A Spaceship Named Mcguire - Cover

A Spaceship Named Mcguire

by Randall Garrett

Copyright© 2018 by Randall Garrett

Science Fiction Story: The basic trouble with McGuire was that, though "he" was a robot spaceship, nevertheless "he" had a definite weakness that a man might understand....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

No. Nobody ever deliberately named a spaceship that. The staid and stolid minds that run the companies which design and build spaceships rarely let their minds run to fancy. The only example I can think of is the unsung hero of the last century who had puckish imagination enough to name the first atomic-powered submarine Nautilus. Such minds are rare. Most minds equate dignity with dullness.

This ship happened to have a magnetogravitic drive, which automatically put it into the MG class. It also happened to be the first successful model to be equipped with a Yale robotic brain, so it was given the designation MG-YR-7--the first six had had more bugs in them than a Leopoldville tenement.

So somebody at Yale--another unsung hero--named the ship McGuire; it wasn’t official, but it stuck.

The next step was to get someone to test-hop McGuire. They needed just the right man--quick-minded, tough, imaginative, and a whole slew of complementary adjectives. They wanted a perfect superman to test pilot their baby, even if they knew they’d eventually have to take second best.

It took the Yale Space Foundation a long time to pick the right man.

No, I’m not the guy who tested the McGuire.

I’m the guy who stole it.

Shalimar Ravenhurst is not the kind of bloke that very many people can bring themselves to like, and, in this respect, I’m like a great many people, if not more so. In the first place, a man has no right to go around toting a name like “Shalimar”; it makes names like “Beverly” and “Leslie” and “Evelyn” sound almost hairy chested. You want a dozen other reasons, you’ll get them.

Shalimar Ravenhurst owned a little planetoid out in the Belt, a hunk of nickel-iron about the size of a smallish mountain with a gee-pull measurable in fractions of a centimeter per second squared. If you’re susceptible to spacesickness, that kind of gravity is about as much help as aspirin would have been to Marie Antoinette. You get the feeling of a floor beneath you, but there’s a distinct impression that it won’t be there for long. It keeps trying to drop out from under you.

I dropped my flitterboat on the landing field and looked around without any hope of seeing anything. I didn’t. The field was about the size of a football field, a bright, shiny expanse of rough-polished metal, carved and smoothed flat from the nickel-iron of the planetoid itself. It not only served as a landing field, but as a reflector beacon, a mirror that flashed out the sun’s reflection as the planetoid turned slowly on its axis. I’d homed in on that beacon, and now I was sitting on it.

There wasn’t a soul in sight. Off to one end of the rectangular field was a single dome, a hemisphere about twenty feet in diameter and half as high. Nothing else.

I sighed and flipped on the magnetic anchor, which grabbed hold of the metal beneath me and held the flitterboat tightly to the surface. Then I cut the drive, plugged in the telephone, and punched for “Local.”

The automatic finder searched around for the Ravenhurst tickler signal, found it, and sent out a beep along the same channel.

I waited while the thing beeped twice. There was a click, and a voice said: “Raven’s Rest. Yes?” It wasn’t Ravenhurst.

I said: “This is Daniel Oak. I want to talk to Mr. Ravenhurst.”

“Mr. Oak? But you weren’t expected until tomorrow.”

“Fine. I’m early. Let me talk to Ravenhurst.”

“But Mr. Ravenhurst wasn’t expecting you to--”

I got all-of-a-sudden exasperated. “Unless your instruments are running on secondhand flashlight batteries, you’ve known I was coming for the past half hour. I followed Ravenhurst’s instructions not to use radio, but he should know I’m here by this time. He told me to come as fast as possible, and I followed those instructions, too. I always follow instructions when I’m paid enough.

“Now, I’m here; tell Ravenhurst I want to talk to him, or I’ll simply flit back to Eros, and thank him much for a pretty retainer that didn’t do him any good but gave me a nice profit for my trouble.”

“One moment, please,” said the voice.

It took about a minute and a half, which was about nine billion jiffies too long, as far as I was concerned.

Then another voice said: “Oak? Wasn’t expecting you till tomorrow.”

“So I hear. I thought you were in a hurry, but if you’re not, you can just provide me with wine, women, and other necessities until tomorrow. That’s above and beyond my fee, of course, since you’re wasting my time, and I’m evidently not wasting yours.”

