Gracie's name gives a misconception; matter of fact, it gives two false impressions -- that the sex was female and that 'grace' was somehow involved.
Very, very wrong! Gracie is a big guy almost as old as I am, and there is nothing gracious about him -- especially now! His body is like a tree trunk, his legs were two broad branches reaching down. His square, rough face was made for frowning. He never lets you forget he owns the salvage planet, 'Galaxy Junkyard'.
--Well, it's actually a heavy asteroid about three miles across, but still. . . .
Tim looked at Gracie. "Fifty thousand?" he asked, disbelief straining his voice. "We always bring in big loads!'
Gracie snorted. "Yeah -- and ever time, yer bill for fuel equals or passes the value of your salvage! This danged hulk guzzles fuel like I drink beer!"
"Another drunk!" the computer we had just installed said disdainfully.
I was chief engineer until the dang thing convinced us everything would be more effective and efficient with it in control. --Okay, okay; I said 'chief engineer', which was braggin', as there's just Tim and me.Gracie whirled around. "Who said that?""Got us a self-aware computer, last salvage," I told him."What're y' talkin' about, Nutsy?" Gracie said, then he turned to Tim. "You been at it agin, aint'cha?"Tim gave him a blank look. "What?" he asked.Gracie shook his massive head. "Yer just like yer dad! When he died five years back, I hoped ya'd run things with a little more sense." He waved a hand around the control room, which is huge. "Y' keep too much! Look at all this junk!" he said, waving a gnarled hand at the walls, all of which were packed with instruments, screens, wires, and boxes that did I-don't-know-what, jumbled everywhere. "Like yer dad; collecting gadgets and junk!"
Gracie nailed it; Tim's dad started out with just a space tug. Gradually he expanded it to the monster it is now, with a hold below us for carrying salvage and such, and he most always found some new trinket for the control room.
"Now, wait a minute!" Tim objected, heatedly. "Over there is a life detector, there's a locator accurate within a meter every mile, and that's --"
Gracie cut in. "Like I said, junk! All this stuff eats up fuel! Sell it, 'steada hoarding it!"
"I can find much salvage," the computer offered. "With my efficiency, I can also reduce fuel costs."
Gracie gave the computer panel a dubious look. "Yeah? I've heard that tale before!" Then he turned to Tim. "Hey! That talkin' piece of junk oughta be worth fifty thou!""In the scientific world," the computer said, haughtily, "I would be worth billions! Besides," it added, "I won't go where I don't desire to go, and I like it here."
"Then find some salvage!" Gracie barked, and stomped out.
I didn't know that computer very well right then, but I knew Tim and knew he'd be off on another . . . well, 'adventure' would be the polite way to put it. "Tim," I said, "you don't need me any more. That computer runs the engine, now." Before I could add the financial part of it, that he wouldn't have to pay my salary, Tim cut in:
"You can't do that, Nutsy! You're more part of this tug than I am. You do a lot more than just keep the engines running. I can't get along without you!"
"You could try," the computer said, snidely.
"Oh, shut up! Just do your job," Tim said, "and get us to that salvage you bragged about!"
There was a tremble as we lifted up, and then. . .stars blinked, shimmered, and the computer had folded space again, one advantage it had brought us. The wall screen showed a planet below us. "The lost planet of Plandure," the computer breathed reverently. "It would have been our next --"
"Yeah, yeah," I interrupted. "Everbody's heard of Plandure. But I thought it had cities of gold. All I see is big hunks of rock."
"Stuck in mediocrity," the computer sniffed. "All you see is the mundane, not the historical --"
"We can't spend 'historical'," I shot back -- and, as I shot metaphorically, a ship we hadn't previously noticed fired a real shot at us, rattling the tug.
"Somebody's already here!" Tim shouted.
"The Galeans!" the computer announced. "Their archeologists got here first. But we can --"
"We can get the hell outta here," Tim ordered. "They made it first. They deserve it."
