The Pirates of Ersatz-Fourty-Two

The Pirates of Ersatz-Fourty-Two

Hoddan nodded and rode out of the brushwood toward the spaceboat–the lifeboat–that had landed the emissaries from Walden. That it landed so close to the spaceport, of course, was no accident. It was known on Walden that Hoddan had taken space passage to Darth. He’d have landed only two days before his pursuers could reach the planet. And on a roadless, primitive world like Darth he couldn’t have gotten far from the spaceport. So his pursuers would have landed close by, also. But it must have taken considerable courage. When the landing grid failed to answer, it must have seemed likely that Hoddan’s deathrays had been at work.Here and now, though, there was no uneasiness. Hoddan rode heavily, without haste, through the slanting sunshine. He was seen from a distance and watched without apprehension by the loafing guards about the boat. He looked hot and thirsty. He was both. So the posted guard merely looked at him without too much interest when he brought his dusty mount up to the shadow the lifeboat cast, and apparently decided that there wasn’t room to get into it.

He grunted a greeting and looked at them speculatively.

“Those two characters from Walden,” he observed, “sent me to get something from this thing, here. Don Loris told ’em I was a very honest man.”

He painstakingly looked like a very honest man. After a moment there were responsive grins.

“If there’s anything missing when I start back,” said Hoddan, “I can’t imagine how it happened! None of you would take anything. Oh, no! I bet you’ll blame it on me!” He shook his head and said “_Tsk. Tsk. Tsk._”

One of the guards sat up and said appreciatively:

“But it’s locked. Good.”

“Being an honest man,” said Hoddan amiably, “they told me how to unlock it.”

He got off his horse. He removed the bag from his saddle. He went into the grateful shadow of the metal hull. He paused and mopped his face and then went to the entrance port. He put his hand on the turning bar. Then he painstakingly pushed in the locking-stud with his other hand. Of course the handle turned. The boat port opened. The two from Walden would have thought everything safe because it was under guard. On Walden that protection would have been enough. On Darth, the spaceboat had not been looted simply because locks, there, were not made with separate vibration-checks to keep vibration from loosening them. On spaceboats such a precaution was usual.”Give me two minutes,” said Hoddan over his shoulder. “I have to get what they sent me for. After that everybody starts even.”

He entered and closed the door behind him. Then he locked it. By the nature of things it is as needful to be able to lock a spaceboat from the inside as it is unnecessary to lock it from without.

He looked things over. Standard equipment everywhere. He checked everything, even to the fuel supply. There were knockings on the port. He continued to inspect. He turned on the visionscreens, which provided the control room–indeed, all the boat–with an unobstructed view in all directions. He was satisfied.

The knocks became bangings. Something approaching indignation could be deduced. The guards around the spaceboat felt that Hoddan was taking an unfair amount of time to pick the cream of the loot inside.

He got a glass of water. It was excellent. A second.

The bangings became violent hammerings.

Hoddan seated himself leisurely in the pilot’s seat and turned small knobs. He waited. He touched a button. There was a mildly thunderous bang outside, and the lifeboat reacted as if to a slight shock. The visionscreens showed a cloud of dust at the spaceboat’s stern, roused by a deliberate explosion in the rocket tubes. It also showed the retainers in full flight.

He waited until they were in safety and made the standard take-off preparations. A horrific roaring started up outside. He touched controls and a monstrous weight pushed him back in his seat. The rocket swung, and lifted, and shot skyward with greater acceleration than before.It went up at a lifeboat’s full fall-like rate of climb, leaving a trail of blue-white flame behind it. All the surface of Darth seemed to contract swiftly below him. The spaceport and the town rushed toward a spot beneath the spaceboat’s tail. They shrank and shrank. He saw other places. Mountains. Castles. He saw Don Loris’ stronghold. Higher, he saw the sea.

The sky turned purple. It went black with specks of starshine in it. Hoddan swung to a westward course and continued to rise, watching the star-images as they shifted on the screens. The image of the sun, of course, was automatically diminished so that it was not dazzling. The rockets continued to roar, though in a minor fashion because there was no longer air outside in which a bellow could develop.

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