A Robot Named Clunk*

Copyright © Simon Haynes, 2011

www.spacejock.com.au

Book one in the Hal Spacejock series

* originally published as 'Hal Spacejock'




* * *


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An incompetent space pilot, a massive debt and a twenty-four hour deadline…

Freighter pilot Hal Spacejock has a life to die for: His very own cargo ship, a witty and intelligent flight computer … and a debt so big it makes the GFC look like a rounding error.

Hal's an upright sort of guy, and he won't take jobs from gun runners, drug smugglers or politicians. On the other hand, the finance company's brutal enforcer is on his doorstep, and Hal has barely twenty-four hours to pay him off. Miss the deadline and he - and his ship - will go under. Way, way, under.

Faced with an impossible choice, Hal chooses an impossible job … and gains an impossible new co-pilot into the bargain.


v 3.04




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Dedicated to my family






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Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

Hal Spacejock was hunched over the Black Gull's flight console, his face bathed in red light from the display screens. He was deep in thought, his expression serious, but it wasn't due to the scrolling error messages or the flashing warning lights. No, Hal was studying a chessboard balanced on the fake, wood-grain finish.

"It's your turn," said the Navcom, in a neutral female voice.

Hal eyed the full set of pieces, all of them in their starting positions. "I'm working on my strategy. You worry about your move."

"I've already plotted the next ten games."

Sometimes Hal felt he'd be better off playing with himself … except he'd probably lose. "E2 to E4," he said at last, moving a pawn.

"E7 to E5," said the Navcom, without hesitation.

Hal quickly moved his knight, and the Navcom responded. After several additional moves Hal casually shifted his bishop into position.

There was a lengthy delay. "B8 to C6," said the Navcom at last.

"Aha! Got you thinking eh?"

"Negative. I was deflecting an enquiry about an unpaid bill."

"You won't have to worry about those any more."

"Really?" The Navcom injected a note of surprise … and disbelief. "How did you manage that?"

"I've organised a meeting with the finance company. We're getting another loan."

"You haven't paid off the first one."

Hal gave a casual wave. "Don't worry about it. These people love lending money."

"Not if you don't give it back again."

"You fly the ship and I'll handle the cash. Got it?"

"You want me to place the Black Gull's finances in your hands?"

"Absolutely."

"Very well." The console screens flickered. "On monitor one you will notice a final demand from Lamira Ground Control for landing fees, amenities and stamp duty. Monitor two contains an overdraft penalty from the bank and monitor three has a list of fuel bills in descending order."

Hal looked from one screen to the next in growing concern. "You'd better hide that lot before the loan people get here. They might get the wrong idea."

"Or the right one." The screens refilled with pictures of credit tiles, gemstones and gold bullion. "Is this better?"

"Very funny," growled Hal.

"Your financial situation would improve if you weren't so fussy selecting cargo jobs."

"I've told you before, I'm not doing anything illegal. Governments are short of ships, and they'll snatch the Gull if I so much as look at a double yellow line."

"What about that cargo of medicinal products you were offered?"

"Drugs."

"And the shipment of home defence equipment?"

"Weapons."

"Those young men who wanted passage to Forg?"

"Escaped convicts. Broke and desperate."

"What about Jerling Enterprises? They seemed legitimate."

Hal snorted. "A front for the local crime lord."

"How do you know?"

"Instinct. I could tell by the way they spoke. And the cargo sounded shifty."

"What's suspicious about robot parts?"

"They're stolen goods, of course. Painting 'Robot Parts' on the crates might fool some, but I'm too quick for that old dodge."

"Very well, perhaps you could describe an acceptable job so that I might filter out the undesirables."

Hal shrugged. "Something quick and easy. Pays well, no risk."

"In the freelance cargo business?" The Navcom was silent for a moment. "Have you considered another profession?"

"No I bloody haven't. I know there are jobs out there, you'll just have to find them."

"There may be suitable jobs elsewhere, but we're docked on Lamira. This is a mining colony, so the range of freight work is somewhat limited."

"It's the only place we could afford the landing fees."

"Which you still haven't paid."

"Me?"

"You're in charge of accounts. Incidentally, there's a call from Ground Control. Shall I put them on?"

