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THE NINE WORKS OF SCIENCE FICTION IN MARY ANN STEELE'S SERIES
Listed in the order in which they should be read:
Warrior-Woman: The Forging of the Legend
Master of Intrigue
Partnership of Equals
Birth of a New Breed: Genesis
Birth of a New Breed: Attainment
Trial By Fire: Survival
Trial By Fire: Final Reckoning
Dangerous Adversaries: Battle Joined
Dangerous Adversaries: No Turning Back
To Find, and Not To Yield: Calculated Risk
To Find, and Not To Yield: Daring Rewarded
Master of My Fate: Ashes of Wrath
Master of My Fate: A Ship Takes Shape
Master of My Fate: The Phoenix Rises
Alone in the hard vacuum of space, an artifact of human origin insignificant by cosmic standards travels a long elliptical orbit around a giant gaseous planet: a coldly splendid body ruling a sizeable minisystem. Marooned aboard the rotating toroidal ring upon which thirty-nine bulbous hulls and an equal number of slender countermasses rise from the rim like the points on a tiara, six Columbian military corpsmen and one noncombatant Gaean woman sleep peacefully. The repose of the seven castaways occurs in the aftermath of a traumatic confrontation between the female Gaean prisoner of war and the brilliant, dangerous, fascinating, and occasionally cruel Columbian second officer.
Four weeks earlier, the Captain, a forceful leader inflexibly bent on maintaining his dominance over a crew cut off from all contact with their military corps, implemented two decisions intended toprevent the presence of an ultrafeminine enemy from sparking sexual tensions that could shatter that control. The Columbian officer made the Gaean civilian engineer a member of the team of spacers whom he persuaded to work willingly at the hazardous task of refitting a section of the station to serve as an autonomously operated, free-flying vehicle. He also arranged to share the attractive woman sexually with his five crewmen.
Initially consumed by fierce hatred of the female foe who had mounted the astonishing rear guard action that enabled her Gaean comrades to escape, thereby stranding the six Columbians after they docked a mortally crippled military ship on the station, the Lieutenant's feelings underwent radical change, as the captive's raw courage inspired profound admiration. That new emotion vanquished the second officer's hatred, but it swiftly engendered possessiveness: emotion that became intensified by Nigel's envy of the Captain grimly resolved both to maintain his control over his crew, and to attain his self-imposed goal of breaking out of exile. When the Lieutenant's jealousy led to a close brush with tragedy, a new, far more unselfish love for the woman he shared with five other men arose from the ashes of the chastened offender's wrath.
The lone woman, a Gaean prisoner of war whose dauntless courage, capacity for warm affection, and professional capability combined to earn her the love of all six of her companions, loves them with equal fervor, acknowledging no favorites, even in the innermost recesses of her mind. On this night, she sleeps in the arms of the Lieutenant whose wholly uncharacteristic apology and patently sincere declaration of love earned him the forgiveness of the woman he had so deeply offended.
Saturday night of week four passes slowly into history. At 0400, the sleep-shift ends for the seven slumbering challengers of a cruel fate seemingly wished upon them by some malevolent dark Power.
Cleo awoke still clasped in Nigel's arms. Grown aware of fingers gently tracing the contours of one bare shoulder, she sought to account for an ominous sense of foreboding. Slowly, the events of the previous day rose to flood her mind. Conscious of having trod the edge of a yawning void, she shuddered even as she savored vast relief at having escaped a plunge into the depths. Enveloped in warmth, she knew herself safe. A smile of utter contentment slowly transfigured her still-pale face, smoothing out the lines of care.
Brooding dark eyes took in the change. "Awake, hm?"
Opening her eyes, Cleo nodded. "Awake, and alive. So are you, thank the Powers. All of you ... safe. Me, too. For now, anyway."
"For as long as I can keep you so, Cleo, no matter whom you choose in the end."
Remorse scourged the woman remembering a reprehensible descent into blind, murderous rage. "Nigel ... I came so close to killing you..."
"You had reason."
"And what I said...!"
"Was true. You're not our possession, Cleo. You're a privilege, which I abused. I believe, now, what you tried to tell me. You can love six men at once. Your heart's big enough to love ten. I've belatedly accepted that facet of our relationship.
"I won't change, much, in consequence. I'm too old ... too set in ways too hard to change ... but I'll work at keeping you free of at least one source of emotional pain. You no longer need fear, ever again, that I'll do anything regrettable to anyone, out of jealousy arising from my regard for you. I'll suffer recurring bouts of envy, no doubt, but I'll bury how I feel. My word on it."
"Nigel, you can't know what that promise means to me!" As that cry from the heart rang out, the profoundly relieved woman dug her fingers into both of Nigel's arms. "You simply can't know..." The clear voice trembled, as she added, "That perfect rose ... that precious gift fashioned by your own hands ... I'll treasure for the rest of my life." Impulsively, she kissed the man she had come so close to killing in so ghastly a fashion.
Nigel's arms tightened around her. His kiss conveyed pure tenderness. Passion for once played no part in that gesture, although he took his time. When at length he freed her lips, Cleo melted against him, pressing her cheek against his chest, and tightening her arm around him. He lay stroking her hair, watching the inevitable advance of the marching seconds register on the digital dial of the clock. At length, both occupants of the bed reluctantly bowed to the need to rise, and dress.
Lifting the glass blossom, Cleo turned it in careful fingers, examining the tiny thorns, the lifelike petals, the perfect drop of moisture that she knew represented dew. After wrapping the peace offering most carefully in the glass-cloth sheath, she laid it gingerly in a drawer, before tucking two squares of threadbare, cast-off fabric that served her as pocket-cloths around the fragile sculpture. The radiant happiness animating the face that had ceased to seem haunted brought an answering gleam to the dark eyes fixed solely on her.