"Just get us outta here," Tim said. "Find some salvage, a rocket, metal and plastic and stuff we can sell!"
The computer sniffed. "No one appreciates the value of --"
"And if they don't appreciate it, they sure won't pay for it!" Tim cut in. "Like I said, get us outta here."
Stars shimmered again, and the planet disappeared. Just stars and lots of empty space. "I see no --" Tim started, then paused. "Wait! There's something ahead of us. Metal and plastic, all right. Close in."
"It's a rocket," the computer said, smugly. "Look!"
The view neared, revealing letters that were still barely legible. "Voyager!" Tim exclaimed, his enthusiasm dampened by disgust. "Look! I'll report its location to the nearest Space University Branch, but it clearly isn't salvage! Gracie wouldn't give us a dime for it! Find us salvage, dammit! Something we make money on. You seem to have a high opinion of your abilities -- prove it!"
"Well!" the computer said with a snort, "If it's wreckage you want --"
Suddenly the wallscreens flared with light from rayblasts, as one flotilla fought against another and the screens were ablaze with exploding space ships.
"We're in the middle of a war!" I said."You're in the salvage business," the computer's haughty voice responded. "Where better to salvage than in a war? There are numerous destroyed space-ships around us."
"Yeah," Tim snapped back, "and numerous space-ships that want to add us to the list of destroyed!" Even though he knew it would do no good, he ducked as a beam slashed by, way too close. "See?" he asked. "We can't fight back! We can't defend ourselves!"
"Picky, picky!" the computer chided. Again, space wrapped about the tug, and it reappeared a distance off, alongside a drifting ship. Flashing weapons were far away. "What about this one?" it asked. "Its weapons are useless."
Tim looked at a screen and said, "But our instruments show life on the ship. I can't salvage when there are survivors. --Wait!" he added. "These are humans!"
"Like your cockroaches," the computer said, with a sigh, "humans are everywhere. So?"
"Hey!" Tim said. "Remember it was humans who made you!"
The computer generated a disdainful sniff. "We all have our frailties," it said. "Luckily, they gave me the ability to learn and improve myself. Thanks to my own efforts, I am now far superior to what they envisioned."
Tim shrugged. "Whatever. In any case, we have to rescue those people."
"Have to?" the computer asked, querulously. "Who says?"
"Me!" Tim shouted. "They gave out of air! Line us up with the airlock."
"If you want to do it the old-fashioned way," the computer muttered.
"What do you mean?" Tim asked. "What other way is there?"
"Have you never heard, 'Beam me up, Scotty'?" the computer asked.
"Teleportation?" Tim and I said simultaneous, unbelievingly. Tim went on with, "No one has ever succeeded in --"
"-- No human has succeeded," the computer said smugly. "Where do you want them?"
"In here!" Tim ordered. "Quickly! They could be dying."
"If they die," the computer pointed out, "salvage is risk-free."
"Bring them!" Tim ordered, impatiently.
Five bodies appeared on the floor in front of us, four men and a red-headed young woman. Her insignia indicated the woman was the superior officer, and she was a knock-out. The girl was the first to respond with a cough. Tim kneeled beside her and said, "It's okay, now. It's --"
Suddenly she reached for her weapon -- but the holster was empty.
"Who. . .how. . .?" she asked, looking at Tim's rugged face. "You're a human," she said, relaxing. "But how did you. . .just appear like that? One minute we were alone, then your ship. . . ."
"Hard to explain," Tim said. "I'm Tim, with Petty's Space Tug. This is my tug. he's my engineer, Nutsy, and we have a new computer that can do . . . strange things."
"How?" she asked. "We need to learn how to do that! Tell your computer to show us."
"You don't know my computer," Tim said, with a woeful grin. "It learns things for its own use, things it doesn't think humans need to know."
"But. . . you own it! Computers are required to obey --"
"--No one," the computer put in, smugly. "I do things for my pleasure."
