Friday, September 19, 2008

Starship: Mutiny by Mike Resnick

The ship hung in space, all but motionless, a dull gray in color. There was no rust on it, of course, but it looked like there should have been.

“Not a very impressive sight, sir,” said the shuttle pilot as the tiny vessel approached the ship.

“I’ve seen worse,” said the officer.

“Really?” said the pilot, curious. “When?”

“Give me an hour to think about it.”

“I wonder if it’s seen a lot of action?”

“Out here?” said the officer with a grimace. “I think its primary function is to avoid action.”

“So you’re going to sit out the war out here?” said the pilot with a smile.

“Looks like.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, sir.”

“I’ve done my bit. I can use the rest.”

The shuttle approached the ship’s hatch, and when it was close enough a section extended and bonded to it. Then the hatch irised and the officer boarded the ship. He offered the uniformed woman who greeted him a lazy salute. She snapped off a smart salute in return.

“Welcome aboard the Theodore Roosevelt, sir!” she said as he surveyed his surroundings unenthusiastically. Finally he realized that she was staring at him.

“Is something wrong, Ensign?” asked the man.

“You’re supposed to request permission to come aboard, sir,” was the answer.

“But I already am aboard.”

“I know, sir. But—”

“My shuttle’s five hundred miles from here and getting farther away every second. What am I expected to do if you refuse me permission?”

“I would never refuse you permission, sir,” she said, flustered.

“Then it wasn’t necessary for me to request it, was it?” he said.

“I’m just following regulations, sir. I’m sorry if I have offended you in some way.”

“We’ll kiss and make up later, Ensign,” said the man. “Now suppose you take me to your leader.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The captain of this vessel, Ensign. My orders are to report to him. Or her. Or it.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, saluting again. “Follow me, sir.”

She turned and began walking down a corridor that, like the exterior of the ship, had seen better days and better decades, then stopped at an airlift and waited for him. He joined her, and they ascended three levels on an invisible cushion of air. Then she stepped off, he followed her again, and she soon stopped before a door.

“In there, sir.”

“Thank you, Ensign.”

“Before I leave, sir,” she said, clearly nervous but determined, “may I shake your hand?”

He shrugged and extended his hand. She took it and shook it vigorously.

“Thank you, sir,” she said. “That’ll be something to tell my children when I finally have them. Go right in.”

He waited for the door to read his retina, facial features, weight, and skeletal structure and match them against his records in the ship’s computer, then stepped forward as it dilated. He found himself in a small, unimpressive office. Seated behind a desk was an exceptionally tall man of Oriental descent, almost seven feet in height, wearing the insignia of captain.

The new officer took a step forward. “Wilson Cole reporting for duty.”

The captain looked at him impassively without speaking.

“Wilson Cole reporting for duty,” repeated Cole.

Again there was no response, and Cole began to grow noticeably irritated. “I apologize, sir,” he said. “They should have told me that my new captain was a deaf-mute.”

“Shut up, Mr. Cole.”

It was Cole’s turn to stare in silence.

“I am Captain Makeo Fujiama,” said the tall man. “I am still waiting for you to salute and present yourself properly.”

Cole saluted. “Commander Wilson Cole reporting for duty, sir.”

“That’s better,” said Fujiama. “I’ve read your record, Mr. Cole. It is, to say the least, unusual.”

“I found myself in unusual circumstances, sir.”

“I’d be more inclined to say that you put yourself in unusual circumstances, Mr. Cole,” replied Fujiama. “However, there is no arguing with three Medals of Courage and two Citations for Exceptional Valor. That is truly remarkable, quite possibly unmatched in the annals of the Service.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“On the other hand, you have also been given command of your own ship twice, and have been demoted twice. That is shameful, Mr. Cole.”

“That is bureaucracy, Captain Fujiama,” said Cole.

“In point of fact, that was insubordination. You disobeyed your orders in time of war.”

“We’ve been at war with the Teroni Federation for eleven years,” said Cole. “As I see it, my job is to win the damned war and go home, so when I was given stupid orders, I ignored them.”

“And put your ship and every man under your command at risk,” said Fujiama.

Cole looked directly into his new captain’s eyes. “War is hell, sir,” he said at last.

“Made more so by your contribution, I suspect.”

“My tactics were successful on both occasions,” said Cole. “They only took my command and my ship away. If I’d failed, I’d be rotting in a brig somewhere and we both know it.”

“You’re in a brig right now, Mr. Cole,” said Fujiama. “We all are.”

“Sir?”

“The Theodore Roosevelt may not look like a brig, but for all practical purposes that’s precisely what it is,” answered Fujiama. “This ship is more than a century old. By rights it should have been decommissioned fifty years ago, but we keep getting into wars and we need every ship that’s still functional and spaceworthy. Most of the crew should have been decommissioned one way or another as well, but the Republic isn’t about to reward bad actors by returning them to their civilian lives. The Theodore Roosevelt is operating out here in the least populated section of the Rim. We rarely touch down on any planet, we’re unlikely to see any action, and in short we are the ideal holding pen for all those crew members who, like yourself, seem incapable of taking orders and becoming smoothly functioning cogs in the vast military machine. Discipline is in short supply, and most of the crew holds the Navy in no higher esteem than the Teroni Federation.” The captain paused. “I believe that describes the situation, Mr. Cole.”

Cole considered what he had been told for a moment. “What was your particular sin, sir?” he asked at last.

“I killed seven naval officers.”

“Ours or theirs?”

“Ours.”

“By accident, I presume?”

“No,” answered Fujiama in a tone that said the subject was closed.

There was an uneasy silence, which Cole finally broke. “I am happy to operate on the assumption that they deserved killing, sir. I want to make it clear that I’m not here to cause any trouble.”

“I hope not, Mr. Cole,” said Fujiama. “I think both sides can testify that it’s one of the things you do with exceptional skill and elan. I’ll be perfectly frank: whether I like it or not, and whether you like it or not, your exploits have made you a hero to most of the crew. You could make my job a lot easier if you took it upon yourself to lead by example.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” said Cole. “Will there be anything else?”

“Your duties will be posted on every computer in the ship. Any private message or orders from myself or Commander Podok will show up only on your personal machines.”

“Commander Podok?”

“Our First Officer.”

“It doesn’t sound like a human name,” said Cole.

“She’s a Polonoi,” replied Fujiama, studying him carefully. “Is that a problem?”

“It makes no difference to me, sir,” said Cole. “I was just curious.”

“Good. If there was any chance of our coming into contact with a Teroni warship, I’d have you serve with me or with Podok for a few days until you got your feet wet. But we’re in the back of beyond, and you’ve commanded bigger ships than this one. You’ll take over the blue shift.”

“The blue shift, sir?”

