Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Previous: Chapter XIX
Next: Chapter XXI

Chapter XX

Regardless, the homeward voyage began merrily. When you have had your life given back to you, the loss of a treasure trove seems no large matter.

“Besides, a report on Sherrek and her beamcast, plus what we collected ourselves, should be worth a substantial award by itself,” Saxtorph observed. “And then there’s the other one, uh, Swordbeak.” Dorcas had read the name when they flitted across and attached a radio beacon, so that the derelict would be findable. “In a way, actually, more than the black hole could’ve been. Your navy or mine, or the two conjointly they’ll be overjoyed at getting a complete modern kzinti warcraft to dissect.”

“What that artifact, and the phenomenon within, should have meant to science ” Peter Nordbo sighed. “But you are right, complaining is ungrateful.”

“No doubt the authorities will want this part of our story hushed up,” Saxtorph went on. “But we’ll be heroes to them, which is more useful than being it to the public. I expect we’ll slide real easy through the bureaucratic rigmarole. And, as I said, get well paid for it.”

“I thought you were a patriot, Robert.”

“Oh, I’s‘pose I am. But the laborer is worthy of his hire. And I’m a poor man. Can’t afford to work for free.”

They sat in the Saxtorphs’ cabin, the most spacious aboard, talking over a beer. They had done it before. The instant liking they took to one another had grown with acquaintance. The Wunderlander’s English was rusty but improving.

He stroked his beard as he said slowly, “I have thought on that. Hear me, please. My family shall have its honor again, but I disbelieve our lands can be restored. The present owners bought in good faith and have their rights. You shall not pity me. From what I have heard since my rescue, society is changed and the name of Landholder bears small weight. But in simple justice we shall have money for what they stripped from us. After I pay off Tyra’s debt she took for my sake, much will stay with me. What shall I then do? I have my science, yes, but as an amateur. I am too old to become a professional in it. Yet I am too young to… putter. Always my main work was with people. What now can I enjoy?” He smiled. “Well, your business has the chronic problem that it is undercapitalized. The awards will help, but I think not enough. How would you like a partner?”

Saxtorph goggled. “Huh? Why, uh, what do you mean?”

“I would not travel with you, unless once in a while as a passenger for pleasure. I am no spaceman. But it was always my dream, and being in an enterprise like yours, that should come close. Yes, I will go on trips myself, making arrangements for cargoes and charters, improvements and expansions. Being a Landholder taught me about business, and I did it pretty well. Ask my former tenants. Also, the money I put in, that will make the difference to you. Together we can turn this very profitable for all of us.

“You cannot decide at once, nor can I. But today it seems me a fine idea. What do you think?”

“I think it’s a goddamn supernova!” Saxtorph roared.

They talked, more and more excitedly, until the captain glanced at his watch and said, “Hell, I’ve got to go relieve Dorcas at the mass detector. I’ll send her down here and the pair of you can thresh this out further, if you aren’t too tired.”

“Never for her,” Nordbo replied. “She is a wonderful person. You are a lucky man.”

Saxtorph’s eagerness faded. After a moment he mumbled, “I’m sorry. I often bull ahead with you as though you hadn’t… suffered your loss. You don’t speak about it, and I forget. I’m sorry, Peter.”

“Do not be,” Nordbo answered gently. “A sorrow, yes, but during my time alone, assuming I would grow old and die there, I became resigned. To learn I missed my Hulda by less than a year, that is bitter, but I tell myself we had already lost our shared life; and God has left me our two children, both become splendid human beings.”

The daughter, at least, for sure, Saxtorph thought.

Nordbo smiled again. “I still have my son Ib to look forward to meeting. In feet, since Tyra tells me he is in naval intelligence, we shall be close together Robert, what is wrong?”

Saxtorph sat moveless until he shook himself, stood up, tossed off his drink, and rasped: “Something occurred to me. Don’t worry. It may well turn out to be nothing. But, uh, look, we’d better not discuss this partnership notion with Dorcas or anybody right away. Let’s keep it under our hats till our ideas are more definite, okay? Now I really must go spell her.”

Nordbo seemed puzzled, a bit hurt, but replied, “As you wish,” and left the cabin with him. They parted ways in the corridor and Saxtorph proceeded to the detector station.

Dorcas switched off the book she had been screening. “Hey, you look like a bad day in Hell,” she said.

“Out of sorts,” he mumbled. “I’ll recover. Just leave me be.”

“So you don’t want to tell me why.” She rose to face him. Sadness tinged her voice. “You haven’t told me much lately, about anything that matters to you.”

“Nonsense,” he snapped. “We were side by side against the kzinti.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. Well, I won’t plague you. That would be unwise of me, wouldn’t it?” She went out, head high but fingers twisting together.

