Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter X

Chapter IX

Having left Alpha Centauri far enough behind, Rover phased into hyperspace and commenced the long haul. “We’ll go about four and a half light-years, emerge, and see what our instruments can tell us at that distance,” Saxtorph had decided. “When we’ve got a proper fix on the whatchamacallit, we’ll approach by short jumps, taking new observations after each one.”

“Jamais I’audace,” Dorcas had laughed.

“Huh? Oh. Oh, yah. Caution. Finagle knows what we’re letting ourselves in for, but I’ll bet my favorite meerschaum that Murphy will take a strong interest in the proceedings.”

In the galley, on the second day under quantum drive, Ryan exclaimed, “Hey, you really are handy with the tools.”

Tyra trimmed the last creamfruit and dropped it in a bowl. “One learns,” she said. “I am not a bad cook, either. Maybe sometime you will let me make us a meal.”

“M-m, you cook for yourself a lot?”

She nodded. “Eating out alone very much is depressing. Also, some of the places I have been, nobody but a local person or a berserker would go into a restaurant. Or else it is machines programmed for the same menus that bore me everywhere in known space.”

“Adventurous sort. Well, sure, I’d be glad to take a chance on you, if you’d like to try being more than the bull cook.” Ryan cocked his head and ran his glance up, down, and sideways across her. “For which job, strictly speaking, you lack certain qualifications anyway. Not that I object, mind you.”

The blue eyes blinked. “What?” Now and then an English idiom eluded her.

“Never mind. For the moment. Uh, you are quite sweet, helping out like this. You aren’t obliged to, you know, our paying passenger.”

“What should I do, sit yawning at a screen? I wish I could find more to keep me busy.”

“I’d be delighted to see to that, after hours,” he proposed.

She colored slightly, but her tone stayed calm and her smile amicable. “I suspect Pilot Fenger would complain. It could be safer to offend a keg of detonite.”

“You’ve noticed, have you?” he replied, unembarrassed. “I guess in your line of work you develop a Sherlock Holmes kind of talent. Well, yes, Carita and I do have a thing going. Have had for years. But it’s just friendly, no pledges, no claims. She’s not possessive or jealous or anything.” He edged closer. “This evenwatch after dinner? Your cabin or mine, whichever you prefer. I’ll bring a bottle of pineapple wine, which I’s‘pose you’ve never had. Good stuff, dry, trust me. We’ll talk and get better acquainted. I’d love to hear about your travels.”

“No, thank you,” she said, still good-humored. “Entanglements, innocent or not, on an expedition like this, they are unwise, don’t you agree? And I have… private things to think about when I am by myself.” She clapped him on the shoulder. “Tomorrow, besides the galley, can I assist in other of your duties?”

Since his hopes had not been especially high, tlicy were not dashed. He beamed “ ‘Auwe no ho’i e!” By all manner of means.“

Tyra left him and went down a corridor. The ship throbbed around her, an underlying susurrus of ventilators, mechanisms, power. Dorcas came the opposite way. They halted. “How do you do,” the mate greeted. Her expression was reserved.

“Hallo,” Tyra responded. “Are you in a hurry?”

Dorcas unbent to the extent of a lopsided grin. “In space we have time to burn, or else bare microseconds. What can I do for you?”

“You were so busy earlier, you and Robert, there was no opportunity to ask. A minute here, please. I want to be useful aboard. Kam lets me help him, but that takes two or three hours a daycycle at most. Can I do anything else?”

Dorcas frowned. “I can’t think of anything. Most of our work is highly skilled.”

“I could maybe learn a little, if somebody will teach me. I do have some space experience.”

“That will be up to the somebody, subject to the captain’s okay. We have an ample supply of books, music, shows, games.”

“I brought my own. Finally, I thought, I shall read War and Peace. But well, thank you. Don’t worry, I will be all right.”

“Feel free. But do not interfere.” Dorcas stared un-blinkingly into Tyra’s gaze. “You understand, I’m sure.”

“Of course. I will try to annoy nobody. Thank you.” They parted.

Those on mass detector watch didn’t count, unless something registered in the globe. Then anyone else got out of the chamber fast. Tyra found Carita seated there, smoking a cigar the air was blue and acrid while she played go with the computer. “Well, hi!” the Jinxian cried. Teeth flashed startling white in her midnight visage. “On free orbit, are you? C’mon in.”

“I thought you might care to talk,” said the Wunder-lander, shyer than erstwhile. “But it is not needful.”

“Oh, Lord, for me it’s a breath of fresh beer. Dullest chore in the galaxy, this side of listening to an Ecotheist preacher. And the damn machine always beats me. Hey, don’t look near that unshuttered port. We’d have to screw your eyeballs back in and hang your brain out to dry.”

“I know about hyperspace.” Tyra flowed into the second chair.

“Yes, you have knocked around a fair amount, haven’t you?”

“Part of my work.”

“I globbed a disc of yours before we left. Put it through the translator and read it yesterday. In English, Astrids Purple Submarine.”

“That is for children.”