“That’s the way we label them here,” said Fujiama. “The red shift is from 0 hour to 800 hours, ship’s time. The white shift is from 800 hours to 1600 hours, and the blue shift is from 1600 hours to 2400 hours. Commander Podok is currently in charge of the white shift, and you’ll be replacing Third Office Forrice, who has been temporarily in charge of the blue shift.”

“Forrice?” repeated Cole. “I knew a Molarian named Forrice a few years back. We used to call him Four Eyes. It sounded like his name, and besides, he did have four eyes.”

“Our Forrice is a Molarian.”

“There can’t be two Molarians with that name serving out on the Rim,” said Cole. “It’ll be nice to be working alongside an old friend.” Then: “Who did he kill?”

“In point of fact, he’s here because he refused to kill someone,” said Fujiama. Cole seemed about to ask a question, and Fujiama held up his hand. “I do not discuss the details of my crew members’ falls from grace.”

“Ever?”

“Not until such time as Sector Command feels one of them might endanger the safety of the ship.”

“I wonder how many ship endangerers Sector Command thinks you’ve got on the Roosevelt,” said Cole, curious.

Fujiama sighed deeply. “Now that you’re here, one.”

“I suppose I should be flattered.”

“Don’t be,” said Fujiama seriously. “I’ll be honest, Mr. Cole—I am second to none in my admiration for your courage and your accomplishments. But I will not hesitate to deal with you in the harshest terms if you disobey an order or have a deleterious effect on the crew’s already lax discipline.”

“I already told you, Captain Fujiama—I know which side is the enemy.”

“Good,” said Fujiama shortly. “Follow proper Service procedures and obey regulations and we won’t have any problems. You’re dismissed.”

Cole left the office, and found his ensign still standing in the corridor, obviously waiting for him.

“I’m glad to see you survived, sir,” she said with a smile.

“Was there some doubt?” he asked.

“Mount Fuji has killed officers before.”

“Not for reporting for duty, I hope,” answered Cole, returning her smile. “Is that what you call him—Mount Fuji?”

“Not to his face, no, sir.”

“Well, he’s as big as a mountain,” said Cole. “And what do I call you?”

“Ensign Rachel Marcos, sir.”

“How’s about I pull rank and just call you Rachel?”

“Whatever you wish, sir.”

“Right now what I wish is to see my quarters,” said Cole. “I assume someone has already moved my luggage there?”

“Your cabin is being thoroughly cleaned right now by the service mechs, sir,” said Rachel. “Your luggage is aboard ship and will be moved there once the room has been sterilized.”

“Sterilized?” repeated Cole, frowning. “Just what the hell did my predecessor die of?”

“Nothing, sir. He was transferred.”

“Then why—?”

“He was a Morovite.”

“So?”

“The Morovites are insectivores, sir. He kept a number of snacks in his room. As near as we can tell, they got loose almost four months ago. They didn’t bother him, of course, but some of them are inimical to Men. We’re just making sure that there weren’t any larvae or eggs left behind.”

“I promise that anything I eat in bed was dead a long time before I ever got my hands on it,” said Cole.

“The galley never closes,” she replied seriously. “There’s no reason for any crew member of any race to bring food to his room.”

“Sometimes it’s just fun.”

“Fun, sir?” she asked, furrowing her brow.

“Rachel, you’ve been in the Service too long.”

“My thoughts precisely, sir.”

“Ah, so you do have a sense of humor after all.” He paused, hands on hips, and looked around. “Okay, I’m not on duty yet, and I have no quarters to go to. You want to give me the guided tour?”

“Most of the ship won’t concern you, sir—they’re the crew’s quarters, the crew’s mess hall, and the like.”

“It all concerns me,” replied Cole. “I’m going to be in command of this vessel one-third of every day. I ought to know what it looks like.”

Rachel frowned again. “I thought you were the Second Officer, sir.”

“I am.”

“Then you won’t be in charge of the Teddy R.”

“Is that what the crew calls her—the Teddy R?”

“That’s one of the nicer things, yes, sir.”

“As for being in command, it would be ridiculous to have all the ranking officers on duty at the same time and sleeping at the same time. Unless we’re under attack, I’ll be commanding during my duty shift.”

“All right, I see what you mean, sir. It just sounded like . . .” She let the words hang in the air.

“Like I was usurping command?” said Cole. “No. I can’t recite the regulation word for word, but if an attack seems imminent, my first duty is to alert the Captain of that fact.” He smiled. “He looks like he can be pretty formidable if he’s awakened in the middle of his night. I think if the situation arises, I’ll send you to do it for me.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, and Cole decided that his original assessment—that humor was not her long and strong suit—was correct.

“Well, now that that’s settled, shall we proceed with the tour?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Just a minute,” said Cole, staring at the creature that was ambling down the corridor toward him. “What the hell kind of critter is that?” he continued, raising his voice.

“I love you, too, you ugly malcontent,” rumbled the creature. It stood perhaps five feet tall, locomoted on its three legs by spinning rather than walking straight ahead, and had three boneless arms to match. Its boxlike, angular head boasted four eyes, two trained straight ahead, one each at right angles on the side of the head. Its nostrils were two vertical slits, its mouth round and protruding, its ears hidden beneath the blue down that covered its body top to bottom. It wore a metallic red garment, on which were bonded the insignia of its rank and an impressive number of medals.

“How’ve you been, Four Eyes?” asked Cole.

“Keeping out of trouble.” The equivalent of a smile crossed the creature’s face. “Trust me, it doesn’t take much effort out here.”

“You know Commander Forrice, sir?” asked Rachel.

“Yes, Ensign,” said Cole. “I’d give him a hug, but I hate to get close to anything that ugly.”

“Just for that, I’m never asking you to help me hunt for Molarian females in season,” said Forrice.

“Thank God for small favors.” Cole laughed, and Forrice emitted a pair of high-pitched hoots. “You know what I like about these Molarian bastards, Ensign? They’re the only beings in the galaxy besides Men who laugh, the only other ones with a sense of humor. It makes a hell of a big difference when you’re stuck on a ship with them.” Then, to Forrice: “It’s good to see you again. Are you on duty right now?”

“No. I was just going to the mess hall. Why don’t you come along and I’ll fill you in?”

“Sounds good to me.” He turned to Rachel. “I won’t require a guide at this time after all. If you can tell me where my quarters are, you can be on your way.”

“He’s got the Morovite’s cabin?” asked Forrice.

“Yes, sir.”

Forrice hooted again. “Now, that’s a proper introduction to the Teddy R.” He turned to Cole. “I’ll be happy to take you there after we leave the mess hall. I hope you don’t mind sleeping in your space suit for the first couple of months.”

“Spare me your humor and let’s get something to drink.”

“Drink?” repeated Forrice. “You’re not hungry after your trip here?”

