Sargasso of Space (Solar Queen Series)


—Publishers Weekly


That was the startling cry that electrified Dane Thorson of the space-trader
Solar Queen.
It was his first trip and the cosmic auction was taking place at an isolated port of call, far out in the Milky Way.

Who’ll buy this newly discovered planet? The data on it sealed—you may be getting a radioactive desert, you may be buying a fabulous empire, or you may be stuck with an untracked unconquerable jungle! And Dane and his fellow spacemen took the risk. They bought a planet, sight unseen, whose ominous name was . . . Limbo!

The story of Thorson’s trip to Limbo, and the amazing adventures that befell him on that SARGASSO OF SPACE, is a real thriller of a space novel by the author of STAR GUARD, THE STARS ARE OURS, and many others.

Also By Andre Norton

Garan The Eternal

Gryphon In Glory

High Sorcery

Horn Crown

Iron Butterflies

Lore Of The Witch World

Merlin’s Mirror

Moon Called

Moon Mirror

Octagon Magic

Red Hart Magic

Snow Shadow

Spell Of The Witch World

Stand To Horse

The Gate Of The Cat

The Jargoon Pard

The Prince Commands

The Sword Is Drawn

Trey Of Swords

Velvet Shadows

Wheel Of Stars

Yurth Burden

Zarsthor’s Bane

Wizard Worlds


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Copyright, 1955, by Andrew North

eISBN: 978-1-937957-49-0

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very young man in the ill-fitting Trader’s tunic tried to stretch the cramp out of his long legs. You’d think, Dane Thorson considered the point with a certain amount of irritation, the men who designed these under-surface transcontinental cars would take into mind that there would be tall passengers—not just midgets-using them. Not for the first time he wished that he could have used air transport. But he had only to finger the money belt, too flat about his middle, to remember who and what he was—a recruit new to the Service, without a ship or backer.

There was his muster pay from Training Pool, and a thin pad of crumpled credit slips which remained from the sale of all those belongings which could not follow him into space. And he had his minimum kit—that was the total sum of his possessions—except for that slender wafer of metal, notched and incised with a code beyond his reading, which would be his passport to what he determined was going to be a brighter future.

Not that he should question the luck he had had so far, Dane told himself firmly. After all it wasn’t every boy from a Federation Home who could get an appointment to the Pool and emerge ten years later an apprentice-Cargo-Master ready for ship assignment off world. Even recalling the stiff examinations of the past few weeks could set him to squirming now. Basic mechanics, astrogation grounding, and then the more severe testing in his own specialization—cargo handling, stowage, trade procedure, Galactic markets, Extraterrestrial psychology, and all the other items he had had to try and cram into his skull until he sometimes thought that he had nothing but bits and patches which he would never be able to sort into common sense. Not only had the course been tough, but he had been bucking the new trend in selection, too. Most of his classmates were from Service families—they had grown up in Trade.

Dane frowned at the back of the seat before him. Wasn’t Trade becoming more and more a closed clan? Sons followed fathers or brothers into the Service—it was increasingly difficult for a man without connections to get an appointment to the Pool. His luck had been good there——

Look at Sands, he had two older brothers, an uncle and a cousin all with Inter-Solar. And he never let anyone forget it either. Just let an apprentice get assigned into one of the big Companies and he was set for the rest of his life. The Companies had regular runs from one system to another. Their employees were always sure of a steady berth, you could buy Company stock. There were pensions and administrative jobs when you had to quit space—if you’d shown any promise. They had the cream of Trade—Inter-Solar, The Combine, Deneb-Galactic, Falworth-Ignesti——

Dane blinked at the tela-screen at eye level at the far end of the bullet-shaped car—not really seeing the commercial which at that moment was singing the praises of a Falworth-Ignesti import. It all depended on the Psycho. He patted his money belt again to be sure of the safety of his ID wafer, sealed into its most secret pocket.

The commercial faded into the red bar announcing a station. Dane waited for the faint jar which signalized the end of his two-hour trip. He was glad to be free of the projectile, able to drag his kit bag out of the mound of luggage from the van.

Most of his fellow travelers were Trade men. But few of them sported Company badges. The majority were drifters or Free Traders, men who either from faults of temperament or other reasons could not find a niche in the large parental organizations, but shipped out on one independent spacer or another, the bottom layer of the Trade world.

