s edges. The few cities glowered at the sky in only a slightly more scarlet glow than the partly underground factories. Captain Philip nudged his ship toward the lit spacecraft pads on the polar side of Glunchster.
He was shifting into gravity drive when Ervin Wist’hle came into the cabin. The radio technician pulled himself into the co-pilot’s seat as the spaceship vibrated through the transition.
“Everybody have their seat belts on?” asked Captain Philip.
Ervin pulled his chair’s webbing around him. “Even Dunstan can’t think of a way to make anything more secure. When I left he was about ready to cradle that capsule like a baby.” He began flicking toggles and dials, taking over the communications while keeping half an eye on the landing process.
The Bonny settled into her booth. The captain realigned her rotation a hair so as to line her hold door better with the cargo bay, then let her her engines sigh off.
“Not bad. Not half bad,” he said.
“I’d give it a 9.2 out of a 10,” said Ervin, stretching. “Right. The port authorities should be ready for us.”
They fastened up their planetside helmets and went to join Dunstan.
Dunstan had already suited up and begun to open the hold.
Ervin laughed. “What if the authorities aren’t here yet?”
“They had better be,” said Dunstan. “I don’t want that stuff on my ship any longer than necessary.” He caught the captain’s eye and gave an apologetic grunt. “You know what I mean.”
Captain Philip began unslinging a dull metallic capsule from the intricate maze of suspensions that took up most of the inner hold. “They really ought to hire their own triglytrolene expert.”
“Too expensive,” said Ervin. “And they only need a new shipment every fifteen months or so.”
“And who’s going to pay when someone’s ship gets salted across the stars?” Dunstan retorted. “We’re not qualified handlers. We’re only supposed to move this stuff in emergencies.”
“It’s a good thing for Backira that Vertsphere has such regular epidemics to bring us over,” said Ervin.
Dunstan continued to grumble. “You would think they would want to keep someone on hand to make sure they don’t blow up their moon.”
The doors slid open. The three Space Rovers stepped into the airlock. The outer doors slid back to show a Backira official sweating in his oxygen mask.
“We’re glad to welcome you.”
Dunstan squinted, and Captain Philip knew he was trying to adjust from the way external speakers distorted voices to the way oxygen masks muffled them.
“Everything’s ready to go,” the official said.
“Excellent,” said Captain Philip. “That is the fastest time you’ve made yet in having the laracotine ready to go.”
“Er, well, there’s no point in having it ready and piled here before you’ve even unloaded.” He sawed a nervous laugh through the his mask. “But there’s plenty of time for that after we load the triglytrolene.”
“What?” said Ervin. “No tea and cakes? No kicking our feet up and filling out reams of paper? No producing credentialed IDs?”
“Stop confusing the natives,” said Dunstan. “Where’s the crate for this thing?”
While he inspected the transportation receptical for proper padding, suspension, and materials, the other two Space Rangers gave the waiting vehicle a quick inspection. Everything was according to code.
Ervin pulled away, looking wistfully at the rims of lights around the rim of the hovercraft. “I’ve always wanted programable lights. How often do you write your own patterns?”
“They come with a whole spectrum of preprogramed patterns,” the official said. His eyes followed the boxed capsule as it was fastened into the storage compartment.
Ervin sighed, but did not press the question.
The four drove to where a squat shuttle ship hulked. An official in a brown and rust uniform checked there identification, then helped as they inspected and loaded the ship.
“Well, it technically qualifies,” Dunstan said, kicking at the hull. “But I’m not impressed. In my day ships were never allowed to rust, not unless they were grounded and headed for the furnace.”
“That?” The portly official who had greeted them pointed at a red-orange patch on the side of the ship. “It’s just space rust, not iron oxide. We’ll scrape it off eventually, but Old Skag is always so close to the liftoff zones it’s hard to find a convenient time. She shouldn’t give you any problems, though.”
As he led the way back to the hovercraft, Dunstan whispered to the Captain, “I’d wager they chose this old boat hoping we’d fix her up some while on board. Space rust! Never heard of such a thing.”
Though the Old Skag was ready to go, the Space Rovers headed into Glunchster first to make arrangements for Vertsphere’s laracotine shipment. As they passed the city’s gates, Dunstan leaned against the window for a better look. While most of the city’s dome was sraightly functional, the gate was a piece of art from local materials.
“Any new lora q stones?” he asked.