"No, tell them I'm busy. I want to win at chess first."

"Complying."

"Did it work?"

"Yes. I told them you're watching a little pawn."




* * *


Ding Dong!

Hal looked up from the chessboard, where a typically one-sided contest had decimated his pieces. "What was that?"

"There's someone on the passenger ramp."

"The loan arranger?"

"I cannot say. The external camera is missing."

"So how do you know there's anyone out there?"

Ding Dong!

"They're pressing the doorbell," said the Navcom patiently.

Hal stood, strode to a set of controls on the wall and pressed the upper button. Hydraulics whined as the heavy circular door swung open, and Hal ducked into the cramped airlock. Once inside, he used a second set of controls to open the outer door, but before it was half open there was a hair-raising growl and a huge robot squeezed into the ship.

Hal took one look at the grasping hands, jagged steel teeth and blood-red eyes and fled to the flight deck. He slammed the inner door and fumbled for the lock, but before he could activate it the door burst open. Hal dived for the access tube at the rear of the flight deck, hoping to escape via the cargo hold, but he only managed two steps before the robot cut him off.

Hal and the robot faced each other for a couple of seconds, and then a short, middle-aged man strolled into the flight deck. He had a smooth, pale face and slicked-back hair, and his heavy overcoat was buttoned up to his neck.

"Who the hell are you?" demanded Hal.

"Vurdi Makalukar at your service," said the man softly.

Hal nodded towards the hulking robot, unwilling to point in case it tore his arm off. "Is this thing yours?"

"Brutus accompanies me on my rounds." Vurdi crossed to the console and turned the pilot's chair, grimacing as he saw the exposed stuffing. He looked around for an alternative and found none. "Let us begin," he said, sitting on the edge of the seat. "I represent Garmit and Hash, Mr Spacejock, and I'm here to —"

"You're the loan guy?" broke in Hal.

Vurdi nodded.

Hal gestured at the robot. "Do you treat all your clients like this?"

"Brutus usually breaks a leg or two first, but in your case I felt it wasn't necessary. After all, it's a relatively modest sum of money."

"Breaks a leg?" Hal eyed the hulking robot. "Do you get much repeat business?"

"None, if I do my job properly." Vurdi sat back. "Now, are we paying by cash or cheque?"

"I don't care. It's all the same to me."

Vurdi smiled. "I confess, I came here expecting the worst. It's most gratifying that you have the money to pay me."

"Pay you? No, you've got it all wrong. You're here to set up a loan."

The smile vanished. "You don't honestly believe that? Mr Spacejock, your computer has been fobbing me off for weeks. You're months behind with repayments."

"You mean it was a trick? You're not giving me any money?"

"I believe we're on the right track at last. You see, I'm here to collect back payments on your existing loan." Vurdi gestured at the robot. "If you're quick, you can stay out of hospital."

"I don't have anything to give." Hal spread his hands. "It's been quiet. Nobody's hiring."

"We must honour our debts, Mr Spacejock. Payment in kind perhaps? A limb or two?" The chair squealed as Vurdi turned his back. "I suggest you stand still, it'll be quicker that way."

"Quicker? What —" Hal dodged as the huge robot reached for him with hands the size of shovels. "Hey, call it off or I'll …" The threat died as banana-sized fingers grabbed him round the neck, and a split second later he was flat on his back.

The giant machine crouched over him and tried to push him through the cold metal deck, and as the steel grip tightened Hal saw his life flash before his eyes — a series of heavy landings interspersed with explosions and multiple fractures.

The lights in the flight deck dimmed, and then … darkness.




* * *


On planet Forg, a small crowd had gathered outside the local sky hockey stadium. Forgtown was not a prosperous area - the semi-detached houses were modest and the residents struggled to live within their means. It was unusual to see building work or renovations, and the refurbishment of the decrepit old stadium had been a talking point for months.