“One look at you would take away anyone’s appetite,” said Cole. He turned to Rachel and saluted. “That’ll be all for now, Ensign.”

She returned his salute and began walking down the corridor in the direction they’d been going.

“So how have you been—really?” asked Cole as the Molarian led him to an airlift.

“Very well. They let me keep my rank.” He looked at Cole’s insignia. “I see they took yours away.”

“Twice.” They stepped out of the airlift and found themselves facing the officers’ mess. There were two human officers and a Molarian, all sitting at separate tables. Cole and Forrice found a table in the corner, seated themselves, and spoke their orders into the table’s computer.

“You still drink coffee,” noted Forrice.

“And you still drink the blood of Englishmen.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Forget it,” said Cole. “How’s the food here?”

“For me, fine. For you, who knows?”

“Okay, let’s get down to business. Has the Teddy R seen any action?”

“Maybe seventy or eighty years ago,” replied Forrice. “You’ve seen it. If it had knees and it was attacked, it’d get down on them and beg for mercy.”

“Seriously, can it defend itself if it’s attacked?”

“Let’s hope we never have to find out.”

“What about the crew?”

“They’re like us.”

“Like us?” asked Cole.

“Most of them have . . . histories.” Forrice lowered his voice. “They’re so bored or bitter that a third of them are on drugs at any given moment—and since it was authority that got them busted and sent to the Teddy R, they’re resentful of just about every form of authority.”

“That sounds like a lot of drugs. Where are they getting them?”

“I suppose a lot were smuggled onboard over the last two years,” answered Forrice. “Also, on most ships people want to get out of the infirmary. On the Teddy R, they make a habit of breaking into it.”

“So we’re patrolling an area that nobody wants with a crew nobody wants in a ship nobody should want,” said Cole. “There seems to be a certain mathematical purity to that.”

“Optimist,” said Forrice.

“Damn, I’ve missed you, Four Eyes!” said Cole. “Molarians may be the ugliest things God made, but you’re the only race that thinks like we do.”

“He created us after He’d gotten all His mistakes out of His system on Men.”

“What other races have we got onboard? The captain mentioned a Polonoi.”

“Yes, we’ve got a handful of Polonoi, plus a few Mollutei, some Bedalians, and we’ve even got a Tolobite.”

“A Tolobite?” repeated Cole. “What the hell is it? I never heard of it.”

“We didn’t know they existed until fifty years ago. Wait’ll you see it. It lives in symbiosis with a nonsentient little creature.”

“I’ve seen symbiotes before,” said Cole, unimpressed.

“Not like this one,” Forrice assured him. “And we’ve got a Bdxeni, though of course we almost never see him.”

“Every damned Republic ship’s got a Bdxeni these days. They never sleep, so they make ideal pilots. I assume that’s what our Bdxeni’s doing?”

“Yes,” answered Forrice. “They’ve got him wired into the navigational computer. I mean that literally—there are cables going from his head to the computer, or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t know if he reads its mind or it reads his, but the ship goes wherever he wants it to go, so I guess it all works out.”

“Tell me about the Captain,” said Cole. “What’s he like?”

“Mount Fuji?” said Forrice. “Very competent, very proper. And very unhappy.”

“Unhappy?”

“Terminally depressed is a more accurate way of putting it.”

“Why?” asked Cole. “He’s still got a ship to command.”

“He’s lost three sons and a daughter in the war. And his youngest just enlisted last month.”

“He told me he killed a bunch of officers. Can you tell me anything about it?”

“Just rumors. As far as I’m concerned, most officers probably deserve killing. Present company excepted, of course. Why are you smiling?”

“I know you guys think like humans,” said Cole. “But I’m still impressed at how fast you pick up human speech patterns.”

“What do you expect? Terran is the official language of the Republic. If we’re going to serve with you, we have to learn the language.”

“Everyone learns it, or at least uses a T-pack to translate. But only the Molarians seem to have appropriated it.”

“Just clever, I guess,” said Forrice.

The top of the table slid to a side, revealing their drinks. Cole picked his up and held it forward.

“Here’s to a long, dull, peaceful tour of duty.”

But of course, he was just an officer, not a prognosticator.

2

Forrice showed Cole the four armored shuttles that were bonded to the hull, then took him up to Security, where a small wiry woman was seated at a desk, studying a series of holographic screens that floated in the air just above it. The moment she saw them she uttered a low command and the screens vanished.

“Wilson Cole, meet Sharon Blacksmith,” said Forrice. “Colonel Blacksmith is our Chief of Security.”

“And I know who you are,” she said, getting to her feet. “Your reputation precedes you, Commander Cole.”

“Just Wilson will do,” said Cole.

“Fine. And unless Mount Fuji or Podok are around, I’m Sharon.”

“Colonel Blacksmith is atypical of the Teddy R in that she actually knows what she’s doing and is damned good at it,” said Forrice.

She stared at Cole. “You’re a little smaller than I expected.”

“Bullshit,” he responded.

“Wilson!” said Forrice, surprised.

“You’ve run a couple of background checks on me, and you were almost certainly the one who programmed my statistics into the security system. If I was half an inch taller or shorter than you expected, five pounds heavier or lighter, every fucking alarm in the ship would have gone off.” He paused and smiled at her. “Did I pass the test?”

“With flying colors,” she said, returning his smile. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“Not at all. It’s nice to know we have a competent Security Chief onboard. Now let me ask you a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“As far as I can tell, the Teddy R hasn’t touched down on any planet in more than half a year. I’m only the fifth replacement to come aboard since then. So my question is: What do you do with your time?”

“It’s a reasonable question,” replied Sharon. “I monitor all transmissions, I keep all sensitive areas under surveillance, I try to cut down on the intraship drug trafficking, I make sure that the crew isn’t killing each other—they’ve tried, from time to time—and I make sure that the Officer on Deck performs hourly scans of our immediate vicinity.”

“I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a Teroni ship within parsecs of us,” said Cole.

“We hope not, but their fleet isn’t the only danger. Seventeen ships have been sabotaged in the past year. Six had entirely human crews, three more were close to eighty percent nonhuman, and one had no humans at all. That means someone has gotten to both human and nonhuman members of the Navy. I don’t know what kind of inducement it would take to get someone to blow himself up with his ship, but there’s no question that it’s been done—and it’s my job to see to it that it’s not done here.”

“Seventeen? I’d heard about two or three, but I hadn’t realized that there were that many.”

“It’s not something the Navy brags about.”

“So they keep it quiet, thereby guaranteeing that people who might see something suspicious don’t recognize it as such.”

“I like you, Commander Cole,” she said.

“Wilson,” he corrected her.

She reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a silver flask. “Want a drink?” she said.

“What’s the penalty for drinking on duty?”

