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´╗┐Title: Saline Solution
Author: Laumer, Keith
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Saline Solution" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                            SALINE SOLUTION

                            BY KEITH LAUMER

                 Blast you, Retief! Your violent ways
                are the disgrace of Earth's diplomatic
                corps--but your salty jokes are worse!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
               Worlds of If Science Fiction, March 1963.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


                                   I

Consul-General Magnan gingerly fingered the heavily rubber-banded sheaf
of dog-eared documents. "I haven't rushed into precipitate action on
this claim, Retief," he said. "The Consulate has grave responsibilities
here in the Belt. One must weigh all aspects of the situation,
consider the ramifications. What consequences would arise from a grant
of minerals rights on the planetoid to this claimant?"

"The claim looked all right to me," Retief said. "Seventeen copies with
attachments. Why not process it? You've had it on your desk for a week."

Magnan's eyebrows went up. "You've a personal interest in this claim,
Retief?"

"Every day you wait is costing them money. That hulk they use for an
ore-carrier is in a parking orbit piling up demurrage."

"I see you've become emotionally involved in the affairs of a group
of obscure miners. You haven't yet learned the true diplomat's
happy faculty of non-identification with specifics--or should I say
identification with non-specifics?"

"They're not a wealthy outfit, you know. In fact, I understand this
claim is their sole asset--unless you want to count the ore-carrier."

"The Consulate is not concerned with the internal financial problems of
the Sam's Last Chance Number Nine Mining Company."

"Careful," Retief said. "You almost identified yourself with a specific
that time."

"Hardly, my dear Retief," Magnan said blandly. "The implication is
mightier than the affidavit. You should study the records of the
giants of galactic diplomacy: Crodfoller, Passwyn, Spradley, Nitworth,
Sternwheeler, Rumpwhistle. The roll-call of those names rings like the
majestic tread of ... of...."

"Dinosaurs?" Retief suggested.

"An apt simile," Magnan nodded. "Those mighty figures, those armored
hides--"

"Those tiny brains--"

Magnan smiled sadly. "I see you're indulging your penchant for
distorted facetiae. Perhaps one day you'll learn their true worth."

"I already have my suspicions."

The intercom chimed. Miss Gumble's features appeared on the desk screen.

"Mr. Leatherwell to see you, Mr. Magnan. He has no appointment--"

Magnan's eyebrows went up. "Send Mr. Leatherwell right in." He looked
at Retief. "I had no idea Leatherwell was planning a call. I wonder
what he's after?" Magnan looked anxious. "He's an important figure in
Belt minerals circles. It's important to avoid arousing antagonism,
while maintaining non-commitment. You may as well stay. You might pick
up some valuable pointers technique-wise."

       *       *       *       *       *

The door swung wide. Leatherwell strode into the room, his massive
paunch buckled into fashionable vests of turquoise velvet and hung with
the latest in fluorescent watch charms. He extended a large palm and
pumped Magnan's flaccid arm vigorously.

"Ah, there, Mr. Consul-General. Good of you to receive me." He wiped
his hand absently on his thigh, eyeing Retief questioningly.

"Mr. Retief, my Vice-Consul and Minerals Officer," Magnan said. "Do
take a chair, Mr. Leatherwell. In what capacity can I serve today?"

"I am here, gentlemen," Leatherwell said, putting an immense yellow
briefcase on Magnan's desk and settling himself in a power rocker,
"on behalf of my company, General Minerals. General Minerals has long
been aware, gentlemen, of the austere conditions obtaining here in
the Belt, to which public servants like yourselves are subjected."
Leatherwell bobbed with the pitch of the rocker, smiling complacently
at Magnan. "General Minerals is more than a great industrial combine.
It is an organization with a heart." Leatherwell reached for his breast
pocket, missed, tried again. "How do you turn this damned thing off?"
he growled.

Magnan half-rose, peering over Leatherwell's briefcase. "The switch
just there--on the arm."

The executive fumbled. There was a _click_, and the chair subsided with
a sigh of compressed air.

"That's better." Leatherwell drew out a long slip of blue paper.

"To alleviate the boredom and brighten the lives of that hardy group
of Terrestrials laboring here on Ceres to bring free enterprise to
the Belt, General Minerals is presenting to the Consulate--on their
behalf--one hundred thousand credits for the construction of a Joy
Center, to be equipped with the latest and finest in recreational
equipment, including a Gourmet Model C banquet synthesizer, a
forty-foot sublimation chamber, a five thousand tape library--with a
number of choice items unobtainable in Boston--a twenty-foot Tri-D tank
and other amenities too numerous to mention." Leatherwell leaned back,
beaming expectantly.

