Chapter 9

Journal #545

Modern communications are a wonderful thing. They allow persons to wait endless hours for the download of information that the possession of a few choice reference books would put at their fingertips. They make it possible for salesmen and bill collectors to harrass their customers during the dinner hour or at other inconvenient times without the least risk of a poke in the snoot. They allow the young of both sexes to carry on endless conversations, if the term may be applied to a verbal exchange almost entirely devoid of actual content. All these are good things, especially if one is a stockholder in the communications cartels that provide these dubious services. Others will no doubt consider them in a less positive light.

Curiously, the petty annoyances of a civilized world are often precisely those things one most fervently desires when one is roughing it in the wilds of Zenobia, and they fail to function in the accustomed manner.

Word of Major Botchup’s arrival spread like wildfire through Omega Company. The new commanding officer had commandeered the office set aside for Phule, then summoned Lieutenants Armstrong and Rembrandt for a closed-door executive conference with him and his adjutant, Second Lieutenant Snipe. This left Brandy with the unpleasant task of trying to inform Captain Jester of Legion headquarters’ latest stratagem to counteract the innovations he’d instituted with Omega Company.

As usual, Comm Central had already heard the news. After all, Mother’s job was to monitor all communications and make sure that information got passed to those who needed it most. So when Brandy came into the equipment-crowded room, Mother had already taken it upon her own initiative to contact the absent captain. Tusk-anini was standing behind the desk, looking over Mother’s shoulder with an unusually deep frown as Brandy swept through the door.

“I can see you two are on the ball,” said Brandy, coming to a halt by the main comm desk. “Have you talked to the captain? How’s he taking the news?”

“wblftgrwmmmtfts,” whispered Mother, shrinking down behind her equipment as she was suddenly confronted with an actual person instead of a disembodied comm signal.

“Oh, damn, I forgot,” said Brandy. “Sorry, Mother, but this is priority one. Tusk, can you fill me in? What’s the story?”

“Is no story,” said the Volton. “Noise and more noise is all we receive. Some bad storm in desert, we think. Mother sends messages, but no way to tell if captain getting them.” As if to confirm his words, a rattle of static emerged from the speakers.

“Oh, great,” said Brandy. After a moment’s thought, she asked. “How about calling on the Zenobian military frequencies? They ought to be reliable, if anything on this planet is. Maybe you can get in touch with them and ask if they’ll relay a message.”

“Is good idea. Mother already trying it, too,” said Tusk-anini. “Having nothing for luck, is what happens.”

“Well, if that’s the deal, that’s the deal,” said Brandy. She stalked over to a nearby chair and took a seat. “I can probably hang out here until the major decides he wants me for something, which if I’m lucky won’t be until sometime tomorrow. Keep trying, OK, Mother? And let me know if you get even a momentary connection. The captain may not be able to do anything about this bird coming in over his head, but he at least deserves a chance to walk in with some advance notice.”

“brglyfrtz,” agreed Mother, and she went back to work adjusting dials and speaking the occasional test phrase into her microphone. The static fluctuated constantly, but there was never more than the bare hint of a coherent signal. The legionnaires’ faces got longer and longer, but they kept trying.

Finally, after several hours, Major Botchup called Brandy to order an inspection of all troops first thing next morning. She acknowledged the order, then turned to Mother and Tusk-anini and said, “Well, that’s that. I need to get some sleep, or I won’t be worth a bucket of sand in the morning. Keep trying, and call me to patch me in if you hear anything at all from the captain, OK?’

“,tbwfPlt,” said Mother.

Tusk-anini added, “You don’t worry Brandy, we tell you right away. Go rest, now.”

Much to her surprise, Brandy fell asleep the minute her head hit the pillow, to be awakened at last by her morning alarm. She leapt out of bed, ready to greet the day-until she remembered what she had to look forward to, and kicked the leg of her bed so hard that it slid half a meter across the floor.

