Thursday, February 1, 2035, 2336 hours
Jack studied his console and nodded wearily to Joe to his right. "Check."
"Check ..." his brother muttered from the copilot seat, the window by his head blazing with jagged, multicolored streaks of light. "Drive pressure indicator?"
"Check ..." said Joe. "Okay, thatís it for this list." He clicked his USSF Comm and squinted at the next page, face slack and ashen, mirroring Jackís own exhaustion. "Great--we donít have to check this page until the Eight Minute Check."
"Good, so weíre done with Six. We can use the break." Jack spoke into the intercom: "Connors--weíll be out of Star Drive in eight minutes forty seconds. Be ready to pick up our position."
"Roger," came Will Connorsí reply over the intercom. "NAV4 Clusterís set to go the instant weíre out of Drive. All preliminary programs--check."
"Check ..." Jack sighed.
"Check," Joe said automatically.
"Damn ..." Jack punched the intercom again. "All stations--status check."
"Jack, they just reported in a half minute ago."
"I just want to make sure." Jack scanned up his own USSF Comm. "We need to be ready when Eight comes up."
"No, I think youíre just too burned out to know what youíre doing anymore, and you canít keep still," Joe said. He lay down his Comm and closed his eyes. "Me, Iím gonna sit back and enjoy my minute and a half break."
"Radio and radar--all clear, everything okay!" came the voice of Patrick James over the intercom.
"Check ..." Jack sighed. He shut his eyes too. He considered turning down the harsh yellow glare of the Control Room lights, but he knew the chaotic stream of starlight outside, jerking in thousands of colors, would make his headache worse. He drifted--and was awakened by:
"Navigation! This is Connors! Everything ready like I just said a second ago!"
"Borman here. Dorsal turret--perfect."
"Idiot ..." Jack snorted. Theyíd all been on board the Typhoon II for almost twenty hours, and every time Jack had spoken to Borman, the gunner said every instrument in his turret was "perfect." People who thought that everything was perfect were asking for trouble.
"Ventral turret ... engineering ... office of the shipís doctor ... and chief librarian ... all check out," came Phil Sperryís drawl from the rear of the ship. Jack could picture Sperry upside down in his turret a few feet from the Star Drive Reactor in his reverse gravity field. "Yep ... itís all--perfect, Admiral ..."
"Check ..." Jack grinned. To his right, his brother appeared to be asleep.
"Pod," came the deep female voice from the intercom. "Everything checks out here, Jack. The Martians have calmed down, but not as much as Iíd hoped. I thought the freak-out would pass once theyíd had a few minutes of the Drive, but Dar says itís wrecking their Thought Fields."
"Well, nothing I can do about it now," Jack snapped. "Tell íem to hold on." He regretted overriding Amavís suggestion that each Martian be strapped down inside his own quarters. Instead heíd listened to Dar, whoíd thought it best if the Martians could sit quietly and meditate in the central recreation room of the saucer-shaped Pod slung beneath the Typhoon. All had gone well until the first seconds of Star Drive, when the Martians had started shrieking, ripping up pillows, and lunging for each other and Amav. Sheíd exhausted forty tranquilizer darts before Dar, Kner, and Fulr had shown the least sign of settling down. For the last five minutes sheíd been alternately counseling them, babying them, and firing tranquilizer darts into their chests.
Jack shifted uneasily and checked his watch. Thirty seconds to go before the Eight Minute Check. He didnít like the idea of a Pod attached to his sleek ship in the first place. It was like carting around a fashionable Marsport condominium, with its huge central recreation room, sixteen personal compartments for use by the three Martians and seven humans on the flight, as well as negotiation rooms where, everyone hoped, treaties would be hammered out with the Alpha Centaurians. The saucer had a kitchen, food to last several months, showers, exercise machines--and sixty-four Xon bombs in the lower compartment. These, added to the normal complement of four Xon bombs in the Typhoon IIís nose, along with the powerful pair of PlanetBlasters mounted on the back and belly of the craft, gave Jack the capability of destroying several solar systems in the course of an eight-hour work day--if negotiations failed.
"Jack!" Amav cried. "Iím running out of darts! Do you think you could spare one of the turret men to come help me with the Martians?"
"Negative," Jack shot back. "Listen, Amav, Iím sorry if itís hard down there, but weíre busy up here ourselves."
"Iíll be right over," Sperry called in. His red light came on the Crew Locator Console, indicating that heíd moved from his last assigned position. Jack traced the orange dots moving down to the Pod.