"Why, Mr. Leatherwell. We're overwhelmed, of course." Magnan smiled
dazedly past the briefcase. "But I wonder if it's quite proper...."

"The gift is to the people, Mr. Consul. You merely accept on their
behalf."

"I wonder if General Minerals realizes that the hardy Terrestrials
laboring on Ceres are limited to the Consular staff?" Retief said. "And
the staff consists of Mr. Magnan, Miss Gumble and myself."

"Mr. Leatherwell is hardly interested in these details, Retief,"
Magnan cut in. "A public-spirited offer indeed, sir. As Terrestrial
Consul--and on behalf of all Terrestrials here in the Belt--I accept
with a humble awareness of--"

"Now, there was one other little matter." Leatherwell leaned forward
to open the briefcase, glancing over Magnan's littered desktop. He
extracted a bundle of papers, dropped them on the desk, then drew out a
heavy document and passed it across to Magnan.

"Just a routine claim. I'd like to see it rushed through, as we have in
mind some loading operations in the vicinity next week."

"Certainly Mr. Leatherwell."

Magnan glanced at the papers, paused to read. He looked up. "Ah--"

"Something the matter, Mr. Consul?" Leatherwell demanded.

"It's just that--ah--I seem to recall--as a matter of fact...." Magnan
looked at Retief. Retief took the papers, looked over the top sheet.

"95739-A. Sorry, Mr. Leatherwell. General Minerals has been
anticipated. We're processing a prior claim."

"Prior claim?" Leatherwell barked. "You've issued the grant?"

"Oh, no indeed, Mr. Leatherwell," Magnan replied quickly. "The claim
hasn't yet been processed."

"Then there's no difficulty," Leatherwell boomed. He glanced at his
finger watch. "If you don't mind, I'll wait and take the grant along
with me. I assume it will only take a minute or two to sign it and
affix seals and so on?"

"The other claim was filed a full week ago--" Retief started.

"Bah!" Leatherwell waved a hand impatiently. "These details can
be arranged." He fixed an eye on Magnan. "I'm sure all of us here
understand that it's in the public interest that minerals properties go
to responsible firms, with adequate capital for proper development."

"Why, ah," Magnan said.

"The Sam's Last Chance Number Nine Mining Company is a duly chartered
firm. Their claim is valid."

"I know that hole-in-corner concern," Leatherwell snapped.
"Mere irresponsible opportunists. General Minerals has spent
millions--millions, I say--of the stockholders' funds in minerals
explorations. Are they to be balked in realizing a fair return on their
investment because these ... these ... adventures have stumbled on a
deposit? Not that the property is of any real value, of course," he
added. "Quite an ordinary bit of rock. But General Minerals would find
it convenient to consolidate its holdings."

"There are plenty of other rocks floating around in the Belt. Why not--"

"One moment, Retief," Magnan cut in. He looked across the desk at his
junior with a severe expression. "As Consul-General, I'm quite capable
of determining the relative merits of claims. As Mr. Leatherwell has
pointed out, it's in the public interest to consider the question in
depth."

Leatherwell cleared his throat. "I might state at this time that
General Minerals is prepared to be generous in dealing with these
interlopers. I believe we would be prepared to go so far as to offer
them free title to certain GM holdings in exchange for their release
of any alleged rights to the property in question--merely to simplify
matters, of course."

"That seems more than fair to me," Magnan glowed.

"The Sam's people have a clear priority," Retief said. "I logged the
claim in last Friday."

"They have far from a clear title." Leatherwell snapped. "And I can
assure you GM will contest their claim, if need be, to the Supreme
Court!"

"Just what holdings did you have in mind offering them, Mr.
Leatherwell?" Magnan asked nervously.

Leatherwell reached into his briefcase and drew out a paper.

"2645-P," he read. "A quite massive body. Crustal material, I imagine.
It should satisfy these squatters' desire to own real estate in the
Belt."

"I'll make a note of that," Magnan said, reaching for a pad.

"That's a Bona Fide offer, Mr. Leatherwell?" Retief asked.

"Certainly!"

"I'll record it as such," Magnan said, scribbling.

"And who knows?" Leatherwell said. "It may turn out to contain some
surprisingly rich finds."