If Omega Company had ever had a habit of turning out for inspection at six in the morning, it long since had broken that habit. Phule’s interest in that particular military custom had never been strong, and most of his subordinate officers and NCOs had followed his lead. Lieutenant Armstrong, Moustache, and a few others maintained a spit-and-polish personal appearance and a strong concern for military discipline and Legion tradition. But they were the minority and knew better than to try to impose their preferences on the rest of the company.

Major Botchup, on the other hand, had made it quite clear that this was one area in which he fully intended to change the Omega Mob’s image, and without delay. The major was personally rooting out every loose button, unkempt head, and slouching shoulder in the company, with the expression of a backyard gardener discovering vermin. And he was handing out reprimands at a record pace, spiked with blistering sarcasm. Next to him stood his adjutant, Second Lieutenant Snipe, smirking as he jotted down every demerit.

The newest recruits seemed to be particular targets of the major’s wrath. He stood in front of Roadkill for a good twenty minutes. “That’s not a military haircut,” he began. “You’ll report to the company barber immediately following inspection, and to my office as soon as he’s done, so I can determine whether you’re still in breach of regulations!”

“Uh, Major-” Roadkill began.

“No back talk, legionnaire!” the major barked. “Perhaps that’s an unwarranted compliment-I don’t see anything that looks like a legionnaire here-you or anyone else in this formation. What’s that hanging from your ear?”

“It’s my club ring, Major,” said Roadkill. “Back on Argus-“

“A club ring is no part of your uniform,” said Botchup.

He reached up as if to snatch it off the ear. Lieutenant Snipe snickered.

Roadkill got his hand to the earring first and managed to remove it quickly without damage. “I’ll leave it off,” he said with a grin he meant to be conciliatory.

“You’ll leave it off, what?” roared Botchup.

“Off my ear,” said Roadkill. “That’s where it was, wasn’t it?”

“Off my ear, sir! And wipe that smirk off your face!” Botchup shouted. “Hasn’t anyone taught you how to address a superior officer?”

“Sure, but they didn’t bust balls about it,” said Roadkill. He looked at Botchup as if deciding whether he could take him in a fight. “At least not until you-“

“You better forget anything you learned before I got here,” said Botchup. “I’m the commanding officer, and you’re going to do things my way-starting now. Is that clear?”

“Yeah, I hear what you’re asking for, Major,” said Roadkill with a most unmilitary shrug. “They’ve been asking for ice cream in Hell for some time now, too. Doesn’t mean they’re getting any-“

“Sergeant, this man is confined to base for ten days,” said the major, turning to Brandy.

“Yes, sir,” said Brandy. She refrained from pointing out that there was no place outside the company perimeter worth visiting.

After nearly an hour of nonstop nitpicking and browbeating, Major Botchup finally stomped away from the troops and mounted a reviewing stand he’d ordered built the evening before. Chocolate Harry’s supply squad had worked into the wee hours getting it ready.

He stood and glared at the troops for a minute. Finally, he barked, “There’s an enemy out there, and we’re going to go hunting for him.” For the moment, the legionnaires, standing in formation, made no response. Botchup didn’t expect any. He’d made it amply clear by now that the only response he wanted from them was unthinking obedience. Perhaps he might have gotten that from most other Legion companies, but this was Omega Mob. Its members might not do much thinking, but they were not in the habit of obedience.

Lieutenants Rembrandt and Armstrong, standing beside the major, looked out at the formation. It would have been impossible to tell, by looking at Armstrong’s face, what he thought of his new commanding officer. Then again, his face did not reveal a great deal of emotion in any circumstances. Rembrandt’s expression, in contrast, was one of ill-concealed dismay. Botchup’s failure to notice this might have been no more than youthful arrogance; in any case, it was ample proof that General Blitzkrieg had chosen the perfect anti-Phule to undo his predecessor’s work.

“For a change, this company is going to do things the Legion way,” Botchup continued. “You people have been coddled and pampered, living like a bunch of playboys. Well, there’s no room for that in the Legion.”

“Where is there room for it?” came a voice from the back of the formation. “We wanna go there!”

“Who said that?” snapped Botchup. There was no answer.

