Robert Collins brings us another story of Captain Ayers. This time the good Captain is prevailed upon to help settle a dispute between rivals factions on the colony world of Waconda. — ed, N.E. Lilly

Captain Jason Ayers materialized in front of the temporary metal building that served as the seat of government for the colony world Waconda. It sat along a dusty street next to structures made of similar materials in a town called Ash City. But those buildings, unlike the one Ayers was to enter, just seemed more fixed in place and more part of a community.

Which, he mused, is supposed to be why Victory’s in orbit.

He pushed open the main door and walked through a modest maze of cubicles. He stopped in front of a semi-private office labeled “Colonial Governor.” He tapped on one side of the doorway and stepped through.

Governor Marcus Schultz, a balding man in a rumpled suit, looked up from his desk. “Yes? Oh, you must be Captain Ayers. I’m Governor Schultz.”

“Captain Jason Ayers, of the frigate Victory.”

Ayers shook Schultz’s hand. Schultz waved to the steel chair in front of his faux wood desk. Ayers sat down.

“I have to say, Governor, I was surprised that you called in a warship,” he said.

“Yes, well, Captain, I never thought I’d have to call in the military to monitor a colonial election.”

“How bad is the situation?”

“More troublesome than dangerous, but still beyond the marshal and his two

deputies to control.”

“Your message was a bit sparse on details. Could you fill me in?”

“Of course, Captain. Back at the election for a permanent colonial capitol a few weeks ago, things just went a little crazy. The town of Orion won, and there was a bit of wild celebration there. Not quite a riot, but a mess all the same.”

“I suppose that happens on colony worlds sometimes.”

“Well, that’s not the least of it. It seems that there were numerous irregularities in the election.”

“Irregularities? You’re kidding.”

“No, Captain, I’m not. The main vote-comp in Orion was tampered with. It seems that someone printed up pre-made paper ballots, stuck those in the blank paper tray, then rigged it so ink never came out.”

“Creative.”

“There’s more. Here in Ash City, about forty ballots were printed twice but with different identity numbers. There have been accusations that some people were kept from voting, while others that weren’t supposed to vote got to.”

“All that, just to get the capitol?”

“The leading folks in Ash City and Orion are real sharks, Captain. Most of them have been cruising the Federal Republic for business opportunities for years. The town that gets the capitol will be the hub of settlement. For men and women like them, it’s a great chance to make the fortune they’ve been searching for.”

“But if the election’s over, Governor, why call us?”

“It’s not over, Captain. Your arrival is at almost exactly the right time. You see, the leaders of Ash City sued to keep the capitol from being moved. I’ve just heard from the circuit judge that her decision will be out within two hours. From what she asked, and considering the irregularities on both sides, everyone expects that she’ll throw out all the results and call for a new election.”

“Are you certain?”

“Fairly certain. Judge LaMorte suggested to me yesterday to call for a warship to help out. I doubt she’d make the suggestion if she wasn’t leaning towards a new election.”

“Probably not. What do you want us to do?”

“I’d like you to post some of your crew in the three main towns here, Ash City, Orion, and Chelsea. I don’t think the small outlying villages and settlements will need any coverage.”

“Post officers, to keep order?”

“Exactly. Just for today and tomorrow.”

“And that’s it?”

“No. I also want your crew to monitor the election. Check the machines before we move them out, once they’re set up, and during the balloting. Frankly, Captain, my worry is that without help things are going to get worse. It’s already tense. Who knows what these sharks will pull the second time around?”

“Well, Governor, as long as we’re in orbit, we’ll keep things from getting out of control.”

Sure enough, Governor Schultz was right. An hour and a half after Ayers’ meeting, he reported that the judge had indeed ordered a new election. It was to be held to weeks from the next day. Ayers already knew who he was going to send where, and he had them teleport down immediately.

The following day he was able to report to Schultz that nothing had happened that his officers couldn’t handle. The Governor appeared pleased at the news, but looked slightly pensive. “Is there something on your mind, sir?” he asked Schultz.

“Well, Captain, I hesitate to ask this of you, but I think it might help the situation.”

“Ask what?”

“Well, one of the leaders over in Chelsea, Martin Fleener, asked me to ask you to

attend two town meetings, one tomorrow night and the other the night after that.”