"Dammit, Phil," Jack hissed. With his old-fashioned chivalrousness, Phil had been easy prey for Amavís silly pleadings throughout this project. She needed help with this, she needed help with that. Jack had been trying to wean her away from dependence on the other crewmembers, but Phil kept offering to do her duties. Why was she making such a fuss over three hyper Martians?
"Hey, Jack, itís okay," Phil spoke over the intercom. "Iíll just be gone a second. We sure canít do anything in the turrets during Star Drive anyway. And if those Martians really run amok ..."
"Dammit!" Jack snarled. Sperry had been dropping hints for the last few weeks about how hard Jack had been pushing Amav. Now he was implying Jack wasnít concerned for her safety!
"I swear, Dar, I donít want to shoot any more darts at you!" came the cry from below. "But if I have to, I will!"
"You would shoot darts at me--the Emperor of the Martians?" came the hysterical screech.
"Just--just sit down, Dar, and behave!"
"No! I wonít! I wonít! I absolutely refuse--"
Ka-chuk! Ka-chuk! Ka-chuk!
"Jack, Iíve got Dar on the floor now, but Iím out of darts! And Knerís starting to froth at the mouth again!"
"Címon, Amav, cut the dramatics!" Jack shouted. "Just lock íem in there and get the hell out of--"
"Amav!" Sperry cried. "Whatís going on?"
"I need darts! Thousands of them! These Martians--"
"Listen, thereís a roll of íem in the auxiliary medical locker," Sperry said. "Some force field handcuffsíll come in handy as well."
"Oh, thanks, Phil--we just need to hold them a while longer. Iím afraid theyíll claw each other to death if we leave them alone!"
"Dammit, dammit, dammit!" Jack snapped, slapping at the intercom buttons. "All this useless chatter! Wake up, Joe, for Godís sake, weíve missed the Eight Minute Check!"
"Hey, Jack, cool it. Iíve been awake all this time. Iím starting on Eight right now."
Jack snatched up Joeís USSF Comm. "Aw, come on, Joe, letís cut the crap! Any fool can see everythingís okay! Iíll be damned if Iíll sit here for five minutes checking off these goddamn instruments all over again! Letís just forget this mindless junk!" He mashed the delete button for the checklist and tossed the Comm back at Joe. "Okay?"
"Donít act so superior," Jack fumed.
"Jack, I know weíre all tired. But just remember thatís all it is. So weíve all been up for twenty hours--so what?"
"It was just such poor timing to launch at eleven PM, and only get into Star Drive just now!"
"Well, youíre head of the USSF, brother--why didnít you change the time?"
"Hell ... those damn technicians ... forced me into it ..."
"Címon ..." Joe said.
"And if we hadnít had to do that damn interview at 1900!"
Joe shrugged. "Good publicity, I guess. We were already running so far behind that another hour didnít really hurt."
"The hell with it. Forget the whole stupid thing. I hate Star Drive, Joe, I just hate it! I mean, look at all that crap!" He indicated the jagged streaks of light flashing past.
"Look ... I know what you mean. Iíd rather be seeing blackness and normal stars myself. But itís your first Star Drive, after all--give it time."
"Itís your first Star Drive too!" Jack shot back. "And you say youíre enjoying it?"
"Well ..." Joe shifted in his seat. "I suppose it affects us a little bit like the Martians, but thatís no reason to hate the concept of Star Drive. I mean, itís opened up the galaxy to us, after all."
"Itís opened up the stinking Alpha Centaurian war, you mean. Thatís all itís been good for! Iím sick of it! Star Drive is junk! Who needs it? Weíre not ready for the whole galaxy is what I think!"
"Jack, what in the world is the matter with you?"
Jack shook his head. "Hey, Joe ... sorry. I really donít know ..."
"Itís the Star Drive," Joe said. "Weíre all affected by it. You just need to take it easy. Youíve been worrying yourself sick about this mission for so long ..."
"Well ... maybe ..."
"And youíre probably just a little out of shape for this flight. We all are. We havenít had a real flight in six months. No wonder weíre out of shape."
"Yeah ... maybe thatís a part of it," Jack nodded. Yeah, shuttling the Typhoon II between Earth and Mars, assisting the Martians with their Amplified Thought program for restoring the Earth, didnít count as real flights. In a way Jack had never recovered from the Hergs war eight months ago. Never allowed himself to. The entire crew of the Typhoon I lost. Their two younger brothers dead.
And all along Iíve been thinking Iíve been on top of it all!
"Yeah ..." Jack said. "All the stuff thatís been going on ... like this USSF thing. Maybe thatís been the main thing ..."
"The whole Supreme Commander business?"