Most laroq was rendered into larocatine, an effective sanitizer that could be taken internally to purge germs, or used as a natural preservative. Some farmers mined deep down past the mobile bacterii and spongy sperri stages of laroq, to the hard, geometrical formations of laroq adamant. Laroq adamant could either be rendered into larocatine or treated with calcareous nacre to make a gemstone with a green to orange opalescent sheen. Since mining that deep could wipe out whole fields of laroq, Backira had not only banned it, but confiscated any laroq gems found in its domain.
“Not since that band of roving gamblers limped in for repairs,” answered their driver. “It’s a pity there wasn’t one more. It would have made a lovely matched set.”
Dunstan agreed as he admired the arch of eleven gems above the city entrance.
It did not take long to get the paper work side of business done. Captain Philip lingered over the details of the larocatine delivery to keep it from being eclipsed by the triglytrolene delivery.
“Do you think they heard a word I said?” he asked later as they boarded the Old Skag.
“Maybe next time we should insist on loading the Bonny first,” said Ervin. “Then we could supervise.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” Dunstan tugged at his long mustache. “We’ll probably have the chance when we get back.”
Ervin sighed. “If we can find anyone. I’d wager we have to load it ourselves.”
Dunstan chewed on the thought before shaking his head. “Can’t take you up on that one. Backiracials are too fickle to bet on.”
“What’s the fun a risk free bet?”
Captain Philip started the engine. “Do you want to wager against the Agent of Disperal complaining about how long we took getting there?”
“Only if I can lay my bet that he will complain. At any rate, I think Dunstan is right about the ship. I’d better go down to the engine room to make sure nothing falls apart. That wouldn’t be code for triglytrolene transport.”
Dearg, the moon they were headed toward, rose up mottled red in their sights. Closer, they could see scattered rigs working on the little mining farms.
The communications tower gave clearance to land and directions to a landing pad near a suspension cart they could use for their cargo, but no one came to meet them. Captain Philip went to get the suspension cart while Dunstan locked the ship down. When the Captain came back, Dunstan stood waving for him to stop. Captain Philip switched his helmet’s communication from external to radio.
“Is there a problem, Drudgeon?”
“Someone’s been tampering with the triglytrolene.”
The captain’s straight eyebrows pulled down. “How so?”
“I know the suspension’s not how I left it. And the ship shuddered, but it shouldn’t have done that to it.”
“Wist’hle, come in. Did you see anything suspicious during our outtrip?” He scanned the ground between himself and the Old Skag as he waited. Plenty of tracks crisscrossed the dust, but only a few sets of footsteps were untouched enough to be recent.
“Wist’hle here. What gives?”
“Drudgeon has reason to believe the cargo has been tampered with. Did you notice anything?”
“The rattles and bumps down in the engine room could have covered any number of mischeif makers. Are we talking a sizzling canister and a suicide run to make sure the moon doesn’t get blown to bits?”
“Not yet,” said Dunstan. “Let me check it further.”
Captain Philip walked over, careful to keep clear of all recent footprints, including his own. “I think I found our trail,” he said. “Someone jumped out of our ejection hatch and ran.”
Ervin opened the maintenance hatch and offered a hand. Inside, Dunstan held the capsule up. His head leaned to one side, and his wiry eyebrows matted together.
“I could almost swear someone’s been tampering with this, too.”
“What?” Ervin scurried over. “It looks the same to me.”
“Something’s not quite right.”
“Are you going to open it up to check it?”
“Not here,” said Captain Philip. “We’ll have to wait until we get to the depository. The question is, shall we drop this off or follow the culprit?”
“Follow the lead, of course,” said Ervin.
“Mighty risky,” said Dunstan.
“You can stay and guard the triglytrolene while we go.”
“No, I don’t like the feel of this,” said the Captain. “If something goes wrong, I don’t want someone isolated. We haven’t even made contact with the Agent of Dispersal.”
They decided to load the capsule and take the suspension cart as far along the trail as they could before it disappeared. Several times they thought they had lost their quarry, but each time by spreading out in the general direction the last footprint had been going, they were able to pick out at least part of a print that matched Dunstan’s detailed observations on the first footprints. Eventually the trail parted from the main thoroughfare and struck out over baron rocks, skirting the red laroq fields. They passed one field with low lying clouds of spores the bacterri had brought to the surface.