Michael looked up from his plate to stare narrowly at the woman so traumatized on the prior day, as she preceded Nigel into the dining hall. Instantly, he realized that the glow that lit her face transcended relief, and that the radiant aura she exhibited testified to more than a mere cessation of angry feelings.
Well, it finally happened, he acknowledged glumly, as pain knifed his gut. She just fell in love with Nigel, just as you knew from the start she would!
Seating herself opposite Michael, the woman guiltily conscious of an egregious fall from grace met his glance squarely. A flush produced by embarrassment mounted upwards in her cheeks, as shame born of the memory of her action of the previous day scalded her conscience. She nonetheless held the penetrating glance focused on her by the Captain.
"Good morning, Michael," she greeted him, her tone creditably noncommittal.
"Good morning," he responded, his voice revealing no more of his inner feelings than had his face. Is she embarrassed because of losing control of herself so completely yesterday, or over this other surrender? he asked himself. Or both? Acting with deliberate intent, he turned his eyes elsewhere, noting that only then did she drop hers to her plate.
Nigel seated himself next to the patently embarrassed Gaean. His eyes met Michael's coolly, and his manner remained devoid of the least sign of embarrassment. His sibilant voice betrayed no faintest hint of emotion as he wished those at the table good-morning, and applied himself calmly to his meal.
As he ate, Michael covertly studied the more blameworthy of the two offenders out of lidded eyes. Observing a composure that equaled his own, he went on scrutinizing the man whose subtle body language he had learned to read with a fair degree of accuracy over a considerable number of Earthyears.
No trace of smugness, the shrewd judge noted. No arrogant, self-satisfied pride that he just made a conquest.
Michael continued to watch, without seeming to scan the ill-favored face of his second officer.
Damned if he doesn't look ... content, the Captain admitted, amazement blending with a new upsurge of pain. No, by all the stars in the wheeling galaxy! He's happy! He looks as radiantly joyous as Cleo! Suffering shades of the moldering ancients of Earth, Nigel has fallen in love with her! I wonder if she has any conception of what a monumental accomplishment she just managed!
Jolted by his conclusion, the Captain pondered this new turn of events.
You issued Nigel an order yesterday. There was no way in hell you could have enforced that command, he castigated his alter ego savagely. You invited mutiny, when you told him to make it up to her. Bad business, barking out that sort of order. You weren't fully in control of yourself when you issued it. Even so, he seems to have obeyed it. Not out of fear of you, spacer-captain. Because he suddenly realized, yesterday, that he doesn't simply desire her ... that he truly loves her! Damn my lack of foresight!
Sipping his coffee, Michael studied the woman sitting opposite.
Well, things have worked out for her, as you hoped last night they would, he admitted, brightening even as pain racked him anew. She looks radiant!
An odd excitement mingled with that bitter mental pain. She told you that she'd likely end by caring deeply for all of us, the leader bearing an unrelenting burden of responsibility reminded himself. Never has she tried to lie to you about her feelings, even by omission, and she won't now. You haven't lost anything. And by all the wealth of Earth ... just possibly ... this development could mean that the angle for which you've been searching so frantically just fell into your lap!
Objections to his wild notion that the visionary until this moment had deemed insurmountable suddenly lost their formidable strength.
I need time to reconsider my options, Michael decided. Well ... there's one aspect of the business that you don't need to rethink, he added with bittersweet certainty. That's clearer in your mind than any idea has ever been. You love Cleo, spacer captain.
Marvin, who had followed Cleo and Nigel through the line, took his seat next to Michael, diagonally across from Cleo. Instantly grown aware that a reconciliation must have taken place, the man so instrumental in solving the lone woman's problem savored unqualified relief. A fervent hope possessed him that Cleo's eyes would never again display the haunted look that had so wrenched his heart on the previous evening. The smile she flashed him filled him with warmth, as they exchanged greetings.
Buoyed by her response, he stole a series of shy, appraising glances at her as he ate. The realization gradually dawned on him that more than reconciliation had transpired. With all the force with which the same realization had struck Michael, the truth hit the man assessing evidence, and the socially handicapped spacer recognized the glow in Cleo's eyes for what it was.
Marvin's pain equaled Michael's, but for the computer expert, pain formed a far more familiar feeling.
Well, you got your wish, he reminded himself sadly. And for her sake, be glad! You know better than to expect that any woman would find you more attractive than Nigel. Or Michael. Or Justin. Or any man who isn't a tongue-tied, walking tangle of problems. It's amazing that she cares for you as much as she does. Be grateful for that!
Accepting his desolate assessment of his own lack, Marvin drew what comfort he could from his absolute trust that whatever depth of love Nigel had won on the previous night, Cleo's avowal of her feelings about himself had been the truth. You can rest assured that she wouldn't say that lightly, he consoled himself. She's as honest as space is deep.
Shifting focus, Marvin studied Nigel as covertly as had Michael. Far less practiced at reading the Lieutenant's feelings from face or body than was the Captain, the intent observer failed to see past that carefully cultivated impenetrability.
Nigel strides through world and space hurting whom he pleases, he raged, roused to a flash of rare anger. He has slain men who tossed off a careless, snide word he resented. He has holed others whom he insulted: men who had guts enough to demand satisfaction from him. He hurt Cleo, badly. Angry as she was, surely even the gift Justin said Nigel fashioned wouldn't have been enough. Did the arrogant bastard apologize? I've never known him to do that, to woman or man.
Fixing an intent glance on Cleo's radiant face, he winced as pain stabbed him anew.