Opening day had arrived at last, and light blazed from the new ticket booths, glistening off the gold and silver ribbons stretched across the entrance. There was a lighting rig to one side, a spindly tower festooned with coloured spotlights. Perched on top, a stocky man in baggy jeans was adjusting the largest of these lights, directing an intense white beam onto the centre of the gleaming floor tiles. When he was satisfied, music blared from concealed speakers and the crowd parted to allow a young man in a gold suit onto the impromptu stage. He slid to a halt, threw his head back and raised an oversized microphone to his mouth. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to witness a miracle," he bawled. As he strode up and down the technician struggled to keep the beam on him. "They said it would never happen! They said the people of Forgtown didn't deserve a new stadium!" He gestured at a blank wall. "So who came to your rescue?"

On cue, a huge portrait was projected onto the wall. It showed a middle-aged man with a bristling black moustache, gleaming black hair and a thick cigar gripped in the corner of his mouth. "Mr Walterrrr Jerling!" screamed the young man. He stuck the microphone under his arm and clapped wildly, trying desperately to rev up the crowd.

Off to one side, Jerling took a last puff from his cigar, dropped it on the fresh new tiles and ground it to shreds under his heel. Then he strode onto the stage and took the microphone. He waved the crowd to silence and began his speech, but nothing came through the speakers. Jerling glared at the young man, who took the microphone and fiddled with it.

"… bloody thing working or it's your job," boomed Jerling's voice, as the microphone was handed back. He recovered quickly. "Thank you for coming," he said, forcing a smile at the crowd of onlookers. It was the usual turnout - young mothers with prams, old ladies clutching oversized handbags and a smattering of unemployed youths with nothing better to do. Impulsively, Jerling decided to cut to page seven. The PR people would moan, but they could splice old footage for the news release. "And so, it gives me great pleasure to open this refurbished stadium, and to wish the Forgtown Rhinos the best of luck for the coming season!"

The crowd clapped politely as Jerling moved to the entrance and snipped the ribbon. "I declare this stadium open!" he said, to further applause.

On the way to his waiting limousine Jerling passed a mother standing by her young son. The boy was looking up at a bunch of coloured balloons tied to the barrier, a wistful look in his eyes. On impulse, Jerling separated one of the balloons from the rest. "Here you are kid, look after it."

The mother beamed at him. "Thank you, Mr Jerling. I'm sure he'll treasure it for life."

Jerling made a casual gesture, indicating that such momentous gifts were easy to bestow. Inside, he felt the warm glow of a deed well done.

"But mum, I wanted the red one," whined the boy.

Jerling turned and strode to the car, ducked inside and sank back in the comfortable upholstery. The door closed and the car drew away from the crowds with a hum of powerful motors, quickly gathering speed. Inside, Carina Rinoret was sitting primly on the edge of her seat, briefcase on her lap. Her dark brown eyes studied Jerling intently, trying to gauge his mood. She didn't have to wait long.

"Sack that bloody MC," growled Jerling.

"Yes, sir."

"Gold suits and spotlights … what the hell was he thinking? I'm a businessman, not a goddamn pop star." As the car turned onto the highway, Jerling tore the wrapper off a fresh cigar and jammed the tip into the door console. "What happened to the last guy?"

"Fired," said Carina. "You said he was dull."

"And did you see that crowd? Pathetic!" Jerling jammed the lit cigar between his teeth and dragged on it hungrily. "I saw Hinchfig on the news the other day. He had twice the crowd for his stadium, and they were all cheering louder."

"I suggested a virtual crowd, but you insisted on the real thing." Discreetly, Carina activated the air purifier. "They weren't exactly cheap, either."

"You paid those losers to show up?" Jerling stared at her in surprise. "I thought they were loyal Rhinos supporters!"

"The Rhinos don't have any supporters. They never win."

"Sack the players and buy some good ones."

"Noted."

Jerling took the cigar from his mouth and stared at her. "Wait a minute. Hinchfig fakes his crowds?"

Carina nodded. "He's got a brilliant programmer and a room full of computers. We should have the same."

"Forget it. They're overpriced, highly-strung, and always breaking down." Jerling blew out a cloud of smoke. "I'm not wasting money on computers either."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

"Is he dead yet?"

Hal came round slowly, trying not to breathe the electric-tainted air washing over his face. He opened one eye and saw Brutus inspecting him.

"Nearly," growled the robot.

"All right," said Vurdi. "Let him go."

The robot hesitated, then released Hal and stood up.

"Let's start again, Mr Spacejock." Vurdi lifted the queen from the chessboard. "Where's the money?"