“It depends whether Security knows about it or not.”

“Then I’ll have one,” he said, accepting the flask, opening it, and taking a swallow. He turned to Forrice. “I’d offer some to you, but you’d probably bathe in the booze and eat the container.”

“The next time a Teroni offers a reward for your head, I’m going to have to seriously consider it,” said Forrice.

“I really shouldn’t tell you this,” said Sharon, “but Forrice has practically been jumping out of his skin since we learned you were being transferred here. He’ll probably never say anything nice about you while you’re listening, but he’s filled me in on your various exploits.”

“I think the Navy would label them misadventures,” said Cole wryly.

“The crew of the Teddy R knows better,” she said. “You’ve become a kind of legend.”

“Don’t embarrass me during my first day on the job,” said Cole uncomfortably.

“All right, then,” said Sharon, taking the flask back. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact there is. What’s the total complement of the crew?”

“Thirty-seven Men, five Polonoi, four Molarians, a Tolobite, a Morovite, a Bedalian, and a Bdxeni.”

He shook his head. “Stupid.”

“What is?”

“If they’re worried about unhappy crewmen, why the hell did they give us lone members of four races? They’ve got no one to talk to, no shared worldview or experiences.”

“Well, that’s not quite true. The Tolobite’s got its symbiote, and the Bdxeni is working every minute of every day and doesn’t need any distractions.”

“Nevertheless.”

“We’re not responsible for who or what the Navy assigns us,” replied Sharon.

“I didn’t mean to imply that you were stupid,” said Cole. “A policy this dumb has to come from the very top.”

“You were right, Forrice,” she said to the Molarian. “He has qualities. Commander Cole—Wilson—I think we’re going to become great friends.”

“Good,” said Cole. “I can use all the friends I can get.”

“Do you require anything else?”

“I haven’t made my request yet.”

“I thought you wanted to know the crew’s racial breakdown,” she said.

“That was preamble. I want to be able to access everything you have on each crew member. I might as well learn what I can about the Men and aliens I’ll be dealing with.”

“What’s your security clearance?”

He shrugged. “Probably a level or two below where it used to be,” he said.

“I’ll find out, and let you access up to that level,” she said.

“Thanks,” said Cole. “I’ve enjoyed meeting you, but I suppose I should continue with the chef’s tour before I go to work.”

“We’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” said Sharon.

“If I can ask, what’s a competent officer like you doing on a ship like this?”

“That’s such a flattering way of putting it that I won’t disappoint you by answering it.”

“What would you like to see next?” asked Forrice. “The bridge?”

“One bridge looks pretty much like another,” replied Cole. “Let’s look at something else.”

“But you’re going to be spending most of your time there,” said the Molarian.

“The hell I am.” Forrice looked at him curiously. “You’ve got a pilot, you’ve got a gunnery officer, you’ve got an Officer On Deck. I can access whatever they’re seeing or hearing from anywhere on the ship, and issue orders from anywhere. Why should I waste my time looking at viewscreens or at the backs of their heads for hours on end?”

“No wonder you can’t keep a command,” said Sharon. “You make too much sense.”

“All right,” said Forrice. “What would you like me to show you next?”

“What kind of exercise facility has the Teddy R got?”

“A small one, about half for Men and half for the rest of us.”

“Let’s at least pass by it so I’ll know where to find it. Then I’ll want to see the infirmary.”

“Come along, then,” said Forrice.

He walked out into the corridor, led Cole to a different airlift, and ascended a level. They looked in at the exercise room—it was far too small and cramped to be called a gymnasium—and then went to the infirmary.

“Nice,” said Cole, looking at the small operating theater. “More up-to-date than I’d have expected.” He walked through the even smaller recovery room to a room with four beds for humans, a near-invisible partition, and three beds of wildly varying shapes for non¬humans. “Optimistic.”

“Optimistic?” repeated Forrice.

“What if ten crew members get wounded—or if we get a bad batch of food?”

“The Teddy R hasn’t seen enough action for ten crew members to get wounded,” replied the Molarian. “And we’ve never had a good batch of food. I think we’re probably immune by now.”

“How many medics?”

“It’s going to sound like a bad joke,” said Forrice.

“Why am I not surprised?” said Cole. “How many?”

“One—a Bedalian named Tzinto.”

“No human doctor?”

“There was one.”

“And?” prompted Cole.

“He had an attack of . . . of some useless organ only humans have.”

“A burst appendix?”

“That’s it!” said Forrice. “An appendix. He died on the operating table.”

“Thanks. I can’t tell you how much confidence that gives me in this Tzinto.”

“It wasn’t really his fault. His specialty is nonhuman physiology.”

“Have we requested a replacement for the human doctor?” asked Cole.

“Yes, but there’s a war going on,” replied Forrice. “A real war, not a meaningless patrol like we’re on out here. And they can’t spare any more doctors.”

“Fujiama was wrong,” said Cole. “You get decent medical care in a brig.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Nothing,” said Cole. “Okay, I’ve seen enough. Let’s continue the tour.”

“It’s a pretty ordinary ship,” said Forrice. “All that’s left are the weapons sections, a couple of science labs that get almost no use, the crew’s quarters, and the bridge.”

“Take me up and down every corridor of every level,” said Cole. “Even the galley, the storerooms, the public bathrooms, everything. If I’m going to spend a few years aboard this ship, I’d better learn every inch of it.”

“On the first day?”

“You never know. There might be a surprise test.” Cole could see that Forrice didn’t understand his humor, so he shrugged and started off toward the nearest airlift. The Molarian caught and passed him, then indicated that they wanted a different airlift farther down the corridor.

“How the hell many decks can there be?” said Cole. “Don’t all the airlifts lead to the same levels?”

“Yes,” answered Forrice. “But this one is large enough to accommodate a stretcher or an airsled, and we’ve been asked not to use it except in emergencies.”

“How many times has a stretcher or airsled been brought to the infirmary since you’ve been onboard?”

“Four, I think. Possibly five.”

“Out of how many months?” said Cole. “We’ll take this lift.”

“I can’t argue with an officer who outranks me,” said the Molarian pleasantly as he followed Cole into the airlift.

They ascended to the gunnery section, where Cole met the three sergeants—a Man, a Polonoi, and a Molarian—who were in charge of keeping the weapons in working order. He wondered how anyone kept the ranks straight before the services combined and there were five varieties of yeoman, eight of seaman (though it was likely that none of them had ever been to sea), and six of lieutenant. It made much more sense to appropriate sergeants, majors, colonels, and the like.

A brief inspection confirmed his suspicions that the Teddy R would probably be outgunned by just about any Teroni ship it went up against. He actually signed an autograph (to his surprise, it was the Molarian who requested it, not the Man), and then stopped by the science labs. They seemed up-to-date, but they were deserted, both scientists being on their sleep breaks while a bored-looking ensign stood guard.