“Meetings? Me?”

“Yes. The voters in Chelsea will swing this election one way or the other. Neither Ash City nor Orion is big enough to win outright. Last time a representative of each town went to Chelsea to make their case. The town’s vote was split.”

“And they’re going to do that again? Make their case in Chelsea?”

“That’s right.”

“So why I should I attend these meetings, Governor?”

“Mister Fleener said that folks there thought some of what was said last time was a bit suspect. They’re not well versed in the law. He wondered if an outside opinion might help folks make up their minds.”

“I’m no lawyer, Governor, and you know as a federal official I can’t take sides in local matters, even on an unorganized colony world.”

“Of course not. I don’t think that’s why they want your presence.”

“So why ask?”

“I think your attendance would assure them that anything they were told was on the up and up. I doubt anyone’s going to mention breaking or bending laws with you in the room.”

“No, probably not. Okay, Governor, tell me how to contact this Mister Fleener.”

The next evening Captain Ayers was standing in the back of the Chelsea Community Building. It had the same rough exterior and interior that most colonial structures, including the temporary capitol, were notorious for. But this building seemed a little bit better than most. Ayers mused it was probably because a sports mural decorated the outside, while children’s pictures were hanging inside. That made it seem to him to be just a bit more civilized and permanent than the average new community building on a colony planet.

After Ayers was acknowledged Reese Hanshaw was formally introduced to the

assembly. Although he knew Ash City was a ranching town and Hanshaw himself a rancher, he didn’t think the man looked like any sort of a cowboy. Instead he resembled a vice-president of some large corporation. Hanshaw was dressed in a clean and slightly stylish suit; his gray-flecked hair was conservatively cut; and the latest tech tools were close at hand.

“As you folks know,” Hanshaw began, “we still think Ash City is the best place for the capitol. We’re the oldest town on Waconda and the wealthiest. But to help persuade all of you, we’re made this presentation.”

At that a multimedia show called “The Ash City Colonial Administrative Center” got underway. It featured blueprints, 3-D exterior and interior views of the building, an animated display of its construction and workings, and a timeline. Hanshaw quietly narrated the program. Once it was over he said, “The center will be built with local labor. We want our friends to help us put this together, and there will be opportunities during construction and after it’s open. So, that’s our plan. Any questions?”

One man stood up. “You lost last time and sued. What if you lose this time?”

“We had to protect voters’ rights,” Hanshaw replied. “We intend to stick with that stance.”

“Even if no one asks for your help?”

Hanshaw didn’t answer the question.

Another man rose. “I’ve heard that you guys in Ash City are hiring poll workers. What’s up with that?”

“We’ve brought in assistance to observe the voting.”

“Mister Hanshaw, that’s why we’re here,” Ayers said.

“And we thank you, Captain. But we’d like our own observers all the same.”

There were a few more questions after that, all technical queries about the center. When he finished answering those, Hanshaw thanked the crowd for their time and left the building. The audience didn’t get up to leave, but chose to remain and talk about what they’d just heard and seen.

Early on Martin Fleener motioned to Ayers. “Captain, do you have any observations?”

Ayers let out a breath before speaking. “Well, sir, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not giving you an opinion, but I do wonder about the part about opportunities during construction of the capitol.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Again, I’m not an expert, but I wonder if the Bureau of Colonial Affairs would be too supportive of such a statement.”

“Why? Is that a bribe?”

“Maybe not, but it could become a questionable contract. I think we all know their view of sweetheart deals involving public buildings.”

“What about that thing about suing if they lose again?” a woman asked.

“And hiring observers?” someone else added.

Ayers wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say anything, but a nod from Fleener gave him encouragement. “Well, I’d have to say that those bother me, too. I hate to say much more, though. I don’t want to disparage anyone, especially someone who isn’t here to defend himself. If you’re really troubled about those points, ask to have those concerns addressed.”

“And if we get the same answers as we got tonight?”

“Well, sir, you’ll have to decide if that’s enough to cast your vote against Ash City.”

“Does anyone else have anything to say?” Fleener asked. “No? Okay, then, we’ll all get back here tomorrow night to listen to Mister Stearns. Captain, thanks for coming.”