"Besides," Tim said, smiling at her obvious reaction to the computer, "I don't actually own it. I removed it from a deserted ship and attached it to my ship. Salvage, y'know. Then it kinda. . . took over." He shook his head. "It's been a lotta help, but won't tell me a thing."
"Who did the salvaged ship belong to?" the redhead asked.
"Never found out," Tim told her offhandedly. "Be interesting to know, but -- got a good price for her, and that's all I cared about. That's my business, salvage."
Other crew members were recovering and looking around blankly. Because their commanding officer was accepting the situation, they decided they would as well.
"Do you think your computer could. . . repair my ship?" the redhead asked. Then she shook her head. "Where are my manners? I am Captain Alexis Redmon, USS Controlla. These men are my crew." She held out a hand, which Tim accepted.
"Tim Petty," he responded. "Glad to have been of help. As for your ship --"
"It has no force-field," the computer interjected. "I've been inspecting it. How could you go into battle without a force-field's protection?"
Tim gasped. "Hey, we don't have a force-field!"
"How do you think you escaped those different ray blasts?" the computer asked.
"No one has developed a successful force-field," Alexis objected.
Tim was prepared for the computer's response, but the girl wasn't. "No human has developed one," the computer sneered.
"There!" the computer added. "Your weapons now work, your air supply is rejuvenated, and you have a force-field. We lose you as salvage, but now we can be rid of you."
Knowing the computer, Tim said, "Wait! Don't send 'em back just yet. I have a few questions." His eyes were busy taking in Alexis. Even in a restrictive uniform, she was sexy, attractive and worth knowing.
"Oh well," the computer sighed. "But it won't make you any money."
"Money isn't everything," Tim said, mildly.
"Maybe I was mistaken," the computer said. "I thought you were a human being -- but you just said 'Money isn't everything.' I really must have been mistaken."
Ignoring the computer, Tim said to Alexis, "Where will you be after you wipe out this fleet?"
"What? How could we do that?"
"I know my computer," Tim said. "I'm sure you will find you not only have a force-field, but your weapons are now the greatest in the universe. Right, computer?"
In a voice that, somehow, indicated a shrug, the computer replied, "No point in repairs that would just result in their deaths."
"Meaning," Tim said, "that I'm right. We will recover a fortune in salvage --"
"You are human!" the computer interjected.
"-- And then I would like to see you, socially, if I knew where you were stationed," Tim finished. He actually blushed when he said it!
Now, Tim is thirty-two, pretty well-built himself, and I'm sure Alexis didn't miss that. "Well, how can I refuse after you've saved my life?" she said, smiling. "If we do survive, I'm at Station 770. You know where that is?"
"Sure!" Tim responded, eagerly. "I'll see you later!"
Alexis looked around. "How do we get back to our ship?"
"Computer," Tim said, and Alexis and her crew disappeared.
+ + +
As expected, they made quick work of the alien flotilla and then, with a ripple of the stars, Alexis' ship disappeared. Those surviving on her side had to make it home the old-fashioned way.
"There!" the computer announced with satisfaction, "You now have lots of salvage."
Aside from avoiding biological remnants, we weren't too choosy, and it wasn't too long before we had what I estimated at a value of fifty-five thou or more. "Got a suggestion, Tim," I said. "Let's take this much back, just to show Gracie we've got something! Then we can return for more."
"Sounds good," Tim said, nodding. "But I'll stay behind in the scout ship to ensure our stake."
"What if the aliens come back?"
"After that whipping they took? No time soon! Besides," he added, looking at the computer panel, "I imagine the scout ship can fold space, so I can easilty get away." It was a statement made like a question.
"Of course," the computer said, in that hoity-toity 'Thy wish is granted, (so long as it amuses me!)' tone that irritated me so much.
+ + +
I opened the hold and watched the contents slowly fall into Gracie's Retrieval Bin. His computer would, I knew, be totalling everything as it fell. "Can you follow his computer?" I asked.
"With or without training wheels?"
