On The Wrong Side Of The Law

© David Massey

CAPTAIN JUPITER rolled out of his sleep field and landed nimbly on the deck of his stateroom. Something had gone wrong. He could feel the uneven throbbing of the engines through the deck of his ship. He hastily donned a set of shipboard coveralls, cleaned and laundered by the ship while he slept and still smelling slightly of lemons. The mild odour did nothing to improve his humour.

He took the narrow gangway to the flight deck at a run, all the time glancing round and checking for tell-tale signs of imminent depressurisation. It did not happen often, but this latest flight had been dogged by bad luck. It would really cap it all to have his ship break apart in mid-space. The recovery rates for the Astrogators Association were insufferable and he had let his membership lapse the last time he changed his name.

He checked the monitoring interfaces as he ran. To his experienced eye the series of blinking lights gave a quick indication of the status of the craft. So far none of the passengers had responded to the change in the engines. They probably hadn’t noticed any difference. This latest lot did not seem very used to space travel. They had each needed a double dose of quittoline to get them through hyperspace. It was odd how he never suffered from hyperspace syndrome. Maybe he was just born lucky.

Captain Jupiter reached the flight deck and un-dogged the door. With the ease of familiarity he slid in to the silastoplaston seat then leaned forward to caress the controls.

“What’s the problem Iolanthe?” he called out to the ship.

“Something went wrong with the last jump, Cap’n.” The ship’s voice had a lilting, humorous tone which belied the seriousness of its information. For some perverse reason its emotive circuits were tangled way back at manufacture. The computer always sounded most cheerful delivering bad news and least happy when everything was going OK. Captain Jupiter had been meaning to get it fixed for years but had come to like the ship the way it was and so he was wary of changing things. At the moment the computer sounded positively happy. Things might be very bad indeed.

“So what’s our situation. chips-for-brains?” Captain Jupiter adopted a bantering tone to hide his own misgivings. It wouldn’t fool the computer, but made him feel better.

Captain Jupiter in his ship's cockpit

“It’s like this, wet-and-squishy, our main hyperdrive coils have exploded and we’ve dropped out of hyperspace somewhere! The atmosphere system has taken some damage and we’re leaking fuel from one of my tanks.” The computer sounded positively delirious as it delivered the news.

“Max always said that every cloud has a silver lining, so what’s the good news in all this?”

“Well, the galley got damaged as well, so your coffee machine’s a load of scrap. You won’t have to endure that awful drink any more.”

The last comment caused Captain Jupiter to smile. He’d picked up the habit of drinking the evil navy brew from Max. No doubt it rotted your guts. but it sharpened the nerve. He’d been meaning to give it up for ages. Now perhaps he’d have a real chance.

“How about the cigars, tin-brain?”

“I’d love to say that they were destroyed as well, Cap’n. They play merry devil with the air conditioning, but unfortunately they seem to be intact.”

“Well, let’s have one then. I can’t think straight without a smoke if I can’t get a cup of coffee.” Jupiter sat back in the familiar chair, looking round at the worn and shabby state of the control console. He admired the furry dice hanging down over one of the view screens, a souvenir from Quince. He frowned at the memory, then smiled.

There was a hiss of air as a small delivery slot opened and a thick Tilialan cigar rolled out. He picked it up, rolled it by his ear and smelled the fine aroma of the perfectly kept leaves. It lit with his first indrawn breath, another indication that the ship’s Humidor was still functioning at one hundred percent. Things could be worse, but he’d love a cup of coffee right now.

“OK then, Iolanthe, what have you found?”

“I’ve located our system for you, boss. We’ve popped out at van Maanen’s Star system, a bit farther out than normal, but we should be able to make it to one of the inner worlds if we are careful.”

“You’re doing this to depress me aren’t you, computer? Tell me where we really are anywhere but van Maanen’s. I don’t need this.”

“Fraid not, Cap’n, it’s Major or nothing. And before you ask, there is no way I can repair those hyperspace coils with the equipment on board. You need to land and get to a shipyard, and it won’t be cheap.” Iolanthe had that delighted tone in its voice which signalled that the troubles were probably only just beginning. Captain Jupiter thought about having another cigar, realising that he had just crumbled his first to junk in frustration. Instead he leaned forward and thumbed the button to give him through-ship communications. It was time to let the passengers know what was happening.

