The Way the Cat Pounces
by Robert Wenson
In his small, scantily-furnished room, Captain John Rackman picked up his battered commset and said, “23-557-888-L.” The commset beeped and said, “Call code not understood.”
Rackman sighed and repeated the code, enunciating with care. The commset beeped and said, “Calling.”
“Maybe today, Lilly,” said the captain to the violet-striped cat sitting on the table beside him. She took up most of the tabletop, leaving just enough room for a glass and a half-full bottle of Ballinluig whisky. “If not, we’ll have to start thinking about moving to cheaper quarters.”
A voice spoke from the commset. “Omaha Spaceport Cargo Exchange.”
“John Rackman, Amethyst. Any charters open to bid? No? Thanks and good day to you. End call... Well, old girl, time to look at the ads.” Rackman spoke to the commset again. “Omaha News; rooms to let; ten or less tellurians per week; within five miles of present location.” While waiting for a reply, he poured himself a dram of whisky. “First, last, and only drink of the day,” he said, and took a sip. “It’s a sad, sad thing when a man has to ration his daily cheer.”
Beep. “No results,” said the commset. Rackman repeated the query, specifying ten miles instead of five.
Beep. “Four results.”
“Display.” Rackman winced; the nearest was nine miles away. The prospect of a nine-mile trudge was uninviting even though he was fit, for a middle-aged man, and had little to carry. He sighed and said, “Secure room... And we could be living rent-free aboard the Amethyst, if it weren’t for the bloodsuckers.” His ship was under lockdown at the spaceport for nonpayment of landing fees, overdue fuel charges, and expired permits.
He looked out the window. Rain was falling. “We’ll pack in the morning, old girl. I’m afraid there will be no walk in the park today... Let’s see how fast mankind’s going to Hell.” To the commset he said, “Omaha News; headlines.”
Beep. “Instructions not understood,” said the commset.
“Damn you for a piece of obsolete junk,” said Rackman. Beep. “Instructions not understood.” Resisting an urge to throw the commset through the window, the captain said again, slowly and clearly, “O-ma-ha News; head-lines.”
Beep. “Talks with envoys from Cardani Empire ongoing-tensions easing.” Beep. “Omaha bank holdup nets quarter-million interstellars.” Beep. “Marcellus Corbie to wed sixth wife, current five thrilled.” Beep. “Twelve dead in Copenhagen from third new mystery disease, health authorities baffled.” Beep. “Java, Sumatra braces for imminent eruption of Anak Krakatau.” Beep. “New Jersey secession resolution advances in—”
“End headlines... Going pretty fast, old girl, pretty fast, well over the speed limit. Where’s a policeman when you need one?” Rackman looked with surprise at his empty glass. “It’s enough to drive a man to drink.” He poured himself another dram of Ballinluig.
* * *
The following morning Rackman packed his few possessions: a change of clothes, a book, and the bottle of Ballinluig, now two-thirds empty. He looked out the window and saw that it was still raining. He shook his head sadly and said, “Into the carrier, Lilly. Once again, it’s time for new places and new faces.”
The commset beeped and said, “Call.”
“ID?” asked Rackman, hoping it wasn’t the spaceport authorities asking for their money again.
“Unknown.” Not the spaceport.
“Captain John Rackman?” came a voice.
“My name is Smith. I would like to charter your ship—”
The commset beeped and terminated the call.
“Callback, you...” began Rackman angrily, then caught himself and said more calmly, “Callback.”
To his relief, Mr. Smith answered. “I’m very sorry, sir,” said Rackman. “I’ve been having trouble with my commset lately. You said you wanted a charter?”
“That is correct.”
“Where to?” asked the captain, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice lest it undermine his bargaining position.
“I would prefer to discuss the matter in person.”
Rackman considered. It might be — no, it would be — a reckless depletion of his resources, but... “How about we meet at the Galilean Moons and talk it out over lunch?”
“I would also prefer to discuss the matter in private. Please give me your address.”
Rackman evaded the request. “I have some urgent business to attend to. Can we meet tonight?” Given a few hours, he could take a room at an upscale hotel.
“I would like to meet you as soon as possible. Please give me your address.”
One look at the room and Mr. Smith would try to charter the Amethyst for two crackers and a piece of cheese. Rackman shrugged and gave him the address.
“I will be there at nine o’clock.”
One hour. Impossible to add any posh to the room.
* * *
At nine o’clock precisely, there came a knock at the door. Rackman opened it to reveal a thin, sharp-faced man. Though barbered, shaved, and well-dressed, he had an aura of seediness about him.
“Mr. Smith?” asked Rackman.
“Yes. Captain Rackman?”
“Yes. Come in. The seating is somewhat limited. Please take the chair. I will content myself with the bed. It’s a little early, but may I pour you a dram?”
“No, thank you. I don’t drink.”
“Ah,” said Rackman. Sorrow that he couldn’t drink with Mr. Smith was outweighed by relief that his scant supply of whisky would remain intact for the time being. “And what can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”
“As I said when I called, I would like to charter your ship, the—”
“To carry a cargo to... What the hell is that?”