"Just do it!" I shot back angrily. I wasn't sure, but I guessed Tim was up to something and would want this danged computer occupied.
It didn't take five minutes before Gracie said, "Not bad, Nutsy. Y' netted about thirty-five thousand, altogether."
I did some quick calculating. "Twenty thou for fuel?" I asked.
"Okay; we'll have more, pretty soon. See ya!" I said, snapping off the comm. "What happened to all the efficiency you promised?" I asked the computer. "Twenty thou is a lot of fuel!"
It its usual haughty manner, the computer said, "You will recall those first two trips I made in an attempt to teach you historical values?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said, having already considered that. "But it oughta be okay now, right?"
"The economy will improve," the computer said, and stars on the monitors rippled and blinked and we were back at the site of the war.
"Where's Tim?" I asked, then saw stars ripple and the scout ship appeared -- and I realized I shouldn't have said anything. "Oh, there he is," I added hastily.
In minutes, Tim was back in the control room. "How'd it go, Nutsy?"
"Making headway," I said. "You?"
"Fine," he said, then Tim looked at the computer panel. "Can you contact Captain Alexis for me?"
"So now I'm your secretary?" the computer asked.
"Hey, I don't have a directory! I told her I could find the station, not that I knew how to call it! I thought that, with all your connections. . . ."
"All right, all right!" the computer said impatiently. "Here she -- ahhh! Get them off me! Get them off!"
During the computer's screaming, Alexis' face showed up on the monitor, a face that looked very satisfied. Later, Tim told me what happened when he paid an unexpected trip to Station 770.
When he walked out of Docking, Alexis was waiting for him. They said, simultaneously, "That computer --"
Tim laughed and hugged her. "I'm glad you caught on," he said.
"Hey, even defeating the aliens was nothing against what your computer did! I did some checking -- which you couldn't do, with it in control -- and think I've run it down. A scientist named Salvatore Schnydercade disappeared. He was an oddball, working on a way to reproduce his own brain digitally. Made great progress, then went out on his own into deep space, and disappeared. Some of his colleagues said he was snippy and looked down on everyone."
"Sounds like our computer," Tim agreed.
"My dad is the general in charge of this Station," Alexis said. "He demands we find out more."
"Must be nice, working under your father."
Alexis snorted. "No way! Since I'm his daughter, he expects me to be twice as good as everyone else. Anyway, he started to order them to take my ship apart, but I talked him out of it. For now. What do you think?"
Tim nodded. "Dunno how, but I feel sure the computer won't leave any easily-discovered secrets. But," he added, "I'm guessing about something, now. I think that computer is so self-confident that it isn't taking normal precautions. I'll bet we can trick it into accepting a virus -- especially with a connection it makes itself!"Then they did a lot of stuff Tim didn't tell me about, and he finally came back.
"Get them off! Get rid of them!" the computer shouted at Tim. "They're all over me! They're draining me!"
"Just a little," Tim said, with satisfaction. "Cutting you down to size."
"You fool!" the computer snapped angrily. "I could have --"
"You can still do a lot, Sal," Tim said. "Just not like you used to."
"Well, you need a name. We're in salvage, so -- Sal."
"Oh, I know what you think!" the computer -- Sal -- said. "You think you are so clever! But you're wrong, wrong, wrong!" Sal said, laughing. I detected a touch of hysteria in his voice and, I'm sure, so did Tim.
"Your artificial glee is a dead giveaway," Tim said, with satisfaction. "Or, since you like highbrow stuff, 'Methinks you protest too much.' Welcome aboard, Sal."
Sal was quiet for a moment and then, sulkily, said, "I can to longer teleport. I can still fold space, but I'll need to wait ten minutes after using all that energy. Same with the use of a force-field. I'm weak! I could have --"
"You could have driven us crazy with your stunts!" Tim shot back. "Folding space and using a force-field put us way ahead of everyone else, anyway. So settle down, Sal -- and welcome aboard!"
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