You might have known that she'd grow to love Nigel, he castigated his alter ego scathingly. Women fall for his type. The only amazing thing about it is that it took her this long. I can understand her finding him irresistible. I've spent Earthyears--from my university days until now--wishing that the groups of comrades flamboyantly fascinating men like Nigel dominate, had a place for me. He has always attracted me, even while I disapproved of the things he did. So how can I blame Cleo?
With bitter but impeccable logic, Marvin excused the woman he loved: the woman he could imagine no combination of circumstances ever driving his own self to wound as Nigel had wounded her. Sighing audibly, he concluded accurately, Life's damned unfair, but Cleo has divided her affection among us as evenly as she knew how. Be grateful for that. The brief flash of ire dissipated, as the apologist unconsciously included Nigel in his exoneration of Cleo from all blame.
Towards the end of the meal, Michael rose, and collected his crewmembers' glances with his eye.
"We'll knock off at 1500," he announced. "At that time, we'll assemble in the recreation hall. Cleo, I'll be lowering the level in Central's accumulator tank drastically this morning, and rerouting the water, so you won't be able to shower until just before the beginning of the sleep-shift. Enough will accumulate by then. Justin has prepared two cold meals, given that the cooks won't have water enough for doing dishes, today, either. Conrad will set out all the rations of water for personal washing, first thing this morning, before I do what I've planned."
Michael reseated himself, his delicate sensors assuring him that the storm of yesterday seemed to have cleared the atmosphere, as storms on Earth were reputed to have done.
Maybe Justin's right, he mused speculatively. There's nowhere to go from the bottom but up. Cleo has wrought a profound change in Nigel. Not due to his narrow escape, that alteration. He takes close shaves in stride. No, he finally realizes what she means to him. Nigel in love! I wouldn't have wagered he'd lose what he calls his heart to any woman. She's the one who can boast of making a conquest!
Having asked Cleo to reactivate the ion-exchange resins in Eleven's urine-treatment apparatus, and in the process teach Leonard how to do that chore, Nigel left Cleo and Leonard engaged in that task. Ascending the ladder, he walked with his customary silent tread to the bridge.
Crouched on the deck under the board, connecting a power line, Marvin heard the door slide open. On spying the Lieutenant, the programmer scrambled out from the cramped space, to face his visitor.
"Marvin, I came to thank you," Nigel declared evenly, his manner totally devoid of arrogance. "Not for the consequence your courageous act had for my own self, but for the beneficial effect it conferred on Cleo. I stand in debt to you."
Surprise and embarrassment failed to prevent Marvin from meeting Nigel's eyes squarely. Flushing, the man thus addressed thought rapidly for a few seconds, before returning an earnest answer. "Nigel, I'm glad of both consequences," he asserted, his sincerity patent. Impulsively, he thrust out his hand.
Nigel gripped it. The eyes of the two men held for a time. In Nigel's, respect mingled with something that Marvin suspected to be gratitude, as seldom as the arrogant features of the premier duelist had ever mirrored that emotion. To the spacer who habitually suffered from loneliness while in the midst of five teammates, that fleeting projection bore the weight of an accolade. Buoyed by the crushing grip Nigel's hand exerted on his own, Marvin sought to equal the pressure.
"Well, I've got work to do," the visitor affirmed. Turning on his heel, he left.
Marvin's eyes followed his visitor out of sight. Warmed by the gesture that the programmer knew had not been an easy one for Nigel to make, he returned to the cables dangling from beneath the board, feeling immensely cheered.
Striding out one of the three doors leading from the bridge, Nigel barely avoided colliding with Michael, who issued a crisp directive. "If your team can do without you for a time, I'd like to confer with both Marvin and yourself regarding some technical problems on which I need advice, Nigel. Now, if possible."
"Now suits me." Savoring the cognizance that he had taken the time to inform his crew of what work he wished to see completed that morning, the second officer followed the Captain back into the bridge.
When the hour arrived at which Cleo normally took her break, she observed that the team leader had not reappeared. Leonard likewise noticed the time. "Cleo, take a break. Nigel won't mind," he urged.
Acting on her teammate's advice, Cleo ascended to the upper deck, and headed for the bridge. The door she saw to be closed, but she knew that the meticulous expert always kept it shut, so as to exclude dust and moisture. Giving the door a vigorous shove, she stepped inside to behold Marvin deep in consultation with Michael and Nigel.
"Oh, excuse me," she exclaimed in embarrassment, while preparing to withdraw in haste.
"Come in, Cleo," Michael instructed briskly. "Do you need to talk to Nigel?"
"No. I came to see whether Marvin might be free to take his break. I didn't mean to interrupt a conference..." Pink-cheeked, the intruder backed towards the door.
Flashing the equally crimson programmer a broad grin, Michael directed, "Take a break, Marvin. It's that time. So will Nigel and I. We'll finish up afterwards."
Marvin's pulse quickened. Rising abruptly, he so far forgot his resolve as to stammer a bit. "If ... if you don't mind, Michael..." Turning, he followed Cleo out the door, flushing even more deeply than had she.
"Marvin, let's make ourselves scarce," she urged, striding in haste towards a far corner of the deck, followed by the man she had so publicly summoned. Having reached the relative privacy of that sanctuary, Cleo turned to face him. Reaching out, she took both of his hands in hers.
"Marvin," she stated apologetically, "I wasn't in any shape last night to thank you properly for what you did for me ... and for Nigel ... but I want you to know how deeply grateful I am. I owe you ... for your kindness, as well as for your quick thinking and your amazing courage."
"Cleo, don't thank me. I told you, last night, that I owe you far too much to feel that I need any thanks. I could see, today, that things did work out for you. I told you they would. I'm glad, girl. Let's put yesterday behind us."