Dane shouldered his bag into the lift which swept him up to ground level and out into the sunshine of a baking southwestern summer day. He lingered on the concrete apron which rimmed this side of the take-off Field, looking out over its pitted and blasted surface at the rows of cradles which held those ships now readying for flight. He had scant attention for the stubby interplanetary traders, the Martian and Asteroid lines, the dull dark ships which plowed out to Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons. What he wanted lay beyond—the star ships—their sleek sides newly sprayed against dust friction, the soil of strange worlds perhaps still clinging to their standing fins.

“Well, if it isn’t the Viking! Hunting for your long boat, Dane?”

Only someone who knew Dane very well could have read the real meaning in that twitch of his lower lip. When he turned to face the speaker his expression was under its usual tight control.

Artur Sands had assumed the swagger of a hundred voyage man, which contrasted oddly, Dane was pleased to note, with his too shiny boots and unworn tunic. But as ever the other’s poise aroused his own secret resentment. And Artur was heading his usual chorus of followers too, Ricki Warren and Hanlaf Bauta.

“Just come in, Viking? Haven’t tried your luck yet, I take it? Neither have we. So let’s go together to learn the worst.”

Dane hesitated. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was to face the Psycho in Artur Sands’ company. To him the other’s supreme self-confidence was somewhat unnerving. Sands expected the best, and judging from various incidents at the Pool, what Artur expected he usually got.

On the other hand Dane had often good reason to worry about the future. And if he were going to have hard luck now he would rather learn it without witnesses. But there was no getting rid of Artur he realized. So philosophically he checked his kit while the others waited impatiently.

They had come by air—the best was none too good for Artur and his crowd. Why hadn’t they been to the cargo department assignment Psycho before this? Why had they waited the extra hour—or had they spent their last truly free time sightseeing? Surely—Dane knew a little lift of heart at the thought—it couldn’t be that
were dubious about the machine’s answer too?

But that hope was quenched as he joined them in time to hear Artur expound his favorite theme.

“The machine is impartial! That’s just the comet dust they feed you back at the Pool. Sure, we know the story they set up—that a man has to be fitted by temperament and background to his job, that each ship had to carry a well integrated crew—But that’s all moon gas! When Inter-Solar wants a man, they get him—and no Psycho fits him into their ships if they don’t want him! That’s for the guys who don’t know how to fire the right jets—or haven’t brains enough to look around for good berths. I’m not worrying about being stuck on some starving Free Trader on the fringe——”

Ricki and Hanlaf were swallowing every word of that. Dane didn’t want to. His belief in the incorruptibility of the Psycho was the one thing he had clung to during the past few weeks when Artur and those like him had strutted about the Pool confident about their speedy transition to the higher levels of Trade.

He had preferred to believe that the official statements were correct, that a machine, a collection of impulses and relays which could be in no way influenced, decided the fate of all who applied for assignment to off-world ships. He wanted to believe that when he fed his ID plate into the Psycho at the star port here it would make no difference that he was an orphan without kin in the Servcie, that the flatness of his money belt could not turn or twist a decision which would be based only on his knowledge, his past record at the Pool, his temperament and potentialities.

But doubt had been planted and it was that lack of faith which worked on him now, slowing his pace as they approached the assignment room. On the other

hand Dane had no intention of allowing Artur or either of his satellites to guess he was bothered.

So a stubborn pride pushed him forward to be the first of the four to fit his ID into the waiting slot. His fingers twitched to snatch it back again before it disappeared, but he controlled that impulse and stood aside for Artur.

The Psycho was nothing but a box, a square of solid metal—or so it looked to the waiting apprentices. And that wait might have been easier, Dane speculated, had they been able to watch the complicated processes inside the bulk, could have seen how those lines and notches incised on their plates were assessed, matched, paired, until a ship now in port and seeking apprentices was found for them.

Long voyaging for small crews sealed into star spacers, with little chance for recreation or amusement, had created many horrible personnel problems in the past. Some tragic cases were now required reading in the “History of Trade” courses at the Pool. Then came the Psycho and through its impersonal selection the right men were sent to the right ships, fitted into the type of work, the type of crew where they could function best with the least friction. No one at the Pool had told them how the Psycho worked—or how it could actually read an ID strip. But when the machine decided, its decision was final and the verdict was recorded—there was no appeal.

That was what they had been taught, what Dane had always accepted as fact, and how could it be wrong?