“Who said that?” Botchup leaned forward on the podium, a snarl on his lips. When nobody responded, he continued, “First Sergeant, I want the legionnaire who said that brought forward to be disciplined.” Lieutenant Snipe pulled out his notebook again and stood poised to enter the offender’s name.

“Begging the major’s pardon, but I haven’t the faintest idea who said it,” said Brandy.

Botchup was incredulous. “You don’t know the voices of your own troops, Sergeant?”

“Not all of them, sir,” said Brandy. “We have new recruits in the company.”

“A good while since, if I recall,” said Botchup, frowning. He shook a finger at the sergeant. “You should know them by now.”

“Yes, sir,” said Brandy, spitting out the words as if they were burning her tongue. Her face was as expressionless as Armstrong’s, but even a new recruit would have spotted her blazing eyes, and-if he valued his hide-proceeded to make himself scarce. Very scarce.

An experienced officer ought to have spotted the eyes, too. But if Major Botchup was aware of Brandy’s eyes-or of what they might suggest-he gave no sign of it. Instead, he said, “If you can’t find the individual who spoke out, I’m going to order the entire company punished. A breach of discipline reflects on everyone, after all.”

“Yes, sir,” said Brandy, clenching her jaw. “What punishment does the major wish to impose?”

“Extra guard duty,” said Botchup. Snipe duly noted it in his little book. “Make it nighttime guard duty-and they’d better all stay awake, Sergeant. I’ve been known to make surprise inspections to make sure the troops are on their toes. If I catch someone asleep-well, this is a war zone, Sergeant. You know what that means.”

“Yes, sir,” said Brandy, coming to rigid attention and snapping off a brittle salute. “Understood entirely, sir.”

“Now, if the individual responsible wants to confess, he can save his comrades the punishment…” said Botchup, with an unpleasant smile.

“I did it, sir!” A voice came from the ranks-perhaps the same voice, perhaps not. Brandy and the major turned to see Mahatma stepping forward.

“Ah, so, you’re at least loyal to your comrades, if a bit stupid,” said Botchup. “You’re going to the stockade, boy-for ten days.”

“Yes, Major,” said Mahatma with his usual smile. “I didn’t know we had a stockade yet. Am I going to have one built for me?”

“That kind of impertinence will get you an extra ten days, legionnaire!” Botchup barked. Behind him, Snipe scowled.

“He’s full of crap, Major,” said another voice. “I’m the one you’re after.”

“Who said that?” Botchup whirled to look at the other legionnaires standing in formation.

Six legionnaires stepped forward. “We did, sir,” they chorused.

“No, it was me,” came a synthesized voice, and a Synthian slid forward on a glide-board. “Put me in the stockade, Major!”

Botchup turned to Brandy. “How do you explain this rank insubordination, Sergeant?”

Brandy favored him with a cool stare. “I don’t, Major. Never had any problem with it before. They usually look for ways to stay out of the stockade.”

“I believe that, at least,” said Botchup, frowning at the legionnaires who had stepped forward. Then, as if he was worried that the entire formation would step forward if he keep watching, he turned his back and pointed a finger at Brandy.

“I’m going to leave you to sort this mess out, Sergeant,” he said. “I don’t care how you do it, as long as the legionnaire responsible is properly disciplined. I’ll expect a report. And the entire company is confined to the post until further notice!”

“Yes, sir!” said Brandy stiffly, but the major had already whirled around and stalked off, with Lieutenant Snipe close behind.

Somehow, all the legionnaires managed to keep serious expressions on their faces. Except for Brandy. She didn’t have to try.

Chief Potentary Korg looked carefully at the list Phule had given him. Prepared in both Zenobian and Standard English, it represented an agreement for the Zenobians to supply the Legion company with certain essentials during its stay on the planet, as well as specifying the details of delivery. “Yes, this is all in order,” said Korg. The wattles at his throat shook as his head nodded-a gesture the Zenobians and humans had in common. “I will see to it that the first deliveries arrive at your camp within two cycles of the primary.”

“Excellent,” said Phule. “This will give us greatly improved logistics. Being dependent on material brought in from off-world is never ideal. We’re lucky that our two industrial bases are similar enough for us to exchange products.”