Affection shone out of the brown eyes still faintly shadowed by dark smudges. "I will," the woman still horrified by the narrowness of Nigel's escape breathed, "but I won't forget." Dropping to the deck with her back against the wall, she smiled up at the gangly expert. "Can I persuade you to sit down and spend your break with me?"
His face lighting with one of his rare, transfiguring smiles, Marvin seated himself opposite her, his arms clasping both bent knees. "Do you think I need persuading, Cleo?"
That question evoked laughter. The happiness that had brimmed in mind and heart since the Gaean had awakened--the glorious sense of relief that an intolerable burden no longer rested on her shoulders--lent that rippling laugh a charm that Marvin found irresistible.
"You know, today's Sunday," she confided in the tone of someone's spilling a secret, stimulating her companion to internal mirth. "I rate a shower this evening. One night of blissful cleanliness, before six in which I'm painfully conscious of how grubby I appear compared to whoever arrives freshly scrubbed."
Chuckling, Marvin protested, "You've never looked grubby to me, Cleo."
"You're too much of a gentleman to admit to having noticed. I never knew what a luxury a daily shower really is. Too bad no one has ever invented a way to burn off dirt, sweat and dead skin cells the way a shaving cabinet instantaneously vaporizes a shadow of beard!"
"That's a novel idea that bears thinking about." Marvin's expression turned serious. "You know, Cleo, you boast a creative imagination. Like remembering that black cloth, and thinking of a tent to solve my problem. I know lots of researchers who lack that ability to make connections between things seemingly unrelated."
"Well, thank you! That was a quality I always admired in the wife of our team leader. Marva routinely makes that sort of mental jump. Her mind has never settled into a mold."
"Bane of bureaucrats, that."
"I gather yours are like ours."
"Hazard of the occupation, in whatever world."
"Isn't it, though!"
Marvin leaned back, his arms extended from the hands clasped around his knees. His gangly body relaxed, but the mind behind the pensive face raced.
"You know, Cleo, our ancestors must have lost, or failed to bring with them, a massive part of the technology in use on Earth and in the space of Sol System, when they left almost an Earthcentury and a half ago. Of course, I'm ignoring the twenty thousand years that passed on Earth while our ancestors made their time-dilated jump. Very possibly there aren't any Earthmen left. I'm going by our time frame, in which the Jump seemed to take only a few hours. Surely there'd been all sorts of technological advances back there that we've no inkling of, now. Our forebears took what they needed, and what they felt comfortable using. Of course, they were limited in what information they could cram into the memory of their ships, but still..."
Pausing as he ordered rapidly evolving thoughts, the man normally all but mute in the presence of shipmates spoke his thought in a rush of words.
"It's surely true that neither our scientists nor our manufacturers, private or governmental, have ever been able to build directed-energy weapons like those mounted on the original twenty-four military ships: vessels that rode here attached to the hulls of the three huge motherships hurled by a method also inexplicable to us, from the environs of Jupiter to this star-system.
"I also find it hard mentally to grasp the destructive capabilities Johann's Flagship is rumored to have possessed. It's a good thing, likely, that he vanished in that fabulous vessel, hid it, and presumably died aboard it. But undoubtedly, a huge store of priceless knowledge, both theoretical and practical, remains unknown to us: technological breakthroughs for which we don't even know the name. All that lost heritage of ideas awaits rediscovery, here on this crude frontier."
Cleo shuddered visibly. "Just imagine what would have happened if those first Columbians had succeeded in wresting the Flagship from Johann, and then used that frightful weaponry! Bad enough what Norman has done!" she expostulated.
Acutely conscious of her own so nearly tragic lapse into violence, and mindful of the debt she now owed Marvin, Cleo veered away from the topic of war.
"You're right, about the notion that advances in knowledge must have occurred about which we know nothing," she acknowledged sadly. "I stumbled on a fragment from an old journal, quoted in a report which got quoted in turn by a modern writer. That gave me the idea for the research I began and pursued here on the station. The process I hope to perfect--one not used in Gaea, or in Columbia either, I'm sure--could very well have become common practice on Earth. But our ministries synthesize food so routinely, and maintain the system supporting life in our web of habitats in so standardized a fashion, that we seldom consider tinkering radically with any aspect of that smoothly functioning process, even out of insatiable curiosity, which I confess to possessing in abundance."
That admission generated smiling acquiescence. "You surely do. I'd say that's the first qualification of a first-class researcher," the Columbian added, the sincerity of that observation manifest to his companion. "I sometimes think our system functions too smoothly. For all that they had to have been fearless, rugged individualists, our ancestors still fell into the old pattern of allowing a bureaucracy to come into being and gain a stranglehold on technology. You'd think that they'd have tried desperately to avoid that outcome, faced as they were with the dismal example Earth's society offered."
Cleo pondered that notion. "Perhaps what we think of as a bureaucracy really represents a mild form of the disease," she ventured. "And our airless worlds present dangers the parent world didn't. On Earth, if an agency adopted sweeping changes, failure of any aspect wouldn't have created an immediate life-threatening crisis. If the highest echelon of our Ministry of Life-support Maintenance decided to try a new sort of photosynthetic exchanger, however, whole municipal units could run out of air, if something unexpectedly went wrong."
"That's true, but it's not a good enough excuse. Such advances could be piloted safely. No, inertia in our ministries accounts for the stagnation that has hampered change.
"Once in a while, someone makes a dent in that complacency. Arlen managed that feat, when just a young man. He invented a marvelous improvement on the fields that protect hulls from meteoroids. No telling what more he might have accomplished, if he hadn't succumbed to the temptation that overcomes so many talented Columbians: to reach for power.
"Arlen chose the military route. He swiftly rose to the rank of commander of one of the five Columbian military corps. Despite his intellectual brilliance, and his amazing versatility--he's a physician, a psychologist, and a physicist, as well as a warrior--he hasn't invented anything notable since. Damned shame, that."