"I told you, I don't have anything."

Vurdi tumbled the chess piece in one hand, over and over. "You know, it's just as well your insurance is paid up."

"What are you saying?"

"Imagine if the unthinkable happened to your ship. Garmit would get their money, I would earn my fee and you … well, you'd get a few lines in the local paper."

"You'd never get away with it!"

"Several of my ex-clients expressed the same opinion." Vurdi shook his head sadly. "Alas, I proved them wrong."

"Look, there is something."

"There always is. How much?"

"Not cash, it's a job. This guy was looking for a freighter."

Vurdi raised one eyebrow. "Why didn't you mention it earlier?"

"What earlier? The minute I opened the door your robot tried to rip my head off."

"Drama bores me, Mr Spacejock. Give me the details."

"This guy's regular ship is out of action. He wants me to cover it."

"Most convenient." Vurdi's dark eyes studied Hal's face. "When will this job be completed?"

"I've got twenty-four hours."

"Very well. Brutus will collect the money tomorrow afternoon." Vurdi laid the chess piece on the board. "No need to show me out. Come, Brutus."

Hal jumped as the robot's foot thudded down next to his face. He felt its hands grabbing at his clothing, pulling him up until he was staring into its blood-red eyes. Breath hissed between its wafer-thin lips as fans worked overtime to keep its circuits cool. "I'll be b—"

"Brutus, come!" snapped Vurdi from the airlock.

The robot dropped Hal and left the ship with slow, measured footsteps. As the outer door thudded to, Hal sat up. "Navcom?"

There was a crackle from the console. "Yes, sir?"

"Call Jerling Enterprises."

"The front company for the local crime lord?"

"Yes. Tell them I'll take their cargo job."

"The shipment of stolen goods?"

"That's it."

"But you turned them down!"

Hal rubbed his neck. "I just changed my mind."




* * *


Jerling eyed the fast-moving scenery. They were leaving the dreary, run-down part of town, and he could already feel the weight lifting from his shoulders. He'd grown up in the area, and there wasn't a shred of nostalgia for his past. "I should have charged that kid for the balloon."

"Would you like me to raise an invoice?"

"Focusing on the small stuff is a beginner's mistake. It pays to keep your eye on the big picture." Jerling gestured impatiently with his cigar. "Anyway, it's probably blown away by now."

They travelled in silence, and then Jerling remembered something. "Speaking of small stuff, what was that crap on my screen this morning?"

"I don't understand."

"That memo about a dental plan. I don't deal with garbage like that. Put someone else onto it."

"Employee benefits are an important aspect of your business."

"They should be bloody glad they've got jobs." Jerling sniffed. "Opening shopping centres, dental plans. You'll have me organising a retirement party next."

"Nonsense, Mr Jerling. You perform a vital function."

"Don't patronise me." Jerling puffed his cigar. "Find me something interesting. Give me something to think about."

"You know what your doctor said, Mr Jerling. He advised against direct involvement in the decision-making process."

"All right, sack the doctor and then find me something interesting."

"I'm sure that won't be necessary." Carina looked inside her briefcase. "There's a batch of equipment due for recycling. I need final approval on the order."

"Recycling? That's the best you can do?"

"It's vital to the health of the company. Turning over equipment is good for staff morale, leads to lower maintenance costs and cuts our exposure to taxation." Carina handed over a bound report. "Here's the information."

Jerling sighed as he felt the weight. "In the old days I listened to the facts and made up my mind on the spot. When did all this red tape come in?"

"Standard corporate governance. Everything by the book."

"And a book for everything," muttered Jerling. He flipped through the pages, glaring at the tiny print. "What is it, anyway?"

"Depreciation schedule. Every item of equipment in the company, listed by purchase date and accrued tax benefit."

"Care to explain that in layman's terms?"

"The further you go in the book, the older the equipment. I recommend we dispose of everything after page seventy."

"Are you crazy?" Jerling stared at her. "I'm not getting rid of perfectly good equipment."

"There's a tremendous tax advantage if you do."

Jerling squinted at the page. "Vehicles, ships, computers … we only just bought some of this stuff!"

