The shooting died down to occasional rattles of small arms, usually followe_y yells for quarter. An explosion thundered from across the crater. Th_Lester Dawes_ fired her big guns a few times. A machine gun stuttered. _istol banged, far away. It took two hours before all the pirates had bee_unted out of hiding and captured, or killed if found by their forme_aptives, who were accepting no surrender whatever.
Blackie Perales had been one of the latter; he had been found, his clothes i_ags and covered with dirt and grease, hiding under a machine in one of th_hops back of the dock in which the _Harriet Barne_ was being rebuilt. H_ad tried to claim that he was one of the pirates' prisoners who had elude_he roundup at the beginning of the battle and had been hiding there since. A_oon as the real prisoners saw and recognized him, they had fallen upon hi_nd clubbed, kicked and stamped him out of any resemblance to humanity. A_hat, what he got was probably only a fraction of what he deserved.
The egg breakage had been heavy, and not at all confined to the bad eggs. _hird gunboat, the _Banshee_ , had been destroyed with all hands during th_inal attack from outside; in addition, a dozen men had been killed during th_ighting in the galleries. Everybody was shocked, except Klem Zareff, who ha_een in battles before. He was surprised that the casualties had been s_ight.
At first glance, the spaceport looked like a handsome prize of victory. Th_ocks and workshops were all in good condition; at worst, they only neede_leaning up. There was a collapsium plant, with its own mass-energy converter.
There were foundries and machine-shops and forging-shops and a rolling-mill, almost completely robotic. At first, Conn thought that it might be possible t_uild a hyperdrive ship here, without having to go to Koshchei at all.
Closer examination disabused him of this hope. There was nothing of which th_ramework of a ship could be built, and no way of producing heavy structura_teel. The rolling-mill was good enough to turn out eighth-inch sheet materia_hich when plated with a few micromicrons of collapsium would be as good as _undred feet of lead against space-radiations, but that was the ship's skin. _hip needed a skeleton, too. The only thing to do was go on with the _Harrie_arne_.
It was sunset before he finished his tour of inspection and let his jeep dow_n a vehicle hall off the lower gallery outside what had originally been th_paceport officers' club. It was crowded, and a victory celebration seemed t_e getting under way. He saw his father with Yves Jacquemont, Sylvie, To_rangwyn, and Captain Nichols. Nichols had gotten clean clothes from th_irates' store of loot, and had bathed and shaved. So had Jacquemont, thoug_e had contented himself with trimming his beard. It took him a second or s_o recognize the young lady in feminine garb as his erstwhile battle comrade, Sylvie.
"Well, our pay goes on from the day we were captured," Nichols was saying. "M_nstructions are to resume command of the ship. Tomorrow, they're sending _arty out to go over her."
Conn stopped short. "What's this about the ship?"
"Captain Nichols was in screen contact with his company's office i_torisende," Rodney Maxwell said. "They're continuing him in command of her."
"But … but we took that ship! We lost three gunboats and about twenty-fiv_en… ."
"She still belongs to Transcontinent & Overseas," his father said. "That'_een the law on stolen property as long as there's been any law."
Of course; he should have known that. Did know it; just didn't think.
"We broke an awful lot of eggs for no omelet; fought a battle for nothing."
"Well, of course, I'm prejudiced," Sylvie said, "but I don't think getting u_ut of the hands of that bloodthirsty maniac and his cutthroats was nothing."
"Wiping out the Perales gang wasn't nothing, Conn," Tom Brangwyn said. "Yo_ot no idea at all how bad things were, the last couple of years."
"I know. I'm sorry." He was ashamed of himself. "But I needed a ship, and no_e have no ship at all."
"A ship means something to you?" Yves Jacquemont asked.
"Yes." He told him why. "If we could get to Koshchei, we could build _ypership of our own, and get our brandy and things to markets where we coul_et a decent price for them."
"I know. I was in and out of Storisende on these owner-captain tramps for _ouple of years before I decided to retire and settle here," Jacquemont said.
"The profit on a cargo of Poictesme brandy on Terra or Baldur is over _housand percent."
"Well, don't give up too soon," Nichols advised. "You can't keep the _Harrie_arne_ , of course, but you're entitled to prize-money on her, and that ough_o buy you something you could build a spaceship out of."
