It was on October 15, 2177, that Swenson staggered into the offices of Acme Interplanetary Express and demanded a job as dispatcher.
They threw him out. They forgot to lock the door. The next time they threw him out, they remembered to lock the door but forgot the window.
The dingy office was on the ground floor and Swenson was a tall man. When he came in the window, the distraught Acme Board of Directors realized that they had something unusual in the way of determined drunks to deal with.
Acme was one of the small hermaphroditic companies--hauling mainly freight, but shipping a few passengers--which were an outgrowth of the most recent war to create peace.
During that violent conflict, America had established bases throughout the Solar System. These required an endless stream of items necessary for human existence.
While the hostilities lasted, the small outfits were vital and for that reason prospered. They hauled oxygen, food, spare parts, whisky, atomic slugs, professional women, uniforms, paper for quadruplicate reports, cigarettes, and all the other impedimenta of war-time life.
With the outbreak of peace, such companies faced a precarious, devil-take-the-hindmost type of existence.
The day that Swenson arrived had been grim even for Acme. Dovorkin, the regular dispatcher, had been fired that morning. He had succeeded in leaving the schedule in a nightmarish muddle.
And on Dovorkin’s vacant desk lay the last straw--a Special Message.
Acme Interplanetary Express
147 Z Street
_Your atomic-converted ship Number 7 is hereby grounded at Luna
City, Moon, until demurrage bill paid. Your previous violations
of Space Regulations make our action mandatory._
Planetary Commerce Commission
The Acme Board of Directors was inured to accepting the inevitable. They had heard rumors along Blaster’s Alley of Swenson’s reputation, which ranged from brilliance, through competence, to insanity. So they shrugged and hired him.
His first act was to order a case of beer. His second was to look at what Dovorkin had left of a Dispatch Sheet.
“Number 5 is still blasting through the astraloids. It should be free-falling. Why the hell isn’t it?”
Old Mister Cerobie, Chairman of the Board, said quietly: “Before you begin your work, we would like a bit of information. What is your full name?”
“Patrick M. Swenson.”
“What does the M stand for?”
“I don’t know.”
“My mother never told me. I don’t think she knows. In the name of God, why don’t you send Number 3...”
“What’s your nationality?”
“I’m supposed to be a Swede.”
“What do you mean, ‘supposed’?”
“Will you open one of those beers?”
“I asked you...”
Swenson made a notation on the Dispatch Sheet and spun around in the swivel chair. “I was born on a Swallow Class ship in space between the Moon and Earth. My mother said my father was a Swede. She was Irish. I was delivered and circumcised by a rabbi who happened to be on board. The ship was of Venutian registry, but was owned by a Czechoslovakian company. Now you figure it out.”
“How did you happen to come here?”
“I met Dovorkin in a bar. He told me that you were in trouble. You are. Is one of the Moulton Trust’s ships at Luna City?”
“Then that’s why you’re grounded. They’ve got an in with the Planetary Commerce Commission. What’s the demurrage?”
“Seventy-six thousand dollars.”
“Can you raise it?”
Swenson glanced at the sheet. “How come Number 2 is in New York?”
“We’re waiting for additional cargo. We have half a load of snuff for Mars. And we’ve been promised half a load of canned goods for Luna City. It’s reduced rate freight that another company can’t handle.”
“Dovorkin told me about the snuff. That’s a starter, anyway.” Swenson turned back to the Dispatch Sheet and muttered to himself: “Always a good thing to have snuff for Mars.”
Mister Cerobie became strangely interested.
Swenson paid no attention. “What are you taking a split load for?”
“We had no choice.”
“You know damn well that the broken-down old stovepipes you buy from war surplus are too slow to handle split loads. Who promised you the canned goods?”
“Oh, Lord!” said Swenson. “An outfit that expects lions to lie down with lambs!”
The red ship-calling light flashed on.
“Number 4 to dispatcher. This is Captain Elsing. Dovorkin...”
“Dispatcher to Number 4. Dovorkin, hell. This is Swenson. What blasts?”
“B jet just went out. Atomic slug clogged.”
“How radioactive is the spout?” asked Swenson.
“Have somebody who’s already had a family put on armor and clean up the mess,” Swenson said, “and alter course for Luna City. I’ll send you the exact course in a few minutes. When you get to Luna, land beside the Moulton Trust’s ship. Now stand by to record code.”