"And if they won't accept it?" Retief asked.

"Then I daresay General Minerals will find a remedy in the courts, sir!"

"Oh, I hardly think that will be necessary," Magnan said.

"Then there's another routine matter," Leatherwell said. He passed a
second document across to Magnan. "GM is requesting an injunction to
restrain these same parties from aggravated trespass. I'd appreciate
it if you'd push it through at once. There's a matter of a load of
illegally obtained ore involved, as well."

"Certainly Mr. Leatherwell. I'll see to it myself."

"No need for that. The papers are all drawn up. Our legal department
will vouch for their correctness. Just sign here." Leatherwell spread
out the paper and handed Magnan a pen.

"Wouldn't it be a good idea to read that over first?" Retief said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Leatherwell frowned impatiently. "You'll have adequate time to
familiarize yourself with the details later, Retief," Magnan snapped,
taking the pen. "No need to waste Mr. Leatherwell's valuable time." He
scratched a signature on the paper.

Leatherwell rose, gathered up his papers from Magnan's desk, dumped
them into the briefcase. "Riff-raff, of course. Their kind has no
business in the Belt."

Retief rose, crossed to the desk, and held out a hand. "I believe you
gathered in an official document along with your own, Mr. Leatherwell.
By error, of course."

"What's that?" Leatherwell bridled. Retief smiled, waiting. Magnan
opened his mouth.

"It was under your papers, Mr. Leatherwell," Retief said. "It's the
thick one, with the rubber bands."

Leatherwell dug in his briefcase, produced the document. "Well, fancy
finding this here," he growled. He shoved the papers into Retief's hand.

"You're a very observant young fellow." He closed the briefcase with a
snap. "I trust you'll have a bright future with the CDT."

"Really, Retief," Magnan said reprovingly. "There was no need to
trouble Mr. Leatherwell."

Leatherwell directed a sharp look at Retief and a bland one at Magnan.
"I trust you'll communicate the proposal to the interested parties.
Inasmuch as time is of the essence of the GM position, our offer can
only be held open until 0900 Greenwich, tomorrow. I'll call again at
that time to finalize matters. I trust there'll be no impediment to a
satisfactory settlement at that time. I should dislike to embark on
lengthy litigation."

Magnan hurried around his desk to open the door. He turned back to fix
Retief with an exasperated frown.

"A crass display of boorishness, Retief," he snapped. "You've
embarrassed a most influential member of the business community--and
for nothing more than a few miserable forms."

"Those forms represent somebody's stake in what might be a valuable
property."

"They're mere paper until they've been processed!"

"Still--"

"My responsibility is to the Public interest--not to a fly-by-night
group of prospectors."

"They found it first."

"Bah! A worthless rock. After Mr. Leatherwell's munificent gesture--"

"Better rush his check through before he thinks it over and changes his
mind."

"Good heavens!" Magnan clutched the check, buzzed for Miss Gumble. She
swept in, took Magnan's instructions and left. Retief waited while
Magnan glanced over the injunction, then nodded.

"Quite in order. A person called Sam Mancziewicz appears to be the
principal. The address given is the Jolly Barge Hotel; that would be
that converted derelict ship in orbit 6942, I assume?"

Retief nodded. "That's what they call it."

"As for the ore-carrier, I'd best impound it, pending the settlement of
the matter." Magnan drew a form from a drawer, filled in blanks, shoved
the paper across the desk. He turned and consulted a wall chart.
"The hotel is nearby at the moment, as it happens. Take the Consulate
dinghy. If you get out there right away, you'll catch them before the
evening binge has developed fully."

"I take it that's your diplomatic way of telling me that I'm now a
process server." Retief took the papers and tucked them into an inside
pocket.

"One of the many functions a diplomat is called on to perform in a
small consular post. Excellent experience. I needn't warn you to be
circumspect. These miners are an unruly lot--especially when receiving
bad news."

"Aren't we all." Retief rose. "I don't suppose there's any prospect
of your signing off that claim so that I can take a little good news
along, too?"

"None whatever," Magnan snapped. "They've been made a most generous
offer. If that fails to satisfy them, they have recourse through the
courts."

"Fighting a suit like that costs money. The Sam's Last Chance Mining
Company hasn't got any."

"Need I remind you--"

"I know. That's none of our concern."

"On your way out," Magnan said as Retief turned to the door, "ask Miss
Gumble to bring in the Gourmet catalog from the Commercial Library. I
want to check on the specifications of the Model C Banquet synthesizer."