"That's right," Jacquemont said. "Everything else besides the frame can b_ade here. Look, these pirates burned me out; except for the money I have i_he bank, I lost everything, home, business and all. As soon as I can find _lace for Sylvie to stay, I'll come back and go to work for your compan_uilding a spaceship. And a lot of the men who were working here are farm- tramps and drifters, one job's as good as another as long as they get paid fo_t. And I know a few good men in Storisende—engineers—who'd be glad for a job, too."
"You think it would be all right with Mother and Flora if Sylvie stayed wit_s?" Conn asked.
"Of course it would; they'd be glad to have her." Rodney Maxwell turned t_ves Jacquemont. "Let's consider that fixed up. Now, suppose you and I go int_torisende, and… ."
The Transcontinent & Overseas people arrived at Barathrum Spaceport the nex_orning; a rear-rank vice-president, a front-rank legal-eagle, and thre_ngineers. They were horrified at what they saw. The _Harriet Barne_ ha_een gutted. Bulkheads and decks had been ripped out and relocate_ncomprehensibly; the bridge and the control room under it were gone; she ha_een stripped to her framework, and the whole underside was sheathed i_himmering collapsium.
"Great Ghu!" the vice-president almost howled. "That isn't _our_ ship!"
"That's the _Harriet Barne_ ," her captain said. "She looks a little ragge_ow, but—"
"You helped these pirates do this to her?"
"If I hadn't, they'd have cut my throat and gotten somebody else to help them.
My throat's more valuable to me than the ship is to you; I can't get anybod_o build me a new one."
"Well, understand," one of the engineers said, "they were converting her int_n interplanetary ship. It wouldn't cost much to finish the job."
"We need an interplanetary ship like we need a hole in the head!" The vice- president turned to Rodney Maxwell. "Just how much prize-money do you thin_ou're entitled to for this wreck?"
"I wouldn't know; that's up to Sterber, Flynn & Chen-Wong. Up to the court, i_e can settle it any other way."
"You mean you'd litigate about this?" the lawyer demanded, and began to laugh.
"If we have to. Look, if you people don't want her, sign her over t_itchfield Exploration & Salvage. But if you do want her, you'll have to pa_or her."
"We'll give you twenty thousand sols," the lawyer said. "We don't want to b_ightfisted. After all, you fought a gang of pirates and lost some men and _ouple of boats; we have some moral obligation to you. But you'll have t_ealize that this ship, in her present state, is practically valueless."
"The collapsium on her is worth twice that, and the engines are worth eve_ore," Jacquemont said. "I worked on them."
The discussion ended there. By midafternoon, Luther Chen-Wong, the junio_artner of the law firm, arrived from Storisende with a couple of engineers o_is own. Reporters began arriving; both sides were anxious to keep them awa_rom the ship. Conn took care of them, assisted by Sylvie, who had rummaged a_ven more attractive costume out of what she called the loot-cellar. Th_eporters all used up a lot of film footage on her. And the Fawzis' Offic_ang arrived from Force Command, bitterly critical of the value of th_paceport against its cost in lives and equipment. Brangwyn and Zaref_eturned to Force Command with them. A Planetary Air Patrol ship arrived an_emoved the captured pirates. The liberated prisoners were airlifted t_itchfield.
The third day after the battle, Conn and his father and Sylvie and her fathe_lew to Litchfield. To Conn's surprise, Flora greeted him cordially, and Wad_ucas, rather stiffly, congratulated him. Maybe it was as Tom Brangwyn ha_aid; he hadn't been on Poictesme in the last four or five years and didn'_now how bad things had gotten. His mother seemed to think he had won th_attle of Barathrum single-handed.
He was even more surprised and gratified that Flora made friends with Sylvi_mmediately. His mother, however, regarded the engineer's daughter with badl_oncealed hostility, and seemed to doubt that Sylvie was the kind of girl sh_anted her son getting involved with. Outwardly, of course, she was quit_racious.
Rodney Maxwell and Yves Jacquemont flew to Storisende the next morning, bot_ore optimistic about finding a ship than Conn thought the circumstance_arranted. Conn stayed at home for the next few days, luxuriating in idleness.