“Now hear this! Now hear this! This is an emergency! I repeat, this is an emergency.” The message blared from speakers in each of the passenger shells. Iolanthe’s tell-tales showed him that all his passengers were now awake. He presumed they were all listening and tried to convey some confidence as he reported the ship’s condition.

“We’ve had a bit of an accident.” Now there’s an understatement, he thought to himself as he tried to break the news. “We’ve suffered an IPH, that’s an Inadvertent Precipitation from Hyperspace, to those of you who are unfamiliar with space travel. They don’t happen often, but there is no hiding the fact that it is serious.

“Luckily we have been thrown out into an inhabited system. so there is some small comfort there. Unfortunately, we are now at van Maanen’s Star and the only habitation is a little rocky planet called Major. For those of you who don’t know the place, it’s run by a religious sect, the Guardians of the Free Spirit, and they are not a very cheerful lot. I recommend that when we eventually reach the planet, you try and keep pretty much to the ship. There isn’t much sightseeing to be done anyway, since most of the colony is underground.

“One more bit of good news, they don’t allow trade in animals, so our cargo can t go onto the open market.” With that last piece of information he cut the circuit, leaving the passengers to shout about what had happened amongst themselves. He had no doubt there would be a lot of rightful indignation directed his way in the next hour or so. Let them blow of a bit of steam shouting at each other before they started in on him.

Captain Jupiter sank back into the pilot’s chair. He had set the autopilot for Major and now the ship would practically fly itself to orbit. He let his mind drift, seeing how he could make something good come of the predicament. There didn’t seem to be much hope of making a profit on this trip. With luck he might break even.

The situation was not helped by his current cargo. He was shipping a hunting party from the jungle world of Biggs Colony at Altair to Taylor Colony in Tau Ceti, or at least that was the plan. Everything had started smoothly - no problems with the hunting - then the first jump from Altair to Fomalhaut had been faultless. 12.6 light years without a quiver. He had harboured doubts about his engines ever since the cut price repairs at Harristown on Miller in the Quzece system. He was going to give the engines a thorough overhaul when they reached Taylor colony, but now it was too late.

IPH occurrences were rare, as he had told the passengers. In some ways he had been very lucky, since they had emerged somewhere close to human habitation. A good proportion of IPH events must occur in deep space, well beyond hope of contact. There were lots of unexplained disappearances in space and piracy could only account for so many. Popular press put down the rest to unidentified and malignant aliens. Captain Jupiter was more inclined to the idea that hyperspace was a lot more dangerous than most people thought. He was more concerned with the immediate problem of how to fund his repairs than with mysterious alien forces.

His real problem was his bulletin account probably would not cover the cost of his engine and ship repairs. He would need to sell some cargo and all he had on board was the hunting tour and their quota of game. The animals would have fetched a prime price at Haynes Landing on Taylor Colony for one of the Supervisor’s zoos. But the religious authorities at Goldstein starport banned trade in both animals and skins. He had some contacts with the black market on van Maanen’s system, but he hadn’t contacted them in some time.

It seemed ironic that disaster should strike on this particular trip. It was so like his first real taste of freedom, when Max had taken him along on his first hunt. Captain Jupiter thought back to the old days. He had just been sold. A new slave with nothing but quick wits and strong arms. The hunt had been in the jungles of Biggs Colony. a frightening and unfamiliar place of harsh vegetation and air you could chew on as easily as breathe. He had almost died right there, except that Max had managed to save him.

That very night he had vowed to become as good a hunter as his master. Since then a real bond of friendship had grown up between the two of them. He soon learned that Max was not the great hunter he so often claimed to be, shifting from one personality to another whenever a new commission demanded it. He found that Max was not his master’s real name, but that names could be changed as easily as clothes and that often the right name helped more than piles of credentials.

He had dropped his early name as soon as he was registered as a free man. True to his word, Max had let him go as soon as his hunting and other skills had managed to earn five times his purchase price. Helmut had died with the slavery documents, and he had felt a tremendous sense of relief as he sat with Max in a spaceport bar casually tossing new identities about over a bottle of Fujiyama Old Gold. He had often wondered what had made Max pick him out of the crowd back on Mackenzie’s rock, when Phildop IV had held his auction.