Ayers returned to the community building the next night. He took the same spot in back as he had the previous night. He noticed that this time the featured speaker didn’t look much like Reese Hanshaw, on the surface. Joe Stearns was dressed

grandly in what appeared to be the latest style and color. He also wasn’t as stiff as Hanshaw had been. Stearns gestured and moved as he talked. But Stearns gave off the same unfavorable impression to Ayers that Hanshaw had.

“I know we’re not the oldest town on Waconda,” Stearns began, “and we’re not the richest. But we are in the center of things. We’ve got some great people who want to invest in this planet’s future.

“Friends, we in Orion believe the capitol should be in the community with the strongest business spirit. The leading town of Waconda should be a center of financial progress. We like to think of ourselves as maximizers, not minimizers like those ranchers over in Ash City. The only way we can optimize our planet’s prosperity is to locate the capitol in Orion, a town rife with investment capital.

“Now, I know that might sound like we’re shutting some of you out. But I can assure you that’s not the case. The Orion Chamber of Commerce will be offering commercial and residential real estate at special price levels for those who believe in our city. What’s more, they’ve agree to waive residency requirements for real estate purchases for a limited time.”

A woman in the crowd raised her hand. “Meaning what? Who can buy this property?”

“Anyone who recognizes Orion’s potential.”

“Could I ask some specific questions, Mister Stearns?” Fleener said.

Stearns shook his head. “I’m sorry, Martin, but the Chamber hasn’t authorized me to go into specifics at public forums. Only serious investors will be able to review contracts.”

“But you own the biggest hotel in town. Aren’t you the Chamber, pretty much?”

“That’s stating things too simply, Martin.”

A man stood up. “Do you have any plans for the capitol itself?”

“We’ll open bidding after the election.”

“No plans at all?”

“Drafting proposals cost credits. Architects and designers won’t work for free. Don’t worry, we’ll have a competitive process once we win the election.

“Are there any other questions? Nope? Okay, great. Thanks for letting me talk to you again. I hope to hear good things from Chelsea in a couple of weeks.” He waved, shook hands with Fleener, then left the building.

A moment after he was gone Fleener looked at Ayers. “Captain, that real estate offer sure sounded like a bribe to me.” Several people made sounds of agreement.

Ayers couldn’t help but nod. “Yeah, it’s a pretty questionable offer.”

“Gee, Captain,” a man said, “that’s putting it nicely.”

“Well, sir, I can’t take sides.”

“What about waiving residency requirements?” another woman asked. “Captain, do you know what he was talking about?”

“I’d hate to put words into Mister Stearns mouth.”

“Maybe you could put some better ones in.”

Ayers struggled not to laugh along with everyone else. Once things were quiet again he said, “If I had to guess, and I’m not an expert, but on the surface there’s nothing wrong with someone outside of Orion buying land there. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with someone off-world investing in real estate there.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I would guess one problem would be if terms changed after the election. As Mister Fleener hinted, sales beforehand could be construed as bribes for votes. What’s more, if someone didn’t get in on those terms, they might sue, and a suit could involve earlier land buyers. And, as I mentioned last night, we all know the Bureau of Colonial Affairs doesn’t like unethical business practices on colony worlds.

“Look, people, I’m not here to tell you how to vote. I probably shouldn’t even be answering your questions. This is something for you to decide. You’ll have to figure out who you trust.”

“On that note,” Fleener said, “I think we should finish for the night. Captain, thanks again for coming down. We really appreciate what you have to say.”

Nine days later Captain Ayers was once again in the Chelsea Community Building. This time, though, it wasn’t to observe a planned meeting, and Governor Schultz was by his side. In the days since he’d last been in Chelsea, the situation on Waconda had grown more tense. An anonymous message had gone out claiming that colonial funds were missing. Another alleged that “hired goons” from Ash City were going to invade the polling places on election day. Others hinted that one side or the other were preparing to hack the vote-comps. All these messages had the people of Chelsea worried, and they’d asked Schultz and Ayers to speak to them.

Schultz spoke first. “I don’t know who sent the message about missing funds, but it’s absolutely not true.”

“Where did it come from?” someone asked.

“We trace it to Ash City,” Ayers said.

“Figures.”