His thoughts were interrupted by a gong note from the machine, one ID strip had been returned, with a new line on its surface. Artur pounced. A moment later his triumph was open.

Star Runner!
Knew you wouldn’t let the old man down, boy!” He patted the flat top of the Psycho patronizingly. “Didn’t I tell you how it would work for me?”

Ricki nodded his head eagerly and Hanlaf went so far as to slap Artur on the back. Sands was the magician who had successfully pulled off a trick.

The next two sounds of the gong came almost together, as the strips clicked in the holder on top of one another. Ricki and Hanlaf scooped them up. There was disappointment on Ricki’s face.

“Martian-Terran Incorporated—the
” he read aloud. And Dane noted that the hand with which he tucked his ID into his belt was shaking. Not for Ricki the far stars and big adventures, but a small berth in a crowded planetary service where there was little chance for fame or fortune.

“The Combine’s
Deneb Warrior!
” Hanlaf was openly exultant, paying no attention to Ricki’s announcement.

“Shake, enemy!” Artur held out his hand with a grin. He, too, ignored Ricki as if his late close companion had been removed bodily from their midst by the decision of the Psycho.

“Put her there, rival!” Hanlaf had been completely shaken out of his usual subservience by this amazing good fortune.

The Combine was big, big enough to offer a challenge to Inter-Solar these past two years. They had copped a Federation mail contract from under I-S’s nose and pounded through, at least one monopolistic concession on an inner system’s route. Artur and his former follower might never meet in open friendship again. But at the present their mutual luck in getting posts in the Companies was all that mattered.

Dane continued to wait for the Psycho to answer him. Was it possible for an ID to jam somewhere in the interior of that box? Should he hunt for someone in authority and ask a question or two? His strip had been the first to go in—but it was not coming out. And Artur was waking up to that fact——

“Well, well, no ship for the Viking? Maybe they haven’t got one to fit your particular scrambled talents, big boy——”

Could that be true, Dane hazarded? Maybe no ship now in the Port cradles needed the type of service his strip said he had to offer. Did that mean that he would have to Stay right here until such a ship came in?

It was as if Artur could read his thoughts. Sands’ grin changed from one of triumph to a malicious half-sneer.

“What did I tell you?” he demanded. “Viking doesn’t know the right people. Going to bring in your kit and camp out until Psycho breaks down and gives you an answer?”

Hanlaf was impatient. His self-confidence had been given a vast jolt towards independence, so that now he dared to question Artur.

“I’m starved,” he announced. “Let’s mess—and then look up our ships——”

Artur shook his head. “Give it a minute or two. I want to see if the Viking gets his long boat—if it’s in dock now:——”

Dane could only do what he had done many times before, pretend that this did not matter, that Artur and his followers meant nothing. But was the machine functioning, or had his ID been lost somewhere within its mysterious interior? Had Artur not been there, watching him with that irritating amusement, Dane would have gone to find help.

Hanlaf started to walk away and Ricki was already at the door, as if
assignment had removed him forever from the ranks of those who mattered—when the gong sounded for the fourth time. With a speed the average observer would not have credited to him, Dane moved. His hands dashed under Artur’s fingers and caught the ID before the smaller youth could grab it.

There was no bright line of a Company insignia on it—Dane’s first glance told him that. Was—was he going to be Confined to the system—follow in Ricki’s uninspired wake?

But, no, there was a star on it right enough—the star which granted him the Galaxy—and by that emblem the name of a ship—not a Company but a ship—the
Solar Queen.
It took a long instant for that to make sense, though he had never considered himself a slow thinker.

A ship’s name only—a Free Trader! One of the roving, exploring spacers which plied lanes too dangerous, too new, too lacking in quick profits to attract the Companies. Part of the Trade Service right enough, and the uninitiated thought of them as romantic. But Dane knew a pinched sinking in his middle. Free Trade was almost a dead end for the ambitious. Even the instructors at the Pool had skimmed over that angle in the lectures, as carefully as the students were briefed. Free Trade was too often a gamble with death, with plague, with hostile alien races. You could lose not only your profit and your ship, but your life. And the Free Traders rated close to the bottom of the scale in the Service. Why, even Rick’s appointment would be hailed by any apprentice as better than this!

He should have been prepared for Artur’s hand over his shoulder to snatch the ID, for the other’s quick appraisement of his shame.

“Free Trader!”

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