The Decouplers

12 Aug

Captain Eup Tyrn did not learn of the high-jacked segment till it was gone for a while. How could it have happened? he asked himself.

The message came over a wireline from the middle of the extremely long train of joined space vessels.

“Cables have been separated and a cargo freighter captured and hauled away. The continuity of the belt was broken and the interlinkers removed. Our train has suffered a double decoupling on both ends of the stolen frigate. What shall we do now, Captain?”

The muscular supreme officer thought for several seconds as he stood on the bridge of the guiding towship at the front of the train. Once again, a force of pirates had grabbed a container ship from under him.

His ashen eyes grew abstracted and clouded.

“Proceed on to destination,” he commanded. “We must now secure the disconnected boats back in line with soga fiber cables as best we can.”

Eup could not avoid a frown. Was he to be forever foiled by criminal interlopers? he wondered.

The planet named Barketta possessed a gigantic terminal where scores of trains of coupled carriers landed every day from the void of space.

Draggers, luggers, pullers, and drawers delivered a variety of different interstellar vehicles for loading and unloading.

The series of vessels that Eup Tyrn succeeded in bringing in after the stealthy robbery consisted of several caravels, merchantmen, freightboats, and bateaux of many sorts.

He went at once to the central administrative headquarters of the Train Port of Barketta in order to report in person to the Harbormaster, Util Cerz. The latter’s office was on the top penthouse of the pyramidal cement structure.

A young female aide led the visitor into the official’s princely office.

“Please, be seated,” ordered the huge, heavy man in a resounding baritone. “I understand that your train suffered high-jacking of a frigate.”

“Yes,” said Eup with a moan. “The pirates were terribly bold, attacking not the tail of my series but smack in the middle with a double uncoupling, both front and back.”

Cerz looked down at the top of his sycamine desk, then raised his steel blue eyes and focused on the face of the space captain.

“Barketta is responsible for the safety and integrity of the voidal trains that use our facilities either to deliver or receive cargo. Yes, we are obliged to take actions in addition to the ordinary, customary measures.”

“What will these consist of?” anxiously asked the worried skipper of the train that suffered attack.

The port executive made a grimace. “I understand that even though many high-jacked vessels have armed guards aboard them, these unfortunate fellows are never found again.”

“That is the truth,” frowned Eup. “We never uncover any trace whatever of them. It is as if they disappear into the vacuum along with their boats.”

“And monitoring devices fail to trace their path at all, I am told,” sighed the Harbormaster.

“All attempts by me or by others cannot find out what has become of the abducted ones,” said the space captain. “I wonder whether those captured are immediately obliterated.”

Both men paused momentarily, but then Util spoke in a muffled, lowered tone.

“There is one possible way to destroy these criminals. We shall let rumor repeat that there will be a special shipment of valuable gems on a certain galiot of your next train. We shall leak word that special treasures of smaragd, adamas, and nacre are to be shipped by the united jewelers of Barketta. It will be placed in the middle of your coupled convoy. But the containers of this supposed cargo will be set with powerful explosives. The objective will be to kill all the intruders who dare touch the imagined treasures.

“Do you see the logic if this baited trap?”

Eup considered a moment, then raised a question.

“What about my guards aboard this segment and their fate? I fear that lethal explosions could endanger their lives, too.”

“Oh, this will be a special crew of well-trained fighters who are special officers of the Port Authority. They are expendable volunteers, but they know how to deal with armed gangs and are capable of protecting themselves. These fighters can take care of themselves with high-jackers.”

“When will we set this trap?” nervously asked the Captain.

“At once, on your next voyage out from Barketta.”

A specially equipped dromon was placed directly in the middle of the newly formed space train. It was a multihull with thick cobalt armor and an extra-large contingent of armed guards aboard.

Eup took Util Cerz on a tour of the entire caravan of thirty-three coupled vessels, spending the most time on the ship said to be carrying the gem treasures. It was here that the pair found the chief of the watchers assigned to guard the valuable shipment. This was a giant in crimson uniform whom Util introduced to the Captain of the convoy.

The man called Huso Mugre shook the hand of Eup with a grip that was metallic. His open smile revealed a mouth of giant gleaming teeth. About a snub nose sparkled eyes of yellowish white barium.

This chief of the watcher-guards towered over both Eup and Util.

“Are your subordinates ready for the voyage to start?” inquired Util with a grin.

“All of us are armed with angular pulsators and isomeric guns. We can take care of anyone who tries to take away the ship we are on. My watchers have had years of experience protecting trains of vessels plying space.”

“You will have the good wishes of all of us,” said Util with confidence. “Everyone must keep eyes and ears open at all times. Your guard must never fall.”

“I promise that no raiders or invaders will be permitted on these premises,” pledged Huso. “We shall defend this dromon with our lives.”

Util and Eup climbed down from the vessel, to the side of the tunnel strip along which all the ships of the caravan lay in a series.

All at once, the Harbormaster stopped and faced the Captain, who also had to stop.

“I have decided to go along on this voyage as an observer,” said Util with authority in his voice. “My experience at Barketta harbor may be of some value in what we are attempting.”

Eup merely nodded that he understood.