Lilly had jumped on to the bed and settled herself next to Rackman.
“This is Lilly, a friend of mine. I take it you’ve never seen a Manichean cat?”
“If I had, I’d certainly remember it.” In addition to her dark and light violet stripes, the cat’s ears were disproportionately large, her eyes were red, and she had an unnerving way of staring at people. She was staring at Mr. Smith now. “You said it was—”
“She. A Manichean cat. From Manichee.”
“Manichee? Where is that?”
“It’s not a very well-known world. Rather off the beaten track, and little money to be made from it. There are a few colonists; I met Lilly when I carried some medical supplies to them. The mice are interesting, too: bright blue and anywhere from fifty to two hundred pounds.”
“Of course they are... Can we dispense with spacemen’s tales and get down to business? As I was saying, I want you to carry a cargo to Panjandrum.”
Panjandrum. Rackman had been there before. Easy enough to get to, and a man could have some fun there. “What sort of cargo?”
“Mining equipment.” Rackman was suddenly wary. Mining was certainly a major industry on Panjandrum, but the world was perfectly capable of manufacturing its own equipment. “Also, some passengers; mining technicians.” Mining technicians were a dime a dozen on Panjandrum.
“I’ll need clearances from Customs for the equipment and Emigration for the passengers,” said Rackman.
“Of course,” said Mr. Smith. Too quickly?
“And a waiver.” A waiver was a bond, posted by the consignor, that guaranteed that the shipper was responsible solely for transporting cargo and passengers from Point A to Point B; everything else, before, during, and after was the consignor’s responsibility. Its primary purpose was to protect shippers from charges of smuggling. Greedy, desperate, and shady captains did without them and were able to charge higher fees.
“Agreed.” Not even a pro forma attempt to talk Rackman out of it.
Silence fell. Rackman waited for Smith to ask for a starting figure for the charter. Rackman thought: I’ll start at twenty thousand solars and hope that Smith beats me down no lower than ten thousand, maybe twelve... By God, he’s letting me make the first move. “How much are you offering?” he asked.
“Fifty thousand interstellars,” said Mr. Smith.
Many years’ experience of haggling had given Rackman a poker face and fast reflexes. Without missing a beat he replied, “Seventy-five thousand.”
“I have unusual expenses,” said Rackman. “I have to get my ship out of sequestration, she needs an overhaul...”
They settled on sixty-two thousand.
“I’ll need ten thousand in advance to cover the upfront expenses,” said Rackman.
“No,” said Smith. “We’ll put the full amount in a ninety-day escrow. For your expenses, you can draw on the account for up to ten thousand on production of itemized receipts. You will be authorized to collect the balance on your return from Panjandrum.”
“Ninety days is too short. I might have to wait on Panjandrum for a cargo to Earth, or there might be an advantageous opportunity to carry one elsewhere. I want a year.” Eventually they agreed on a hundred and twenty days.
“Can you be ready in a week?” asked Mr. Smith.
“A week? Impossible.”
“I can get the Amethyst overhauled in two weeks. But to meet expedited service rates, I’ll need to draw at least another two thousand.”
Mr. Smith took out a commset. “Very well. We can record a contract at once.”
“One more thing,” said Rackman.
“Earnest money. One hundred tellurians. In cash.”
“We expected that.” Mr. Smith counted out the money.
“Well, old girl,” said Rackman after Mr. Smith had departed. “Looks like we can stay here. I’ll just pop out for a little while and get a few pounds of liver for you and a new bottle for me.”
* * *
“You know what, Lilly?” said Rackman, finishing his third drink of the day. “This deal seems a little off-key. Smith is in a hurry. That means something’s bearing down on him and it might arrive sooner than he thinks. Besides, contracts were made to be broken, and Smith & Co can probably afford better lawyers than we can. We’ll have to make arrangements to cover ourselves.”
Captain Rackman’s “arrangements” were with the shipwrights overhauling the Amethyst and the chandlers supplying her with stores. The invoices they presented were steeply discounted, but the discounts did not appear on the receipts charged to the escrow account. Some of the difference went into the pockets of the shipwrights and chandlers; the balance into the captain’s own pocket. After all, he observed to Lilly, he was only robbing himself.
He got his money’s worth. Comfortable chairs and bunks took the place of bare-bones furnishings on the bridge and in the cabins. Old, worn, and fatigued parts of the main drive were removed and replaced with new. The p-drive which, strictly speaking, had no parts to age or wear, was recalibrated. The obsolete recycling system was removed entirely and an up-to-date one installed. Several thousand books were uploaded to the ship’s library. A new feature was added to the ship: a state-of-the-art synthesizer that could produce, among other things, Ballinluig (verified personally by Rackman) and several varieties of liver (verified personally by Lilly).
On the day that work was completed, Mr. Smith called, asking to meet Rackman the next morning at the spaceport.