I couldn’t be sure whether the noise he made was a grunt or a muffled chuckle, and I didn’t much care. “Sorry, Oak; I really didn’t expect you so soon, but I do want to ... I want you to get started right away. Leave your flitterboat where it is; I’ll have someone take care of it. Walk on over to the dome and come on in.” And he cut off.

I growled something I was glad he didn’t hear and hung up. I wished that I’d had a vision unit on the phone; I’d like to have seen his face. Although I knew I might not have learned much more from his expression than I had from his voice.

I got out of the flitterboat, and walked across the dome, my magnetic soles making subdued clicking noises inside the suit as they caught and released the metallic plain beneath me. Beyond the field, I was surrounded by a lumpy horizon and a black sky full of bright, hard stars.

The green light was on when I reached the door to the dome, so I opened it and went on in, closing it behind me. I flipped the toggle that began flooding the room with air. When it was up to pressure, a trap-door in the floor of the dome opened and a crew-cut, blond young man stuck his head up. “Mr. Oak?”

I toyed, for an instant, with the idea of giving him a sarcastic answer. Who else would it be? How many other visitors were running around on the surface of Raven’s Rest?

Instead, I said: “That’s right.” My voice must have sounded pretty muffled to him through my fishbowl.

“Come on down, Mr. Oak. You can shuck your vac suit below.”

I thought “below” was a pretty ambiguous term on a low-gee lump like this, but I followed him down the ladder. The ladder was a necessity for fast transportation; if I’d just tried to jump down from one floor to the next, it would’ve taken me until a month from next St. Swithin’s Day to land.

The door overhead closed, and I could hear the pumps start cycling. The warning light turned red.

I took off my suit, hung it in a handy locker, showing that all I had on underneath was my skin-tight “union suit.”

“All right if I wear this?” I asked the blond young man, “Or should I borrow a set of shorts and a jacket?” Most places in the Belt, a union suit is considered normal dress; a man never knows when he might have to climb into a vac suit--fast. But there are a few of the hoity-toity places on Eros and Ceres and a few of the other well-settled places where a man or woman is required to put on shorts and jacket before entering. And in good old New York City, a man and woman were locked up for “indecent exposure” a few months ago. The judge threw the case out of court, but he told them they were lucky they hadn’t been picked up in Boston. It seems that the eye of the bluenose turns a jaundiced yellow at the sight of a union suit, and he sees red.

But there were evidently no bluenoses here. “Perfectly all right, Mr. Oak,” the blond young man said affably. Then he coughed politely and added: “But I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to take off the gun.”

I glanced at the holster under my armpit, walked back over to the locker, opened it, and took out my vac suit.

“Hey!” said the blond young man. “Where are you going?”

“Back to my boat,” I said calmly. “I’m getting tired of this runaround already. I’m a professional man, not a hired flunky. If you’d called a doctor, you wouldn’t tell him to leave his little black bag behind; if you’d called a lawyer, you wouldn’t make him check his brief case. Or, if you did, he’d tell you to drop dead.

“I was asked to come here as fast as possible, and when I do, I’m told to wait till tomorrow. Now you want me to check my gun. The hell with you.”

“Merely a safety precaution,” said the blond young man worriedly.

“You think I’m going to shoot Ravenhurst, maybe? Don’t be an idiot.” I started climbing into my vac suit.

“Just a minute, please, Mr. Oak,” said a voice from a hidden speaker. It was Ravenhurst, and he actually sounded apologetic. “You mustn’t blame Mr. Feller; those are my standing orders, and I failed to tell Mr. Feller to make an exception in your case. The error was mine.”

“I know,” I said. “I wasn’t blaming Mr. Feller. I wasn’t even talking to him. I was addressing you.”

“I believe you. Mr. Feller, our guest has gone to all the trouble of having a suit made with a space under the arm for that gun; I see no reason to make him remove it.” A pause. “Again, Mr. Oak, I apologize. I really want you to take this job.”

I was already taking off the vac suit again.

“But,” Ravenhurst continued smoothly, “if I fail to live up to your ideas of courtesy again, I hope you’ll forgive me in advance. I’m sometimes very forgetful, and I don’t like it when a man threatens to leave my employ twice in the space of fifteen minutes.”