"I'm afraid not. The minimum age is five years, and some items are almost thirty. Take those robots …"

Jerling groaned. "Not robots. Not openly."

"What do you mean?"

"Do you know what happens when you strip a bunch of robots from a company?"

Carina shook her head.

"The rest go moody, that's what. They don't say anything but their eyes follow you everywhere. Accusing, sad, angry …" Jerling shook his head. "You have to remove them one by one, send them off on a long-term errand. Then you tell the rest their dear old metal pal was purchased as a companion for someone's grandma, or to help a sick kid recover."

"Isn't that rather elaborate? They're just machines."

"No, they're machines with brains. Big difference."

"However it's done, this equipment must go. It will save the company thousands."

"Really?"

Carina nodded. "The tax benefits will almost pay for the replacements. Then there's the human element - new equipment is conducive to a happy work environment, people want to be at work and sick leave falls dramatically."

Jerling grunted and handed the report back. "Put a summary on my desk and I'll take a look in the morning."

"You can't leave it too long," warned Carina. "I've negotiated new contracts with our suppliers. They won't hold their prices forever."

Jerling's eyes narrowed. "Don't get ahead of yourself."

"No, Mr Jerling."

The limousine slowed and Jerling glanced out the window. They were travelling along the broad avenue leading to head office, and as they rounded a bend the building came into view. It was an impressive sight - twelve storeys high, fronted with acres of glass and chrome. Across the top a huge sign spelled out 'Jerling Corporation' in glowing red letters.

After admiring his building for a moment or two, Jerling turned back to Carina. "What's next?"

Carina hesitated. "One of our senior engineers is retiring tomorrow. They're not sure what to buy him."

"A wreath," muttered Jerling. "Look, that's not what I meant. I'm talking business deals, something hands on." He frowned. "What was it I heard this morning, something about a shipment they're having trouble with?"

"Your staff are very efficient, Mr Jerling. I'm sure they'll handle it."

"Give me the details and I'll tell you whether they're efficient or not."

Suppressing the tiniest of sighs, Carina took out a thinscreen and paged through several memos. "Did they mention Orthagon?"

"No, Seraph."

"That would be the shipment of robot parts."

"Oh joy," sighed Jerling. "Such a step up from company dental. So what's the problem?"

"The shipment is sitting on Seraph IV, waiting for collection."

"And?"

"The Seraph military are conducting war games - live fire exercises. It's been running for a week now, with another fortnight to go." Carina shifted in her seat. "Last time they held manoeuvres on this scale they blasted three cargo freighters by mistake."

"I begin to see the problem."

"None of our people will fly there, because it's too risky. And we're not insured against that kind of loss."

"What's the hurry with the parts?"

"We're assembling an order of serving robots for the Emperor's summer palace. He's planning a grand ball and our robots have to be ready on time."

"Can't we get the parts elsewhere?"

Carina shook her head. "There's a shortage."

"Why don't we hire a ship?"

"Who would fly it?"

"One of our old robots, of course." Jerling gestured at the recycling report. "You've already decided they're expendable."

"Robots can only be co-pilots. You need a human in control. Anyway, we're still liable for the replacement cost of the vessel."

"All right, hire a freelancer."

Carina grimaced. "We tried, but they're all aware of the war games. Mind you, there was one …"

"Yes?"

"He was convinced it was a cargo of stolen goods."

"You should have put him on to me," growled Jerling. "I'd have set him straight."

"To be honest, I didn't think he was suitable. His record is terrible."

"We all have to start somewhere."

The car slowed, and the interior darkened as it entered the undercover parking. Jerling's cigar glowed in the darkness, and then the interior was bathed in artificial light. Jerling puffed in silence as they drove past rows of gleaming cars, and then he came to a decision. "I'm taking charge of this matter. I want to handle it personally."

"Mr Jerling, you have talented staff. This job can be handled without your intervention."

"Do you know what will happen if we disappoint the Emperor? We'll lose our preferred supplier status. The Hinchfigs will pounce, and before you know it they'll be supplying the Emperor and we'll be faking crowds." The car stopped, and Jerling crushed his cigar and shoved his door open. "I want this pilot put through to my office. Immediately, you understand? Otherwise you'll be the one looking for a new job."