Arlen. That's one of the three commanders whose names I didn't know, the Gaean acknowledged, storing that tidbit of information in memory. Reaching for power seems to come naturally to Columbians, she reflected censoriously. Even Michael's not immune to the temptation!
"It surely does seem a shame," Cleo agreed. "Talented inventors constitute a rarity."
As he nodded, Marvin's eyes filled with something akin to regret. "If I'd ever nursed a hope that an invention of mine would be readily adopted by any of our government's ministries, I'd have gone for the joy pure research offers, but it's damned hard to land a job that allows one to conduct pure research. Besides, even if I had conceived an idea the equal of Arlen's, I'd have lacked both the opportunity to implement it afforded by his private wealth and aristocratic family background, and his persuasive ability to promote it. So I chose a life that doesn't fully challenge my ability. Or at least, a life that hasn't challenged it, until now."
Moved to profound sympathy, Cleo asserted forcefully, "It's lucky for all of us that you did land here, at this particular time and crisis, Marvin. I know what you mean, about that lack of opportunity. I worked for our Ministry of Life-support Maintenance for a number of Earthyears, and genetically altered three species of plants in a way that could have had a considerable impact on the growth yield of the tertiary tanks. But I encountered the same inertia when I tried to push for change. It seems that you can't implement changes across two bureaucracies. The Ministry of Food Resources wasn't about to alter its processes to accommodate a radically new starting material, even if it could be produced in greater abundance, with less of a burden on the life-support technicians who tend the plants in the tanks."
"How disgustingly typical of bureaucracies in general," Marvin commented wryly. "At least, as a Second Corpsman with a specialist's rating, I get a hearing from Michael when I contribute an idea. He has adopted a number of mine to solve problems our teams encountered, and he has always given me full credit in his reports to Galt. It's all too easy for a captain to shade those in a way that reflects well on himself at his subordinates' expense, but Michael's scrupulously fair. If I ever do find a niche later on that would provide me a laboratory, equipment, and a reasonable salary while I produce nothing of immediate commercial benefit, I'll already have established a certain reputation, in military circles, at least."
Warm brown eyes sparkled, as their owner impulsively responded to that revelation. "I sincerely hope that your society comes to appreciate your astonishing ability, Marvin, even though I know how hard it is to find such a niche. I'd have thought your world, of the two, would have been more prone to smooth the path of a talented person willing to immerse himself in pure research, and more willing to create a place in each ministry for such. Your people are descended in part from the technological elite that teamed with Johann and his mercenaries."
"The autocratic mentality overshadowed the inquisitive one, I guess ... at least at this point in our history." Marvin smiled, and the bitter overtone that had crept into his voice vanished. "Cleo, I've enjoyed my break no end, but if I keep Michael waiting, he'll flay a section of my hide off me, using no more complicated a technology than sound waves."
That sally sparked new laughter. "Marvin, don't risk it! And don't think Nigel wouldn't follow suit, if he caught Leonard or me wandering back late! Let's beat a strategic retreat."
Marvin had risen to his feet. Holding out his hand, he assisted his companion to rise. His heart beat a bit faster, when she smiled radiantly at him. The pressure of her hand on his sent pleasurable impulses coursing through him. The desolate thoughts that had impaired his appetite at breakfast dropped out of his short-term memory. For a considerable time after his corporeal self returned to the Captain's presence, he found it hard to focus his mind on Michael's concise outline of his technical problems.
Arriving in a body in the recreation hall promptly at 1500 to find that Michael had preceded them, six people sprawled on sofas and chairs, glad of the chance to relax.
In a voice that breathed not the slightest hint of any lingering strong feeling resulting from the events of the previous day, the Captain inquired casually, "Nigel, do you care to join Conrad and myself in a round of poker?"
"Only if Cleo refuses to take me on in a game of checkers," the inveterate poker player unexpectedly declared.
Hiding her surprise, the lone woman turned a smiling face on the man whose comrades strove to conceal outright shock. "I'd enjoy that, Nigel," she replied warmly.
Outflanked, Leonard refused to concede defeat. "How about if I play the winner?" he proposed smoothly.
Nigel chuckled. "Hardly a vote of confidence in my skill, that offer," he observed slyly. "I'll have to struggle to fend off what I see you hope will happen."
Michael chimed in, "I'll take on the loser."
Cleo's smile deepened. "Michael's offer hardly seems a vote of confidence in my prowess," she remarked mischievously. "We'll just see."
Speculating as to the cause of Nigel's spectacular change in manner, Conrad stared quizzically at the second officer. The black anger generated in Conrad by the man whose calculatedly cruel remark had so nearly precipitated a tragedy--anger that had simmered in Conrad's mind throughout the previous afternoon and evening--had finally succumbed to the tactful manner in which Justin related to his cabinmate the news that Nigel had gone to apologize to Cleo.
Conrad knew Justin to be incapable of uttering a lie. The blonde spacer's ire had been tempered not only by that astonishing revelation, but by the sight of Cleo's radiant face at breakfast: sure proof that Nigel's apology must have been a handsome one. That conclusion sufficed to extinguish the embers of his wrath. No more jealous than Marvin had been, Conrad had experienced profound relief, and a warm, unselfish hope that the reconciliation would alleviate her distress.
Now, Conrad eyed Cleo reflectively. "Michael, I'll wager you my bottle against yours that Cleo beats Nigel," he declared. "And I'll stipulate that the loser shares his, today."
"You're on." Michael shot his fellow gambler a grin. "Trying to make a double loser out of me?"
"The odds are stacked against you, chief. Our champion at cards might not even remember how to play checkers."
