45. TROUBLE ON JAVA 19*

The price of java juice has suddenly gone up.
Tony and Bea agree to find out what’s gone wrong on Java 19.

When Moderato has to pay a lot more than usual for java juice, he asks Tony to investigate.  When Tony takes the transporter to Java 19, he is sent away by a bunch of bruisers in purple uniforms.  He and Bea decide to make a secret visit by ship, but, with a lazy Pilot, it isn’t as secret as they hoped.

Length : 11 700 words.

1

“WHERE ARE WE?”

 

“We look weird.” I flexed my right hand, because I could hardly believe it was mine. It’s usually white, but the Bean and I had taken special pills which made us darker than black Africans, with a shiny green tinge.

The Bean’s teeth looked white in her black face as she smiled. “Not as weird as our usual colour would look on Java 19.”

“Yeah. At least their gear is comfortable.” We were wearing typical casual gear of the Galactic Federation – like a grey tracksuit, with matching trainers.

She said, “We’ll wear the wrist units, and put the stun-guns and the signallers in our pockets. Would you take the rest of the stuff in the backpack?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Thanks, Tony.”

As I packed it, she checked her wrist unit. “Tarpec said we’d land at 90%, local time, but I haven’t heard him giving the orders.”

We went through to the control room of the spaceship, where Tarpec, our pilot, was lounging in the command chair, facing the terminal of Victor, the Federation computer. I felt the twist in my guts as we came out of the fourth dimension, and Tarpec announced, “We landed. Right on time.”

I asked, “Where?”

“On Java 19, of course. Where d’you think we’ve been going for the last 2½ days?”

“Where on Java 19?”

“The emergency landing site. You said you didn’t want to land at the main one.”

I shouted at him, “Why didn’t we want to land at the main one? And why are we landing at night? Because this is supposed to be a secret trip. We told you we wanted to land somewhere out of sight.”

“This is out of sight. D’you think I’m a mind-reader?”

“No! I think you’re too lazy to land at a place that’s not on Victor’s database.”

He tried to protest, but I shouted him down. “And you tried to get away with it because we’re young.”

“Tony!” said the Bean. “Let it go. It’s done now.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but shut it. She was right – as usual. As I glared at Tarpec, she went on, “Victor, let’s see the pictures from the outside cameras.” The big screen divided into four grey patches – a big one at the top, and three smaller ones underneath.

“Use the low-light booster.”

The pictures came up, in shades of grey. The main one showed the bottom of a cliff, which stretched up, out of sight.

Tarpec asked, “What are those marks on the rock?”

“A door and a window,” said the Bean.

“What?”

The Bean used her snippy voice. “If you had asked Victor about Java 19, he would have told you the people cut their houses out of cliffs.”

“Is that a house?”

“I think so, and I’m surprised. Victor said that, when the planet started making money, everyone moved to the main cliff. There’s no light in that window, so let’s hope the people are asleep. But anyone could be lurking in those bushes.”

The opposite side of the ship had a row of high bushes with big, shiny leaves. The other two sides were flat and stony.

I said, “It looks like we’ve landed on a road.”

The Bean asked, “Tarpec, would the natives know about this site?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno.”

I asked, “Bean, what do we do?” I hate to admit it, but, although I’m 13 and the Bean’s only 11, she has a higher rank than me, so she was in command of the mission.

She frowned at Tarpec. “We ought to take off, and land somewhere else.”

“We don’t have time for that,” I said, “And, if the natives have seen us here, our visit isn’t a secret now.”

Tarpec said, “There’s nobody around.”

“We hope,” said the Bean. “If they know about this place, they may be lying in wait. This is a perfect place for an ambush. A hundred people could hide in those bushes.”

Tarpec asked, “Do you really believe anyone’s out there?”

“No, but someone may come along at any time. I wanted to wait for a while before we went out, but we’d better go as soon as we can. Victor, warn us if you see anything. In the meantime, let’s see an aerial photo of this part of the planet.”

It came up on the screen, mainly big green patches – fields – with stony roads between.

“Where are we?” A white dot appeared on one of the roads.

She pointed. “There’s the big cliff, where the people live. It’s somewhere behind that cliff outside. Victor, how far away is it?”