He had stayed with Max for a couple more years, operating as a partner before taking over the business when the old man retired to Honda in the remote Alkaid system. Then he’d bought the ship and gone into business on his own. His years of working with Max had introduced him to a number of skills and contacts which he had been able to use well.

His luck had taken a turn for the worse recently though, and a series of bad judgements had reduced him to piloting a gang of second rate game hunters around some interesting worlds. The jungles at Altair were the last climactic stop on a tour of big-game hunts. This had been the final leg, and now he was back to nothing again. Worse than nothing, he had to find the cash for his repairs or they would be stuck in this desolate hole for who knew how long. He’d have to hope that his old contact on Major was still in place and still operating.

“Iolanthe, I need a quick pick me up. Fix me a sandwich will you?”

“Do you want just a sandwich, or do you need some pills with that?”

“Sandwich will do. While you’re thawing it, get me all the system info on Goldstein starport, OK” Captain Jupiter and Iolanthe preserved the illusion that the food he was served was kept in a freezer and that the ship thawed packages as and when he needed them. It was a lot less unsavoury than imagining the processes by which the food was re-cycled and reconstituted in the depths of the machine.

The sandwich duly arrived, delivered through a different slot to the cigar. He took the gently warm package from the counter, then took a bite. With a grimace he spat the food out across his command console.

“What is this?” he bellowed, all the fury and anger at his fates concentrated on the disgusting taste in his mouth.

“Bacon and tomato, of course - your favourite.” Iolanthe sounded puzzled.

“I think you need to check again for internal damage, silicon-brains. That’s horrible, indescribable - marinated grana-root porridge wouldn’t be worse. That’s one taste I’ll never forget. Get me a strong beer, I need something to wash my mouth out.” Jupiter spat the last fragments of his mouthful at the floor of the cabin. The clean-up mechanoids would get rid of the mess when he next took a break. “Better get me those pills as well, until you find out what’s wrong with the galley.”

The loss of the galley only served to make the four-day journey to Major even more intolerable. The passengers were restive and grew progressively more impatient and angry as they approached the planet. Iolanthe discovered that the galley could only fabricate meals for the animals in the hold and the most palatable of them smelled like rotting cabbages and was served as a thin porridge. The only alternative was alcohol, which was available in countless synthesized varieties. So when the passengers arrived at Goldstein starport they were both argumentative and roaring drunk.

The Iolanthe approaching Goldstein starport

Captain Jupiter expected to be cleared for landing with a minimum of fuss. His was a small ship, his inventory was completely up to date, and the accidental arrival in the system was fully recorded in the ship’s memory. He had adopted standard configuration, leaving the final approach and docking to the autopilot - no point in taking risks. He had settled back in the ancient silastoplaston and let it absorb the transient strains and thrusts of final approach. Suddenly the communicator screen glowed a fierce blue, then green, and superimposed on the swirling background was a pair of angry looking faces.

“You have approached this colony without permission or permit. Landing permission may be denied according to Church tribunal. You are carrying illegal animals in your holds. Be alert to the penalties imposed on trade in beasts of flesh or their products on this world. The Church Elder will judge the issue. Tribunal is now in session!” The uniformed customs official barked out his speech with less emotion than a pocket calculator. His face moved to one side and the second person came into close focus. The woman had a harsh and unforgiving appearance, accentuated by the coarse plain garment she wore.

“State your reason for profaning this colony, foreigner. We do not tolerate careless visits and this is not a tourist resort. We must labour hard to expiate the sins of humanity, we do not have time for frivolous distractions.” Captain Jupiter had been unprepared for the bluntness of the approach and took a second to compose his thoughts.

“Uh… I… that is… Excuse me, your lady.”

“Your eminence.” the woman interrupted. “The correct term is your eminence.”

“Uh, thank you. your eminence. But this is not a sightseeing tour. We come to your planet in distress. My cargo is not intended to profane your colonists. My flight computer can verify that these animals are in transit to Tau Ceti.”

“We are a long way from Tau Ceti, young man.” The woman’s tone was icy and there was no mistaking her hostility. From the way she was staring at him out of the screen it seemed that she expected him to grow horns and a tail on the spot.