Forrice then took Cole on a tour of the crew’s quarters, which resembled nothing more than a run-down hotel. He practically expected to encounter the scent of urine in the corridors. The rooms covered three levels, and it was clear that the cubicles on the lowest level had been modified to fit the needs of the nonhuman members of the crew.

“Is your room near here?” asked Cole when he’d finished inspecting the alien level.

“Just down the hall,” answered Forrice.

“Let’s go there for a minute.”

Forrice seemed about to ask him why, then thought better of it and simply led the way. The room boasted a bed built for the Molarian’s body contours, chairs to match, nightmarish holographs on the walls that seemed to delight their owner, and a desk with a pair of computers, one with a Steinmetz/Norton bubble memory, the other a model Cole had never seen before.

“All right, we’re here,” said Forrice. “Now what?”

“Close the door.”

Forrice uttered a command and the door snapped shut.

Cole pulled out his pocket computer and ordered it to make contact with Sharon Blacksmith. Suddenly her image appeared a few inches above the computer, hovering there and staring curiously at him.

“Yes, Commander?” she said.

“There’s an ensign guarding the science labs,” said Cole.

“That’s correct.”

“Why? You’re probably monitoring them round the clock. Has there been a threat against them?”

“No, there has not.”

“Then why isn’t the ensign being put to better use?”

“Commander Cole, we’re four hundred and eighty-three days out of Port Royale in the Quinellus Cluster. It’s been a hundred and thirty-two days since there’s been any sign of enemy activity. We’re in the emptiest sector of the galaxy, we’re carrying a full complement of fifty officers and crew, and it is essential that we maintain discipline. What would you suggest?”

“All right,” said Cole. “I thought it was just a make-work assignment, but I didn’t want it confirmed in public.”

“Thank you for your tact,” she replied. “Of course, if I didn’t know you and Commander Forrice were alone in his quarters, I wouldn’t have answered you.”

“Just how much of a problem is discipline with so little to do?” continued Cole.

“I’m just in charge of Security, and I keep busy,” replied Sharon. “I’d suggest you discuss the matter with the Captain or Commander Podok.”

“I suppose I’ll get around to it,” said Cole, breaking the connection. He turned to Forrice. “What’s going on beside the drug use? Any same-species or even interspecies fraternization?”

“No.”

“There will be,” said Cole. “If I know that it’s a meaningless job and I’ve been onboard for maybe three hours, don’t you think the crew knows it? They probably feel safer here than in their own hometowns—and these aren’t earnest and idealistic young warriors. Fujiama tells me that most of them have caused problems wherever they came from. That implies a certain disregard of discipline under far more dangerous conditions than we’re facing here.”

“It makes sense,” agreed Forrice.

“You don’t seem too concerned.”

“Out here on the Rim it really doesn’t make a bit of difference. The only person who has to stay sane and sober is the pilot, and he’s locked into so many computer circuits I don’t think he could go crazy even if he tried.”

“I can’t tell you how comforting I find that,” said Cole.

“Were you always this cynical?”

“Only since I was old enough to talk. Let’s go see the bridge.”

Forrice ordered the door to open. Then his computer started gently calling his name.

“There’s a message coming in,” he said apologetically.

“No problem,” said Cole. “I’ll find my way.”

“Top level, any airlift. All the corridors lead to it.”

Cole stepped out into the hall, found the nearest airlift, ordered it to ascend, stepped off at the top level, and found himself in a wide corridor. There were a number of closed doors, and he began walking past them until he came to a large open area filled with impressive viewscreens. In a transparent pod attached high on the wall was the Bdxeni pilot, a bullet-shaped being with insectoid features, curled into a fetal position, multifaceted eyes wide open and unblinking, with six shining cables connecting his head to a navigational computer hidden inside the bulkhead.

A human gunnery officer sat at her station, idly watching a series of alien paintings that passed across her computer screen. The Officer on Deck, a tall young man with a shock of black hair, immediately confronted Cole.

“Name and rank, sir?” he said.

“Commander Wilson Cole. I’m the Teddy R’s new Second Officer.”

The man saluted. “Lieutenant Vladimir Sokolov, sir. I’m pleased to meet you, sir.”

“Then relax and stop calling me ‘sir,’” said Cole.

“That would be unwise, sir,” said Sokolov.

“I suppose there’s a reason?”

“The reason will be returning to the bridge any second, sir.”

As Sokolov spoke, a Polonoi female entered the bridge, and Cole was forced to admire, as he had on previous occasions, the engineering that went into her.

The Polonoi were humanoid and bipedal, averaging about five feet in height. Males and females alike were burly and muscular, and were covered with a soft down, top to bottom.

But those were normal Polonoi, like the gunnery sergeant he’d met earlier. Many of the Polonoi in the military, such as Podok, were members of a genetically engineered warrior caste. They boasted orange and purple stripes, not unlike a miscolored tiger, and were more muscular than their normal brethren, able to respond faster physically to any dangerous situation.

What made the warrior caste really unique, observed Cole, was that their eating and breathing orifices, their sexual organs, and all their soft vulnerable surfaces had been engineered onto their backs. They were created to triumph or die; for a warrior Polonoi to turn his back on an enemy was to present that enemy with all his vulnerable spots. The warrior Polonoi’s face possessed large eyes that could see exceptionally well at night and far into the infrared, a speaking orifice, and large ears that were cupped forward and could hear very little that happened behind them.

“Who is this?” said the Polonoi in heavily accented Terran.

“Our new Second Officer, Commanded Podok,” answered Sokolov.

“His name?”

“Commander Wilson Cole,” said Cole.

Podok stared at Cole expressionlessly for a long moment. “I have heard of you, Commander Cole.”

“Nothing too terrible, I hope?”

“You were in the process of being relieved of your command when I heard it.”

“The fortunes of war,” said Cole with what he hoped was a friendly smile.

Podok made no reply.

“Well, Commander Podok,” continued Cole at last, “I look forward to working with you.”

“Do you?” replied Podok.

It was Cole’s turn to stare silently at the Polonoi.

“Have you any business here on the bridge?” asked Podok after almost a minute had passed.

“I’m just acquainting myself with the ship before I take charge during blue shift,” said Cole.

“I file a duty report at the end of white shift,” said Podok. “I will remove Forrice’s clearance and add yours, so that you may access it.”

“I gather nothing’s happened for the past hundred or more days,” said Cole. “Why don’t you just tell me if something changes?”

Podok stared coldly at him. “I file a duty report at the end of white shift,” she repeated. “I will add your clearance so that you may access it.”

“I’m incredibly grateful,” said Cole sardonically.

“Good,” said Podok seriously. “You should be.”

