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Sargasso of Space

by Andre Norton

CHAPTER ONE:

THE SOLAR QUEEN

The lanky, very young man in the ill-fitting Trader’s tunic tried to stretch the cramp out of his long legs. You’d think, Dane Thorson considered the point with a certain amount of irritation, the man who designed these under- surface transcontinental cars would take into mind that there would be tall passengers—not just midgets—using them. Not for the first time he wished that he could have used air transport. But he had only to finger the money belt, too flat about his middle, to remember who and what he was—a recruit new to the Service, without a ship or backer.

There was his muster pay from Training Pool, and a thin pad of crumpled credit slips which remained from the sale of all those belongings which could not follow him into space. And he had his minimum kit—that was the total sum of his possessions—except for that slender wafer of metal, notched and incised with a code beyond his reading, which would be his passport to what he determined was going to be a brighter future.

Not that he should question the luck he had had so far, Dane told himself firmly. After all, it wasn’t every boy from a Federation Home who could get an appointment to the Pool and emerge ten years later an apprentice Cargo Master ready for ship assignment off world. Even recalling the stiff examinations of the past few weeks could set him to squirming now. Basic mechanics, astrogation grounding, and then the more severe testing in his own specialization—cargo handling, stowage, trade procedure, Galactic markets, Extra-terrestrial psychology, and all the other items he had had to try and cram into his skull until he sometimes thought that he had nothing but bits and patches which he would never be able to sort into common sense. Not only had the course been tough, but he had been bucking the new trend in selection, too. Most of his classmates were from Service families—they had grown up in Trade.

Dane frowned at the back of the seat before him. Wasn’t Trade becoming more and more a closed clan? Sons followed fathers or brothers into the Service—it was increasingly difficult for a man without connections to get an appointment to the Pool. His luck had been good there—

Look at Sands, he had two older brothers, an uncle and a cousin all with Inter-Solar. And he never let anyone forget it either. Just let an apprentice get assigned into one of the big Companies and he was set for the rest of his life. The Companies had regular runs from one system to another. Their employees were always sure of a steady berth, you could buy Company stock. There were pensions and administrative jobs when you had to quit space—if you’d shown any promise. They had the cream of Trade—Inter-Solar, The Combine, Deneb-Galactic, Falworth- Ignesti—

Dane blinked at the tela-screen set at eye level at the far end of the bullet-shaped car—not really seeing the commercial which at that moment was singing the praises of a Falworth-Ignesti import. It all depended on the Psycho. He patted his money belt again to be sure of the safety of his ID wafer, sealed into its most secret pocket.

The commercial faded into the red bar announcing a station. Dane waited for the faint jar which signalized the end of his two-hour trip. He was glad to be free of the projectile, able to drag his kit bag out of the mound of luggage from the van.

Most of his fellow travellers were Trade men. But few of them sported Company badges. The majority were drifters or Free Traders, men who either from faults of temperament or other reasons could not find a niche in the large parental organizations, but shipped out on one independent spacer or another, the bottom layer of the Trade world.

Dane shouldered his bag into the lift which swept him up to ground level and out into the sunshine of a baking south-western summer day. He lingered on the concrete apron which rimmed this side of the take-off Field, looking out over its pitted and blasted surface at the rows of cradles which held those ships now readying for flight. He had scant attention for the stubby inter-planetary traders, the Martian and Asteroid lines, the dull dark ships which ploughed out to Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons. What he wanted lay beyond—the star ships—their sleek sides newly sprayed against dust friction, the soil of strange worlds perhaps still clinging to their standing fins.

“Well, if it isn’t the Viking! Hunting for your long boat, Dane?”

Only someone who knew Dane very well could have read the real meaning in that twitch of his lower lip. When he turned to face the speaker his expression was under its usual tight control.

Artur Sands had assumed the swagger of a hundred voyage man, which contrasted oddly, Dane was pleased to note, with his too shiny boots and unworn tunic. But as ever the other’s poise aroused his own secret resentment. And Artur was heading his usual chorus of followers too, Ricki Warren and Hanlaf Bauta.

“Just come in, Viking? Haven’t tried your luck yet, I take it? Neither have we. So let’s go together to learn the worst.”

Dane hesitated. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was to face the Psycho in Artur Sands’ company. To him the other’s supreme self-confidence was somewhat unnerving. Sands expected the best, and judging from various incidents at the Pool, what Artur expected he usually got.

On the other hand Dane had often good reason to worry about the future. And if he were going to have hard luck now he would rather learn it without witnesses. But there was no getting rid of Artur he realized. So philosophically he checked his kit while the others waited impatiently.

They had come by air—the best was none too good for Artur and his crowd. Why hadn’t they been to the cargo department assignment Psycho before this? Why had they waited the extra hour—or had they spent their last truly free time sightseeing? Surely—Dane knew a little lift of heart at the thought—it couldn’t be that they were dubious about the machine’s answer too?

But that hope was quenched as he joined them in time to hear Artur expound his favourite theme.

“The machine impartial! That’s just the comet dust they feed you back at the Pool. Sure, we know the story they set up—that a man has to be fitted by temperament and background to his job, that each ship has to carry a well integrated crew—but that’s all moon gas! When Inter-Solar wants a man, they get him—and no Psycho fits him into their ships if they don’t want him! That’s for the guys who don’t know how to fire the right jets—or haven’t brains enough to look around for good berths. I’m not worrying about being stuck on some starving Free Trader on the fringe—”

Ricki and Hanlaf were swallowing every word of that. Dane didn’t want to. His belief in the incorruptibility of the Psycho was the one thing he had clung to during the past few weeks when Artur and those like him had strutted about the Pool confident about their speedy transition to the higher levels of Trade.

He had preferred to believe that the official statements were correct, that a machine, a collection of impulses and relays which could be in no way influenced, decided the fate of all who applied for assignment to off-world ships. He wanted to believe that when he fed his ID plate into the Psycho at the star port here it would make no difference that he was an orphan without kin in the service, that the flatness of his money belt could not turn or twist a decision which would be based only on his knowledge, his past record at the Pool, his temperament and potentialities.

But doubt had been planted and it was that lack of faith which worked on him now, slowing his pace as they approached the assignment room. On the other hand Dane had no intention of allowing Artur or either of his satellites to guess he was bothered.

So a stubborn pride pushed him forward to be the first of the four to fit his ID into the waiting slot. His fingers twitched to snatch it back again before it disappeared, but he controlled that impulse and stood aside for Artur.

The Psycho was nothing but a box, a square of solid metal— or so it looked to the waiting apprentices. And that wait might have been easier, Dane speculated, had they been able to watch the complicated processes inside the bulk, could have seen how those lines and notches incised on their plates were assessed, matched, paired, until a ship now in port and seeking apprentices was found for them.

Long voyages for small crews sealed into star spacers, with little chance for recreation or amusement, had

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