An hour later, nine hundred miles from Ceres and fast approaching the
Jolly Barge Hotel, Retief keyed the skiff's transmitter.

"CDT 347-89 calling Navy FP-VO-6."

"Navy VO-6 here, CDT," a prompt voice came back. A flickering image
appeared on the small screen. "Oh, hi there, Mr. Retief. What brings
you out in the cold night air?"

"Hello, Henry. I'm estimating the Jolly Barge in ten minutes. It looks
like a busy night ahead. I may be moving around a little. How about
keeping an eye on me? I'll be carrying a personnel beacon. Monitor it,
and if I switch it into high, come in fast. I can't afford to be held
up. I've got a big meeting in the morning."

"Sure thing, Mr. Retief. We'll keep an eye open."

       *       *       *       *       *

Retief dropped a ten-credit note on the bar, accepted a glass and
a squat bottle of black Marsberry brandy and turned to survey the
low-ceilinged room, a former hydroponics deck now known as the Jungle
Bar. Under the low ceiling, unpruned _Ipomoea batatas_ and _Lathyrus
odoratus_ vines sprawled in a tangle that filtered the light of the
S-spectrum glare panels to a muted green. A six-foot trideo screen,
salvaged from the wreck of a Concordiat transport, blared taped music
in the style of two centuries past. At the tables, heavy-shouldered men
in bright-dyed suit liners played cards, clanked bottles and shouted.

Carrying the bottle and glass, Retief moved across to an empty chair at
one of the tables.

"You gentlemen mind if I join you?"

Five unshaven faces turned to study Retief's six foot three, his
close cut black hair, his non-commital gray coverall, the scars on
his knuckles. A redhead with a broken nose nodded. "Pull up a chair,
stranger."

"You workin' a claim, pardner?"

"Just looking around."

"Try a shot of this rock juice."

"Don't do it, Mister. He makes it himself."

"Best rock juice this side of Luna."

"Say, feller--"

"The name's Retief."

"Retief, you ever play Drift?"

"Can't say that I did."

"Don't gamble with Sam, pardner. He's the local champ."

"How do you play it?"

The black-browed miner who had suggested the game rolled back his
sleeve to reveal a sinewy forearm, put his elbow on the table.

"You hook forefingers, and put a glass right up on top. The man that
takes a swallow wins. If the drink spills, it's drinks for the house."

"A man don't often win out-right," the redhead said cheerfully. "But it
makes for plenty of drinkin'."

Retief put his elbow on the table. "I'll give it a try."

The two men hooked forefingers. The redhead poured a tumbler half full
of rock juice, placed it atop the two fists. "Okay, boys. Go!"

The man named Sam gritted his teeth; his biceps tensed, knuckles grew
white. The glass trembled. Then it moved--toward Retief. Sam hunched
his shoulders, straining.

"That's the stuff, Mister!"

"What's the matter, Sam? You tired?"

The glass moved steadily closer to Retief's face.

"A hundred the new man makes it!"

"Watch Sam! Any minute now...."

The glass slowed, paused. Retief's wrist twitched and the glass crashed
to the table top. A shout went up. Sam leaned back with a sigh,
massaging his hand.

"That's some arm you got, Mister," he said. "If you hadn't jumped just
then...."

"I guess the drinks are on me," Retief said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Two hours later Retief's Marsberry bottle stood empty on the table
beside half a dozen others.

"We were lucky," Sam Mancziewicz was saying. "You figure the original
volume of the planet; say 245,000,000,000 cubic miles. The deBerry
theory calls for a collapsed-crystal core no more than a mile in
diameter. There's your odds."

"And you believe you've found a fragment of this core?"

"Damn right we have. Couple of million tons if it's an ounce. And at
three credits a ton delivered at Port Syrtis, we're set for life. About
time, too. Twenty years I've been in the Belt. Got two kids I haven't
seen for five years. Things are going to be different now."

"Hey, Sam; tone it down. You don't have to broadcast to every claim
jumper in the Belt."

"Our claim's on file at the Consulate," Sam said. "As soon as we get
the grant--"

"When's that gonna be? We been waitin' a week now."

"I've never seen any collapsed-crystal metal," Retief said. "I'd like
to take a look at it."

"Sure. Come on, I'll run you over. It's about an hour's run. We'll take
our skiff. You want to go along, Willy?"

"I got a bottle to go," Willy said. "See you in the morning."