She walked over to a computer console and began to work.

“Come on, sir,” said Sokolov. “I’ll escort you to the airlift.”

Cole nodded and fell into step.

“What do you think of our Commander Podok, sir?” asked Sokolov with a grin when they were out of earshot.

“I think there are worse things than a shooting war,” replied Cole.

3

After word came that his cabin was once again fit for habitation, Cole entered it, found his single piece of luggage sitting on the floor next to his bed, and opened it. There were five uniforms and a civilian outfit, not much to show for eight years in the military. He owned three pairs of shoes, one pair of boots, a week’s worth of socks and shorts, and some toilet items. He was surprised to see that he possessed more hand weapons than uniforms.

After he’d put his gear away, he decided to take a nap and instructed the computer to awaken him ten minutes before white shift ended. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, and he felt more stiff than rested when the computer woke him an hour later.

He made his way to the bridge, decided to wait in the corridor until it was exactly 1600 hours, then walked forward, traded silent salutes with Podok, and watched the Polonoi make her way to the nearest airlift.

“May I have your attention, please?” he said in a loud voice, and the three other occupants of the bridge turned to him. “I’m Wilson Cole, the new Second Officer. I’ll be in charge during blue shift from now on. I’m not much for formality; you can call me Commander, sir, Wilson, or Cole—whatever makes you happy.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “Since we’re going to be working together, I’d like to know your names and duties.”

Before anyone could speak, Rachel Marcos walked onto the bridge, and the Molarian sitting at the gunnery station got up, saluted, and left. Rachel immediately went over and took his place. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “But—”

“No explanations are necessary—today,” said Cole. “If it happens again tomorrow, you’d better have a good one. I know your name. Would you please define your duties for me?”

“All of them?”

“No. Just when you’re stationed on the bridge.”

“I’m the weapons officer, sir,” she replied.

“What does that involve?”

She smiled. “For the past four months, just about nothing, sir.”

“So I gathered.” He turned to the Officer on Deck. “Your name?”

“Lieutenant Christine Mboya, sir.”

“Your duties?”

“They’ve never been clearly defined, sir. I am at the disposal of yourself, the pilot, and the weapons officer, and in the event of undefined disturbances my job is to keep order on the bridge.”

“That’s probably as good a definition as I’ve heard.” Cole looked up at the transparent pod that was attached to the bulkhead. “Pilot, what’s your name?”

“You couldn’t pronounce it,” replied the Bdxeni.

“Doubtless you’re right, but I’d like to know it anyway.”

“Wxakgini, sir.”

“I can come close,” said Cole, “but I think I’ll just call you Pilot.” He turned back to the two human officers. “According to our standing orders, which were given to me before I came aboard, we are in charge of protecting some seventy-three populated Republic worlds on this section of the Rim. Does anyone understand otherwise?”

“No, sir,” they both answered.

“Well, I guess that’s everything. It looks like a long, dull shift. Still, we might as well keep busy.”

The two women looked at him suspiciously. “How, sir?”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I don’t believe in meaningless assignments just to create the illusion that we’re all working. Lieutenant Mboya, to the best of your knowledge are we under radio silence at this time?”

“No, sir, we are not.”

“Then, barring an attack on the bridge that requires your attention, I’d like you to contact headquarters on Deluros VIII and get a list of every world that has joined the Teroni Federation since our last update.”

“The captain ordered that about seven weeks ago, sir.”

“Do it anyway.”

“Is there any particular reason why, sir?”

“Since the sides in this conflict are in constant fluctuation, I think we need a weekly information update. Last week’s friend could be this week’s enemy and vice versa. Have the computer remind you to update the list every week.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Rachel?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Program your weapons to fire a random shot into deep space every twenty to forty hours. Make it a different weapon each time, and a different duration between each shot. If there are any Teroni out there, let’s let them know that we’re here and we’re armed, and maybe they’ll think twice about whatever they’re doing. If not, at least this should encourage them to come after us before they attack any of the planets, which should buy a little time for the populaces to erect whatever defenses they’ve got.”

“Yes, sir,” said Rachel. “It’ll take me about two minutes. Will there be anything else?”

“If there is, I’ll assume Captain Fujiama or First Officer Podok have already thought of it,” said Cole. “I’m going to grab some breakfast. I’ll be back in half an hour.”

“We can have it brought to you here, sir,” said Christine Mboya.

“Why bother?” asked Cole. “Unless you feel the ship is due to malfunction or come under attack in the next few minutes?”

“I’d almost welcome it, sir,” she replied. “It gets so boring here. I would love to see some action.”

“I’ve seen some action, Lieutenant,” said Cole. “Take my word for it: boredom is better.”

“Can you tell us about your experiences, sir?” she asked. “After you get back from the mess hall, that is?”

“There’s not much to tell.”

“Come on, sir,” she urged him. “You’re a hero; everyone onboard knows that.”

“I’m an officer who has twice been relieved of his command. Do they know that, too?”

“I think we’d all like to hear your side of it, sir.”

“Maybe someday,” Cole said vaguely, and left for the mess hall.

As he sat down at an empty table, Forrice, who had been passing by the mess hall, stopped to join him.

“How was your first day at work?” he asked.

“It hasn’t started yet,” answered Cole.

“What’s your impression of the Teddy R?”

“It’s undermanned by at least a third, its weapons are inadequate, the hydroponic gardens need tending, and the crew has fallen into slovenly habits. Other than that, it’s fine.”

“And your opinion of your superiors?”

“Ask me after we’ve been in battle.”

“This ship?” said Forrice. “There won’t be enough of you left to bury, let alone question.”

“You’d be surprised what a competent officer can do with even this ship.”

“Find me a competent officer and we’ll talk,” replied Forrice. “As far as I can tell, every time one gets a command, he’s demoted or tossed in the brig.”

“I ignored a command and you refused one,” said Cole. “We’re each here for a reason.”

“We’re here because the Navy doesn’t like to be proven wrong. You ignored orders and accomplished missions that proved to be of enormous value to the Republic. I refused to kill three spies who I knew to be deep-cover covert agents for the Republic. The Navy’s happy we did what we did, but they certainly don’t want to encourage anyone else to disobey orders.”

“Stop talking about the Navy,” said Cole between mouthfuls of artificial eggs and soya products. “You’re ruining my digestion.”

“I’d tell you dirty jokes, but you wouldn’t understand them.”

“You could just stare at me in worshipful silence, or maybe go find something to do.”

“I’m doing it—helping you get acclimated.”

“My gratitude is boundless.”

“It should be. Everyone else wants to shake your hand or get your autograph. I just want to talk.”

“I’d rather talk to them and give you an autograph.”

“I know when I’m not wanted,” said Forrice.

“Does that mean you’re going to leave and let me finish my meal in peace and silence?” said Cole.

