H. JETS

1

Obsidian said, “Bea, I believe you are making reports about the Federation.”

“Yes,” I said, so surprised that I asked without thinking, “How did you know?”

“It’s my business to know what agents are doing.”

“I’m sorry. I only do it when I don’t have missions.”

“Don’t apologise, Bea. I like what you’re doing. Have you described jets, and their use in Carringtons, scooters and pegasuses?”

“No. Not yet.”

“If you would like to do that now, you could do me a favour at the same time.”

“Yes, of course.” What else could I say? I’m an agent of the Galactic Federation, and Obsidian is commander of all the local agents.

“A gentleman called Skattle contacted me. He intends to buy a pegasus for his son, but he wishes the boy to learn about them first. Skattle asked me to find an agent to accompany his son on a visit to a maker of pegasuses. Knowing of your work, I thought I would ask you.”

“Why does the son need an agent with him?”

“The pegasus-makers don’t keep their business secret, but they don’t encourage visitors. They won’t let Skattle’s son into the works unless he’s accompanied by an agent.”

“Then I should thank you for the invitation. How old is Skattle’s son?”

“I don’t know his exact age, but I believe it’s similar to your own. Three places in the Federation make pegasuses – Free Spirits on Farhoy 12, Jokongo’s Jets on Nasti Nurvi 4, and Zejets on Obegon 4. Skattle wants you to meet his son at the Obegon 4 comm centre at 11% tomorrow, for a visit to Zejets.”

I hesitated. I’d arranged to meet Hais on Dancer 61 the next day.

“Is that not convenient?”

“I had arranged something else, but I can change it.”

“Thank you, Bea. Skattle is a wealthy factory owner on Veevi 2, and that makes him one of the rulers of the planet. That’s why I’m keen to oblige him.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll be there.”

“Thank you, Bea. I’ll tell Skattle and Zejets, and look forward to your report.”

2

I called Hais to change my visit, but I wasn’t pleased. I felt that Skattle should have agreed the time of the visit with me, instead of just telling me. I was even less pleased when I was at the Obegon 4 communication centre at the time he gave, and it was empty except for an old lady, sitting, staring into space. Deciding she couldn’t be Skattle’s son, I had a look around.

There wasn’t much to see. One shuttle terminal. Four transporters, like lifts, used for travel to nearby planets. But here, one door was labelled, “Zejets” – which was on this planet. That was interesting. If the factory had its own transporter, it must be more important than I’d realised.

11%, the meeting time, came round. Then 11.5%. Still the shuttle and transporter doors remained closed.

12%. My annoyance grew. I was tempted to go back and tell Obsidian no one had appeared. I decided to wait till 13%. That would be more than half an hour after the time that Skattle had given.

At 12.9%, a boy came out of the shuttle. If he hadn’t been scowling, he might have been handsome. He was pale, like a boy from Scotland who never went outside. His fair hair hung to the collar of his suit – Federation casual, like a black tracksuit with white bands round the chest and cuffs.

He spoke to the old lady. She gave him a quiet answer, which made him say, “Tuh!” and come to ask me, “Seen a Federation agent around here?” He spoke into his wrist unit – like a phone on a strap round his wrist – and mine gave the translation.

I answered into mine, and his gave the translation. “Why?”

“What d’you mean – why?”

I spread my arms, showing my uniform, like a grey tracksuit with dark green bands round the chest and cuffs, showing I’m a Troubleshooter. “I’m a Federation agent. I was due to meet someone here, but that was nearly 2% ago.”

“You! How old are you?”

“Eleven. Nearly twelve. Why?”

“They might have sent a proper agent.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Someone more important than you. Maybe the commander of the base here.”

“If you don’t think I’m good enough, I’ll go.”

“Nah. They won’t let me in the peggie place unless I’m with an agent. Why’d they send a little girl?”

I didn’t like the ‘little girl’, but I swallowed my annoyance and gave a simple answer. “I’m doing a report about jets, including pegasuses. What’s your name?”

“Tloise. My dad’s the ruler of Veevi 2.”

“I know. How old are you?”

“Twelve. Why don’t you get moving? I’ve better things to do than stand here, answering your stupid questions.”

I felt like saying a lot of things, but they wouldn’t have improved relations between the Federation and Veevi 2, so I started for the transporter corridor.

3

The Zejets transporter opened into a square room which was bright because the wall at the right was all glass, including wide double doors. A man in a grey uniform sat at a desk, facing the transporter.

The brightest colours in the room were two Carringtons, one blue and one green, hovering in front of wide double doors at our left. A Carrington is a survey robot, like a flying saucer about a metre across.

The man at the desk stood and smiled. “Greetings. Welcome to Zejets. May I help you?”

Tloise bawled, “Let’s see the peggies.”

I said to the receptionist, “I’m Bea. This is Tloise. We have an appointment to see your works. I’m sorry we’re late. Tloise was delayed.”

“We are expecting you.” He turned to the Carringtons. “Green, would you tell Zej 1034 that the visitors have arrived?”

The green Carrington said, “Yes, sir.” He must have sent a radio signal to the doors behind him. They slid aside. The Carrington zoomed out, and the doors slid shut.

 

4

The receptionist told us, “Zej 1034 will be with you soon.”

Zej 1034. On some planets, families give the oldest male child the same name, so they add a number to distinguish them, although I’d never seen one as high as 1034. Zej 1034’s father would be called Zej 1033, and his grandfather would be Zej 1032. His son would be Zej 1035 and, if he had a grandson, he would be Zej 1036.

While we were waiting, I went to the glass doors. The view might have been on Earth – a wide white path, bordered by blue flowers. In the distance, a wall, painted bright orange.

The transporter door whined open. Out wobbled a buff-coloured Carrington, or what remained of one. He looked as if he’d come off worst in an argument with an axe. One side, about a quarter of his body, was broken off. A big V was missing from the other side, and the rest was chipped and battered.

He said, “Howdy, miss,” to me; “Howdy, son,” to Tloise; then, “Howdy, sir,” to the receptionist. “I’m Doc, Luke’s sidekick from Dinc 27. You expectin’ me?”

The receptionist smiled. “Yes, sir. Blue, would you take Doc to the repair bay?”

“Yes, sir.” The double doors slid open, the blue Carrington led the buff one through, and the doors closed behind them.

After two or three minutes, the double doors opened again. Tloise and I turned hopefully, but it was the blue Carrington returning.

Tloise complained, “Where is he? Why is he keeping us waiting?”

The receptionist said, “I’m sorry, sir. Zej 1034 will be here soon.”

I said to him, “I’m sorry. Tloise hasn’t learned any manners.”

Tloise exclaimed, “Manners!” If he’d said any more, I was in the mood to give him a telling-off, but he just said, “Tuh!” and turned away.

I went back to the view until the doors hummed, and Tloise exclaimed, “No!”

The green Carrington was back – with a boy who looked like a young goblin. His nose was big, and his eyes were small. His mousy hair straggled over big ears. His grey Federation casual gear could have used a wash. If he had stood straight, he would have been as tall as me, but his shoulders were stooped.

He frowned, holding his hands together as if he was praying, then turning them out, palms forward.

I did the same, touching my palms to his. Together, we said, “Vren.” The boy smiled, still ugly but now friendly. “Welcome to Zejets. I am Zej 1034.” Doing the same with his hands, he turned to Tloise.

Tloise didn’t respond: he asked me, “What’s he doing?”

I answered, “That’s the Obegon 4 greeting. ‘Vren’ is their word for ‘friend’.”

“How d’you know?”

“I asked Victor, the Federation computer.” When Tloise didn’t do the greeting, I said to Zej 1034, “I’m Bea, and this is Tloise. Thank you for agreeing to show us round.”

“I am happy to do so. My father owns the works but, since you are young, he suggested that I should guide you.”

I had time to say, “Thank you,” before Tloise demanded, “How old are you?”

“Twelve,” answered Zej 1034.

“Twelve!” exclaimed Tloise.

Zej 1034 said, “I have worked here for more than a thousand days. My father would not have asked me to guide you if I did not know about our work.”

I said, “We’re very grateful to you.”

“Yeah,” said Tloise. “Now get on with it.”

“Of course,” said Zej 1034. “What do you wish to see?”

Before I could answer, Tloise said, “Peggies.”

I said, “I’m doing reports about the Federation. I’d like to know about jets – how they’re made, how they work, and how they’re used.”

Tloise bawled, “Forget all that! Just let’s see peggies.”

“I’m sorry, Tloise,” I said (not entirely truthfully). “I’d like to make a full report. If you don’t want to see the rest, perhaps you might wait here while I see them.”

Tloise’s glare threatened to fry me, but he said, “I suppose I’ve got to suffer the lot. Get on with it.”

 

5

Zej 1034 said, “I have prepared demonstrations for you in my own lab.” He faced the doors behind the Carringtons. “Open.” The doors slid aside, and we went through, into the side of a big, long hall. It was bare, with plain white walls, and empty except for three round black stands with silver devices displayed on them.

Seeing me looking at them, Zej 1034 said, “These are samples of the devices we make. But you will understand them better if I tell you about jets first. My lab is in the admin wing. This way.”

He led us to a door in the end of the hall at the left. “Open.” It slid aside, letting us into a long wide corridor with a window at the far end. The wall at the right was blank, but the one at the left had white doors with frosted glass windows between them.

Tloise asked, “Does your father have a lab?”

“Yes,” said Zej 1034. He touched the doors as we passed them. “That’s the office, that’s our conference room, and that’s my father’s lab.”

“I want to see your father’s lab.”

“There’s nothing to see. My lab is along here.” He passed several more doors, and opened the second-last one.

The room was square, nearly as big as my classroom at school on Earth. Opposite the door was a wide window with a bench under it. Each side of the room had shelves piled with equipment. The room was obviously well used, but it didn’t look untidy.

From the bench, Zej 1034 picked up a short, thick, grey pipe, with a slight bulge round it near one end. “This is a single jet, properly called a zejet.” He held it out to me, but Tloise grabbed it. “Let me see that.” He scowled at it.

I asked Zej 1034, “Would you mind telling me the size of it? I ought to include that in my report.”

“No trouble. It’s about 10 cm long, 6 cm in diameter, and 1 cm thick.” My wrist unit translated his sizes into centimetres.

“Thank you very much. Did you call it a zejet?”

“Yes.” I sensed his pride. “Zej 313, an ancestor of mine, invented it.”

“How?”

“He happened to have small pieces of two metals, touching each other, on his bench in the sun. He noticed that, when specks of dust fell towards them, they were swept from one to the other. The two metals caused a small current of air.”

“Oh? Why?”

He grinned. “No one knows, even now. But my ancestor did experiments with the two metals, and made the first zejet.”

“When was that?”

“A long time ago. More than six million days.”

“Six million days! That’s a long time. If your ancestor invented the zejets, why are other people allowed to make them?”

“We can’t stop them. Federation rules. No one but Zejets was allowed to make them for the first 20 000 days. After that, anyone could do so. But we still make zejets, and they’re still the best.”

“No, they’re not,” said Tloise. “Jokongo’s Jets are better.”

I asked, “How do you know?”

“I…. My father’s going to buy my peggie from them.”

 

6

Tloise held up the jet. “How does this work?”

Zej 1034 explained, “See the wires round the jet, near the ends. Those are the electrical connections. I’ve wired another one to a power pack so that you can see what it does.” He gave Tloise a jet which had two wires leading to a black box with a knob, which he turned a little.

I didn’t see or hear anything, but I sensed the surprise in Tloise’s mind as he held his hand at one end of the tube, then the other. He didn’t speak, but he frowned at the tube, and inspected it from all angles.

At last, he said, “That’s impossible.”

I asked, “May I see it?” Tloise resisted for a moment, but let me take it.