“I’m not in your employ yet, Ravenhurst,” I said. “If I accept the job, I won’t threaten to quit again unless I mean to carry it through, and it would take a lot more than common discourtesy to make me do that. On the other hand, your brand of discourtesy is a shade above the common.”

“I thank you for that, at least,” said Ravenhurst. “Show him to my office, Mr. Feller.”

The blond young man nodded wordlessly and led me from the room.

Walking under low-gee conditions is like nothing else in this universe. I don’t mean trotting around on Luna; one-sixth gee is practically homelike in comparison. And zero gee is so devoid of orientation that it gives the sensation of falling endlessly until you get used to it. But a planetoid is in a different class altogether.

Remember that dream--almost everybody’s had it--where you’re suddenly able to fly? It isn’t flying exactly; it’s a sort of swimming in the air. Like being underwater, except that the medium around you isn’t so dense and viscous, and you can breathe. Remember? Well, that’s the feeling you get on a low-gee planetoid.

Your arms don’t tend to hang at your sides, as they do on Earth or Luna, because the muscular tension tends to hold them out, just as it does in zero-gee, but there is still a definite sensation of up-and-down. If you push yourself off the floor, you tend to float in a long, slow, graceful arc, provided you don’t push too hard. Magnetic soles are practically a must.

I followed the blond Mr. Feller down a series of long corridors which had been painted a pale green, which gave me the feeling that I was underwater. There were doors spaced at intervals along the corridor walls. Occasionally one of them would open and a busy looking man would cross the corridor, open another door, and disappear. From behind the doors, I could hear the drum of distant sounds.

We finally ended up in front of what looked like the only wooden door in the place. When you’re carving an office and residence out of a nickel-iron planetoid, importing wood from Earth is a purely luxury matter.

There was no name plate on that mahogany-red door; there didn’t need to be.

Feller touched a thin-lined circle in the door jamb.

“You don’t knock?” I asked with mock seriousness.

“No,” said Feller, with a straight face. “I have to signal. Knocking wouldn’t do any good. That’s just wood veneer over a three-inch-thick steel slab.”

The door opened and I stepped inside.

I have never seen a room quite like it. The furniture was all that same mahogany--a huge desk, nineteenth century baroque, with carved and curlicued legs; two chairs carved the same, with padded seats of maroon leather; and a chair behind the desk that might have doubled as a bishop’s throne, with even fancier carving. Off to one side was a long couch upholstered in a lighter maroon. The wall-to-wall carpeting was a rich Burgundy, with a pile deep enough to run a reaper through. The walls were paneled with mahogany and hung with a couple of huge tapestries done in maroon, purple, and red. A bookcase along one wall was filled with books, every one of which had been rebound in maroon leather.

It was like walking into a cask of old claret. Or old blood.

The man sitting behind the desk looked as though he’d been built to be the lightest spot in an analogous color scheme. His suit was mauve with purple piping, and his wide, square, saggy face was florid. On his nose and cheeks, tiny lines of purple tracing made darker areas in his skin. His hair was a medium brown, but it was clipped so short that the scalp showed faintly through, and amid all that overwhelming background, even the hair looked vaguely violet.

“Come in, Mr. Oak,” said Shalimar Ravenhurst.

I walked toward him across the Burgundy carpet while the blond young man discreetly closed the door behind me, leaving us alone. I didn’t blame him. I was wearing a yellow union suit, and I hate to think what I must have looked like in that room.

I sat down in one of the chairs facing the desk after giving a brief shake to a thick-fingered, well-manicured, slightly oily hand.

He opened a crystal decanter that stood on one end of the desk. “Have some Madeira, Mr. Oak? Or would you like something else? I never drink spirits at this time of night.”

I fought down an impulse to ask for a shot of redeye. “The Madeira will be fine, Mr. Ravenhurst.”

He poured and handed me a stemmed glass nearly brimming with the wine. I joined him in an appreciative sip, then waited while he made up his mind to talk.

He leaned across the desk, looking at me with his small, dark eyes. He had an expression on his face that looked as if it were trying to sneer and leer at the same time but couldn’t get much beyond the smirk stage.

