Authors: Allen Steele
Oh, so she'd also noticed the inebriated state in which our mystery passenger constantly resided. Yet there was something in the way she and Ted looked at each other that gave me reason to think that they knew more about Ash than anyone had divulged to me. “I'll wake him up,” Ted said, standing up again. “He's coming with us, whether he wants to or not.”
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a couple of colonials, and put them on the table. If no one was going to tell me about Ash, I'd just have to live with it. Yet there was something else I deserved to know.
“Pardon me, Captain,” I said as I pushed back my chair, “but just one little thingâ¦”
“The name of our shipâ¦what is it?”
Ted didn't reply at once. Then he pulled back his shoulders, hitched his thumbs within his belt, and looked me straight in the eye.
“Mr. Truffaut,” he said, “the name of our ship is the
Pride of Cucamonga
I almost laughed out loud. “What kind of a name is that for aâ¦?”
“We're getting whatever Mr. Goldstein has decided to give us.” He shrugged. “Our job is to fly it.”
and her motley crewâ¦
caution: weird loadâ¦
and an even weirder passenger to go with itâ¦
shake, rattle, and roll.
The New Brighton spaceport was more sophisticated than I expected. I'm not sure what I'd anticipatedâan overgrown meadow, perhaps, with goats grazing among rusted-out fuel tanks and some old codger sitting on the front porch of a log cabin (“A-yuh, we have spaceships land here now and then”)âbut what I found instead were several square miles of steel-reinforced concrete, with service vehicles moving among gantries that looked as if they'd been built the day before. At one end of the field was a sleek new passenger terminal; next to it rose the slender pylon of a control tower, its roof bristling with antennae and sat dishes. Even Port Olympus on Mars didn't look so good.
The gyrobus touched down on the commercial side of the spaceport, not far from a row of hangars where several shuttles were parked. Everyone aboard the afternoon flight from Liberty was a pro spacer, with most of them working for the Federation Navy; before we'd boarded the gyro, Ted had quietly told us to say nothing to them and refrain from talking about our mission. So we kept to ourselves, drawing curious glances from the Federation guys but little more. We waited until they disembarked before we picked up our bags and filed out of the aircraft, walking down the steps into the warmth of the equatorial sun.
We'd been told that someone would be there to meet us, but apparently they hadn't gotten the message. While Ted got on the phone to make a hurry-up call, I took a good look at the people whom I'd be flying with. No wonder the Feds had given us the fish-eye; none of us looked as if we'd ever set foot aboard a spacecraft, let alone served as its flight crew. No one wore a uniform of any sort. Rain had changed out of her skirt into a long-sleeve tunic and a pair of drawstring trousers, while Ted wore an old
ball cap; Ali carried a rolled-up prayer mat under his arm, and Emily had brought along a knitting bag. Ash was obviously hungover; sitting on his duffel bag, his shoulders slumped forward and the hood of his dark brown robe pulled up over his head, he stared at the ground as if he was about to throw up any minute. I noticed a battered guitar case among his belongings and wondered if he had a bottle of booze stashed in there.
After a while, an open-air hovercart showed up, driven by a kid barely old enough to peer over the steering wheel. With mumbled apologies for being late, he helped us load our belongings into the rear, then climbed behind the wheel. The cart did a one-eighty and purred off across the field, the driver dodging cargo loaders and fuel trucks as we passed the hangars. From the other side of the spaceport, there was a roar as a passenger shuttle lifted off, no doubt headed for orbital rendezvous with the
Robert E. Lee
. We'd just heard the loud
of it going supersonic when I caught my first look at my new craft.
was eighty feet tall from the pads of its landing gear to the blunt cone of its nose fairing, forty feet abeam where the nozzle of its nuclear engine protruded from the oblate plate of its stern. Judging from the dents, scratches, and scorch marks along the sides of its bell-shaped hull, it was apparent that
had more than a few flight hours on her. Not a very promising sign.
I glanced at Ted and Emily, saw the dubious expressions on their faces. Ted looked back at me and shrugged. “No one promised us a new boat,” he said quietly, trying to make the best of it. “And I've been told it's flightworthy. Think you'll have any trouble?”
