A Transmutation of Muddles - Cover

A Transmutation of Muddles

by H. B. Fyfe

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: An experienced horse-trader, bargain-haggler, and general swapper has a very special talent for turning two headaches into one aspirin pill....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The rugged little stellar scout ship flared down to the surface of Kappa Orionis VII about a mile from the aboriginal village. The pilot, Lieutenant Eric Haruhiku, scorched an open field, but pointed out to Louis Mayne that he had been careful to disturb neither woodland nor shoreline.

“The Kappans are touchy about those, Judge,” he explained, “They fish a lot, as you’d guess from all these shallow seas, and they pick fruit in the forests; but they don’t farm much.”

“No use provoking trouble,” Mayne approved. “It’s a long way from Rigel.”

“It’s a longer way from Sol,” said the pilot.

“Don’t I know, boy! If it weren’t, I’d be just another retired space captain, quietly struggling with my ranch on Rigel IX. As it is, to get the grant, I had to remain on call as an arbitrator.”

“Somebody has to settle these things,” said Haruhiku. “There’s not much law way out here, except what the Space Force can apply. Well, if you’ll excuse me, sir, I’ll have them get out the helicopter and take us over to the village.”

“Let me see that last message again, before you go,” Mayne requested.

The pilot extracted a sheet from his clipboard and handed it to Mayne as he left. Mayne studied the text with little pleasure.

Terran Space Force headquarters on Rigel IX wished to inform him that the long awaited envoy from Terra to Kappa Orionis VII not only had arrived but had departed two days behind Mayne.

It was hoped, the communication continued, that nothing would interfere with the desired objective of coming to some friendly agreement with the Kappans that would permit Terran use of the planet as a base for spaceships. The envoy, of course, was prepared to offer trade inducements and various other forms of help to the semi-civilized natives. Mayne was requested to lay whatever groundwork he could.

In my spare time, no doubt, he reflected. I’m to settle this silly business any way at all--as long as the natives get their way. But has anybody told the government about insurance companies? If it costs money or a lawsuit, will they back me up?

He felt himself to be in a ridiculous dilemma. The Kappans were reported to have seized a Terran spaceship as it landed to trade. Naturally, the captain had squawked for help. He claimed he had crashed; his insurance company thought otherwise; the Kappans seemed to have some entirely different idea in mind. Mayne had been summoned into action to render a decision, after the rough and ready system of these settlements on the surface of Terra’s sphere of explored space.

Regretfully, he made his way now to the cubbyhole allowed him on the cramped scout, where he changed to a more formal tunic of a bright blue he hoped would look impressive to native eyes. By the time he was ready, the helicopter was waiting. He and Haruhiku entered, and the crewman at the controls took off for the scene of the dispute.

Arriving over the village, they hovered a few minutes while Haruhiku studied the lay of the land. The lieutenant had been to this world before, long enough to pick up some of the language and customs, so Mayne was content to follow his advice about landing a little way off from a spaceship that towered outside the village.

They came down about a hundred yards away, between a rutted sort of road and a long hut covered by a curved, thatched roof.

“They’re expecting us,” said Haruhiku, gesturing at the group before the hut.

It consisted of half a dozen humans and several of the Kappan natives. The latter, naturally, caught Mayne’s eye first. The most imposing individual among them stood about five feet tall. The planet being of about the same mass as Terra, the Kappan probably weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds. He was a rugged biped with something saurian in his ancestry; for his skin was scaled, and bony plates grew into a low crown upon his long skull. His arms and legs were heavy and bowed, with joints obscured by thick muscles and loose skin. Mayne was struck by the fancy that the Kappan’s color, a blend of brown and olive, was that of a small dragon who had achieved a good suntan. A yellow kilt was his main article of attire, although he wore a few decorations of polished bone.

One of the Terrans stepped forward. He wore a semimilitary uniform.

“I suppose you’re Louis Mayne?” he asked.