“Mr. Oak, I have investigated you thoroughly--as thoroughly as it can be done, at least. My attorneys say that your reputation is A-one; that you get things done and rarely disappoint a client.”

He paused as if waiting for a comment. I gave him nothing.

After a moment, he went on. “I hope that’s true, Mr. Oak, because I’m going to have to trust you.” He leaned back in his chair again, his eyes still on me. “Men very rarely like me, Mr. Oak. I am not a likable man. I do not pretend to be. That’s not my function.” He said it as if he had said it many times before, believed it, and wished it wasn’t so.

“I do not ask that you like me,” he continued. “I only ask that you be loyal to my interests for the duration of this assignment.” Another pause. “I have been assured by others that this will be so. I would like your assurance.”

“If I take the assignment, Mr. Ravenhurst,” I told him, “I’ll be working for you. I can be bought, but once I’m bought I stay bought.

“Now, what seems to be your trouble?”

He frowned. “Well, now, let’s get one thing settled: Are you working for me, or not?”

“I won’t know that until I find out what the job is.”

His frown deepened. “Now, see here; this is very confidential work. What happens if I tell you and you decide not to work for me?”

I sighed. “Ravenhurst, right now, you’re paying me to listen to you. Even if I don’t take your job, I’m going to bill you for expenses and time to come all the way out here. So, as far as listening is concerned, I’m working for you now. If I don’t like the job, I’ll still forget everything I’m told. All right?”

He didn’t like it, but he had no choice. “All right,” he said. He polished off his glass of Madeira and refilled it. My own glass was still nearly full.

“Mr. Oak,” he began, “I have two problems. One is minor, the other major. But I have attempted to blow the minor problem up out of proportion, so that all the people here at Raven’s Rest think that it is the only problem. They think that I brought you out here for that reason alone.

“But all that is merely cover-up for the real problem.”

“Which is?” I prompted.

He leaned forward again. Apparently, it was the only exercise he ever got. “You’re aware that Viking Spacecraft is one of the corporations under the management of Ravenhurst Holdings?”

I nodded. Viking Spacecraft built some of the biggest and best spacecraft in the System. It held most of Ceres--all of it, in fact, except the Government Reservation. It had moved out to the asteroids a long time back, after the big mining concerns began cutting up the smaller asteroids for metal. The raw materials are easier to come by out here than they are on Earth, and it’s a devil of a lot easier to build spacecraft under low-gee conditions than it is under the pull of Earth or Luna or Mars.

“Do you know anything about the experimental robotic ships being built on Eros?” Ravenhurst asked.

“Not much,” I admitted. “I’ve heard about them, but I don’t know any of the details.” That wasn’t quite true, but I’ve found it doesn’t pay to tell everybody everything you know.

“The engineering details aren’t necessary,” Ravenhurst said. “Besides, I don’t know them, myself. The point is that Viking is trying to build a ship that will be as easy to operate as a flitterboat--a one-man cargo vessel. Perhaps even a completely automatic job for cargo, and just use a one-man crew for the passenger vessels. Imagine how that would cut the cost of transportation in the Solar System! Imagine how it would open up high-speed cargo transfer if an automatic vessel could accelerate at twenty or twenty-five gees to turnover!”

I’ll give Ravenhurst this: He had a light in his eyes that showed a real excitement about the prospect he was discussing, and it wasn’t due entirely to the money he might make.

“Sounds fine,” I said. “What seems to be the trouble?”

His face darkened half a shade. “The company police suspect sabotage, Mr. Oak.”

“How? What kind?”


“They don’t know. Viking has built six ships of that type--the McGuire class, the engineers call it. Each one has been slightly different than the one before, of course, as they ironed out the bugs in their operation. But each one has been a failure. Not one of them would pass the test for space-worthiness.”

“Not a failure of the drive or the ordinary mechanisms of the ship, I take it?”

Ravenhurst sniffed. “Of course not. The brain. The ships became, as you might say, non compos mentis. As a matter of fact, when the last one simply tried to burrow into the surface of Eros by reversing its drive, one of the roboticists said that a coroner’s jury would have returned a verdict of ‘suicide while of unsound mind’ if there were inquests held for spaceships.”

“That doesn’t make much sense,” I said.