It was strange. Air was blowing gently through the tube, going in one end and out the other. I understood Tloise’s surprise. There seemed no reason why it should.

Zej 1034 said, “I’ll increase the power.” He turned the knob.

The air flowed faster through the tube. At the end where it went in, it was as strong as a vacuum cleaner. I put it to my palm, where the suction made it stick.

Tloise grabbed it. “Let me see it.” He tried his palm over each end.

I asked, “Does it work with any size of tube?”

“Yes, but it has the greatest effect on the air near the side. A narrower tube gives a faster jet of air, but there wouldn’t be enough of it. That tube is the best width for most uses.”

As Tloise poked a finger in the tube, Zej 1034 asked him, “What do you feel?”

“It’s trying to pull my finger in.”

“The force acts on anything in the tube. It will pull the blood to the end of your finger.”

As Tloise frowned and took his finger out of the tube, I asked, “How about the length?”

“The first part of the tube does most of the work. A jet half that length would give 65% of the force. A jet twice that length would only give 10% more. That’s the best length for most uses.”

Tloise asked, “How much power can it give?”

Zej 1034 said, “It’s on 20% at present. If….”

“Turn it up full.”

“Lay it on the bench.”

“Why?”

“It’s dangerous to go near it when it’s on full power. Lay it on its side on the bench.”

When Tloise had done that, Zej 1034 turned the knob, counting up, “25%, 30%, 35%, 40%.”

At just over 30%, the tube started to move, wobbling across the bench until it fell off, and hung on the wires. Zej 1034 said, “The air jet is powerful enough to move the tube.” He switched it off. “I’ll clamp it.” He fixed it in a heavy metal block so that it was parallel to the bench, and a little above it.

He twisted the knob full to the right. I heard a faint whine, but didn’t see anything. When Tloise stretched a hand towards the tube, Zej 1034 whipped the knob fully left. Tloise frowned at him, but didn’t comment.

Zej 1034 gave me four blue plastic balls about the size of grapes. “When I turn the power to max, drop these past the end of the jet nearest you. That’s the inlet. Keep your hand well above it.”

I smiled. “You don’t need to tell me that.”

He turned the knob fully to the right. I cautiously went nearer, and dropped one of the balls. As it passed the end of the tube, it shot in. I caught the flash of blue as it flew out the other end. It pinged off the wall at the end of the bench, and bounced to the floor.

Tloise grabbed the other three balls. “I’ll do that.”

Zej 1034 said, “If you keep away from the jet.”

“D’you think I’m stupid?”

Zej 1034 didn’t answer that, but controlled the jet as Tloise dropped the balls.

I helped Zej 1034 to find the balls, then he said, “I’ll show you one more trick.” He clamped the jet upright, with the inlet a little above the bench. In it, he propped a yellow rod like a pencil, with the end sticking out the top.

He said, “Watch,” and turned the knob gently. At first, nothing happened. Then the rod moved until it was standing on end in the middle of the tube, not touching the sides. As he turned the knob a little further, the rod rose until it was hanging vertically in the jet.

He asked, “What’s happening now?”

I answered, “Gravity is pulling the rod down. The jet is pulling it up. You’ve adjusted the power so that they balance.”

Tloise commented, “That’s obvious.” I agreed with that, but I didn’t say so, because I didn’t want to spoil Zej 1034’s pleasure at showing us the trick.

He said, “Watch this.” He turned the power down until the bottom of the rod was touching the bench, then he suddenly turned it up full. The rod shot up, clanged off the ceiling, and rattled to the floor.

Tloise picked it up. “Yeah! Could you use it as a gun?”

“It’s been tried,” answered Zej 1034. He smiled. “I’ve tried it myself. But it’s impossible to get both speed and accuracy. Is that all you want to know about a single jet?”

“I think so,” I said. “I know that Carringtons and scooters have jets, but I’ve never thought much about them.”

Zej 1034 said, “I’ll show you how we make the jets, and fit them into Carringtons and scooters.”

“And peggies,” added Tloise.

“And peggies,” agreed Zej 1034.

 7

As we went to the door, I spotted something red on a side shelf. I asked, “What’s that?” and pulled it out. “He’s lovely!” It was a small Carrington, about the size of a dinner plate.

Zej 1034 was embarrassed. “I made one or two as an experiment.”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

“My dad doesn’t think so. Our customers don’t think so. They want the usual size. It’s more efficient. That’s just a toy.”

“I like him,” I said. “He’s cute.”

Tloise commented, “Tuh!”

Zej 1034 didn’t offer to let me see the little Carrington flying, so I reluctantly put him back on the shelf but, as we left the room, I said, “You should try to sell those little Carringtons, Zej 1034. If I had one like that, I would take him on most missions.”

“Thank you, Bea.” His embarrassment was stronger again. “I’ll tell Dad.”

8

As we went back along the corridor, Tloise said, “I want to see your father’s lab.”

“I told you,” said Zej 1034. “It’s the same as mine.”

“If you’re showing us the place properly, you ought to show us the owner’s workroom.”

“If you insist.” Zej 1034 stuck his head round the third door from the end, and exchanged a few words with someone inside. He didn’t use his wrist unit, but he must have got permission: he opened the door wider, and let us go in. He said, “This is my father, Zej 1033.”

The room was the same as Zej 1034’s lab, with a bench under the window, and shelves at the sides. A man was sitting on a stool at the bench. He was like an older Zej 1034 – a goblin in a wrinkled suit. He didn’t look pleased to see us, but he gave a polite wave.

We stood just inside the door. Tloise looked around the room for about half a minute, then, without a word, turned and went. I waved, said, “Thank you, sir,” to Zej 1033, and followed.

 

9

Out in the big hall, Zej 1034 said, “Now that you know about jets, you should understand how our products work. We keep the samples here to explain themselves to visitors. Let’s start with the Carrington.” He led us to the nearest stand. “Hi, Carrington.”

The stand was about as high as my waist, but the Carrington was on top of a thin post which took him to my eye level. He was a disc about a metre across, with lots of vertical holes – the jets – through the middle, and horizontal ones round the rim.

The Carrington replied, “Hi, Zej. Greetings, Bea. Greetings, Tloise. Welcome to Zejets.”

I said, “Hello, Carrington. You know me?”

“When Zej 1034 learned that you would be visiting, we asked Victor about you. I hope you enjoy your visit.”

“Thank you. Did Zej 1034 say that you can tell me about yourself?”

“I shall be happy to do so. What do you wish to know?”

“Would you describe yourself?” I quickly added, “Briefly.”

“I am a disc about 1 metre in diameter and 10 cm thick. I have 125 vertical jets in my body and 36 horizontal ones around my rim. By forcing air through the vertical jets, I can fly and, by forcing air through the horizontal jets, I can move around.”

Tloise demanded, “Is this a secret meeting?”

I sensed a spark of surprise in Zej 1034’s mind. He ordered, “Carrington, transmit to all the wrist units in this room.”

“Should I repeat my earlier information?”

“No, thanks. Bea, carry on.”

“Thanks. Carrington, what jobs do you do? Briefly.”

“I was designed to accompany explorers in unknown country, to report possible trouble or danger ahead, and to transmit pictures to their wrist units. I have also been employed in many other ways.”

“On my first mission, on Xavu 6, we had a Carrington who explored ahead of us. He was very helpful.”

Behind me, Tloise exclaimed, “Tuh!”

I asked, “Carrington, how did you get that name?” I had heard, but this would be a good chance to include it in the report.

“I am an aerial survey robot, but most planets have their own names for me. In Sol 3 English, I am named, ‘Carrington’ because my speech reminded the first Sol 3 agent of a butler of that name in a stately home.”

“Do you always speak with that voice?”

“I can be adjusted to speak with any voice. Don’t you like this one?”

“Yes, Carrington. It’s fine.”

Zej 1034 explained, “The Carrington voice doesn’t come from Sol 3. It is the voice of the first agent, who came from Vaya 7, one of the four founding planets of the Federation. But a Carrington can be reprogrammed with any voice which Victor has a record of. You’re an agent, so Victor will have a record of your voice. Would you like a Carrington that talked with your voice?”

“I wouldn’t fancy that at all.”

Hearing Tloise growling behind me, I said, “Carrington, thanks for your help. It’s been nice speaking to you.”

“It has been a pleasure meeting you, Bea.”

 

10

Zej 1034 was beaming as we strolled to the second display, in the middle of the hall, opposite the entrance. He spoke to it. “Greetings.”

“Greetings, Zej 1034. Greetings, Bea. Greetings, Tloise.”

The base was the same thickness as the Carrington, but it was square. Like the Carrington, it had lots of vertical holes in the middle, and horizontal ones round the rim. Thick corner posts supported a grid above it.

I said, “Greetings.” When Zej 1034 extended his hand towards the device, inviting me to question it, I asked it, “What are you?”

“I am a scooter.”

“Describe yourself.”

“My working part is a bank of jets, which is a block about 1.3 m square and 10 cm thick. It has 183 vertical jets, and 48 horizontal ones – 12 on each side. The corner posts support a platform, about 25 cm above the bank of jets.”

“What do you do?”

“I am a small hovercraft.”

“How do you work?”

“As air goes down through the jets, it enables me to hover about 5 cm above the ground. I can transport loads over ground that is not too rough. With a seat fitted, I can carry one person.”

“Thank you.”

When the scooter didn’t say any more, I moved on, saying to Zej 1034, “The voices of the scooter and the Carrington sound similar, but the scooter seems less friendly.”

“Carringtons work more closely with people, so they’re usually programmed to be more friendly. Scooters and peggies are just transport. Most customers prefer them more formal, although their control units can be adjusted to make them more friendly.”

 

11

By that time, we had reached the stand with the pegasus. It was much bigger than the Carrington or the scooter. How do I describe it? Sitting on the stand was a platform or grid like the one on the scooter. From its corners, four round posts, about as high as me, rose to a dome shaped like the roof of a circus tent. But that wasn’t the top of the pegasus. The posts continued up, not so long, to a bank of jets, which made the top of the device.

Zej 1034 spoke to it. “Greetings.”

It replied, in the same tones as the scooter, “Greetings, Zej 1034. Greetings, Bea. Greetings, Tloise.”

“Greetings,” I said. “What are you?”

“I am a pegasus.”

“Describe yourself.”

“My working part is a bank of jets, which is a block about 1.3 m square and 10 cm thick. It has 183 vertical jets, and 48 horizontal ones – 12 on each side. Below that are four 25-cm corner posts, then a canopy, then four 150-cm posts, then a platform. The canopy shields the platform from the blast of the jets.”

“What do you do?”

“I am a flying machine.”

“How do you work?”

“I can force air down through the jets, enabling me to rise into the air. I can be used to transport goods or, with a seat fitted, I can carry one person.”

From behind me, Tloise asked, “What weight can you carry?”

“About 120 kilograms.”

“Hmm.” Tloise probably didn’t want to sound impressed, but it seemed a lot to me. This device would easily carry three of me, high into the air. No doubt it was safe, but I didn’t like the idea of sitting on that platform with nothing under it but fresh air.

Zej 1034 asked, “Do you want to ask anything else about the peggie?”

“No, thanks,” I said, but his question reminded me. I asked him, “What did you call it?”

“A peggie. I’m sorry. The proper name is pegasus, but we always call it a peggie.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “My wrist unit uses two different words for it – the full-length name and a shortened one. In my language, the full-length name is the name of a flying horse in a legend.”

“A flying horse? I’ve never seen one of these. In my language, it just means ‘jet-powered flying device’, but everyone uses the short name.”

“During our training, we should have practised using pegasuses, but we didn’t have time because two criminals escaped from Yband 5. Tony, my friend, used a pegasus on a mission, and came back calling it a peggie.”