Swenson reached back to Mister Cerobie. “Acme private code book.”
Silently, the Chairman of the Board handed it to him. When Swenson had finished coding, he handed the original message to Mister Cerobie. The message read:
“Captain Elsing, have crew start fight with Moulton’s crew. Not
much incentive will be necessary. See that no real damage is done.
Urgent. Will take all responsibility. Explain later. Cerobie.”
“Swenson,” Mister Cerobie said quietly, “you are insane. Tear that up.”
With slow dignity, Swenson put on his coat. He stood there, smiling, and looking at Mister Cerobie. The memory of Dovorkin stalked unpleasantly through the Chairman’s mind. Everything was hopeless, anyway. Better go out with a bang than a whimper.
“All right, send it,” he said. “There is plenty of time to countermand--after I talk to you.”
When Swenson had finished sending the coded message, he turned back to Mister Cerobie. “What’s this I hear from Dovorkin about a Senator being aboard Number 7 at Luna?”
A member of the Board began: “After all...”
Mister Cerobie cut him off: “Your information is correct, Swenson. A Senator has shipped with us. However, I would prefer to discuss the matter in my private office.”
Swenson crossed the room to the astrographer in the calculating booth and said: “Plot the free-falling curve for Number 5 to Mars.” Then he followed Mister Cerobie into the Chairman’s office.
Half an hour later, they came out and Swenson went back to his desk. First he glanced at the free-falling plot. Then he snorted, called the astrographer and fired him. Next he said to Mister Cerobie: “Is that half load of snuff...”
“Yes, it is. You know Martians as well as I do. With their type of nose, they must get quite a sensation. I understand they go a bit berserk. That’s why their government outlaws snuff as an Earth vice. However, our cargo release states that it is being sent for ‘medicinal purposes.’ It’s no consequence to us what they use the snuff for. We’re just hauling it. And I don’t have to tell you how fantastic a rate we’re getting.”
“To hell with the canned goods part of the load,” Swenson said. “Can you get a full haul of snuff?”
“Possibly. But it would cost.”
“Even this outfit can afford to grease palms.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“What’s the Senator on the Moon for?”
“He’s supposed to make a speech on Conquest Day.” Mister Cerobie lit a cigar. “That’s day after tomorrow,” he added.
“Exactly where is this eloquence to be expounded?”
“The Senator is speaking at the dedication of the new underground recreation dome. It’s just outside Luna City. They’ve bored a tunnel from the main dome cluster. This dedication is considered very important. Everybody in Luna will be there. It’s been declared an official holiday, with all crews released. Even the maintenance and public service personnel have been cut to skeleton staffs.”
“With that fiesta scheduled on our beloved satellite,” said Swenson, “we won’t have to worry about getting the Senator off for some time. His name’s Higby, isn’t it?” Mister Cerobie nodded. “Then he’ll whoop it up long enough for you to get that demurrage mess straightened out.”
“Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The Senator is due for another speech on Mars. The timing is close--he only has a minimum of leeway. As you mentioned, Number 7 is grounded for demurrage. And we can’t ship the Senator out on Number 4 because of the bad jet.”
Swenson was silent for a long time. The beer gurgled pleasantly as he drank it. Then a bright smile--which could have been due either to inspiration or beer--spread across his face.
“If that idiot Dovorkin can be trusted,” he said, “the Senator is speaking in the early afternoon, our time. Do you happen to know just when he starts yapping? And the scheduled length of the spiel?”
“I’ll check it.” Mister Cerobie turned to one of his assistants. Swenson took down the Luna Data Handbook and thumbed through it.
A moment later, the assistant handed a slip of paper to the Board Chairman.
“The Senator,” Mister Cerobie said, “will speak from 1300 hours to 1500 hours.”
Swenson smiled and stuck a marker in the Luna Data Handbook.
“Now,” he said, “about this snuff. Can you have it loaded by tomorrow night?”
“I don’t see how.”
“Remember our agreement in the office. If we don’t do something, we’re through, so all we can do is lose. Leave me be and don’t ask questions. I want to blast Number 2 into low Earth-orbital tomorrow night.”