Fixing an ironic glance on the speaker, Nigel drawled, "And then again, he might. You're theorizing ahead of your data."
"Well, show us some hard proof."
The two opponents set up the board, and eyed each other across it. Reaching into a pocket, Nigel produced a die, which he tossed onto the table. "Roll to see who goes first."
Cleo rolled a five. Nigel threw a three, and raised an eyebrow. "Luck follows beauty, hm? But skill's not so easily swayed."
Inclining her head in acknowledgment of the compliment, Cleo moved a checker out, aware that although Justin and Marvin initially intended to continue the game of chess still set up from a previous session, and that Michael had dealt Conrad and Leonard each a hand of cards, five pairs of eyes nonetheless strayed regularly in the direction of herself and her partner. Marshaling her mental forces, she ignored the glances, and concentrated. She had played regularly with Leonard, and had never known Nigel to engage in the game, but she reflected wryly that everybody knows how to play checkers, and Nigel excelled at remembering what cards had been played.
Nigel made his move. After cogitating, Cleo moved again. Absorbed to the hilt in the ancient game, the players took time to determine the consequences of each move. Nigel slid a piece out. Making a double jump, his adversary took two of his, her eyes dancing.
In response, Nigel muttered something undoubtedly regrettable, softly enough that no one could hear. His own eyes glittered. Watching his chance, the challenger took a checker of his opponent's. Both players settled down to concentrate harder. Nigel engineered a trap. Cleo avoided it, only to fall into another. Studying the layout, the Gaean left a piece rendering one of her opponent's immobile. Watching her chance, she gained a king. Nigel did the same. Maneuvering his king, Nigel freed his trapped piece. Each player achieved another king.
For a time, the game stayed even. Thinking over each move, neither indulged in idle conversation. Spying an opening, Cleo took one of Nigel's kings.
"Damn!" he exclaimed audibly.
Cleo giggled. Conrad flashed Michael a look of smug satisfaction. Michael grimaced. Leonard smiled knowingly. Nigel frowned, and then laughed derisively as he immobilized one of Cleo's kings. Undeterred, she shepherded a single checker to the back row. Nigel laid a trap. Avoiding it, Cleo captured a piece. Having emitted a grunt of disgust, Nigel took one of hers.
Reduced to two kings, Nigel eyed his adversary's three. Cleo moved one, prompting her opponent to retreat. Pursuing, she forced his king into a spot from which he could only move back and forth between two squares. Abandoning that doomed monarch, Nigel moved his second. In a series of planned moves, Cleo cannily used her two to trap his one.
Sitting back, the loser laughed in wry self-mockery. "Beauty allied to skill. Formidable combination," he declared gallantly. "Michael, I'm spaced. The drinks are on you."
That admission evoked a chuckle. "It's almost worth losing a bet to see you go down to defeat in a game of skill, Nigel. Maybe that'll shake your confidence enough that I'll wipe you, as well."
"A drink out of your bottle will settle my nerves, chief. Cleo, one of these days you'll dare to face us over a hand of cards, hm?"
Cocking her head, the recipient of that challenge qualified her acceptance. "Provided that the stakes are low enough."
"We can arrange that."
"Right now, she's engaged to hole my fragile self-esteem for the seventeenth time in a row," Leonard asserted firmly. "She stays three moves ahead of me, no matter how much I think I've improved."
Michael departed, returning with glasses, ice and his bottle. Fortified with liquid refreshment, the company returned to the games. Nigel narrowly beat Michael at checkers, and Cleo roundly trounced Leonard.
"Undefeated checker-champion, you are, Cleo," the boy exclaimed, smiling, no whit perturbed by his defeat.
As Cleo surveyed the company, inspiration struck. "Marvin, would you consider puncturing my bloated ego?" the winner inquired, causing the programmer's heart to fibrillate wildly.
"I'll try my hand at avoiding Nigel's fate," he agreed eagerly. "If Justin doesn't mind a delay."
"My self-esteem could use a healing spell, as well, Marvin," the technician hastened to affirm, punctuating his remark with his pleasant chuckle.
Marvin took his place opposite Cleo. At this juncture, no one pretended interest in his own pursuit. Five pairs of eyes converged on the pair. Never in these men's memories had the humble game of checkers generated such suspense.
Eyeing Conrad speculatively, Michael spoke. "My silver-inlaid folding knife against your bottle, that Marvin comes out on top," he challenged. "Winner gets to keep both."
"You're on. I'll stick by my champion, even against Marvin."
Having glanced from one inveterate gambler to the other, Cleo beamed at her adversary. "My backer seems to respect my opponent, Marvin," she declared. Handing him Nigel's die, she invited, "Roll to see who starts."
The newest player threw a four. The previous winner tossed a five. "Luck still follows beauty," Marvin observed graciously, to the astonishment of his comrades. Having flashed him an appreciative smile, Cleo moved a checker out.
For three or four moves, the Gaean's cautious, concentrated play kept her out of trouble. Marvin seemed to move his men with no prior thought. Frowning, his adversary discovered that she had no choice but to lose a piece, whichever way she jumped. Assessing where either loss would leave her, she sacrificed a checker.
Marvin's eyes sparkled as he moved one of his with no hesitation. Pondering, Cleo spied an opening. Her brow wrinkling, she made a move. Marvin countered. After again studying the board, his wary opponent positioned a man in hopes of making a jump. Marvin double-jumped the two men of hers he had set up to become vulnerable two moves ago.
The audible gasp escaping the Gaean produced a knowing grin on granite features. "Sneaky, isn't he, Cleo?" Michael remarked blandly.
"I don't doubt but that he has the rest of his moves planned already," Cleo admitted, regarding her opponent with wonder.