“No, you misunderstand.” Captain Jupiter wondered briefly if this was the way to talk to a figure of authority in the local theocracy, but pressed on regardless. “What I mean is that we were meant to go to Tau Ceti - your landing computers and computer searches of this ship’s itinerary will verify that. We had a catastrophe on our last jump and precipitated from hyperspace within this system. Don’t ask me how.”

The words seemed to have little effect on the woman. She continued to glare darkly at him. Her eyes flicked to the left, presumably to some data display out of view to Jupiter, then returned to stare out at him. “My warder assures me that what you say bears some resemblance to the truth. You must re-align and jump out of this system of the Chosen immediately. We have no need nor desire for contact with you. Landing permission is denied.” The woman moved forwards on the screen, to terminate the transmission.

“No! You can’t do that! Wait! Our engines are burnt out. We can’t jump out of the system.” Jupiter had a sudden vision of himself, his passengers and cargo remaining in orbit indefinitely because this wretched woman would not let them land. It was vital that they land at a ground based starport. The orbiting station was not an option in his plans.

His agitation was obvious and the revelation about his engines was enough to stop the woman. “Is this report true?” she asked the customs warden.

“The ship’s computer matches what the man says. your eminence. He’s got no drive coils and quite a bit of internal system damage. The computer on board has been diverting emergency power to maintain itself in operative state, but it too is damaged.”

Jupiter cast an accusing look at the central speaker set into his console. It was where he associated Iolanthe as living. The speaker gave a short burst of static, perhaps the computer’s equivalent of an embarrassed cough. “I’ll have words with you later, silicon-baby,” he muttered under his breath, sure that the computer would pick it up.

“Very well, young man. you may dock to use the repair facilities of Goldstein. Do not disembark from your ship. Conduct all business through indirect communication channels. You are not to pollute any Free Spirit with your non-industrious ambitions. Do you understand? Land immediately after this conversation.” With that final message the woman turned and strode out of communicator range. The image of the official once more filled the screen.

“You are carrying illegal animals in your holds. Be alert to the penalties imposed on trade in beasts of flesh or their products on this world.” The official repeated his speech with an emotionless quality. Captain Jupiter wondered if the colonists had imported robots from the Federation, but dismissed the idea. Federation robots certainly showed emotions when they talked. “Land under computer control and contact the shipyard immediately for repair requests.”

The screen then flashed green before fading to a dull grey indicating that the link had been broken. Jupiter let out his breath in a long sigh and went limp in his chair. That had been too close for comfort. He ought to think of changing his profession in the future. With deft touches he began the landing sequence and allowed the ground based facilifies to pilot the ship in.

The ship began the normal tumbling and rotating manoeuvres which always accompanied a computer-directed landing. Somehow no computer autopilot ever managed to control a ship with the same delicacy a first class pilot achieved. Captain Jupiter gritted his teeth, ready to face unannounced and unexpected accelerations which would bring him to rest at the surface.

The blasts from the engines came suddenly, catching him by surprise even though he was braced for them. He wondered how the passengers were taking it. The duration of the engine noise and the direction of thrust were strange as well. The computer seemed to be taking him in an almost vertical descent. It was normal to glide into runways on atmosphere planets, as it was far more fuel efficient for the ship and much less traumatic for locals.

As the rapid descent continued, Captain Jupiter had a sudden foreboding.

“Iolanthe,” he called, as a further apparently random thrust from the engines rattled his teeth. “Just how thick is the atmosphere on this world?”

There was a momentary pause before the computer answered.

“You know, Captain, I can’t remember.” Iolanthe sounded ecstatic. Captain Jupiter frowned. The damage to the computer must be severe for it to lose part of the system information encyclopedia. He hoped there was nothing else it had forgotten about the planet. He tried to remember his own visits to the colony, but he had not been allowed off ship then, either. This could be very bad.

Captain Jupiter kept alert for the thunderous nimble which normally accompanied a descent through atmosphere. He was caught off guard when the engine noise rose to a sudden shriek, then dropped to nothing. The ship settled for an instant then all engine noise ended. They had landed! A series of loud clangs ran through the vessel as clamps gripped the ship, and Captain Jupiter felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as the ship sank into the planet on a Standard spaceport lift.

The sinking feeling was not just physical. He had needed an atmospheric space-port for his emergency plan. Now there was an additional element of uncertainty. This had been an awful mission so far. He hoped it would not get worse.