White faced, Carina nodded.




* * *


Hal was pacing the Black Gull's flight deck, ready to put his fist through the nearest wall. "What do you mean you can't call Jerling back? What do you mean you didn't save his details?"

"I erased the record after you turned the job down."

"So look it up again!"

"We can't afford the search fees." The Navcom hesitated. "Incidentally, it's your move."

"How can you think of a bloody chess game at a time like this?"

"You're only saying that because you're losing."

"The hell I am." Hal strode to the console and stared down at the board, where his white king and a single pawn were surrounded by a complete set of black pieces. "Switch sides?"

"Negative."

Hal sighed. "Isn't there any way you can get hold of Jerling?"

"No."

"At least think about it, all right? I'm going to get something to eat." Hal crossed to the rear of the flight deck, where a battered metal ladder poked through a circular hole in the floor. He'd just put his foot on the first rung when a chime echoed around the flight deck.

"Inbound call for Mr Spacejock."

"Take it, will you? I can't handle debt collectors right now."

"It's not a debt collector. It's Jerling Enterprises."

"Are you mucking about?"

"No, it's Walter Jerling himself."

"Well don't keep him waiting, you overgrown calculator. Put him on!"

The viewscreen flickered and wavered, and Walter Jerling's head and shoulders appeared. His gaunt face was bathed in green light from the screens set into his desk, and there was a cigar clamped between his teeth. He spotted Hal, removed the cigar and blew out a cloud of smoke. "Hal Spacejock?"

"That's me," said Hal, dropping into his seat. "Listen, I was just —"

"Freelance cargo pilot?"

"Yes. I was —"

"Something wrong with my company? Pay not good enough?"

"No. I —"

"I told my staff you'd come round." Jerling waved his cigar. "The cargo's on Seraph IV, I want it delivered to my premises on Forg within twenty-four hours. Can you handle that?"

"Sure."

Jerling picked a shred of tobacco from his lip. "There's a couple of things you should know. First, Seraph traffic control are a bunch of bureaucratic idiots who'll tie you up for days with their ridiculous paperwork. And we don't want that, do we?"

"I guess not," said Hal.

"Right, so you're going to bypass customs. Second, you'll be landing in a field at night. The pick-up is near the equator and there's a few dwellings, light industry, that kind of thing."

Hal wondered if his hearing was playing up. "Did you say a field?"

"You got a problem with that?"

"Well, er —"

"Good." Jerling frowned at the darkened tip of his cigar. "What was the other thing? Oh yes, the landing. I want you to take one of my pilots along. Give him a lift to Seraph."

"I thought this job was urgent? If I have to wait for your pilot —"

"No waiting, he's already there at the spaceport. He was supposed to get a lift with one of my ships, but you can take him instead." Jerling waved his cigar. "If things get sticky on Seraph he'll take over the controls."

"Is he any good?"

"He works for me, doesn't he?" Jerling snapped his fingers and a squat robot appeared, holding a short rod with a glowing red tip. Jerling pressed his cigar to the tip, puffed once or twice to get it going, then waved the robot away. "Look, he's had years of training. Flown everything from a hover bike to a megafreighter. Believe me, he's a first-class pilot."

Hal felt a surge of relief. A night landing in a field sounded like a recipe for disaster, but with Jerling's pilot it would be easy.

"Right, that's everything covered," said Jerling. "I'll get the pilot over to your ship, and you get my cargo here as quick as you can."

"Hang on, what about payment?"

But the screen was blank.




* * *


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

 

"No sign of Jerling's pilot," said Hal, who was peering through a scratched, yellowed porthole in the Black Gull's airlock. He cupped his hands to the plastic and squinted, but it made little difference. "There could be an army out there and I wouldn't know it."

"Why don't you open the door?" asked the Navcom.

"What, and let Vurdi's bloody great robot in again? No thanks!" Hal gave up and returned to the flight deck, where he gathered a stained mug and held it under the nozzle of the drinks dispenser. When the machine had finished burping and spluttering he raised his mug to sniff the steaming brown liquid. "Is this tea or coffee?"

"Neither. It's an infusion of edible fungi."

"Really?" Hal took a sip and smacked his lips. "It could grow on me."