The captain drove to the side of their route, often in the fields themselves. This not only kept from blotting out the trail, but had fewer rocks to navigate. When they came to a rise where the footprints led between two grey outcrops, Captain Philip stopped.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “He can’t be far ahead of us now. And in this barren waste, he can’t help but hear he has company.”
“And that knoll looks like the perfect place for an ambush.” Dunstan eyed the the worn cleft between the rearing rocks. He climbed off the cart. It groaned and squeaked behind him. “Time for a council of war.”
The other two followed.
“It may be too early to declare war,” Ervin said. “We may be dealing with a poor ragamuffin who stumbled into the wrong hold to stow away in and is just glad to leave it all behind.”
“Or we may have a desperate triglytrolene theif in league with criminal warlords,” growled Dunstan.
“He looks as though he has a very definite destination in mind,” said Captain Philip. “And we should most certainly exercise caution. I would suggest circling around these rocks to see if the footprints come out before walking in.”
Dunstan squatted. “He may use the cover to hide something or pass a message, and we would miss the clue by not going in.”
“I thought we were just trying to catch up and find out what he was doing in our hold,” said Ervin. “On the other side he may even be in sight.”
“Yes, we should decide how we how we plan on approaching this person.” The Captain settled on a nearby rock.
Ervin looked around for a boulder and peered intently at it, brushing at some cracks with the tips of his fingers. “I’m just checking for laroq,” he answered in response to Dunstan’s frown.
“You won’t hurt it by sitting.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.” Ervin gingerly perched on the grey rock. “Have you ever watched how those little bacterri squirm when come out? If they can squirm their way right out of rock, I hate to think what they can squirm into.”
Dunstan tried to hide his smile beneath his mustache. “I wouldn’t worry about it. The reason Backira needs trigyltrolene is to deteriorate the rocks for the laroq. The bacterri stick pretty close to the older stages of laroq.”
Ervin gave him a look of grievance. “I thought we were here for a war council, not a biology lecture. Is the plan to jump on the fellow and pump him for all he’s worth, or are we pretending we’re long lost buddies?”
“Who hunted him down like game?”
“We didn’t want to miss the chance for a reunion. After so long, who knows when it will come again.”
“And what’s his name?”
Ervin sighed and rubbed at his head. His hair was almost ready for another buzz; the scattered hairs he had missed last time were blending in. “Sorry. I don’t plan well when I’m thirsty.”
“I was hoping to keep it casual and let our Space Rover uniforms swing all the authority we needed,” said Captain Philip. “It’s hard to tell, though. Seeing uniforms might cause him to panic.”
“Hmm. So what if one of us stays in reserve,” Dunstan suggested. “Then the other two can start out of uniform, with an authority figure for backup.”
Dunstan brought out his three sided die made with three curving metal strands to choose the reserve. The lot fell to him, so after handing their jackets and utility belts to Dunstan to cover the triglytrolene cylinder and turning down the reinforced test tubes with ironwood stoppers he had brought in case of triglytrolene recovery, Captain Philip and Ervin continued up the hill.
“It’s a good thing Dunstan isn’t coming,” said Ervin, smiling down at his wrinkled undershirt and untucked pant legs. “Going without a jacket wouldn’t be enough to make him look dressed down.”
“You have a point there.” Captain Philip looked down at where the dust was beginning to cling to his otherwise sharp gray trousers. “I could go barefoot.”
“That would only help if people were looking at you feet. You’re going to have to try something higher up. Try slouching.”
Captain Philip hunched his shoulders and switched to a bow-legged waddle. He kept it up until he heard Ervin’s groan and slap of hand to forehead.
There was no evidence of their quarry coming out on the other side, so they returned to the base and followed the trail. Right before the crest, the footprints turned aside into the rock. Captain Philip bent to see where they went while Ervin climbed a little higher to look over the land.
“No, I don’t see any—”
Something slammed down on the back of the Captain’s head. He stumbled, then pivoted to meet the attack. Hands descended from all around. He pulled away from them and considered using martial arts combat techniques, but his head was spinning from the clout and he wasn’t sure how many he was dealing with. He decided to keep his skills there a surprise for a more opportune time, and put his effort into leaving a mark for Dunstan to follow. A scrape in the rock about knee level should do it. That couldn’t be swept away as easily as footprints.
“Starboard danger, look out above,” he warned over the radio before he was dragged through a hidden crevise and below the surface. His connection crackled with static. “Wist’hle?” He shook himself. There seemed to be three men attached to him.