By the time the Iolanthe had landed, the shipyard had been informed and was clamouring at the communications channels to get access to the ship’s computer and records. Captain Jupiter instructed Iolanthe to deal with the refitting as best as it could, making sure that its own computer system was the first thing repaired. The computer knew as well as anyone the limits of his /assets and would flag him if there were any problems with the outfitting. In the meantime he would make some discreet inquiries in case more funds were needed.

He made a quick enquiry of the stock market, but it simply confirmed what he had suspected. Dealing in almost any normal trade goods, including luxuries, liquor or medicines was as illegal as that in animals or skins. That rendered his cargo and ship’s capabilities completely useless on this lump of rock. He would have to try the black market again.

Once before he had made a trip to this world, while he was still working for Max. They had brought in much-needed medicines to help eliminate a plague running through the colony. Medicines and drugs of all kinds were forbidden to the population of the planet, but the few who were not in the sway of the Guardians of the Free Spirit had organised a channel to the outside worlds. The independents were few, but Jupiter hoped that at least some of them would still be around.

He keyed the bulletin board and was immediately on-line to the planet’s communications network. Fully three-quarters of the channels were devoted to state-run doctrinal propaganda, but with a few unorthodox and possibly illegal access codes he managed to find the portion of the board he wanted. There were a few goods bought and sold come-ons, but the one he was hoping for was not present.

Last time they had been here. their transaction had been conducted through George Hanburry, just a name amongst many on the board, but the man had been a contact into the black market. His name did not appear on the list presented. He might have stopped trading temporarily, to avoid local police attention, or perhaps he had fallen foul of the law and been arrested. Jupiter was in a quandary.

Landing in a new system always posed some problems. especially if your major trade goods couldn’t be exchanged through the normal stock market channels. If you visited a place regularly it became quite easy to spot who were the genuine dealers, since they would normally appear quite frequently on the boards. The problem was the police traps which appeared in the guise of a legitimate trader.

The only sure way to find out if an individual was with the cops was to deal with them, but that meant being caught about a third of the time and the fines for black market trading were often substantial. Offering bribes to police officers sometimes worked, but not always. and Jupiter thought that Major was a world unlikely to have many dishonest cops. If he came often to the planet it would be no trouble. The police never used the same name twice on the boards. Once one false dealer had been exposed by an arrest, the rest of the bulletin community passed the word around and the cover was blown. Unfortunately, if you only came to a port once, there was no way to tell which was which. Captain Jupiter just hoped that he had enough credits in his account to pay for the repairs but he was ready for the worst when Iolanthe broke the silence and gave him the news.

“You have enough immediate credit to have the coils repaired, get me patched up and fix the hole in one of the hydrogen tanks. Those are all the items you’ll need for hyperspace, but I don’t think that the crews here are going to be able to do a good job. You can’t afford to service any of the other damaged equipment and you’ll have no funds at your next stop. If word gets out you’re broke, the traders will take you to the cleaners.”

Jupiter considered this information for a moment. It was pretty much as he had expected. He would have to try and contact someone on the black market.

“Looks like I’ll have to chance my luck, old girl,” he muttered to the computer. “See to it that our fuel tanks are filled. Give me a bleep when we are at maximum capacity.”

“No need, boss. I made sure that the re-fuelling was the first item on the agenda. I also got the coils repaired as best we could on your credit. We are in as good a condition as your bank balance would allow.”

Captain Jupiter grunted in acknowledgement. He should have guessed the computer would proceed with the important jobs without further consultation. There was no need to delay any more. Only one thing left to do before seeing if he could reach the black-marketeers, but it could save a lot of trouble if worse came to worst. He flicked open the communication channel to the passenger quarters.

“Now hear this! Now hear this!” He used his most commanding tone to drive home the importance of his message. “There will be a test firing of engines in ten minutes. I repeat, ten minutes to test firing. All passengers retire to berths and strap down. This is a full emergency drill. This is a drill. Retire to your berths and strap down.” He switched off the internal communicator. If he didn’t have to use the motors, he could always claim it had been a routine test for a test, but he didn’t want to have to worry about broken arms or legs if things did get a bit hairy.

He flicked his controls to the external communications channels.