Jack nodded. His promotion to Supreme Commander of the United System Space Force four weeks ago had been dismaying--not only to Jack, but to the entire Typhoon crew and in fact thousands of officers whoíd been passed over in favor of Jack. The only way Jack could deal with it was to joke about being "Admiral Commer" and about how much power he had. His decision to remain in command of the Typhoon II and manage the entire USSF bureaucracy via superspace radio during this negotiation mission in Alpha Centauri had further strained his sanity. Jack now held full authority to launch military operations in the name of the United System anywhere in this part of the galaxy, now that Star Drive could theoretically take them to thousands of neighboring stars in minutes. Sure, there was the United System Council that nominally controlled the USSF, but in practice the Council left all military decisions up to the SCUSSF, the Supreme Commander of the USSF. Jack Commer had just become the most powerful human being who ever lived.
"Yeah ... itís all this USSF stuff ... you should see how much paperwork Iíve got in my locker ... I canít believe Scott handed me three dozen notebooks filled with paper!"
"Well, he really never used his USSF Comm for anything but a glorified telephone," Joe grinned. "Yeah--I saw you loading all that crap of his in there ..."
"And this Star Drive business just seems like more bureaucracy, Joe. You donít feel the ship, for Godís sake! You just see these idiotic lights ..."
"Those are stars being distorted by the effects of the Drive."
"I know what they are. Theyíre junk," Jack said. "Thereís no piloting, Joe--just tell Connors to plot a course, and bam, fifteen minutes later weíre in Alpha Centauri!"
"Well, thereíll be time for piloting when we come out of the Drive."
"But thatís also what Iím afraid of. We come out of Drive, and what are we? Thatís right--weíre sitting ducks, going the same speed we were when we engaged the drive--the requisite 4,000 miles per hour. Thatís pitiful. A whole fleet of Centaurians could be on top of us before we get up to speed! If we could do the Drive at one-fifth light, thatíd be one thing. But weíre really running a risk here, Joe, and I donít like it."
Joe turned to his Comm. "Coming up on the Ten Minute Check."
"Forget it," Jack said. "Letís just blow that off, okay? We can see full well we donít need a check."
"Jack, the rules--"
"Forget the rules! I am the rules! Weíve run that check a thousand times today, and itís silly to just do it over and over when we can see exactly whatís going on in this ship from the command console." He waved at his instruments. "Everythingís okay!"
"Everythingís--perfect," Joe mocked.
Jack grimaced. "Okay, okay, I get the point, run the damn list."
"No--I agree itís stupid. But letís do the Fourteen just to make sure, okay?"
"All right--weíll do a Fourteen. I just need to get away from this sense of ... of bureaucracy for a while."
Jack leaned back and watched Joe check his Comm. "And I guess it doesnít help anything to have your wife along on the trip," Joe finally said.
Jack straightened up. "No, that has nothing to do with how Iím feeling."
"Címon, Jack, youíve been all over poor Amav ever since we got on board today. Youíve been at her for weeks now. Everyoneís noticed it."
"Joe, thatís none of your business. Everything between Amav and me is fine. Just--fine."
"Just--perfect," Joe mocked. But his brown eyes were filled with concern.
Jack expelled some air. "Yeah--just perfect," he said. "I guess. I donít suppose youíd want your latest girl friend on board--whatís her name? That Laurel?"
Joeís face darkened. Jack knew that Joe only got to see his current flame every three or four weeks on the New Luna run. Laurel was a colonist on the Earthís new artificial moon, and Jack had never seen Joe as wrapped up in a woman before. Finally Joe said: "Laurelís ... wonderful. But I donít think Iíd want her on board the Typhoon. Weíd just drive each other crazy. I wouldnít want to mix work and pleasure like that."
Jack looked at the floor. When he and Amav had married back in July, this whole mission had seemed like a metaphor for an open, powerful relationship that Jack would never have believed possible. And now? "Well ... you know, Joe--I never told anyone this--because I knew if Scott had found out, he mightíve blocked my promotion. He wouldíve crucified me if heíd found out that the real reason I kept delaying this mission was so Amav could finish up her Ph.D. in December."
Crap, whyíd I admit that? Because we just flipped off some useless system rechecks? Because we havenít really TALKED in months? Didnít you swear never to tell ANYONE about that?
"You mean," Joe said, "that all those delays about the design of the Pod, and how it would interface with the Typhoon, and all those programming updates were ...?"