Marvin's vivid smile revealed no smug satisfaction, only a lively interest. Cleo concentrated, and made a move. Two moves later, she realized that she had come upon disaster. Marvin took two of her checkers in quick succession, and gained a king. Having doggedly studied thinning ranks, Cleo managed to take one of her opponent's pieces.
Marvin's eyes danced. "Not bad," he conceded.
Startled, the Gaean realized that this adversary expected to win without losing any men. That notion fatally undermined what confidence remained to her. Marvin has every possible combination of moves figured! she admitted in astonishment. Tentatively, she moved a man. The genius sitting opposite unhesitatingly moved his, and achieved a king.
Having weighed her options, his opponent found herself in another trap. After some thought, she made her move, accepting what she hoped was the lesser of two evils. Marvin jumped one of her pieces, and ended by restricting another of hers to two moves back and forth between two squares. Cleo gained a king. Marvin positioned one of his so hers could not move out. With his remaining forces, he methodically jumped or trapped the remnant of her checkers to win the game.
"Bravo!" Cleo congratulated the winner. Turning, she smiled apologetically at her backer. "Your bottle never stood a chance," she exclaimed, shaking her head in rueful amazement.
Laughing, Conrad observed, "You did all right, woman. You took a man off Marvin. Seeing you manage that feat consoled me for my loss."
Cleo regarded the winner with awe. "You don't just plan a move ahead," she marveled. "You plan four or five possible combinations of moves, and place your men to make one of those combinations inevitable!"
Nigel offered a most uncharacteristic, handsome admission. "He makes both of us look like amateurs, Cleo."
"Nigel, compared to him, we are! Justin, how do you ever muster nerve enough to play chess with him? I suddenly realize that you must be a phenomenal chess player yourself, just to last as long against him as you do!"
"My self-esteem's fast becoming as fragile as Leonard's," Justin joked, smiling.
"Your self-esteem must be pretty robust, to match wits with Marvin as often as you do!" Cleo shot back.
The open admiration in the loser's face and voice thrilled the recipient of the rash of compliments. "Cleo, do you play chess?" he inquired.
"I made a start at learning, during the six weeks our team worked here. Our medic taught me enough to enable me to lose to him," she replied, wincing as the old pain momentarily lanced her heart.
"I'd enjoy taking up where he left off," Marvin volunteered.
The piquant face of the loser lit with delight. "Marvin, what a generous offer! But playing against me would bore you stiff. No challenge. Just instant annihilation!"
"He'll teach you, Cleo, the same as he did me," Justin assured her. "And then you and I could play each other, and actually have the outcome be in doubt!"
Laughing heartily, the Gaean replied, "Marvin, if you'll do that, you've a taker."
Turning to Nigel, she added, "And if you can keep your stakes low enough, I'll let you three clean me periodically while I try poker."
"We'll hold you to that promise, Cleo." Bold eyes gleamed as the poker champion made that assertion.
"It looks as if we need a supply of gambling stakes," Michael stated, stroking his chin with his hand.
"Perhaps you could unearth a few more magic bottles," Cleo suggested, smiling on the Captain.
"Justin, what are the chances of your concocting a few?" Michael asked.
Frowning, the chemist considered that appeal. "Wine I could make fairly easily, but whisky's something else again. I'd need a distillation apparatus larger and more complicated than any we've got available."
"Would a long, coiled glass worm in a condenser jacket work, Justin?" Nigel inquired.
"I expect we could fashion a more complicated variation on that design that would, but it'd need a continuous flow of cold water. More than we could spare."
Chagrin plainly registered on the ill-favored face of the engineer. "So easy to say, 'If I had time,' hm? But I'll say it anyway. This isn't the first innovation I've wished I had time to design into the system we're building. I could make our water lines double as condenser jackets, and utilize the heat of the condensing alcohol to augment that of our water heater, but that sort of tinkering takes more time than Michael would want to spare." As he voiced that conclusion, Nigel eyed the Captain regretfully, and a shade combatively.
Frowning, the recipient of that oblique appeal pondered the ramifications. "Are you talking days or weeks, Nigel?"
"Days. Three, perhaps. Such changes would be easier to make now, than they would be if we were farther along towards hooking up our accumulator tank. Possibly less than two, if I had Justin available for half a day to design the still with me, and Conrad the other half to help me build in an electric coil to heat the brew. And, of course, my crew to assist. Did you ever research the production of ethanol, Cleo?"
"As a matter of fact, I've produced ethanol," the Gaean declared, astonishing her hearers. "Not to drink," she hastened to explain, "but nonetheless free of the poisonous amyl alcohols and ethers that co-distill with it. We'd need activated carbon to absorb those toxic substances."
Justin eagerly pounced on that admission. "You've made pure ethanol from sucrose fermented by yeast?"
"From sucrose we crystallized out of a concentrated extract of sweet potatoes. I have to confess that we sneaked a taste, and none of us got sick."
Inspiration crashed with stunning force into the Captain's consciousness. Not at the idea of producing whisky, given that alcohol ranked in his thinking as a luxury he could do without more easily than he could coffee. Rather, at his noting that a serendipitous coincidence--the fact that three people's experience and knowledge overlapped to suggest to each their collaborating on a project which obviously intrigued them--presented a far more striking possibility than merely giving morale a temporary boost.
A corollary to the wild idea that had maintained a stubborn presence in his cogitations ever since it flashed into his mind in the form of a Eureka insight a week earlier, now clicked into place. A key block dropped suddenly and smoothly into its allotted slot, firming up the whole edifice.
Damned if that wouldn't work! the Captain ruminated excitedly. This expanded idea is worth reviewing. Good chance to test an intriguing hypothesis, this idea of Nigel's. Consider your brainstorm in more detail, later!