Tloise said, “Cut the gab, and let’s use one.”

“Not yet, please,” I said. “I’d like to see how the Carringtons, scooters and pegasuses are made.”

 

12

Zej 1034 waved towards the long white wall opposite the entrance. “The works are behind there.” He pointed to wide double doors at the left end. “The raw materials go in there.” Then he pointed to wide double doors at the right. “And the finished products come out there. Everything is automated. The control room is in the middle.” He started for a door in the middle of the wall.

As we went, Tloise asked, “What’s the difference between a scooter and a peggie?”

I sensed a hint of puzzlement in Zej 1034’s mind. “The scooter is a hovercraft. The peggie is a flying machine.”

“They use the same bank of jets.”

“Yes.”

“Then what’s to stop a scooter flying?”

“A scooter’s control unit won’t allow it to fly.”

“Why not?”

“Federation rules. With the load above the bank of jets, the scooter is less stable. It might topple.”

“D’you believe that?”

Zej 1034 hesitated, then said, “When the scooter is loaded, the jets might have trouble keeping it horizontal. And, after it has swung more than 450, the jets can’t save it. It topples. And….”

“That’s not what I asked,” Tloise interrupted. He must have noticed Zej 1034’s hesitation. “Do you – you, yourself – believe that a scooter could fly?”

“The Federation….”

Tloise dismissed the Federation with a curse. “Answer my question!”

“All right,” said Zej 1034. “I believe that, if the control unit was reprogrammed, a lightly loaded scooter could fly safely in calm conditions. But that’s only my opinion.”

“Ever done it?”

“Of course not. I told you: it’s against Federation rules.”

“Coward scrava!” exclaimed Tloise. “Could you do it?”

“I told you: the control unit is programmed to prevent the scooter from taking off.”

“Couldn’t you change the program?”

“Yes. I know how. But I wouldn’t. It’s illegal and dangerous.”

“Illegal and dangerous!” sneered Tloise. “You’ll tell me how to do it before I go.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“I believe that you are the son of a ruler of Veevi 2. But I cannot do anything illegal, or help you to do so.”

Tloise’s face went red. I thought he would explode with anger. But he just called, “Foul, coward scrava! Get on with it!”

 

13

Zej 1034 faced the central door. “This is the control room. Open.” The door slid aside, and Tloise and I followed him through.

I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. A big room – bigger than my school classroom on Earth – and the wall facing us was filled with displays. The top half had twenty big screens – ten rows of two – showing pictures of the works – big blue machines with people patrolling the aisles between them. Below the big screens were smaller ones, computer displays. They were filled with rows and columns of Obegon 4 writing.

Two young men were working at computers on benches at each side of the door where we entered.

A woman was sitting in a big chair, watching the main display. Maybe she heard us come in: she turned and said, “Hi, Zej.”

“Hi, Vob,” said Zej 1034. “Everything OK?”

“We had a faulty cylinder in the jet-making machine, but Luk removed it. We lost only fourteen minutes.” Vob turned back to the display.

 

14

The room had a door in each side, just in front of the big display. Zej led us to the one at the left. “Open.” As it opened, the noise of the factory came in. Clicks, bumps, scrapes. Not loud, but telling of machines at work. As we went out, I noticed the smell – mainly the sweet smell of plastic. I’d noticed that before, from new Carringtons.

Zej 1034 said, “The first thing you ought to see is the machine that makes the jets. It’s the longest, so it’s at the far end.” He led us along a wide aisle which ran across that side of the building. To its right, separated by wide aisles, were eight blue boxes about the height of a door but nearly twice as wide. He said, “These are the machines that make the parts of the Carringtons, scooters and peggies.” He tapped the end of the first one. “Carrington skeletons.”

After a few steps, he stopped. “I’m sorry. We should have started with the raw materials.” He turned to the left of the aisle, where the end of the works was packed with square blue bins, a bit higher than my waist.

Most of them were full to the brim with small plastic chips. The nearest ones were grey, but others behind were red, blue, yellow and black. A few bins had huge spools of copper wire. I started to ask, “How…?” Then I realised.

Each bin was sitting on a white line supported by posts above a wider white line with jets in the side. So I said, “Scooters! The bins are sitting on scooters.”

“That’s how they move around,” said Zej 1034. “As I told you, everything is automated. When a machine is about to run out of material, it radios to the control room, which orders a new bin to the place. You’ll see the bins in the end of the machines.” He crossed the aisle to point.

The end of the machine was solid blue at the top, but two bins sat neatly in the bottom, on their scooters, with a slot above them.

Zej 1034 reached through the slot to the bin at the right, and brought out a handful of grey chips. He showed them to me, then threw them back.

I peeked through the left of the slot. A big spool of copper wire spun then stopped; spun then stopped.

As we walked on, I asked Zej 1034, “How many colours do you do?”

“Ten. White, black, grey, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Our standard colour is white. Most people take white scooters and peggies, because they’re cheapest, but many prefer Carringtons of different colours.”

“I can understand that,” I said. “As you said, scooters and peggies are just transport, but Carringtons are more like friends.”

In the background, Tloise muttered, “Tuh!”

Zej 1034 held out an arm to stop us. Ahead, a blue bin, full of white chips, floated out from the storage area and sailed smoothly across to the next machine. An empty bin moved out, and the full one took its place. The empty one sat by the side of the aisle until we’d passed, then it silently rose and moved away.

I asked, “Where’s that bin going?”

“To the storage area beside the control room, ready to be refilled. He tapped the machine. “Platforms.”

I peeped in the slot. The bin at the right was almost full of white chips. In the bin at the left, the wire spool spun busily.

 

15

Zej 1034 stopped at the last machine. “This is the one that makes the jets.” It looked like the others – a blue end with two bins on scooters in the bottom. But, as we went nearer, I could see down the aisle beside this machine: it was longer than the others. A boy who looked about 14 was wandering up and down the aisle, watching the machine.

Smiling, Zej 1034 asked, “How many parts go into a zejet?”

I answered, “There’s only the two bins in the end of the machine, but, from that gleam in your eyes, I suspect there’s more than that.”

“You’re right. There’s room for only two bins in the end of a machine, but there are two more behind these ones. This one contains the plastic.” He reached through the slot and brought out the grey chips. He threw them back. “And this one contains steel cylinders. I can’t show you one from there….”

Tloise demanded, “Why not?”

Zej 1034 continued, as if Tloise hadn’t spoken. “… because our fingerprints would spoil the surface. There’s a sample here.” He reached down behind the machine and brought out the cylinder.

I took it, but there wasn’t much to see: it was grey and shiny and narrower than a jet. I turned to offer it to Tloise, but he was gazing at the ceiling. I gave it to Zej 1034, who put it back where he got it.

He explained, “The inner bins contain the wire and the two metals. They need replacing less often.” He moved into the aisle, and tapped the side of the machine. “This part puts alternate strips of the metals on the inside of the steel cylinders. Very thin and narrow strips.”

I asked, “How narrow?”

“Guess how many there are.”

“I don’t know. The jet’s 10 cm long. If each strip is 1 mm wide, that would be a hundred strips. Fifty of each metal.”

“They’re narrower than that,” said Zej 1034. “Nearly ten thousand strips – five thousand of each.”

Tloise muttered, “Huh!” but I sensed Zej 1034’s pride, so I said, “Ten thousand! That’s great! More strips will give the jets greater power, I suppose.”

“That’s right. That step is done in a special furnace, so we can’t see it, but we can watch the rest of the process.”

From about a third of the way along, the machine had a continuous band of shiny windows. The inside was lit up, so we could see what it was doing. Farther along, jets seemed to be marching in endless rows, but I concentrated on what I could see in the first window. A black bar, taking up the width of the machine, had eight holes in it, about the size of jets. Eight prongs, lowered from above, moved around inside the holes. Zej 1034 explained, “They are fitting the copper wires.”

“They’ll carry the power to the jets.”

“That’s right. See: they’re done. Now the mould is moving on.” The prongs withdrew upwards from the row of holes, and that block moved onwards, while another came out of the furnace to take its place. The prongs pounced on it while white cylinders descended on the one we’d been watching.

Zej 1034 asked me, “What’s it doing now?”

I said, “I was going to ask you that.”

“The machine is putting the plastic on the jets. The plastic is melted and poured through the cylinders. It makes a thin layer over the metals on the inside, to protect them, and a thicker layer on the outside, with the bulge.”

The white cylinders withdrew, ready to descend into the next row of holes. The block moved on, following five other blocks. Zej 1034 explained, “The jets must cool a little, to make sure they’ve gone solid before they are removed from the moulds.”

As we moved on, the boy moved out of our way. Zej 1034 said to him, “Hi, Luk. No problem?”

“No,” said the boy. “Had a faulty cylinder this morning. Had to take it out.”

As we passed the boy, I sensed he was happy in his work, he liked Zej 1034, and he was curious about Tloise and me.

Beyond the cooling blocks, eight white cylinders came down from above, then rose, lifting the newly-made jets out of the black bar, and swinging them on, into shallow holes in a rack beyond. The bar moved down, out of sight, and the next one took its place.

Zej 1034 would have moved on, but I said, “That’s interesting.” Ignoring Tloise’s exclamation of impatience, I paused to watch the next rows of jets being shifted. The second lot filled the rack, which moved on. Another rack, empty, rose from below to take its place.

A short conveyor belt took the racks of jets to the end of the machine, where a black box descended over them.

Zej 1034 told me, “It’s testing the jets.”

“Oh?” I said. “Do many fail?”

“We reject any jet that gives less than 99% of the possible power. That’s about one in every ten thousand. The steel cylinders must be a very exact size, and the inner surface must be just slightly rough. Sometimes a fault becomes obvious during the making of the jets. Luk and Vob mentioned that one earlier. If it slips through there, it’s caught at this stage.”

“What do you do then?”

“Someone has to remove it – and mend it if possible.”

“Someone? A person?”

“Yeah. Usually me.”

“What’s your official job in the works?”

He grinned. “Slave. The paid workers have their own jobs. If anything else needs done, I do it. Repairing the rejects. Helping to service and repair the machines. In odd moments, I do a bit of research.” His grin grew broader. “And I have a new job today – showing you round the works.”

I said, “It’s very kind of you, when you’re so busy.”

“I’m enjoying it. It’s a nice change to work with people instead of robots.”

The black box lifted from the jets, and they moved out of the machine. An arm lifted them, and placed them neatly in a rack on a waiting scooter.

Zej 1034 said, “Well, now you know how we make jets.”

I knew he’d like a compliment, but mine was genuine. “That is really marvellous. It’s a wonderful machine.”

“We’re always trying to improve it.” He turned to face the end of the works, beyond the machines. “This is where we store the parts for the Carringtons, scooters and peggies.”

 

16

I’d kind-of seen it, but now I looked at it properly. That end of the building was packed with row upon row of scooters, piled with parts. Beyond us were the jets – grey ones in front; white and red behind.

From farther along the row of machines, a laden scooter moved away from a machine, and an empty one slid silently into its place.

Zej 1034 asked, “What do you want to see now?”

As usual, Tloise bawled, “Peggies!”

“I’m sorry, Tloise,” I said. “I do want to see everything. Zej 1034, how long will it take to see Carringtons and scooters?”

“Half an hour, perhaps.”

“Then, Tloise, if you’re not enjoying the tour, you could wait in the reception room. We’ll call you before we go to the pegasuses.”

“Yeah. You might accidentally forget to call me. I’m sticking with you.”

“All right,” I said. “We’ll go as fast as we can. Zej 1034, would you show us how you make Carringtons?”