* * *
Rackman and Lilly arrived promptly at nine o’clock, the appointed time, but Mr. Smith was not there. After waiting for a quarter of an hour, Rackman inquired whether Mr. Smith had left a message. He was told that Mr. Smith was waiting for him out at the Amethyst. There was a further wait until a spaceport cab was available.
En route, to the ship the commset beeped. “Accept,” said Rackman.
“This is Mary Henderson, calling from the Bank of Omaha. I’m sorry to tell you that your last draft on the Smith account has been returned for insufficient funds.”
Mary Henderson repeated the message.
“Please put a hold on it. I’m on my way to a meeting with Mr. Smith. I’ll see that the matter is taken care of.”
When Rackman arrived at his ship, it was 9:30 and the captain was fuming.
“Where have you been?” demanded Mr. Smith. “I said nine o’clock.”
“You said to meet you at the spaceport,” replied Rackman heatedly. “You didn’t say at the ship. And another thing: what the hell’s going on with the escrow account? The last draft bounced. You said you’d deposit the full amount of the fee.”
“The bank must have made a mistake. We’ll look into it,” said Mr. Smith. “We don’t have time to argue right now. Here are the clearances, the bill of lading, and acknowledgement from Traffic of a voyage Earth-Panjandrum—”
“Hold it. What about the waiver certificate?”
“Sorry, I must have left it behind.”
“Well, by God, you had better go and get it.”
“There isn’t time. Trust me, we got the waiver. You’re scheduled for lift-off at ten-thirty.”
“Ten-thirty!” exclaimed Rackman. “How am I supposed to lift off in less than an hour? The cargo isn’t on board — it isn’t even here. What idiot put me down for ten-thirty?”
“I did,” said Mr. Smith. “The cargo is on board already and the passengers embarked. Look, the carrier’s coming now to take your ship to the lift-off field. You had best—”
Rackman exploded in wrath. “Are you telling me that you stowed cargo aboard my ship? You allowed passengers aboard my ship? Damn your eyes! If I’d been five minutes later, I suppose you’d have lifted off with her yourself!
“Do you know what I’m going to do? By God, I’ll tell you! I’m going aboard my ship. I am going to radio Spaceport Control and cancel the lift-off. Then I’m going to personally boot your passengers out the hatch and have the cargo taken off. And the only reason I don’t break your damned neck first is that I’m going to file a complaint with the spaceport and another with the Captains’ Guild and when they get through with you, by God, you’ll wish I had broken your damned neck instead!”
Only then did he notice that the entry port had been left open and the ladder down. Casting a last glare upon Mr. Smith, he picked up Lilly’s carrier and was acutely and regrettably aware that it was impossible to ascend a ladder with offended dignity. He boarded the ship, stomped to the bridge, entered, and—
* * *
Found himself confronted by two grass-green, stick-thin, reptilian beings, each about four feet tall. Both were armed and both had their weapons trained on him.
“You do as we say,” said one, its voice a monotonic high-pitched creak. “You do not, we shoot. You understand, true?”
“I understand,” said Rackman.
“You send radio. Say ready to fly. Take ship to fly area, go up. You not go up, we shoot. You understand, true?”
“Yes, I understand.” Rackman went to the radio and informed Spaceport Control that the Amethyst was ready for lift-off. He reached for a switch.
“You stop,” said one of the creatures. “You play trick, true?”
“False,” said Rackman. “Not true. I must raise the ladder and close the entry port.”
“True. You do it.”
With the port closed, there was nothing to do until the carrier arrived. Rackman looked at the creatures. “I recognize your sort. I’ve seen pictures on the news,” he said. “You’re Cardani, aren’t you?”
“True. Glory to Cardan,” they said in unison.
“May I ask why the hell you’re hijacking my ship?”
“Hijacking. We not understand word.”
“You have taken over my ship and are making me follow your orders. Understand, true?”
The carrier arrived. “Ready for loading, sir?” came the voice of its operator over the radio.
Rackman looked at the Cardani. “You say true. You not say more.”
“True,” he said over the radio. “That is, ready.”
The carrier winched the ovoid bulk of the Amethyst aboard and started for the lift-off field. Spaceships are safe, but accidents happen, and ever since the explosion of the Velociraptor twenty years earlier, ships were parked at least a mile from the spaceport complex. The lift-off and landing fields were two miles further off, and two miles apart.
“Well?” said Rackman. “Are you going to answer my question?”
Without taking their eyes or their weapons off Rackman, the Cardani spoke to each other in their own tongue. Their speech reminded Rackman of the time he witnessed a drunk carrier operator, with a ship aboard, sideswipe another ship, causing an agonizing screech of metal on metal.
Rackman in turn watched the Cardani. They were very nearly indistinguishable. The spokesman — spokesbeing? — wore a silver chain about its neck; the other wore a golden chain. Irreverently, Rackman decided to call the latter “Goldilocks” and the other “Papa Bear.”
Finally, Papa Bear said, “True, false, we think. True, we tell. False, we not tell.”
The carrier unloaded the Amethyst at the lift-off field and retreated to the parking area. Rackman took the ship up.
* * *
Copyright © 2021 by Robert Wenson