Lone Star Planet
New Austin spaceport was a huge place, a good fifty miles outside the city. As we descended, I could see that it was laid out like a wheel, with the landings and the blast-off stands around the hub, and high buildings--packing houses and refrigeration plants--along the many spokes. It showed a technological level quite out of keeping with the accounts I had read, or the stories Hoddy had told, about the simple ranch life of the planet. Might be foreign capital invested there, and I made a mental note to find out whose.
On the other hand, Old Texas, on Terra, had been heavily industrialized; so much so that the state itself could handle the gigantic project of building enough spaceships to move almost the whole population into space.
Then the landing-field was rushing up at us, with the nearer ends of the roadways and streets drawing close and the far ends lengthening out away from us. The other lighter was already down, and I could see a crowd around it.
There was a crowd waiting for us when we got out and went down the escalators to the ground, and as I had expected, a special group of men waiting for me. They were headed by a tall, slender individual in the short black Eisenhower jacket, gray-striped trousers and black homburg that was the uniform of the Diplomatic Service, alias the Cookie Pushers.
Over their heads at the other rocket-boat, I could see the gold-gleaming head of the girl I’d met on the ship.
I tried to push through the crowd and get to her. As I did, the Cookie Pusher got in my way.
“Mr. Silk! Mr. Ambassador! Here we are!” he was clamoring. “The car for the Embassy is right over here!” He clutched my elbow. “You have no idea how glad we all are to see you, Mr. Ambassador!”
“Yes, yes; of course. Now, there’s somebody over there I have to see, at once.” I tried to pull myself loose from his grasp.
Across the concrete between the two lighters, I could see the girl push out of the crowd around her and wave a hand to me. I tried to yell to her; but just then another lighter, loaded with freight, started to lift out at another nearby stand, with the roar of half a dozen Niagaras. The thin man in the striped trousers added to the uproar by shouting into my ear and pulling at me.
“We haven’t time!” he finally managed to make himself heard. “We’re dreadfully late now, sir! You must come with us.”
Hoddy, too, had caught hold of me by the other arm.
“Come on, boss. There’s gotta be some reason why he’s got himself in an uproar about whatever it is. You’ll see her again.”
Then, the whole gang--Hoddy, the thin man with the black homburg, his younger accomplice in identical garb, and the chauffeur--all closed in on me and pushed me, pulled me, half-carried me, fifty yards across the concrete to where their air-car was parked. By this time, the tall blond had gotten clear of the mob around her and was waving frantically at me. I tried to wave back, but I was literally crammed into the car and flung down on the seat. At the same time, the chauffeur was jumping in, extending the car’s wings, jetting up.
“Great God!” I bellowed. “This is the damnedest piece of impudence I’ve ever had to suffer from any subordinates in my whole State Department experience! I want an explanation out of you, and it’d better be a good one!”
There was a deafening silence in the car for a moment. The thin man moved himself off my lap, then sat there looking at me with the heartbroken eyes of a friendly dog that had just been kicked for something which wasn’t really its fault.
“Mr. Ambassador, you can’t imagine how sorry we all are, but if we hadn’t gotten you away from the spaceport and to the Embassy at once, we would all have been much sorrier.”
“Somebody here gunnin’ for the Ambassador?” Hoddy demanded sharply.
“Oh, no! I hadn’t even thought of that,” the thin man almost gibbered. “But your presence at the Embassy is of immediate and urgent necessity. You have no idea of the state into which things have gotten ... Oh, pardon me, Mr. Ambassador. I am Gilbert W. Thrombley, your chargé d’affaires.” I shook hands with him. “And Mr. Benito Gomez, the Secretary of the Embassy.” I shook hands with him, too, and started to introduce Mr. Hoddy Ringo.
Hoddy, however, had turned to look out the rear window; immediately, he gave a yelp.
“We got a tail, boss! Two of them! Look back there!”
There were two black eight-passenger aircars, of the same model, whizzing after us, making an obvious effort to overtake us. The chauffeur cursed and fired his auxiliary jets, then his rocket-booster.
Immediately, black rocket-fuel puffs shot away from the pursuing aircars.
Hoddy turned in his seat, cranked open a porthole-slit in the window, and poked one of his eleven-mm’s out, letting the whole clip go. Thrombley and Gomez slid down onto the floor, and both began trying to drag me down with them, imploring me not to expose myself.
As far as I could see, there was nothing to expose myself to. The other cars kept coming, but neither of them were firing at us. There was also no indication that Hoddy’s salvo had had any effect on them. Our chauffeur went into a perfect frenzy of twisting and dodging, at the same time using his radiophone to tell somebody to get the goddamn gate open in a hurry. I saw the blue skies and green plains of New Texas replacing one another above, under, in front of and behind us. Then the car set down on a broad stretch of concrete, the wings were retracted, and we went whizzing down a city street.