“Right,” answered Mayne. “You would be Captain Voorhis, of the Gemsbok?”


“Check. This here is Eemakh. He’s more or less chief of the village, or tribe, or whatever you wanna call it.”

Mayne found his gaze sinking into catlike slits of jet in a pair of huge orange eyes shaded by massive brow ridges. The native made some statement in a clicking language that had a harsh, choppy rhythm.

“He welcomes you to Kappa,” Haruhiku interpreted. “He hopes the gods will not be displeased.”

“What a warm welcome!” commented Mayne. “Have you been getting along that well, Captain Voorhis?”

“Just about,” said the spacer. “One of my boys knows a few words. Rest of the time, we make signs. I gotta admit they ain’t been too unfriendly.”

“But they have seized your ship?”

“You’re damn’ right! That insurance guy they sent out don’t see it that way though.”

“Where is this representative of the Belt Insurance Company?” asked Mayne.

“Melin? His ship landed over on the other side of the village, about half a mile. He oughta be along soon. Must’ve seen you land.”

Mayne wondered whether it were necessary to await the arrival of the insurance adjustor before asking any questions. To cover his hesitation, he turned to take his first good look at the hull of the Gemsbok.

“What do they think they’re doing?” he demanded, staring.

The Gemsbok was--or had been--an ungraceful, thick starship on the verge of aging into scrap. Towering here between the village and the huge, bluish-green leaves of the Kappan forest, she was in the process of being transformed into a planet-bound object of a certain weird grace.

A framework was being constructed about the hull by a swarm of natives. They had reached halfway up the ship, which served as a central column. Much of the exterior appeared to be a network of strangely curved sections of wood that had been given a high polish. Mayne suspected the greenish highlights were reflections of the forest color.

“Bone,” said Voorhis succinctly. “They collect it from things they catch in the sea. Main supports of timber, of course, built to fit the hull.”

“The fish here grow very large,” put in Haruhiku. “If you could call them fish, that is. I once saw them butchering what looked more like a dinosaur.”

Mayne realized that the bone framework formed a sort of curtain wall. At the lower levels, some of the natives seemed to be experimenting with a coating of wet leaves which they were molding to the wall.

“They’ve soaked them in something they boil out of fish parts,” his pilot explained. “Like the village roofs. When it dries, it’s pretty hard, even waterproof. The stink never dries out.”

“But what do they have in their bony little brains?” asked Mayne. “Just what is that mess supposed to be?”

“A temple, believe it or not,” answered Voorhis. “They tell me I set her down on land sacred to the great god Meeg!”

Mayne looked at Haruhiku.

“Oh, come on, now! I came all the way from--” He stopped as he noticed the pilot’s grave expression. “Oh! That sort of thing could be serious, I guess.”

He imagined he had seen the chief, Eemakh, come alert at the mention of the local god. Mayne sighed. It was going to be a long day.

He was saved for the time being by a hail from the direction of the village. A procession was approaching along the set of ruts between Mayne and the ship.

The place of honor appeared to be occupied by a two-wheeled cart of crude but massive design. Upon it rode a Kappan driver, two Kappans with spears and the look of official guards, and a Terran with a death-grip upon the side railing. A brace of truculent beasts of frighteningly saurian mien shuffled ponderously along in the loose harness. From time to time, one or the other would stumble over a turn in his rut and emit a menacing rumble as if he suspected his team mate of causing the misstep.

Before and behind this conveyance marched a guard of honor of Kappan warriors. The rear contingent kept close to the cart, but the advance party had opened a noticeable gap between themselves and the hulking team.

The procession halted, the soldier in charge raised his spear in salute to Eemakh, and the shaken Terran was assisted to dismount. He introduced himself to Mayne as Robert Melin.

“Let’s go over to the hut they made for us an’ sit down,” suggested Voorhis.

Melin, a tall, gloomy blond whose civilian suit seemed a trifle formal for the surroundings, acceded gratefully. He mopped the dust from his long face and watched the cart being turned around.