The two men descended in the lift to the boat bay, suited up and
strapped into the cramped boat. A bored attendant cycled the launch
doors, levered the release that propelled the skiff out and clear of
the Jolly Barge Hotel. Retief caught a glimpse of a tower of lights
spinning majestically against the black of space as the drive hurled
the tiny boat away.


                                  III

Retief's feet sank ankle deep into the powdery surface that glinted
like snow in the glare of the distant sun.

"It's funny stuff," Sam's voice sounded in his ear. "Under a gee
of gravity, you'd sink out of sight. The stuff cuts diamond like
butter--but temperature changes break it down into a powder. A lot of
it's used just like this, as an industrial abrasive. Easy to load, too.
Just drop a suction line, put on ambient pressure and start pumping."

"And this whole rock is made of the same material?"

"Sure is. We ran plenty of test bores and a full schedule of soundings.
I've got the reports back aboard _Gertie_--that's our lighter."

"And you've already loaded a cargo here?"

"Yep. We're running out of capital fast. I need to get that cargo to
port in a hurry--before the outfit goes into involuntary bankruptcy.
With this, that'd be a crime."

"What do you know about General Minerals, Sam?"

"You thinking of hiring on with them? Better read the fine print in
your contract before you sign. Sneakiest bunch this side of a burglar's
convention."

"They own a chunk of rock known as 2645-P. Do you suppose we could find
it?"

"Oh, you're buying it, hey? Sure, we can find it. You damn sure want to
look it over good if General Minerals is selling."

Back aboard the skiff, Mancziewicz flipped the pages of the chart book,
consulted a table. "Yep, she's not too far off. Let's go see what GM's
trying to unload."

       *       *       *       *       *

The skiff hovered two miles from the giant boulder known as 2645-P.
Retief and Mancziewicz looked it over at high magnification. "It don't
look like much, Retief," Sam said. "Let's go down and take a closer
look."

The boat dropped rapidly toward the scarred surface of the tiny world,
a floating mountain, glaring black and white in the spotlight of the
sun. Sam frowned at his instrument panel.

"That's funny. My ion counter is revving up. Looks like a drive trail,
not more than an hour or two old. Somebody's been here."

The boat grounded. Retief and Sam got out. The stony surface was
littered with rock fragments varying in size from pebbles to great
slabs twenty feet long, tumbled in a loose bed of dust and sand. Retief
pushed off gently, drifted up to a vantage point atop an upended wedge
of rock. Sam joined him.

"This is all igneous stuff," he said. "Not likely we'll find much here
that would pay the freight to Syrtis--unless maybe you lucked onto some
Bodean artifacts. They bring plenty."

He flipped a binocular in place as he talked, scanned the riven
landscape. "Hey!" he said. "Over there!"

Retief followed Sam's pointing glove. He studied the dark patch against
a smooth expanse of eroded rock.

"A friend of mine came across a chunk of the old planetary surface two
years ago," Sam said thoughtfully. "Had a tunnel in it that'd been used
as a storage depot by the Bodeans. Took out over two ton of hardware.
Course, nobody's discovered how the stuff works yet, but it brings top
prices."

"Looks like water erosion," Retief said.

"Yep. This could be another piece of surface, all right. Could be a
cave over there. The Bodeans liked caves, too. Must have been some
war--but then, if it hadn't been, they wouldn't have tucked so much
stuff away underground where it could weather the planetary breakup."

They descended, crossed the jumbled rocks with light, thirty-foot leaps.

"It's a cave, all right," Sam said, stooping to peer into the five-foot
bore. Retief followed him inside.

"Let's get some light in here." Mancziewicz flipped on a beam. It
glinted back from dull polished surfaces of Bodean synthetic. Sam's low
whistle sounded in Retief's headset.

"That's funny," Retief said.

"Funny, hell! It's hilarious. General Minerals trying to sell off a
worthless rock to a tenderfoot--and it's loaded with Bodean artifacts.
No telling how much is here; the tunnel seems to go quite a ways back."

"That's not what I mean. Do you notice your suit warming up?"

"Huh? Yeah, now that you mention it."

Retief rapped with a gauntleted hand on the satiny black curve of the
nearest Bodean artifact. It clunked dully through the suit "That's not
metal," he said. "It's plastic."

"There's something fishy here," Sam said. "This erosion; it looks more
like a heat beam."

