- Author: Randall Garrett
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This etext was produced from Analog, July 1961.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
By RANDALL GARRETT
The basic trouble with McGuire was that, though "he" was a robot spaceship, nevertheless "he" had a definite weakness that a man might understand....
Illustrated by Douglas
o. Nobody ever deliberately named a spaceship that. The staid and stolid minds that run the companies which design and build spaceships rarely let their minds run to fancy. The only example I can think of is the unsung hero of the last century who had puckish imagination enough to name the first atomic-powered submarine Nautilus. Such minds are rare. Most minds equate dignity with dullness.
This ship happened to have a magnetogravitic drive, which automatically put it into the MG class. It also happened to be the first successful model to be equipped with a Yale robotic brain, so it was given the designation MG-YR-7—the first six had had more bugs in them than a Leopoldville tenement.
So somebody at Yale—another unsung hero—named the ship McGuire; it wasn't official, but it stuck.
The next step was to get someone to test-hop McGuire. They needed just the right man—quick-minded, tough, imaginative, and a whole slew of complementary adjectives. They wanted a perfect superman to test pilot their baby, even if they knew they'd eventually have to take second best.
It took the Yale Space Foundation a long time to pick the right man.
No, I'm not the guy who tested the McGuire.
I'm the guy who stole it.
Shalimar Ravenhurst is not the kind of bloke that very many people can bring themselves to like, and, in this respect, I'm like a great many people, if not more so. In the first place, a man has no right to go around toting a name like "Shalimar"; it makes names like "Beverly" and "Leslie" and "Evelyn" sound almost hairy chested. You want a dozen other reasons, you'll get them.
Shalimar Ravenhurst owned a little planetoid out in the Belt, a hunk of nickel-iron about the size of a smallish mountain with a gee-pull measurable in fractions of a centimeter per second squared. If you're susceptible to spacesickness, that kind of gravity is about as much help as aspirin would have been to Marie Antoinette. You get the feeling of a floor beneath you, but there's a distinct impression that it won't be there for long. It keeps trying to drop out from under you.
I dropped my flitterboat on the landing field and looked around without any hope of seeing anything. I didn't. The field was about the size of a football field, a bright, shiny expanse of rough-polished metal, carved and smoothed flat from the nickel-iron of the planetoid itself. It not only served as a landing field, but as a reflector beacon, a mirror that flashed out the sun's reflection as the planetoid turned slowly on its axis. I'd homed in on that beacon, and now I was sitting on it.
There wasn't a soul in sight. Off to one end of the rectangular field was a single dome, a hemisphere about twenty feet in diameter and half as high. Nothing else.
I sighed and flipped on the magnetic anchor, which grabbed hold of the metal beneath me and held the flitterboat tightly to the surface. Then I cut the drive, plugged in the telephone, and punched for "Local."
The automatic finder searched around for the Ravenhurst tickler signal, found it, and sent out a beep along the same channel.
I waited while the thing beeped twice. There was a click, and a voice said: "Raven's Rest. Yes?" It wasn't Ravenhurst.
I said: "This is Daniel Oak. I want to talk to Mr. Ravenhurst."
"Mr. Oak? But you weren't expected until tomorrow."
"Fine. I'm early. Let me talk to Ravenhurst."
"But Mr. Ravenhurst wasn't expecting you to—"
I got all-of-a-sudden exasperated. "Unless your instruments are running on secondhand flashlight batteries, you've known I was coming for the past half hour. I followed Ravenhurst's instructions not to use radio, but he should know I'm here by this time. He told me to come as fast as possible, and I followed those instructions, too. I always follow instructions when I'm paid enough.
"Now, I'm here; tell Ravenhurst I want to talk to him, or I'll simply flit back to Eros, and thank him much for a pretty retainer that didn't do him any good but gave me a nice profit for my trouble."
"One moment, please," said the voice.
It took about a minute and a half, which was about nine billion jiffies too long, as far as I was concerned.
Then another voice said: "Oak? Wasn't expecting you till tomorrow."
"So I hear. I thought you were in a hurry, but if you're not, you can just provide me with wine, women, and other necessities until tomorrow. That's above and beyond my fee, of course, since you're wasting my time, and I'm evidently not wasting yours."
I couldn't be sure whether the noise he made was a grunt or a muffled chuckle, and I didn't much care. "Sorry, Oak; I really didn't expect you so soon, but I do want to ... I want you to get started right away. Leave your flitterboat where it is; I'll have someone take care of it. Walk on over to the dome and come on in." And he cut off.
I growled something I was glad he didn't hear and hung up. I wished that I'd had a vision unit on the phone; I'd like to have seen his face. Although I knew I might not have learned much more from his expression than I had from his voice.
I got out of the flitterboat, and walked across the dome, my magnetic soles making subdued clicking noises inside the suit as they caught and released the metallic plain beneath me. Beyond the field, I was surrounded by a lumpy horizon and a black sky full of bright, hard stars.