“Nopeâ¦if it doesn't fall apart during takeoff.” Behind me, Ali was whispering something in Arabic that sounded vaguely like a prayer.
A gantry tower had been rolled up beside the shuttle, with a gangway leading to the passenger hatch at the top of the craft.
's middeck cargo hatch was open; the shuttle's freight elevator had been extended upon its T-bar crane, its cage lowered to the ground. A cargo loader was parked next to the craft, and, as the cart coasted to a halt, a familiar figure detached himself from a group of pad rats and walked over to greet us.
“Glad to see you made it,” Goldstein said, as if we had any choice in the matter. “Sorry this was on such short notice, but I didn't know exactly when the ship was supposed to arrive until early this morning.”
“Not a problem, boss.” Ted shook his hand, then stepped back to gaze up at the shuttle. “Itâ¦well, looks like it's been quite well broken in.”
“And put back together again,” I muttered.
Emily scowled at me, and Ted chose to ignore my comment, but Morgan's expression darkened. “Sorry, Mr. Truffaut,” he said, cupping an ear. “I didn't quite hear that.”
“I said, she looks solidly put together, sir.”
For something that looks like it came straight from the salvage yard,
I silently added.
“Don't let looks fool you. She's had long and dependable service. I went for nothing but the best.” The rest of us looked askance at one another, but no one said anything as Goldstein went on. “We've almost finished loading the cargo. Rain, you may want to take a look at the manifest, make sure that everything isâ¦”
“Pardon me,” I said, “but would someone finally tell me what we're going to be hauling?” I was looking at the cargo loader. Stacked on its flatbed were enormous rolls, tightly wrapped in white nylon and lashed together with coils of rope. They somewhat resembled the bales of winter hay one might see in a cow pasture back on Earth, but I couldn't imagine hay being exported to Rho Coronae Borealis.
“Hemp,” Morgan replied.
“Hemp?” I raised an eyebrow. “You can't beâ¦”
“Well, not exactly.” He hesitated. “Female
, dried and cured, to be more preciseâ¦”
“Marijuana,” Rain said.
I stared at her. “You've got to be kidding.”
She calmly looked back at me. “No, I'm not kidding. Five thousand pounds of marijuana, from hemp plantations just south of Shuttlefield.”
“What theâ¦?” I was having a hard time keeping my jaw from hitting the ground. “What the hell do the
want with two and a half tons of marijuana?”
Ted let out his breath. “It's a long story, butâ¦to make it short, when the
rescued Emily and me from Spindrift, one of the things they found aboard our shuttle was a few grams of marijuana our companion happened to be carrying for his own consumption. The
discovered that it was an edible herb they could use in their own food.”
“Think of it as tea, or perhaps chocolate.” Goldstein smiled as he led the way over to the loader. Its operator was using the crane to lift one of the bales from the flatbed and place it on the freight elevator. “The
are vegetarian by nature, so they consider it to be a rare delicacy. Fortunately, the sample Dr. Ramirez had with him was the seedless variety, so they've been unable to cultivate it on their own world. Therefore, if they want more, they need to come to us.”
He reached up to pat one of the bales. “As luck would have it, the colonists have been growing hemp for years, for use in clothing, paper, natural oils, whatever. The female plants are necessary for cultivation, of course, but they're usually discarded during processing. After all, no one smokes the stuff anymore, except for the occasional eccentric like Ramirez. Soâ¦”
“So Coyote has tons of the stuff, and the
are willing to trade for it.”
“You're catching on.” Morgan grinned. “We've already given them fifty poundsâ¦a free sample, to whet their appetitesâ¦but this is the first large shipment. If all goes well, it'll become a major export item, with more to followâ¦”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “And who knows? After this, we can introduce them to tobacco. Maybe even opium.”
Morgan glared at me, then turned to Ted. “Captain Lesh is over there. If you'll follow me, I'll introduce you so you can make the change of command.”
“Thanks.” Ted looked at Emily. “Emcee, once Rain checks the manifest, take everyone upstairs and get them settled in.” He glanced at me. “You know your job, right?”
“Prep the boat for launch. Right.” Once again, I gazed up at
. “When do you want to go?”