“What of it? Fun. When I got to the part where the teddy bear has to sit on the safety valve of the steam telephone, I laughed my molars loose. I’ll keep the book for whatever kids I may eventually have.”

“Thank you.” A silence fell.

Carita blew a smoke ring and said softly, “You’re a cheerful one, aren’t you? That takes grit, in a situation like yours. Because you’ve never put aside what happened to your parents, have you? I imagine you always dreamed of going out on your father’s trail.”

Tyra shrugged. “The tragedy is in the past. Whatever comes of it is in the future. Meanwhile, he would be the last person who wanted me to mope.”

“And you’ve more life in you than most. Yank me down if I pry, but I can’t help wondering why you’ve never married.”

“Oh, I did. Twice.”

Carita waited.

Tyra glanced past her. “I may as well tell you. We shall be shipmates for a time that may grow long and a little dangerous. I married first soon after the liberation. It was a mistake. He was born in space, he had spent his life as a Resistance fighter. I was young and, and impulsive and worshipped him for a hero.” She sighed. “He was, is not a bad man. But he wua Inn much used to violence and to being obeyed.”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t take kindly to that.”

“No. My second husband was several years later. An engineer, who had traveled and done great things in space before he settled on Wunderland. A good man, he, strong, gentle. But I found we discovered together, time by time, that he no longer cared to explore things. He was content with what he had, with his routines. I grew restless until there was someone else. That ended, but by then it had broken the marriage.” Tyra sighed. “Poor Jonas. He deserved better. But he was not too sad. I was his third wife. He is now happy with his fourth.”

“So you’ve had other fellows in between and afterward.”

“Well, yes.” Tyra flushed. “Not many. I do not hunt them.”

“No, no, I never said you do. Besides, I’d look silly perched on a moralistic fence. Still,” Carita murmured, “older men generally, eh?”

“Do you care for puppies?” Tyra snapped.

“I’m sorry. I mean well, but Kam says that for me ‘tact’ is a four-letter word. ‘Fraid he’s right. Uh, you here after anything in particular, or just to chat? You’re welcome either way.”

Tyra relaxed somewhat. “Both. I would like to know you folk better.”

Carita grinned. “To put us in a book?”

Tyra smiled back. “If you permit. This journey will become big news when we return. I think I can tell it in such a way that your privacy is protected but it gives you publicity that will help your business.”

“Which could sure use help. Don’t feel guilty about any risks. You’re paying, and we went in with our eyes wide open, radiating the light of pure greed.” Carita paused. “Yes, I guess you are the right writer for us.”

“I want more to know you as, as human beings.”

“And we to know you. Okay. We’ve got a couple weeks ahead of us before the trip gets interesting, except for whatever we can stir up amongst ourselves. What else is on your agenda today?”

“I would liefer have a part in this ship than be idle and passive. You know I help Kam. M-m, do you mind?”

“Finagle, no!” Carita chortled. “Why should I? No claims. I warn you, he’ll try to get you in his bunk. Or is that a warning? He’s pretty good.”

“Thank you, but I shall… respect your territory.” Tyra hastened onward. “The thought came to me, another thing I might help with. This watch you are keeping. It demands very little, no?”

“If only it did demand. Hours and hours of nothing. And till we replace Juan Yoshü, the spells are longer than ever.” Carita’s cigar jabbed air. “You’re volunteering? I wish you could. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy as it appears.”

“I know. I did research for a script, a while ago, and remember. In the unlikely event that the detector registers a significant mass, die person must know exactly what to do, and do it at once. But the list of actions that may be required is short and rather simple. Give me instructions and some simulator practice, and I believe I could pass any test.” Tyra smiled again. “I would want you should be satisfied first I can handle the job. This ship carries something precious, namely me.”

Thick hand tugged heavy chin. “It tempts, it tempts… But no. I learned how. That doesn’t mean I’m qualified to teach how. Same for Kam. You see, the academies require that an instructor have experience of command. They’re right. This is a psionic dingus. The trainee needs close exposure to a personality who knows how everything aboard a ship bleshes together.” Carita brightened. “Ask Bob or Dorcas. Either of them could. And hoo-ha, do I want them to!”

“Thank you, I will.” Tyra’s voice vibrated.

“Fine. But let’s get sociable, okay? For me right now, that’s a big service. Care for a seegar? I thought not. Well, here’s a box of Kam’s excellent cookies.”

Reminiscences wandered. Inevitably they led to the present enterprise, the wish that drove it. By then the women felt enough at ease that Carita could murmur, “Every girl’s first sweetheart is her daddy, but you were only eight when you lost yours. And nevertheless He must have been one hell of a man.”

“He was,” Tyra answered as low. “I dare to hope he is.”

A while later, she left. Bound for the cubicle known as her stateroom, this time she encountered Saxtorph. He waved expansively at her. She stopped. He did too. “Anything you want, Tyra?” he inquired.

She met his look. “Robert, will you teach me to stand mass detector watch?”

Previous: Chapter VIII
Next: Chapter X