“Much more I can’t say. It’s not against the law to spread rumors, but it is to trace non-threatening messages.”

“How about the goon squad?” another called out.

“My officers will keep the peace. They’re armed and empowered to arrest anyone who causes trouble anywhere. I doubt anyone would seriously challenge a military officer of the Terran Federal Republic. The message might be another rumor.”

“What about the vote-comps?” another asked. “Are they safe?”

“The hardware’s fine,” Schultz replied, “the software’s fine, and Captain Ayers and his officers will be keeping an eye on them right through the election.”

“What do we do about this mess?” Fleener said to Ayers and Schultz. “We can’t let this nonsense go on. Someone might get hurt.”

“It might just go on and on,” a fourth person said.

“It’ll hurt Waconda’s reputation,” a fifth added.

Ayers found his own concerns about the situation increasing as the meeting went on. He could see that people were becoming frustrated by the controversy. He could also see that there were more questions than answers, and that tempers might be just about to flare. But he hadn’t been certain what anyone ought to do to calm tensions or resolve the problem.

So he was surprised when at that point he said, “You folks could put Chelsea in as a write-in candidate.”

The room fell silent for a moment. At length the fifth person asked, “Can we do that? Captain? Governor?”

Schultz seemed to consider the idea for a short moment before nodding. “There are only two towns on the ballot, but there’s no law that says that a voter can’t take the stylus from the vote-comp and write-in another candidate.”

“The people in Ash City and Orion might not appreciate us as a write-in,” Fleener said.

“Not if the voting goes okay,” the third person said. “I mean, all we’d have to do is send out a message saying something like, ‘if you’re tired of this mess, vote for Chelsea.’ No threat, no bribe, not even much of a request, really.”

“Yeah,” a sixth added, “but it might be the best way to fix this mess.”

“And the capitol ought to be in the town that’s free from all these grudges, anyway,” the second person told the crowd. “Otherwise, this fight might not ever get settled. Isn’t that right, Captain?”

“Y’know, I really shouldn’t answer that,” Ayers replied.

“Too late now.”

Fleener motioned to him. “Captain, if you want to keep the peace, you have to say something.”

“Well, all I can really say is that this idea is yours to decide upon. The Governor thinks it’s legal, so I’ll defer to his opinion there. If you folks believe this is your best

chance to settle things down, then you have to act on that belief. If nothing else, this would be a protest vote that might wake everyone up. This is your colony. You have to act in your best interest.”

“Thanks. Folks, I think we should get a motion.”

A woman stood up. “I move that a message be sent, from all of us, stating that if people are unhappy with the controversy over the capitol, that they write-in Chelsea as their choice for colonial capitol.”

“I second the motion,” a man said.

“Moved and seconded,” Fleener noted. “Any further discussion? If not, then let’s vote on the motion. All in favor, say ‘aye.’”

The room briefly filled with “ayes.”

“Opposed, same sign.”

The room was quiet.

“Motion has carried. I’ll draft the message, and send it out first thing tomorrow morning. That should give everyone time to think about it, since the election is the day after. If that’s all, I think this meeting should adjourn.”

Back on the Victory, Ayers told his executive officer, Commander Nina Reggio, what had transpired at the meeting. When he was done she arched one of her eyebrows. “So, how are you going to explain this one, Jason? You weren’t supposed to take sides.”

“I didn’t,” he said.

“Oh?”

“I didn’t tell anyone which town to vote for.”

“Well, yeah.”

“I never said if I liked or disliked the idea.”

“Oh. Well, did you?”

“Yes, but I didn’t say that.”

“Okay, fair enough.”

“I didn’t go past my duties, orders, or responsibilities. And what’s more, if the election goes off without a hitch, well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Therefore, if I played any part in that success, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“No, I guess not. Assuming that everything does go well day after tomorrow.”

“My confidence is high, Nina.”

“And you know what, Captain? So is mine.”

Robert Collins Robert Collins has had stories and articles appear in periodicals such as Tales of the Talisman; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine; The Fifth Di...; Wild West; Model Railroader; and the Wichita Eagle. He’s sold two biographies to Pelican Publishing, and six railroad books to South Platte Press. His first SF novel, Expert Assistance, has just been published by Asylett Press.

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