The procession moved off in the direction of the village, the advance guard stepping out especially smartly, and Mayne began to get his conference arranged.

He learned that the evicted crew of the Gemsbok had been living in the hut nearby. Before it stood a long table with benches, all evidently knocked together from recently felled timber. Melin was given credit for this by Voorhis, since before the arrival of the insurance adjuster and his crew, no power tools had been available to the men from the Gemsbok.

Mayne took a place at the end of the table. Some of the Gemsbok’s crew came out of the hut to watch. Most of the Kappan warriors attending the chief took up stations between the table and the ship, in a manner suggesting long habit. Mayne guessed that attempts had been made to re-enter the ship.

He put Haruhiku at his right hand to translate should it be necessary. Melin and Voorhis sat at his left, their backs to the hut. To the other side of the table, Eemakh brought two Kappans who were explained to Mayne as being the tribal high priest, Igrillik, and Kaynox, who represented a sort of district overlord.

“I meant to land up by their city,” Voorhis put in, “but we hit some bad winds up in the stratosphere. We got knocked around a bit in the storm, and set down where we could.”

“Well, tell me about the details,” said Mayne. “I want to get this straight from the start, if I can. By the way, Lieutenant Haruhiku, explain to the chief that a special envoy is on the way, that we want his friendship, and that he will be dealt with fairly.”

He waited out the exchange of choppy speech between the pilot and Eemakh.

“He says he is sure he will be fairly dealt with,” reported Haruhiku.

“I wonder what he meant by that,” murmured Mayne. “If we make a deal here, and thereby with his overlord, will that cover enough territory to be official?”

“As much as you can get together anywhere on this world, sir.”

Mayne nodded, then turned to Captain Voorhis.

“Now about this so-called crash?” he prompted.

“Well, there was this storm, like I said. Trouble was we didn’t expect to hit it and ... well ... somebody took it in his head to blow some of the fuel tanks for a crash landing. That’s why I’m not claimin’ anythin’ on the fuel,” he finished, turning to Melin.

“We are perfectly willing to pay on that item,” replied the insurance man.

“Anyhow,” continued Voorhis, “I set down here where we saw the open spot, an’ then of course we were stuck with nothin’ to lift off with. It looked all right. We’d unload our goods, an’ if the local crowd couldn’t use them all, why they’d pass the rest on at a profit to themselves. So we come out to palaver, an’ then they won’t let us go back in the ship. We were just lucky my com man had sent out a landing report when it looked like we piled up, or the Space Force patrol never woulda heard of us.”

“Was there any trouble?” asked Mayne. “Any unnecessary hostility?”

Voorhis considered, rubbing the back of his head thoughtfully.

“Well ... I suppose, lookin’ at it their way, they coulda been a lot rougher. A couple of punches got thrown, an’ one of my boys got a spear busted over his head, but mostly they acted ... well ... maybe more like cops than cannibals.”

“Just enforcing the native laws, eh?”

Voorhis did not swallow that quite so graciously. He did not know or care what the local laws might be, but he thought it suspicious in the extreme that he should have plopped down exactly upon the spot chosen by the natives for a temple.

“So do they have to use my ship to hang it on?” he finished plaintively.

“The company is in agreement with you there, captain,” Melin put in. “You see, Judge, our point is that nothing is really lost or seriously damaged, neither ship nor cargo. They are merely being withheld from their rightful owner, and we believe that puts the responsibility for recovery upon the Terran government. Captain Voorhis has our entire sympathy--”

“Yeah!” said Voorhis. “An’ if I get my head sliced off tryin’ to get at that undamaged cargo, you’ll come to my funeral! I say it’s a loss!”

“Now, gentlemen!” interrupted Mayne. “Let me get on with this. Both of you, I’m sure, realize that I’m not a lawyer in spite of being a special judge. If the colonies way out here had enough lawyers to spare, I certainly wouldn’t be sticking my head into this. Nevertheless, any decision I make here will be regarded as legally binding by the government of Rigel IX, so let us remain level-headed.”