“That’s not one process, of course,” said Zej 1034. “The machine at the other end of the line makes the bodies of the Carringtons. We call them the Carrington skeletons. Then another machine, in the other half of the works, puts the parts together, making the Carringtons.”

As he talked, we were walking behind the other machines. Thinking of Tloise’s blood pressure, I asked, “Zej 1034, how does the machine make the Carrington skeletons?”

“It’s the same as the jets. The plastic and wire go in one end. The Carrington skeletons come out the other.”

“That’s what I meant. If it’s similar to the jet-making, we needn’t bother you to let us see it.”

“As you wish. You’re right: there’s nothing new to see. As you can understand, the wiring is more complicated, and the machine makes only one skeleton at a time, but the process is the same.”

As he spoke, we reached the last machine in the row, beside a scooter half full of Carrington skeletons.

I said, “They look strange. The holes seem much bigger without the jets in them.”

“Our stock of Carrington skeletons is over here.” Zej 1034 walked away from the machine, towards the ranks of filled scooters at the back of the huge building. I followed him, not daring to look back at Tloise.

From the edge of the storage area, we looked over the sea of discs, with their hexagonal pattern of holes. The nearest three rows were close-packed grey. Beyond were the other colours, parked in neat rows with gaps between.

We were just tall enough to look over them. That made me wonder how many Carringtons were on each scooter. As I started counting, Zej 1034 said, “Before you ask – eight. With more than eight, the pile might become dangerously top-heavy. The assembly area is at the other side of the works.”

As we cut diagonally back, I saw what he meant by ‘the other side’. We passed an aisle running through the middle of the works from the control room.

Zej 1034 told us, “We have four machines here, assembling Carringtons, banks of jets, scooters and peggies. Don’t go inside the orange line.”

 

17

That was a thick orange line, painted on the white floor around the machine that made the Carringtons. The machine itself was like a big metal table. From one corner rose a long spindly arm. Beyond the first two joints, it split into eight separate arms, each with another two joints and a white cylinder on the end.

Five scooters sat inside the orange line, beside the end of the machine. One carried Carrington skeletons. One had empty racks. I thought the other three had racks of jets, but two had shiny ends: they weren’t hollow. I thought I knew what they were, but I waited for Zej 1034 to tell me.

As we stood by the machine, a completed Carrington took off from the table and flew away, beyond it.

Zej 1034 said, “Now you can watch the machine assembling a Carrington.”

The long arm stretched out, lifted a Carrington skeleton from the scooter, and laid it on the table. Then the eight long white fingers reached forward. Each took a jet from the rack, and put it in a hole in the skeleton. Then they were back for another eight. Far faster than I can describe it.

I watched with interest because that was the last row in the rack on the top of the scooter. But the machine lifted off the empty rack, put it with the others on the waiting scooter, and started taking jets from the next rack. Another eight and another eight. Then the machine stopped. With the cylinders poised in mid air, each holding a jet, it just stopped.

Zej 1034 looked around, frowning. “Tloise, you’re over the orange line.”

“I’m nowhere near the stupid machine.”

“It has a safety margin. And remember: that arm moves fast and it may go anywhere inside the orange line.”

“All right. No need for the lecture.” Tloise stepped back.

The machine started immediately, continuing from where it stopped. Another eight jets went in, then another. Then, as the cylinders stretched for the next eight, they stopped again.

Zej 1034 exclaimed, “Tloise!”

Tloise was standing outside the orange line, but stretching his hand forward, over it. He gave a sour smile. “What’s the problem?”

“Your hand is in the danger zone. It may seem silly to you, but stupid people….” He repeated it. “Stupid people don’t realise how widely and how fast that arm moves. Would you mind moving your hand back? This machine is working on an urgent order.”

Keeping the mocking grin, Tloise stared at Zej 1034 for a few seconds, then said, “All right. Don’t jump out of your tunic.” He pulled the hand back, and the machine restarted.

I said, “I’m sorry, Zej 1034. I wanted to see your works, and Obsidian asked if I would bring Tloise.”

Tloise said, “Obsidian is a friend of my father.”

I said, “If your father is as bad-mannered as you, I’m sure Obsidian doesn’t boast about it.”

“Ooh!” said Tloise. “I once had a tutor like you. All prim and fussy. My dad sacked him.”

As I turned back to the machine, the completed Carrington took off and flew away. As it was leaving, the arm was stretching out for the next skeleton.

I asked, “Zej 1034, how long does the machine take to make a Carrington?”

“78 seconds. For this Federation order, it’s worked day and night for the last four days.”

“Until a moment ago,” commented Tloise.

Ignoring him, Zej 1034 said, “We expect to complete the order tomorrow.”

Tloise said, “I’m not hanging around here for that time.”

I said, “I want to see the other parts going into a Carrington. I saw the jets going into that last one, but I missed the other parts because someone distracted me. I’d like to see the whole process.”

“Ooh!” said Tloise.

I looked at him. “If I’m distracted, I may miss them again.”

He grinned at me – that annoying grin – but at least he shut up.

Zej 1034 said, “The other parts are the control unit and the comm unit. We buy the electronic parts and fit them into the jet-shaped holders.”

“I know about the control unit,” I said. “It’s the Carrington’s brain.”

“Yes,” said Zej 1034. “We supply it with a basic program. The customers can add extra data and personality if they wish. On Yband 4, the Federation has a small tech centre where they reprogram the control units. See the empty hole in the middle of the Carrington. The control unit goes in there.”

“And the other units. I assume they’re the Carrington’s eyes. They go in those holes in the rim of the Carrington.”

“They’re more than eyes. They’re comm units.”

“My wrist unit said ‘comm units’. Is that short for communication units?”

“That’s right. Because, through them, the Carrington communicates with its surroundings. As you say…. There they go.” The machine lifted four of the communication units from the rack, and put them in the holes around the rim of the Carrington.

I asked, “What do the communication units do?”

“Each has a camera in the middle, and a microphone and speaker round it. So the comm units are the Carringtons’ eyes, ears and mouth.”

“That’s an interesting way of putting it. No nose?”

Zej 1034 laughed. “No. Although one company is working on a unit which can detect smells in the air.”

“What’s that for? So that the Carrington can warn an explorer of poisonous gases?”

“Perhaps. I think the main purpose is to track criminals.”

“Like a bloodhound,” I said, then explained, “A dog that can track people from the smell of their trail. Have Carringtons always had four communication units?”

“Only in the last thousand days or so. Why do you ask?”

“On our first mission, to Xavu 6, we had two Carringtons, but I thought they had only one eye.”

“These would be older models. The Federation is gradually replacing them. The new ones are more efficient, but they need modern control units to handle the data from four comm units.”

As we were talking, the machine assembled another Carrington. It used the last of the jets from the current scooter, but a replacement was already on its way. It crossed the orange line without stopping the machine.

 

18

As that Carrington flew off, I asked, “Where’s he going?”

“To the storage area at the end of the works. This way.” Zej 1034 led us past the machine to the end of the building, where it backed onto the entrance hall. In the corner beside the control room were stacks of grey Carringtons ten high.

I said, “That’s the order for the Federation.”

“Part of it. Some are still being made, as you saw. Some are already delivered.”

“Delivered? I never thought of that. How do you deliver them?”

“We can send them wherever the Federation wants, but most go to Yband 4 and other headquarters planets.”

“What do you mean? I thought Yband 4 was our only headquarters.”

“It has the headquarters of this sector. Sector 17.” I began to understand, but I let him continue the explanation. “You know that the Federation is so big that it’s administered in 27 sectors. We also supply Sectors 16, 18, 19 and 20.” I sensed his pride.

“That’s very good. How do you deliver all those Carringtons?”

“What do you mean? We just tell them where to go, and send them off.”

“I never thought of them delivering themselves. But… I’ve seen single Carringtons in communication centres, but never flocks of them.”

“You shouldn’t. We store the Carringtons here until it’s the middle of the night on the customer’s planet. Then the Carringtons can use the shuttles and transporters without disturbing people.”

“I never thought of that.”

“It’s what we’ve always done. Is that all you want to know about Carringtons?”

“Well… I’ve seen them being made. Do you have time to show me what they can do?”

Beside me, Tloise growled but didn’t protest in words.

Zej 1034 answered me. “That’s no problem. The next Carrington shouldn’t be long. Ah! Here he comes.” As the Carrington flew towards the pile, Zej 1034 ordered it, “Carrington, come with us.”

Without a word, the Carrington followed as Zej 1034 led us to the double doors farther along. “This Carrington has a simple program. It will obey orders, but it won’t be friendly. Open.” The doors slid aside, and we went through, into the entrance hall.

Zej 1034 waved towards a door in that end of the hall. “That’s our demonstration room. I’ll let you try the scooters and peggies there, but it’s not worth using it for a Carrington. We can test him in the hall here.”

 

19

Zej 1034 spoke into his wrist unit so that Tloise and I would hear a translation. “Wake, Carrington. Do you hear me?”

The Carrington answered. A single word in the Obegon 4 language.

“Transmit your speech to the wrist units in this room. Can you see?”

“Yes.” It came from my wrist unit.

“Carrington, hover at 1.17 metres.” The Carrington hovered.

I said, “I’ve given orders to Carringtons, and they’ve done a lot more than that, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Five minutes ago, that Carrington was a collection of parts.”

Zej 1034 said, “Perhaps we take them for granted. Do you want to control it?” When I hesitated, he said, “If you waken it in your language, it will understand your orders. Sleep, Carrington.” The Carrington settled to the floor.

I said, “Carrington, wake. Hover at one metre.”

Without a sound, the Carrington moved up.

I held out my hand, level with my head. “Carrington, hover beside my hand.”

Carrington moved to the place. I put my hand under him, and felt the rush of air from his jets.

Zej 1034 said, “Put your hand on the top.”

I said, “I know it’s safe,” but I was cautious as I put my hand above Carrington. From a distance, I felt the air rushing down into the jets but, when I touched him – nothing. My hand wasn’t sucked against his jets.

I said, “The air’s not going in these jets. Has Carrington switched them off?”

“Yes. If a Carrington senses something blocking a jet, it automatically switches that jet to minimum power until the blockage is removed.”

“He’s still hovering in the same place,” I said. “He must have adjusted the power to the other jets.”

“Yes.”

“That’s smart,” I said. “I’ve used Carringtons without thinking how clever they are. Carrington, move slowly that way.” I pointed to the middle of the hall.

Keeping the same height, Carrington floated that way. I put my hand behind him, and felt the air coming out of the jets at the back.

“Carrington, stop. Zej 1034, may I try something?” I pointed to the back of the hall, not far away. “Carrington, fly fast in that direction.” Carrington flew fast towards the wall, but stopped about two centimetres from it.

I pointed to the same wall. “Carrington, fly in that direction.” He didn’t move.

Zej 1034 said, “He’s not stupid.”

“I knew he wouldn’t fly into the wall,” I said. “But I wondered if he would apologise and explain why he stopped. That’s what a Federation Carrington would do.”

“That must be part of their additional programming.”

Tloise said, “You want him to fly into the wall. Then help him!” He hit the back of the Carrington – which bumped off the wall, but quickly sprang back to his original position.

I asked, “Carrington, are you damaged?” I nearly said, “hurt”.

“No.”

“That’s lucky for Tloise.” I held my hand above my head. “Then hover above my hand.”

Just before he reached my hand, I lifted it higher, in front of him. He swerved upwards. I felt the blast of his jets on my hand, but he didn’t touch it.

“Carrington, stop.” He hovered there.

I took my hand down. “Thanks, Zej 1034. I’ll appreciate Carringtons more in future.”

 

20

Zej 1034 asked Tloise, “Do you wish to try?”

Tloise’s first intention was an angry refusal, but a nasty idea came into his mind. He said, “Yeah.” He held his hand up. “Carrington, fly round that.”