"Sam," Retief said, turning, "it appears to me somebody has gone to a
great deal of trouble to give a false impression here."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sam snorted. "I told you they were a crafty bunch." He started out of
the cave, then paused, went to one knee to study the floor. "But maybe
they outsmarted themselves. Look here!"

Retief looked. Sam's beam reflected from a fused surface of milky
white, shot through with dirty yellow. He snapped a pointed instrument
in place on his gauntlet, dug at one of the yellow streaks. It furrowed
under the gouge, a particle adhering to the instrument. With his
left hand, Mancziewicz opened a pouch clipped to his belt, carefully
deposited the sample in a small orifice on the device in the pouch. He
flipped a key, squinted at a dial.

"Atomic weight 197.2," he said. Retief turned down the audio volume on
his headset as Sam's laughter rang in his helmet.

"Those clowns were out to stick you, Retief," he gasped, still
chuckling. "They salted the rock with a cave full of Bodean artifacts--"

"Fake Bodean artifacts," Retief put in.

"They planed off the rock so it would look like an old beach, and then
cut this cave with beamers. And they were boring through practically
solid gold!"

"As good as that?"

Mancziewicz flashed the light around. "This stuff will assay out at a
thousand credits a ton, easy. If the vein doesn't run to five thousand
tons, the beers are on me." He snapped off the light. "Let's get
moving, Retief. You want to sew this deal up before they get around to
taking another look at it."

Back in the boat, Retief and Mancziewicz opened their helmets. "This
calls for a drink," Sam said, extracting a pressure flask from the map
case. "This rock's worth as much as mine, maybe more. You hit it lucky,
Retief. Congratulations." He thrust out a hand.

"I'm afraid you've jumped to a couple of conclusions, Sam," Retief
said. "I'm not out here to buy mining properties."

"You're not--then why--but man! Even if you didn't figure on
buying...." He trailed off as Retief shook his head, unzipped his suit
to reach to an inside pocket, take out a packet of folded papers.

"In my capacity as Terrestrial Vice-Consul, I'm serving you with an
injunction restraining you from further exploitation of the body known
as 95739-A." He handed a paper across to Sam. "I also have here an
Order impounding the vessel _Gravel Gertie II_."

Sam took the papers silently, sat looking at them. He looked up at
Retief. "Funny. When you beat me at Drift and then threw the game so
you wouldn't show me up in front of the boys, I figured you for a
right guy. I've been spilling my heart out to you like you were my old
grandma. An old-timer in the game like me." He dropped a hand, brought
it up with a Browning 2mm pointed at Retief's chest.

"I could shoot you and dump you here with a slab over you, toss these
papers in the John and hightail it with the load...."

"That wouldn't do you much good in the long run, Sam. Besides you're
not a criminal or an idiot."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sam chewed his lip. "My claim is on file in the Consulate, legal and
proper. Maybe by now the grant's gone through."

"Other people have their eye on your rock, Sam. Ever meet a fellow
called Leatherwell?"

"General Minerals, huh? They haven't got a leg to stand on."

"The last time I saw your claim, it was still lying in the pending
file. Just a bundle of paper until it's validated by the Consul. If
Leatherwell contests it ... well, his lawyers are on annual retainer.
How long could you keep the suit going, Sam?"

Mancziewicz closed his helmet with a decisive snap, motioned to Retief
to do the same. He opened the hatch, sat with the gun on Retief.

"Get out, paper-pusher." His voice sounded thin in the headphones.
"You'll get lonesome, maybe, but your suit will keep you alive a few
days. I'll tip somebody off before you lose too much weight. I'm going
back and see if I can't stir up a little action at the Consulate."

Retief climbed out, walked off fifty yards. He watched as the skiff
kicked off in a quickly dispersed cloud of dust, dwindled rapidly away
to a bright speck that was lost against the stars. Then he extracted
the locator beacon from the pocket of his suit and thumbed the control.

Twenty minutes later, aboard Navy FP-VO-6, Retief pulled off his
helmet. "Fast work, Henry. I've got a couple of calls to make. Put me
through to your HQ, will you? I want a word with Commander Hayle."

The young naval officer raised the HQ, handed the mike to Retief.

"Vice-Consul Retief here, Commander. I'd like you to intercept a skiff,
bound from my present position toward Ceres. There's a Mr. Mancziewicz
aboard. He's armed, but not dangerous. Collect him and see that he's
delivered to the Consulate at 0900 Greenwich tomorrow.

