The Pirates of Ersatz-Sixty-Nine

The Pirates of Ersatz-Sixty-Nine

Hoddan’s mouth opened and closed and opened again. He remembered this item of Darthian etiquette. If a girl asked a man if he would fight for her, and he agreed, then within a day and a night he had to fight the man she sent him to fight, or else he was disgraced. And disgrace on Darth meant that the shamed man could be plundered or killed by anybody who chose to do so, but he would be hanged by indignant authority if he resisted. It was a great deal worse than outlawry. It included scorn and contempt and opprobrium. It meant dishonor and humiliation and admitted degradation. A disgraced man was despicable in his own eyes. And Hoddan had kidnaped these men who’d been forced to engage themselves to fight him, and if they killed him they would obviously die in space, and if they didn’t they’d be ashamed to stay alive. The moral tone on Darth was probably not elevated, but etiquette was a force.Hoddan thought it over. He looked up suddenly.

“Some of them,” he said wryly, “probably figure there’s nothing to do but go through with it, eh?”

“Yes,” said Thal dismally. “Then we will all die.”

“Hm-m-m,” said Hoddan. “The obligation is to fight. If you fail to kill me, that’s not your fault, is it? If you’re conquered, you’re in the clear?”

Thal said miserably:

“True. Too true! When a man is conquered he is conquered. His conqueror may plunder him, when the matter is finished, or he can spare him, when he may never fight his conqueror again.”

“Draw your knife,” said Hoddan. “Come at me.”

Thal bewilderedly made the gesture. Hoddan leveled a stun-pistol and said:

“_Bzzz._ You’re conquered. You came at me with your knife, and I shot you with my stun-pistol. It’s all over. Right?”

Thal gaped at him. Then he beamed. He expanded. He gloated. He frisked. He practically wagged a nonexistent tail in his exuberance. He’d been shown an out when he could see none.

“Send in the others one by one,” said Hoddan. “I’ll take care of them. But Thal–why did the Lady Fani want me killed?”

Thal had no idea, but he did not care. Hoddan did care. He was bewildered and inclined to be indignant. A noble friendship like theirs– A spearman, came in and saluted. Hoddan went through a symbolic duel, which was plainly the way the thing would have happened in reality. Others came in and went through the same process. Two of them did not quite grasp that it was a ritual, and he had to shoot them in the knife arm. Then he hunted in the ship’s supplies for ointment for the blisters that would appear from stun-pistol bolts at such short range. As he bandaged the places, he again tried to find out why the Lady Fani had tried to get him carved up by the large-bladed knives all Darthian gentlemen wore. Nobody could enlighten him.But the atmosphere improved remarkably. Since each theoretic fight had taken place in private, nobody was obliged to admit a compromise with etiquette. Hoddan’s followers ceased to brood. They developed huge appetites. Those who had been aground on Krim told zestfully of the monstrous hangovers they’d acquired there. It appeared that Hoddan was revered for the size of the benders he enabled his followers to hang on.

But there remained the fact that the Lady Fani had tried to get him massacred. He puzzled over it. The little yacht sped through space toward Walden. He tried to think how he’d offended Fani. He could think of nothing. He set to work on a new electronic setup which would make still another modification of the Lawlor space-drive possible. In the others, groups of electronic components were cut out and others substituted in rather tricky fashion from the control board. This was trickiest of all. It required the home-made vacuum tube to burn steadily when in use. But it was a very simple idea. Lawlor drive and landing grid force fields were formed by not dissimilar generators, and ball lightning force fields were in the same general family of phenomena. Suppose one made the field generator that had to be on a ship if it was to drive at all, capable of all those allied, associated, similar force fields? If a ship could make the fields that landing grids did, it should be useful to pirates.

Hoddan’s present errand was neither pure nor simple piracy, but piracy it would be. The more he considered the obligation he’d taken on himself when he helped the emigrant-fleet, the more he doubted that he could lift it without long struggle. He was preparing to carry on that struggle for a long time. He’d more or less resigned himself to the postponement of his personal desires. Nedda, for example. He wasn’t quite sure– Perhaps, after all–

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