“No. It doesn’t. It isn’t sensible. Those ships’ brains shouldn’t have behaved that way. Robot brains don’t go mad unless they’re given instructions to do so--conflicting orders, erroneous information, that sort of thing. Or, unless they have actual physical defects in the brains themselves.”

“The brains can handle the job of flying a ship all right, though?” I asked. “I mean, they have the capacity for it?”

“Certainly. They’re the same type that’s used to control the automobile traffic on the Eastern Seaboard Highway Network of North America. If they can control the movement of millions of cars, there’s no reason why they can’t control a spaceship.”

“No,” I said, “I suppose not.” I thought it over for a second, then asked, “But what do your robotics men say is causing the malfunctions?”

“That’s where the problem comes in, Mr. Oak.” He pursed his pudgy lips, and his eyes narrowed. “The opinions are divided. Some of the men say it’s simply a case of engineering failure--that the bugs haven’t been worked out of this new combination, but that as soon as they are, everything will work as smoothly as butter. Others say that only deliberate tampering could cause those failures. And still others say that there’s not enough evidence to prove either of those theories is correct.”

“But your opinion is that it’s sabotage?”

“Exactly,” said Ravenhurst, “and I know who is doing it and why.”

I didn’t try to conceal the little bit of surprise that gave me. “You know the man who’s responsible?”

He shook his head rapidly, making his jowls wobble. “I didn’t mean that. It’s not a single man; it’s a group.”

“Maybe you’d better go into a little more detail on that, Mr. Ravenhurst.”

He nodded, and this time his jowls bobbled instead of wobbled. “Some group at Viking is trying to run me out of the managerial business. They want Viking to be managed by Thurston Enterprises; they evidently think they can get a better deal from him than they can from me. If the McGuire project fails, they’ll have a good chance of convincing the stock-holders that the fault lies with Ravenhurst. You follow?”

“So far,” I said. “Do you think Thurston’s behind this, then?”

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “He might be, or he might not. If he is, that’s perfectly legitimate business tactics. He’s got a perfect right to try to get more business for himself if he wants to. I’ve undercut him a couple of times.

“But I don’t think he’s too deeply involved, if he’s involved at all. This smacks of a personal attack against me, and I don’t think that’s Thurston’s type of play.

“You see, things are a little touchy right now. I won’t go into details, but you know what the political situation is at the moment.

“It works this way, as far as Viking is concerned: If I lose the managerial contract at Viking, a couple of my other contracts will go by the board, too--especially if it’s proved that I’ve been lax in management or have been expending credit needlessly.

“These other two companies are actually a little shaky at the moment; I’ve only been managing them for a little over a year in one case and two years in the other. Their assets have come up since I took over, but they’d still dump me if they thought I was reckless.”

“How can they do that?” I asked. “You have a contract, don’t you?”

“Certainly. They wouldn’t break it. But they’d likely ask the Government Inspectors to step in and check every step of the managerial work. Now, you and I and everybody else knows that you have to cut corners to make a business successful. If the GI’s step in, that will have to stop--which means we’ll show a loss heavy enough to put us out. We’ll be forced to sell the contract for a pittance.

“Well, then. If Viking goes, and these other two corporations go, it’ll begin to look as if Ravenhurst can’t take care of himself and his companies anymore. Others will climb on the bandwagon. Contracts that are coming up for renewal will be reconsidered instead of continuing automatically. I think you can see where that would lead eventually.”

I did. You don’t go into the managing business these days unless you have plenty on the ball. You’ve got to know all the principles and all the tricks of organization and communication, and you’ve got to be able to waltz your way around all the roadblocks that are caused by Government laws--some of which have been floating around on the books of one nation or another for two or three centuries.

Did you know that there’s a law on the American statute books that forbids the landing of a spaceship within one hundred miles of a city? That was passed back when they were using rockets, but it’s never been repealed. Technically, then, it’s almost impossible to land a ship anywhere on the North American continent. Long Island Spaceport is openly flouting the law, if you want to look at it that way.

A managerial combine has to know all those little things and know how to get around them. It has to be able to have the confidence of the stock-holders of a corporation--if it’s run on the Western Plan--or the confidence of communal owners if it’s run on the Eastern Plan.

Something like this could snowball on Ravenhurst. It isn’t only the rats that desert a sinking ship; so does anyone else who has any sense.