"Next item: The Consulate has impounded an ore-carrier, _Gravel Gertie
II_. It's in a parking orbit ten miles off Ceres. I want it taken in
tow." Retief gave detailed instruction. Then he asked for a connection
through the Navy switchboard to the Consulate. Magnan's voice answered.

"Retief speaking, Mr. Consul. I have some news that I think will
interest you--"

"Where are you, Retief? What's wrong with the screen? Have you served
the injunction?"

"I'm aboard the Navy patrol vessel. I've been out looking over the
situation, and I've made a surprising discovery. I don't think we're
going to have any trouble with the Sam's people; they've looked over
the body--2645-P--and it seems General Minerals has slipped up. There
appears to be a highly valuable deposit there."

"Oh? What sort of deposit?"

"Mr. Mancziewicz mentioned collapsed crystal metal," Retief said.

"Well, most interesting." Magnan's voice sounded thoughtful.

"Just thought you'd like to know. This should simplify the meeting in
the morning.

"Yes," Magnan said. "Yes, indeed. I think this makes everything very
simple...."

       *       *       *       *       *

At 0845 Greenwich, Retief stepped into the outer office of the Consular
suite.

"... fantastic configuration," Leatherwell's bass voice rumbled,
"covering literally acres. My xenogeologists are somewhat confused by
the formations. They had only a few hours to examine the site; but it's
clear from the extent of the surface indications that we have a very
rich find here. Very rich indeed. Beside it, 95739-A dwindles into
insignificance. Very fast thinking on your part, Mr. Consul, to bring
the matter to my attention."

"Not at all, Mr. Leatherwell. After all--"

"Our tentative theory is that the basic crystal fragment encountered
the core material at some time, and gathered it in. Since we had been
working on--that is, had landed to take samples on the other side of
the body, this anomalous deposit escaped our attention completely."

Retief stepped into the room.

"Good morning, gentlemen. Has Mr. Mancziewicz arrived?"

"Mr. Mancziewicz is under restraint by the Navy. I've had a call that
he'd be escorted here."

"Arrested, eh?" Leatherwell nodded. "I told you these people were an
irresponsible group. In a way it seems a pity to waste a piece of
property like 95739-A on them."

"I understood General Minerals was claiming that rock," Retief said,
looking surprised.

Leatherwell and Magnan exchanged glances. "Ah, GM has decided to drop
all claim to the body," Leatherwell said. "As always, we wish to
encourage enterprise on the part of the small operators. Let them keep
the property. After all GM has other deposits well worth exploiting."
He smiled complacently.

"What about 2645-P? You've offered it to the Sam's group."

"That offer is naturally withdrawn!" Leatherwell snapped.

"I don't see how you can withdraw the offer," Retief said. "It's been
officially recorded. It's a Bona Fide contract, binding on General
Minerals, subject to--"

"Out of the goodness of our corporate heart," Leatherwell roared,
"we've offered to relinquish our legitimate, rightful claim to asteroid
2645-P. And you have the infernal gall to spout legal technicalities! I
have half a mind to withdraw my offer to withdraw!"

"Actually," Magnan put in, eyeing a corner of the room, "I'm not at all
sure I could turn up the record of the offer of 2645-P. I noted it down
on a bit of scratch paper--"

"That's all right," Retief said, "I had my pocket recorder going. I
sealed the record and deposited it in the Consular archives."

There was a clatter of feet outside. Miss Gumble appeared on the desk
screen. "There are a number of persons here--" she began.

       *       *       *       *       *

The door banged open. Sam Mancziewicz stepped into the room, a sailor
tugging at each arm. He shook them loose, stared around the room. His
eyes lighted on Retief. "How did you get here...?"

"Look here, Monkeywits or whatever your name is," Leatherwell began,
popping out of his chair.

Mancziewicz whirled, seized the stout executive by the shirt front and
lifted him onto his tiptoes. "You double-barrelled copper-bottomed
oak-lined son-of-a--"

"Don't spoil him, Sam," Retief said casually. "He's here to sign off
all rights--if any--to 95739-A. It's all yours--if you want it."

Sam glared into Leatherwell's eyes. "That right?" he grated.
Leatherwell bobbed his head, his chins compressed into bulging folds.

"However," Retief went on, "I wasn't at all sure you'd still be
agreeable, since he's made your company a binding offer of 2645-P in
return for clear title to 95739-A."

Mancziewicz looked across at Retief with narrowed eyes. He released
Leatherwell, who slumped into his chair. Magnan darted around his desk
to minister to the magnate. Behind them, Retief closed one eye in a
broad wink at Mancziewicz.