“Right behind you,” Ervin rasped. The static blurred the rest of his response.
No answer. He hoped Dunstan had at least received his warning.
They were pushed down several twisty passages until they came at last to an open chamber. It looked looked remarkably like an underground storage chamber for mining machines, only a little rough around the edges. There were even ordinary exits on the far ends. Captain Philip wondered how many of the warehouses he had been to had secret passages attached.
They were shoved in front of a man standing with one leg up on a block. His dark curly hair had a few stray gray hairs at the temples. The blunt features of his face were rough from work in the elements. Even if had not been shoved before this man like a prisoner before a conqueror, Captain Philip would have picked him out as the leader by his bearing. He gestured, and the breathing masks were ripped off the two Space Rovers.
“So Merle was right about being followed.” The man frowned. “Curse him. We need a more discreet way to pass on word.”
“Yeah, or a wavelength people don’t keep stumbling on,” said someone to the left and behind Captain Philip. “We should use an band from the orange range, then we wouldn’t have to keep changing it.”
“You can’t use an orange band, stupid,” said a manholding Captain Philip said. “They just—”
“Shut up.” The leader crossed his arms and stepped down to stand with his feet wide apart. He eyed first one and then the other of the two captives.
The Captain relaxed on the balls his feet, balanced and firm, but with no appearance of threat.
“Just what is your game?” asked the leader.
They were close to half the twelve minutes Dunstan was supposed to wait before following if they hadn’t contacted him. With any luck he had received the radioed warning and started earlier. Captain Philip sent Ervin the ‘stall by talking’ signal. The radio technician had more skill in that area, and if he took the lead, they might be able to confuse these renegades as to who was the leader. The less they knew, the more there was to work with.
“Well, this is an odd concept of hospitality,” Ervin said. “I have to admit you supplied more of a welcoming committee than we got docking. Even arriving on Backira we only had one person out to meet us.”
Captain Philip bit his tongue. This particular distraction did have a major flaw: too many words revealed too much information.
“Still, they weren’t as rough in their welcome. Not what I’d call warm, but—”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“The name’s Ervin Wist’hle. Right now I seem to be standing interrogation, unless this is a normal part of your welcoming ceremony. Who do I have the pleasure of meeting?”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Not your affair. I’m going to give you one more chance. What are you doing?”
“No wonder our passenger hid himself if this was the type of reception he expected. Merle, you said his name was?”
Someone laughed. “That slip-up was yours, Hammond.”
The leader, Hammond, glared at the speaker. He gestured curtly toward Ervin, and a smack sounded.
Captain Philip forced himself not to tense. If Ervin was also held by three men, that made a total of nine adversaries he could detect. It would be best to wait for Dunstan before attacking, especially since he would not be able to reach his blade until after fighting free of the men holding him.
Hammond turned to him. “Let’s see if you do a better job answering questions than your companion. Do you need me to list them out for you in detail?”
Captain Philip pondered how he could answer yes to that question without stoking the fire any more.
Hammond stepped closer and jabbed a finger at him. “Who are you? What are you doing on Dearg? And why did you follow Merle?”
“Well…” The Captain pulled his words out into a bit of a drawl. “We were in the area to pick up a shipment from Backira. We had called it in ahead of time and everything, but it wasn’t ready when we landed. We were just honest men going about our business, but while we were here, the local government conscripted us to make a delivery while we waited. I have to agree with my shipmate that I don’t know why they don’t just hire someone of their own, but judging by the ship they sent us in, everyone must be busy.”
Hammond recrossed his arms and stared hard at Captain Philip as he talked.
“We made the run without much trouble—it’s a small jump. But when we got there, we were surprised at the disarry in the hold. It was, shall we say, distressing. We merely wanted to ask what our stowaway had been doing down there, but he fled. If he had stuck around and answered a few questions, there would have been no need to follow him here. No need in the universe.”
A stubby, red haired man shuffled nervously forward. That brought the count up to ten, but the grip of the men holding him loosened as they enjoyed their companion’s discomforture. Hammond kept his eyes on Captain Philip while berating Merle.
“What idiotic game were you playing, stowing away in a government ship and then making a mess? If you’re going to give yourself away, the least you could do is turn yourself in instead of leading government representatives here.”
“I didn’t know—there was nowhere—” Merle threw a frightened look at the Space Rovers. Sweat beaded his face.