He took the chair that was not warm after her, stuffed his pipe, and smoked furiously.

A light footfall raised him from his brooding. Tyra entered. As usual, her countenance brightened to see him. “Hi,” she greeted, an Americanism acquired in their conversations. “Care you for some company?” as if she had never before joined him here for hours on end, or he her when she had the duty. “Remember, you promised to tell me about your adventure on ” She halted. Her tone flattened. “Something is woeful.”

“I hope not,” he said. “I hope I’m mistaken.”

She seated herself. “If I can help or console, Robert, only ask. Or if you wish not to share the trouble, tell me I should hold my mouth.”

She knows how to be silent, he thought. We’ve passed happy times with not a word, listening to music or looking at some work of art or simply near each other.

“You’re right,” he said. “I can’t talk about it till till I must. With luck, I’ll never have to.”

The blue eyes searched him. “It concerns you and me, no?” How grave and quiet she had become.

Alarmed, he countered, “Did I say that?”

“I feel it. We are dear friends. At least, you are for me.”

“And you ” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I believe you are torn.”

“Wait a minute.”

She leaned forward and took his free hand between hers. “Because you are a good man, an honest man,” she said. “You keep your promises.” She paused. “But ”

“Let’s change the subject, shall we?” he interrupted.

“Are you afraid? Yes, you are. Afraid of to give pain.”

“Stop,” he barked. “No more of this. You hear me?” He pulled his hand away.

An implacable calm was upon her. “As you wish, my dear. For the rest of the journey. You have right. Anything else is indecent, among all of us. But in some more days we are at Wunderland.”

“Yes,” he said, thickly and foolishly.

“You will be there a length of time.”

“Busy.”

“Not always. You know that. We will make decisions. It may take long, but at last we must. About the rest of our lives.”

“Maybe.”

“Quite certainly.” She rose. “I think best I go now. You should be alone with your heart for this while.”

He stared at the deck. “You’re probably right.”

Steadiness failed her a little. “Robert, whatever happens, whatsoever, you are dear to me.” Her footfalls dwindled off into silence.

A squat black form stood at a distance down the passage, like a barricade. “Hallo,” said Tyra dully.

Carita fell into step with her. “That was a short visit.”

Tyra bridled. “You watched?”

“I noticed. Couldn’t help it. Can’t, day after day. A kdat would see. I want a word with you.”

Tyra flushed. “Please to be polite.”

“We’re overdue for a talk,” the Jinxian insisted. “This is a loose hour for both of us. Will you come along?” Although tone and gait were unthreatening, the hint lay beneath them that if necessary, she might pick the other woman up and carry her.

“Very well,” Tyra clipped. They walked on mute to the pilot’s cabin and inside.

Carita shut the door. Eyes met and held fast. “What do you want?” Tyra demanded.

“You know perfectly well what,” Carita stated. “You and the skipper.”

“We are friends! Nothing more!”

“No privacy aboard ship for anything else, if you’re civilized. Sure, you’ve kept out of the sack. A few kisses, maybe, but reasonably chaste, like in a flirtation. Only that’s not what it is any longer. You’re waiting till we get to Wunderland.”

Tyra lifted her arm as if to strike, then let it fall. “Do you call Robert a schleicher a, a sneak?” she blazed.

Carita’s manner mildened. “Absolutely not. Nor you. This is simply a thing that’s happened. Neither of you would’ve wanted it, and you didn’t see it coming till too late. I believe you’re as bewildered, half joyful and half miserable, as he is.”

Tyra dropped her gaze. She clenched fists against breasts. “It is difficult,” she whispered.

“True, you being an honorable person.”

Tyra rallied. “It is our lives. His and mine.”

“Dorcas saved your father’s,” Carita answered. “Later she saved all of us. Yes, Bob was there, but you know damn well he couldn’t have done what he did without her. How do you propose to repay that? Money doesn’t count, you know.”

“Ich kann nicht anders!” Tyra cried. “He and I, we are caught.”

“You are free adults,” Carita said. “You’re trapped in nothing but yourselves. Tyra, you’re smart, gifted, beautiful, and soon you’ll be rich. You’ve got every prospect bright ahead of you. What we’ve got is a good marriage and a happy ship. Bob will come back to her, if you let him go.”

“Will he? How can I? Shall I leave him hurt forever?”

Carita smiled. She reached to lay an arm around the taller woman’s shoulders. “I had a hunch that’d be what makes you feel so helpless. Sit down, honey. I’ll pour us a drink and we’ll talk.”

Previous: Chapter XIX
Next: Chapter XXI