“What I want to know, Mr. Oak,” Ravenhurst continued, “is who is behind this plot, whether an individual or a group. I want to know identity and motivation.”

“Is that all?” I eyed him skeptically.

“No. Of course not. I want you to make sure that the MG-YR-7 isn’t sabotaged. I want you to make sure it’s protected from whatever kind of monkey wrenches are being thrown into its works.”

“It’s nearly ready for testing now, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It is ready. It seems to be in perfect condition so far. Viking is already looking for a test pilot. It’s still in working order now, and I want to be certain that it will remain so.”

I cocked my head to one side and gave him my Interrogative And Suspicious Glance--Number 9 in the manual. “You didn’t do any checking on the first six McGuire ships. You wait until this one is done before calling me. Why the delay, Ravenhurst?”

It didn’t faze him. “I became suspicious after McGuire 6 failed. I put Colonel Brock on it.”

I nodded. I’d had dealings with Brock. He was head of Ravenhurst’s Security Guard. “Brock didn’t get anywhere,” I said.

“He did not. His own face is too well known for him to have investigated personally, and he’s not enough of an actor to get away with using a plexiskin mask. He had to use underlings. And I’m afraid some of them might be in the pay of the ... ah ... opposition. They got nowhere.”

“In other words, you may have spies in your own organization who are working with the Viking group. Very interesting. That means they know I’m working for you, which will effectively seal me up, too. You might as well have kept Brock on the job.”

He smiled in a smug, superior sort of way that some men might have resented. I did. Even though I’d fed him the line so that he could feel superior, knowing that a smart operator like Ravenhurst would already have covered his tracks. I couldn’t help wishing I’d told him simply to trot out his cover story instead of letting him think I believed it had never occurred to either of us before.

“As far as my staff knows, Mr. Oak, you are here to escort my daughter, Jaqueline, to Braunsville, Luna. You will, naturally, have to take her to Ceres in your flitterboat, where you will wait for a specially chartered ship to take you both to Luna. That will be a week after you arrive. Since the McGuire 7 is to be tested within three days, that should give you ample time.”

“If it doesn’t?”

“We will consider that possibility if and when it becomes probable. I have a great deal of faith in you.”

“Thanks. One more thing: why do you think anybody will swallow the idea that your daughter needs a private bodyguard to escort her to Braunsville?”

His smile broadened a little. “You have not met my daughter, Mr. Oak. Jaqueline takes after me in a great many respects, not the least of which is her desire to have things her own way and submit to no man’s yoke, as the saying goes. I have had a difficult time with her, sir; a difficult time. It is and has been a matter of steering a narrow course between the Scylla of breaking her spirit with too much discipline and the Charybdis of allowing her to ruin her life by letting her go hog wild. She is seventeen now, and the time has come to send her to a school where she will receive an education suitable to her potentialities and abilities, and discipline which will be suitable to her spirit.

“Your job, Mr. Oak, will be to make sure she gets there. You are not a bodyguard in the sense that you must protect her from the people around her. Quite the contrary, they may need protection from her. You are to make sure she arrives in Braunsville on schedule. She is perfectly capable of taking it in her head to go scooting off to Earth if you turn your back on her.”

Still smiling, he refilled his glass. “Do have some more Madeira, Mr. Oak. It’s really an excellent year.”

I let him refill my glass.

“That, I think, will cover your real activities well enough. My daughter will, of course, take a tour of the plant on Ceres, which will allow you to do whatever work is necessary.”

He smiled at me.

I didn’t smile back.

“Up till now, this sounded like a pretty nice assignment,” I said. “But I don’t want it now. I can’t take care of a teenage girl with a desire for the bright lights of Earth while I investigate a sabotage case.”

I knew he had an out; I was just prodding him into springing it.

He did. “Of course not. My daughter is not as scatterbrained as I have painted her. She is going to help you.”

Help me?”

“Exactly. You are ostensibly her bodyguard. If she turns up missing, you will, of course, leave no stone unturned to find her.” He chuckled. “And Ceres is a fairly large stone.”

I thought it over. I still didn’t like it too well, but if Jaqueline wasn’t going to be too much trouble to take care of, it might work out. And if she did get to be too much trouble, I could see to it that she was unofficially detained for a while.

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