“We’re no representatives for Backira,” said Captain Philip. “There’s no way we would have jumped into following him like that if we had known he was leading us to a ring of knaves. We are just concerned with our rather—delicate cargo.”
Hammond tapped a finger against his arm. “Honest men, you say?”
Captain Philip kept quiet.
“I wouldn’t call us criminals. Just in disagreement with a few regulations. We’re generally decent fellows, you just gave us a hard turn.” He lowered his eyes and frowned in thought. “The locals around here tend to be set in their ways and—hard nosed when it comes to their opinions. But if you’re willing to swear to tell no one of this meeting, of us, we’ll let you go.” A smile hardened his features. “With an escort, of course. Give the cargo to them and they’ll drop it off. If Backira complains, plea ignorance.”
The triglytrolene shipment could not be handed over so casually, of course. But if they could find something to pass off as their cargo instead, flying to Backira and back again would be no problem. The hardest part of the situation would be dragging from Merle what he done in the hold before they were shipped off.
“Of course. I’d be glad to give my word to keep your secret.”
“I vow never to reveal knowledge of your group or your hiding place to any.”
“And I, by the azure aura of the fair constellation of Jhuth, may its Celestial Rings of Chakkar never fail…”
I wonder if he’s making all these up, Captain Philip wondered, rumaging his memory for names matching the heavenly bodies Ervin kept invoking as he kept going.
“So I swear,” Ervin finally finished.
Several of the men frowned and seemed to be concentrating or going down a mental list. Captain Philip suspected they were checking to see if he had actually promised what they wanted.
Hammond nodded. “In that case, Keefe, get—”
His instructions were interrupted by a crackle from one of the removed breathing masks. “Captain, can you hear me? Wist’hle? Are you in range?”
Captain Philip’s human vise clamped him tighter.
Two men with free hands peeled off from where they were watching and headed for the tunnel entrance. Hammond found some rope.
“We were going to take him with us,” Ervin assured him.
“Consider these a precaution, then.”
Scuffling came from the tunnel. “Need more!” a frantic voice called.
Captain Philip shifted softly, feeling for an opening.
Hammond finished tying Ervin’s hands and pushed him toward the side of the room. Two of his guards ran to help their companions. Hammond strode over and pulled the rope tight around Captain Philip’s arms. The Captain tried to sidestep, but so many hands pressed into him it was hard to keep his balance. The scuffling had more crashes in it now as Captain Philip found himself thrown up next to Ervin. The room was mostly cleared now, only two guards, Merle, and Hammond, who was almost to the almost invisible crevise that led to the tunnel.
“Wire cutters,” he muttered around closed lips.
“Lower left,” Ervin whispered back.
Captain Philip leaned across behind his ship mate as casually as he could and felt under his shirt. Thankfully their guards attention was mostly taken by the brouhaha Dunstan was orchestrating. The small mechanic’s cutting tool pulled free. The Captain started to cut through Ervin’s rope when all the men burst through, tumbling Dunstan into a heap. One of the men tried to speak to Hammond, but couldn’t find his voice. His working mouth and wide eyes looked dark against his pasty skin.
Hammond bent over Dunstan as the older Space Rover struggled to rise, then jumped back. His eyes locked on the Space Rover insignia on the gray uniform. His face turned chalky.
“Just wanted to ask a few questions, is it? Not Backira representatives. Worse.” He whirled on Merle. “What were you thinking, boarding a ship of Space Rovers?”
“I—I didn’t know it was the triglytrolene shipment.” The little man was cowering.
“Trigly—you fool!” Hammond seized Merle by the front of the shirt and roared into his face. “What are we going to do with them?”
He turned to face the two tied up, and Captain Philip had to palm the wirecutter, job unfinished.
“A Space Rover is as good as his word,” the Captain pointed out. “It’s as good as currency where needed.”
Someone had brought rope to tie up Dunstan.
“I’m sure he’d swear, too.”
Hammond leaned back. “And find a way to get around the letter of the law. No, we can’t let you go. The question is, how do we keep the Galaxy League from digging us out in a missing persons search.”
“Don’t let them find out anyone’s missing.” The speaker was a small, wiry man with a stubbly beard.
The eyebrows Hammond raised at him expressed no conviction.
“Space Rovers are always jumping back and forth and taking sidetrips.” The man set forth his case with confidence. “As far as anyone will know, they detoured to address some emergency, and it ended up being more than they could handle.”
“Leaving their ship on Backira and Backira’s ship on Dearg. No one will have the slightest clue where they might have confronted this emergency.”