The Carrington didn’t move.

He shouted, “Carrington, fly round that!”

The Carrington didn’t move.

Puzzled, Zej 1034 asked, “Bea, would you do it?”

I held up my hand. “Carrington, fly round that.” Carrington flew obediently round my hand until I ordered, “Stop.”

Puzzled, Zej 1034 frowned at Tloise. “The display Carrington didn’t understand you either.” Then embarrassment swept into his mind. He said, “These Carringtons understand our language and Sol 3 English, which is used by most Federation agents.”

During the silence that followed, I sensed Tloise’s anger boiling up. He said, “Did you think I was a… a stinking scrava from Sol 3?”

As Zej 1034 stammered an apology, Tloise went on, “I am a pure-bred Veevian. I have never been more insulted! I demand an apology!”

Zej 1034 started to stammer again, but I was annoyed too. I interrupted him. “No, Zej 1034. You made a simple mistake. You’ve apologised. Tloise, what is a scrava?”

He gave me a nasty grin. “It is an animal found in the bogs of Veevi 2. It is dirty, stupid and clumsy.”

I said, “Don’t be childish, Tloise. If you’re ashamed of me, why don’t you go?”

“I’ve come to see the peggies. Insults won’t stop me.”

Zej 1034 said to him, “If you wish, I can have your language added to a control unit for this Carrington. It will only take a short time. Or I’ll order it to take instructions from your wrist unit.”

“No,” said Tloise. “I’m not interested in stinking Carringtons.”

I said, “Go on, Zej 1034. I’m interested in stinking Carringtons. Tell me more about them.”

He smiled, lighting up his ugly face, and I sensed his gratitude. “Thank you, Bea. Here is a challenge. Can you put that Carrington into a position where it can’t move?”

I had just started to puzzle it out when Tloise seized Carrington, and put him upside down on the floor. Carrington slid sideways a little, then stopped.

Zej 1034 said, “Well done.” To me, “With the main jet inlets blocked, the Carrington can only move sideways.”

I asked, “Can’t you put one or two jets upside down?”

“We could do that on a special order, but it would meant rewiring the jets and the skeleton. It’s not worth the trouble. How often does a Carrington land upside-down on a smooth surface? That may give you a clue about another place where a Carrington won’t work.”

I said, “If you threw something over him, like a cloth.”

“Yes. And?” When I looked puzzled, he asked, “Where else would the top of a Carrington be near something?”

At last, I realised. “At the ceiling!”

“That’s right. Most users don’t realise that Carringtons can’t operate near the ceiling. Up, Carrington.” He lifted the edge of the Carrington, who turned over, and hovered beside him. “That reminds me. Carrington, do a flip.”

Carrington soared up, then turned a somersault. As he went upside-down, he fell quickly, but, right way up again, he stopped, hovering about level with my waist.

Zej 1034 said, “Don’t try that with older models. Only the new control units are fast enough to control the jets. Do you want to do any more tests with this Carrington?”

 

21

Tloise said, “Yeah. I’d like to do something with that Carrington.”

Zej 1034 looked suspiciously at him. “Go on.”

Tloise pointed above his head. “Carrington, hover there.” The Carrington obeyed.

Tloise reached up with both hands to hook his fingers over the sides of the Carrington, then lifted his feet from the floor. “Yay!”

With Tloise’s weight, the Carrington fell – quickly at first, then more slowly.

Tloise bawled, “Up! Up, you ****!” My wrist unit bleeped: it doesn’t know any swear words.

The Carrington ignored Tloise’s frantic shouts. It continued to descend. Tloise lifted his feet higher and higher – until he was so low that he was sitting on the floor. At that, he let go of the Carrington – which rose to its original place, leaving Tloise, red-faced, sitting there.

He glared at me. “What are you grinning at?”

“You look funny, sitting there.”

Tloise stood up and faced Zej 1034. “Why did that **** Carrington dump me on the floor?”

“It’s in their programming. It could be dangerous for a Carrington to lift anyone. They might fall off and hurt themselves.”

“Stupid safety rules again!” exclaimed Tloise. “Can’t you override them?”

Zej 1034 hesitated a moment, then he said, “It’s in the basic program.”

The hesitation gave Tloise a clue. He faced Zej 1034. “How do you override it?”

Zej 1034 answered, “It’s no big secret. No one should use a Carrington without special training. That training tells you not to hang on a Carrington, except in an emergency – a life-threatening emergency.”

Tloise stood with his hands clenched at his sides, and his face, red with anger, close to Zej 1034’s. “How. Do. You. Do. It?”

Zej 1034 faced him calmly. “Before you give the orders, you declare, ‘Emergency’. But you’d be stupid to do it, except in an emergency.”

Tloise wouldn’t have heard much of that warning: he was already returning to the Carrington. He reached up with two hands, to hold the rim. “Emergency. Hover where you are.” He lifted his feet from the floor until he was hanging from the Carrington, looking awkward but beaming in triumph.

He called, “Up, thirty centimetres.” The Carrington rose, letting him hang straight.

“Whoo-oop! Go to the other end of the hall.” The Carrington sailed along the hall with Tloise hanging below. “Faster! Faster!”

Zej 1034 protested, “No, Tloise!” If Tloise heard him he ignored him. Zej 1034 looked helplessly at me, then ran after Tloise.

As I started after them, Tloise must have realised he was heading for the wall at the other end of the hall. He called, “Slower! Slower!”

The Carrington obeyed, and stopped about a metre from the wall. But Tloise lost his grip on the rim, and kept going. He slumped onto his knees, and slid forward, into the wall.

I rushed to him, and held his arm to help him up. “Tloise, are you hurt?”

“Let go of me!” He shook his arm free, and turned on Zej 1034. “All right! Say, ‘I told you so!’”

Zej 1034 said, “I did warn you. Do you want a doctor?”

“No!”

“Are you done with that Carrington?”

Tloise didn’t answer, except with a glare, so Zej 1034 turned to me. “Are you done with this Carrington?”

“Yes, thanks. It’s all been interesting. Before I use a Carrington again, maybe I should do a bit more training.”

Zej 1034 ordered, “Carrington, go to the store.” Without a word, the Carrington flew off. At the other end of the hall, the doors opened for him, and he flew through.

 

22

With that moment to think, I remembered. “We met a damaged Carrington in the entrance hall. He said he’d come here for repair. I wondered how he could be repaired.”

“We can give him a new skeleton. That’s done by a person. Often me. Would you like to see?”

I sensed hope in his mind: he wanted to show me. And I would be interested to watch. As Tloise bawled, “No!” I said, “Yes, please. He looked badly damaged. I wondered how you could possibly repair him.”

“I’ll soon show you.” He went to the wide doors where the Carrington had gone. “The repair bay is at the back of the works.”

As I followed him through, I asked, “Do you do many repairs?”

“Some. Jets don’t have moving parts, so they never wear out. Most repairs are needed because of accidents. For simple breakages, we send a replacement, and the owner fits it himself. But, for major damage, the device is returned here to us. The Federation insists on that.”

“Why is that? Do they want to make sure the repair is properly done?”

“Partly. But Federation rules say that the devices must never be thrown out. They must be returned here anyway, for recycling.”

“Of course!” I said. “I should have thought of that. Would you repair a bank of jets?”

“No,” said Zej 1034. “If a bank of jets is only slightly damaged, it continues to work, so the owner wouldn’t return it anyway. For more serious damage, we replace the skeleton of the bank of jets, reusing any undamaged jets. That reduces the cost to the owner.”

We’d been talking as we walked past the machine, still busily assembling Carringtons. But now, with an exclamation, Zej 1034 ran back to the main hall. I followed.

Tloise was glowering at us from the door in the end of the hall. Zej 1034 asked him, “Aren’t you coming to the repair bay?”

“No! I don’t want to see the stinking repair bay. I came here to fly peggies.”

Zej 1034 said, “I’m sorry. Visitors are not allowed to remain alone. Some of our business is secret, and….”

“Do you suggest that I am interested in your stinking secrets?”

“No: of course not. But I cannot leave you on your own.” He waited in the doorway, while Tloise stood, glaring at him.

I asked, “Could Tloise do something else?”

“If he doesn’t want to see the repair bay, he can wait in the reception hall.” He added, to Tloise, “I’ll call you before we go to the peggies.”

Tloise glared a bit more but, when Zej 1034 didn’t move, he said, “Yeah. Then you forget to call me. I’m not leaving you.” He stomped towards us.

 

23

The repair bay was at the back of the works – an open area between the racks of laden scooters. It had four big tables. In front of them, in a black box painted on the floor, sat the brown Carrington we’d seen in the entrance hall, and a pegasus with the bank of jets sagging because two posts were broken.

Zej 1034 said, “Carrington, wake. Can you fly?”

The Carrington answered, “Yep. Sure can.” He wobbled about a metre into the air, and spun slowly, to survey us with his one remaining eye. He said, “Howdy, son,” to Zej 1034; “Howdy again, miss,” to me; “Howdy, Sunshine,” to the glowering Tloise. “Pleased to meet y’all.” The words came from our wrist units: the Carrington must be transmitting to them.

Zej 1034 and I said, “Hello.”

“The name’s Doc,” said the Carrington. “Short for Doc Holliday. You from Sol 3, miss?”

“Yes.”

“Then you musta heard o’ Doc Holliday.”

“Y…yes. I think I’ve heard the name.”

“Luke reckons Doc Holliday was the brains o’ the bunch at the OK Corral. He figures I’m the brains o’ our team. He’s right at that.”

“Luke,” I said. “Is Luke your owner?”

“That’s rightly so, but he likes to call me his sidekick.”

“What do you and Luke do?”

“We go lookin’ for gold, miss. On Dinc 27. If you’re from Sol 3, you’ll know about gold rushes there. It’s like that.”

I sensed a hint of anxiety from Zej 1034, as he quickly said, “I ought to start work on you, Doc.”

 

24

“OK, son. Sooner you start, sooner you’ll be done.”

“This way.” Zej 1034 directed Doc to a table with a hole that would hold a Carrington.

Zej 1034 said, “Tell me which jets to keep.” From a shelf under the table, he brought a white plastic rod with a wider band near the middle. The end slid into a jet, but the wide bit stopped it going through. He tapped the top of the rod with a small white mallet, knocking the jet out, into a tray under the table. Doc Holliday said, “That one’s OK.”

As Zej 1034 put the rod in the next jet, I asked, “Can I help?”

“Thanks, Bea,” said Zej 1034. “If you knock the jets out, I’ll collect them. It just needs a sharp tap.” He gave me the rod and mallet.

I fitted the end of the rod into a jet, and gave it a tap. The jet didn’t move, but Doc Holliday said, “You ain’t gonna knock it out by ticklin’ it, miss. Pretend it’s your boyfriend’s head, an’ you just caught him cheatin’ on you.”

I made no comment on that, but hit the rod harder. By the third or fourth one, I had managed to judge the strength. I kept Doc Holliday saying, “OK,” and Zej 1034 collecting the jets.

For one, Doc Holliday said, “That critter’s only givin’ 93%.”

Zej 1034 frowned at it. “It looks OK. Do you want a new one?”

“Yep. Luke’s payin’.”

Later. “That critter’s a dud. 22%. I reckon it took a hit.” Zej 1034 showed me the jet. The top was buckled.

For the horizontal jets, Zej 1034 turned Doc upside down and gave me a different rod, with a twist near the end, so that it would go in the gap inside the rim of the Carrington. When the last jet was out, Zej 1034 asked, “Do you want to reuse that comm unit, Doc?”

“Nope. It’s gettin’ kinda hazy.”

I leaned forward to examine it. The surface was scratched. I was surprised….

“Believe me now, miss?”

