Masters of Space
Copyright© 2012 by E. E. Smith (Edward Elmer) & Edward Everett Evans
"Look," said Stella Wing to Beverly Bell. "Over there."
"I've seen it before. It's simply disgusting."
"That's a laugh." Stella's tawny-brown eyes twinkled. "You made your bombing runs on that target, too, my sweet, and didn't score any higher than I did."
"I soon found out I didn't want him--much too stiff and serious. Frank's a lot more fun."
The staff had gathered in the lounge, as had become the custom, to spend an hour or so before bedtime in reading, conversation, dancing, light flirtation and even lighter drinking. Most of the girls, and many of the men, drank only soft drinks. Hilton took one drink per day of avignognac, a fine old brandy. So did de Vaux--the two usually making a ceremony of it.
Across the room from Stella and Beverly, Temple Bells was looking up at Hilton and laughing. She took his elbow and, in the gesture now familiar to all, pressed his arm quickly, but in no sense furtively, against her side. And he, equally openly, held her forearm for a moment in the full grasp of his hand.
"And he isn't a pawer," Stella said, thoughtfully. "He never touches any of the rest of us. She taught him to do that, damn her, without him ever knowing anything about it ... and I wish I knew how she did it."
"That isn't pawing," Beverly laughed lightly. "It's simply self-defense. If he didn't fend her off, God knows what she'd do. I still say it's disgusting. And the way she dances with him! She ought to be ashamed of herself. He ought to fire her."
"She's never been caught outside the safety zone, and we've all been watching her like hawks. In fact, she's the only one of us all who has never been alone with him for a minute. No, darling, she isn't playing games. She's playing for keeps, and she's a mighty smooth worker."
"Huh!" Beverly emitted a semi-ladylike snort. "What's so smooth about showing off man-hunger that way? Any of us could do that--if we would."
"Miaouw, miaouw. Who do you think you're kidding, Bev, you sanctimonious hypocrite--me? She has staked out the biggest claim she could find. She's posted notices all over it and is guarding it with a pistol. Half your month's salary gets you all of mine if she doesn't walk him up the center aisle as soon as we get back to Earth. We can both learn a lot from that girl, darling. And I, for one am going to."
"Uh-uh, she hasn't got a thing I want," Beverly laughed again, still lightly. Her friend's barbed shafts had not wounded her. "And I'd much rather be thought a hypocrite, even a sanctimonious one, than a ravening, slavering--I can't think of the technical name for a female wolf, so--wolfess, running around with teeth and claws bared, looking for another kill."
"You do get results, I admit." Stella, too, was undisturbed. "We don't seem to convince each other, do we, in the matter of technique?"
At this point the Hilton-Bells tete-a-tete was interrupted by Captain Sawtelle. "Got half an hour, Jarve?" he asked. "The commanders, especially Elliott and Fenway, would like to talk to you."
"Sure I have, Skipper. Be seeing you, Temple," and the two men went to the captain's cabin; in which room, blue with smoke despite the best efforts of the ventilators, six full commanders were arguing heatedly.
"Hi, men," Hilton greeted them.
"Hi, Jarve," from all six, and: "What'll you drink? Still making do with ginger ale?" asked Elliott (Engineering).
"That'll be fine, Steve. Thanks. You having as much trouble as we are?"
"More," the engineer said, glumly. "Want to know what it reminds me of? A bunch of Australian bushmen stumbling onto a ramjet and trying to figure out how it works. And yet Sam here has got the sublime guts to claim that he understands all about their detectors--and that they aren't anywhere nearly as good as ours are."
"And they aren't!" blazed Commander Samuel Bryant (Electronics). "We've spent six solid weeks looking for something that simply is not there. All they've got is the prehistoric Whitworth system and that's all it is. Nothing else. Detectors--hell! I tell you I can see better by moonlight than the very best they can do. With everything they've got you couldn't detect a woman in your own bed!"
"And this has been going on all night," Fenway (Astrogation) said. "So the rest of us thought we'd ask you in to help us pound some sense into Sam's thick, hard head."
Hilton frowned in thought while taking a couple of sips of his drink. Then, suddenly, his face cleared. "Sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but--at any odds you care to name and in anything from split peas to C-notes--Sam's right."
