The Pirate (short story)
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|Series||The Psychotechnic League|
|Genre(s)||science fiction short story|
|Published in||Analog Science Fiction and Fact|
|Publisher||Street & Smith|
|Publication date||October 1968|
|Followed by||"The Peregrine"|
"The Pirate" is a science fiction short story by Poul Anderson that first appeared in the October 1968 issue of Analog. "The Pirate" was a prequel to the earlier Psychotechnic League novel Star Ways (later retitled The Peregrine), and was the last story in the Psychotechnic series to be published. The story was included in the 1975 collection Homeward and Beyond and the 1982 collection Starship, and the timeline from the latter collection places the story in the year 3115.
Trevelyan Micah, an agent of the Stellar Union's Coordination Service, is alerted to some suspicious activity on the part of Murdoch Juan, a Trader with whom Trevelyan has crossed paths before. Murdoch claims to be recruiting settlers for a newly discovered planet he calls Good Luck. However, the cost of building housing and infrastructure for the settlers would make the settlement uneconomical for Murdoch, and the equipment he is loading aboard his ship, the Campesino, seems mismatched for the planet he describes.
When the Campesino sets out, Trevelyan and his alien partner Smokesmith pursue in a smaller, faster ship called the Genji. They follow Campesino to an Earthlike world a hundred light years from the remains of a supernova. Landing on the world, Trevelyan discovers that it once had a race of intelligent natives who were wiped out four centuries earlier when the supernova's radiation front passed by. Their buildings are still mostly intact, and Trevelyan realizes that that is the secret to Murdoch's plan: he won't have to build housing or other infrastructure for his settlers, because he can simply renovate the deserted native buildings. Murdoch stands to become the richest man in the Stellar Union.
Trevelyan confronts Murdoch, and tells him that he must wait until archeological teams from the Stellar Union have thoroughly investigated Good Luck, probably for a century, before he can begin moving settlers in. Murdoch has a counterproposal: Trevelyan will surrender to him, and Murdoch will maroon him alone on a deserted island on Good Luck for ten years while the planet is colonized. Trevelyan responds with his final offer: Murdoch will allow him to leave Good Luck or else Smokesmith will nuke Trevelyan, Murdoch, and the Campesino. After Smokesmith sets off a sample nuke in the atmosphere above them, Murdoch agrees. Trevelyan will return to the Stellar Union and spread the word that anyone who takes up Murdoch's offer and settles on Good Luck will be forcibly removed by the Coordination Service, which should suffice to prevent settlement of the planet.
Moral issues and dilemmas
As in many Anderson stories, there is a moral dilemma involved, and the conflict is by no means a simple Good vs. Evil, but rather a clash between two protagonists who are each honourable in his own terms - which are incompatible with the other's. Murdoch has quite a few sympathetic traits (nor is he, despite the story's name, a pirate in the common sense). He would not have tried to kill or dispossess the planet's inhabitants, were they still alive - but "dead is dead", the empty cities are there, capable of being converted to human use and giving a new hope to people of impoverished societies of which there seem to be many in this galaxy - and to be sure, provide a handsome profit to Murdoch, who makes no claim of altruism.
Murdoch's girlfriend comes from one such impoverished world, and her fury and anguish at Trevelyan's destroying their dream is real and poignant. As noted by Trevelyan, had Murdoch succeeded in his design, he would have ended up as a revered hero and Founding Father of an entire new world. Moreover, it is clearly hinted that the slow orderly settlement which the Stellar Union would eventually carry out - region by region opened gradually to settlement after alien remnants in it were thoroughly studied and preserved - would involve carefully selected settlers, and people from the richer, established center would have a better chance to be selected rather than Murdoch's kind of wild and poor frontier folk.
Despite all this, there can be no doubt where Trevelyan stands (and Anderson, obviously, with him). Trevelyan not only protects Civilization and Science - abstract concepts which Murdoch, with little formal education though highly intelligent and resourceful, cannot really appreciate. Beyond that, Trevelyan acts out of a strong moral imperative to protect the dead sentients who cannot defend themselves. They have rights, too - the right not to be forgotten or erased, the right to have their voice heard and their culture and achievements known and remembered. In the name of this right, Trevelyan acts to quash Murdoch's grand design - feeling little joy but having no doubt about the righteousness of his act.