"Címon, you know all that was worked out by September. We couldíve launched mid-October with no sweat. But Amav couldnít have come. Or she could have, I guess, but God knows when she wouldíve finished her degree." Well, his motives for letting Amav finish her Ph.D. hadnít been entirely selfish. A listing on his shipís roster of "Dr. Amav Frankston-Commer, Planetary Engineer," might look good to the Alpha Centaurians, whoíd seen scores of their agricultural worlds laid waste by USSF starships and might clutch at some expert help in repairing them.
Joe leaned back and scrutinized his brother. "Jack, that ... that is awful," he said. "That ... thatís a sin against the USSF. You should be ashamed of yourself."
"Really? Really?" Jack blurted. "You really think so? But ... but I didnít mean any harm, really ... I mean, if youíd only understand, Joe ..."
"I do understand," Joe said coldly. "I understand that youíve jeopardized the most important negotiation mission in the history of humanity just so wifey could tag along."
"I ... I ..." Jack looked away. Tears welled up. "God, I ... youíre right, Joe. Why ... why donít you place me ... under arrest ..."
But Joe was cackling in his chair, swiveling wildly. "God! You really fell for it! You really fell for it!"
"Fell ... for what?"
"Fell for it! Hell, Jack, do I care why you held up the flight? Does anybody? Did Scott even? Hell, no! Hell, we all knew it would be convenient if the flight was held up till Amav got done! We even thought it would be best if you held it up until after Scott named you SCUSSF! So did Scott, if you really want to know! He told me that if you couldnít start by August, then you should probably wait until you became USSF head in January!"
"Well ... well, God ..." Jack said. "You really think ... no one cares?"
"Of course no one cares! Jack, youíre Supreme Commander! Itís entirely up to you when and if any spaceship in the fleet is launched! Especially your own flagship! The technicians who said theyíd get us the 2300 launch wouldíve easily postponed it a few hours to let us get some sleep! If youíd just ordered them to!"
"Really? You think? Well ... of course they would! You know, Joe, weíve been on the Typhoon project for seven years, and I never flinched once from command ... well, between you and me, once or twice ... but ... I canít understand why this USSF thing is throwing me so much ..."
"Youíre just not used to it all yet. Give it time, and youíll be the best USSF head there ever was or will be. I know it."
"Well ... thanks ..."
"And look, Jack--itís not just the USSF thing. Everyone can see it. Itís Amav. Everyone can tell. The two of you donít belong on the same ship, and you know it."
"Okay, okay ... I guess youíre right ... man ... that damned Pod! She insisted we have that Pod attached to the ship! Itís so ugly!"
"She was responsible for that? I thought the Council Negotiation Committee wanted the Pod."
"Hell, no--she knew the Martians would need a lot of space if we dragged íem along. And she knew sheíd need quarters if we dragged her along. And she kept saying we had to have a regular place for negotiations with the Centaurians. Well, she was right, I guess--at least about those Martians. I means theyírewimps, you know?"
"Jack, really--" Joe said in mock consternation.
"Hell, you know itís true." Of course they all loved their Martian friends. It was just that the Martians were so hypersensitive that it often became impossible to speak a single sentence without somehow offending them. And the rigors of space travel, and especially Star Drive, were tearing up the Martiansí fragile central nervous systems.
"And Amav," Jack said. "I mean--sheís everywhere, Joe. I never escape her. And look at whatís coming up. Sure, itís just a fifteen minute journey to Alpha Centauri, but it could be months of negotiations with the Centaurians. Weíll all be on this ship for months, Joe. Iím so exhausted as it is."
"Itís been a strain for you, Jack. I can see you need a vacation. Youíve been supervising this project and getting the whole USSF bureaucracy in your lap the last few weeks. And I know Amav was on overdrive to finish her degree up the past few months."
"Vacations--" Jack spat. "They just delude you ..."
"Are you kidding?" Joe said. "You told me you had the time of your life in July!"
Jack shrugged. That conversation back in August had been his last serious talk with Joe. For five months the brothers had been bantering and superficial. "Well, I meant it then," he said. "We spent that whole month in Alaska, doing nothing--except making a few plans for solving the whole war in Alpha Centauri in one stroke. And I thought, like, this whole vacation is a vision ... of what life could be like. And then, when we got back to work ..." Jack couldnít bring himself to discuss the mindless arguments, the way Amav manipulated Jack to get her way, the compromises she made to his command. This whole mission definitely had Amavís stamp on it.
SHE designed the whole damn thing, SHEíS running the show! Jack Commer, Supreme Commander--what a farce!
Jack checked his console. "Dammit, Sperryís still not back to his turret!" He checked the schematic of the Typhoon again. "And now Bormanís out of place! Whereís he going? Canít we maintain any discipline here?"