“Oh! Sorry, er…, Doc.”

Zej 1034 told me, “Most customers prefer new comm units. Ready for the control unit, Doc?”

“Sure am.”

Zej 1034 turned the Carrington over again. “I’d better do this.” He held the end of the straight rod against the control unit, and tapped the top with the mallet, knocking Doc’s control unit into the tray below.

Zej 1034 took the battered skeleton to a big bin at the back of the bay. Beside it was a computer terminal, to which he spoke. “A brown Carrington skeleton, jets and comm units.”

As he walked back for the tray of broken jets, he told me, “All the broken stuff gets recycled.”

By the time he’d walked back to the table with the empty tray, three scooters were approaching with brown Carrington skeletons, jets and communication units.

 

25

Zej 1034 fitted the Carrington skeleton in the hole in the table. With practised speed, he put four communication units in holes in the rim, and tapped them into place.

I asked, “Can you use any of the holes?”

“No. The correct ones are marked.” He pointed to arrows on the underside of the rim of the Carrington.

He set Doc’s old control unit into the new skeleton, and used the mallet to pop it into place. “How’s that, Doc?”

“Fine, boy, just fine.”

Zej 1034 asked, “Bea, do you mind if I replace the jets?” With a glance at Tloise, standing, glowering, with his arms folded, he said, “It’ll be quicker.”

He used the old jets first, then took new ones from the rack on the scooter. He slid the vertical ones into their holes, then used the mallet, knocking each into place with one tap.

I commented, “You put the jets into the skeleton from the bottom.”

“That’s right,” said Zej 1034. “Why?”

“I was about to ask you that.”

He looked up from his work and grinned. “Can you work it out for yourself? It’s tricky.”

I had to be honest. “I’m sorry. I haven’t a clue.”

“The jets have a slight bulge near one end.”

“I noticed that. They must fit into a hollow in the skeleton.”

“That’s right. I put the jet into the hole so that the bulge sits over the rim.” He lifted a hand so that I could see. “Then a tap knocks the bulge past the rim, and into the hollow beyond.” He showed me.

“That’s neat.”

“The jets in the body of the Carrington might be put in from either side, because we can reach both sides. But the ones in the rim must be put in from the outside.” He was already doing that, swiftly turning the Carrington and tapping them into place.

He continued, “The air must come out of the jets round the rim of the Carrington. So?” He gazed at me, and I sensed amusement in his mind.

“So.” I said, mind racing.

“So where’s the bulge on them?”

“It must be on the outside end. Of course!”

“So the jets must be put in from the underside of a Carrington.”

“I think I understand,” I said. “But I would never have worked it out.”

Zej 1034 tapped the last jet into place, and turned the Carrington over. “That’s it, Doc. How do you feel?”

“Just fine, son. I’m in better shape than Luke now.”

I asked, “How did you get damaged?”

I sensed Zej 1034’s anxiety again. “Bea, you shouldn’t ask a Carrington about its owner’s business.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

But Doc said, “Luke won’t mind. I’ll tell you, miss. Two masked men snuck into our shack in Dinc City one night. They attacked Luke. Broke his leg. When I tried to help him, they used an axe on me.”

I asked, “Why did they do that?”

“Next mornin’, we was due to leave on a trip to Oasis 60. I reckoned them men was tryin’ to stop us. But Luke said it was robbery. Stories fly round Dinc 27. He reckoned they’d heard we had a stash o’ gold. So he’s laid up in the shack, an’ I came here for repair.”

With an uneasy glance at Tloise, Zej 1034 asked, “Everything working properly, Doc?”

“Yep. Everything’s fine, son, mighty fine. Good as new.”

Zej 1034 smiled. “You are new, more or less.” He went to the computer terminal. “Skeleton, twenty-three jets, four comm units, and fitting.”

The terminal announced, “3780 mus.”

Zej 1034 came back to the table. “It’ll cost you 3780 mus, Doc.”

I could have imagined Doc chortled. “It’ll cost Luke 3780 mus. How much for the little lady’s time?”

“That was free.”

“I shoulda got her to do it all. Thank you kindly, miss.” The edge of the Carrington dipped towards me.

Zej 1034 asked, “Do you want to go through for testing, Doc?”

“Nah, boy. I don’t need no testin’. I feel just fine.” He flew to the edge of the bay. “I’ll bid you good day, folks.” As he passed Tloise, he said, “You too, Sunshine.” Then he was gone.

I asked, “How much does a new Carrington cost?”

“If you wanted to buy one now, it would cost you 5300 mus. It’s usually cheaper to do a repair. If the control unit is undamaged, customers usually want a repair because it retains the personality of the Carrington, and the knowledge it has gained since it was programmed.”

I said, “Doc Holliday was a real character. Thanks for showing us the repair, Zej 1034.”

 

26

Zej 1034 asked, “Do you want to see the scooters now?”

Tloise called, “No! Peggies!” and I said, “Yes, please, Zej 1034. Would you…? No.”

Zej 1034 asked, “What is it?”

“Could we watch you repair that scooter? It was interesting watching the machine making the Carrington, but I’m sure I learned more by helping you to repair Doc.”

“That’s no problem.” As he walked towards the broken scooter, a bright idea flashed into his mind. “Would you… would you like to make a scooter from the separate parts? Then you would see exactly how it goes together.”

“That would be perfect,” I said. “If you can spare the time.”

“I’d be happy to do it. It’s a pleasant change for me to show visitors round the works, especially one like you, who shows intelligent interest.” He was a little embarrassed.

“It’s you who make it interesting,” I said, blushing slightly myself.

In the background, Tloise yowled a despairing, “No!” but we ignored him. As we crossed to the terminal, I asked, “What’s the proper name for a scooter?”

Zej 1034 answered, “In our catalogue, it’s an individual jet-powered hovercraft, but all languages have their own names.”

“My wrist unit uses a word meaning a small vehicle, easily manoeuvred.”

“In mine, the name means ‘floating carrier’.” He told the terminal, “Parts for a white scooter.”

As we waited for them I said, “I assume the parts are made in the same way as the jets and the Carrington skeletons.”

“That’s right. The machine fits the wires into the mould, then pours the melted plastic round them.”

As he spoke, the scooters converged on us, seven of them, bringing the different parts of the scooter.

Zej 1034 went to the first one. “This is the skeleton of a bank of jets.” As the scooter in the hall had told us, it was 1.3 m square and 10 cm thick. The middle was a honeycomb of the holes that would hold the jets. Zej 1034 lifted it onto a table which had a square hole to hold it.

I said, “It looks heavy.”

“We use a plastic which is light but strong. Try it for yourself.”

I put a hand in the slot where the air would go in, and lifted. “It’s lighter than I expected.”

“It’ll be heavier when the jets are in.” He pointed. “It’s upside down.”

I said, “You’ll put the jets in from the bottom, for the same reason as the Carringtons.”

“That’s right.” He took a white mallet from a shelf under the table. “If you pass me the jets, I’ll put them in.”

He kept me busy, putting the jets in the holes, and tapping them into place as fast as I could lift them from the rack and hand them to him.

He took the control unit. “This goes in the central hole, where it’s least likely to be damaged.” He tapped it gently into place.

He turned the table top, putting the jets in the rim with swift efficiently. Then he took four communication units from their rack on a scooter and carefully tapped them into their holes in the middle of each side.

At a huge sigh from Tloise, he went on, “We have one more thing to do before we turn the bank of jets over. Does anything look unfinished?”

 

27

I surveyed the bank of jets. Every hole was filled with jets or communication units or the control unit. Except…. The top corners of the bank of jets were solid blocks. But, in the middle of each was a round hole at least 2 cm across.

I asked, “What about these holes?”

“When the bank of jets is used in a peggie, the posts are fixed in these holes. But they’re not needed on a scooter, so they’re blocked with a cap. Here’s one.” He took one from a scooter and gave it to me.

It was a thin square of plastic the same size as the corners of the bank of jets. One side was smooth with rounded edges; the other had a plastic mushroom, longer and thicker than my finger, sticking out from the middle.

Zej 1034 said, “Bea, here’s a challenge for you. Fit that on.”

I looked at it. It couldn’t be difficult – I hoped. I tested it. The head of the mushroom went into the hole in the corner of the bank of jets, but not far before the hole became narrower.

I asked, “Do I push it in, like the jets?”

He smiled. “Do you want to try it?”

“N…no. The mushroom is solid, so there must be a way of removing that blockage in the hole.”

I examined the corner of the bank of jets. The only mark on the top was the hole. One side was smooth. But the other side had two circles about 2 cm in diameter, one near the bottom and one near the top. I put my finger on the upper one. It didn’t move. I looked up at Zej 1034. He gazed at me with a mixture of interest and amusement.

I pushed the circle a little. Did it move? I pushed it harder. It did move, inwards against a strong spring. Looking into the hole in the top of the corner, I pushed the circle. The blockage in the hole split into two parts which retracted into the sides of the hole.

When I took my finger off the button, it sprang out, and the two parts moved in. They would grip the shaft of the mushroom. I put the head of the mushroom in the hole, and pushed the button. The cap clunked down into place, making a tidy end on the corner of the bank of jets.

I let the button spring out, and tested the cap. It was securely in place.

“Well done, Bea!” said Zej 1034.

“It’s ingenious,” I said. “The cap is firmly fixed, but it could be easily removed.”

“That’s the idea,” said Zej 1034. “Let’s put the other caps on.”

He gave another cap to me, but he had done the other two before I had finished that one.

We turned the bank of jets over. It was heavier than before, but I could still lift it.

Zej 1034 waved towards it. “I invite you to complete the scooter.”

 

28.

Complete the scooter? What did I need? The posts. Sitting on another scooter, about 25 cm long, round and white, with a mushroom on each end.

The new upper ends of the corners of the bank of jets also had holes, and the buttons I’d seen at the sides. The mushrooms on the ends of the poles fitted into these holes in the same way as the ones on the caps. As I fitted each one, I tested it. They all felt solid.

What next? The platform. It was a thick white grid with stout corners, which had holes in the top and bottom. But which was the top and which was the bottom? That was easy. One side had a trough which would hold the power pack, and a hole near one edge for the control column.

The posts were so accurately made that I could lay the platform on top of the mushrooms, then go round, pushing the buttons to fix them in.

Four caps covered the tops of the corners of the platform, and the scooter was complete. I surveyed it proudly. I’d made it myself!

Zej 1034 lifted the scooter to the floor. “Do you want to see what it will do?”

“Yes, please.” When Tloise didn’t speak, I glanced at him. He was standing, looking bored.

“Then what else does it need?”

I answered, “A power pack, a control column and a seat.”

“Good.” Zej 1034 ordered the terminal, “A power pack here please.” He told me, “We buy the power packs, the seats and the control sticks from the makers. We have spare seats and control sticks in the demonstration room, but the scooter will need a power pack to get there. They’re stored at the other end of the building.”

Within a minute, a scooter arrived, carrying a rack of power packs – about the size of a typical cereal packet, with a retracting handle on each end.

Zej 1034 asked me, “Do you want to fit it?”

“Y…yes. If it’s the same as the smaller ones that go in stun-guns.”

“Yes. Just the same.”

That was easy. I lifted a power pack from the rack – it wasn’t heavy – and fitted it into the trough in the platform. With Federation power packs, you don’t have to worry about which end goes where.

Zej 1034 ordered the scooter with the other power packs, “Return to the store.” As it moved off, he bowed and signalled me to the scooter I’d made.

Nervously, I said, “Scooter, wake.”

Rather to my surprise, it rose and hovered. It didn’t speak, so I asked, “Scooter, do you hear me?”

“Yes.”

Zej 1034 said, “Bea, order it to lead us to the demonstration room.”

“Does it know where to go?”