“Yes, except for discrepancies of measurement,” said Korg. “Your units have mystified our engineers. Why in Gazma’s name do meters and kilograms multiply by tens, and seconds by sixties?”

“Ancient Earth history,” said Phule with a shrug. “I’m a soldier, not an engineer. I just have to use the stuff, not make sense of it.”

“I foresee difficulties when trade between our worlds extends beyond raw materials,” said Korg, ambling over to stare out a window at the busy Zenobian capital city. “I assure you, our factories will not be happy if they must retool to match Alliance standards.”

“That won’t be as big a problem as you think,” said Phule. “We’re already dealing with four advanced races, each with its own standards-and nobody wanted to change, believe me. Most of the worlds still use their own standards for internal markets. But when you become a major player in interworld trade, you’ll find that the profits are significant enough to make retooling worthwhile. My father’s done it plenty of times in his munitions business. Just for one example, you’ll find that his copy of your stun ray is part-for-part interchangeable with your original.

Korg turned and looked at Phule with what appeared to be a puzzled expression. “Why would he do that? Would it not be easier to capture the market for himself if he made the copy to his own standard?”

“Maybe, but this way, your forces can become customers. He’s willing to bet he can match your quality-or top it. And having more than one source of standard replacement parts is a selling point. His customers are less likely to get hit with shortages. To take the obvious case, it’s a lot easier and cheaper for Omega Company to buy spare parts from you than to bring them in from off-planet. And if you send forces off-planet, odds are they’ll do business with Phule-Proof.”

“Very interesting,” said Korg, clapping his hands together. “This opens up possibilities I had not foreseen. Our economists will want to scrutinize this theory. Perhaps I will call you back to address a group of them, when you have settled your company in place.”

“I’m not an economic theorist, but I’d be glad to share a few ideas with your people,” said Phule. “But your mentioning my company reminds me. I do have work to do at the camp, and it’s past time I got down to it. Thank you for your hospitality, and I hope we can help you solve the problems you called us in about. I’ve got a couple of my best people working on possible answers, and we’ll let you know as soon as we have anything to report.”

“Very good,” said Korg. “Your vehicle has been fueled, and you should find all in readiness. I look forward to working with you and your people, Captain Clown.”

“The pleasure will be mutual, I’m sure,” said Phule. He snapped off a salute and gathered up his papers for the trip to camp. He was especially anxious to see how the new equipment was working in his absence-as well as how the company had handled its responsibilities under Rembrandt and Armstrong. He’d been delegating more and more responsibility to them, and they’d responded by growing into the expanded roles he’d given them. If this kept up, the company would be able to survive the worst assaults of its enemies, who, he increasingly suspected, were thicker in Legion Headquarters than here on Zenobia or anywhere else.

Major Botchup had ordered Lieutenant Armstrong to show his adjutant Lieutenant Snipe the camp, an assignment that Snipe took as license to treat Armstrong as his personal lackey. Armstrong was already silently fuming even before the pair arrived at Comm Central. He ushered Snipe through the door and said in a low voice, “This is the base’s real nerve center. With our wrist communicators, every legionnaire in the company can reach anyone else on a moment’s notice.”

“That sounds like a security risk,” said Snipe. “What if the enlisted men listen in on the officers’ communications?”

“Not a problem,” said Armstrong. “We have private circuits for the officers when we need to talk among ourselves.”

“As long as nobody’s eavesdropping,” said Snipe, tapping his finger on the top of a counter. “The major will want to take a good close look at that system. We aren’t in friendly territory here. The enemy could know every move you’re planning before your own men do.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Armstrong. “The captain’s brought in all the best new equipment. It’s got security features well above milspec.”

“Security features that anybody else with enough money can buy. Or buy the equipment to bug everything you say,” sniffed Snipe, clearly unimpressed.

While they’d been talking, Mother had been sinking lower and lower behind her equipment console. Finally, when Snipe turned and pointed at her and snapped, “Who’s that?” she gave a little cry and sank entirely out of sight.