“Get me the Bulletin Board, Iolanthe. Let’s see who we’ve got to deal with.”

With a tiny flicker the screen switched to the standard interface logo. He looked down the list and made the ritual traders’ prayer for a correct choice of dealer. “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo…” He punched for the second name on the list offering goods bought and sold. The name was Seymour Aleson. It seemed as good as any.

There was a short musical introduction and a spray of coloured pattems, the sort of fanfare which had gone out of fashion in the central worlds about a decade ago. Then the screen cleared to show Aleson’s goods. Almost anything illegal on Major was on offer. Captain Jupiter toyed with the idea of buying some of the items but restrained himself -there would be time for that later if he managed to sell his cargo. He scanned down the list and selected sell animal skins. Mentally crossing his fingers he pressed the send key.

Instantly the screen flashed red and yellow and the cheerful face of Seymour Aleson was replaced by a glaring police officer. “I’m warder Diclenm of the -“ Jupiter hit the cancel button to turn off the rest of the message and stabbed down at the system broadcast key.

“This is trader Iolanthe preparing for blast off. Open the dome or I’ll open it for you! You have thirty seconds before my main engines fire. Commencing launch sequence NOW!”

Sweat beaded his forehead and he had to wipe his palms against the seat to dry them as he readied for the emergency take-off. Iolanthe had responded immediately he cut the communication channel to the police trap. There was a steadily mounting rumble as the computer fed hydrogen to the main engines and they warmed to operational temperature. If they could launch from cold in only thirty seconds, Jupiter would be as surprised as the control tower crew, but he was deadly serious about launching through the dome if it wasn’t opened to let them out. With studied indifference he ignored the frantically flashing lights showing incoming messages from the starport.

He was glad that he had warned the passengers to belt down; if they did make it to the surface the take off would be harsh and he might have to make all sorts of evasive manoeuvres to leave the system. He would have some explaining to do when they found out how thorough an emergency drill he was conducting, but he doubted if they would have liked a stay on Major as guests of the Guardians any more than he would.

A feeling of relief flooded through him as he heard the muted sounds of activity outside the ship and felt a small shudder as the spaceport landing allocation system came into operation. The Iolanthe was hastily loaded into the surface elevator and a fierce acceleration caught him as they were shot to the surface. The emergency response of an underground starport had to be able to get rid of dangerous ships - for instance, if a ship’s engine threatened to go critical - but it was rare indeed for anyone to threaten a main engine burn on a starport. Captain Jupiter was playing on the fears of the Guardians. He just hoped they were as scared as he was.

The small slot at his elbow opened and a fresh cigar rolled out. He grabbed it and sucked it to life, breathing deep on the pungent smoke. It was the little touches which made Iolanthe such a nice ship, he mused. “Thanks old girl,” he called out, then nearly choked on his cigar as a deep throated roar pronounced main engine ignition and an enormous weight settled onto his chest as they lifted off.

“Take whatever evasive moves you think are best,” he managed to splutter as the ship accelerated into space. There was no impact as they rose, so Jupiter assumed that the authorities had opened the dome in time. The main reason he had been so determined to land on the planet rather than the orbiting trading post was that the port authorities in space could clamp a ship in place, preventing exactly the sort of desperate move he had just made, while planet-bound facilities rarely bothered. It was a useful fact to know for anyone who might tangle with local police.

The only problem now was to get far enough away to make a jump. Jupiter hoped that the in-system police were only as efficient as the planet forces.

“Anyone around Iolanthe?” he asked.

“Nothing in comm range boss - seems like we got clear away again.” Iolanthe sounded morose and disappointed. Captain Jupiter began to feel happier. With such a glum reaction from his computer, their chances of getting away must be pretty high.

“Well, then, make course for a clear jump, find us a good target and let’s get out of here. While you have a moment, fix me something to eat, would you?” The tension eased out of the Captain and he felt that a small snack - perhaps a cup of coffee as well - would do wonders to restore his good spirits.

“How do you want your porridge then, Cap’n? Grana-root or pigni-berry flavoured? I didn’t have a chance to get the galley repaired or the larder stocked. I’m afraid it’s animal feed or food pills to the next stop. But count your blessings. At least there’s none of that beastly coffee for you to rot your guts with.”

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