"Don't spill it, or it'll grow everywhere."

Hal returned to the chessboard, but his mind was on the upcoming cargo job. He'd never landed in the dark before, especially in a field. What if Jerling's hot shot pilot didn't turn up? What if he wasn't as good as Jerling said he was? What if …

"Would you like a hint?" asked the Navcom.

"How can I play if you keep interrupting?" Hal moved one of his pieces at random. "Queen to C6."

"King's knight to C6," said the Navcom. "Warning, checkmate in three moves."

There was a ringing noise. "About time he turned up," muttered Hal. As he left his chair he jogged the chessboard with his elbow, scattering pieces all over the deck. "Oops, silly me."

"Desperate situations call for desperate measures," intoned the Navcom.

"Eh?"

"Cheats never prosper."

"Oh, shut up."

"Daily quote mode … disabled."

Hal strode into the airlock and waited impatiently as the outer door grated open. To his horror there was a robot standing outside, and he was just about to slam the door in its face when he realised it was half the size of Vurdi's enforcer. Bronze all over, this robot had a squashy furrowed face, a dented torso and mismatched legs splattered with grimy patches of lubricating fluid.

"What do you want?" demanded Hal, once he'd finished looking it over.

"My name is XG99," said the robot, in an even male voice. "Is this the Black Gull?"

"Yeah. Why?"

The robot's arm jerked up. "Mr Jerling sent me. You can call me Clunk."

Hal stared at the extended hand. "You're the pilot?"

"Certified pilot."

"More like certified junk heap," muttered Hal. "Wait here," he said loudly, in case the robot was as deaf as it looked. He strode back to the flight deck and leant over the console. "Navcom, get me Jerling. Quick."

The viewscreen flickered and Jerling's face swam into focus. "This had better be important."

"It is. I've got a clapped-out robot on my doorstep claiming he's your pilot."

"Clapped out?" Jerling frowned. "Clunk may be mature, but he's in top condition. You'll be perfectly safe in his hands."

"But —"

"Mr Spacejock, if you don't want Clunk to land your ship you can do it yourself. My cargo must be delivered on time."

"But —"

"Good, I'm glad that's settled. Now please hurry. I need that cargo and I need it now." Jerling clicked his fingers and the cigar-lighting robot appeared at his side, rod at the ready. "Cigar," said Jerling.

The robot raised the rod, bathing his face with a dull red glow.

Jerling shook his head. "Give me a cigar."

The robot looked at him.

"Cigar," said Jerling, jabbing his finger at the robot. "Come on, you stupid tin can. Cigar!"

The robot eyed Jerling's finger, head on one side, then shrugged and applied the super-heated tip to it. The screen went dark, cutting off an anguished yell of pain.

"Perfectly safe, eh?" growled Hal. He strode through the airlock and found the robot waiting patiently outside. Without warning, he jabbed his finger at it. "Cigar! Cigar!"

"Cigar Cigar," said Clunk, holding up his own finger to match. "I must say that's a most unusual greeting."

"It wasn't a greeting. I was just checking you weren't going to light it."

"I couldn't do that," said the robot. "Impossible."

"Governed by the Three Laws?"

"No, I don't have any matches." Clunk craned his neck to peer into the airlock. "Can we get started? Mr Jerling said this was urgent, and I'd like to familiarise myself with the controls."

Hal followed the robot into the flight deck, where he found it staring at the console.

"This a Rigel class freighter, isn't it?"

"That's right," said Hal.

Clunk grimaced. "I had no idea they were still in service." Then he spotted the chess pieces scattered on the deck. "Who won?"

"It was a draw," said the Navcom.

"You have a pleasant voice. Did you refine it yourself?"

"If you've quite finished chatting up my computer —" began Hal.

"Why are you drinking roasted mushrooms?" asked Clunk, inspecting the stained mug on the console.

"Mr Spacejock thought he was buying coffee," said the Navcom. "He's always getting ripped off, but I'm sure a robot of your wisdom and intelligence …"

"Not you as well!" Hal turned on the robot. "Down to the hold. Now."

Clunk gazed at him with warm yellow eyes. "As a pilot, my place is on the flight deck."

"As a passenger, your place is in the hold. You can be a pilot later, and only if I need you."