“Very well, Judge,” said Melin. “Here are the figures on--”

“Please round them off,” said Mayne. “If I have to listen to a long list in centicredits, I’ll probably go off to see what kind of beer they brew here.”

“You wouldn’t like it,” muttered Voorhis, staring sourly at the village.

“No doubt,” grinned Mayne.

Melin swallowed and returned to an inner pocket a sheaf of papers he had withdrawn.

“Speaking very loosely,” he went on, as if hating to do anything loosely, “the coverage was about as follows: for the Gemsbok herself, two million; but that was really a nominal figure accorded as a sort of courtesy. Otherwise, at her true worth, the authorities would hardly have permitted Captain Voorhis to take her into space--”

“Get on with it,” urged Mayne, to forestall any wrangle.

“Er ... yes. Then on the cargo, the purchase cost of two hundred thousand credits.”

Voorhis visibly flinched and began to acquire a ruddy hue.

“And, finally, on the fuel load, the cost price of three hundred thousand. Of course, Judge, there are detailed clauses as to normal use of fuel. He was actually insured against defects, premature explosions, accidental loss, et cetera.”

Mayne did some addition in his head.

“So your company,” he said aloud, “is prepared to pay two and a half million for the loss sustained by Captain Voorhis. What seems to be wrong with that?”

Both men began to talk but Melin, struggling less with temper, got the lead.

“Actually,” he said, “we feel liable for only three hundred thousand.”

Now it will get tough, thought Mayne. He silently awaited elucidation.

The combined stares of all parties, including the enigmatic glance of Eemakh, calmed the spluttering Voorhis. Melin continued.

“In the first place, the true value of the ship, even if we consider her to be incapacitated--which we do not--is only about one hundred and fifty thousand.”

“She’s worth more than that as scrap!” bellowed Voorhis.

“No, captain, just about that. It is exactly how we valued her. Do you have any idea, Judge, of how old that crock is?”

“Let’s not go into that just yet,” suggested Mayne.

“As to the fuel,” said Melin, “I am willing, as a gesture of good will, to stick my company’s neck out--and mine with it, you may be sure--and honor a full claim.”

“Even though he used about half the fuel getting here?” asked Mayne.

“We’ll ignore that. We admit that he is out of fuel, and we want to--”

“You want to give me a moon and take a star,” said Voorhis.

“Just a minute!” Mayne held up his hand. “That’s the ship and the fuel. What about the cargo?”

“Why, as to that, Judge, we do not admit that it is lost. It is right over there, easily accessible. We consider it more the job of the Space Force to restore rightful possession than it is the responsibility of the company to reimburse Captain Voorhis for the inflated value he sets upon it.”

“I begin to see,” murmured Mayne. “You can’t stick each other, so you’re out to slip me the bill.”

That aroused a babble of denials. Mayne eventually made himself heard and demanded to know how the spacer’s evaluation differed from Melin’s. Voorhis pulled himself together, glowering at the insurance man.

“In the first place,” he growled, “I don’t want his lousy payment for fuel. I said I’d take the blame for that, an’ I will. On the ship ... well, maybe she ain’t worth two million. Maybe she ain’t been for a few years now--”

Melin made a show of counting on his fingers.

“ ... But they charged me premiums by that figure an’ I say they oughta pay by that figure.”

“But can you prove she’s a total loss, captain?” asked Mayne.

Voorhis grimaced and spat upon the ground.

“Try to get near her, Judge! You’ll get proof fast enough!”

“Well ... about the cargo, then?”

That’s where he’s gouging me!” exploded Voorhis. “The idea of using the cost as of loading on Rigel IX! Hell, you know the margin of profit there is in trading on these new planets, twenty to one at least. I figured to lift off with four million worth of ores, gems, curios, and whatnot.”

“So your point is that the mere transportation of the goods through space to this planet increased their value. What about that, Mr. Melin?”

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