Snipe turned to Armstrong and said, “Who is that person? Doesn’t she know the proper way to act when an officer enters the room?”

“Pgtkr,” said Mother, almost inaudibly, from behind the desk.

“Speak up!” said Snipe. “If you’re going to address an officer, do so in a proper military manner! What is your name and serial number, legionnaire?”

“Gmafngbrkshl,” said Mother, even more inaudibly. Suddenly she leapt up and bolted from the room.

“What the hell was that?” said Snipe, staring at the departing legionnaire.

“Uh, Mr. Snipe, the comm engineer is rather sensitive,” said Armstrong, leaping to Mother’s defense. “She really isn’t at her best in a face-to-face situation with superior officers-“

“Well, it’s time she got over that quirk. If she won’t talk to her officers, she should be replaced with somebody competent,” barked Snipe. “Whose idea was it to put her in such a critical position?”

“Captain Jester’s, of course,” said Armstrong, uncomfortably aware that Snipe was likely to take it as evidence in the case the new regime was obviously building against the captain. “You see, she’s really completely different on the air-“

“No reason to coddle her neurosis,” said Snipe, looking around. His eye focused on a doorway at the end of the counter where they were standing. “Ah, there’s someplace I want to see. I hope this is more in keeping with the Legion tradition than the rest of the base.”

“That’s the officers’ lounge,” said Armstrong.

“Yes, of course,” said Snipe. “That’s why I wanted to see it. Or did you forget that I am also an officer?”

“Lieutenant, you hardly give me a chance to forget it,” said Armstrong, attempting a rare ironic sally.

Snipe ignored him and made a beeline for the lounge. But he stopped at the door with an astonished expression on his face. There on the couch sat Tusk-anini, seven feet tall with the face of a giant warthog and a thick book in his hands, taking up half the room. “What on earth are you doing here?” said Snipe after gaining his composure.

“Am reading Seven Types of Ambiguity,” said Tuskanini, peering truculently at Snipe. “Your-planet people never read twentieth-century Earth books?”

“Is this…sophont an officer?” Snipe turned to Armstrong and asked, quite unnecessarily.

“No,” said Armstrong. “We let Tusk-anini come in here to read when he’s not helping Mother. He’s the only one who uses the place much, late at night.”

“A very bad precedent,” said Snipe, peering at the Volton.

Tusk-anini peered back at him. “What you got against new critics?” he growled. “You deconstructionist?”

“I am an officer,” sputtered Snipe. “And you are not. “

“Noticing that already,” said Tusk-anini, closing the book but keeping his place with a large foredigit. He stood up, looming over the two lieutenants. “You making a point, or you just like a lot talking?”

“This is insubordination!” said Snipe, turning to Armstrong. “And he’s threatening an officer, as well! I want this legionnaire arrested!”

Armstrong blinked. “Tusk-anini? Threatening you? That’s preposterous, Mr. Snipe. Why, he wouldn’t harm a fly-“

“Would, too,” said Tusk-anini pedantically. “But only if fly biting me.”

“I want this legionnaire confined to quarters!” howled Snipe.

“Lieutenant, you’re overreacting,” said Armstrong. “I’m as much a rulebook man as anybody, but you have to make allowances. Tusk-anini’s been an asset to the company, and his reading doesn’t lower our effectiveness in any way.”

“I see, Lieutenant, ” said Second Lieutenant Snipe. “Well, if that’s the way the wind blows, I’ll just take the matter up with Major Botchup. And if he sees things my way, I suspect you’ll have something to answer for, as well.”

“Mr. Snipe, I’ll take my chances,” said Armstrong. “Would you like to finish inspecting the base before you report to the major?”

“Very well,” snapped the other lieutenant. He stomped out the door, and a keen nose would have detected smoke coming from his ears.

Armstrong turned to Tusk-anini and shrugged. “Things are going to be tricky until the captain gets back,” he said quietly. “Until then, I suggest you lay low.”

The Volton nodded but said nothing, and Armstrong hurried to catch up with Lieutenant Snipe. He managed to avoid any overt confrontations for the rest of the inspection tour, but he knew very well that Snipe would concoct some pretext to find fault.