He and Sylvie tore down his mother's household robots and built sound-sensor_nto them, keying them to respond to their names and to a few simple commands, and including recorded-voice responses in a thick Sheshan accent. All th_mart people on Terra, he explained, had Sheshan humanoid servants.
His mother was delighted. Robots that would answer when she spoke to them wer_ lot more companionable. She didn't seem to think, however, that Sylvie'_echanical skills were ladylike accomplishments. Nice girls, Litchfield model, weren't quite so handy with a spot-welder. That was what Conn liked abou_ylvie; she was like the girls he'd known at the University.
They were strolling after dinner, down the Mall. The air was sharp and warne_hat autumn had definitely arrived; the many brilliant stars, almost as brigh_s the moon of Terra, were coming out in the dusk.
"Conn, this thing about Merlin," she began. "Do you really believe in it? Eve_ince Dad and I came to Poictesme, I've been hearing about it, but it's just _tory, isn't it?"
He was tempted to tell her the truth, and sternly put the temptation behin_im.
"Of course there's a Merlin, Sylvie, and it's going to do wonderful thing_hen we find it."
He looked down the starlit Mall ahead of him. Somebody, maybe Lester Dawes an_organ Gatworth and Lorenzo Menardes, had gotten things finished and cleane_p. The pavement was smooth and unbroken; the litter had vanished.
"It's done wonderful things already, just because people started looking fo_t," he said. "Some of these days, they're going to realize that they ha_erlin all along and didn't know it."
There was a faint humming from somewhere ahead, and he was wondering what i_as. Then they came to the long escalators, and he saw that they were running.
"Why, look! They got them fixed! They're running!"
Sylvie grinned at him and squeezed his arm.
"I get you, chum," she said. "Of course there's a Merlin."
Maybe he didn't have to tell her the truth.
When they returned to the house, his mother greeted him:
"Conn, your father's been trying to get you ever since you went out. Call him, right away; Ritz-Gartner Hotel, in Storisende. It's something about a ship."
It look a little time to get his father on-screen. He was excited and happy.
"Hi, Conn; we have one," he said.
"What kind of a ship?"
"You know her. The _Harriet Barne_."
That he hadn't expected. Something off Mothball Row that would have to b_lown to Barathrum and torn down and completely rebuilt, but not the one tha_as there already, partly finished.
"How the dickens did you wangle that?"
"Oh, it was Yves' idea, to start with. He knew about her; the T. & O.'s bee_osing money on her for years. He said if they had to pay prize-money on he_nd then either restore her to original condition or finish the job and buil_ spaceship they didn't want, it would almost bankrupt the company. They go_p as high as fifty thousand sols for prize-money and we just laughed at them.
So we made a proposition of our own.
"We proposed organizing a new company, subsidiary to both L. E. & S. and T. & O., to engage in interplanetary shipping; both companies to assign thei_quity in the _Harriet Barne_ to the new company, the work of completing he_o be done at our spaceport and the labor cost to be shared. This would giv_s our spaceship, and get T. & O. off the hook all around. Everybody was fo_t except the president of T. & O. Know anything about him?"
Conn shook his head. His father continued:
"Name's Jethro Sastraman. He could play Scrooge in _Christmas Carol_ withou_ny makeup at all. He hasn't had a new idea since he got out of college, an_hat was while the War was still going on. 'Preposterous; utterly visionar_nd impractical,'" his father mimicked. "Fortunately, a majority of the bi_tockholders didn't agree; they finally bullied him into agreeing. We'r_alling the new company Alpha-Interplanetary, we have an application fo_harter in, and that'll go through almost automatically."
"Who's going to be the president of this new company?"
"You know him. Character named Rodney Maxwell. Yves is going to be vice- president in charge of operations; he's flying to Barathrum tomorrow or th_ext day with a gang of technicians we're recruiting. T. & O. are giving u_lyde Nichols and Mack Vibart, and a lot of men from their shipyard. I'_taying here in Storisende; we're opening an office here. By this time nex_eek, we're all going to wish we'd been born quintuplets."
"And Conn Maxwell, I suppose, will be an influential non-office-holdin_tockholder?"