"... still, if Mr. Leatherwell will agree, in addition to guaranteeing
your title to 95739-A, to purchase your output at four credits a ton,
FOB his collection station--"

Mancziewicz looked at Leatherwell. Leatherwell hesitated, then nodded.
"Agreed," he croaked.

"... and to open his commissary and postal facilities to all
prospectors operating in the belt...."

Leatherwell swallowed, eyes bulging, glanced at Mancziewicz's face. He
nodded. "Agreed."

"... then I think I'd sign an agreement releasing him from his offer."

Mancziewicz looked at Magnan.

"You're the Terrestrial Consul-General," he said. "Is that the straight
goods?"

Magnan nodded. "If Mr. Leatherwell agrees--"

"He's already agreed," Retief said. "My pocket recorder, you know."

"Put it in writing," Mancziewicz said.

Magnan called in Miss Gumble. The others waited silently while Magnan
dictated. He signed the paper with a flourish, passed it across to
Mancziewicz. He read it, re-read it, then picked up the pen and signed.
Magnan impressed the Consular seal on the paper.

"Now the grant," Retief said. Magnan signed the claim, added a seal.
Mancziewicz tucked the papers away in an inner pocket. He rose.

"Well, gents, I guess maybe I had you figured wrong," he said. He
looked at Retief. "Uh ... got time for a drink?"

"I shouldn't drink during office hours," Retief said. He rose. "So I'll
take the rest of the day off."

       *       *       *       *       *

"I don't get it," Sam said signalling for refills. "What was the
routine with the injunction--and impounding _Gertie_? You could have
got hurt."

"I don't think so," Retief said. "If you'd meant business with
that Browning, you'd have flipped the safety off. As for the
injunction--orders are orders."

"I've been thinking," Sam said. "That gold deposit. It was a plant,
too, wasn't it?"

"I'm just a bureaucrat, Sam. What would I know about gold?"

"A double-salting job," Sam said. "I was supposed to spot the phoney
hardware--and then fall for the gold plant. When Leatherwell put his
proposition to me, I'd grab it. The gold was worth plenty, I'd figure,
and I couldn't afford a legal tangle with General Minerals. The lousy
skunk! And you must have spotted it and put it up to him."

The bar-tender leaned across to Retief. "Wanted on the phone."

In the booth, Magnan's agitated face stared a Retief.

"Retief, Mr. Leatherwell's in a towering rage! The deposit on 2645-P;
it was merely a surface film, barely a few inches thick! The entire
deposit wouldn't fill an ore-boat." A horrified expression dawned on
Magnan's face. "Retief," he gasped, "what did you do with the impounded
ore-carrier?"

"Well, let me see," Retief said. "According to the Space Navigation
Code, a body in orbit within twenty miles of any inhabited airless body
constitutes a navigational hazard. Accordingly, I had it towed away."

"And the cargo?"

"Well, accelerating all that mass was an expensive business, so to save
the taxpayer's credits, I had it dumped."

"Where?" Magnan croaked.

"On some unimportant asteroid--as specified by Regulations." He smiled
blandly at Magnan. Magnan looked back numbly.

"But you said--"

"All I said was that there was what looked like a valuable deposit on
2645-P. It turned out to be a bogus gold mine that somebody had rigged
up in a hurry. Curious, eh?"

"But you told me--"

"And you told Mr. Leatherwell. Indiscreet of you, Mr. Consul. That was
a privileged communication; classified information, official use only."

"You led me to believe there was collapsed crystal!"

"I said Sam had mentioned it. He told me his asteroid was made of the
stuff."

Magnan swallowed hard, twice. "By the way," he said dully. "You were
right about the check. Half an hour ago Mr. Leatherwell tried to stop
payment. He was too late."

"All in all, it's been a big day for Leatherwell," Retief said.
"Anything else?"

"I hope not," Magnan said. "I sincerely hope not." He leaned close to
the screen. "You'll consider the entire affair as ... confidential?
There's no point in unduly complicating relationships."

"Have no fear, Mr. Consul," Retief said cheerfully. "You won't find me
identifying with anything as specific as triple-salting an asteroid."

Back at the table, Sam called for another bottle of rock juice.

"That Drift's a pretty good game," Retief said. "But let me show you
one I learned out on Yill...."

     [Transcriber's Note: No Section II heading in original text.]





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