Chocolate Harry flipped through the pages of his latest issue of Biker’s Dream. Somewhere, he’d seen an ad for a new modification package that sounded like just what he needed to get that extra millimeter of performance out of his hawg. Thanks to the traffic in antirobot camouflage, he’d accumulated a nice bit of spare change for just such a purpose. The ad had been somewhere in the back of the mag…

He was still searching when a voice broke through his concentration. “Yo, Sarge, I gotta have a couple of reels of sixteen-gauge copper wire!”

With a sigh, Chocolate Harry set down the magazine. “Couple of reels? What for you need all that copper, Do-Wop?” He didn’t bother shifting his feet from off the desktop.

“Captain’s orders, C. H.,” said Do-Wop, leaning over the supply sergeant’s desk. “Me and Soosh gotta find the Hidden Ones, special assignment, top priority. Just ask the captain, you don’t believe me-“

Chocolate Harry held up a hand for silence. “I know all about the special assignment, dude, that ain’t what I asked you. What for you need that much copper? That’s damn near a year’s supply for the whole company, and we aren’t exactly where I can resupply all that easy. If there’s somethin’ else you can substitute I-“

“Nah, Soosh says it’s gotta be copper, Sarge,” said Do-Wop; a distinct whine in his voice. “You don’t wanna mess up this special assignment Captain Jester gave us, do ya? He’ll be really mad if it don’t get finished because you wouldn’t give us the stuff we needed.”

“Ain’t nobody said I wouldn’t give it to you,” said C. H. He swung his feet off the desk and sat up straight in the chair. “But you do have to give me all the right paperwork, cap’n’s orders or not. Now, for starters, where’s your Form SL-951-C-4? Can’t give out strategic supplies without that one, in triplicate.”

“Man, nobody told us we needed no forms,” said Do-Wop, a look of dismay on his face. “Can you give me the wire and the forms, and I’ll bring ’em back later?”

Chocolate Harry shook his head gravely. “Not unless I want to get in a heap of trouble, myself. This new major’s a stickler for routine. Forms first, then your copper. That’s definitely strategic supplies. Unless maybe you’re gonna use it for some nondesignated strategic purpose, in which case maybe I can dispense with the SL-951-C-4. But I gotta know up front.”

“Uh, yeah, nondesignated strategic purpose, that’s the ticket,” said Do-Wop, grinning. “Got yer strategic purpose right here. Soosh tells me, he’s gonna set up a biomass detector to search for the Hidden Ones the lizards have been trying so hard to catch, which they ain’t seen hide nor hair of ’em except their comm signals.”

“Biomass detector?” The supply sergeant frowned. “With two whole reels of copper wire; you oughta be able to track a stray geefle bug halfway across the galaxy. What do you clowns think you’re looking for?”

“All we know is it’s too hard to find by bare eyeball,” said Do-Wop. “That’s why Soosh decided to rig something special. He dug out the designs from some old program, and he’s doin’ some custom mods…”

Chocolate Harry rubbed his bearded chin, speculating. “Man, I know you’re just followin’ the captain’s orders, but maybe you should look around a minute before you get in over your head. Have you dudes ever thought that maybe the reason the Zenobians can’t find no enemy is that the enemy ain’t alive?”

Do-Wop frowned. “Ain’t alive? You mean we’re looking for spooks?”

“Nah, nothin’ like that,” said Chocolate Harry. “I’m thinkin’ robots.”

Do-Wop laughed. “Robots! You trying to run that crazy scam on me? Half the company must be wearin’ that purple junk you’re sellin’.”

Chocolate Harry’s face turned solemn. “Do-Wop, it pains me to have you question my good intentions. This here robot camo is guaranteed effective. Ain’t a robot in the Alliance can spot you, if you’re wearin’ it. If one of those renegade robots gets you in its sights, and you ain’t camouflaged-“

“Aww, save the scare stories for the rookies, Sarge,” said Do-Wop with a wave of his hand. “Now, are you gonna make me fill out twenty pages of papers, or can I get that copper Soosh wants? Or do we have to call the captain and tell him you won’t let us have it?”