"Very well. Which way to the first class section?"

"Don't be cheeky." Hal gestured at the rickety ladder protruding from a hole at the rear of the flight deck. "Take the access tube and follow the passage aft. And don't touch anything."

Clunk took hold of the ladder, then hesitated. "By the way, what's your name?"

"Sir," said Hal.

"Your computer called you Mr Spacejock."

"Yes, but you can call me sir."

The robot looked down the tube into the darkness below. "No lights?"

"Heat sensors."

Clunk descended the ladder, head bobbing as he stepped carefully from one rung to the next. All of a sudden he disappeared, and there was a clatter-bang-thud as he slipped down the steps and landed in a heap at the bottom.

"Mind the loose rung!" called Hal.

There was pause before the robot's amplified voice floated up the access tube. "Next time, perhaps the warning could come a little sooner?"

Hal sat in the pilot's chair, grinning to himself. "Navcom, prepare for take-off."

"Starting engines."

The Black Gull's main drives rumbled into life, shaking the flight deck. Lights blinked, rows of data whizzed across the status displays and the console squeaked and rattled with the vibrations.

"Engines started," said the Navcom.

"Do you have to state the bloody obvious?"

"Reporting mode set to … brief."

There was a scrape, and Hal looked over his shoulder to see the robot climbing out of the access tube. "Where do you think you're going?"

"It's unsafe down there." Clunk limped to the console, his leg glistening from a fresh leak. "I came back up before I damaged myself further."

"All right, stay here. But no interfering." Hal put his feet up on the console. "Come on, Navcom. Let's go."

"What about clearance from ground control?" asked the computer.

"Screw them."

Clunk's eyebrows rose. "Standard take-off procedure involves somewhat more than —"

"I told you to keep quiet." Hal looked up at the viewscreen, where the words 'Most Systems Ready' were showing in ten-inch letters. "Go ahead, Navcom. Take off."

Clunk gestured at the console. "But the status displays —"

"We fly my way." Hal glared at the robot. "If you don't like it, leave."

The engines roared, drowning the robot's reply. Several red lights began to flash, and Clunk hurried over to examine them. He stared at Hal with a worried expression. "According to this, all your back-up systems are inoperative."

"Will you give it a rest?" shouted Hal. "I'm telling you this ship is safe!"

The engine note rose even further and the deck jolted as the ship hovered above the landing pad. Several displays flickered, screens jiggled around in their housings and a whole bank of lights flashed on and off as the engines howled.

"What's that?" shouted Hal, as a chiming sound rang out, barely audible over the hammering roar.

"Ground Control," replied the Navcom. "They want us to abort the lift-off."

"Ignore them."

"They are most insistent."

"I don't care if they say please in three languages. Take off!"

"Cannot comply," said the Navcom. "Putting them through."

A loud double chime rang out and a voice blasted from the console. "Portside calling Black Gull. Portside calling Black Gull. Please respond."

"This is the Black Gull," shouted Hal. "We're busy right now, but if you leave a message —"

"Permission to leave denied. Repeat, permission to leave denied. Stop your engines and report to the Portmaster immediately."

Hal reached for the throttle, but before he could touch it the engines cut out and the ship thumped down on the pad.

"Landing complete," said the Navcom.

Hal sighed. "I'm going to see what these boneheads want. Clunk, you can tidy this place up while I'm gone."

The robot frowned. "You want me to clean?"

"Why not? Don't you know which end of the mop to hold?"

"Portside calling Tiger. Portside calling Tiger. Clearance granted. Dock when ready."

Hal stared at the console. "Is that thing still on?"

"Naturally. You didn't ask me to close it."

"Why didn't you warn me?"

"You changed my reporting mode to brief."

"Don't wait for my say so. Shut it off!"

There was a pop from the speakers. "Connection terminated."

"What did they hear? Did I say anything to upset them?"

"Possibly. Calling them boneheads wasn't very diplomatic."

Hal opened a door beneath the console, pulled out a chunky, chrome-plated blaster and clipped it to his belt.

Clunk's eyebrows rose at the sight. "You only called them names. Surely you won't need that?"

"You haven't been on this planet long, have you?" said Hal grimly.



—-


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