As they walked on along the tunnel holding the train together, the skipper wondered whether Util had ulterior reasons for deciding to accompany him.

The tugship piloted by Captain Tyrn was a tubular with a potent sterical engine, capable of pulling the interlocked thirty-three segments of the train. A flood of subparticle energy moved the long line of vessels off the harbor tunnel, into the atmosphere of Barkette, on into interplanetary space. At last, the series of coupled ships was hurtling forth at top hyperspeed.

Over a mag-ether line, Eup kept in periodic contact with the gem-carrying dromon, receiving ciphered reports from Huse Mugre on conditions there.

On the bridge of the dragger, Util told the Captain much about his life.

“My family was involved with space carriers back at the time when all that existed were slow molar ships. But when the sterical technology was perfected, it was too expensive for the old companies and the independent haulers. Everyone who needed speed had to make arrangements with the train organizers and managers. That was the only method of participating at the new, higher speed levels.

“Very early in life I decided to play a role in the coupling industry, in enabling the formation of longer, more complex, and faster space trains.”

Eup made a warm, friendly smile. “My history and that of my family is similar. My ancestors owned and operated a vessel with molar power. When the new sterical system appeared, it ruined them economically. At a young age I decided to study astral navigation. Fortunately, a piloting apprenticeship fell to me and I was able to rise in time to this captainship.”

“Great change is always painful, at least at the beginning,” sighed Util with evident sorrow. “But both you and I have come out on our feet.”

The official reached over to a shelf of bottles and poured out a bumper of rum and nutmeg.

A large team of masked bodies in solidly black clothing spread over the coupling tubules. Each person carried a long, narrow case containing soldering and melting tools. Going to work on the connecting sega cables that chained each ship segment to the one in front and the one behind. Each half of the raiding party worked efficiently, without a single word being said. Precise coordination allowed for simultaneous decoupling on both ends of the gem-carrier.

Once all the interlinking lines had been cut, it took only a few strong shoves to remove the dromon from the train that had contained it. The high-jacking went on fast and smoothly. No one appeared to be aware of this activity in the towship at the head of the train, for Captain Eup Tyrn was fast asleep in his cabin next to the bridge.

It was Util Cerz who awakened him by rapping on his metalline door. When it was opened, Eup looked into the steel eyes of the Harbormaster.

“Another incident has occurred,” reported the latter. “The gem-carrying dromon has been separated and stolen away from the train. We have no idea where it might now be located.”

“How can that be?” he asked. “We had a company of guards aboard the ship.”

“They too seem to have disappeared with the vessel they were meant to protect.”

The two men stared at each other as if searching for something.

“How about the back section of the train behind this gap of the missing vessel?” asked the Captain.

“I have seen to it that new lines have been spun out to connect them to us,” answered Util with what looked like a grin. “Beyond the one dromon, nothing else has been lost.”

Eup walked forward onto the guiding bridge. “How could this have happened?” he muttered under his breath.

When the reconstituted train returned to Barketta from its distant destination in the sky, the Captain was weighed down with guilt and shame.

How had he allowed this to occur once more? What mistakes had he made in the management and guidance of the serial caravan of ships?

Eup found sleep an almost impossible attainment. He turned, rolled, and jittered about the bed in his portside flat. Why had these disasters struck the trains that he piloted? Was there some personal weakness of character in him that he failed to see or suspect?

Taking all the documents he could find on this and previous crimes that were similar, Eup decided to look for some hidden, unperceived pattern. What it might turn out to be, he had no idea.

He read on and on, searching for the yet unrevealed.

One evening the investigator glanced over the lists of the guards on each of the several stolen ships. Beside each name was the home address on Barketta of each individual. Nearly all of them were located within the port city, except for three who had apartments in an industrial suburb. Their three addresses were, curiously, the very same.

The same street and number, the same building.

What did this coincidence mean? Did it hold any significance, in fact?

Eup stared at the rosters of guards, turning to the most recent one.

There was a name and an address that startled him on this sheet of paper.

Huso Mugre, chief of the guards, was described as living at this same place.

The result was a decision to visit and ask questions at this unusual building.

A trip by metropolitan ferrocar carried Eup to a station only a few streets away from his target. He asked a passerby for directions and then went on foot to the dark, decrepit structure he was interested in.

Entering the old-fashioned front vestibule, the Captain stepped in front of the rack of glass mail boxes of each unit-holder. Taking the list of missing train guards out of his jacket pocket, he searched for those names among the ones written in black ink on each compartment for letters. Yes, here was one of them. Soon two more of these were found.

Eup sensed a whirling of sorts at the center of his brain.

What was the meaning of this shadowy presence on Barketta of these supposedly lost individuals? How had it happened that they returned to their home planet, to the same address they had lived at before the attack on their train?

Eup, so involved in these considerations, did not notice the entrance of a person he could have identified in an instant had he been turned in the opposite direction.

“What are you doing here, Captain?” said a familiar voice.

The confused visitor turned around to face the supposedly disappeared Huso Mugre.

“Most of your guard team is housed in this building,” said Eup. “Do you have an explanation for this extraordinary situation?”