“Soon as possible,” Morgan said, before Ted could respond. “And Mr. Truffautâ¦I'd appreciate it if you'd refrain from unkind remarks about my business. That last one was uncalled for.”
I suppose I should have apologized, but I didn't. Instead, I just shrugged. Morgan gave me one last look, then turned to lead Ted away. Emily watched them go, then stepped closer to me.
“Word of advice,” she said quietly. “Don't push it with Morgan. He could land you back in jail anytime he wants.”
I was tempted to ask where he'd find another shuttle pilot. Emily meant well, though, and there was no reason to piss her off. Besides, she was right. As affable as Morgan Goldstein might appear, there was little doubt that he was a cunning businessman. People like that don't let anyone get between them and their money.
“I'll keep that in mind,” I replied, “but ifâ¦”
Suddenly, I forgot what I was about to say, for at that moment I looked past her to see a figure approaching us. And that was when I caught my first sight of Mahamatasja Jas Sa-Fhadda.
The moment I laid eyes on the Prime Emissary, I immediately knew who heâ¦or rather, hesheâ¦was. Even though heshe was dressed head to toe in a grey environment suit whose opaque faceplate rendered hisher features invisible, everyone on Earth had seen pictures of the
chief delegate to Coyote. And I'd already been told, of course, that heshe was going to be another passenger on this voyage. Nonetheless, I was stunned to see himher walking toward us, escorted by two blueshirts.
Nor was I the only person in our group to be surprised. Ali took an involuntary step back, almost as if frightened by a creature that was a head shorter than any of us. Rain had been talking to a longshoreman; when she spotted the Prime Emissary, she quickly ended the conversation and hurried over to join us. And for the first time since our arrival at New Brighton, Ash seemed to take notice of what was going on.
“Hello, Jas.” Emily raised her left hand, palm out and fingers spread apart. “Good to see you again.”
“It is good to see you again as well.” The voice that came from the grille beneath the faceplate was deep-throated yet oddly androgynous, almost as if an opera singer was concealed inside the suit. That notion was forgotten the moment the
raised hisher own left hand; six webbed fingers, blunt but taloned, spread apart in an identical greeting. “Is this another member of your crew?”
Heshe meant me. “Ummâ¦yes, I am,” I replied, instinctively offering my hand. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Sa-Fhadda. My name is Jules Truffaut. I'mâ¦”
A froglike croak from the grille as the
recoiled from me, hisher hand dropping to hisher side. I suddenly realized that I'd made a mistake. Before I could say anything, though, a voice spoke from behind my left shoulder.
“The Prime Emissary is offended,” Ash murmured, standing close beside me. “
don't like to be touched by strangers unless they invite such contact. Also, Sa-Fhadda isn't hisher last name, but hisher caste and social status. Apologize at once.”
I didn't know which was more surprising: the fact that a handshake could be offensive or that Ash had finally spoken. “Sorry,” I said, lowering my handâ¦and then, on sudden afterthought, hastily raising my left hand, in imitation of Emily's gesture. “I didn't know the correct form of address. Please forgive me.”
A short hiss that might have come from an angry cat, then the helmeted head weaved back and forth on its long neck. “You are forgiven, Mr. Truffaut,” heshe said. “You did not know better. And you may call me Jas.”
Jas formally extended hisher own hand. I hesitated, then carefully grasped it. Even through the thin plastic of Jas's glove, I could feel the warmth of hisher touch, offset by the hardness of hisher talons as they briefly stroked the inside of my palm. The last thing I'd expected to do this morning when I woke up was to shake hands with an alien; definitely a moment for my memoirs.
“Good,” Ash said, still whispering to me. “Your apology has been accepted, and heshe has accepted you. Now release hisher hand, back away, and shut up.”
I did as I was told, without another word. As Jas turned toward Emily, I glanced back at Ash. “Thanks. Iâ¦”
“Be quiet.” His eyes flickered toward me from within his hood.
So much for gratitude. I looked back at Emily and Jas; the two of them had already walked away, involved in a quiet conversation. Ash slipped past me, his robe whisking across the concrete as he fell in behind them. Again, I was left to speculate what his role in all this was. Liaison? Interpreter? How did he know whatâ¦?