Masters of Space
Copyright© 2012 by E. E. Smith (Edward Elmer) & Edward Everett Evans
For one solid hour Hilton stared at the wall, motionless and silent. Then, shaking himself and stretching, he glanced at his clock.
A little over an hour to supper-time. They'd all be aboard. He'd talk this new idea over with Teddy Blake. He gathered up a few papers and was stapling them together when Karns walked in.
"Hi, Bill--speak of the devil! I was just thinking about you."
"I'll just bet you were." Karns sat down, leaned over, and took a cigarette out of the box on the desk. "And nothing printable, either."
"Chip-chop, fellow, on that kind of noise," Hilton said. The team-chief looked actually haggard. Blue-black rings encircled both eyes. His powerful body slumped. "How long has it been since you had a good night's sleep?"
"How long have I been on this job? Exactly one hundred and twenty days. I did get some sleep for the first few weeks, though."
"Yeah. So answer me one question. How much good will you do us after they've wrapped you up in one of those canvas affairs that lace up the back?"
"Huh? Oh ... but damn it, Jarve, I'm holding up the whole procession. Everybody on the project's just sitting around on their tokuses waiting for me to get something done and I'm not doing it. I'm going so slow a snail is lightning in comparison!"
"Calm down, big fellow. Don't rupture a gut or blow a gasket. I've talked to you before, but this time I'm going to smack you bow-legged. So stick out those big, floppy ears of yours and really listen. Here are three words that I want you to pin up somewhere where you can see them all day long: SPEED IS RELATIVE. Look back, see how far up the hill you've come, and then balance one hundred and twenty days against ten years."
"What? You mean you'll actually sit still for me holding everything up for ten years?"
"You use the perpendicular pronoun too much and in the wrong places. On the hits it's 'we', but on the flops it's 'I'. Quit it. Everything on this job is 'we'. Terra's best brains are on Team One and are going to stay there. You will not--repeat NOT--be interfered with, pushed around or kicked around. You see, Bill, I know what you're up against."
"Yes, I guess you do. One of the damned few who do. But even if you personally are willing to give us ten years, how in hell do you think you can swing it? How about the Navy--the Stretts--even the Board?"
"They're my business, Bill, not yours. However, to give you a little boost, I'll tell you. With the Navy, I'll give 'em the Fuel Bin if I have to. The Omans have been taking care of the Stretts for twenty-seven hundred centuries, so I'm not the least bit worried about their ability to keep on doing it for ten years more. And if the Board--or anybody else--sticks their runny little noses into Project Theta Orionis I'll slap a quarantine onto both these solar systems that a microbe couldn't get through!"
"You'd go that far? Why, you'd be..."
"Do you think I wouldn't?" Hilton snapped. "Look at me, Junior!" Eyes locked and held. "Do you think, for one minute, that I'll let anybody on all of God's worlds pull me off of this job or interfere with my handling of it unless and until I'm damned positively certain that we can't handle it?"
Karns relaxed visibly; the lines of strain eased. "Putting it in those words makes me feel better. I will sleep to-night--and without any pills, either."
"Sure you will. One more thought. We all put in more than ten years getting our Terran educations, and an Oman education is a lot tougher."
Really smiling for the first time in weeks, Karns left the office and Hilton glanced again at his clock.
Pretty late now to see Teddy ... besides, he'd better not. She was probably keyed up about as high as Bill was, and in no shape to do the kind of thinking he wanted of her on this stuff. Better wait a couple of days.
On the following morning, before breakfast, Theodora was waiting for him outside the mess-hall.
"Good morning, Jarve," she caroled. Reaching up, she took him by both ears, pulled his head down and kissed him. As soon as he perceived her intent, he cooperated enthusiastically. "What did you do to Bill?"
"Oh, you don't love me for myself alone, then, but just on account of that big jerk?"
"That's right." Her artist's-model face, startlingly beautiful now, fairly glowed.
Just then Temple Bells strolled up to them. "Morning, you two lovely people." She hugged Hilton's arm as usual. "Shame on you, Teddy. But I wish I had the nerve to kiss him like that."
"Nerve? You?" Teddy laughed as Hilton picked Temple up and kissed her in exactly the same fashion--he hoped!--as he had just kissed Teddy. "You've got more nerve than an aching tooth. But as Jarve would say it, 'scat, kitten'. We're having breakfast a la twosome. We've got things to talk about."