“1.38 kilometres approximately.”

“Tarpec, do you know our plans?”

“No. Should I?”

“Something happened on this planet, perhaps something serious. We’ll hide until daylight, then hope to find a native who can tell us. As soon as we’ve left the ship, take off. Go into orbit. You’re safe there: the natives don’t have space travel. We have signallers. When we’re ready to leave, we’ll call you down.”

“Here?”

“Where else? I hope it’ll be tomorrow after dark.”

“What’ll I do if you don’t call me down?”

“Give us two days. If we haven’t called you down by the morning of the third day from now, go back, and report to Moderato.”

“Are you asking me to hang around in orbit for more than two days?”

“If necessary. Would you rather go out there with us?”

“No!” He grinned. “You’re welcome to that job.”

“Thank you. Then we’ll go and do it.” We went through to the ship’s entrance hall. I put on the backpack and my helmet.

The Bean ordered the control room door to close, and the lights to go off. I pulled down the night-vision screen from the peak of my helmet, brought out my stun-gun, and faced the door. “Open.” It slid aside. Outside was a band of gravel that glowed in the dark. That was luminite, used to mark landing sites. That answered the Bean’s question: the natives did know this was a landing site. I didn’t bother telling her. She’d see it for herself. Beyond the luminite was ordinary gravel, with weeds growing in it. Beyond that, the bushes were eerie shadows, more than twice as high as me. The cold wind made them wave against the starry sky.

I pushed up the night-vision screen, and waited till my eyes got used to the dark. That was better. Java 19 had five moons. At least one must be shining into the road between the cliff and the bushes. I shivered. The Federation gear was warmer than most native stuff, but it didn’t keep out that wind.

I went out, onto the glowing gravel. Everything stayed quiet except the rustling leaves. I took two cautious steps forward, onto the ordinary gravel. Nothing happened.

I turned. “I think it’s safe.” I couldn’t see the Bean, but she was covering me from the entrance hall, and watching me in pictures from the ship’s cameras, sent to the screen of her wrist unit.

One of the reasons the Bean and I are Troubleshooters of the Galactic Federation is that we can sense the feelings of other races. If a gang of men were hiding in those bushes, I would sense their excitement. Probably: some races don’t give a strong signal.

With my eyes, ears and mind alert, I walked round the ship, keeping my finger on the trigger of my stun-gun. The cliff face wasn’t much higher than the ship – about the height of a one-storey house – but it stretched into the darkness in both directions. The doorways and windows were dark patches in it.

I ran across, to the nearest window. I pulled down the night-vision screen, but I couldn’t see much inside – piles of white plastic barrels. A store room?

As I turned away, a weird noise froze me to the spot. It sounded like a burst of men’s laughter, somewhere in the distance. I ran to the shadow of a doorway, and listened, but heard nothing except the rustling of the leaves. Was it an animal? Was it my imagination? I listened for a while, but it didn’t come again.

What was that? Above the doorway? It looked like a bit of pipe, sticking a short distance out, then bending down. Was it a camera? Probably not. It looked more like a water pipe. I could only hope it wasn’t important.

Back at the ship’s entrance, I told the Bean, “Nothing to see. A funny noise, but it’s gone.”

She said, “I don’t like it, but I suppose we should go.” I faced the dark bushes, stun-gun ready, as she came out of the ship, and ordered, “Close.” I don’t usually notice the hum as a ship’s door shuts, but that one sounded loud in the quiet of that mysterious planet’s night.

We crept to the shadow of the bushes. The Bean waved, and the ship vanished as it ‘took off’ into the fourth dimension, leaving the ghostly glow of the landing square.

I whispered, “Where do we hide? Somewhere out of this wind.”

“I don’t…. What’s that?”

“I… I don’t know. That’s the noise I heard. An animal, maybe.”

“Maybe. That settles it. We go in the other direction. Will you lead?” I usually lead, because I’m a better thought-senser than her.

A lot of good that did me. I heard a rustle in the bushes, and spun that way, pulling the trigger of my stun-gun. Too late. My head seemed to explode in a blast of pain, and I fell unconscious.