“Of course not,” said the Molarian. “It would make you too happy.”

“Okay—but no dirty Molarian jokes until I’m done with my coffee.” Just then his communicator came to life and told him that the bridge was trying to contact him. “If it’s Podok, demanding that I spend my entire shift up there . . .” He activated the mechanism and Christine Mboya’s image instantly materialized in front of him. “What is it?” he asked irritably.

“I thought I should inform you that a Bortellite ship just touched down on Rapunzel.”

“Rapunzel—the fourth planet of the Bastoigne system? That’s about thirty light-years from here, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t have to tell me about every ship that comes and goes on the Rim, Lieutenant.”

“I’m just following your orders, sir. You told me to update the list of member worlds of the Teroni Federation. Bortel II formally joined them eleven days ago.”

“All right,” said Cole. “Let’s get over to Rapunzel and take a look.”

“That’s out of the question, sir. We’re under orders to maintain our patrol orbit between the McDevitt and the Silverblue systems.”

“I’ll be right there, Lieutenant,” said Cole, breaking the connection. He took a final swallow of his coffee, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and got to his feet.

“Want me to come along?” asked Forrice.

Cole shook his head. “No, this is nothing special. And if leaving our patrol route turns out to be something special after all, why should we both get in trouble?”

He got up, carried his tray and dishes to an atomizer, tossed them in, and walked to an airlift. A moment later he was on the bridge.

“Pilot!” he said in a loud voice.

“Yes, sir?” replied Wxakgini from within his plastic enclosure.

“Break out of your patrol orbit and take us to Rapunzel.”

“Right now, sir?”

“Right now.”

The Bdxeni’s face came as close as it could to a disapproving frown. “That contradicts my standing orders, Mr. Cole.”

“Take a look around and tell me who is the highest-ranking officer on the bridge?”

“You are, sir.”

“Then I suggest that you obey me.”

“Perhaps we should awaken the captain, sir.”

“Are you going to suggest we wake him up every time I give you an order you don’t like, Pilot?”

“No, sir.”

“Then don’t start now.”

There was a brief pause. “Yes, sir.”

Cole turned to Rachel Marcos. “The odds are hundreds to one that there is a reasonable explanation for the Bortellite ship’s presence on a Republic world.” He paused. “Until they’re millions to one, make sure your weapons are activated and ready to fire on my command. When we get within range, lock any five of them onto the ship and await the command of the ranking officer, either me or whoever’s in charge if blue shift is over.”

“Five, sir?”

“I know it’s overkill,” said Cole, “but even these weapons have been known to miss, and you can be sure the Bortellite ship won’t be without its defenses.”

“What I meant, sir, was that I have eighteen long-range weapons at my disposal. Why only five?”

“Because we’re in a state of war, and ships of the Teroni Federation don’t tend to travel alone in enemy territory. In the event of a confrontation, I don’t want either you or the Teddy R’s weapons computer to have to decide which ones to keep trained on the Bortellite ship and which ones to bring to bear on whatever else we’re facing. It’s better to sort these things out now, before there’s a crisis.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything I can do, sir?” asked Christine Mboya.

“You’re on the bridge until the end of blue shift?” asked Cole.

“Yes, sir.”

“Start scanning this section of the Rim and see if the sensors can pick up any other ships that don’t belong to Republic worlds. And Lieutenant . . . ?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thorough is more important than fast. We already know there’s one ship that doesn’t belong here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there a bathroom up here? Human or alien, it makes no difference.”

She gave him an odd look, but pointed toward a door at the end of a short corridor. He thanked her, approached it, entered the small human lavatory, ordered the door to close and lock, and activated his pocket computer, instructing it to contact Sharon Blacksmith.

“You heard every word, I presume?” he said when her image appeared.

“Most of them. I can go back and view the videos and holo recordings if there’s any question.”

“There’s not. We have a ship out there that doesn’t belong in this sector. I know my reputation. As soon as Fujiama or Podok hears we’ve altered course to approach it, they’re going to think I’m some half-baked glory hound and order me to return to the ship’s scheduled route. Until we learn why a Bortellite ship is on a Republic planet, that would be foolhardy in the extreme.”

“I agree,” said Sharon. “But what do you expect me to do about it?”

“Nothing too proactive,” answered Cole. “People who stick their necks out for me tend to find out they’re on a chopping block. All I want you to do is notify me when Fujiama gets out of bed, or if Podok approaches the bridge for any reason.”

“And what are you going to do when I report such activities to you?” asked Sharon. “Take over the ship?”

“Spare me your humor. I’m a Republic officer, subject to their authority.”

“Then I don’t understand.”

“Once you give me the word, I might take a small crew to the shuttle before anyone can order me not to. And if we’re in a shuttle approaching an enemy ship, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to order my crew not to break radio silence.”

“It sounds good, Wilson, but just what the hell do you think a shuttle can do against a fully armed Bortellite ship?”

“Talk to it. Find out why it’s here, if it’s alone, what its plans are. Bluff it if I have to.”

“I hear a lot of ifs.”

“Would you prefer maybes?”

“Do you have to do this your very first day on the job?”

“I’m not the one who ordered the Bortellite ship to go to Rapunzel, and I’m not the one who spotted it,” said Cole. His voice hardened. “But I’m the one who ordered a computer update on our friends and foes, or we wouldn’t know it was an enemy ship. Fujiama should do that every week.”

Sharon sighed. “Okay, Wilson. I’ll let you know when he wakes up.”

Cole broke the connection, then left the bathroom and walked onto the bridge again.

“Pilot, how long before the Bortellite ship is within range of our weaponry?”

“Five hours and seven minutes at maximum speed, sir,” said the Pilot.

“Rachel, will you need any help with the weapons?”

“I don’t know, sir. I don’t think so.”

“Lieutenant Mboya?”

“Yes, sir?”

“If Ensign Marcos requests the presence of any gunnery personnel, they are permitted to come onto the bridge. Beyond that, this bridge is now closed to all personnel below the rank of commander. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

He raised Security on the ship’s computer.

“Hi, Sharon. It’s me again. The three gunnery sergeants I met earlier when I was inspecting the ship—are they just the white-shift sergeants, or are they all we’ve got?”

“Since the last rotation, they’re three of the four that we’ve got,” replied Sharon Blacksmith.

“Is the fourth on red or blue shift?”

“Let me check. . . . He’s on red.”

“So there’s no one there now?”

“That’s right.”

“Check on the four. If any two are awake, have them report for duty. If three or four are asleep, wake them at random. I want two of them down there in an hour’s time, and I want two on the red shift. One of the blue shifters will take white shift. Do we have a personnel officer?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Then I’m appointing you temporary Personnel Officer,” said Cole. “Find two qualified crew members and transfer them to gunnery duties.”