"All right for you," Temple said darkly, although her dazzling smile belied her tone. That first kiss, casual-seeming as it had been, had carried vastly more freight than any observer could perceive. "I'll hunt Bill up and make passes at him, see if I don't. That'll learn ya!"
Theodora and Hilton did have their breakfast a deux--but she did not realize until afterward that he had not answered her question as to what he had done to her Bill.
As has been said, Hilton had made it a prime factor of his job to become thoroughly well acquainted with every member of his staff. He had studied them en masse, in groups and singly. He had never, however, cornered Theodora Blake for individual study. Considering the power and the quality of her mind, and the field which was her specialty, it had not been necessary.
Thus it was with no ulterior motives at all that, three evenings later, he walked her cubby-hole office and tossed the stapled papers onto her desk. "Free for a couple of minutes, Teddy? I've got troubles."
"I'll say you have." Her lovely lips curled into an expression he had never before seen her wear--a veritable sneer. "But these are not them." She tossed the papers into a drawer and stuck out her chin. Her face turned as hard as such a beautiful face could. Her eyes dug steadily into his.
Hilton--inwardly--flinched. His mind flashed backward. She too had been working under stress, of course; but that wasn't enough. What could he have possibly done to put Teddy Blake, of all people, onto such a warpath as this?
"I've been wondering when you were going to try to put me through your wringer," she went on, in the same cold, hard voice, "and I've been waiting to tell you something. You have wrapped all the other women around your fingers like so many rings--and what a sickening exhibition that has been!--but you are not going to make either a ring or a lap-dog out of me."
Almost but not quite too late Hilton saw through that perfect act. He seized her right hand in both of his, held it up over her head, and waved it back and forth in the sign of victory.
"Socked me with my own club!" he exulted, laughing delightedly, boyishly. "And came within a tenth of a split red hair! If it hadn't been so absolutely out of character you'd've got away with it. What a load of stuff! I was right--of all the women on this project, you're the only one I've ever been really afraid of."
"Oh, damn. Ouch!" She grinned ruefully. "I hit you with everything I had and it just bounced. You're an operator, chief. Hit 'em hard, at completely unexpected angles. Keep 'em staggering, completely off balance. Tell 'em nothing--let 'em deduce your lies for themselves. And it anybody tries to slug you back, like I did just now, duck it and clobber him in another unprotected spot. Watching you work has been not only a delight, but also a liberal education."
"Thanks. I love you, too, Teddy." He lighted two cigarettes, handed her one. "I'm glad, though, to lay it flat on the table with you, because in any battle of wits with you I'm licked before we start."
"Yeah. You just proved it. And after licking me hands down, you think you can square it by swinging the old shovel that way?" She did not quite know whether to feel resentful or not.
"Think over a couple of things. First, with the possible exception of Temple Bells, you're the best brain aboard."
"No. You are. Then Temple. Then there are..."
"Hold it. You know as well as I do that accurate self-judgment is impossible. Second, the jam we're in. Do I, or don't I, want to lay it on the table with you, now and from here on? Bore into that with your Class A Double-Prime brain. Then tell me." He leaned back, half-closed his eyes and smoked lazily.
She stiffened; narrowed her eyes in concentration; and thought. Finally: "Yes, you do; and I'm gladder of that than you will ever know."
"I think I know already, since you're her best friend and the only other woman I know of in her class. But I came in to kick a couple of things around with you. As you've noticed, that's getting to be my favorite indoor sport. Probably because I'm a sort of jackleg theoretician myself."
"You can frame that, Jarve, as the understatement of the century. But first, you are going to answer that question you sidestepped so neatly."
"What I did to Bill? I finally convinced him that nobody expected the team to do that big a job overnight. That you could have ten years. Or more, if necessary."
"I see." She frowned. "But you and I both know that we can't string it out that long."
He did not answer immediately. "We could. But we probably won't ... unless we have to. We should know, long before that, whether we'll have to switch to some other line of attack. You've considered the possibilities, of course. Have you got anything in shape to do a fine-tooth on?"
"Not yet. That is, except for the ultimate, which is too ghastly to even consider except as an ultimately last resort. Have you?"
"I know what you mean. No, I haven't, either. You don't think, then, that we had better do any collaborative thinking yet?"
"Definitely not. There's altogether too much danger of setting both our lines of thought into one dead-end channel."
"Check. The other thing I wanted from you is your considered opinion as to my job on the organization as a whole. And don't pull your punches. Are we in good shape or not? What can I do to improve the setup?"