“All right, all right,” said Chocolate Harry. He thought a moment about making Do-Wop go to the major to get the papers signed, but on second thought decided there was no percentage in calling the new CO’s attention to Supply just yet. That round of trouble could wait indefinitely, as far as he was concerned. He shrugged and said, “I’m just tryin’ to make sure my buddies’ behinds are covered, is all. Go on around back and tell Double-X what you need. If he gives you any hassle, tell him it’s cool with me, OK?”

“OK, Harry, I knew you’d see it my way,” said Do-Wop, grinning. “I’ll tell Soosh about that robot theory, and maybe we’ll add metal and plastic detectors to what we’re setting up. Thanks!”

“Think nothin’ of it,” said Chocolate Harry. He picked up his copy of Biker’s Dream and began looking for the ad again. Maybe this time he could find it without being interrupted for company business.

Phule had booted up his Port-a-Brain and settled back to look over his investments-there were a couple of items in his portfolio that hadn’t been performing well, and he thought it might be time to divest them-when the hoverjeep’s engine alarm began to beep. “What does that mean, Beeker?” he said, looking up from the screen. They’d put the vehicle on automatic for the trip back to base, expecting no traffic or weather problems. Now, halfway home, something was going wrong.

“We seem to be approaching a magnetic anomaly, sir,” said Beeker, who was sitting in the front seat near the instrument panel. He peered at the readout and said, “Power seems to be dropping abruptly.”

“That’s not good,” said Phule. “Let’s find someplace to set down before power runs out entirely. If worse comes to worst, we’ll call base and have somebody take a run out and pick us up.”

“Yes, sir,” said Beeker. “There’s a clear area just ahead. I’ll put us down there.” He slid into the driver’s seat and flipped the control switch over to manual. After a moment, he said, “The controls aren’t responding, sir. Shall I activate the emergency signal?”

Phule nodded and took up an extra notch in his safety belt. “Yes, and I’ll try to raise the base on the comm.” He touched the On button on his wrist communicator and lifted it closer to his mouth. “Mother, come in. This is Jester with a priority call. Mother, come in.” The communicator emitted aloud burst of white noise but nothing resembling a coherent signal. “Mayday, Mayday, Mother, can you hear me?”

Beeker turned around to look at him. “Sir, if I may make a suggestion, perhaps you should continue to transmit, on the chance that she can hear you but cannot reply. Tell them our position, and perhaps they can send someone to aid us. I will attempt to regain control of the vehicle.”

“Good plan,” said Phule. “If you can just get the thing stopped, at least we won’t have to worry about hitting anything.”

“That is what I have been attempting, sir,” said Beeker. He returned his attention to the controls. After a few moments he said, “We are veering off course, sir. The vehicle appears to be under external control. Should we abandon it?”

Phule looked at the boulder-strewn ground passing beneath the jeep and shook his head. “We’re still moving too fast,” he said. “I think we’re better off riding it out-unless something happens to make staying aboard worse than jumping. If we do get stranded out here, we’ll probably need the jeep’s emergency kit.”

“Yes, sir,” said Beeker, reaching up to hold his hat.

“The power readout’s still dropping, sir. I don’t think we’ve slowed down, though.”

If anything, it felt as if they’d picked up speed. The jeep was headed almost at right angles to its original. course, now, and none of Beeker’s efforts made any apparent difference. In the usual course of things, if power failed, the grav units would’ve lowered the hoverjeep gently to the ground-but at this speed, there would have been nothing gentle about it. The only thing to do was hold on and hope the crash protection was up to its job if they hit anything too solid.

As the jeep sped onward, Phule kept sending his Mayday message, while Beeker kept a lookout for any sign of imminent collision or other danger. But neither the jeep’s built-in comm unit nor Phule’s wrist communicator showed any sign that it was in contact with the base. Phule was still trying to give Mother (who might or might not have been able to hear him) his best guess of where they were and what was happening, when the jeep suddenly lost speed and came slowly to the ground.

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