Commander Samuel and the six other officers exploded as one. When the clamor had subsided enough for him to be heard, Hilton went on: "I'm very glad to get that datum, Sam. It ties in perfectly with everything else I know about them."
"How do you figure that kind of twaddle ties in with anything?" Sawtelle demanded.
"Strict maintenance of the status quo," Hilton explained, flatly. "That's all they're interested in. You said yourself, Skipper, that it was a hell of a place to have a space-battle, practically in atmosphere. They never attack. They never scout. They simply don't care whether they're attacked or not. If and when attacked, they put up just enough ships to handle whatever force has arrived. When the attacker has been repulsed, they don't chase him a foot. They build as many ships and Omans as were lost in the battle--no more and no less--and then go on about their regular business. The Masters owned that half of the fuel bin, so the Omans are keeping that half. They will keep on keeping it for ever and ever. Amen."
"But that's no way to fight a war!" Three or four men said this, or its equivalent, at once.
"Don't judge them by human standards. They aren't even approximately human. Our personnel is not expendable. Theirs is--just as expendable as their materiel."
While the Navy men were not convinced, all were silenced except Sawtelle. "But suppose the Stretts had sent in a thousand more skeletons than they did?" he argued.
"According to the concept you fellows just helped me develop, it wouldn't have made any difference how many they sent," Hilton replied, thoughtfully. "One or a thousand or a million, the Omans have--must have--enough ships and inactivated Omans hidden away, both on Fuel World and on Ardry here, to maintain the balance."
"Oh, hell!" Elliott snapped. "If I helped you hatch out any such brainstorm as that, I'm going onto Tillinghast's couch for a six-week overhaul--or have him put me into his padded cell."
"Now that's what I would call a thought," Bryant began.
"Hold it, Sam," Hilton interrupted. "You can test it easily enough, Steve. Just ask your Oman."
"Yeah--and have him say 'Why, of course, Master, but why do you keep on testing me this way?' He'll ask me that about four times more, the stubborn, single-tracked, brainless skunk, and I'll really go nuts. Are you getting anywhere trying to make a Christian out of Laro?"
"It's too soon to really say, but I think so." Hilton paused in thought. "He's making progress, but I don't know how much. The devil of it is that it's up to him to make the next move; I can't. I haven't the faintest idea, whether it will take days yet or weeks."
"But not months or years, you think?" Sawtelle asked.
"No. We think that--but say, speaking of psychologists, is Tillinghast getting anywhere, Skipper? He's the only one of your big wheels who isn't in liaison with us."
"No. Nowhere at all," Sawtelle said, and Bryant added:
"I don't think he ever will. He still thinks human psychology will apply if he applies it hard enough. But what did you start to say about Laro?"
"We think the break is about due, and that if it doesn't come within about thirty days it won't come at all--we'll have to back up and start all over again."
"I hope it does. We're all pulling for you," Sawtelle said. "Especially since Karns's estimate is still years, and he won't be pinned down to any estimate even in years. By the way, Jarve, I've pulled my team off of that conversion stuff."
"Oh?" Hilton raised his eyebrows.
"Putting them at something they can do. The real reason is that Poindexter pulled himself and his crew off it at eighteen hours today."
"I see. I've heard that they weren't keeping up with our team."
"He says that there's nothing to keep up with, and I'm inclined to agree with him." The old spacehound's voice took on a quarter-deck rasp. "It's a combination of psionics, witchcraft and magic. None of it makes any kind of sense."
"The only trouble with that viewpoint is that, whatever the stuff may be, it works," Hilton said, quietly.
"But damn it, how can it work?"
"I don't know. I'm not qualified to be on that team. I can't even understand their reports. However, I know two things. First, they'll get it in time. Second, we BuSci people will stay here until they do. However, I'm still hopeful of finding a shortcut through Laro. Anyway, with this detector thing settled, you'll have plenty to do to keep all your boys out of mischief for the next few months."
"Yes, and I'm glad of it. We'll install our electronics systems on a squadron of these Oman ships and get them into distant-warning formation out in deep space where they belong. Then we'll at least know what is going on."
"That's a smart idea, Skipper. Go to it. Anything else before we hit our sacks?"