No trace of his inner exultation showed on the rugged face seeming merely to mirror a consciousness that acceding would be good for morale. Crisply, the Captain rendered a judgment.
"Two days seems a pretty modest price for raising our spirits, Nigel--no pun intended. Work your idea into your overall design. On the day you need the cooks, we'll eat standard meals. That'll serve as my contribution to the cause."
Thrilled by that unexpected concession, the engineer replied with more visible excitement than he normally let show, "Damned if I won't enjoy this part of the chore! Cleo, dredge up out of your memory all the details you can recall. Justin, set me a time tomorrow when we can schedule a day to work together on this, hm?"
"How about 0900?"
"I'll be there."
As his subordinates beamed on each other, Michael allowed the ensuing burst of excited conversation to flow around him. Without seeming to stare, he watched Cleo's mobile face radiate intense interest, as she willingly let Justin pick her brain. Shifting focus, he observed the readiness with which the electrical engineer discussed the power such a venture might require with the offender of yesterday who had roused Conrad to black wrath.
No trace of lingering anger showed on the blonde spacer's lean face. The shrewd observer noticed the way Marvin's glance strayed to Cleo, even as Leonard engaged the programmer in friendly discussion. He likewise caught the unwonted contentment infusing the liquid eyes of the man no longer as socially inept as he once was.
The storm did more than clear the air, Michael conceded in wonder. It forged some wholly new paths, allowing current to flow. Lightning struck Nigel, I'd judge! Family. I wonder whether Leonard revealed more wisdom by what he said than even Justin realized!
Waiting until his fellows vanished out the door of the recreation hall, still passing joking remarks among themselves as the sleep-shift commenced, Michael strode purposefully to the nearest bathcabin: one in which the water had been turned off. In that private lavatory the Captain kept his personal wash water, rather than further crowding the cramped space in the bathcabin that connected the two sets of sleeping quarters he shared with four of his five crewmen on every night except Sunday and Monday.
Shedding his tunic, he washed sparingly with the last of his previous week's water ration, and sprayed deodorant under each arm.
I could definitely use a shower, he reflected ruefully, staring at his reflection in the narrow mirror. I'd reek, if it weren't for this stuff. What in hell must Cleo use? She had no duffel, but she must have concocted some preventative, because she never offends in that way. I can't muster the gall to ask her. When this container runs out, I'll see if Justin can produce an acceptable substitute.
Opening the shaving cabinet, Michael pressed his face into the contoured hollow, and touched the switch. Ignoring the brief, sharp sting that only partially registered on his mind as the shadow of a beard burned away, he mused thankfully, It's a good thing shaving doesn't require water. I'd hate to be forced to let a stubble grow all week. Imagine sporting a beard while wearing the helmet of a pressure suit! Ugh. I wonder how men could stand to grow long hair on their faces, on Old Earth? It bothers me when the hair on my head needs a trim. I simply can't visualize myself in long hair and a beard. Or any of us. Nigel would look like the mythical gorilla!
That graphic observation refocused the Captain's thoughts on the inspiration striking out of the black during recreation. As he proceeded to the infirmary, he resolved to dwell on the notion. He entered that facility, resigned to spending an uncomfortable night, given that on Sunday none of his four subordinates left to share Cleo's bed. He had tried the sofas, which were softer, but too short. That discovery prompted him to sleep on the narrow examining table. Having forced his decision on everyone, he considered it only fair that he take the weekly discomfort on himself.
He had debated moving a bunk from the disabled ship, once it became plain that no one was about to bed down anywhere but with Cleo on his allotted night, but being chronically short of time, he had not bothered. Sleep normally experienced no trouble in claiming a man of his iron constitution, even if it discovered him sprawled on a metal deck.
Stretched out flat on his back on the hard accommodation, the Captain stared with unseeing eyes at the inner plates of the hull curving above him, and gave himself up to intense contemplation of his problems, his options, his personal ambitions, and his immediate goals. The idea that had stubbornly refused to fade into oblivion grew in scope as he pondered.
Damned if that doesn't look more like a viable solution all the time! he marveled. Implementing your solution will pose grave risks, spacer-captain. You'll be bucking long odds, even by the standards of an inveterate gambler who has cast his future on a roll of the dice damned often, lately. You've been fortunate, so far, but you can't trust blind luck to favor you forever.
So. Run a test. This fortuitous collaboration will give you an idea as to whether your wild notion would really work. You don't have to make an irrevocable decision yet, but you'll need to alter some of the specifications of Eleven, just in case you decide later on to go for it. Those changes won't pose any big difficulty.
As he stared unseeing at the plates overhead, he studied the layout of Eleven's main deck, which spread itself across the screen of his mind. For a considerable time, he calculated in his head, achieving a state of concentration that kept sleep firmly at bay.
Methodically, Michael subjected the ideas crowding into his inner vision to a rigid review, discarding some and elaborating on those striking him as workable. Several passed whole into the capacious files of his memory, to become part of that repository of information on which he periodically drew. Having sorted a variety of alterations and several vivid projections of a future course to his satisfaction, he relaxed, mentally, and let ideas drift out of the stream of his consciousness to compete for his attention.
One prevailed. He savored that one, dwelling on it until sleep stole over him unawares. Undefeated by the conscious mind's descent into oblivion, that pleasant notion colored the dreams he could not remember upon waking.
A short distance away, peaceful sleep overtook the lone woman: a petite, noncombatant Gaean survivor who, over the past four weeks, had managed to defuse hatred and turn away wrath. On this night, all of the participants in a novel social experiment slept soundly. No insidious fears troubled their dreams. Time flowed on, into a future which seven hardy adventurers could see but darkly at this point in their existence.