“Not if they return the government ship and pick up their own. Once it’s blasted off, there’s no telling where it might have gone.”
The wiry man shook his head. “I know my way around spaceships. Highjacking a couple should be no problem.” He ignored the uncomfortable shifting of several men in the room. “If two others come with me, we can use their uniforms for disguise.” He indicated the bound Space Rovers with his head. “It should be enough to get us by at a distance.”
“Not suspicious at all.” Hammond recrossed his arms.
“It will underscore their urgent change of plans. You can sell the ship or we can ditch it somewhere.”
Captain Philip pressed his lips and began to snip at Ervin’s rope again.
“I don’t want anything to do with a Space Rover ship. That’s asking for trouble.” Hammond stood still, his eyebrows low. “If no one has any other ideas, we’ll try it.”
“But what about them?”
Captain Philip had to palm the wirecutters again.
Hammond’s mouth stretched like a smile. “Don’t worry, I know exactly what to do with them.”
The Captain only had time to finish cutting one strand of rope before the captors came to strip them of their pants and boots. He could hear Dunstan roaring in fury, and loud thwacks that made him wonder if now was the time for a surprise attack. There wasn’t time to finish untying Ervin, though, so he tucked the ends of rope out of sight and passed his shipmate a sign that the job was done.
The Space Rovers were pushed through a side door and down tunnels that grew progessively rougher. Captain Philip felt thankful for his issued thermal regulating under trousers. He had often joked that they must have forgotten their cooling training, but now it was better than just an undershirt and boxers.
The tunnel dipped deeper. From time to time the red blush of loraq touched its surface. Occasional frames in the tunnel support had flung open doors attached. Rubble lined the walls next to each of these places. The group shuffled to a stop just beyond one of these that branched in two dirrections.
Captain Philip found himself next to Dunstan and leaned over to clip.
“Under the jackets,” he whispered. He didn’t know what the imposters would do with the triglytrolene: deliver it, sell it, accidentally drop it and cause a catastrophe.
“Not any more,” Dunstan muttered back. “Which one’s the culprit?”
Captain Philip indicated the red haired stowaway. Dunstan shifted forward, then paused as something caught his attention. Captain Philip leaned harder into his cutting.
“Laroq adamant?” Dunstan exclaimed, his mustache quivering. “You tunneled right through loraq adamant?”
Captain Philip was getting tired of having to quit before he could finish his cutting. It was going to be hard enough to fight their way free without complicating the matter with bound hands.
“This?” Hammond crushed some of the intricate geometric structures imbedded in the wall. It crumbled into dust. “Not anymore. Some call loraq adamant dead loraq, but they’re wrong. You can tell it’s dead when it turns grey and weak. But it should be strong enough to hold you.” He jerked his head toward a tunnel, and the men thrust the three captives in.
“Smugglers!” cried Dunstan. “That’s what you are.”
“Yes, but don’t worry. We’re not leaving you to death by burial. There’s plenty of air in the tunnel, and if I remember right, this is the mine we found an underground pool in. Local custom says laroq can be eaten. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to find out if that’s true.”
Time was out. Captain Philip stood behind Dunstan, but other than that did not try to hide his rope cutting.
“The laroq you’ve killed by overmining!” Dunstan roared.
Hammond shrugged and stepped back.
The rope pulled apart.
“Greedy despoilers! I should expect someone of your set to steal triglytrolene. Give it back.” He lunged at Merle.
A couple of the smugglers grabbed at him, but others stared at Merle. Murmuring underscored the scuffle.
Captain Philip yanked Ervin’s ropes loose.
“Here we are!” Dunstan held high a glass, stoppered tube. He backed out as several men tried to mob him.
“Don’t drop it!” Merle shrieked.
It was too late—the substance plummented toward the ground.
Captain Philip grabbed Ervin’s wrist and dove forward.
The phial crashed with boom and a cloud of white smoke.
Captain Philip pushed forward, hoping his direction was true.
“Hurry.” He heard the soft rumble of Dunstan’s voice. Following it, they pulled out of the cloud and sprinted up the tunnel. They came to a door just as footsteps began to pound after them. Captain Philip slammed the door shut. He held it shut while Ervin threw rocks against it to hold it in place.
“What was that back there?” he asked Dunstan.
“Just a nitrate carbon dioxide mixture I brought in case we needed a decoy. Careful!” The last part was to Ervin, who knocked him in the leg with a rock thrown toward the door.