He smiled. “You have an easy way of finding out.”

I ordered, “Scooter, lead us to the demonstration room.”

The scooter started off at walking pace. Zej 1034 and I followed it, towards the aisle which led through the middle of the works. We both glanced back. Tloise was following us.

As our scooter approached the double doors, they opened for it and us. It led us across the corner of the big hall to the doors at the near end. They opened for us too.

As we went in, Zej 1034 told me, “This is our demonstration room.”

It was big – at least as big as my school hall, back on Earth. The nearest third of the floor, and a band at the right, were level and grey. The rest of the floor was grey, but definitely not level, with ridges and bumps, holes and troughs. One side, near the door, had shelves with parts of scooters and pegasuses.

 

29

Zej 1034 ordered, “Scooter, sleep.” The scooter sank gently to the floor. He asked, “Bea, do you want to stand or sit on the scooter?”

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather sit.”

“That’s no problem.” He took a seat from a shelf beside the door. “This is our standard seat. How is it fitted?”

“I think I can tell you that.” The bottom of the seat had four mushrooms, one in each corner, and I’d already noticed the four holes in the platform. A quick look found two buttons, one on each side of the place where the seat would fit. I pressed the nearest one – and all four holes opened. Zej 1034 put the mushrooms in the holes, and I released the button to secure them there.

Zej 1034 asked, “Do you know how to adjust the seat?”

“Yes. I’ve driven other Federation vehicles with seats.” I sat on the seat, adjusted the height and distance, and strapped myself in with the full harness.

Zej 1034 asked, “Manual or automatic control?”

“I’d like to see both, but I’d be happier with the manual first.”

“Right.” He brought a control column from the shelves, and fitted it in the socket between my feet. “Do you know how to use that?”

“I hope so.” I gave him a nervous smile.

I leaned forward to check the digital display in the top of the control column. It showed 99 in Federation numbers. The power pack was 99% charged.

Zej 1034 asked, “Ready to go, Bea?”

“I think so.”

“Then go.”

Trying to show confidence, I ordered, “Scooter, wake.”

The scooter rose a little, to hover. It was a strange feeling. The scooter was perfectly steady, but I could feel that it wasn’t sitting on anything solid.

Zej 1034 said, “The scooter is stable. Try rocking it.”

“Er…, yes.” I threw myself from side to side, and from front to back, as far as I could in the harness. The scooter wobbled a little, but quickly returned to floating smoothly.

Zej 1034 said, “It’ll take much more than that. See.” He stepped up, onto the scooter. The corner dipped as his weight went onto it, but the scooter quickly returned to floating level.

Standing behind me, and holding the back of my seat, Zej 1034 jumped up and down. At every jump, the corner bumped the ground, but bobbed up immediately.

Perhaps Zej 1034 realised my alarm: he said, “I’m sorry. I was just showing you how safe the scooters are.” He stepped off. The back of the scooter bobbed up for a moment, then settled. “Try simple manoeuvres at this end of the room.”

The top of the control column had the usual handgrip. I held it with my right hand, and pushed the control column gently away from me. The scooter glided forward, slowly and smoothly. I pulled the control column towards me. The scooter stopped, and glided back again. I said to Zej 1034, “I never thought of that. The scooter must stop going forward by blowing air through the jets at the front.”

“That’s right,” said Zej 1034. “Since the scooter is floating on air, it keeps going forward unless something stops it. In your report, remember to mention that control sticks have auto-stop.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s something that people take for granted. Push the control stick forward, then take your hand off it.”

I pushed the control column forward. When the scooter was going at a reasonable speed, I took my hand from the handle. It sprang back to upright, and the scooter slowed to a stop. I reversed, to say to him, “I see what you mean.”

I swung the control column right. The scooter glided sideways to the right. I said, “It can go right or left without moving forward.”

“That’s because it doesn’t have wheels,” said Zej 1034. “Wheeled vehicles can’t turn without moving back or forward too. Try to drive the scooter into the wall. As fast as you like.”

The nearest wall was to my right, so I pushed the control column to the right – not far, I admit. The scooter set off at a fair speed, but slowed and came to a stop a few centimetres from the wall.

I said, “It won’t go nearer. It felt as if it hit an invisible cushion.”

“The eye in the side of the scooter senses when it’s approaching something solid, and activates all the jets on that side at full power, so that you hit a cushion of air. Not all companies fit their scooters with that, but it’s a sensible addition. See those shelves – the ones nearest the door?” He pointed to them. Unlike the other sets, the lowest shelf was about my waist height, with nothing under it.

“Y…yes.”

“Drive towards them.”

I wasn’t sure what he was trying to prove until I drove nearer the shelves. The lowest one was higher than the platform of the scooter, so the body of the scooter would go under it, but the seat and control column wouldn’t.

I felt sure the scooter wouldn’t plough under that shelf, but I approached it carefully. But, no matter how far forward I pushed the control column, the scooter wouldn’t go under the shelf.

I commented, “That’s clever. I would never have thought of it.”

“It’s another new safety factor. Now try going for that wall.” He pointed to the one behind him.

I almost asked, “Are you sure?” because he and Tloise were between me and that wall. But he must have known the scooter wouldn’t mow them down. So I swung the control column left – not too far left. The scooter moved steadily at first, but slowed to a stop about half a metre from Zej 1034, who was nearer.

He said, “If the eyes detect anyone, the scooter stops automatically. Hold the control stick there.” He stepped back, behind Tloise. The scooter moved a little, and stopped about half a metre from Tloise’s legs.

Zej 1034 said, “Keep holding that control stick.” He came forward until he was standing beside the scooter. It didn’t move. He explained, “This time, I approached the scooter. It allows that. Do you want to try it at the other end of the hall now?”

“Y…yes.” I didn’t want to do it, but I had to try.

I approached that part cautiously, because the bumps and hollows looked huge. The scooter glided over them. It didn’t stay quite level, but it hardly rocked. Looking over the side, I marvelled at the height of the lumps, and the depth of the holes I went over. I drove in small circles over the bumpiest-looking part, but the scooter didn’t rock any more than a rowing boat in a pond.

I reversed back to Zej 1034. “I’d never have known that a scooter could tackle ground as uneven as that.”

“That’s about the worst the scooter will take,” he said. “It automatically adjusts the power to each jet, to keep the platform level.”

“I’ve seen a scooter driven over water.”

“Calm.”

“Yes. Almost flat. The scooter threw up a spray.”

“Yes. Scooters shouldn’t be used on rough water. They can flatten small waves, but, if the water splashes over them, into the jets, it causes uneven lift, and the control unit can’t handle the sudden changes.”

Tloise asked, “What happens?”

“The scooter sets to default – all the vertical jets at an estimated average, and all the horizontal jets off. If you’re lucky, it will hover. If you’re unlucky, the water washes over it. It cuts out, and lands in the water.”

I asked, “Would it sink?”

“Yes. Slowly. And it might topple, depending on the load.”

I reversed to where I’d started, and ordered, “Scooter, sleep.” The whine faded, and the scooter sank to the floor. To tell the truth, I sank too, into the seat after the tension of the tests.

 

30

Zej 1034 asked, “Do you want to see the scooter on automatic now?”

I sat up. “Yes, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. Waken the scooter and order it to automatic control.”

I called, “Wake, scooter.” The scooter rose. “Do you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Take automatic control.”

Nothing seemed to happen. I nervously ordered, “Move slowly forward.” The scooter did.

“Stop.” It stopped.

“Move back until you’re touching the wall.” It did.

“Go one metre forward.” It moved, and stopped.

“Spin round on the spot.” It turned a complete circle.

“Go twenty metres right.”

The room wasn’t big enough for that. The scooter moved to the right, but stopped, almost touching the wall. I thought it might report, but it didn’t.

“Go across the room to that far corner.”

That took us over the bumpy bit, but it was as smooth as before, and stopped, hovering level over the bumps and holes.

“Now go back to where you started.”

I was testing if it remembered. I should have known it would.

I asked, “That was quite simple, Zej 1034. Is there anything else I should report about scooters?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Thanks. Sleep, scooter.” The scooter sank to the floor, and I got off. “Thanks, Zej 1034. That was very useful.”

Tloise said, “You have not asked if I wish to test that scooter.”

“Er, no,” said Zej 1034. “The scooter won’t understand your language.”

“As you knew, Tloise,” I said.

Zej 1034 said, “If you wish to test the scooter, I can order it to take orders from your wrist unit.”

“No!” said Tloise. “I didn’t come here to see stinking scooters. I came to fly a peggie.”

 

31

“You can fly a peggie now.” Zej 1034 went to a terminal beside the door. “Two peggies here.” He told us, “They’ll be here soon. The peggies for delivery are at this end of the works.”

“For delivery?” I asked. “New pegasuses?”

“Yes.” He was puzzled.

“But… after we’ve used them, they won’t be new. You can’t sell them to customers.”

“We’re helping the customers by testing the peggies.”

Testing the pegasuses? Did they need testing? Seeing my continuing doubt, he asked, “Would you be happier if we use the bank of jets and the platform from your scooter in the peggie for you?”

“That would be interesting. If it won’t cause you any trouble.”

“No trouble at all.” He grinned. “I’ll let you do the work.”

The door opened automatically, and the two pegasuses came in, hovering just above the floor, like the scooter.

Tloise demanded, “Why did you order the peggies here?”

Zej 1034 was surprised. “I thought you wanted to fly one.”

“How can I fly one in a poky little room like this?”

I sensed Zej 1034’s amusement, but he didn’t show it. “I’ll show you.” He went to the terminal. “Open the demonstration room.” The far wall of the hall slid aside, showing a courtyard about the same size as the hall, surrounded by a stone wall.

Zej 1034 asked Tloise, “Will that suit you?” He waved to one of the pegasuses. “You can use this one. Bea and I will use the parts from the other to turn her scooter into a peggie.” He ordered the second pegasus to go.

I said, “Help Tloise first, Zej 1034.” When he hesitated, I continued, “He’s been….” I was going to say, “patient”, but I changed it to, “…waiting.”

“Thanks, Bea.”

But Tloise was standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at the remaining pegasus. “What do you call that?”

“A pegasus.” Zej 1034 was puzzled.

“A pegasus!” exclaimed Tloise. “Take off that… that canopy!”

“I wouldn’t advise that.”

“I’m not asking you. Remove it!”

Zej 1034 explained to me, “The canopy reduces the performance of the peggie by about 4%, so….”

Behind him, Tloise interrupted, “Get on with it.”

Ignoring him, Zej 1034 continued the explanation. “So some fliers think it’s smart to remove the canopy. But true fliers, serious fliers, always fit the canopy.” He turned to Tloise. “Are you sure?”

“No canopy. D’you think I’m a baby scrava that needs protection from a little wind?”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, shut up! I’ll do it myself!” Tloise jumped onto the platform of the pegasus and reached up to the top of a long post.

“If you wish.” Zej 1034 turned to me. “We need the bank of jets, the platform and the posts from your scooter. We’ll have to take it apart.”

We did so, accompanied by rising exclamations of anger from Tloise. When they reached a disturbing level, Zej 1034 turned to Tloise, who was thumping the corner of the canopy with his fist. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s this **** peggie. It won’t come apart.”

“Didn’t you see what Bea and I did?” He reached up to point. “Push these buttons to release the posts.”

Tloise saw what to do, but did it with no more skill than I had shown at first. He released the canopy from the tops of the long posts, then Zej 1034 helped him to lift it off, with the short posts and bank of jets attached.

Tloise clumsily freed the bank of jets from the posts, then bawled at Zej 1034, “Don’t just stand there like a half-witted scrava. Help me to lift this.” The two lifted the bank of jets to the tops of the long posts, and Tloise went round, pushing the buttons to fix it. Without the canopy and short posts, the pegasus looked strangely squat.