The other gave a sardonic smile. “What do you think? They are here simply because they live in this place. I am the one who found them this residence. That is the most natural arrangement possible for them.”

Eup summoned his full vocal strength and spoke in a mode of outrage. “There is a criminal conspiracy at work here and I suspect that you are at its hub,” he bluntly asserted.

Unexpectedly, the guard chief began to laugh.

“No, my friend. I am a part of what you mention, but I have to deny that I am the center of it all.”

All at once, Mugre reached down under his suit coat and pulled out a pulser.

“Do not move or try to run off. I am going to take you with me downtown. There is someone there who would very much wish to talk with you now that all of this has happened. Come along with me and learn a lot more.”

A camion belonging to the Train Port Authority transported Huso Mugre and his semi-prisoner to the central headquarter’s basement garage. It was here, in the cool underground area, that Eup found out the extent of the forces ranged against him.

It was none other than Harbormaster Util Cerz who entered the dim, dirty carrier that held the Train Captain. The amount of surprise for the latter did not diminish as the official studied him a considerable time. At last, Cerz began to address the surprised captive.

“I regret your pain in finding out the truth of how things have been arranged,” he began. “But since that has happened, we must go on to how we are going to deal with you.

“An offer of enormous benefit to you will now be presented. Join with us and you will receive generous compensation for your cooperation.

“Refuse this agreement and you will not return from the next voyage you make on a space train. It will turn out to be a final trip for you.”

Eup felt disorientation and could not decide one way or the other.

He kept mum as long as possible, considering what his best option was.

Was life more valuable than a worthy self-image?

Did survival count more than integrity of character?

How could he face himself if he surrendered to this high-jacking conspiracy?

“What is your answer?” asked the impatient Harbormaster.

An idea suddenly flashed into the mind of the one who had to decide. “I shall join up with you,” replied the Captain.

Yes, until the moment at which I betray all of you. And right will be with me when I turn all of you over to the Barketta police.

My justification will only come about when I break the evil vow that I now make that is being coerced from me by threat and force.

“I agree to become a member of the organization of decouplers,” said Eup with internal denial of the words he spoke with hidden shame.

The moment of justified retribution and compensation will come, the Captain told himself, uncertain how he was going to make things right.

Eup realized he was taking a great risk with his personal integrity and conscience.

Within a week, Eup was placed in charge of a newly-formed caravan of coupled space freighters. The same group of criminal high-jackers composed much of the crew of the train of vessels. Their plan was to decouple the most valuable cargo load in the same manner as on the earlier occasions.

Eup thought long about how he was going to come to terms with this gang.

Before the train left the space station of Barketta, he was informed that the target was to be a caravel carrying an expensive cargo of germanium crystals. His task was to prevent any interference by train guards with the capture of this component bateau.

Deciding that he needed an ally, Eup went to see the senior agent of the insurance company underwriting any losses from the risks involved in voidal transportation of goods. He met with the obese but muscled businessman in an obscure tavern near the station fields.

Eup described all the details of the situation to his friend, Dicho Vingt.

The latter, bald and roan-eyed, listened attentively, absorbing every word and fact given to him.

Deep in thought, Dicho waited a short while before providing an answer.

“You must oppose these high-jackers with something they do not expect.”

“And what will that be?” anxiously inquired Eup.

Vingt lowered his voice to a whisper.

“Canisters of a viral toxoplasma,” said the insurance man. “These can be attached to the couplings of the freighter chosen for high-jacking. They will kill whoever attempts to decouple the train in space.”

When the voidal train reached its destination in a distant star system, half a dozen dead bodies of employees were discovered about the two ends of the bateau that was to be high-jacked.

Eup immediately realized that a partial victory had been attained.

There remained only the matter of what to do about the Harbormaster at Barketta. Best to deal with Util Cerz by myself, decided the Train Captain.

As soon as he was back on his home planet, Eup went at once to the office of the chief of the new decimated gang of caravan thieves. He made his way directly into the private sanctum of the high official, not waiting to be announced by any office aide.

It took a moment of so for the Harbormaster to regain a degree of equilibrium.

“Yes, I received the news from your train as soon as you reached the planetary destination and the bodies were discovered at the couplings. That is tragic, I mean in terms of our failure to grab the priceless germanium load.”

“I was surprised and dumbfounded,” lied the Train Captain. “Nothing like this has resulted before. The risks to high-jacking have risen as never before.”

“Tell me,” said Util. “How was it done? Why were my men defeated?”

Eup made an inscrutable smile. “A new poisonous plasma was released when the couplings were broken in the environment of space. The outcome was fatal for your men there.”

“Plasma! What sort of plasma?” reacted the Harbormaster.

It was at that moment that Eup reached into his coat pocket and took out a concealed sprayer. Moving with great speed, he circled around the pyrex table of Cerz, lifted his arm, pressed his fingers, and sprayed the face of the petrified criminal with the toxic plasma.

In a few seconds, the defenseless culprit fell to the bamboo carpet.

Eup put away the lethal can of plasma and made his way out of the office, then the building, in an untroubled, normal way.

He was certain that the wave of decoupling was ended, because there was no one left to continue with the high-jackings.

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