Mister Cerobie looked off into that nowhere which was the daily destiny of Acme. “All right,” he said, “I was born a damn fool. I’ll do my best to have a full load of snuff aboard--somehow--tomorrow night.”
Swenson went back to his Dispatch Sheet. During the next five hours, he looked up only long enough to order another case of beer and a new astrographer.
Finally, he called Heilberg, the assistant dispatcher who was on the night shift, gave him a lecture concerning dispatching in general and the present situation in particular, promoted a date with one of the stenographers, and departed.
When Swenson came back the next morning, he was sober, ornery and disinclined to do any work. He cornered O’Toole, the labor relations man, and began talking women. O’Toole was intrigued but evasive.
“Your trouble,” Swenson said, “is not with women. It’s with evolution. I don’t blame evolution for creating women. I blame it for abandoning the egg. Just when it had invented a reasonable method of reproduction which didn’t make the female silly-looking and tie her down needlessly for nine months...”
“I don’t think they’re silly-looking.”
“Maybe you don’t, O’Toole, but I do. And you must admit that nine months is a hell of a long time to fool around with something that could be hatched in an incubator under automatic controls. Look at the time saving. If evolution hadn’t abandoned the egg idea, half the human race wouldn’t waste time being damned incubators.”
O’Toole backed away. He had never heard the legend of Swenson’s egg speech.
“Don’t tell me,” Swenson went on, “that evolution is efficient. Are you married, O’Toole?”
“Wouldn’t you rather your wife laid an egg than--”
“I don’t know,” O’Toole interrupted, “but I do know that I’d like to find out what the dispatch situation is at the moment.”
Swenson grabbed a piece of paper and drew a diagram.
While O’Toole was studying the diagram, someone laid a Special Message on Swenson’s desk. Swenson glanced at it:
Acme Interplanetary Express
147 Z Street
_Your ship Number 4 is hereby grounded at Luna City, pending an
investigation of a riot involving your men, and for non-payment of
bill for atomic slug purification. Your Number 4 is also charged
with unpaid demurrage bill._
Planetary Commerce Commission
Swenson muttered: “Good!” and threw the Special Message in the wastebasket. Mister Cerobie, who had just entered the office, fished the form out and read it.
“It never rains, but it pours,” he said.
“You can’t stand long on one foot,” Swenson answered without looking up. “Put all your troubles in one basket and then lose the basket. Morituri te salutamus. Have you heard my theory about the advantage of reproduction via the egg? And get me a beer.”
“I will get you a beer, but if you say a word about that egg theory, I will fire you. I heard you talking to O’Toole.”
“Okay. We’ll forget the egg for the nonce. Did you pilfer that snuff?”
“It’s being loaded. And it cost Acme--”
“Did you expect it would fall like manna from heaven?” Swenson flipped the switch of the intercom to Acme’s launching area. “Give me Number 2. Captain Wilkins.”
“What are you going to do?” Mister Cerobie asked.
“Don’t you remember what I told you yesterday? Where’s that beer?”
Mister Cerobie smiled, a weary, dogged smile, the smile of a man who had bet on drawing to a belly straight.
“Captain Wilkins,” came over the intercom, “calling Swenson, dispatcher, for orders.”
“Blast as soon as loaded for low altitude Earth-orbital.” Swenson was silent a moment, then: “Hell, don’t you know the plot? All right, I’ll give it to you. Full jets, two minutes, azimuth...”
Mister Cerobie interrupted quietly: “Swenson, don’t you think you’d better check with the astrographer?”
Turning off the intercom, Swenson spun in his chair. “Any decent dispatcher knows that one by heart. So maybe I’m wrong. Then Number 2 will pile up on either the Moon or the Earth. If that happens, you can collect the insurance and get out of this mess.” He flipped on the intercom switch. “Sorry, Captain Wilkins, brass interference. As I was saying, azimuth...”
Mister Cerobie made no effort to continue the conversation. He was reading an astrogram, which had just been handed to him.