The green light was on when I reached the door to the dome, so I opened it and went on in, closing it behind me. I flipped the toggle that began flooding the room with air. When it was up to pressure, a trap-door in the floor of the dome opened and a crew-cut, blond young man stuck his head up. "Mr. Oak?"
I toyed, for an instant, with the idea of giving him a sarcastic answer. Who else would it be? How many other visitors were running around on the surface of Raven's Rest?
Instead, I said: "That's right." My voice must have sounded pretty muffled to him through my fishbowl.
"Come on down, Mr. Oak. You can shuck your vac suit below."
I thought "below" was a pretty ambiguous term on a low-gee lump like this, but I followed him down the ladder. The ladder was a necessity for fast transportation; if I'd just tried to jump down from one floor to the next, it would've taken me until a month from next St. Swithin's Day to land.
The door overhead closed, and I could hear the pumps start cycling. The warning light turned red.
I took off my suit, hung it in a handy locker, showing that all I had on underneath was my skin-tight "union suit."
"All right if I wear this?" I asked the blond young man, "Or should I borrow a set of shorts and a jacket?" Most places in the Belt, a union suit is considered normal dress; a man never knows when he might have to climb into a vac suit—fast. But there are a few of the hoity-toity places on Eros and Ceres and a few of the other well-settled places where a man or woman is required to put on shorts and jacket before entering. And in good old New York City, a man and woman were locked up for "indecent exposure" a few months ago. The judge threw the case out of court, but he told them they were lucky they hadn't been picked up in Boston. It seems that the eye of the bluenose turns a jaundiced yellow at the sight of a union suit, and he sees red.
But there were evidently no bluenoses here. "Perfectly all right, Mr. Oak," the blond young man said affably. Then he coughed politely and added: "But I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to take off the gun."
I glanced at the holster under my armpit, walked back over to the locker, opened it, and took out my vac suit.
"Hey!" said the blond young man. "Where are you going?"
"Back to my boat," I said calmly. "I'm getting tired of this runaround already. I'm a professional man, not a hired flunky. If you'd called a doctor, you wouldn't tell him to leave his little black bag behind; if you'd called a lawyer, you wouldn't make him check his brief case. Or, if you did, he'd tell you to drop dead.
"I was asked to come here as fast as possible, and when I do, I'm told to wait till tomorrow. Now you want me to check my gun. The hell with you."
"Merely a safety precaution," said the blond young man worriedly.
"You think I'm going to shoot Ravenhurst, maybe? Don't be an idiot." I started climbing into my vac suit.
"Just a minute, please, Mr. Oak," said a voice from a hidden speaker. It was Ravenhurst, and he actually sounded apologetic. "You mustn't blame Mr. Feller; those are my standing orders, and I failed to tell Mr. Feller to make an exception in your case. The error was mine."
"I know," I said. "I wasn't blaming Mr. Feller. I wasn't even talking to him. I was addressing you."
"I believe you. Mr. Feller, our guest has gone to all the trouble of having a suit made with a space under the arm for that gun; I see no reason to make him remove it." A pause. "Again, Mr. Oak, I apologize. I really want you to take this job."
I was already taking off the vac suit again.
"But," Ravenhurst continued smoothly, "if I fail to live up to your ideas of courtesy again, I hope you'll forgive me in advance. I'm sometimes very forgetful, and I don't like it when a man threatens to leave my employ twice in the space of fifteen minutes."
"I'm not in your employ yet, Ravenhurst," I said. "If I accept the job, I won't threaten to quit again unless I mean to carry it through, and it would take a lot more than common discourtesy to make me do that. On the other hand, your brand of discourtesy is a shade above the common."
"I thank you for that, at least," said Ravenhurst. "Show him to my office, Mr. Feller."
The blond young man nodded wordlessly and led me from the room.
Walking under low-gee conditions is like nothing else in this universe. I don't mean trotting around on Luna; one-sixth gee is practically homelike in comparison. And zero gee is so devoid of orientation that it gives the sensation of falling endlessly until you get used to it. But a planetoid is in a different class altogether.
Remember that dream—almost everybody's had it—where you're suddenly able to fly? It isn't flying exactly; it's a sort of swimming in the air. Like being underwater, except that the medium around you isn't so dense and viscous, and you can breathe. Remember? Well, that's the feeling you get on a low-gee planetoid.
Your arms don't tend to hang at your sides, as they do on Earth or Luna, because the muscular tension tends to hold them out, just as it does in zero-gee, but there is still a definite sensation of up-and-down. If you push yourself off the floor, you tend to float in a long, slow, graceful arc, provided you don't push too hard. Magnetic soles are practically a must.
I followed the blond Mr. Feller down a series of long corridors which had been painted a pale green, which gave me the feeling that I was underwater. There were doors spaced at intervals along the corridor walls. Occasionally one of them would open and a busy looking man would cross the corridor, open another door, and disappear. From behind the doors, I could hear the drum of distant sounds.
We finally ended up in front of what looked like the only wooden door in the place. When you're carving an office and residence out of a nickel-iron planetoid, importing wood from Earth is a purely luxury matter.
There was no name plate on that mahogany-red door; there didn't need to