“If he really stole some triglytrolene, this isn’t going to hold them,” said Captain Philip.
“Oh, no. I have that.” Dunstan pulled out a glass insulator tube with a code key and a crumpled piece of paper. “As long as somebody doesn’t set it off.” He glared at Ervin.
Pounding sounded through the door. Setting his back to it, Captain Philip fumbled around until he found a bolt to draw through. Dunstan joined Ervin in covering the door with rubble, though he moved with more care. Captain Philip waded away from the door as the piles approached his knees.
“There! That should hold them for now,” said Ervin. The rubble reached half-way up the doors.
“Good,” said Captain Philip. “I don’t suppose someone will be kind enough to loose my hands.”
Ervin took back his wirecutters and began to cut. “How long do you think it will take the authorities to get here.”
“What authorities?” asked the Captain.
“Backira authorities. There’s enough of them we’re going to need backup.”
“I don’t know why they’d come. I seem to recall swearing never to tell anyone about this incident.”
“But…we can’t just leave them there.”
“Why not? They have plenty of air, water, and local custom says laroq is quite edible. We can afford to show some grace.”
“Someone’s bound to notice they’re missing and come poking around.”
“The miners around here won’t take too kindly once they see what their fellows have been up to.”
“What about their partners?”
“That does bear some thinking on.”
Dunstan thrust a paper at him. “While you’re thinking on that, what do you make of this?”
Captain Philip peered at the crumpled piece Dunstan had snatched at the same time as reclaiming the triglytrolene.
“One of the lower bandwidths,” said Ervin.
Captain Philip smiled. “Gentlemen, I believe we have our means of addressing these smugglers’ contacts.”
The trek to the triglytrolene depository was tedious, despite the supplies the Space Rangers had been able to scrounge in the smugglers’ quarters. The Agent of Dispersal’s face said he had spent the entire time refining his caustic greeting. Ervin slid a conspiratal glance towards the Captain, but Captain Philip pushed past the Agent without acknowledging his censure. “Drudgeon has the triglytrolene, if you would point me to a telescope and radio. We’ve run into some trouble.”
The Agent sputtered, but led the way.
Captain Philip swung the telescope from its spaceward gaze toward the planet. A glint caught his attention for a moment. He stopped to look for the source. But it was not the Bonny, plummeting into space. At first he could not make out anything, then another glint helped him make out the reflective points to one of the strangest spacecrafts he had seen. The center seemed to be an empty black sphere, and the streamlined components around it were black, making the whole thing nearly invisible. Not having time to ponder this, the Captain swung the telescope back toward Backira. Yes, the Bonny was still grounded, but it looked like here engines were running.
“Get me the planet tower,” he snapped.
Ervin’s fingers danced across the radio.
“Tower, do not give clearance to the Bonny. Repeat, do not let the Bonny leave, in the name of the Galaxy League.” He rattled off his authorization code, and when he was certain they were complying, switched to the planet’s priority wave they had used earlier to request larocatine and handed the speaking off to Dunstan.
“Calling in to report some ship highjackers,” he said. “Three men hijacked the Old Skag and are now on…no, I know it’s back in port. They left it to take over the Bonny. No, the Space Rovers are still on Dearg.”
Eventually he smoothed out the communication. Before signing off, he pulled the rumpled piece of paper from his pocket. “I found this wavelength on the thieves’ companion.” He began to read off the code.
“You don’t think they actually got on board, do you?” Ervin asked softly.
“And running,” answered the Captain.
Ervin sighed. “I bet they didn’t seal it up properly. I’m going to have to do an entire overhaul just to make sure no vermin can get in.”
“I don’t see what your big fuss is,” complained the Agent of Dispersal. “This has nothing to do with getting the triglytrolene stabilized. It has no purpose.” He glared at Dunstan.
Captain Philip stretched back and smiled. If they Backirian government could not use the bandwidth to track down the rest of the smugglers’ ring, their investigation would at least put enough heat on to keep the others looking out for themselves instead of forming a rescue party. Every day in the dark uncertainty would be at least as punishing as time spent in prison.
“All I can say,” growled Dunstan as he broke the connection, “Is they had better reclaim our uniforms while they’re at it. It’s bad enough to lose my badge, but my boots…” He looked mournfully at his borrowed leather footwear and shook his head. “It’s hard to find someone who makes them like that anymore.”