Tloise called, “Seat!”

When Zej 1034 brought one from the shelves at the side, Tloise wrinkled up his nose. “What d’you call that?”

“It’s our standard seat.”

“My dad’s buying a top-of-the range one.”

“Do you want to use this one today?”

“Just get on and fit it!”

Zej 1034 had hardly finished adjusting the seat before Tloise was in it, ordering, “Gimme the control stick.”

Zej 1034 said, “You must strap yourself in.”

Tloise said, “I’m not a baby.”

They stared at each other for about ten seconds, until Tloise said, “You’re too fussy.” He pulled the harness across his body, and fixed it. “I’m gonna take it off as soon as I’m up.”

“That’s up to you,” said Zej 1034. “If you want to do any fancy flying, you should strap yourself in. Expert pilots do. They’re not stupid. Do you want a safety helmet?”

“Bring a control column! I just want outa here!”

Zej 1034 brought the control column. “You must not fly outside our grounds. The boundary is marked by the orange wall. You can’t miss it.”

Tloise grabbed the control column. “I shall fly where I want.” He pushed the control column into the socket in front of him. “Order this thing to take orders in a sensible language.”

Zej 1034 ordered, Peggie, wake.” The jets started, blowing Tloise’s fair hair in all directions, and the pegasus hovered, like a scooter. “Accept orders in the language of Veevi 2.”

“Huh!” said Tloise. “Here I go!” He pushed the control column hard forward. The pegasus zoomed out of the hall and took off, straight up. Zej 1034 and I followed the pegasus to the courtyard, and watched it soar upwards.

I said, “I don’t think he’ll stay inside your wall.”

Zej 1034 smiled. “He will. Our peggies are fitted with an automatic control that stops them going beyond our boundary.”

“He won’t like that.”

“That doesn’t matter. We only have permission to fly here because we agreed to fit those controls.”

32

Zej 1034 said, “Now he’s out of the way, you’ll have peace to build your peggie.”

“Me?” I said. “I thought you were kidding when you said I could do it.”

“I’ll help you if you want, but you won’t need it.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” I surveyed the place. The parts of my scooter were scattered over the floor. “Should I start with the platform?”

“That’s what I would do. When you come to fit the bank of jets, I’ll help you to lift it.”

I moved the platform to a clear place on the floor – and had a thought. I lifted a corner. Yes: the corner caps were on the top because the platform had been used in a scooter, but they should be on the bottom when it was used in a pegasus. I turned the platform onto its side, supported by the seat. I was pleased by how quickly I moved the caps.

By the time I turned the platform over, to rest on the caps, Zej 1034 was waiting with the four long posts. I fitted them to the corners of the platform.

I asked,  “Can I use the canopy from Tloise’s pegasus?”

“If you want a canopy.”

“What do you mean?  I thought you said….”

“That was the official line. But you can do without the canopy. I often miss it off when I’m flying peggies.”

“Doesn’t that leave you in the blast of the jets?”

“It’s easier for me, because I’m smaller. And I wear a helmet. I admit I don’t notice any difference in performance, but it feels more exciting with the wind from the jets blowing down past you.”

“I think I’d be happier with the canopy.”

“Go ahead then.”  He helped me to lift the canopy, with the short posts attached, to the top of the long posts.

The caps were on the bottom of the bank of jets, so I shifted them to the top.

Zej 1034 said, “We can put the bank of jets on the top if we take a side each.”

He was right – just. I was at full stretch to put the corners of the bank of jets over the mushrooms on the two posts at my side. I went round, pushing the buttons to make the bank of jets clunk down into place.

Zej 1034 surveyed the completed pegasus. “Well done!”

I asked, “What if it’s not right? What if I haven’t done it properly?”

He bent to pull a post out of the corner of the platform. “Try it.”

“Wake, pegasus.”

The pegasus said, “I am not ready for use. The bottom of the long post at the front right is not properly fitted.”

Zej 1034 pressed the button. The post clunked down.

 

33

Zej 1034 asked, “Bea, did you say you’ve never flown a peggie?”

“That’s right.”

“You’ll enjoy it. Strap yourself in.”

I did so, nervously.

“Manual or automatic?”

“Manual first.” I wasn’t looking forward to going up there, and I wanted some control over what happened.

“Fine.” He brought a control column, and pushed it into the socket. “Do you know how to use this?”

“I assume it’s similar to the scooter, but scooters don’t go up and down.”

“Yeah. Like a scooter, you waken it first.”

He expected me to call, “Wake, pegasus,” so I did. The bank of jets whined softly, and the pegasus rose to hover like a scooter. I automatically checked the reading on the column. Still 99%.

Zej 1034 told me, “The controls are the same as a scooter – forward, back, left and right, but the handle moves up and down on the column, and that makes the peggie rise and fall.”

“What if you move it down too far? Does the pegasus…?”

He smiled. “No. It doesn’t crash. It’s not stupid. It knows exactly where the ground is. No matter how fast you descend, it will slow in time to hover like you’re doing now. Do you want to take the peggie outside?” He stood on the left corner behind me, holding the post with one hand. That corner dipped a fraction, then we hovered level again.

I pushed the control column gently forward, and the pegasus glided out into the courtyard.

Zej 1034 jumped off. “If you’ve never handled a peggie, you may want to practise landing.”

“I’ll practise landing.”

Holding the handle tight, I tried to move it slightly up. The pegasus hovered in the same place. Zej 1034 tactfully said, “It’s tricky at first, especially with that grip. Keen peggie pilots have grips made to fit their hands.”

I concentrated on the control column, easing the handle up. I didn’t feel the pegasus rising, but, when I looked, Zej 1034’s smile was disappearing under me. I got such a shock that I loosened my grip on the handle. It slid through my hand, and the pegasus hovered there, just above Zej 1034’s head.

He looked up at me. “Well done. Now come down again.”

I tried cautiously. When the pegasus did move down, fright made me let go of the handle, and the pegasus hovered with the platform about level with Zej 1034’s waist. He said, “A bit more.”

At my third try, I did it, and felt as if the pegasus landed on soft springs.

“Good,” he said. “Now you’re ready for your first flight.”

“I’m going to try taking off and landing again,” I said. “I want to make sure I can do it.”

This time, I did it more quickly, and stupidly said, “It’s quite simple. It feels safe.”

“It is safe,” he said. “If you release the control stick, the peggie will hover. You can stand up, and walk around on it.”

“I don’t think I’ll try that.”

He grinned. “It’s not difficult. You should report it. Here’s a challenge: walk round the peggie while it’s hovering. If you’re nervous, hang onto the posts.”

“Y…yes.”

“Good luck,” he said. “When you’re up there, you’ll enjoy it. That’s what first-timers say. Off you go.”

“Right.” I grasped the handle. Without thinking, I slid it up. The pegasus shot up. In alarm, I let go of the handle. The pegasus slowed quickly, and hovered, giving me a view of the factory roof – and an awful lot of empty space around me.

I wasn’t sure I liked the feeling. I was securely strapped in, but the pegasus was hanging in mid air, with a lot of nothing in front of my toes and under my seat.

Zej 1034 was somewhere under me. So I cautiously pulled the control column towards me. The pegasus sailed backwards, letting me look over the front, to the courtyard, where Zej 1034 was standing, looking up. He gave me a cheerful wave. I gave him a nervous wave.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so scary if I was higher. I pulled the handle up – and shot up again. Again, the surprise made me let go, and the pegasus hovered again, now with the whole factory spread below me.

I went right and left, forward and back, so carefully that, when I looked down, I could hardly tell I was moving.

As the jets whined steadily, keeping me safely airborne, I began to feel (a little) more confident. I thought I should try descending, but I wanted to make sure I had plenty of height first, so I went up a bit more – under rather better control.

Tloise’s pegasus shot past me, heading down. He was scowling. He was probably going to complain to Zej 1034 that he couldn’t go beyond the orange wall.

I manoeuvred a bit more – up and down, and all round. To my surprise, I felt safe. Empty space still started a few centimetres in front of my toes, but it didn’t worry me so much because the pegasus felt steady. I moved around, as much as I could without taking off the harness. If that made the pegasus wobble, I didn’t notice it.

This part of Obegon 4 was beautiful. It might have been Earth. Under me was the factory, a big blue roof with the reception room on one side. It was surrounded by lawns with flower beds, then the orange wall. Beyond that were fields and forests, with rounded hills in the distance.

I wondered what the pegasus would do if I tried to go past the orange wall. I moved towards the nearest part, at the front of the factory. As the pegasus went near the orange line, it began to slow. No matter what I did with the control column, the pegasus wouldn’t cross the invisible barrier that stretched up from that orange wall.

I cruised beside it for a while, trying to ease over it, without success. Then I saw a corner of the wall coming up. I wondered what would happen if I ran into that at a good speed. I headed towards it, but chickened out in time to stop before I reached it.

 

34

In order to land, I’d have to position the pegasus above the courtyard. That would be a good exercise. As I moved carefully in the right direction, the white square of Tloise’s pegasus rose from it. No doubt he was in a bad mood because Zej 1034 had told him he couldn’t go beyond the orange walls.

Zej 1034 was a dot in the courtyard but, as I moved nearer, the platform blocked him from my sight. It had a diagonal grid, but I couldn’t see much through the holes.

Tloise’s pegasus shot up past me, not dangerously near, but within about ten metres, making me think, “With all the sky to choose from, why must he fly so near me? Is he trying to frighten me?”

I looked at him. No: he was just being stupid. He was glowering, not sneering.

Could I go out of the seat? Should I go out of the seat? Sitting there, I felt safe – well, safer than I had at first. But, when I looked over the edge of the platform, the ground seemed awfully far below. But the pegasus did feel steady, and I can’t deny that I wanted to tell Zej 1034 I’d walked round the platform.

I took my hand off the control column. The pegasus hovered steadily. I pressed the button that released my harness. The pegasus hovered steadily. I stood up, hanging onto the sides of the seat. My knees trembled, but the pegasus hovered steadily. I leaned across to hold the post in the front left corner, fearful that the pegasus would dip in that direction. Needless to say, the pegasus hovered steadily. I took one step, to the corner of the platform, where I stood with both hands holding tightly to the post, and my head under the corner of the canopy. The factory looked frighteningly far below, but, if the pegasus dipped, I didn’t notice it.

Holding tightly to that post, and not looking down, I shuffled along the side of the pegasus until I could reach the post at the back left. Holding it, I eased across until I could put both hands round it. The pegasus continued to hover steadily.

The next part, along the back, looked nasty. There wasn’t much room behind the seat. Wondering if I could hold the edge of the canopy, I stretched up, to hold it with my left hand, but I didn’t feel very safe.

I did feel the blast of the jets on my fingers. With my right hand tight round the post, I stretched my left hand above the edge of the canopy. A strong wind blasted past my hand.

Someone shouted, not far away. Clinging tightly to the post, I looked around. Tloise was hovering too near again. He was beaming, and his hair was blowing in all directions. Seeing me, he shouted and waved.

Hugging the post with one arm, I gave him a quick wave with the other.

He shouted again, and rocked his pegasus – forwards, then sideways. Then he circled me, shouting again. I didn’t know what he meant, but I did know one thing: I wasn’t going to move. I was going to stand there, holding that post with both hands, until he went away.

He did one more circle, then shot up, out of my sight. With relief, I watched him go, but he’d spoiled my ambition to walk round the pegasus. All I wanted to do was go safely back to my seat, so that I could land, and put my feet on solid ground.

I reached across to the post at the front left, and started to shuffle towards it, until I glimpsed a shadow above me. I stopped, puzzled, halfway across.

My pegasus suddenly dropped – fell from under me.