ACME INTERPLANETARY EXPRESS
147 Z STREET
HEAR PERSISTENT RUMOR YOUR SHIP ON WHICH I AM A PASSENGER HELD HERE
FOR NON-PAYMENT OF DEMURRAGE. MUST MAKE WORLD CRISIS SPEECH ON MARS
AS SCHEDULED. ASTROGRAM TRUTH OF SITUATION AT ONCE. INVESTIGATION
OF SUCH MATTERS NOW PENDING BEFORE SUBCOMMITTEE. DO NOT ASTROGRAM
SEN. HIRAM C. HIGBY
Swenson snapped off the intercom, glanced at his Dispatch Sheet, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He was silent for the next half hour and drank three beers, looking either thoughtful or asleep. Mister Cerobie smoked a cigar until it burned his mustache.
When the third beer was finished, Swenson reached for an astrogram blank and wrote:
HON. SENATOR HIRAM C. HIGBY ESQ.
ACME INTERPLANETARY EXPRESS
RUMOR RE UNPAID DEMURRAGE UTTERLY UN-FOUNDED. INFORMATION HERE THAT
RUMOR STARTED BY YOUR OPPOSITION. HAVE VITAL NEW DATA FOR YOUR LUNA
CITY SPEECH. WILL SEND SPEECH INSERT AT ONCE.
Mister Cerobie, who had been reading over Swenson’s shoulder, said: “You know that demurrage rumor is true.”
“If things don’t work out and we have any trouble, you can say you hadn’t heard about the demurrage. By the way, can you write an insert to a political speech?”
“I suppose so. I’ve lied before.”
“Make sure it will take ten minutes to deliver--even talking fast--which Senators don’t usually do.”
“What,” inquired Mister Cerobie, “shall I write about?”
“You know that scandal Senator Higby’s opposition just got involved in. That business about slave labor exploitation on Venus. The story broke this morning. Get in touch with my friend Max Zempky on Telenews and have him give you some inside details. It doesn’t matter if they’re important or not. The Senator will grab anything that might pep up his speech. Besides, he’s probably been having a large time in Luna City and hasn’t heard about this morning’s story.”
Mister Cerobie executed a sweeping bow. “Yes, sir. And if this thing doesn’t work, I told you yesterday in my office what would happen.”
Swenson shrugged. “Kismet.”
As Mister Cerobie opened the door to his private office, Swenson called after him: “Where’s this outfit’s attorney?”
“In the Board Room.”
“Find him and send him in here.”
Mister Cerobie nodded.
“And,” Swenson added, “be damned sure that speech insert will run at least ten minutes. More, if possible.”
Mister Cerobie slammed the door.
Five minutes later, slim, soft-spoken Van Euing, Acme’s attorney, coughed behind the dispatcher’s chair. Swenson swiveled from coding the astrogram and dropped his cigarette. “What the hell--oh, you. Lawyers are like policemen--they sneak up on people.”
“How did you know I was the firm’s attorney?”
“I watched you try that unfair-trade-practice suit against Lesquallan Ltd. two years ago. It was snowing outside. I was broke and the courtroom was warm. You should have won the case. Some of their evidence looked phony to me. Anyway, you did a good job.”
“Did you ever stop to think about the advantage of the egg--”
“Mister Cerobie said you wished to speak to me.”
“That’s right. I want you to draw up a something-or-other--you know what I mean--grounding Moulton Trust’s ship on the Moon until this fight hassle is settled.”
“You mean you wish me to prepare a restraining order?”
“Restrain, yeah! And restrain them as long as you can. I wish you could restrain them forever. This solar system would be a better place.”
“On what grounds am I to base my order?”
“Claim they started the fight and our crew’s so bashed up that we haven’t enough able men to blast off.”
“But I’m afraid we can’t prove that.”
“And what’s it going to cost us to try? You’re on retainer. The total bill for said restraining order will be only the price of some legal paper and the services of a notary. The steno’s hired by the month, like you.”
Van Euing looked puzzled. “What good will it do?”
“You know how long it takes courts to do anything. Before your order is tossed out, Moulton will have been grounded for a week.”
Van Euing lit his pipe. “In legal parlance, it is something irregular, which, being translated, means it’s a slick trick.”
“All it’s going to cost you is being half an hour late to lunch.”
Van Euing puffed a moment on his pipe and said: “Because of your audacity, Swenson, and furthermore, because you’ll be fired tomorrow, I’ll prepare the restraining order.”
Swenson put out his hand and his blunt fingers closed around Van Euing’s delicate ones.