We whizzed down a number of streets. We cut corners on two wheels, and on one wheel, and, I was prepared to swear, on no wheels. A couple of times, with the wings retracted, we actually jetted into the air and jumped over vehicles in front of us, landing again with bone-shaking jolts. Then we made an abrupt turn and shot in under a concrete arch, and a big door banged shut behind us, and we stopped, in the middle of a wide patio, the front of the car a few inches short of a fountain. Four or five people, in diplomatic striped trousers, local dress and the uniform of the Space Marines, came running over.
Thrombley pulled himself erect and half-climbed, half-fell, out of the car. Gomez got out on the other side with Hoddy; I climbed out after Thrombley.
A tall, sandy-haired man in the uniform of the Space Navy came over.
“What the devil’s the matter, Thrombley?” he demanded. Then, seeing me, he gave me as much of a salute as a naval officer will ever bestow on anybody in civilian clothes.
“Mr. Silk?” He looked at my costume and the pistols on my belt in well-bred concealment of surprise. “I’m your military attaché, Stonehenge; Space-Commander, Space Navy.”
I noticed that Hoddy’s ears had pricked up, but he wasn’t making any effort to attract Stonehenge’s attention. I shook hands with him, introduced Hoddy, and offered my cigarette case around.
“You seem to have had a hectic trip from the spaceport, Mr. Ambassador. What happened?”
Thrombley began accusing our driver of trying to murder the lot of us. Hoddy brushed him aside and explained:
“Just after we’d took off, two other cars took off after us. We speeded up, and they speeded up, too. Then your fly-boy, here, got fancy. That shook ‘em off. Time we got into the city, we’d dropped them. Nice job of driving. Probably saved our lives.”
“Shucks, that wasn’t nothin’,” the driver disclaimed. “When you drive for politicians, you’re either good or you’re good and dead.”
“I’m surprised they started so soon,” Stonehenge said. Then he looked around at my fellow-passengers, who seemed to have realized, by now, that they were no longer dangling by their fingernails over the brink of the grave. “But gentlemen, let’s not keep the Ambassador standing out here in the hot sun.”
So we went over the arches at the side of the patio, and were about to sit down when one of the Embassy servants came up, followed by a man in a loose vest and blue Levis and a big hat. He had a pair of automatics in his belt, too.
“I’m Captain Nelson; New Texas Rangers,” he introduced himself. “Which one of you-all is Mr. Stephen Silk?”
I admitted it.
The Ranger pushed back his wide hat and grinned at me.
“I just can’t figure this out,” he said. “You’re in the right place and the right company, but we got a report, from a mighty good source, that you’d been kidnapped at the spaceport by a gang of thugs!”
“A blond source?” I made curving motions with my hands. “I don’t blame her. My efficient and conscientious chargé d’affaires, Mr. Thrombley, felt that I should reach the Embassy, here, as soon as possible, and from where she was standing, it must have looked like a kidnapping. Fact is, it looked like one from where I was standing, too. Was that you and your people who were chasing us? Then I must apologize for opening fire on you ... I hope nobody was hurt.”
“No, our cars are pretty well armored. You scored a couple of times on one of them, but no harm done. I reckon after what happened to Silas Cumshaw, you had a right to be suspicious.”
I noticed that refreshments, including several bottles, had been placed on a big wicker table under the arched veranda.
“Can I offer you a drink, Captain, in token of mutual amity?” I asked.
“Well, now, I’d like to, Mr. Ambassador, but I’m on duty...” he began.
“You can’t be. You’re an officer of the Planetary Government of New Texas, and in this Embassy, you’re in the territory of the Solar League.”
“That’s right, now, Mr. Ambassador,” he grinned. “Extraterritoriality. Wonderful thing, extraterritoriality.” He looked at Hoddy, who, for the first time since I had met him, was trying to shrink into the background. “And diplomatic immunity, too. Ain’t it, Hoddy?”
After he had had his drink and departed, we all sat down. Thrombley began speaking almost at once.
“Mr. Ambassador, you must, you simply must, issue a public statement, immediately, sir. Only a public statement, issued promptly, will relieve the crisis into which we have all been thrust.”
“Oh, come, Mr. Thrombley,” I objected. “Captain Nelson’ll take care of all that in his report to his superiors.”
Thrombley looked at me for a moment as though I had been speaking to him in Hottentot, then waved his hands in polite exasperation.
“Oh, no, no! I don’t mean that, sir. I mean a public statement to the effect that you have assumed full responsibility for the Embassy. Where is that thing? Mr. Gomez!”
Gomez gave him four or five sheets, stapled together. He laid them on the table, turned to the last sheet, and whipped out a pen.
“Here, sir; just sign here.”