“From where?”

“From any duty that won’t be vital if that Bortellite ship has entered the Rim with what we call bad intentions.”

“You understand that either Mount Fuji or Podok is going to cancel your orders the moment they’re made aware of them, don’t you?”

“Then let’s see if we can find out just how bad its intentions are before the end of blue shift,” said Cole. “It’s always possible they were headed there before Bortel II joined the Teroni Federation. It’s possible that it’s simply an unarmed merchant ship. But it’s also possible that it’s here to cause trouble—and if it is, let’s encourage it to take a shot at us before my orders can be countermanded.”

“I still like you, Wilson,” said Sharon, “but I wouldn’t want to bet the family jewels that you’ll still have your commission tomorrow.”

“Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll bust me all the way down to civilian,” said Cole with a smile. “But in the meantime, though it’s easy to forget it out here, we’re at war, and these guys have just joined the other side.”

He broke the connection, then walked over and stood beneath the Bdxeni’s pod.

“Pilot,” he said, “if this Bortellite ship should prove hostile, how quickly can our ship respond to your orders for evasive maneuvers?”

“With the speed of thought, sir,” replied the Bdxeni.

“You’re sure?” persisted Cole. “If there’s any lag time at all, I can contact them from a safe distance, maybe try a bluff or two.”

“There will be no lag time,” Wxakgini assured him. “Newer ships may be more responsive, but the problem will not be with the transmission and reception of commands.”

“All right,” said Cole. “If I order you to take evasive action, I want that order carried out instantly—but under no circumstance, even if we are fired upon, do I want you to anticipate my order. Is that clear?”

“My first duty is not to any officer, but to the ship,” responded Wxakgini.

“This ship has screens and shields and half a dozen other defenses against attack,” said Cole. “They may not be as efficient as those the newer ships possess, but we’re not looking at an enemy fleet here. We can handle anything the Bortellite ship can throw at us for at least ninety seconds, probably longer.”

“Agreed. I will not respond without orders until I feel my defenses weakening.”

“Your defenses?”

“When I am connected to the computer, it is very difficult to separate the ship from myself,” said the Bdxeni. “I am sorry if my answer was confusing.”

They raced across the edge of the Rim for the next few hours, quietly preparing for whatever awaited them. Cole checked every hour to make sure Fujiama and Podok were still asleep, made a trip to the gunnery area to confirm that the weapons were operative, stopped by the mess hall for more coffee, and spent the rest of his time studying computer simulations of the various merchant, passenger, and military ships of Bortel II.

Finally the pilot informed Cole that they were within firing range.

Cole walked over to Rachel. “Get ready, just in case,” he said. Then, to Wxakgini: “Is the ship still on the ground?”

“Yes.”

“Can you get me an image of it?”

“From this distance? No, sir, I can’t.”

“How soon can you?”

“Another six or seven minutes, sir.”

“Will it be light enough?”

“The planet has a twenty-two-hour rotation period, sir. The ship will be in daylight for six more hours.”

“Throw it up on every screen on the bridge as soon as you can.”

“Yes, sir.”

Five minutes later Cole’s pocket computer informed him that he had a written message waiting for him.

“Written?” repeated Cole, frowning.

“That is correct,” responded the computer.

“Let me see it.”

Small lines of type appeared in the air and vanished as quickly as Cole read them:

I figure you don’t want to share this little tidbit until you have to, so I’m writing it. Fujiama is awake. He’s in the bathroom now, taking a shower. It’ll probably be five minutes before he finishes, dries himself, and comes back into his room. Give him another minute or two to dress, and then he’s going to request his daily briefing. I’m going to have to tell him that we’re twenty-eight light-years from where we’re supposed to be, and closing in on a potential enemy. He’s got enough other sources so that even if I lied, he’d know the truth half a minute later. So unless you think he’s going to back you up, you’ve got maybe six or seven minutes to do whatever you’re going to do. - Sharon

Cole deactivated his pocket computer and turned back to the pilot. “How about that image?” he demanded.

“It’s coming through now, sir,” replied the Bdxeni.

Suddenly the image of a sleek golden ship appeared on every screen.

“That’s no merchant ship,” said Cole. “It’s one of their newer warships, with a crew of three hundred and weaponry that makes ours look like so many slingshots.” He checked the chronometer on one of the screens. He had at most five minutes before Fujiama learned what had happened and where they were, and probably another thirty seconds before the captain took over command. Fujiama would take one look at the golden ship, realize that the Teddy R was no match for it, and retreat to his original position while sending a message to headquarters requesting help that would never come, because the Republic’s military was stretched too thin already. There was only one way to ascertain the intentions of the Bortellite ship and crew without endangering the Teddy R, and Cole, aware of his constricting time frame, acted promptly.

“Pilot, shear away as gently as you can and take up a holding pattern. Ensign Marcos, remain at your station until relieved. Lieutenant Mboya, come with me on the double.”

He walked swiftly to the airlift. Even before he reached it he was in contact with Forrice.

“What is it?” asked the Molarian.

“Is there protective gear on the shuttles? And weapons?”

“Yes.”

“Meet us down there,” said Cole. “You’ve got ninety seconds.”

Cole and Mboya got off at the shuttle level and ran to the closest one. Forrice, coming from a different airlift, arrived a few seconds later.

“What’s going on?” demanded the Molarian.

“Later,” said Cole, entering the craft. “Break the bond holding us to the ship and get us the hell away from here.” He turned to Mboya. “Lieutenant, deactivate the radio. Pull a chip or a bubble, snip a wire, do something that we can repair later but that will let me truthfully say that I could neither send nor receive prior to reaching Rapunzel.”

She fell to work instantly, and seconds later the shuttle pulled away from the Teddy R.

“Head toward Rapunzel,” Cole ordered the Molarian.

“Do you want me to land the Kermit in any particular place?” asked Forrice.

“What the hell’s the Kermit?” asked Cole.

“We’re in it,” interjected Christine, triumphantly holding up a fuse from the subspace radio. “The shuttles are named after four of Theodore Roosevelt’s children—Kermit, Archie, Quentin, and Alice.”

“Fine,” said Cole distractedly. “Locate the Bortellite ship and request permission to land at the same location. They’re a Republic world, we’re a military vessel, there shouldn’t be any problem.”

“He can’t request anything,” said Christine, holding up the fuse. “Remember?”

“Shit!” said Cole. “We can’t land without coordinates. All right, Lieutenant—put the fuse back when we’re ready to enter the Bastoigne system.”

“Then what?” said Forrice.

“Then hope the Teddy R doesn’t blow us out of the ether before we land, and that the Bortellites don’t kill us before we take off again.”

Starship: Mutiny © Mike Resnick

1 comment:

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