When Van Euing had gone, Swenson returned to coding the astrogram. He checked the form twice and sent it.
Then he turned over his desk to an apprentice dispatcher, left orders to be called if anything broke down, and went out to lunch.
It was 2:30 P.M. when news of the restraining order arrived in the quiet, streamlined offices of the Moulton Trust. Two minutes later, the offices were still streamlined, but not quiet.
The three major stockholders of the great organization, N. Rovance, F. K. Esrov, and Cecil Neinfort-Whritings, formed a tiny huddle at one end of the long conference table. Esrov was waving a copy of the order.
“Gentlemen, we can consider this nothing but an outrage!”
“Blackmail, really!” It was Neinfort-Whritings’s lisping voice.
“Whatever it is, this sort of nonsense must be stopped at the beginning. It might set a precedent.”
“May I suggest,” Rovance broke in, “that, as the matter of precedent is sure to arise, we take no action without first consulting Lesquallan Ltd.”
“An excellent idea,” Esrov nodded. He switched on the intercom to his first secretary. “Connect me with Lesquallan Ltd. I want to speak with Novell Lesquallan. Inform him that it is urgent.”
“He just entered our office.” The voice that came from the intercom carried the slightest trace of surprise. “He said he desired to discuss something about canned goods and snuff. I shall send him in at once.”
Rovance turned to Neinfort-Whritings. “I fear that old Cerobie is becoming senile. Apparently he has lost his mind.”
“But really, did he ever have one?”
Nobody laughed. Esrov slammed the restraining order on the conference table and stood up. “Gentlemen, what shall we do concerning--”
“Yes, gentlemen, that is just what I want to know.”
Three heads pivoted. Novell Lesquallan, sole owner of Lesquallan Ltd., stood in the doorway. He was a broad, ruddy-faced man with a voice trained to basso interruptions.
“I understand, Mr. Lesquallan,” Esrov said, “that you have a matter to discuss with us.”
“Yes! Sit down, F.K. We have some talking to do--about that bankrupt, dishonest Acme Interplanetary Express.”
“Quite a coincidence,” Neinfort-Whritings murmured.
“You got trouble with that outfit, too? That settles it. They’ve cluttered up the orderly progress of free enterprise long enough. Out they go.”
Novell Lesquallan swiftly read the document and bellowed an unintelligible remark.
“Something, quite,” Neinfort-Whritings agreed.
Lesquallan got his voice under control. “What action do you intend to take?”
“We hadn’t decided,” Rovance answered. “We received the order only a few minutes ago.”
“Before we form our plans,” Esrov said, “we would like some information about your problems with Acme. We understand it involves canned goods and snuff.”
“Yes, those damned ... At the last minute, they turned down a small load of canned goods for Luna that we’d been decent enough to give them at reduced rates. They can’t get away with that kind of thing long. But that’s just the beginning. They got hold of the contract and permit to haul a consignment of medicinal snuff to Mars. We had already arranged for that cargo. You know that snuff situation. Through certain contacts, we have been able--perfectly legally--to have permits issued. That customs man must have taken a double--”
“We understand,” Rovance broke in. “We have had occasion to make similar arrangements. The rates--and other inducements--are extremely satisfactory.”
“Well, gentlemen,” Lesquallan demanded, “what are we going to do about this unprecedented situation?”
“I suggest,” Neinfort-Whritings said, “that we have our legal staffs meet in joint session. We should impress on them that the quashing of this restraining order is urgent. Perhaps we should consider debts owed us by the judiciary we helped elect.”
“An excellent idea,” Lesquallan declared. “I will take care of that part of it myself, personally.”
“As to the snuff matter,” Esrov said, “I think we should emphasize to our mutual contact that he should be more discriminating in issuing permits.”
“That’s all right for now,” Lesquallan snapped. “But he’s done with, too. I’ll see to it that he’s replaced.”
“As to the canned goods situation,” Rovance said, “it seems to me that we should have a subsidiary company to handle our excess cargoes--at reduced rates, of course. It shouldn’t cost too much to pick up one of the less financially secure companies--such as Acme.”
Esrov nodded. “An excellent idea.”
“I agree,” Lesquallan said and sat down. “But first we must dispose of today’s damned annoyances. I suggest that we outline a plan for immediate action.”